A simple trick to improve the humble topic sentence

I recently read a blog post by Kristian Shanks (blog here) where he discusses the importance of teaching pupils to write a sentence before writing a good paragraph.

This is vitally true, and – I would argue – in the same way a fish rots from the head down, so too does a paragraph: that first sentence is key.

But what should it look like?

Well, a common complaint among history teachers is that pupils are too often descriptive when they need to be analytical.

Yet the feedback, ‘be more analytical’ is almost useless. Most pupils, even at sixth form, do not really have a clear grasp of what analysis (or evaluation) looks like.

It therefore make more sense to give them concrete strategies to improve their work. A simple but effective one is helping them to improve their ‘topic sentence’ and make it into an ‘argument sentence’.

For the sake of clarity, here’s how I define those two terms:

Topic sentence = introduces the topic or theme of the paragraph

Argument sentence = introduces the topic or theme of the paragraph in relation to the overall question and, ideally, gives an indication of its relative importance.

Some examples:

Topic sentenceArgument sentence
A second reason Hitler came to power was because of the Great Depression. The most important reason Hitler came to power was because of the Great Depression as this led the German public to vote for extremist parties.
Another factor in William’s victory was luck.Although tactics were undoubtedly important in William’s victory, a more significant factor was luck, as this tipped the battle in his favour at the decisive moments.
A third cause of the Cold War was the actions of the Harry Truman. Another important cause of the Cold War was the actions of Harry Truman because they destroyed the wartime relationship between the USA and USSR.

You will notice in each of the examples in the right-hand column that an explanation is given.

By ensuring there is a ‘because’ (or ‘as’ or similar) in that first sentence, it forces the pupil to begin their paragraph in an analytical way. It forces them to actually answer the question in their first sentence of every paragraph.

Of course, this alone does not guarantee an analytical paragraph. But the first sentence it is as good as any a place to start.

A brief aside

The keen eyed among you will have noted that the second example in the table also refers back to the previous paragraph (about tactics). This is an example of a ‘Janus-faced sentence’.

For an excellent blog post on this by John Tomsett see here.

Why the leaking? A theory.

The government, deploying its favourite form of policy-making, has today leaked its tentative proposals for replacing exams.

The Sunday Times received the story. For those without access, here are two key passages:

Under the proposals, children will sit tests or “mini” exams in schools, to be marked by their teachers. The tests, which will be devised by exam boards, are likely to be taken late in the summer term, when it is hoped that coronavirus infection rates will have died down enough for schools to be fully reopened.

“Neither the tests nor the internal assessments will have to be taken on a single date across the nation. It is not known how examiners will be able to stop children simply telling one another what is in the papers, if they are held on different dates in different schools.”

It seems odd that the proposals should be leaked midway through a consultation process. Indeed, one wonders: ‘Why now?’

For anyone who cares, I have a theory:

This feels like a test balloon. Gavin Williamson – who generally prioritises politics over, well, everything else – might be trying to get a sense of the popularity of these proposals. (God knows his poll ratings need a boost.)

Yet here’s the problem: the validation he is seeking is not from experts (i.e. teachers and school leaders), but from the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph, who have been prominent in the past year for their criticism of teachers. One suspects that if they laud these proposals as a sensible solution then Ofqual may end up sticking with them.

This is, of course, all speculation. But when you operate, as Mr Williamson does, in a way that consistently fails to provide clarity or transparency then you leave room for people to speculate – if only so they can try and figure out what the hell is going on.

Unequal opportunity is hardly novel

On the front of today’s Sunday Times is an article quoting headteachers demanding public exams be ‘scrapped’ this summer.

I am not going to judge on whether that’s the right call. That decision is above my pay grade.

But one passage particularly caught my interest:

Head teachers argue that making children sit exams would be unjust because those in areas with high Covid rates may have missed many more weeks of lessons than others during the pandemic.

This is undoubtedly true. Many children have been victims of geography during this crisis.

Yet it is hardly as if the situation in normal times is completely just. Your GCSE Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists – who are generally beneficiaries of the random good luck of being born into affluent families – will generally have an edge on their peers at your average comprehensive. In other words, luck has long played an important role in creating inequality in our education system.

2021 looks like it may be no different.

Bullet journals? Give me ‘the grid’ any day

Love him or loathe him, Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor, helped bring some much-needed organisational discipline to New Labour, particularly in its messaging.

One of the ideas with which he is credited was the introduction of Number 10’s ‘grid’. The grid coordinated government announcements to deliver maximum impact and avoid own goals. (This writer suspects the grid has yet to reach Mr Williamson’s Department for Education.)

As a teacher and as a head of department, I have for several years used the grid to organise my months, terms and year. It gives me and my department a clear sense of direction. It is nothing fancy: just a table on a Word document with a crude code and various key dates. My personal one starts looking something like this:

The empty grid

At the start of each term, I flesh it out with key detail. Generally, I begin with exam classes: I add what I can in terms of mocks, exam dates, and study leave. I’ll also add in parents’ evenings, report deadlines and anything else that might be useful.

An unfinished example (parents’ evenings, internal exams, report deadlines are all missing, but you get the idea)

Thereafter, I’ll get into the nitty gritty and start working out roughly what I am going to be teaching each week, what homework to set and when to run assessments. As it takes shape, it will begin to look something like this:

Starting to flesh things out

Each Friday morning, I will review and adjust and then look to the month ahead, trying to anticipate any surprises.

It is, for my money, far simpler than a bullet journal – and I suspect just as effective.

What the Queen’s Gambit taught be about working memory

I cannot remember a time when a television show had such a pronounced effect on Christmas gifts, but this year, as yet another family member unwrapped yet another chess set, it was clear that the Queen’s Gambit was on our minds.

And my family are not alone in this obsession. A friend emailed me at the end of November with the below graph which neatly illustrated the impact of Beth Harmon et al.


As I played a few games, I realised that chess is a useful in illustrating the distinction between working and long-term memory.

Allow me to explain.

I am not a good or experienced player. When I look at a board, I can see two, maybe three moves into the future. Why? Essentially because I have few chess patterns stored in my long-term memory. I have to store each move individually:

If my pawn goes there, it might get taken by the knight, which I can then take with my bishop, but then he take me with his rook. But what if he takes my pawn with his pawn instead of his knight? Where would that leave his bishop, and knight? Do they threaten something else instead? And so on and so on.

It is easy to see how my seven-slot working memory quickly becomes filled up.

My brother, by contrast, has played a lot and to a good level. He beats me easily again and again because he can generally anticipate what I am about to do because he has seen it all before. His long-term memory has stored patterns and strategies that make much of his game automatic. (‘Ah, you’ve started with the Queen’s Gambit. Well, from me that requires [insert strategy here].’)

If I do put up a good fight, it requires an enormous mental effort on my part.

Happily, though, the roles were reversed in another area: driving. This is also a helpful illustration of the working memory/long-term memory division. (And, I readily cede, not a new example.)

My brother is learning to drive. Like chess for me, this process taxes his working memory.

Foot down on clutch, car into first, check mirrors, blind spots, indicators on, slowly release the clutch and press the accelerator, find the bite, move off, don’t forget to steer… Now, can you make small talk with the passenger?

By contrast, I have driven for a decade and so I recall all these things without conscious thought. It is why people report having driven to work and not remembering having done so: the process is so thoroughly automatic.

I appreciate for many readers this will be teaching you to suck eggs. (I apologise.)

Nonetheless, particularly as we career towards exam season, it is helpful to have a few examples to hand to explain the limitations of working memory and thus the importance of pupils committing ideas properly to their long-term memory.

On Edutopia – and being open-minded about bad ideas

A few days ago Edutopia, an account dedicated to ‘what works’ in education, posted the below.

This tweet was met (at least in my timeline) with derision. Most of those retweeting included some scathing comment. This, they said, embodied the worst of a gimmicky teacher fad: ‘This was a crap idea in 2007! Don’t bring it back now!’

I admit, when I first watched it, I cringed. I cannot imagine ever resorting to using hats in my classroom. (I still have a hard time seeing the value of stamps.)

However, I also wondered whether we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So I watched the video a couple of times through to see if there was anything useful beneath the surface.

And I think there is:

I believe there is merit, for example, in providing pupils with prompts that enable them to give specific feedback. Similarly, it is not a worthwhile exercise that encourages pupils to link explicitly their advice to the given success criteria? And, perhaps most persuasively, are not school-wide systems effective at giving pupils a common language?

Of course, that can all be achieved without anyone wearing a hat, but that is not really the point.

It occurred to me that I am so entrenched in my Rosenshinian bunker of self-righteousness that I almost did not bother to watch the whole video or even attempt to engage with any of the ideas. My instinct was to dismiss them out of hand.

Perhaps that is right. Perhaps the video should be criticised in all its naffness.

But I would suggest that clever snap reactions tend to be point-scoring rather than constructive.

If we are open-minded and reflective teachers like we proclaim, it is probably more becoming that we make genuine efforts to understand why our colleagues have decided to use these ideas, and then respectfully explain why we disagree with them.

That, I suspect, is the standard we would demand of our students.

Then again, on reading this, you may want to don your black hat and take the time to explain why my entire post is entirely flawed.

Why reading History is so difficult

In 2014, a teacher called Kate Hammond wrote an important article called, ‘The ‘knowledge’ that flavours a claim’. (You can download it free here.)

As with most things, it is worth reading in its entirety.

One of the key points Kate makes is that the difference between an A* response (or a ‘9’ in new money), and a less-impressive answer, is the pupil’s grasp of substantive historical knowledge.

The brilliant Michael Fordham explains what ‘substantive historical knowledge’ means:

Substantive knowledge refers to knowledge of the past: people, events, ideas, and so on. 

If, say, we are talking about the rise of Hitler, substantive knowledge might refer to ideas about ‘democracy’, ‘public opinion’, ‘the Right’, the Establishment’, ‘the military’, ‘the Depression’ and so on.

These things all have specific meanings. They may seem obvious to us – but they are far from obvious to most (nearly all?) pupils.

My argument is that substantive knowledge is not only important in writing, it is equally important in reading.

Let me give you an example:

This short extract is from David Reynolds’, ‘America: Empire of Liberty’. It is a general history of the USA.

Task 1: Read it and see what you glean from it. 

Reynold (1)

Task 2: Now consider the substantive knowledge you need to make full sense of it. (Or, a shortcut: read below.)

  • FDR = President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (and all the context that comes with his presidency)
  • Wilson = President Wilson, context of WWI, League of Nations, self-determination etc.
  • Survival of democracy = why is democracy under threat at this time? (Hitler, Mussolini etc.)
  • the Depression = a specific thing, worldwide but also particular in its impact on America
  • disenchantment = What does this mean? Why does this matter?
  • Hemingway (+ quotes) = who is he and why does he matter?
  • Wall Street = why does one street matter so much…?!
  • scapegoated = term can be used generally, but re WWI, can be used in terms in context of Treaty of Versailles, the ‘international Jew’ etc.
  • foreign policy = policy in dealing with other countries (who makes this? is it written down? what do you mean, ‘policy’? etc.)
  • Senate = is the Senate = Congress? Is it part of Congress? How many people are in the Senate? What’s their relation to the President? How does the Senate differ from the House?

And it goes on and on.

This is not an original point. But I always find examples useful in trying to clarify my thinking – and someone else might too.

This is not to say I think we should shy from challenging texts. Quite the opposite.

But they need to be given due time. Even in most general histories – as the example above illustrates – there is a lot to be unpacked. As a teacher, you underestimate that at your peril.


My 2 top tips to my Teach First self

Twitter at its best can be a wonderful place for teachers. Generally, people are willing to share their insights, experiences and – most helpfully, in my view – their resources. Granted, there are a few muppets, but that’s the case in life. The beauty of social media is you can easily block them.

But while Twitter is a great asset, it can also be overwhelming: I’m about to finish my sixth year of teaching. I like to think I sort of know what I’m doing. My career has not been stellar, but it has broadly followed an upwards trajectory.

And yet – and yet – I sometimes have to shut off Twitter because, well, my God does it makes me feel inadequate.

Perhaps I am a singularly sensitive soul – but I doubt it. I expect others feel the same, particularly those in the early years of their career.

There are so many people doing so many brilliant things: running online CPD, creating beautiful workbooks, planning schemes of works with scholarship at their heart. And to be clear: all of these are valuable, laudable and useful.

But like a Soviet peasant suddenly dropped into an American supermarket, the vastness of the choice can leave one wondering where to start.

Thus, for anyone who needs it, here is what I would think about if I was about to start my teaching career.

  1. Behaviour management must come first

This seems pretty fundamental (and strangely absent from my Twitter feed – but maybe that’s because of who I follow). Put simply, if pupils don’t behave for you, good luck teaching them anything.

Carl Sagan used to talk about how astronomy was a ‘humbling subject’. Teaching is too. A class doesn’t care about your first from Oxford or your immaculate grades. If you’re a career changer, they likely won’t care who you were in your past life. (In fact, from conversations with career-changing colleagues, this often seems one of the most challenging aspects: you go from being a ‘someone’ in a former life to a nobody in this.)

Getting pupils to behave must come first.

I won’t linger much on behaviour management here; there are plenty of better blogs for that (for my money, this summary of Bill Rogers’ ideas is one of the most useful).

But if I was to give one piece of advice it would be about the importance of praise.

It is easy (and, I would say, natural) when you’re getting verbally beaten up by 32 teenagers (see: most of my first year of teaching) to resort to threats of sanctions. This is understandable – but it also leads to a negative spiral with your classes.

This is the really important point: If you can remind yourself to praise the good stuff that’s going on – and if you look for it, you will find it – you will be stunned at the results.

That maybe shouldn’t be surprising when you think about it – after all, everyone (especially adults) love praise – but put it at the heart of your practice and it can only be a good thing.

2. Subject knowledge is important – but be realistic

A few years ago I did some work for Teach First helping train new teachers during the Summer Institute. One of the days was set aside for a long session with a distinguished educationalist.

The day was excellent; full of rich-insights and interesting ideas. But what I remember most was the last part of the session where everyone assembled was asked to read through part of the introduction of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers. The point of this exercise was to remind all the trainees of the imperative of staying up-to-date with the latest scholarship.

At the end of the session, one of the trainee-teachers, who looked slightly overwhelmed, turned to me and said: ‘Do we really have to engage with historical scholarship like this to be good teachers?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Certainly not in your first year.’

I stand by that advice.

In your first year of teaching, particularly at Key Stage 3, you need to know a bit more about the content than your classes. That is a realistic goal. To this end, I would suggesting buying second-hand copies of general histories like Simon Jenkins’, ‘A Short History of England’, and other similar works by the likes of Simon Schama, Peter Ackroyd and Robert Tombs. (Tombs’ book is wonderful because it’s all in one, hefty volume.)

For GCSE topics, try and get your hands on A level texts that cover the same content. The ‘Access to History’ series is great for this.

If you’re lucky enough to teach it during your first year, A level is perhaps the area you will need to do some extra reading. But again, be realistic and selective. For starters: use the textbook(s). Lots of them are good.

If you want to go further, perhaps pick up a bunch of second-hand books on the subject from the leading authorities in the area and dip in and out of them when you need. That will probably do. Perfection can be the enemy of good.

To be clear, I’m not writing this to bash reading scholarship. Of course history teachers – indeed, all teachers – should aim to stay engaged with their subject.

But the demands of your first year in teaching are many and you have to prioritise. If you can get your classes under control and make sure they leave knowing more than they did when they arrived, then you are probably doing something right.

If nothing else, you will certainly have accomplished more than I did, and so you at least won’t be the worst teacher this country has ever seen.

Good luck.









How I Got Dual Coding Badly Wrong

I’ll begin this with a confession: my grasp of cognitive science is shallow.

I have tried to improve it. I’ve read (and re-read) Willingham; I’ve listened to Dylan William talk about Cognitive Load Theory; I’ve tried grappling with publications from organisations like (the catchily named) Centre for Education and Statistics and Evaluation (actually an excellent site well worth your attention).

But, it seems, I am not a deep thinker when it comes to these discussions.

I try – I really do – but I fall short.

This point was recently driven home when I read a blog by Adam Boxer on Dual Coding. Adam rails at the proliferation of the images adorning worksheets in the name of ‘dual coding’. Too often, he argues, these images are being misused. He wrote:

In short, if you want to use them [icons] fine, but don’t confuse aesthetics with thinking. Some principles of aesthetics support cognition, but many don’t. And making something look pretty with icons is fast becoming the “multicoloured dialogical marking” of the 2020’s: cool pictures to put online that show your creative flair yada yada, but not much bang for your buck in terms of learning.

As I read Adam’s article, I realised: ‘Oh, he’s talking about me.’

Here, for instance, are two poor examples (both my own):

Exhibit 1: Pointless imagery next to text

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 10.00.51


  • What is the value of the knives being next to the recap question? In fact, if anything, it actually has the potential to confuse things: the Nazis didn’t use knives to carry out their attacks
  • What is the value of the images next to the paragraphs? They look pretty – sure – but they don’t actually add anything


Exhibit 2: Images to aid recall

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 09.59.20

Some reflections:

  • I used this activity as consolidation exercise: pupils had to try and figure out what the images related to and then, as a class, we discussed them and added detail to form the basis of an essay plan
  • Perhaps not all of this is pointless: the hammer and sickle can be used to illustrate a great deal about communism; the graph at the bottom left has potential to illustrate an economic downturn


  • Are these images better than context-specific images? What value does the clinking beer hold? When considering the Beer Hall Putsch, it’s actually not that important that it happened in a beer hall; it’s more important that pupils understand the consequences of the attempted coup
  • All of these images could be replaced with more concrete, context-specific images (e.g. a poster of Nazi propaganda rather than a weird lego face, as above)


So, what’s a history teacher to do?

As I reviewed my own efforts I realised I needed to rethink my practice. I re-watched Adam’s talk on Research Ed. I got into a brief but helpful conversation with Jacob Olivey and Mike Hill on Twitter. I tried to think about dual coding more deeply.

My key takeaway was this:  Visuals must suit the ideas you are trying to communicate. 

And so I tried to think about or find good examples of this in history-specific contexts. Below are a few (stolen mostly from Jacob Olivey and Mike Hill) that I think meet the criteria:

1. This for illustrating change and continuity 


2. This for teaching an overview of the suffrage movement(s) 

Votes for women

3. Maps 

France 1000

4. This for explaining Hitler’s increase in power, 1933-34

Hitler consol power

5. This for explaining why 12th century knights could be effective in battle 

A knight

In short, there are plenty of visuals that can support pupils’ learning. They are just often more difficult to find than searching on the Noun Project website (which, worryingly, now has a ‘add in’ for PowerPoint).

As Adam ends his piece by saying, rather than prettying your worksheets with images, there are a whole range of things you would be better off doing. For my money, doing some subject-specific reading would rank high on that list.

Thoughts, as always, are welcome, for as the above experience shows, it’s how we (hopefully) become better practitioners.

Why it’s teachers who need textbooks most

Can anyone sympathise with the following?

You discover, towards the end of the academic year, that from September you’ll be teaching a new A level topic.

Wonderful, you think, what an opportunity! This – this here – is why I went into teaching. I can read books and watch documentaries and become a new master of this material. Someone is paying me to embrace the subject I love!

And so you will locate the key textbooks. You might perhaps ‘borrow’ a few weightier tomes from the school library. You may even splash a bit of your own cash on Amazon or Abe Books or similar.

Come September, things start positively. You are scholarly and erudite on the first section of the course, able to weave in stories and insight from your hard summer’s work. The students love it (‘Thank God we chose History!) and your world is alight with wonderful purpose.

But, at some point, this fades.

Weighed down by the inevitable drag of data and admin and reports and all the other million tiny tasks that eat into our day, the scholarship takes a back seat. Your lessons are still fine – good, in fact – solid (probably, in some ways, less-ambitious and therefore clearer) but they lack that flair and fire for which you are desperate.

Now, the above may just represent my singular experience, but I suspect I’m not alone.

So what’s the fix?

Well, here’s my idea: Textbooks for Teachers. It may sound dull, but hear me out.

Imagine if for, say, history, we had a big – and I mean seriously weighty, the sort of stuff Tom Sherrington references in his recent blog post – textbook (or maybe 3 or 4, broken up by period – medieval, early modern, modern etc).

They could cover a whole range of topics, pitched at somewhere around A level / first year undergraduate level of detail. They could include the basics (obviously), anecdotes, scholarship, points of interest that are worth exploring – and so on.

For the sake of familiarity, let’s take Hitler’s Germany to consider briefly an example.

The chapter could be divided along the lines most GCSEs are divided. Something like:

  1. Why did Hitler come to power in January 1933?
  2. How did Hitler consolidate his power between 1933 and 1934?
  3. What was life like in Nazi Germany?

The textbook could draw on substantial extracts from the likes of Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw. There could be an introduction to the historiography and the key debates.

Perhaps what would most be of value would be the collection of short but interesting stories. A treasure trove of (reliable) anecdotes is invaluable to a teacher. At their best, they illustrate a key point of learning. Failing that, they can at least harness a pupil’s attention.

And I suspect this could all be accomplished in a few brief pages. They would have to be crammed full of detail, granted, but they would quickly allow a time-pressed teacher to become an expert on the issue at hand (at least in the eyes of their pupils).

Of course, such a textbook might have more profound implication.

As the number of secondary school pupils in the UK continues to grow, and the government struggles to hire enough teachers, the chances of a non-subject specialist teaching History or English or Geography surely grows.

A textbook might equip these teachers with the knowledge they need to deliver their lessons to a higher standard. That can be no bad thing.

There are, as with any idea, problems. The two that spring to my mind are as follows:

  1. Who decides what goes in the textbook? (In a subject as political and potentially divisive as history, this is no small matter.)
  2. Are there enough teachers (say, history teachers) to make such a project economically feasible to a publisher?

Dealing with those problems will perhaps require another blog post. For now, I am just anxious to hear the thoughts of the teaching community.


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