Great Teaching Blog

Creating a Positive Learning Culture

Autumn 2023

Jen Little – Teaching and Learning Consultant and Assistant Headteacher and Y6 Teacher

Guy Claxton states:

“Students, who are more confident of their own learning ability, learn faster and learn better. They concentrate more, think harder and find learning more enjoyable. They do better in their tests and external examinations. And they are easier and more satisfying to teach.” (


How do we create children who are confident in their own learning?  In this blog I will share some of the strategies I have found to be effective in my own practice.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful place to start. It will be difficult to develop learning behaviours if children's basic needs are not met and if our classrooms do not provide a culture in which children feel safe to experiment, and comfortable to take risks. The children in our classes need to feel emotionally safe, liked, and valued members of the class, and school, community.

When starting a new school year, my priorities are to build positive relationships with every member of my class; to create a safe space; to know what makes each child'tick' and, above all, to develop a level of trust.

“There is a strong evidence base that teacher-pupil relationships are key to good pupil behaviour and that these relationships can affect pupil effort and academic attainment” (Improving Behaviour in Schools: EEF p. 10)

What motivates your children – both in school and out of school?  What affects their confidence?  What is their favourite book/sport/colour?  Be interested!   I like to do an ‘All About Me’ book on the first day of a new school year.  On the surface it is a book with a page about each child but, in reality, it gives me an insight into their lives.  ‘Draw a picture of your family’ may seem like a simple task, but this often opens the door for conversations about who lives where, and how often they see the various members of their family.  This means that, when a child says, “I’m going to my dad’s tonight”, I understand the enormity of that statement for that particular child and the possible emotional impact in the build-up to, or following, that visit. 

I also make it a point to find out when each child's birthday is so I can wish them a happy birthday.  I get everyone in my class a birthday card and write a little message in there, to let them know that they are cared for and thought about.  (Most supermarkets do a great range of budget birthday cards). Taking interest, showing care and kindness, having empathy for each child starts to create a culture of trust that is key in the learning process. We know, from research about the brain, that trauma can have a significant impact on child development – cognitively and emotionally. Building trusting relationships with adults in school is paramount if we are to help them progress through Maslow's levels to self-actualisation.

Building positive relationships and creating that trust begins with these initial interactions with children and is vitally important. However, it can sometimes be hard - especially with children who present challenging behaviour. They need to know that you are 'on their side', that this year is perhaps 'a fresh start, a clean page'.  That is not to say that we do not have high expectations, boundaries and routines. But consideration of the language we use can have a huge impact on how children respond to these. Using positive phrasing can be a genuine motivator for children. For example instead of “Stop talking!” etc, I find it helpful to rephrase it as, “I'm looking to see who is ready to learn”.  'Catching them being good' is so important, acknowledging and praising the behaviours you want to see. For example, "I can see Bobby is ready to listen to me – that shows good learning,' not only makes that child feel valued but encourages other children to behave in the same way. In fact, using positive, specific praise has the potential to increase on task behaviour significantly.

“Over the two-month study, pupils increased their on-task behaviour by an average of 12 minutes per hour (or an hour per day), while pupils in similar comparison classes did not change their behaviour. This study implies that teachers with disruptive classes could benefit from increasing their positive interactions with pupils.”        (Improving Behaviour in Schools: EEF p. 27)

Carol Dweck (a professor at Stanford University) led a study about praise, looking at the differing impacts of praising achievement vs effort.  All children in the experiment (400 students from across the USA) were given a very simple IQ test.  Half the children who took the test were praised for their intelligence e.g. ‘You must be really smart’.  The other half were praised for their effort ‘You must have worked really hard at this’.   This seems a subtle difference, but the impact of these subtleties was incredible. All children were told that they had to take another test but this time they were given an option of a) A harder test – a greater opportunity to learn and grow; or b) An easy test – you will surely do well on this one.  The results?  67% of the children who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier test whereas 92% of the children who were praised for their effort chose the harder test.  An incredible difference, I’m sure that you’ll agree. 

Dweck goes on to conclude that the “The child (praised for intelligence) hears ‘Oh you think I’m brilliant and talented.  That’s why you admire me…I'd better not do anything that will disprove this evaluation”.  As a result, Dweck says that these children are likely to “enter a fixed mindset, they play it safe in the future and they limit the growth of their talent.”  In contrast to this, focussing on the effort that you put in and the chance to grow ‘they don’t feel that if they make a mistake that you won’t think that they are talented. Instead, these children think ‘if I don’t take on hard things and stick to them, I’m not going to grow.’  This is a strong indicator of the type of feedback we need to be giving to our children whether verbal or written and where, as adults in the classroom, we should focus our praise. (

Another aspect of developing a culture for learning is to use the language of 'learning' rather than 'doing'. I endeavour to be a facilitator of learning – teaching children to take responsibility for their own learning - often through open-ended questions and learning activities.  Children are celebrated for their approaches to learning not just their successes in learning.  These subtle shifts help to change how the children feel about themselves as learners - which can only be beneficial in the future.

Sharing with the children how we learn is another key to creating an effective culture for learning. In fact, the EEF study into metacognition finds that metacognitive learning and self-regulation have the potential to add an additional 7 months progress a year ( .  For me, part of this process is sharing with the children the cognitive psychology about changing and growing their schemata and talking to the children about what makes a good learner, the behaviours that they will need to grow their learning and praising them for practising these behaviours.  Some schools attribute learning behaviours to animal characters (e.g., resilience = tortoise) or some schools create learning superheroes (resilience = The Hulk).  However this is approached, it needs to be consistent throughout school and the learning behaviours need to be explicitly taught.  It is then important to ‘catch' the children displaying these behaviours and draw their attention to this.  E.g. ‘I really like the way that you made a connection between x and y. Good learners make connections.’  ‘I could see that you struggled with this calculation at first but you kept on going and used your hundred square to help you – that shows resilience and learning choices.’

Colleagues in EYFS are very skillful in identifying and creating activities which promote the characteristics of effective learning but, so often, these types of learning opportunities are limited to the Early Years.

 Giving children regular opportunities to flex these learning muscles throughout school is key to them developing life-long learning behaviours and habits. (A future article will explore explicit teaching of learning behaviours more fully.)

Another key part of the 'settling in' process, is the establishment of expectations and routines.  This can range from where we put the scissors when we are finished with them, to where the hundred squares live, to how I expect a piece of work to be set out, to how we line up etc.  Showing the children explicitly how I want this to be done is vital, in my opinion, to the calm and smooth day to day running of the classroom.  Consistency, in my experience, is crucial, ensuring that my expectations are in line with other teachers in school and then sticking to them.  Forgetting to underline the date, or leaving a pen without its lid on, may seem inconsequential, however the children need to know that I expect these things to happen every time.  And that does not mean that I berate the child who has forgotten to do one of these things, it is a reminder and then a ‘Thank you’ for carrying out the required action. 

The DFE Guidance 'Behaviour in schools: Advice for headteachers and school staff' states,

'Routines should be used to teach and reinforce the behaviours expected of all pupils. Repeated practices promote the values of the school, positive behavioural norms, and certainty on the consequences of unacceptable behaviour.

Any aspect of behaviour expected from pupils should be made into a commonly understood routine, for example, entering class or clearing tables at lunchtime. These routines should be simple for everyone to understand and follow.'

Consistency and predictability are often cited as crucial for developing positive behaviour for learning, however, the DFE guidance also recognises that,

' Adjustments can be made to routines for pupils with additional needs, where appropriate and reasonable, to ensure all pupils can meet behavioural expectations.'  (p. 11 points 20-21)

In Paul Dix’s book “When Adults Change, Everything Changes", he quotes Haim Ginott (a school teacher, a child psychologist, a psychotherapist and a parent educator) who says,

 “I have come to the frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in the classroom”. 

In my opinion, no truer word has been spoken.  We are so often the masters of our own destinies and influencers of those of the children in our classes.  Our expectations; the relationships we build; the models we present; the routines we establish; the language we use; the ways in which we act, and react, impact hugely on the learning culture within our classrooms and, ultimately, on the learning and progress of the children in our classes. This is the time to be 'investing' in all of the above to ensure a happy classroom culture for learning is established and maintained throughout the academic year.

Remembering more means knowing more

June 2023

Mandy Pedder, Teaching and Learning Consultant

Everything we commit to memory must be retrieved to be used. We store and retrieve information in long term memory all the time to complete everyday tasks from which cupboard the cereal is stored in to taking a particular route to work or the shops.

We all know that the more we recall something from long term memory the more likely it is to stick, and we remember it more clearly and in more detail. For example, the more often we recall our mobile numbers will mean, eventually, we will be able to do this without even thinking about it. The more embedded knowledge children have, the better chance they will have of 'connecting' new information to it – thus deepening learning

There are many different activities that can be used in school to support children with recalling information already learnt. The more often the information is recalled the stronger those connections become and the easier it is to recall.

Regular opportunities to retrieve information is one example of how we can support children in school to remember more.

Retrieval activities do not need to take much planning time and can be practised in short time frames at different points during the day, and in different locations.

They could be anything from short verbal quizzes while waiting to go into assembly, on the bus to swimming, waiting to go home at the end of the day etc, to quizzes done using apps such as Kahoot, written quizzes, paired quizzes using knowledge organisers (for example, children devising questions to test their partner), to fun approaches such as the ideas given in Retrieval Practice- Research and Resources for every classroom by Kate Jones.

Retrieval works by providing cues to the children to trigger a memory so that they can recall it to support their learning. Retrieval is used to recall information stored in long term memory , bringing it to the forefront so that new information or knowledge can be built on this existing knowledge. Research makes it clear that new information built on existing knowledge helps us to make those vital connections and enhances our understanding, thus facilitating remembering more of what we have learnt.

Flashcards is an easy and popular strategy for triggering memories for a whole range of knowledge from phonics to science vocabulary to places learnt about in geography.

Using graphic organisers to trigger memories and to support the arranging of this information, helps the brain retrieve the information and then make visual links.

Here a couple of my favourite retrieval activities.
1) Picture prompts
(Pupils write everything they can remember in the right-hand column, associated with the picture from the recent topic)
Activity 1

2) Find someone who…
Pupils move around the classroom finding somebody who can contribute an answer to their sheet

Great Teaching Activity 2

All retrieval activities support children being able to recall information so that they can connect it to new learning. It is very important that, when recalling any information, we always go through the answers with the pupils so that they have the opportunity to correct any errors or misconceptions or fill in any blanks so that they can be more successful when they repeat the activity. Repeating a particular activity will show the teacher and the pupils that each time they are able to remember more.


How Firm are your Foundations for Great Teaching? Spring 2023

Steph Johnson, Primary Teaching and Learning Consultant

"The evidence tells us that high quality teaching is the most important factor when it comes to improving attainment outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged pupils." (EEF, 2022)

We are all aware of the above, and it comes as no surprise, but in the midst of our, often frenetic, drive to 'close the gaps' and 'improve outcomes' in reading, writing, mathematics, science, history etc, how often do we stop and examine the basics of pedagogical practice; whether they are fully understood and how they are impacting, or have the potential to impact, on learning and outcomes? 

The Ofsted Inspection Framework Overview of Research references three types of knowledge essential for teachers.

"These three types of essential knowledge are known as content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge can be defined as teachers’ knowledge of the subject they are teaching, pedagogical knowledge as teachers’ knowledge of effective teaching methods, and pedagogical content knowledge as teachers’ knowledge of how to teach the particular subject or topic." (Ofsted, 2019)

When school assessment and data highlight an area for development, subject CPD is often booked and delivered and so 'content knowledge' and 'pedagogical content knowledge' are, quite rightly, addressed. However, how much impact will this CPD actually have if 'pedagogical knowledge' is missing?

Recently, there has been a higher profile of findings from cognitive science such as 'Rosenshine's Principle of Instruction' and increased awareness of the potential impact of metacognitive teaching and learning, but are basic pedagogical principles understood by all teachers? Are they applied to planning and practice and, most importantly, are they having a positive impact on learning and outcomes?

In 1968, the American psychologist David Ausubel wrote an article in which he said "the most influential factor for learning new things is what the learner already knows. In other words: prior knowledge." (Kirschner and Neelan, 2019)

In 2017, British educationalist Dylan Wiliam stated John Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory is, "the single most important thing for teachers to know' (Wiliam 2017). 

These are examples of pedagogical practice (assessment of prior knowledge) and theory (Cognitive Load Theory) which can have a huge impact on the learning within a lesson, and over a sequence of lessons. However, there are often lessons where, despite a great deal of time spent on planning, learning is not securely based on what children already know, or there is too much extraneous cognitive load, thus impacting on the depth of learning encoded from working to long term memory.

These are just two examples of how lack of understanding regarding pedagogical practice can impact on overall learning. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on the following questions:
•    What does pedagogy mean to you?
•     How does your understanding of Cognitive Load Theory, development of schemata, metacognition, Rosenshine's Principle of Instruction etc impact on day-to-day teaching and learning in your class/classes?"

Following the COVID pandemic, many schools made the conscious decision to re-focus on what great teaching 'looks like'. To address this, the Great Teaching Team put on a series of courses and produced an audit tool for Reflecting on Classroom Practice, both of which were positively received. However, these will only have limited impact unless there is strategic implementation, evaluation of impact and follow up.

With this in mind, the Great Teaching Course Programme for next year will be different. Following feedback from a number of schools who have used the audit tool strategically to address training needs within their setting, the Great Teaching course offer will be as follows:
•    A programme of courses aimed at school SLTs. Schools are encouraged to commit to the programme with the Headteacher, or Deputy Headteacher, attending with another key member of staff (ideally a Teaching and Learning or Curriculum Lead). Places will be on a BOGOF basis to enable two members of staff to attend for the price of one. Previous experience has shown this to be a positive approach to driving forward school improvement.
•    Following an audit to reflect on current classroom practice, schools will identify two or three areas for development and can choose from a 'menu' of relevant courses to attend as part of the package. They will be given presentations from these to use back in school to drive improvement
•    For class teachers, there will be a selection of 'bitesize' one hour, online, training sessions available.
•    In addition, there will also be a termly network meeting for Teaching and Learning/Curriculum Leads which will focus on non-subject specific pedagogical content which impacts on all areas of learning.

Further details of the above will be released in due course.

Feedback from Headteachers, and discussions during training and support sessions with experienced colleagues and early career teachers, has highlighted gaps in understanding and application of pedagogical content knowledge. Addressing these gaps with CPD and practical applications over a "sustained period to drive meaningful change in their setting" (EEF, 2022) will surely help to ensure firm foundations are in place for Great Teaching to happen across the curriculum.

" The Reflecting on Classroom Practice, Developing Quality First Teaching was fantastic. After twelve months of focussing on curriculum sequencing, catch up and recovery intervention, it was so refreshing to reflect on evidence-based research and to be reminded that the best catch-up is simply quality first teaching. The course was so informative and made me reflect on the strategies that really make a difference to learning (and those that don't), and to refocus, following such a challenging time in education. I left with a clear short, medium and long term action plan to further improve teaching and learning in my school. The presenters were highly skilled and knowledgeable and facilitated the course brilliantly - the amount of content covered in one day was incredible. A great course and a must for any teacher, regardless of experience levels."  Gareth Caunce, Headteacher - Euxton Primrose Hill Primary School

EEF (2022) Moving forwards, making a difference: A planning guide for schools 2022–23 

Ofsted (2019) The Ofsted Inspection Framework Overview of Research

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (2019) What we already know determines what, how and how well we learn