Just like Goldilocks – make tasks not too hard and not too easy

Every day we learn more about the brain. While psychologists develop ever more sophisticated models of how we think, neuroscientists are mapping the physical and chemical architecture that underpins these thoughts. Is it possible we may finally have some real insights into how our students learn rather than well researched guess work? It is still early days but young teachers today may see the biggest intellectual sea change in education since Binet’s IQ test in 1911 and Piaget’s theories in 1920. This article summarises a few useful ideas to work on in the meantime!

“Many English teachers get students to see performances of the works they are studying.”

We now know that the brain is an inveterate pattern-finding machine and will even see pictures where there are none, for example the famous “old lady young woman” optical illusion. This means activities which help us to see real patterns are very powerful learning tools. Marzano estimates that using a Venn diagram to sort or classify ideas that fit, overlap or do not fit a set of categories can be four times more effective than doing homework, because it emphasises similarities and differences.5

In the last decade, scientists have also discovered mirror neurons in the brain whose main purpose it to help us mimic someone else’s actions when learning a new task. In teaching, this shows the importance of letting a student see an expert and non-expert at work so they can build their own mental picture.2

Mirror neurones have another job and enable us to empathise and engage in emotional response and to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’. Many English teachers get students to see performances of the works they are studying. This allows students to ‘see’ the emotion of the actors as they interpret the written text, but perhaps getting them to mimic some of the experience themselves could enrich their learning still further.

Another interesting avenue is the ability of a child to engage in ‘double knowledge’ like a child using a banana as a mock telephone receiver. Many teachers do this instinctively by getting students to use everyday analogies and act out ideas, but we are beginning to understand how this helps children to map the world around them. For example, we have discovered that all newborn infants have so many connections between sensory neurons that they cannot distinguish between a taste, sound, sight, touch or smell of a new object. By four months, these connections have started to snap but metaphorical language suggests that we can still use synaesthesia to understand new ideas when we are older.

“Humour often forms part of a teaching kit for more successful practitioners.”

In a recent study Ramchandran introduced new words to describe a spiky and an amoeboid shape, participants naturally chose the word “boupa” for the amoeboid and “kiki” for the spiky one. Metaphors are clearly powerful teaching tools and may explain the appeal and success of some accelerated learning techniques.4 Getting students to develop analogies or metaphors for new concepts either visually or kinaesthetically may indeed help students to make a link between the abstract and the concrete.

Steven Pinker now believes that even more abstract thought is metaphorical and will ultimately explain human intelligence. Metaphors and jokes both involve unexpected twists on language. The audience usually experiences surprise followed by sudden insight. Humour often forms part of a teaching kit for more successful practitioners. It turns out there is a strong correlation between mathematics and jokes in terms of cognitive load and satisfaction when the problem is solved. Jokes stimulate the same linguistic and pattern processing parts of the brain as metaphors. We also know that the greater cognitive effort the greater the positive feeling experienced when insight is achieved. This feeds into another brain related mechanism, that of motivation and dopamine or the feel good hormone.

The brain is geared for efficiency and will avoid boredom and also frustration using a dopamine feedback mechanism. If dopamine levels are too low because a task is too easy or too difficult, the brain loses interest and will divert to something more emotionally satisfying like chatting to a friend! If the task is pitched at the right level, then a dopamine high will result.6So this humble neurotransmitter is the golden egg we seek through differentiation. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, a task needs to be just challenging enough, not too hard and not too easy!

We are rapidly moving beyond the simple neuroscientific ideas behind welcoming classroom environments and reducing a student’s flight or fight response with its associated adrenaline release and impaired learning.3 It will take more research to bridge the gap between brain architecture and teaching technique but we now have more clues about what might actually work and where to focus our efforts. Psychologists like Carol Dweck know that a student who has a growth mindset will prove more resilient and often more successful regardless of the techniques used.1 Perhaps one day neuroscience will also suggest a reliable way to build that resilience.


  1. S.Blackmore and U. Frith (2005), The Learning Brain:Lessons for education, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford
  2. C.Dweck (2000), Self-Theories: their role in motivation, personality and development, Taylor & Francis, New York
  3. J.G.Geake, The Brain at school, Open University Press, Maidenhead
  4. J.Geary (2011), I is an other, Harper Perennial, London
  5. G. Petty (2006), Evidence based teaching, Nelson Thornes
  6. D.Sousa and J.Tomlinson (2011), Differentiation and the Brain, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington

Written By Vanessa Bird

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What makes the perfect teacher – from a student’s perspective

Show us that you care’: a student’s view on what makes a perfect teacher

Ofsted has its own ideas about outstanding lessons, but what young people love about teachers is quite different

Picture of Mary Poppins.

The perfect teacher. In Ofsted’s eyes, that probably means exemplary lesson plans and 30 immaculately marked books with targets for improvement. But, as a 16-year-old, I’m not sure I agree. What students love about the best teachers – the ones whose lessons are discussed at the dinner table, whose names are always remembered and whose impact is never forgotten – is quite different.

Show us that you care

Ofsted says outstanding teachers demonstrate a “deep knowledge and understanding of their subject”. Although passion is inspiring, a deep knowledge and understanding of their children is just as important.

I have a teacher who, from the beginning of my two-year course, has offered an after-school session every single week, for however long we need. I am often the only one there but she doesn’t mind. She has completely changed my life by believing in me, pushing me and caring about me. Obviously, I don’t expect every teacher to be like her, but to know someone values you enough to put time in is amazing.

I have been lucky to have teachers who taught me far more than the syllabus, who showed me how to tackle obstacles head-on and become stronger as a result. Perfectly planned lessons are one thing, but, to an insecure teenager, showing that you care is essential.

Don’t shout at us

The teachers who screamed at my class when I was 11 are the ones I still can’t form any kind of relationship with. Respect isn’t about having 30 silent faces shouted into submission. If you treat us as humans, know what you’re talking about and take an interest in what we have to say, you will gain our respect. Thinking of your lessons spontaneously and spending an hour shouting at us for our “disrespect” won’t get you anywhere.

There’s a teacher who’s renowned at my school – she’s the one everyone dislikes, mainly because she screams and gives detentions all the time. We have no motivation to work for her, because we just can’t talk to her. Shouting us into silence doesn’t give you more authority.

Show us your personality (but not too much)

Let’s face it, nobody wants to be up at half past eight on a Monday morning. But the best teachers are the ones whose personalities are so bright that the lightbulbs inside 30 heads are switched on anyway.

We genuinely like the teachers who smile, who can do the voices in books without feeling embarrassed and can hear one of those innuendos that we find hysterical and not tell us off for being teenagers. We know you’re not here to be our friend, but some sort of relationship is important.

A balance is crucial, however: the teachers who try too hard to “have a laugh” run the risk of students students taking advantage to the point where there’s no going back.

Tell us when we’ve done well

Teachers may be expected to write pages of feedback, but if you want to improve your students’ self-esteem and encourage them to further their thinking, but it’s the verbal feedback that really sinks in. It can be as simple as “You’ve got it”, “Spot on” or “Absolutely” – it could just be an enthusiastic nod and a proud glint in your eye. It sounds simple, but being told that you’ve achieved something means the world.

Verbal criticism in front of our peers is not so great, however. Put yourself in my shoes: you’re in a food technology class and you have forgotten your tea towel. It is a mistake so great in scale that you will still regret it when writing an article four years later. Being told you’re stupid in front of your friends hurts, please don’t forget that.

Remember that we do appreciate you

Believe it or not, we know you have it tough. We know that the stress you are under is ridiculous, that you sometimes do more paperwork than teaching, that a one-hour lesson can take more than an hour to prepare and that you hate learning objectives as much as we do. We know that setting us targets and marking our books can feel like a waste of time when you could be kindling a love of your subject.

We might not always show it, but we really do appreciate what you do. Because when it comes down to it, great teachers are like melodies that you can’t get out of your head. As children and teenagers, we are constantly changing and you – who see us through that time, pick us up from the wrong paths, failed tests and mistakes – are the truly great ones.

I’m not sure that the perfect teacher exists, but the incredible teachers I’ve had aren’t the ones who never make mistakes, they’re the ones who never give up on me and have taught me that I should never give up on myself.

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Flip learning and using technology to link learning

Watch John Tait explain how he flips learning to enhance time spent in the classroom.

How can we use our tech to link with classrooms around the world? Consider your own classroom and topics you know you will cover this year. Which aspects can you use for children to watch at home before you start? What links can you make with other schools to find out more about an area, a culture, a country. Imagine linking with an inner city school to talk to children about their school, their journey to school, their family, their place of worship.

Let’s not stay in the 1800’s – be brave and make the first step.

Don’t forget to let me know what you do, so we can share your success. If I can help by making links to other schools, let me know

Are we enabling our children to think critically?

What can teachers do to ensure that their pupils are independent thinkers, children able to question effectively? Julia Sharman, a mental health and SEN specialists, examines the best methods for getting this ball rolling.

“Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” Lau and Chan (philosophy.hku, 2015)

Developing the essential components of critical thinking require extended periods of time – so best to start early! Previously attributed to adult learners, the benefits of critical thinking are now widely recognised and taught in Secondary education. However, with the onset of the new National Curriculum, there is much emphasis on language and how it is used. Therefore, the expectation is that younger pupils should develop the necessary skills to become critical thinkers.

Critical thinking doesn’t mean being able to be critical in the sense of criticism or to be argumentative; it means being able to be objective. Successful critical thinking requires many skills: planning, questioning, justifying, analysing, problem-solving, researching, evaluating and enquiring. All these skills are separate skills to acquire, but are inextricably linked. Effective critical thinkers also need to develop self-awareness, initiative, resilience, empathy, be able to communicate well, and have the ability to reflect, co-operate and focus. Critical thinking encompasses independent thinking.

Development and acquisition of these skills enhances language, and can be gained and utilised through speaking, listening, reading and writing. Let’s have a brief look at the skills.

Planning: A proposed or intended course of action or process of thinking or organisation involving preparation using a stepped approach and forward thinking to achieve a desired outcome.

Questioning: To gain more, and more in-depth, information on which to formulate ideas. Be able to effectively use question starters: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?

Justifying: Being able to give reasons and explain thoughts and actions.

Analysing: Examine how key concepts and factors fit together and relate to each other.

Problem-solving: Being able to interpret the problem, understand the intended outcome and use logic and evidence to find solutions.

Researching: Finding out information about a particular topic or concept, so that questions can be answered or problems solved in systematic way.

Evaluating: Assess the significance of an idea and its relevance, the evidence on which the idea is based and how it relates to other ideas.

Enquiring: Being curious and interested. Being able to pose questions.

Self-awareness: Knowing our own values, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, emotions, personal preferences and tendencies, and know how we work best.

Initiative: An initial thought leading to action, to follow through / take charge of a plan.

Resilience: Maximising opportunities to develop social competence, positive relationships, support and promote academic and social performance, and to participate meaningfully.

Empathy: Being aware of the feelings, thoughts and emotions of others.

Reflection: Thinking about own actions, values, qualities and faults and the effects on others. Recapture experiences or what others have said and make plans to do or think about things differently.

Co-operation: The ability to collaborate, engage in teamwork and work together to achieve the same end.

Focus: A skill that maintains attention until a task is complete or being able to pay particular attention to a specific topic.

Although the number of skills is comprehensive, the above list is not exhaustive. Critical thinkers also need to acquire the ability to consider alternatives and to listen to others’ thoughts and points of view. They also need to develop scepticism – this involves having a healthy questioning attitude when exposed to new information, and eradicates the likelihood of believing everything everyone says. Furthermore, it is imperative to develop humility. This simply means, when faced with new convincing evidence, being able to admit that their own opinions and ideas are wrong.

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Does using the interests of children with ASD support or hinder learning?

Teaching Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder With Restricted Interests

A Review of Evidence for Best Practice

  1. Kerry C. M. Gunn
  2. Jonathan T. Delafield-Butt
    University of Strathclyde


Inclusive education requires teachers to adapt to children’s learning styles. Children with autism spectrum disorder bring challenges to classroom teaching, often exhibiting interests restricted to particular topics. Teachers can be faced with a dilemma either to accommodate these restricted interests (RIs) into teaching or to keep them out of the classroom altogether. In this article, we examined all peer-reviewed studies of teaching children with autism spectrum disorder with RIs published between 1990 and 2014. We find that positive gains in learning and social skills can be achieved by incorporating children’s RIs into classroom practice: Of 20 published studies that examined 91 children, all reported gains in educational attainment and/or social engagement. Negative consequences were limited to a decrease in task performance in one child and a transient increase in perseverative behaviors in two children. The evidence supports the inclusion of RIs into classroom practice. Methods of inclusion of RIs are discussed in light of practical difficulties and ideal outcomes.

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Questions we should ask

Questions To Ask Your Employees

Here are 7 questions that you should ask your team each month:

  1. What’s one thing you did this month that you’re proud of?

    We often forget to take time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, but by asking employees this question once a month, you’ll help build that sense of pride.

    Employees need to feel like they’re making progress, that helps them stay engaged.

    This questions is good for two reasons:

    • Employees get to show off their work
    • You get to see what employees consider important
    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Allowing employees to celebrate the “small wins” will make them more motivated going forward.

  2. If you were the CEO, what’s one thing you would do differently?

    Managers want their employees to feel and act like owners of the company, and this question is a great way to give them that sense of ownership.

    You’re also likely to get some amazing ideas from employees, because it gives them the opportunity to imagine if they were in control.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Asking this question frequently reminds employees that you value their opinions.
  3.  How can I be a better leader?

    If you’re a smart leader, then you’re constantly looking to grow and improve.

    It’s especially important with this question to remind employees that they can feel free to say whatever they want.

    As a manager, be willing to accept whatever feedback comes from your employees.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    A manager that is constantly looking to be a better leader for their employees will make employees happier.

  4. What’s your biggest challenge right now?

    Everyone faces challenges at work.

    Managers need to act like coaches and be there to guide their employees through whatever they’re going through.

    Consistently asking this question will help employees grow and become better at what they do.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Showing employees that you’re there to help them with their challenges will make them feel more comfortable.

  5. What can we do to make you more successful?

    Personal growth is by far the biggest driver of employee engagement.

    Asking employees every month how you can make them better is a great way to make sure employees are always improving and becoming more productive.

    Every good manager knows it’s the people under them that are responsible for the company’s success, by shifting the focus to how the company can make employees more successful, the team will be more productive.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Simply telling employees that you’re there for them is often enough to get them to be more motivated.

  6. What’s one thing we should do to improve our product/service?

    Like I mentioned earlier, your best source of innovation will be from front-line employees.

    Make sure that you are frequently asking them how the company can be better. It’s important to ask this question over and over again because the market changes so often.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Including employees in the conversation makes them feel more connected to the company and gets them more motivated.
  7. Are there any projects you’d really like to work on if you were given the opportunity?

    For employees to be truly motivated at work, they need to be working on projects they they’re passionate about.

    Employees often change roles in companies as they continue to discover themselves. Help them discover their passions by asking this question frequently.

    How This Question Improves Employee Performance:
    Letting employees explore their true passions will get them excited about coming to work each day.

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Resilience and its importance in learning by Andy Falconer

Resilience is defined as an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or change.

I think that helping our young people to develop resilience is a fundamental part of education, particularly in an age where change is the norm. However, this can only be done when parents and educators are working in partnership. Every one of us will have to face change and disappointment, many times over in our lives. Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived two and a half years in Nazi concentration camps, made this case in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘ and said, “we can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.”

In 1896, Francis Galton published “Heredity Genius” his landmark investigation into the factors underlying achievement. He found that success wasn’t simply a matter of intelligence or talent. Instead, Galton concluded that eminent achievement was only possible when “ability was combined with zeal and the capacity for hard labour.” Lewis-Terman, the inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test came to the same conclusion. Whilst the most accomplished people did have slightly higher scores, he found that other traits such as ‘perseverance’ were much more pertinent.

How we help our children approach misfortune or change will have a significant say in the people they will eventually become. A resilient child is able to adapt when faced with adversity and feels competent when solving new problems. They view obstacles as challenges to rise to, instead of stressors to avoid.

How can we as parents help? Well, we need to model resilient behaviours and help promote resilience through words, actions and the environment in which our children are being raised. Praise our children for having a go, for their effort & resourcefulness, as Carol Dweck has talked about in her research.

So what are the keys to resilience, whether as a child or an adult? From the reading I have done, I would say:

  1. A sense of optimism – the ability to believe things will work out, in spite of evidence to the contrary. This doesn’t mean burying our head in the sand but does mean being a glass half full not half empty person, and taking responsibility for choosing how to act and feel.
  2. Physical exercise – a commitment to physical health & activity, no matter what. There is so much research to show that physical exercise and mental health go hand in hand.
  3. Problem solving capability – the creative capacity to work through a challenge in various ways. Having a growth mindset and believing our contribution can make a difference to an outcome. Remembering the importance of praising the effort not the achievement, the journey not the destination.
  4. Social connection – having a network of resources & support via friends, family and other relationships. It’s not healthy to have just one or two best friends but to have a wide circle of friends. We need people to talk to and confide in when something worries us.
  5. Flexibility – the ability to adapt to unexpected scenarios. Helping children to understand that things don’t always go as planned. Being flexible and able to change is an important characteristic of resilience. When a child is going through a life transition or big change, this can be a great learning opportunity to show how change can be dealt with and perceived in a positive way.
  6. Being able to express emotions – the honest identification & communication of emotions without habitual negativity. It’s OK to say we’re nervous, or frightened, or disappointed, or proud, or sad.

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