Introducing problem-based learning into the classroom by bringing critical analysis into sharper focus

Practice: curriculum design

As I stated at the start of this essay, the central advantage of deconstructing analysis and understanding its diagnostic and dialectic functionality is that it offers a new perspective from which we can make coherent sense of AfL, research proven techniques and many of the practices that teachers already use effectively. Deconstructing analysis reveals separate but interrelated analytical learning activities that are integrated into the learning process from building knowledge to refining evaluation. This involves detailed and critical analysis of course content, critical responses to subject questions, critical scrutiny of these responses, and reflective meta-analysis of the learning that has taken place through this process. However, understanding the core diagnostic function behind critical analysis and the dialectical learning that takes place through the process of addressing subject challenges frames these analytical activities and emphasises the utility of inspiring and motivating students, of firmly establishing and reinforcing background knowledge, encourages us to rethink the process of answering evaluative questions and establishes a much needed process through which students can make sense of and take ownership over their own intellectual development. It incorporates questioning and AfL techniques throughout, finding a place for all of the techniques that we have been using successfully but marrying them to other effective, research tested techniques within a framework by which teachers and students can make coherent sense of student development.

A mini scheme of work that follows this technique might be set out as follows. I have identified where these practices could be supported by theory or contemporary research referred to in my footnotes:

Curriculum Design: The 10 Phase Learning Episode

Both in education and employment, either the problem-based nature of critical analysis has been overlooked or that there are different types of analysis that make up ‘critical analysis’ and they are involved in a dialectical relationship that revolves around problem-based critical analysis. This is the basis for rethinking the relationships between each phase of learning in a learning episode, so that learning takes full advantage of this relationship and the opportunities for additional lessons, resource creation and learning that it offers. For teachers that have ever struggled to use activities or resources promoted as best practice, grappled with mastering questioning techniques or introducing more critical thinking into their lessons, or just found it difficult to see what they should be doing and when, this 10 phase plan might be of help. Each learning episode goes through 10 phases which coherently structure student learning from initial interest to topic mastery.

  1. Metacognition – framing the learning episode: Framing the learning process in terms of knowledge acquisition, problem-based critical analysis, reflective analysis and dialectic development to make students aware of what they are going to be doing and why. The metacognitive phase frames the learning episode and is designed to train students to take control of their own development and success in the classroom and beyond. The development of employability skills therefore is not an add-on but is integral to the design of the curriculum. It will stress that it will help them in the development of problem solving skills and a growth mindset but also demonstrate the utility of expending effort on detailed analysis early in the process to reduce the need for more reflective analysis later. It will emphasise that retrieval practice and testing will be low stakes and that developmental activities will incorporate wait-time. This could incorporate a reflection on previous targets where appropriate. Return to this at key points in the learning process to maintain focus and attention.
  2. Pre-questions – inspiring interest: This phase is designed to spark interest and motivate students to address the problems related to the topic, identifying and debating problems and stimulating interest. Students who don’t take ownership of problems are unlikely to engage in genuine problem-solving tasks later, so in this phase and the next it is important for the teacher to assume the role of inspirational subject specialist.
  • Pre-questions
  • Kahoot
  • Uninformed initial analysis
  • Video/case study Q&A
  • Debate
  • Snippets (Powell, 2010: 24)
  • Satirical comedy
  • Snowball (Powell, 2010: 38)
  • Multiple-choice answer cards/Mini-whiteboards
  1. Mediation and homework: Teaching to make the subject material accessible to students, using the teacher’s awareness of their student’s development and mediating between that and the demands of specification.
  • MKO Support groups (Powell, 2010: 68)/Kagan seating plans
  • Poster/presentation activities
  • Student-led review (Powell, 2010: 56)
  • Plenary: Support groups  (Powell, 2010: 50 & 68)
  • Testing: Dual-coding/dual-coding cards; Memory palaces; Retrieval grids; Matchmaker or The Loop (Powell, 2010: 36); Mastery  (Powell, 2010: 19); Whist  (Powell, 2010: 30); Pass the question  (Powell, 2010: 44); Kahoot/Quizlet/Quickkey; Ten techniques for retrieval practice (teacherhead –
  1. Detailed analysis: In this phase of learning, the teacher begins the transition from inspiring interest and mediating knowledge acquisition to learning facilitator. Students use resources like Connect 4, elaborative questioning, or Socratic questions to refine their understanding of subject content. Teachers can use ‘think-aloud’ to offer Vygotskian More-Knowledgeable-Other (MKO) models of thinking against which students assess their own, or have them peer assessed through MKO support groups. This phase could usefully finish with a dialectic meta-analysis of student progress from initial to developed understanding.
  • Connect 4 (in which students select and connect 4 concepts through their prior learning)/Dominoes (Powell, 2010: 54)
  • Mind-maps; reworking notes – reformatting notes
  • Venn diagrams
  • Factor pyramids – diamond ranking, comparing and contrasting factors (can feed into tension graphs in the next phase) 
  • Elaborative questioning (fig.8); Socratic questioning.
  • Debates with Socratic analysis & wait time
  • Snowball (Powell, 2010: 38); Give us a clue/True or False (Powell, 2010: 40); Question Time  (Powell, 2010: 42) – to be used in conjunction with Socratic Questioning. 
  • Review: Student-led review (Powell, 2010: 56); Reworking notes (Powell, 2010: 76)
  • Plenary: Support groups  (Powell, 2010: 50 & 68)
  1. Initial core critical analysis: This phase begins and provides the hub for the critical and evaluative activities that follow. Students interpret problems and relate their learning to the problem, highlighting or emphasising some approaches and distinguishing them from others that are less appropriate, utilising the topic’s key concepts as they do so. Students can prepare their responses using tension graphs (fig.7), and use elaborative/Socratic questioning to refine their own reasoning. The teacher can change the question/problem mid-task or at the end of this phase to encourage students to develop mental agility or the ability to use their knowledge in different ways.
    • Reworking notes
    • Debate
    • Brainstorms
    • Tension graphs (Powell, 2010: 78)
    • Initial critical analysis questioning building on tension graphs; Which side of the argument do you favour?; Which is the strongest argument supporting this view and why is it the strongest?; Which is the strongest argument supporting the opposing view, why is it the strongest, but why isn’t it strong enough to convince you to accept the opposing view?; Which arguments are you dismissing as weak and why? 
  2. Deeper critical analysis (student centred questioning; formative assessment): This is the type of activity that is often associated with the criticality in ‘critical analysis’ (Paul & Elders, 2007) and when we are encouraged as teachers to develop our questioning techniques this is often what is in mind. In this phase, peers subject their initial core critical analysis to detailed analysis/scrutiny through elaborative questioning and Socratic questioning, encouraging them to unpack the thinking behind their initial judgements and subjecting it to analytical scrutiny. Metacognitive tuition should make this low-stakes by explaining that failure is a necessary step in the learning process and that this phase is designed to reveal errors in interpretation or reasoning thereby helping students refine their knowledge, but students should be made to understand that this phase will reveal a lack of effort put into their detailed analysis.
    • Elaborative interrogation (fig.8)
    • Socratic questioning
    • Socratic question tennis; singles, doubles, table rallies, class rallies
  3. Dialectic reflection and development 1: In this phase, students compare their initial core critical analysis with their conclusions from the deeper critical analysis through meta-analysis questions. Students then redraft their core critical analysis and responses.
    • Meta-analysis questions (fig.8)
    • Meta-analysis: Assessment review (Powell, 2010: 58)
  4. Planning responses to questions: These resources have been developed in a humanities setting where they have improved the quality of student writing, but the principles should be transferable to any subject that assesses the competencies of critical analysis and evaluation as they simply help students structure their reasoning in response to evaluative questions. Essay responses could be scaffolded on the basis of PEEL models as long as the analysis and evaluation is derived from the work that they have done, but Essay trees/pyramids (fig.10) show students that the selections made in their analysis serves the conclusion or solution they are offering to the problem in the question. This encourages them to be efficient in their use of knowledge, dismissing that which is irrelevant to the problem, and shows them that the evaluation at the end of each line of reasoning or piece of analysis serves as a bridge between that analysis and the conclusion. Essay planning strategies should reflect and scaffold the refined lines of reasoning that have been developed through students’ critical analysis. Students can refine their plans by revisiting Connect 4/glossary activities and relating relevant concepts to their answers. Students struggling with planning can be sent back to the analysis or testing phases to retrieve appropriate knowledge.
    • Verb/Planning tables (fig.9)
    • Essay funnels (fig.10)
    • Connect 4/glossaries
    • Review: Celebration review (Powell, 2010: 60).
  5. Timed assessments – low-stakes responses to unseen exam questions to develop mental agility.
  6. Dialectic reflection and development 2: In this phase students return to their learning to facilitate retention and refine their understanding and responses. It should begin by returning to homework questions so that students become reacquainted with the material and for spacing reasons. This can incorporate testing software for speed e.g. Blockbusters, Quizlet or Kahoot. Students then reflect on examiner feedback, compare their responses to the refined critical analysis in their planning and engage in further meta-analysis questioning.
    • Green pen work – making improvements on the basis of dialectic reflection, setting feed-forward targets for the next piece of work on the basis of meta-analysis.

1-4: Detailed analysis 5: Initial diagnostic critical analysis 6-7: Reflective critical analysis 8-11: Secondary diagnostic critical analysis

Fig 6. A dialectical model for curriculum design in which the analytic process revolves around its diagnostic function.

The Metacognitive Phase:

For the phases in each learning cycle to effectively engage learners and teach them valuable transitional skills, students must be made aware of the problem-based process that they are undertaking, and so learning must take place under the metacognitive umbrella of the dialectical learning process. Teachers should start a programme of learning by teaching students about how the learning cycle will unfold with emphasis on the use of knowledge to address the subject’s challenges so that learners are aware of the rationale of what they are doing, to maintain motivation in periods of learning they find challenging, and so that they consciously develop the skills of analysis and problem solving (7).

I have gradually introduced my students to a metacognitive awareness of how they are learning, introducing exercises by explaining their function in the learning process. I have found that this can be an incredibly powerful teaching tool to help students maintain focus at stages of the learning process that demand it. As well as framing the activities that they are engaged in, a presentation can incorporate supportive quotes that justify the process, e.g.

‘Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself’, Eleanor Roosevelt. I use this to help students see how putting effort into a detailed analysis of a topic early in the learning process will mean that they have to put less effort in later on when their peers are subjecting their thinking to critical analysis.

If given the choice between copying out a set of correct answers, with no effort, but no understanding of how to get them, and having to think hard to derive their own answers, check them, correct them and try to develop their own understanding of the underlying logic behind them, how many students would freely choose the latter? And yet, by choosing the former, they are effectively saying, ‘I am not interested in learning.’’ (Coe 2013: 13) This helps justify the challenge of detailed and critical analysis and explains the importance of attention and motivation to the process of problem solving.

‘I never lose. I either win, or I learn’. Nelson Mandela

Understanding critical analysis as problem-based diagnostic or dialectical analysis and clearly distinguishing it from detailed analysis means that we encourage students to move from developing their knowledge, understanding and ability to apply it within the limits of the context of that learning, to using what they have learnt to solve the problems presented to them in class or in exam questions and the development of their capacity for thinking analytically and solving problems in general.

The ‘Inspiring Interest’ and ‘Mediation’ Phases:

In this phase teachers will share their passion for the subject and actively inspire students to share that interest, mediating between their learners and their own understanding to help those learners to cross that bridge. When you compare the work of students who have a love of a subject and those for whom the lesson appears to be a distraction from something else that they’d much rather be doing, the work that the latter produce is but a pale imitation of the former. The problem for the latter is more likely to be, ‘How do I get this work completed to the extent that it doesn’t come back to me but with minimal effort?’ For some, it isn’t even that. This is a problem not only for us, but it’s going to be for them if they don’t have something going on somewhere else in their lives into which they can productively sink their teeth. If we have gone over the metacognitive reasons for applying focus, maintaining attention and taking the ownership of problems then we can refer back to this when we need to in class, however we don’t want students to simulate interest. In a curriculum constructed around problem-based critical analysis, the first substantive phase in the learning cycle is designed to motivate the student to take ownership of the problems they will encounter in the topic later on. 

Associated resources:

These resources and activities can be used to put the learning into its context, to demonstrate the intentionality behind the learning, and to stimulate student motivation to address these problems; problems only appear as problems to those for whom they are problematic – if students are demotivated, higher learning is less likely to take place. If I were teaching students about Anslem’s Ontological argument for the existence of God for example,which claims to be able to prove God’s existence by means of the definition of God alone, I might introduce the topic by asking questions such as ‘Why do religions exist?’, ‘What are the benefits or drawbacks from having religions?’, ‘Can you imagine a world with no religion? Would this be a good thing?’, ‘What would you do if someone proved that God exists?’, ‘What would you accept as proof?’, ‘Is there anything you accept/believe without having evidence?’, ‘Can you think of something that is true just by its definition?’. The initial teaching of a topic therefore should ideally inspire students to take an interest in the issues and challenges that relate to that topic.

Snippets to create interest: ‘The opening pages of some novels have the reader engrossed even before the plot or characters have been introduced. The trailer to a film or video is designed to make viewers want to see more. In both situations the authors or producers offer tasty snippets and the purpose is to ‘hook’ the audience’ (Powell, 2010; p.24-25). Robert Powell suggests using the same approach as an alternative to starting lessons by sharing aims and objectives, allowing students to discover or even define the aims as the lesson progresses or in its plenary. The goal here is to draw the student in and keep them engaged.

Pre-questions/Uninformed initial analysis: Asking students about what they are going to learn about before they learn it. The ‘prequestion effect’ reveals that the practice enhances memory for the content being asked about, but may be detrimental to content that hasn’t been asked about but that has to be learned regardless (Carpenter & Toftness, 2017). In this phase of learning it is used to introduce problems, explore student’s initial responses which will become refined with greater understanding and reflection, to give them a launch-platform back to which they refer to help assess their progress in later meta-analysis reflections, and to help them find their motivation to address the subject’s problems.

Kahoot: Online quiz resource that students of all ages really enjoy engaging with.

Video/case-study Q&A: students answer questions and debate issues raised in documentary style videos on the topic, carefully chosen not to give factual information as much as to stimulate engagement with the problems that students will then go on to address.

Debate: A structured discussion between two or more people who take opposing positions on an issue, problem or question. Participants must be clear about the rules to avoid personal attacks and basic logical fallacies, e.g. straw man attacks. This can be used in the ‘inspiring interest’ or in the ‘critical analysis’ phases; in the former it helps engage students with the issues and in the latter it helps students select which items of knowledge are most appropriate to deal with the issues being debated, and helping students to identify how they think they should be used. When used in the latter, teachers should plan to incorporate ‘wait time’ and allow students to use socratic questions of elaborative interrogation to scrutinise each other’s reasoning.

Satirical comedy: While some teachers have found that satirical comedy is a useful way to engage students of Government and Politics in critical issues (Hayes, 2016), it is also a good tool to hook students into issues that they will learn about later. Care needs to be taken over choice of act however as humour can be notoriously subjective and satire often presupposes some background knowledge in order to ‘get the joke’.

Snowball: This is one of the most effective techniques teachers can use to engage students quickly and start a conversational debate that can engage the whole class. Students are given 10 seconds to come up with an idea, example, justification or item of evidence, or question based on their learning. Immediately following this, with their neighbour they have 30 seconds to come up with four such items, and then in groups or four or as a table they have sixty seconds to agree on 12. The class will strain every sinew to meet the demands placed on them by the pace of the activity and student feedback produces enough material to draw on for significantly longer, for example when used with triangulated questions to draw in students at the peripheries of the responses. (Powell, 2010; p.69). 

Multiple-choice answer cards/Mini-whiteboards: Taking the time to laminate one set of colour-coded cards per table, each with a letter A, B, C, D or E, pays many dividends later in your teaching. It is important to colour-code each letter as as it makes searching for cards that much easier when they become muddled up and you need to organise a task quickly.

The idea is that each table will use the cards to agree on their responses to multiple-choice questions and display their answers to the class. It allows the teacher to quickly identify weaknesses and plug gaps in understanding (mini-whiteboards can be used to the same end).

However, the cards are a great tool for quickly restructuring your classroom, splitting up tables and reorganising them according to letters, either for activities, to form productive More Knowledgeable Other support groups, or just to control disruptive behaviour and remind students of who is in control.

If students are to eventually use subject content to address problems, they must understand it. Here the teacher plays the Vygotskian role of More Knowledgeable Other (MKO), mediating between course content and the student’s understanding. This is where the teacher’s understanding of their students – their social background with its beliefs, values and assumptions, their progress in the course and their goals – starts to become essential to learner development. The teacher must find ways to inspire their students to take ownership of the subject’s problems and provide the bridge over which students cross into the subject, its topics and its challenges. Students may have textbooks with all of the knowledge that they need to address the exam’s more challenging questions, but teaching begins by making this more accessible.

Associated resources:

More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) Support groups/Kagan tables: Structure your class around small support groups. These groups of students are intended to support each other through activities, and so need to be carefully selected to be based around the support that could be offered to the table from what Vygotsky calls a ‘More knowledgeable other’. Previously this might have been used to promote differentiation of activities, but Ofsted warns against such practices because research suggests that they don’t work. However, the support and guidance provided by MKO’s can be invaluable to fellow students as students can raise concerns in the safety of the group, the MKO can mediate the learning of less confident students allowing the teacher to manage the process.

These groups can be used in plenary sessions to review the learning that has taken place in the lesson and brainstorm responses to questions based on the lessons objectives.

Poster presentation activities: Rather than getting students to construct a powerpoint, poster presentations are more tactile ways of doing the same thing and it can really get them to think about how efficiently they communicate their understanding or research thereby avoiding the cut-and-paste temptation that IT presentations create. It also gets them to see the challenges involved in marketing ideas in ways that standard presentations don’t. Students put together a poster which visually and literally summarises what they want to communicate, and a brief or pitch that they use to explain this idea to people who show an interest (in this case other students and the teacher).

Student-led review: Rather than having the teacher review student learning in the plenary, have the students control this aspect of the lesson. This would work in much the same way as any other review of learning but with the task of directing the activity handed to the learners (Powell, 2010; p.56-57).

Memory palaces/journeys: While some within the PBL tradition may eschew education as the learning of facts, knowledge acquisition is merely one phase in a learning cycle that revolves around the development of problem-solving skills and avoiding a debate over the relative merits of summative exams and the current system of education, regarding those facts as tools that we can use to solve problems may make the practice more palatable. As academics may appreciate, being wholly engrossed in a series of problems motivates you to research and remember relevant items of knowledge, but short of finding the time and motive to develop this in themselves, students need to be shown ways to place relatively large numbers of facts at their disposal and memory techniques help do this.

Memory palaces/journeys are places or journeys that you create in your imagination, filled with visual mnemonics (images that you associate with items that you need to remember) that you use to dual-code and organise the facts that you want to remember. Dual-coding has long-since been recognised as a powerful tool to improve memory (Paivio & Csapo, 1973).

Dual-coding cards: These cards, made in a similar way to the dominoes mentioned below, can be made by the teacher but would likely be more effective if made individually by students themselves. Each card has a key term on one side, and an image that acts as a visual mnemonic to stand for that key term. When students plan their responses to questions they can then order these cards in the same order that they would use the key terms in their answer. They can then create a memory journey (see above) using these images to help encode it in memory. With different questions they will be placed in a different order, and the teacher can use this to develop students’ mental agility.

Retrieval grids: A simple form of retrieval practice, these are basic colour-coded tables containing questions displayed in grid-form that encourage students to recall aspects of their previous learning, with questions typically scoring higher the longer ago the learning was completed.

Mastery: In mixed ability groups, students work together on tasks that are assessed as a group, but by counting the total scores of each individual in the group. In order to improve the group’s score at the next assessment its members have to peer coach each other. Care must be taken to ensure that coaching is supportive and does not descend into a form of hazing (Powell, 2010: p.19). 

Whist: A word game based on whist designed to help students learn key terms. On each card is written a word related to students’ learning, and a definition of the word or question to which that word is the answer. Students share out the cards and, keeping the words/definitions hidden from each other, take turns to select from their neighbours’ cards. When a player has selected a card, their neighbour reads out the definition or question, and if the player identifies the word on the card correctly they win that card.

We can use this game to incorporate socratic questions or elaborative interrogation; students read each other’s work, then play each other. The cards have generic questions on one side, and when an opponent selects a card, the player has to come up with a more specific question about that student’s work. If the student answers the socratic/elaborative question effectively, they win the card.

Pass the Question: After reviewing learning, pairs of students must come up with questions on that learning that other students will have to answer. Each pair is assigned a number and the teacher then randomly selects two of those numbers from a ‘hat’ containing all of the numbers. Before revealing the second number, the teacher asks the first numbered pair to read out one of their questions. The teacher allows a little wait-time for the class to think of the answer, and then reads out the number of the second pair who must answer that question. The numbers go back in the hat and if the same pairs are selected in future plays, the teacher can decide whether or not to put them back in the hat or make them play again, thereby ensuring that the class stays focused even if they’ve asked/answered questions (Powell, 2010: (p.44-45).

The ‘Detailed Analysis’ Phase:

In this phase, having inspired an interest in the challenges students will face, providing them with access to the means by which they might be solved, and bridging the gap between the student and the knowledge they need to acquire, the teacher begins to take a back seat in the learning process, facilitating or guiding students to make their own progress rather than acting as the authority from whom knowledge comes. This begins the more challenging phases of learning for students, but with carefully thought through resources these hurdles can easily be overcome (and indeed must be negotiated if students are going to get past surface learning), and once students know what they are doing these lessons soon become those that students value most as it requires and values more of their own contributions.

Associated resources:

Connect 4: Present students with a grid of key terms and ask them to use their learning to explain the connection between four of them. To assess them quickly get students to pass their answers to their peers, ask them which concepts their neighbour attempted to connect and then use ‘think aloud’ to explain how they could have connected them; students give feed-back according to how close the student got to the teacher version. Students can start with two boxes at first and then relate that explanation to two more. If all boxes relate to material covered in the same topic, then it should be possible to relate them all together. Once they feel comfortable with the activity and more MKO’s are established in class, students can then go on to peer assess each other’s work through support groups.

Dominoes: ‘The Dominoes game can be used at any point in a lesson for consolidating learning, for initiating discussion or for revision. It can also be used at the end of a lesson or unit of work as a means of reviewing the learning progress that has been made’ (Powell, 2010: 54-55). Powell suggests using images and words, and when I read this I was inspired to create dual-coding cards, but typically you would draw up the cards like dominoes, each with two of the topic’s key words, and students would play them like dominoes; the object of the game is to get rid of all of your cards; you can put a card down if you can produce an explanation that links a word on the dominoes already played to the a word on the dominoes you’re holding. 

Matchmaker/The Loop: You can do the same with questions and answers or words and definitions like to create a ‘Matchmaker’/’Loop’ activity;

Mind-maps/Reworking notes: ‘Not all notes… lead to deeper understanding. One way teachers can ensure that the same notes are processed and made sense of is to insist that once students have completed the notes they should be asked to rework them into a different format’ (Powell, 2010: p.76). Obviously, this could involve a variety of mediums from summary to spider-diagrams, but students could also be required to restructure their notes into an argument including conclusions, reasoning, and evidence.

Venn diagrams: Great devices for drawing out contrasts and comparisons, which can play a role in knowledge acquisition, detailed analysis, but also in preparation for the critical analysis phase as students create ways of using their knowledge to address problems. 

Factor pyramids/Diamond ranking: an intuitive and user-friendly way of getting students to start the process of applying qualitative, evaluative judgements to their learning, great preparation for developing tension graphs and as a platform to launch the critical analysis phase.

Elaborative questioning/Socratic questioning: Can be used in the detailed analysis phase or in the reflective analysis phase. When used in detailed analysis, students are required to use these questions to explore, scrutinise and otherwise question the thinking, reasoning, or evidence offered to them in their learning. When used in the reflective analysis phase students and peers use the questions to do the same to their own work. If as a teacher you have ever been asked to improve your questioning technique, these are invaluable as they demand that students really engage with and think about their learning on a much deeper level. Because it is difficult to ask such questions, teachers should consider using techniques to motivate students to use them. For example, they can play ‘Socratic Question Tennis’ (see below) or use a variant of ‘Whist’ (see above) 

I have found that elaborative interrogation is a great resource to supplement retrieval tests. Students can be made to engage in more detailed analysis once they’ve answered a simple recall question when their peers come up with elaborative questions to press the issue. For example, ‘What is nationalisation’ might become ‘Why was nationalisation implemented?’ or ‘Who did nationalisation benefit?’

Socratic question tennis: Using the scoring system from tennis, play a partner and win a game. To serve, a player asks a socratic question based on their reading of their opponent’s work. To return the serve, the opponent must answer that question effectively. A return wins a point and the serve switches to the opponent. An unanswered question wins a point and allows the player to retain the serve.

Give us a clue/True false: Use this activity to encourage closer reading of text. Students read the text and when they have found a piece of information that they understand, they write three clues that other students can use to try to find that information when they read the text. The true/false variant requires students to write a series of statements based on their reading, and other students have to work out if they are true or false.

Question time: Select a panel of ‘experts’ from your class. While they revise an area of study on which they are going to develop their expertise, the other students come up with questions (and answers) to test the experts. If you want to do this quickly, compose the panel from the MKO students in the class – this will test and celebrate their understanding while pushing the understanding of other students.

The ‘Critical Analysis’ Phase:

In this phase teachers will show students how their learning relates to the problems that they will face in their assessments, help students explore the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in addressing these problems, and help them to use this knowledge effectively to address them.

The method by which knowledge is used diagnostically and dialectically is based on skill development and therefore practice, and it requires not only regular retrieval of previously learned knowledge but, in stressing the goal of personal development that takes place on the basis of this recall, the method goes beyond retrieval for the sake of retention only. Retrieval gives us the tools that we need to solve problems, it guides the detailed analysis and investigation needed to expand upon these tools, and through the utilisation of this toolbox to address problems those tools can be added to dialectically.

A detailed analysis of the issues and theories beforehand will have given students the tools they need to solve the subject’s problems; the more attention they have been paying, the more detail they can then go into, and the more they will have to relate to the issues in exam questions. Indeed, a lack of attention early in the process leads to greater struggle when students reach the critical stages and students should be made aware of this as part of their metacognitive development.

However, If students struggle in the movement from knowledge to the use of knowledge, they must be redirected to their earlier learning. I find that if I have used multiple choice questions to assess flipped learning, they can be reused in later stages to rejig and quickly assess student memory in order to bring them back into those analytic activities that they are struggling with.

If students maintain focus and attention when using their knowledge to address these issues they will establish and strengthen connections between the things they know and the problems that relate to this knowledge, they will make their knowledge more meaningful to themselves making it more memorable and easier to use in future, they will expand their mental toolbox and develop their ability to use this toolbox to answer exam questions and to solve problems in general.

If students have developed their understanding of the problems and the relevant theories in their learning then they should have achieved an understanding of how the theories approach these problems, how they differ in their approaches, and an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of approaching the problems in the way they do. This should also have given them an idea about which theories best address these problems and what their solutions/answers to the challenges are.

They can now use this understanding to highlight or emphasise the importance of some theories over others. This will then help them to compare, contrast, and differentiate between them.  Retrieval prompted by a question, the first activity in any oral or written response to a question including the construction of PEEL paragraphs, is an inherently problem-related, diagnostically analytic one with students ‘identifying’ items of their own knowledge that are appropriate to the challenge.

Associated resources:

Brainstorms: As stated under the section on ‘memory palaces’, we can think of acquired learning as tools that can help us develop solutions to problems. The more tools we have at our disposal, the better equipped we are to solve problems that require these tools (sadly, the converse is also true). The first act of problem-based critical analysis would be to identify the tools that are appropriate to the job. Having finished a period of revision, present students with an analyse and evaluate question and get them to brainstorm anything they regard as relevant to that question – set time limits to help engage, motivate, and model exam conditions. They can then compare their lists and explain to each other why they think items on their lists are relevant to the problem at hand, or the teacher could do this centrally on the board. Teachers can encourage students to go beyond the learning that is directly relevant to the problem and think synoptically, thereby helping students to think holistically about their approach to problems and develop their mental dexterity.

Tension graphs and questions: Tension graphs are mostly used in English but can be adapted very usefully to get students to start reflecting on their thinking about arguments.

Teachers of English Literature may be familiar with this activity. Students are required to represent the tension in a play or novel by producing a line graph that plots the events. Teachers can issue a set of cards describing events in the play or novel. Students shuffle them then place them in chronological order. With the tension graph students are then asked to construct a line graph plotting the quality of a character’s experiences that Eva during the time span of the events. This can be annotated if the teacher wishes. 

However, in other subjects teachers can replace ‘events in the novel’ with arguments in an area of study and ‘character responses’ with how strong a student perceives an argument to be. Given that students have to reach overall conclusions based on balanced reasoning, there would likely be at least two graphs representing two sides of the debate. This helps students identify what they perceive to be the stronger side of the debate, and what they perceive to be the strongest arguments on each side of the debate. They can then be asked questions like ‘Which side of the argument do you favour?’; ‘Which is the strongest argument supporting this view and why is it the strongest?’; ‘Which is the strongest argument supporting the opposing view, why is it the strongest?’; ‘Why isn’t it strong enough to convince you to accept the opposing view?’; ‘Which arguments are you dismissing as weak and why?’ This level of questioning essentially can essentially help students to produce their initial responses to analyse and evaluate questions.

Tension graphs can help students select from previously learned topics, theories, arguments or evidence and rate their importance or effectiveness in relation to a subject problem or question. In the tension graph illustrated (fig 7) two sides of the argument are identified and the student must represent how strong they think each argument is on a graph. They can then discuss this with peers as a form of reflective, detailed critical analysis. The graph shows them the side of the arguments containing the stronger arguments and the direction of their own thinking with regards the issue.

Fig 7. Students can use tension graphs to identify relevant points and begin to form their own responses to questions or challenges.

The tension graph above for example tells our student that they appear to favour the left hand set of arguments of which they think A and D are the stronger, and that the strongest argument on the opposing side is X which would need to be dealt with if arguing for the left side over all. By highlighting or emphasising some arguments over others the student now has a basis for comparisons, contrasts, differentiation and the establishment of relationships.  

Tension graphs are a great way of helping students engage in that initial critical analysis which anchors all further analysis and to which the student will eventually return when they are happy with their take on the question. While a student may have a gut response to a problem on the basis of their previous learning, tension graphs give substance and detail to these responses from which they can construct and refine their solutions.

We could have them develop on this by establishing relationships between these facts and others from previous learning that they have also identified as being relevant. I have found that from such activities summative judgements start to emerge and become more defined and students are able to explain what their analysis reveals about the problem in the question. To help students develop mental flexibility, the teacher might at some point change the problem and ask students how the same learning can be adapted to address the new problem instead.

Here critical analysis begins by ‘identifying’ the relevant issues and set of theories that ‘relate’ to those issues, e.g. when asked to ‘Identify the issue/problem in this question and the theories you have studied that relate to the problem; ‘When the body dies, the person dies’. Evaluate this claim.’ students could then identify which points, facts, concepts etc. are most relevant or significant and explain why.

In the following questions I have only highlighted the aspects of the question that relate to a particular problem that needs to be addressed and the theories that attempt to address it: 

  1. Which of the theories of the soul that you have examined do you think best support the possibility of life after death and why?
  1. Which of the theories of the soul that you have examined do you think best undermine the possibility of life after death and why?
  1. Are there any theories/thinkers that you have studied that you have excluded from the analysis above? Why did you leave them out?

In answering these questions students need to analyse and extract information from their tension graphs. Teachers can facilitate this activity through scaffolding the language with which these tasks will be expressed. This can help them understand that the language of analysis and evaluation is different to that of description, and so that when they analyse arguments they are not simply repeating them:


  • ‘The issue with α is β. This is because θ’
  • ‘The most important thing to note here is α. This is more important than β because θ.’
  • ‘β relates to (the issue/problem/challenge in the question) because…’
  • ‘This is different from α because β.’
  • ‘This is a case of α rather than β because θ.’
  • ‘In contrast, when we examine α we see that β.’
  • ‘The criticism that α is focused on the β part of the theory/argument/issue. This is because θ’.


  • ‘The strongest case that can be made for α is β. This is because θ.’
  • ‘However, it is relatively weak to conclude that α as β.’
  • ‘The best reason for claiming that α is β because θ’.
  • ‘In conclusion the best argument for α is β because θ’

The Reflective Analysis Phase:

Before students content themselves that they have what they need to address the challenge in evaluative questions they should start to examine their thinking about the problem by elaborating on it and subjecting it to greater scrutiny. This will help them to resolve any flaws in their thinking and show the examiner their reasoning.

This is where a clearer understanding of critical analysis helps provide a bridge between knowledge and understanding and the student centred questioning that develops students’ critical awareness and ability. More complex critical analysis found in critical thinking and Socratic questioning is a slave to the more intuitive analysis (identify, relate, highlight, emphasise, compare, contrast etc) that students should engage in following a period of learning. Activities used in detailed analysis can be reincorporated into sophisticated critical analysis of student thinking.

Learning is made meaningful by the problem and how we use our knowledge to address it, moving our questioning beyond retrieval to elaborative interrogation (fig.8). Rather than being a showcase activity reserved for observed lessons this questioning is focused on the process of learning, and as a rung on the ladder whereby students can climb from lower to higher levels of learning it’s products should be reviewed and reflected on rather than abandoned in favour of the next activity.

Fig 8: Elaborative interrogation resource.

We take different things from our lessons based on what we pay attention to and what strikes us as more important, and the associations we perceive depends on our background learning and the effort we put in. Our students approach their summative assessments with very different tools at their disposal. Rather than spoon-feeding rote-learned prescriptive responses to every conceivable question, stressing the individuality with which we must start and finish the process of addressing these problems ensures that every learner can participate in higher order activities, makes retrieval practice low-stakes, and the need for streaming by ability irrelevant. It is not necessary for students to exhaust their knowledge, and not everything identified as being of relevance may be used in their analyses. This is not to say that we should dismiss the importance of attention early in the learning process – having more knowledge at one’s disposal is better than having less; the fewer tools we have, the less we can do with them. Stronger initial detailed analysis of course content can avoid mistakes identified through learner-centred questioning later on. Students therefore should be encouraged to be rigorous in their recall and initial analysis, and to approach the critical analysis as they would a genuine problem. However, making mistakes and refining thinking is an important and welcomed aspect of the dialectic learning process and should be celebrated.

In his guidance on assessing students, Andrew Chandler-Grevatt covers many different areas of good questioning practice that are made coherent through the approach being advocated here. He promotes questioning focused on engaging students in the process of their own development rather than anachronistic initiate-respond-follow-up (IRF) questioning that searches only for correct answers. He argues that that this requires the creation of a safe learning culture in which students feel confident in making mistakes, and are given enough ‘wait time’ to search for answers. Ultimately the teacher’s goal is to get students to take ownership of the questioning, using it to drive forward their own learning (Chandler-Grevatt, 2018: 94-100). The method I am recommending verses students in a metacognitive awareness of how inquiry fits diagnostically and dialectically with their own cognitive and personal development. From this they see that their own intellectual independence and future development, academically and in employment, requires that they take ownership over the process of inquiry. They can also see that this process requires time and must produce more mistakes than solutions. As in the world of employment where diagnostic solutions are often required of teams, this methodology can encourage team inquiry techniques like ‘think-pair-share’ and ‘snowballing’. Moreover, with an understanding of their diagnostic and dialectic function within critical analysis, Socratic questioning can be made more effective. For example, Chandler-Grevatt draws on the following Socratic questioning resource developed by Richard Paul (Chandler-Grevatt, 2018: 96. I have incorporated alternative online adaptations from the University of Michigan and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in the examples below):

  • Questions for clarification:  Why do you say that? What are you trying to achieve in saying this?  What is your main aim in this line of thinking? What do you mean by…? How does this relate to our discussion?
  • Questions that probe assumptions: On what basis do we think this way? What information are you basing that comment on? How do we know this information is accurate? How did you reach that conclusion? What could we assume instead? How could you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • Questions that probe reasons and evidence: Can you explain your reasoning? What evidence are you using? Why? What would be an example? What is… analogous to? What do you think causes… to happen? Why?
  • Questions about viewpoints and perspectives: What alternative explanations are there? From what perspective are you looking at this? What is another way to look at it? Is there another point of view you could consider? What is the best? What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How are… and… similar? What is a counterargument for…?
  • Questions that probe implications and consequences: What are you implying when you say that? How does that relate to…? What would happen if…? What generalisations can you make from that? What would that belief imply? How does… affect…? How does… tie in with what we learned before?
  • Questions about the question: What was the point of this question? What is the main idea you are promoting? Can you explain that idea? What does… mean? Can you clarify that point for me?

Rather than training ourselves to think spontaneously in these terms they become tools that we can deploy over time at a particular stage of the learning process, in the movement through critical analysis from knowledge to evaluation. Moreover, as well as offering a clearer idea of the dialectic bridging function that this questioning performs in Bloom’s taxonomy, this methodology places them in the context of the problem and the intentionality through which such questioning is made meaningful. I would also argue that given the dialectic growth in capability that is facilitated through such meaningful questioning, advertising it as contributing to this growth makes more sense of learner-centred rather than outcome focused teaching, and it benefits from all of the advantages of such teaching practice (see footnotes 2 and 3 below).

It is worth noting that while elaborative and Socratic questioning are being used above to refine student responses to questions before they commit to writing, these resources can be used at virtually all stages of the learning process, whether to develop understanding of subject content through more detailed analysis or to scrutinise one’s own judgments following marker feedback. It is probably their myriad applicability in different analytical contexts that has contributed to the pervasive ambiguity regarding what analysis involves.

The Writing Phase:

Having engaged in further analysis of the problem and when insights and evaluations accumulate, students can be encouraged to reach their overall conclusion.

In my own teaching in the humanities, students answer evaluative questions in short or long essay form, however these resources should be easily adaptable to other fields of learning in which students are assessed on the competencies of critical analysis and evaluation as they help students structure the reasoning that they’ve engaged in during these phases of their learning.

Verb tables: In these tables students list what the relevant learning have available to them alongside verbs that are associated with problem-based critical analysis. They can then ask themselves how they are going to use what is there to address the challenge in the question.

I use the following framework in my subjects to help students to explore how they can use their knowledge to find conclusions or solutions (fig.9). It can be used by students individually or collaboratively to plan how they would answer essay questions, or by teachers to plan how they will move students from knowledge and understanding to more challenging activities.

Fig. 9: Encouraging students to plan responses to questions using their knowledge in diagnostic or dialectical ways.

Essay funnels: These alternatives to PEEL paragraph essay structures are designed to encourage students to think or their answers to analyse and evaluate questions less descriptively and more as attempts to produce lines of reasoning that lead toward an overall conclusion. When used in conjunction with tension graphs, essay funnels show students how they can use their answers to the subsequent questions to structure their answer to the overarching essay question. For instance, having identified what they believe are the strongest arguments on both sides of a debate, and which side of the debate they believe wins the argument (and having also drawn out their reasoning behind these judgements), essay funnels show students how they can then plan the analysis of these arguments in such a way that the analysis supports evaluations that are drawn together in the overall conclusion. In my experience some students take to these structures very quickly and see their intuitive appeal, but there are some, thankfully fewer, who are dependent on the PEEL structure having used it so often and with so many teachers. I have found that this raises a dilemma; to what extent does it do greater damage to the student’s writing to have them abandon a technique that helps them mentally structure their writing?

I use alternative writing frameworks that place greater emphasis on the analytical activity that my students have engaged in and the relationship between this analysis and their conclusion (fig.10). These frameworks encourage students to think of their previous work around the essay problem as building a chain-of-reasoning that leads to and pivots around their conclusion or solution. The frameworks help students clearly distinguish between knowledge and the analytical use of knowledge. Unlike PEEL frameworks students can see in their structure the fact that the activity of writing an essay is to produce a judgement, and that the concluding judgement to each paragraph is not simply to LINK the paragraph to the question, but to show how the line of reasoning in that paragraph supports the conclusion in its own unique way. So long as they gave greater emphasis to the importance of the student’s analysis, evaluation, conclusion and the relationship between them than most tend to do, a PEEL structure could be used to help students write up analytic exercises like those above. However, I have found that essay pyramids or funnels offer a clearer picture of the activity of essay writing as analytic reasoning toward a conclusion or solution. In addition, as the conclusion to the diagnostic activities previously mentioned, planning and executing answers to evaluative questions is the raison d’etre of the entire learning process rather than the isolated activity that it is often regarded as.

Fig.10: Essay trees/pyramids/funnels as an alternative writing framework: helping students to consider how they can use their knowledge to develop a chain of reasoning in response to a problem.

These frameworks give concrete structure and purpose to the initial analysis and elaborative questioning used in tension graphs. Once they have planned how their lines of reasoning will feed into their conclusion, in order to refine these responses and cement their learning I encourage students to return to their Connect 4 activities to find concepts that relate to and can be incorporated into their answers.

I have also used these frameworks to encourage students to reverse-engineer their responses to challenging essay questions that are planned under timed conditions, thinking about their conclusion first and how the essay will produce it; students are instructed to brainstorm in response to the question to see what knowledge they have at their disposal, use this stimulus to reflect on the question and consider what their conclusion is going to be, then return to their notes to identify judgments that would support this conclusion. Finally they identify the specific knowledge they would need to highlight to reach these judgments and put them into context

Connect 4/glossaries: Students may have already explored the relationship between concepts in connect 4 activities, but once they have planned their responses they can go back to these activities firstly to identify any key terms that may be relevant to their argument and secondly to start thinking about explaining the relationship between these terms in relation to their answers.

Feedback can focus on how the student engages in the process rather than their ability or outcome and can centre on the degree of preparation or motivation, or the quality of the connections being made in their analyses. For example, consider the following comments:

  • ‘Identify the key bits of knowledge that I’ve said are missing from this analysis. What do they reveal/highlight/emphasise about the problem we have been addressing?’
  • ‘This is a good. Can you contrast it with that? What would the contrast say about the issue?’
  • ‘Well done, you have used this knowledge appropriately – your analysis is really effective and it produces a good point. Could you use this other bit more appropriately in your analysis to reach a more effective point?’
  • ‘ Well done, you have used this knowledge appropriately in your analysis. Add more detail and you will make it even more effective.’
  • ‘You have made points that are apt. Could you have identified a more salient or incisive point here? How might X be relevant?’
  • ‘You can only find solutions to problems if you are paying attention to them. Distractions in class have affected the quality of your answer.’
  • ‘Well done, you can make the point you want to make using the knowledge you used, but you will need to use it differently to make the point effectively.’
  • ‘You are trying too hard to use knowledge in response to a question for which it is only partially suitable. You won’t struggle as much if you use content from this topic.’

The Dialectic Reflective Phase:

In this phase teachers will foster students’ intellectual capacity to develop and succeed independently. As I made clear at the beginning of this section on curriculum design, to effectively engage learners and teach them valuable transitional skills all of this must take place within the metacognitive framework of the dialectical learning process. To help embed learning and give students greater control over their academic development, a learning period should conclude by reflecting on the learning that has taken place through the use of meta-analysis questions (fig.8), but also by reflecting on how it has taken place. I end a period of learning by asking students to reflect on the process they have undertaken from inquisitive reflection to refined critical solutions. They are aware of the rationale of what they have been doing, and it gives them control and ownership over the process of analysis and problem solving. Their refined awareness of why they do what they do also gives the teacher more control over future episodes of learning.

Associated resources:

Meta-analysis questions: These questions encourage students to reflect on the process they have undertaken rather than their work (for which you would use socratic questions or elaborative interrogation). This helps them think about their performance and what barriers they need to overcome to improve that performance. Ideally students will get into the habit of asking themselves such questions regularly as they learn, thereby becoming reflective learners, but the answers are a great basis for setting SMART targets for the next piece of work.

Assessment review/celebration review: ‘What have we learned?’ plenaries are great to assess progress at the end of the lesson, but when students have been working independently on their own projects this is more difficult to review collectively. Here the plenary questions might be broader and relate to the assessment criteria being used to assess what they are working on, e.g. asking how they feel they have met the criteria, what they incorporated into their work to improve on their previous assessment, which aspects of the criteria they struggled with the most? We can also use this plenary to celebrate progress or success, as long as we structure in and clearly advertise support for those students that may have struggled in the lesson.

Activities like those above, which can be assessed using any of the methods used to assess other classroom or homework activities, supplement rather than substitute writing frameworks. They do not teach students how to structure paragraphs, or how to develop more detailed explanations, or stress the importance of using supporting examples. However, they are intended to help students develop beyond such abilities by developing the analytic and evaluative aspects of their writing that writing frameworks only mimic. The use of writing frameworks alone does not help students understand how they should plan to answer questions – only how to set their answers out – nor does it encourage the diagnostic use of knowledge beyond the initial analysis of the question. Even then it does not explicitly define that as a dialectically analytical task. By adopting a dialectical model of curriculum design, students are required to expend a great deal of effort establishing and developing their knowledge base and the tools at their disposal. It teaches students the essential purpose and importance of background knowledge and how they can use this knowledge to move from the bottom of the skills hierarchy to the top – learning and revision become our tools in the dialectical process; we can’t solve problems without the tools needed to do so. By helping students to use their knowledge diagnostically we encourage them to use it more efficiently and effectively. Rather than brainstorming and throwing everything they know at questions which are in fact testing their analytical and evaluative skills, students use only the knowledge they need to reach conclusions. Responses to questions become and read like attempts to find solutions to problems rather than ‘an introduction, four paragraphs and a conclusion’. Diagnostic analysis encourages students to develop and display chains of reasoning that lead to diagnoses or conclusions. Students become much less focused on rote learning model answers to every conceivable question, which at best is going to help them develop their capacity for long-term memory. Instead we can move them on to develop the ability to answer questions and solve problems in general. Qualitatively their answers read as dialectical responses to problems which cannot be confused with descriptive writing by either students or examiners. In this sense there is less chance of them sacrificing higher order assessment objectives for unutilised or inappropriate knowledge.

Meta-cognitively then it adds a new dimension to their understanding of their own abilities and empowers them to use this understanding for future growth and development. By understanding the distinction between detailed and critical analysis and the diagnostic and dialectic nature of the latter, students become empowered to use analysis and problem solving to take control of their own development in ways that employers value yet currently do not fully understand. It also reveals the importance of attention to detail and motivation in this process. Problems require our attention in order to solve them and the problems that get most attention are those we are really motivated to solve and over which we strain ourselves to dig deeper in our detailed analysis and search further for solutions in our dialectical analysis. If we are demotivated or distracted they no longer appear as problems and become little more than things to do. After all, you wouldn’t want your chest pains being examined by someone who wasn’t paying attention and lacked motivation as it is more likely that your problem will remain unresolved. The dialectical learning that needs to take place to develop knowledge and skill simply isn’t engaged in. Moreover, failure is an important part of the dialectical process of improvement and needs to be embraced. We need to start using the more basic knowledge we have to reach rudimentary conclusions before we can improve upon them; any teacher who has engaged in action research early in their career can tell you that solutions are rarely found at the first attempt (8). Much is made of the effectiveness of inspirational teaching and the removal of distractions from the classroom, but seeing achievement through the lens of diagnostic analysis helps us see why they are important. Inspirational teaching can capture attention, imbue the problems of a subject with meaning, and inspire students to invest their own effort in working towards their solutions. Learning leaders should consider this in their initial assessments and planning, e.g. asking ‘to what degree is the student likely to be inspired to engage with the subject and to what extent can this be manufactured?’ (9).

This draws attention to significant oversights in contemporary and highly influential advice on effective study. Much has been made of fostering the habits of highly effective students, with roots going back to Ancient Greek virtue ethics and relatively modern applications in the Japanese Kaisen quality management philosophy. In sum, adopting the behaviour and mindset of a highly effective person will produce the outcomes of a highly effective person. Students are told that they should change, improve, look for role models and advice, be more reflective, adapt to failures and adopt a growth-mindset. This advice is sound and effective in its own way, for example if we think of Covey’s seven habits of effective people, using the Eisenhower Matrix is a very efficient way of prioritising competing demands on one’s time and thereby reducing the chance of burnout, as is regular exercise and a good diet. But while adopting the habits of effective people might lead you to make better decisions when faced with challenging situations, it isn’t going to help motivate you to accept the same challenges. If you aren’t similarly motivated to address those challenges then you aren’t going to be as effective. Such advice neglects the motivations and intentionality that drives effective behaviour. This motivation may simply be self-improvement, in which case attending to attitudinal or psycho-motor behaviours may be more appropriate than addressing cognitive challenges. However, at some point the student needs to ask themselves what they want to be effective at doing, and should really be encouraged to consider the challenges or problems that motivate them. Models of growth-mindset that do not consider the problems that present challenges that need to be overcome, and so show no subsequent awareness of the motivation needed to address these challenges, place unreasonable expectations on typical students saying merely, ‘you need to be a different person’. We can overcome this however by introducing the role of problems in learning and by delivering the metacognitive awareness of why motivation is necessary in their solution.

Given Ofsted’s current focus on intent, implementation, impact, and how the relationship between units of learning contributes to the learner’s overall development, a consideration of the dialectical learning process that students undertake in the subject could help teachers to plan more effectively and provide a theoretical rationale to justify their schemes of work. For example, there is a growing recognition that interleaving modules is more effective than separating them into blocks of learning as most teachers do in their schemes of work; interleaving topics means that prior learning is retrieved more regularly rather than solely at the end of the course during revision. However, both teachers and students tend to reject this method of planning course content as it makes content appear messy and ill defined. However, teachers can facilitate more regular retrieval by recognising the diagnostic and dialectical processes involved in higher order thinking and incorporating it into their planning. Primarily, distinguishing phases of learning involved in knowledge acquisition from those involved in the use of that knowledge allows the teacher to separate them in their schemes of work, returning to topics at times where doing so might be considered most effective. Where possible teachers could incorporate previously learned facts, concepts, thought processes or conclusions into new problems, building their students’ holistic understanding of the subject. This would allow them to retain an ordered structure to their courses rather than cutting up modules and interleaving them, leaving students wondering how they are related and where they are heading. Perhaps a better way to think of planning by module or interleaving would be interweaving; casting threads back to previous learning and drawing it in to current topics.


Fig. 11: Intent and Interleaving, diagnostic analysis, dialectical development and interweaving – teachers can facilitate regular retrieval of prior learning by incorporating its use into future challenges and learning, thereby overcoming the problem of incoherent interleaved topics.

Published by Dom McArdle

I came into teaching with an MA in Political Philosophy in 2004. Since then I have been teaching Politics and Philosophy A-levels in state-supported post-16 education, and I have been a department head since 2012. As with all colleagues in the state sector I have faced sustained pressure to improve standards. However, teaching in an inclusive college setting raised particular challenges. At a transitional time of their lives producing its own demands and motivations, these students often face serious social disadvantage with no family aspiration to higher education, and they are free to drop out at any time. Because of the nature of the subject it has not been difficult to inspire students to take an interest in Philosophy, but it has been an uphill battle to get them all to a point where they can confidently manipulate complex abstract ideas in evaluating philosophical claims. However, it took one resource at a CPD event in 2017 to spot something that I recognised could help achieve this. Through two years of classroom research I have reached the conclusion that neither in education nor employment have we completely understood what it involved in critical analysis, an essential step in the development of higher-order abilities. I argue that subsequent insights into Bloom’s taxonomy offer a new perspective on education which helps make current thinking, research and practice more coherent and can unlock a great deal of potential in our students. Through this blog I hope to share my research, thinking, resources and strategies to help you deliver more effective teaching, learning and assessment, produce more resilient, adaptable students, and help you organise your own departments more efficiently.

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