Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.23.24My England Travelogue, Part 1: Ark Soane Academy

Acton: Muslim boy 'ordered to stop praying at west London school”' | Metro News

A bright and lovely place…


I’ve just returned a week in England in which I visited schools, talked teaching, led a workshop and learned many useful things.

I’ve decided to string together a series of posts in a sort of mini-travel-log. Starting with my visit on Tuesday to Ark Soane Academy in Acton where Pritesh Raichura was my primary host—and everybody was gracious and great conversations abounded.

It’s a lovely, lovely school. Bright and tidy; orderly, positive and caring; so intentional about teaching (very high quality) and the scaffolding of knowledge.

One of my reasons for going was my hope to be inspired. I’ve visited so many once-good schools this year that have been all but undone by their own anxiety about orderliness- a broad confusion that authority is authoritarian. I wanted to see that schools could still make culture work—ie positive and inclusive but also orderly and capable of instilling the sorts of values so most parents care deeply about- honesty, hard work-consideration for others. And that was all very evident at Ark Soane, and Principal Matt Neuberger and his staff have done such a great job building positive culture carefully and intentionally.

I also had a great chat with Pritesh about “Phases of Questioning” in a typical lesson.  Lessons at Soane are designed around the three phases.

Every lesson starts with a first phase of questions designed to maximize student attention, to cause them to participate frequently early in the lesson as a matter of habit.

The teacher might make an instructional point—that the author of Animal Farm is George Orwell, say. And then ask:

“Who is the author of Animal Farm, class?”

 The class would respond chorally: “George Orwell.”

“Yes. And the book takes place on a farm but it is an allegory—a story with two layers of meaning—so it is also about the Russian Revolution.

“Class an allegory is a story with what?”

Choral Response: “Two layers of meaning.”

What kind of story is it, Kylie?

“An allegory.”

Yes and where does it take place, Nika?

“On a farm”

And who wrote Animal Farm?  Kevin?

“George Orwell.”

The purposes of this sort of exchange are participation, accountability and pace.  The teacher is reminding students that they will be active and busy throughout the lesson, and doing so right away.  He or she is also signaling accountability to pupils: You must pay attention and attend to the content–since attention is the currency of learning, this is a worthy investment. It’s also worth noting that students could participate without thinking explicitly about the content and in that case they could be unlikely to learn so directing attention to the knowledge in the lesson is step one. And if students are paying attention, these initial questions are generally readily answered. The third purpose is to build pace. One thing for sure about lessons at Ark Soane is that they move, and this is important. While the mode of teaching is primarily direct instruction, for pupils they feel very dynamic because they are active and on their toes so frequently. It can have the effect of creating a sort of flow sate where students are so busy they almost lose track of time. Being in a such a state, it is worth noting, is extremely pleasurable for most people.

A second phase of questioning was focused on rehearsal and thinking but the number of questions I saw that were simply about rehearsal was interesting- in many ways the most interesting idea that teaching at Ark Soane proposed: the purpose of answering  many of the questions asked in class was simply to cause students to say and remember something multiples times in hopes of building memory. This often manifested in very short turn and talks. “Remind your partner what the name of the force we are talking about is.” “Tell your partner of the formula we use here to find the sum of the angles.” Sometimes this information might be on the board or in students’ notes, sometimes it asked for a summary of a much larger body of information but the idea was to get them to rehearse it  or explain it to build memory and fluent recall.

The last phase of questioning was about Checking for Understanding. These came later in the lesson with the purpose of assessing whether students understood the thing the teacher was explaining or modeling.  Mini whiteboards among other tools were often used for this.

Training and support materials at the school discuss not only how to execute these various phases of questioning but potential pitfalls and dangers. For phase two questions (rehearsal and thinking), for example, teachers were warned to be careful of “excessive parroting and little thinking”; “rehearsing the wrong things—not the core knowledge; not making the most important links”; or, with frequently used turn and talks, one dominant partner developing.

The result of this approach was indeed fast-paced and energetic execution of direct instruction – a combination that’s often hard to achieve- and a high level of attentiveness by teachers to intentional memory building.

There was a clear model for teaching—a working theory on what would cause learning to happen grounded in cognitive science—and the model was consistently used across classes which made it predictable to students as well. I love the idea of including potential pitfalls in instructional guidance, especially pitfalls derived from experience in and specific to the school’s own model. It reflects a culture of very careful self-reflection and self-study among the staff to always ask: what’s working? what goes wrong? why?

The memory building questions in particular were especially thought-provoking. We (people? educators?) are so apt to overlook memory. We assume remembering will happen on its own even though it doesn’t. So the idea that I would ask questions merely to cause occasional rehearsal of key points during the lesson to facilitate students remembering is really interesting. Not only because it helps students to remember and to understand the importance of memory building but because it implicitly teachers them how to study better on their own later on.

It’s probably the single idea I’d be most interested to borrow and adapt from my visit. If I were going to do that, I might think about times when teaches could make the purpose explicit to students: “Tell your partner the formula so you can remember it.” I might argue for doing that at times because 1) students should know that memory is important and different from thinking or understanding and 2) sometimes the answers to memory-building questions can seem quite obvious to students.  You just told us that. Why are you asking us to repeat it when we know it? Answering obvious questions could seem demeaning and odd unless you understood why you were doing it. The purpose here is different from encoding or exploring an idea; the purpose is remembering. So I think teachers reminding or telling students that is a good idea. I also might separate rehearsal questions from thinking questions as the pitfalls strike me as both the purposes and pitfalls seems potentially different. So just possibly I might argue for four phases. But I also could be wrong. Pritesh and the staff at Soane developed the idea and know a lot more about it than me. And for certain the model is a really intriguing and promising way of engineering the teaching that happens during direct instruction, specifically to make that form of teaching successful (and aligned to research.)

All In all was a lovely and thought-provoking visit that also restoring my faith that strong and positive cultures were still out there.

Next, it was on to Blaise High School in Bristol…. But for that you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.


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