Drills, skills and being match-fit.

Total footballing flair starts with drills..
Total footballing flair starts with drills..

This term I’ve been thinking a lot about how well I’m teaching in terms of ensuring my students have clear solid foundations of concrete knowledge alongside the ability to cope with complex problems, to work things out for themselves and to show some flair.

A number of things have influenced my thinking on this issue:

The debate about knowledge and skills.  I’ve had lots of discussions about this, engaged with the Daisy Christodoulou ‘Myths’ as in this review post, and reflected a lot about whether I should engage in more direct transmission modes.  I feel that sometimes, whilst I deliver engaging lessons that fuel curiosity and allow for exploration and thinking, I need to cut to the chase more quickly…tell them the key points, nail down the facts, give it to them straight. It’s a balance.. I’m not sure I’ve had it quite right.

Some superb blog posts:

This fabulous series by David Didau:  Teaching Sequence for Developing Independence: Practice

The most recent post by Alex Quigley: Beyond Constructivism versus Direct Instruction

My last set of A level results. I wrote here about my search for answers after some disappointments in August required a bit of a postmortem. My conclusion is that I allowed too high a level of unresolved confusion to persist without cutting through for some students.  Also I didn’t secure enough deep level understanding in some areas, allowing students’ self-confidence and breeziness to mask the reality of some underlying weaknesses.

Final tactical briefing and words of encouragement from the coach before kick-off...
Final tactical briefing and words of encouragement from the coach before kick-off…

Watching my son play football. I’ve been a weekend touchline Dad for five years now. There’s no doubt that my son’s team has improved hugely over the years – but they haven’t done so by just playing the game more and more.  They’ve practiced.  In recent years, they’ve started training midweek and the impact has been huge.  My son devotes hours to kicking a ball around, twisting, turning, trapping, shooting.. and he’s pretty good now.  The training aspect gives them confidence in the game situation.

Trying to learn to play xbox FIFA14.  Basically I can’t do it. But I realise that this is because I’m always overwhelmed by the number of controls.  My son has done all the drills.. he knows that Y means a through-ball and how to sprint and slide tackle.  He’s internalised that and does these things reflexively. I have to think about every movement and it just doesn’t work.  Yesterday, to give me a chance, I was Barcelona, he was Gillingham; I was 3-0 down at half time and stormed off in a sulk.   I’m not up for the match situation.. my basic skills aren’t good enough.

Observing lessons at KEGS.  I’ve noticed that in several subject areas, there is a pattern of learning from Y7 to Y13 that pays dividends, taking students from tight drill-like scenarios to more open, synoptic work as they move through the school.

Y7 Geographers learn to plot precise graphs; accuracy is paramount. They get given set-piece diagrams of water and rock cycles to learn; they are shown exactly how to read maps and how to measure rainfall and temperature.   By Y13 they are planning how to save Shrewsbury from flooding by reading geology maps, weather maps, town plans and various other sources of information, working within a budget.  They have  enormous scope but strong basic knowledge and skills that they rely on to inform their decisions.

In DT in Year 7, they all make the same things.  They learn how to use all the tools, to develop the skills, to be precise in their measurements, to make things work and to make them look good. By Y11 and beyond they are using these skills creatively to make go-carts, desks, guitars, elaborate games tables and cabinets, using wood, metal and plastic in all kinds of ways.  But in Year 7 – it might seem that they’re confined and not allowed to be creative.  Over time, the creativity emerges from a strong skill base.

In Art, the journey is the same… students start off working within quite tightly defined projects, developing more and more skills, experiencing more approaches and more media… so that in the Sixth Form, they’re doing what ever they like but with an underpinning of real artistic skill.  It’s an explosion of creativity based on solid, rigorous foundations. The early years of skill development and tight focus pay off in the long run.

On the other hand, there is a different trend in other areas as exam preparation kicks in.  In some areas – say History, Politics, Economics and English, it seems to me that teachers have an almighty task to rein-in the expansive complexity and scope of the subject matter so that students can write coherently – and secure appropriate credit under exam conditions.  These subjects are unconfined in many respects and essay writing is massively open-ended – there are so many ideas and possibilities to grapple with.  The task is to isolate elements, to find order within that expansiveness so that students have scope for defined practice – like the FIFA14 analogy.

Here’s another image that captures this well for me:

A cloud  - wide-ranging complex ideas; made up of interlocking definable elements.
A cloud – wide-ranging complex ideas; made up of interlocking definable elements.

This is where I am with Physics.  Sometimes I’ve been too focused on the cloud – the awe-inspiring big picture. I haven’t been focused enough on the bits and pieces.  My current mission is to find those skills and drills – the bits of the puzzle – that have the greatest impact. I want my students to have the confidence to go into any exam (the match situation) more secure in their instincts, their reflexive responses when faced with difficult, surprising questions, instead of being fuzzy and unsure when the crunch comes.

Back to the football analogy, at the same time as looking to practice more of the component skills,  I know that my students need to be match-fit.  They need opportunities to play the game – to put the skills into use and see how it all fits together.  It’s another balance to strike.

It seems that this could be a theme for others too.

  • Do you know what the component skills and drills are that make the biggest impact in your subject? Do you know how to structure the expansive cloud of ideas into components that fit together?
  • Do you have the phasing right from tight to loose as students develop?
  • Do your students have too much or too little ‘match practice’?

I’m still working on it.  More defined practice; less unstructured expansive open-endedness…but still an exciting big picture where it all comes together majestically.  Like the Muswell Hill Vipers U12s on a really good day!


  1. True…I am a cyclist and constantly talk about the fact that the Alpe D’Huez isn’t won on the day but in the months of work beforehand. I show them YouTube clips of just how hard a mountain stage of the Tour actually looks like. English, my subject, can seem overwhelming as it all seems to be about skills which need to become second nature. Switching metaphors, it is like driving – months of stalling, not finding the biting point and swerving wildly in the road reversing round corners til eventually it can just be done instinctively. The test allowing you to show out each skill before moving on to the next. Thanks for the posts, continual food for thought.


  2. Speaking as an Economics teacher I believe you have summarised the balance required perfectly. For me it is about key concepts which build, and build, and build etc etc

    For me, identifying the key concepts, the links and the order of delivery is the most important part of teaching.

    Great blogpost. Thank you


  3. Tom,

    We in the English Department at KEGS could provide a score of examples of strategies we try to use (as could all school Departments) – to refine and reject, so as to aim to resolve the creative tensions you have written very clearly and honestly about. Our face-to-faces dialogue yesterday at our Department meeting involved some very sharp team thinking about this with respect to Year 13 Pre-U teaching – hence my encouragement to the team to read these, your most recently blogged thoughts – I liked the cloud-jigsaw diagram – and am trying to think of a literary / intellectual history equivalent… with the micro – macrocosm idea, perhaps? Obviously, within teams there will be different emphases – some of my colleagues veer towards the methodical – others are more boldly experimental – but it will depend on the scheme-of-work, the group, the age – the time of day!

    Yes, maybe the “essay/reading/writing” subjects you mention perhaps have the greatest challenges as per your dilemmas – but this is the joy of teaching – always striving “beyond the present and the particular”, in dialogue with the past – also with one’s eyes on the horizon – yet needing to shape the vision into practical strategies (the flair galvanised by frequent drills, the passion tempered by sharp and precise direction, the “big-picture” rooted in real practical steps).

    Think of a Shakespeare play – with all the passions being experienced – as also any Opera – piece of music – or any painting – and then think of the artful designs / planning devoted to these and their structuring by their creators. Are these – and their creative, created and actual/factual/real-world equivalents across all disciplines – helpful metaphors for us as educators? You will be able to use infographics to compose such a cross-disciplinary image – a challenge for all headteachers!

    It is obviously the same with Leadership of course, as per your recent series – I think of the commonly-used architect/draughtsman conundrum – other metaphors will come to mind.


  4. Drills and skills have always been an important aspect of teaching Mathematics although it did go out of fashion at primary stage for a while. Given the research and development projects I see being funded basics are back on the agenda.The passion in maths is to make this drill interesting and engaging through games and competition and making the subject accessible to all. I believe that the most important issue after the teacher identifying the skills is to give high quality feedback so that the student knows what skills are required.


  5. I hear what you are saying about history but they too can be unpicked. One requires the knowledge before doing any essay writing – without it there is no point. Also concepts should as compare, contrast, evidence, reliability, etc can be taught and drilled in as second nature to question and discuss. There is also the need to know both sides of the argument and evaluate the evidence appropriately to be able to form a conclusion. While the essays may be open ended they do require you to follow a logical sequence and means of expressing points. Discussing the strengths and weakness of different positions. It was my knowledge and understanding of the facts and being apply the skills of essay writing which enabled me to do well in history.


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