A learning-first approach to improving your teaching

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How do you decide what to improve in your teaching?

What knowledge do you use to make the decision?

What’s your decision-making process?

In this blog I’ll take you through a model that could help you diagnose what to improve in your teaching. I call it the learning-first approach.* It relies on the teacher having strong knowledge of their context, of teaching practice and crucially, of learning. These are bodies of knowledge schools should be supporting teachers to develop through professional development.

One way to try and improve our teaching is by picking up ‘tips and tricks’. I’ve argued that this is unlikely to be an effective approach.


Tips and tricks are quick pieces of advice about how to teach: well-meaning but potentially a waste of time.

Why are tips/tricks potentially a waste of your time?

  • They aren’t a carefully considered solution to a problem you are working on in your teaching.
  • There’s no hypothesis for how they are supposed to improve pupil learning.

Contrast these two approaches:

Tip/trick approach: teacher 1: ‘I saw my colleague use ‘think, pair, share’ the other day. Pupils seemed to enjoy it and gave some good answers. I’ll try this in my teaching.’

What’s wrong with this teacher’s tip/trick approach?

No diagnosis: teacher 1 skips any diagnosis of the problems in their classroom. This means ‘think, pair, share’ isn’t acting a solution: it might aid pupil learning… but it might be unnecessary.

Ignores learning: changes to teaching should aim to improve pupil learning. Teacher 1 makes no hypothesis as to how ‘think, pair, share’ is going to aid learning.

You get the sense this teacher will try ‘think, pair, share’ exactly as they saw their colleague do it without understanding why and how to do it best in their classroom.

Now contrast this to the learning-first approach.

Learning-first approach: teacher 2: ‘After I’ve taught pupils something and we discuss some questions, pupils’ answers are poorly formulated and I often find myself rounding up what they say. This could be an issue with them not really forming an understanding of what I’ve taught them.

To help, I could give them a chance to rehearse what I’ve taught them. ‘Think, pair, share’ may be a good technique for this because it gives them time to rehearse alone and with a partner before we discuss as a class.’

What’s useful about the learning-first approach?

Zooming in on evidence from their context: teacher 2 isolates something they notice is not going well in their lessons.

(Tentative) diagnosis rooted in learning: teacher 2 uses what they know about learning to diagnose the problem ‘This could be an issue with them not really forming an understanding…’.

The teacher is tentative because they can’t know for certain what the issue is. It’s a lightly-held hypothesis.

(Tentative) solution rooted in learning: teacher 2’s tentative diagnosis points towards some potential solutions. The technique ‘think, pair, share’ is chosen as a potential solution because it seems to solve the learning problem.

You might be sensing that to take a learning-first approach you’ll need to know quite a lot about learning.

I think this is crucial.

Changing your teaching without understanding how pupils learn is like setting off on a journey without a map: even if you happen to get there eventually, there was probably a better route.

Therefore, to take a learning-first approach we need to –

  • Learn about learning: understand as much as possible about the learning problems all teachers are working on (more below). This is a long-term professional development goal.
  • Diagnose first: when deciding what to change in our practice, start by diagnosing which learning problem we need to work on in our teaching at any one time.
  • Select a solution: select a possible solution for the problem. This will usually be a technique: a technique is a skilful and efficient way of achieving our goal.

Let’s look at each of these.

Learn about learning

There’s so much you could learn about learning. How do we hone in on useful stuff?

I’ve made a framework. It’s not perfect and it doesn’t include everything but it’s where I’ve started when training teaches. It’s based on the idea of ‘learning problems’.

Why problems?

Focusing on building knowledge to understand and solve important problems in the area you work is likely to be a good way to develop your expertise (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993).

Learning problems are problems all teachers are trying to work on all of the time (Mccrea, 2018; Kennedy, 2016).*

Here are the four problems:

How do we efficiently help all pupils to…?**

Let’s flesh these areas out a bit.

Each problem has key principles attached that come from cognitive science (e.g. Willingham (2009) ‘memory is the residue of thought’). They begin to guide our understanding of learning:

How do we efficiently help all pupils to…?

Let’s flesh them out even more by looking at a non-exhaustive list of teaching practices that are possible solutions to these problems, depending on the circumstances in the teacher’s lesson.

You might write my theory of change like this:

Better understanding of learning –> Better diagnosis of learning problem –> Better selection of solution

Let’s see how this might work in practice.

Diagnose first, then select a solution

Taking a learning-first approach means using our knowledge of learning, teaching and our context to take three steps:

(1) Zoom in on evidence of an issue in our context (i.e. classroom).

(2) Diagnose the learning problem.

(3) Select a solution based on our understanding of learning.

An example:

‘I’m explaining new concepts to my year 3s and loads of them do not seem to grasp them. This relates to the problem forming useful knowledge. I don’t think I’m relating new concepts to their prior knowledge well enough. I’ll try planning to relate a new concept to something concrete and familiar to them.’

Here’s another:

‘Every lesson my pupils come in having seemingly forgotten everything we did last lesson. It just doesn’t seem to stick. This seems to be related to the problem of storing useful knowledge. I don’t intentionally plan for retrieval of important knowledge. I’m going to look into factoring retrieval practice into my lessons.’

And one more. Notice how this teacher cross references the learning problems to reach a solution:

‘When I set my pupils off on the main lesson task, I often find them asking each other what they need to do. This could be an issue with focusing attention during my instructions: I suspect my instructions could be clearer. I will plan concise, concrete instructions for these tasks. However, sometimes the instructions are really lengthy. So as to manage working memory resource, I may need to display them.’

You may sense that diagnosing your own learning problem is hard. It may be that your school uses coaching or peer observations where another colleague can help you diagnose a learning problem you could focus on. To do this, a shared understanding of learning is crucial.

I really welcome your thoughts on the learning problems and the learning-first approach. Please feel free to DM me on twitter @overpractised.

Here are some pros and cons so far:

Roots decisions about learning in what we know about learning rather than attempting to improve learning by focusing solely on teaching.Doesn’t seem desirable to segregate some teaching techniques into the four problems e.g. focusing on useful knowledge, which runs across ¾ learning problems.  
Uses cognitive science meaningfully as a key factor in decision-making. But the solution is not dictated by cognitive science: knowledge of context is crucial too, as it should be.Because the framework is created from a learning perspective, fundamental aspects of teaching like checking understanding and giving feedback, generically run across the problems.  
Provides the beginnings of a conceptual framework for how to use knowledge about learning to make better decisions.It’s hard to know where to put some things like developing pupils’ metacognition.

* There’s more to teaching than pupils learning bodies of subject knowledge. We want to help pupils develop their character, contribute meaningfully to the world and be critical consumers of information (to name just a few). However, improving our ability to get pupils to learn the bodies of knowledge in our subject is a good place to focus.

**Anyone familiar with this excellent work will notice I’ve taken this concept and changed the persistent challenges/problems to frame them around memory. Their ideas are foundational and just incredibly useful.

***Knowledge should be interpreted as both declarative and procedural. Declarative is built first before it is applied.


Kennedy M. M. (2016) Parsing the practice of teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 67, p. 6–17.

Mccrea, P. (2018). Expert teaching: What is it, and how might we develop it. Institute for Teaching. https://s3. euwest2. amazonaws. com/ambitioninstitute/documents/What_is_Expert_Teaching__Peps_ Mccrea_1. pdf.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass.


2 responses to “A learning-first approach to improving your teaching”

  1. […] Should you use tips and tricks in the classroom? […]


  2. […] A learning-first approach to improving your teaching | Sarah Cottingham […]


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