Geoff Petty - teaching outside the box

Geoff Petty argues that students really get to grips with a subject when they’re not learning just what’s on the syllabus. Geoff is the author of Teaching Today and Evidence Based Training. 

In my first year of teaching I waited outside an examination room for my A Level physics students to emerge from their final exam, more nervous than they were. Tom handed me the paper and asked how to do question five. 

I explained it could easily be solved with a momentum approach. “Damn,” he said, “I tried conservation of energy on that for 15 minutes and got nowhere.” My other students had done the same. 

It took me 20 years to discover what I was doing wrong: teaching topics in silos, then foolishly expecting students to know which topic related to which question. It was just not obvious how to approach some questions. 

So I gave students hard-to-classify questions on cards and asked them to put the questions into piles, depending on which physics principle they would use to answer them. 

Group discussion then enabled them to develop the skill of ‘question typing’, which was not on the syllabus, but required by the exam. 

Our schemes of work carefully identify all the content we must teach, but often ignore learning skills. We need both. Let’s look at a case study where more obvious skills were taught systematically.  

A teacher, Jo, looks carefully at the subject-specific skills identified by the syllabus, by assessments, examiner’s reports, and by experienced teachers in her subject. She notices that marks are awarded for the following: 

  • Succinctly and accurately stating relevant knowledge and understanding 
  • Evaluation and critical thinking 


Teaching evaluative thinking 

Jo goes through her scheme of work and identifies topics where content could be taught by using critical thinking skills. For example, when she teaches ‘care plans’, she decides to ask students to evaluate care plans. This creates a ‘double decker lesson’ which teaches skills and content at the same time.  

In the first double decker lesson she teaches students about care plans. Then she teaches what ‘evaluation’ means and how to do it, and gets them to practise this skill on some care plans. At the end of this lesson she reviews care plans, but she also reviews how to evaluate.  

This is done by ‘bridging’ where she says: 

  • You have just ‘evaluated’: How did you do it? 
  • Why did you do it that way? 
  • Where else could you use this process? Would you use it to critically appraise? Would you use it to analyse? 

I call these ‘killer questions’ because they are so powerful at teaching students skills, and when to use them. 

At the end of that first evaluation lesson students write a note on how to evaluate, and are asked to store it where they can easily find it. They are then asked to set themselves targets to improve their evaluation skills, which gives rise to targets such as: “You have to say what’s good about it, not just what’s wrong” or “I need to write more – one sentence isn’t enough apparently, even if it’s a really good one”. 

One bash at evaluating is not enough to develop the skill. So Jo’s search through the scheme of work identifies five topics where evaluation could be practised. At the start of each session students look back at their evaluation notes and targets before beginning to evaluate. At the end of these sessions they go over with Jo how they evaluated and why, and what they could do to improve next time. 

At the end of the course, after five double decker lessons (other groups might need more than five) on evaluation, they ought to be evaluating pretty well (see ‘Developing skills’ diagram right). Research reviews on teaching skills make clear that it is best to integrate skills teaching into your content teaching, as in this case study, rather than to teach skills separately.  


Succinct and accurate answers 

In order to teach the skill of succinctly and accurately stating relevant knowledge and understanding, Jo shows students questions with model answers. Then she shows them questions with poorer answers, perhaps too long and full of irrelevant detail. Students are then asked to evaluate, and then improve these poor answers. To help them with this, Jo provides them with definitions of important concepts to learn, and gives tests in these. The next day students have another go at the test questions they did less well at (a mastery test). 

Jo finds a number of other skills students need, and deals with these in similar ways. Research on skills teaching finds that the time taken is well rewarded with improved grades and, interestingly, students’ understanding of content is improved as well as the skill. 

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham reminds us that “memory is the residue of thought” – the harder you think about a topic, the better you will understand it. We need to teach what is important, not just what is on the syllabus. 


Further reading and resources 

  • Willingham, D. (2009) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (A very readable summary of cognitive science.). 
  • Petty, G. (2009) Evidence Based Teaching, Oxford University Press: Oxford.  
  • My website has useful downloads on it, including a summary of the findings of a research review on the teaching of skills which you can access via the following link