Book Review: Responsive Teaching by Harry Fletcher – Wood

This review forms part of my Reading Challenge 2018. For more reviews of books, see here.

This book begins with confusions and problems with AfL that have bothered teachers for a very long time. At only 160 or so pages long, it is deceivingly weighty in its claims about how these issues could be solved. Based on a large swathe of cognitive science and educational research, Harry has systematically analysed why these might occur, what strategies we’ve used in the past (and how they don’t work) and what we might be able to do about it.

He calls his model ‘Responsive Teaching’ and defines it as a focus on the principles of formative assessment, guided by cognitive science.

To outline and apply his ideas, he focuses on 6 ‘how’ questions in teaching that at some point, every educator will have asked:

  1. How can we plan a unit?
  2. How can we plan a lesson?
  3. How can we show students success?
  4. How can we tell what students are learning?
  5. How can we tell what students are thinking?
  6. How can we help students improve?

To answer these he has come up with principles and resources that could be used. I’ll go through each one briefly.

  1. How can we plan a unit?



Responsive teachers specify what students will know and be able to do in advance. They meticulously outline the core knowledge that will be covered. This means that the teacher can be confident of what their pupils will learn during that unit. This will naturally mean that the next unit can build on that knowledge and, in some ways, assume that pupils will have that knowledge in their long term memory as they move on.



Knowledge Organisers. Lots of bloggers have written at length about knowledge organisers. Whatever form they take, they should be used in a fairly uniform way: the teacher should base the rest of his planning on what knowledge has been put down in the organiser. That is what is essential. That is what should be taught. This knowledge will precede all other skills that might be developed throughout the topic.

  1. How can we plan a lesson?



Each lesson must on a single academic purpose. In other words, building on the knowledge organiser, each lesson must take a ‘small step’ forwards towards mastery of the content of that unit. Harry refers to Sweller’s cognitive load theory to illustrate this point. By moving slowly through the content, without any extraneous distractions, there is more chance that students will retain the knowledge they learn and be able to use it in the lessons to come.



Pick clear learning objectives or question prompts for lessons. Make sure these are achievable within one hour. Otherwise, the concept, knowledge or whatever the focus of the lesson is needs to be broken down into smaller bits.


  1. How can we show students success?



Share model work and help students identify what makes is awesome. This needs to be done upfront pretty early on in the unit. I agree with Harry here. Whenever I have begun a unit with a model my students have had a really clear idea of what I expect of them and where we are going. In the primary writing lesson particularly, I sense that students don’t always see the ‘big picture’ of the small steps that are being taken to get to a final piece of work. When they see a model (sometimes called a WAGOLL) and this is displayed on working walls, it gives students a sense of where they’re going.



Build up a bank of model work. A personal example of this is that I have begged, borrowed (and stolen) wonderful work from colleagues and photocopied them to keep for myself.


  1. How can we tell what students are learning?



Assess learning during the lesson at some point, or at least at the end of the lesson. For me, this means I ought to not let my students leave my classroom without me getting some sort of objective ‘gist’ of where their learning is at and how much progress they’ve made. This doesn’t mean a quick thumbs up if you feel confident. For me, based on Harry’s book, it means making sure I testmy pupils understanding of the content.



Design short tasks that encapsulate the lesson. Harry has written extensively about hinge questions and exit tickets. I think these are highly productive tools. Reflecting on my own teaching I think there are two key points to assess learning in a lesson. The first time is after teaching new content and students ‘having a go’. If pupils understand and can demonstrate that as objectively as possible through a hinge question or exit ticket, then they are probably ready to move on and work independently. This importantly separates out those who have understood the concept of the lesson and can begin to practice and those who need more time. This stops learners beginning independent work with misconceptions. The next time in a lesson is at the end. This means, as I’ve stated before, that as your students leave your classroom, you can be confident that they have learnt something new and they’re ready to move on, or, you will need to go over some aspect tomorrow or maybe even reteach the whole lesson.


  1. How can we tell what students are thinking?



Track student thinking, then adapt teaching to it. This is linked to the previous principle and resource. For me, this attempts to delve deeper than just knowing ‘what students have learned’ in the lesson, it tries to invade that mysterious space inside their heads to root out some of the thinking strategies they are using to come up with their answers.



In recent years things like Diagnostic Questions have facilitated this principle becoming a reality in teacher’s classrooms. Harry writes extensively about what he calls ‘hinge questions’ and how he has used them.


  1. How can we help students improve?



Don’t wait until you’ve got a pile of books to give feedback to pupils. Help them improve their work throughout the lesson. Or, at the very least, give them feedback as close to the time of doing their work as you possibly can. This principle is all about feedback and the way it is given. Harry points out how there are a plethora of ways that teachers can do this well and do this very badly. I really like the way he has tried to condense the way we can give meaningful feedback to our students into some interesting resources. He helpfully discusses the need for feedback to move beyond just improving the task (such as writing a leaflet), to improving their mastery of the subject and even helping them improve their ability to evaluate their own learning.



The resources in this section of Responsive Teaching are a little more theoretical. However there are two key resource points Harry makes that are worth noting:

Target feedback at the most productive aspect of pupil learning: this was one of the most powerful few pages for me in Harry’s book. He includes an excellent table that shows how our feedback for our student’s work ought to move beyond improving the task to deepening understanding of the subject and improving self-regulation. I don’t want to say anymore about this here. You just need to go and read his book.

Checklists for students: Give students checklists for their learning before they come to see a teacher to provide feedback. This means that students can be held accountable for ensuring they do what they can to make their work the best it can be. This means that when the teacher provides feedback, he is providing it only based on the most recent learning, or, the key idea that will help them make the most progress at that time.



Strengths of this book

As I mentioned in the beginning of this book review, it is a deceivingly weighty work through the principles and resources that it proposes. After reading, I have found myself having a far clearer understanding not only of the principles of Responsive Teaching, but also how I might be able to refine or completely revamp some of my classroom approaches. I love how the narrative shifts seamlessly between complex theory and practical application. For me, this is how books for teachers ought to always be. To be able to pack it all in to 180 pages is a definite winner.

What was also helpful was the books structure. It was crystal clear. It didn’t meander or go off on a tangent. It had a razor sharp focus on developing an understanding of how these problems and confusions in teaching might be solved. In this sense, I think he has given pretty good solutions to the issues too. Because of its structure, it enables the reader to dip in and out. I wouldn’t’ suggest reading it in this way but it if you have very little time then it is possible to do this.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Harry’s blog; it’s is well worth a look if you’ve got the time. This book is a must read, go buy it here.

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