Using Design Principles in Professional Development

‘Inquiry’ (or enquiry in British English), is up front and centre in IB schools. This is a way of teaching adapted from the cyclical iterations used in science and design.

The cycle varies depending on who you ask but usually something like:-

Investigate, design, plan, create, evaluate, reflect and back again

At the moment, I am studying an online course into designing educational games. The lesson we are up to now is ‘iterating’ our design. As in, we made a game, we play tested it and now we are making a new version based on the feedback from the play test.

What struck me is how this is the exact same process I use as a teacher. In my very first teaching practice, I was lucky enough to be assigned two Y7 classes who were doing the same topic. This gave me a great insight into the value of testing ideas out a few times. Maybe 7A thought the activity was confusing but 7W thought it was great.

As I qualified and started working in a variety of challenging schools, I found the greatest barrier to trying new things was if the novel activity fell flat the first few times.

How many times can you try some new technique before you can say “nope, this doesn’t work for me” or “nope, this isn’t right for my class(es)”? If you work in challenging classrooms, it is so critical to have a run of good lessons, so that your classes trust you and get into good routines. If you have a handful of mediocre or even bad lessons because a technique isn’t working for you, you are risking your entire year with that class (and indeed, career).

It is not worth it.

Many teachers in this situation will only add new things to their repertoire if forced.

The typical situation is that their school’s leadership team books outside professional development and then writes a school policy that everyone has to do that new thing from now on. If it falls flat the first couple of times, all the technique does is create friction. Teachers get really good at pretending they are doing it, especially during observations but basically leave it to one side. And techniques they aren’t being forced to use? Unless they worked the first time, they are not going to try them ever again.

There is a better way.


Teachers find out about new methods. Maybe they could look into what works best or discuss with/observe colleagues.


The teachers work together to design a lesson incorporating the new technique.


Then the individual teacher plans to adapt the design for their intended class.


The teacher delivers the lesson to the class.


In the first stages, this involves figuring out what went well and what could be improved before the teacher goes back to the ‘plan’ phase and goes back to the drawing board a little bit. There is always something that can be changed in the next iteration based on feedback. Then they try again a few times. Maybe with more than one class.


The teachers get back together to discuss how it went, what they found out and what they will do in future.

In my recent own practice, I’ve had to make do with squashing the Design & Plan phases together, and Evaluate & Reflect too. I really want to have other teachers to bounce ideas off of but right now, I’m leaning heavily on social media for those interactions.

I think this is because how personal teaching is. I have had discussions about teaching with other teachers that spiral into defensiveness and ad hoc urination tournaments. None of us want to believe that we have been doing it wrong or have been expending effort on useless stuff.

What’s funny is that this same tension plays out in our classrooms. Our students would get so much better if they would give and take peer feedback. They would improve enormously if they took our feedback on board. And yet, they don’t always. For a sizeable number of students it is because having something to improve is such a threat to their ego that they won’t listen to feedback. A prime example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

I wonder if classrooms where students are more relaxed about making mistakes make more progress because their teacher is more relaxed about learning from their mistakes too.

Aside:- According to Hattie’s meta-analysis, ‘inquiry’ has an effect size of 0.3. So, it doesn’t do any harm but then again, it’s not really doing that much good. Compare/contrast with ‘direct instruction’ and the effect size of 0.69

I have thought about this a lot. I think this is because ‘inquiry’ can be taken to mean “do not answer any student questions: make them work it all out themselves” or “do not teach any sort of content under any circumstances”. I think this method has its place but students need a conceptual base in order to inquire into something.

In other words, ‘direct instruction’ in the ‘investigate’ and ‘evaluate’ phase of the inquiry cycle is probably what students need. Someone needs to give this method a name so it can be studied separately.


Getting Feedback

Teachers are used to thinking of ‘feedback’ as something the teacher gives to the student. The red scrawled ‘see me!’ and the check list rubric alike. More powerful than any of those is the feedback students give to their teacher.

With the right feedback, teachers can plan their activities for the current needs of their students. Without it, you can only give them tasks that are aimed at the average for their grade level. This is only going to work for some of them.

How can we get more feedback?

Exit tickets

Here is an exit ticket file. I like to use these every now and then to see how things are going.
Not only do I get feedback about what they have learned and how they feel, I get feedback about how self-aware they are. I get a lot of “What I might need more help with: EVERYTHING/NOTHING!” at the start but they get more specific as they mature and get used to the process.

Reflection sheets

I work in an IB school and a major part of the International Baccalaureate is reflection. At the end of the unit, we had a final assessment reflection cover sheet which I have adapted a little as an experiment.

At first, I asked questions that got a lot of “I’m not sure what you mean by that” responses. Now I am asking things like “What can you do to get better at learning” and “What does [this concept] mean to you when used about the topic we just studied” and I am getting some interesting feedback.

Again, I’m also getting great feedback about how my students’ self-awareness is developing.

Kahoot! (and other quizzes)

If I can make a game out of giving or receiving feedback, I am all for it. The beauty of Kahoot is that you get feedback from everyone and they are motivated by having fun.
Getting them to write quizzes gives you twice the insight: first into the questioners understanding and then into the class’.

Randomised Questioning

If you want to know what students really understand, ask the question, wait a few seconds and then draw a name at random. You can write their names on index card or lolly sticks, you can make a looping powerpoint presentation with student names on the slides, you can spin around in a circle, you can close your eyes and jab your finger at the register. However you do it, if you take a large enough sample, you get to know how students are doing. By waiting for volunteers, you get a self-selecting sample of keen students and by picking students yourself, you choose ones you either want to use the question as an opportunity to remind them to focus or ones you know know the answers so you can move on to the next bit.

Make students ask questions

At the start of the unit- ask them to write questions they have about the topic for homework. You will get to see how much they already know and what they are interested in.
In the middle and the end of the unit- ask them to write quizzes or make games that test the content and concepts. You get to see a lot about their understanding by how they apply it.

Get creative

One eye opening technique is to ask students to change the words of a song to explain a concept. You get to see a LOT about how much they understand. There’s something about having to force an explanation into a rhyming scheme that makes a person have to show what they really know.

In preparation for a lesson where my students had to convert “Take me to church” into a song about ionic bonding in salts, I watched an enormous number of ionic bonding songs. Interestingly, most of the student written ones started with a verse about “if you want to pass a test then…” and the teacher written ones started with stuff about electrons. My students were fixated on the neutralisation reaction from which salts can be formed.

Get social

Open up a classroom wiki or similar. Set tasks for them to submit comments on their peers’ work. Set tasks for them to write their questions in the forum and answer each other.
These social opportunities give you a big insight into their communication and social skills, as well as their academic performance.

Success Criteria Pitfalls

I have been experimenting with giving a check list of success criteria at the start of the unit and for the major assessments. There are a couple of things I need to look out for, to make the most of these tools.

Self awareness is necessary

At the start of several my new units, I introduced the success criteria based on what they will be assessed on.

Metal extraction success criteria
At the start of the year, I introduced the success criteria based on content I wanted them to learn.
Ice age success criteria
Both have their own advantages and disadvantages and I’m not sure which I like best. Maybe a combination of the two would be ideal.

One disadvantage they both share is that only self-aware students can get anything out of them. Some students think they haven’t learned anything (usually out of a desire to get something perfect) and some students think they can already do everything (even when they just can’t). The solution is to have a column inviting students to prove it but who has time for that?

Students do not read the whole thing before they get started

Here is a worksheet I recently made to guide my students (13-14 years old) in writing a report about the science of house design.

heat worksheet

What I have found is that many students asked me “what do you mean by factors?” and just had not read down to the list of topics (or understood that is what I meant). When I do this again, I’ll use the word ‘factors’ instead of ‘topics’. Even though we read this together as a class, what I wanted from them hadn’t gone in properly.

Some students think the criteria are questions

Related to the first pitfall, students say “I’ve done questions 1, 2 and 3, I won’t have space for the last two questions”…. but the last two criteria are “use scientific language” and “cite your references”

Not only aren’t they reading through the criteria before they start writing but they don’t realise they are not a set of questions like you might see in a textbook. In their paragraph about u-values, they need to describe and analyse. In all their paragraphs, they need to use scientific language.

What it means to be ‘successful’ is hard

Here’s another worksheet, it’s for 14-15 year olds but I have provided more structure because the concepts are trickier and I wanted to reduce cognitive load.

Copper extraction worksheet

I have tried my best to give my students everything they need to make a great report which allows them to achieve at the highest levels.

Yet, the language I have to use and the skills I want them to display are hard. This means that students who are not able to discuss and evaluate (for whatever reason), are only outlining or describing.

Maybe the worksheet needs to include all the possible levels of success but then the tick boxes become unwieldy and unreadable.


I wouldn’t be without them now. I tried them out as an experiment and have been refining the process for almost a whole year. They are very useful, not only in terms of setting up tasks but keeping students’ energy up during a unit.

What do you do to communicate what you want your students to learn? Do you have ways through these pitfalls?


Graphic Organisers and Success Criteria

Evidence about what works best in the classroom already exists. John Hattie did his meta analyses of the research and found a way to rank interventions and outside factors for their effect on students.

Almost everything in teaching ‘works’, the trick is finding things with the largest effect size. The interventions with the largest effect sizes are those that provide formative feedback to students.

One that I am trialling right now is graphic organisers. I downloaded the free version of SimpleMind, a mind mapping application and was won over so quickly that I upgraded to the pay version. I almost never upgrade to the pay version for this sort of program.

Now, when I start a new topic, I make a concept map of the ideas I want to teach in the unit and share that with students. They are not exhaustive: I hope students will add new concepts as we go (and join up concepts with lines). One weakness of this means that I necessarily have to introduce new vocabulary before the students have learned it. My best work-around is re-visiting the map frequently. The more they learn in the topic, the more familiar these words become. It’s like when you read a fantasy novel with a map at the front, you have no idea what Gondor is like or what’s so great about Riverrun but as you read, you can go back and look at the geography of the story.

Another use for this application is making keyword maps for my English learners. In these mind maps, I try to join the keywords I want my students to know into categories. Then they can find the definitions of the words either in target or home language (depending on their facility with English). I’m not sure about these as I am sure that learning words in context is more powerful than as a list (even a graphically presented one).

Another intervention with high effect sizes is the use of success criteria. I have to say, my experiences as a teacher in the UK put me off a little bit. The research showed that informing students what they are supposed to be learning helps them learn it. Nothing wrong with that. But this was interpreted as “Every teacher must write the learning objectives on the board every lesson, all students must copy them down (so that management can check up on the teacher during random exercise book checks) and if you don’t: you need competency procedures”

This is clearly the worst thing about teaching in the UK. A sensible idea is taken and warped into a tool that proves middle managers are doing something. And the ‘something’ is generating mindless paperwork for students.

My problem with having a new learning objective every lesson is that lessons don’t work like that. Sometimes you have the same learning objective for a few lessons in a row, sometimes you want it to be a mystery. Sometimes you want to differentiate your learning objectives (something some schools insist on, so the students are copying down three sentences and not just one). Sometimes, whisper it, sometimes you’re not sure where the students will want to go with a topic.

I had to rehabilitate myself a little. Teaching in Danish public schools allowed me to try not giving learning objectives or giving them at the start of a year. Now, I introduce them at the start of the topic and relate them to what I will be assessing at the end.

Each learning objective has a check box beside it and students have the opportunity to check it off as they go.

I am all for this. Anyone can sit through a double lesson and check off the learning objective from that day if they have ‘got’ it that lesson. The powerful part is having to check it off a few days later. Can you still remember how to explain thermal transfer? If you can’t now but you know you could the other day, then you know you have some homework to do. The students who do the best at school apparently are the ones who go over what they did in class when they get home. Either by reading their notes again or just thinking about it.

My favourite part of presenting a check list like this is the motivation it generates. My students go through the list on a regular basis and talk to each other about what they have retained. The responsibility is on them. Where it should be.

I also like to use success criteria when I set longer assignments. This helps students shape their work up against what I am looking for. It also makes grading the work much more simple: I can copy-paste my criteria and tick them off as I go.

Whether it will make a difference to the outcomes of my students remains to be seen but I have enjoyed the difference it has made to my lessons.

Using Quizzes to Elicit Alternative Concepts

There isn’t a week that goes by that a student doesn’t ask me “Can we do a Kahoot today?”

Kahoot! is a lovely website where you can author or find multiple choice quizzes. In a lesson, you display the question on the board while your students answer using a handheld device (usually their own phone, sometimes a tablet or laptop). When they have all answered (or the time runs out), the correct answer is displayed and the top five are named.

I like to use Kahoot quizzes before and after I teach a topic. ‘Before’ because knowing you do not know something motivates you to find it out and ‘after’ because the more chances you get to refresh your memories, the more likely you are to make lasting connections.

This format is very motivating and it’s very simple to get set up. So simple that some of my lessons are “Make your own Kahoot quiz” and we go over what makes a good multiple choice question and how to ask questions that test more than “did you memorise the same wiki as I did?”

Even if students do come up with questions that are a bit pants, it leads into some interesting discussions afterwards about what objective criteria there are for the quality of questions. And it gets teenagers asking questions.

Pre-teens are all about the questions but as young people mature, they become more self-conscious and this can lead to a sort of curiosity paralysis. They may still be interested in knowing how the world works but they are scared to ask and the less they ask, the more that curiosity atrophies.

Getting adolescents to ask questions is a key goal of mine, so I love this website.

Recently, I used it for something a bit different. I was refreshing my memory of ionic bonds ahead of teaching a topic and read about alternative conceptions of chemical bonds. I have to admit, I had to read it a few times because some of the alternative conceptions were my conceptions. One of the resources was a test to elicit alternative conceptions and I copied it onto Kahoot.

Before I even taught anything about ions, I was able to test my students and find out where they were. Then at the end of the topic, I was able to re-test. Kahoot lets you download a spreadsheet of how students answered and allows you to run an analysis of areas students need more practice. I split my questions into broad groups to see how their conceptual  understanding developed during the unit. I was able to see areas that they ‘got’ and areas we need to go over in a different way.

I have done the same for the topic of heat but we have only just started that unit, so there is nothing to analyse yet.

One problem with testing for alternative conceptions is that students start to second guess all their common-sense ideas about the world and begin to overthink. It’s an unfortunate side effect that you learn that it can’t be right because it makes sense to you. So, I tried to put in a few no-brainers in the quiz too.

I think I will be using the tool a lot more in future.