The F word.
The skill…not the trick.

Photo by Vienna Reyes on Unsplash

When I first started teaching I was always looking for the next new thing: speed dating, clothes lines of quotations across the classroom, big paper displays, you name it, I tried it. The kids loved it, the lessons were fun and I was a ‘legend.’ The bloke in the classroom next door must have hated me, the noise and chaos of my classes while his were dutifully learning quotations and writing perfect paragraphs.

I look back on those days and wince.

I now realise I was looking for the trick when I should have been concentrating on the skill. I was too busy trying to be the keepy-uppy king when I should have been aiming to be Messi. It’s a hard pill to swallow that fun is relatively irrelevant to teaching, I’m not suggesting that lessons should be actively ‘un-fun’ just that it’s a nice by-product but it’s not the main point of us being in a classroom.

This was brought home to me once more last year with my Year 9 class. A bright bunch of boys who just weren’t producing the kinds of writing I had hoped for when I started with them. I kept telling them the paragraph is the unit of thought so why were theirs so basic. ‘I taught them it but they didn’t learn it!’ as the old adage goes.

I was fortunate that this coincided with the renewed interest for Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Like any good T&L SLE I keep up with twitter and the edusphere so I went back to the research and there it was – the skill, not the trick – PRACTICE.

As Tom Sherrington explains, the three stages of practice that are essential for success are:

  • Guide student practice
  • Obtain a high success rate
  • Independent practice

So we undertook constant practice every lesson. Starting with the ‘I, We, You’ model – I showed them a model I had written, we co-wrote an answer using the visualiser and then they wrote their own…over and again. And we didn’t stop until they got it right. Every lesson we would start, using a random name generator, by sharing our paragraphs under the visualiser, we would use green pens to redraft and we didn’t let go until they were happy. I can’t say these lessons were fun, but the boys were genuinely pleased with their efforts. They would stay behind after the lesson to show me how they had improved their paragraphs. Boys, staying behind. Something was clearly working.

The acid test was the end of term assessment. So far I had guided their practice and I was happy that we were seeing over 90% success in the classwork but could they do it by themselves? I don’t often enjoy marking but I couldn’t believe the quality of the work they had produced by themselves under exam conditions. They had moved from lazily applying a trick to embedding a skill which they could apply to a new context. Pretty much a definition of learning.

I must admit I was rather proud of myself for sticking with the process and labouring the point until we had the success rate that makes something stick. As their results showed it was worth it. Too often in the cut and thrust of the classroom working under time constraints and pressures to complete the scheme of work we feel we always have to move on, but without the time to practice we are only ever equipping them with a trick when they could be acquiring a skill for life.

Dan Jenkins is an SLE in the Agnus Dei Teaching School Alliance

Dan leads on T&L at St Thomas More School in Westcliff. Alliance SLEs have a number of days allocated each year for Alliance work. Please contact if you would like Dan to work with your school, check out his profile here. He is on Twitter as @dantjenks