21 Jan 2021
Thomas Raine finds this book is a handy repository of what we know about effective teaching, with a relentless focus on reducing workload
In this updated version of Mark. Plan. Teach., Ross Morrison McGill focuses on the essentials we need to promote learning. Under any circumstances, this would be a worthwhile endeavour. Picking up the pieces after lockdown, this collection of practical, evidence-based ideas proves a timely tonic.
McGill insists that teaching boils down to three activities that must be performed well – marking, planning and teaching. Here, he offers ten ideas to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of each, with helpful, accessible summaries of the research underpinning his proposals.
Some are suitable for immediate implementation by teachers, while others are aimed more squarely at senior leaders. Readers may wish to target their reading accordingly. However, McGill is clear that any teacher can drive evidence-informed change within their school.
A central theme is that good teaching is relentlessly focused on what students are learning rather than what they are doing. To this end, McGill introduces the concept of “stickability”; If we are clear about what must stick, teaching becomes more disciplined, with learning at its heart.
In Section 2 (Plan), McGill argues that effective planning centres on the knowledge students must take forward. When planning lessons or curricula, we should ask why students are doing particular activities and what they contribute to learning.
However, ‘stickability’ is helpful at each stage of the mark-plan-teach cycle. In Section 1 (Mark), McGill suggests making self- and peer-assessment an integral part of our feedback process. For this to be effective, however, students need clear success criteria to guide their evaluations, and these criteria should form central precepts the lesson seeks to impart.
‘Stickability’ is helpful at each stage of the mark-plan-teach cycle
Similarly, in its review of the research on written feedback, the Education Endowment Foundation reported that marking should provide clear, actionable targets for students to improve, with feedback focused on the knowledge and skills required for success.
In Section 3 (Teach), McGill champions the use of retrieval practice. Students should regularly be required to recall important knowledge, with ‘spaced’ retrieval allowing time for them to ‘forget’ certain concepts before having to remember them. Retrieval practice supports learning by ensuring that ideas successfully pass from short- to long-term memory – it helps to make learning stick.
It is also an efficient strategy, with Jeffrey Karpicke identifying low-stakes, closed-book quizzes as an effective approach. Requiring few resources and little preparation time, retrieval practice is a strategy that adds little to a teacher’s workload (and may in fact reduce it).
Stickability is a simple yet powerful idea. As teachers battle to convey knowledge-rich curricula in the aftermath of lockdown, knowing how to achieve is seems more valuable than ever. Approaching each stage of the mark-plan-teach cycle as an opportunity to make learning stick – with precision about what students need to know – promises to make teaching more focused and efficient.
And it is that emphasis on efficiency that comes through as one of the book’s great strengths. With concerns about workload and teacher retention, McGill’s focus on strategies that can have the greatest impact on learning is welcome. In particular, his recommendations on marking seem noteworthy. His “less but better” mantra offers simultaneously to improve the quality of feedback and ease one of the biggest contributors to a teacher’s workload.
Finally, it is worth heeding the value he attaches to modelling as a mode of instruction. Live modelling – where teachers demonstrate exactly what is expected of students and articulate their own thoughts while doing so – is a valuable addition to any teacher’s toolkit, helping to reinforce success criteria and identify challenges students are likely to encounter in completing a task.
If there’s one criticism of this book, it is that it tries to be useful for everyone in a school. As a result, that can make it hard to get to the information that’s relevant to you relative to your role – teacher, middle leader, senior leader.
On the whole, though, anyone with the patience to sift through the bits that aren’t for them will gain something from it. While much of it isn’t new information, it offers a succinct repository of what we know now about how teachers can give their best and keep their workloads manageable.