Child-centred teaching: when did it all begin?

Almost three years ago, I wrote a book entitled Progressively Worse. The first half of the book is a history of teaching methods from the 1960s to today. My thesis was that the spread of progressive education was one reason why the increases in expenditure on education over the past half-century has been met with (as far as we can tell) no improvement in pupil outcomes.

I defined progressive education as the application of individual freedom and an aversion towards adult authority to the realm of children’s education.

Many people took issue with the book’s argument, normally for one of two reasons. Either they argued progressive education is not as damaging as I claimed, or that progressive education has not come to dominate British schools since the 1960s in the way I described.

That second accusation was always far harder to counteract. Progressive education is a culture, and culture is notoriously difficult for a historian to evidence or measure. That is until the arrival of Google Ngrams Viewer.

Google Ngram Viewer is an online search engine that charts the frequency of words or phrases in an enormous corpus of printed material from 1500 to 2000. In a couple of clicks, you can chart the popularity or genealogy of a word or idea through five centuries – an astonishing historical tool. I have lost many an hour to playing around on it.

I wish that I had known about this tool when writing Progressively Worse. A simple Ngram search demonstrates the rise and rise of references to child-centred teaching methods in Britain since the mid-1960s .

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-18-34-13By way of comparison, look at the steady decline since the mid-1960s in references to the rather more traditional practice of ‘learning by heart’.


Of course, an increase in written references to child-centred teaching methods does not necessarily mean an increase in their use in the classroom. But it takes quite some leap of imagination to believe that the increased popularity evident in the Ngram Viewer had no impact on how children were taught over the past few decades.

In years to come, perhaps the mid 2010s will be seen as another turning point, when references to ‘active learning’, ‘independent learning’ and ‘learning styles’ began their gradual decline.

Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 2: Writing

“The amount and quality of writing students do in your classroom are two of the most important determinants of their academic success.… By having students write more, we cause them to push their ideas from vague notion (developing idea) to complete thought.”

Doug Lemov

Over the summer holidays, I read Chapter 8 of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion – ‘Building ratio through writing’. It was a revelation. Coming back to the classroom after a year away, I knew that the aspect of my practice I most wanted to improve was pupils’ extended writing.

I teach history, so pupils had always written a lot during my lessons. But the writing tasks tended to be a bit of an afterthought, and were too varied and ill thought through. A historical explanation here, a bit of source analysis there, maybe a ‘historical empathy’ task to mix things up: ‘Imagine you were an Anglo-Saxon monk in Lindisfarne in 793 AD…’

This was not good enough. The ability to communicate in written prose about the past in a way that is clear, coherent and informed is one of the most important pupil outcomes that I want to achieve from Key Stage 3 history. To make this happen, I was going to need to think much harder about writing lessons.

Over the summer, I talked to Jonny Porter from Michaela Community School about what ‘deliberate practice’ means for secondary humanities subjects. This was my second revelation. Jonny made me realise that if an essay is the final outcome of a unit of work, then each shorter writing task should be a building block towards that.

Each KS3 history unit that we plan at WLFS now has the same structure: alternating reading lessons and writing lessons for around five weeks, followed by planning and writing an essay during the last week of term (see here). Having decided the final essay question, we plan backwards to ensure the writing lessons provide the necessary building blocks for pupils to complete the final essay.

In addition, I try to ensure that each writing task is reasonably similar. This means that when I deliver whole class feedback on the previous week’s works, pupils can act upon suggested improvements immediately in that week’s work.

For example, the final essay for the Year 8 ‘Age of Encounters’ unit (see here) was: ‘To what extent did Italy lead the European Age of Encounters?’. Pupils had four writing lessons leading up to it, during which they planned and wrote answers to the following questions:

  • Lesson 2: ‘Why did the Renaissance begin in Italy during the fifteenth century?’
  • Lesson 4: ‘What posed a greater threat to the authority of the Catholic Church: Galileo or the printing press?’
  • Lesson 6: ‘Why was Vasco de Gama’s first voyage to India in 1499 a turning point in European history?’
  • Lesson 8: ‘Was Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America the most significant achievement of Renaissance Europe?’

When it comes to teaching writing lessons, I am still feeling my way. My current approach is a big improvement, but it is far from the finished product. As they currently stand, the general structure for these lessons is:

  • 10 minutes: recap on content from the preceeding reading lesson.
  • 15 minutes: explain the question, and discuss ideas as a whole class (perhaps doing some planning with a spider diagram, or a ‘for/against’ chart). Lemov calls this ‘Prime the Pump’.
  • 5 minutes: whole-class feedback on previous week’s written work.
  • 25 minutes: write.

Leaving 25 clear minutes at the end of the lesson for writing is always a struggle. Often it becomes more like 15, so I have to be vigilant with myself not to let the recap, discussion, planning and feedback go on too long.

I find the biggest challenge in getting writing lessons right is striking the correct balance between guidance and autonomy: too much autonomy and pupils flounder and write low-quality prose; too much guidance, and pupils do not think for themselves, writing stilted, mechanistic prose (‘My evidence for this point is…’).

Having experimented with a lot of different approaches, I put together the following slide at the end of last term. We are now using variations of it for every writing lesson.


A bad opening sentence can throw a whole paragraph off course, so I am happy to offer guidance here. Pupils pitch ideas about how to finish the sentence on the slide. In this case, something like ‘…its city states had wealthy patrons who could sponsor artists and thinkers’ would do nicely. For the rest of the paragraph pupils write freely, but have to include as many of the keywords on the slide as possible.

The instructions on the right had side of the slide will stay broadly the same from lesson to lesson. This means that every writing lesson reinforces for pupils what the WLFS history department deem to be the components of a good paragraph (though your thoughts may be very different – suggestions for improvements are very welcome!).

I now use the phrase ‘detailed explanation’ to describe the meat of the paragraph, instead of the Evidence-Explain of the classic P.E.E structure. So often in history, the only way to explain evidence is by providing further evidence. Therefore, telling pupils that evidence and explanation are separate parts of the paragraph does not – I believe – encourage good historical writing.

Below, I have posted some examples of pupil work from the ‘Age of Encounters’ unit. Reading pupils’ written work after a lesson always gives me both bursts of joy and pangs of despair. But I hope that as our guidance on good historical writing becomes clearer and more consistent, pupils’ written work will keep on improving.

In my next post on marking, assessment and feedback, I will explain how we: weave quizzing throughout the unit; give revision and reading homeworks; plan for the final essay; and use whole-class feedback to ensure that the quality of written work in lessons remains high.