‘’The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind’’ – (Bob Dylan)

18 October 2022 |

Elaine Ruxton – DACCA School Direct Programme Lead

Listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘’ the answer is “blowin’ on the wind’’ yesterday, I was reminded of how we live in a time of constant change – not only a change in how we see ourselves, how we are mindful of others and are mindful of pedagogy – but also a time of change regarding our awareness of research in education, particularly surrounding emerging ideas in cognitive science.

As a Multi Academy Trust, we are ever looking forward to improving the individual teachers, lessons and curriculum of our schools. As our second month of the academic year approaches, it seems like it is time to take stock of how we move forward in our view of what shapes the education of the students in our schools.

It takes a long time before you can teach with confidence. At first this may seem like a facade that you wear every day, which then grows into the automaticity and expert processes that come with years of embedded routines and formats that work for you.

In my role as Lead for DACCA School Direct, this is one of our main foci at the start of teacher training; how to change the self-perception of a learner to a confident practitioner who can run a classroom effectively. Last year we also had guest speaker Tom Bennet to share his views with our trainees which was hugely informative, and entertaining!

More recently during my time studying for my NPQ, I have been more formally introduced to the significance of metacognitive research. It has become evident to me that it is important for teachers to develop their knowledge of the unique cognitive processes that enable students to succeed, but also an important consideration when improving our curricula in teacher training and in schools.

These ideas have also helped shape some of the seminars for our School Direct programme and, last year, we also incorporated some memory strategies in our training, also using the work of Dylan Williams, Daniel Willingham, and Kirschner and Kendrick, to name but a few.

However, what does this ‘effective learning’ look like? and how is the metadata of ongoing learning measured? This is one of the time honoured goals of educational settings the world over.


I know when I started teaching many years ago, the world of education was very different altogether. Since then, huge strides have been made in the sphere of educational research. I have recently become very interested in the knowledge that has come out of research from cognitive science and it has changed the way I present and design my lessons completely.

Formatively assessing through questions has always been at the forefront of my teaching, but it seemed sometimes that the answers indeed were ‘blowin’ on the wind’; as the knowledge I had painstakingly taught in lessons seemed to dissipate after a short period of time. During my time in my ECT years my questions in lessons would be met time after time with a void, an absence of knowledge. This lacuna, it led me to desperately question how I could ensure these facts and concepts were embedded and stayed with the student indefinitely? How could I create the perfect lesson to provide the students with the excellent vocabulary, concepts and content that would help them to be successful in life. The question that I was faced with firstly was ‘does this perfect lesson exist?’

The answer is, though every lesson and student will have differences, we can still apply some pedagogical practices that will help the learning process. Furthermore, whilst direct instruction and formative assessment should be at the forefront of pedagogical practice there are metacognitive processes that shape retention that must also be taken into account.

This led me to explore cognitive science research on memory capacity and longevity. This can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, but author and senior lead practitioner of English at Ormiston Academies, David Didau, has some insight into this conundrum. He suggests in his book “Making Kids Cleverer” that when we explore what is known about the human capacity for memory and by increasing the store of knowledge in our memories we can overcome many of the limits of cognition.

I found psychologist Daniel Willingham’s exploration and explanation of the discoveries of recent research in cognitive science excellent. Subsequent work by the author Harry Fletcher Wood and aforementioned David Didau explored these ideas in more detail. In my role as Deputy Head of Sixth form I was able to work with our new learning mentor to ensure these processes are embedded into the work being done with students and enable them to build an understanding of their individual cognitive processes and what helps them to embed concepts and content in their long-term memory and learn the most effectively. I also use these strategies in my teaching.

Enabling students to be more cognisant on what helps them to learn in lessons has been very helpful. The main points I have explored are Willingham’s ideas on the psychology of long-term memory and ‘working memory’. According to Willingham it is ‘absolutely crucial’ that students store subject specific knowledge in their long-term memory. Making students aware of this has been an effective tool for guiding them through their revision process. We started off with what revision techniques were effective; alongside addressing some misconceptions on what works and, more importantly, what does not. For example: common misconceptions were addressed, like the idea that rereading and highlighting books can help students memorise facts. Teaching students about their metacognitive processes and how things can be stored in their memory is important in enabling them to become independent and autonomous learners and we have found this has been an effective tool in enabling students to not only build a bank of revision resources, but also to explore how they store knowledge.

Throughout our discovery we referred to the learning scientists on how this spaced and retrieval practice can be used effectively. We also introduced them to techniques like vocabulary engagement using strategies from Alex Quigley’s ‘Vocabulary Gap’. An interesting summary can be found here.

Formative assessment

“The teacher’s job is not to transmit knowledge, nor to facilitate learning. It is to engineer effective learning environments for the students. The key features of effective learning environments are that they create student engagement and allow teachers, learners, and their peers to ensure that the learning is proceeding in the intended direction. The only way we can do this is through assessment. That is why assessment is, indeed, the bridge between teaching and learning.”
― (Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment)

Confident teaching and, according to Dylan Williams, effective teaching, is born from knowing that your teaching is effective and formatively assessing the metadata that takes part at the ‘hinge point’ in lessons. With all of this knowledge at our fingertips it is imperative that teachers are formatively assessing at crucial points within the lesson to ascertain understanding and engagement levels and to ensure concepts and content ‘sticks’. In my role for School Direct DACCA we ensure formative assessment is part of our training focus giving trainees a wide knowledge of the research which underpins our practice. The work of Dylan Williams is crucial alongside Kirschener and Hendrick’s work on cognitive load. Last year we ran seminars on William’s hinge questions and why it is important to assess a student’s metadata which reflects learning throughout the lesson.

In our school we are ensuring students are able to ‘ask and answer questions like a scholar’ as a key focus to drive attainment. This involves creating a focused and clear learning environment in order to generate the best possible clarity from students. This will be bolstered by excellent vocabulary and scaffolded syntax instruction to enable students to engage with concepts in a more meaningful way. This engagement with questioning is a sure-fire way to improve not only the interaction of students with their metacognitive process needed to be successful, but also for teachers to assess where students are in their learning journey!

Though many of these ideas have shaped the way education is presented in the modern world, it is really important that teachers are exposed to these ideas and made aware of new research on a regular basis. Many in our department read and share new ideas and this has been a benchmark of learning for me and others in the department who have been teaching for a long time. Twitter continues to be a bedrock of information, though it can be a minefield of misinformation too and difficult to navigate if you have no guidance.

I have learned over the years that we must consider the benefits of wider reading regarding educational research but also that guidance is needed at times to explore this to its fullest extent. We as a MAT are aware of this and have signed up the National College for excellent resources to help teachers stay in touch with research and the impact it has on the world of education.

Though the answers may indeed still be ‘blowin’ on the wind’, we can structure and change that wind to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below and tell me whether you agree or disagree and why.

Elaine Ruxton – DACCA School Direct Programme Lead