Tight-Loose and the Folly of Prescriptive Lesson Structures.

Jeez. There are some serious control freaks out there!  And this is a problem. A big one.  I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this and it’s actually heartening to see so many united against the forces of control-freakery – but it’s still so utterly depressing to hear of teachers forced to comply with robotic regimes of one form or another.  Most recently I read of a teacher where everyone has to do 10 mins of quizzing at the start of every lesson. And a plenary at the end? A school-wide expectation.

Now, here’s the thing.  We’re professionals.  Teaching is a profession.  There’s a healthy debate but also reasonable consensus about the kinds of things teachers should do over time to secure learning.  There’s a teacher-researcher dialogue going on that’s better than ever before.  We’re getting better at blending ideas from cognitive science with the reality of managing complex classrooms.  Happily, we’re also human, with a fabulous range of values, personalities and ideas.  In an intelligent school, these things are understood and held in balance.

Teachers’ behaviours are influenced by many things;

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 10.01.34
Evidence-informed wisdom has many influences.

Being ‘evidence-informed’ means that you have wisdom that blends your direct experience of teaching with ideas from other sources – including, hopefully, from research.   Compliance can be an important contributing influence… there is place for it and some people need more structure than others in order to excel.


Tight-Loose is a useful leadership paradigm.  Sometimes you get the best out of people when they operate within a tight framework. This is especially true with people with less experience or teaching outside a specialism.  I certainly benefitted from teaching in a tight regime in my first three years of teaching in a successful physics A level department.  I learned from experts.  It was a gift of structure that I valued enormously.  By contrast, my first two years in an inner-London comp were full-on LOOSE and I floundered horribly for way too long.

But, here’s the kicker.  A great many teachers no longer need a tight regime even if they once did.  They need more autonomy. They need more trust.  They need to implement ideas responsively, dynamically, intelligently depending on how students respond.   As soon as you apply either Tight or Loose to a whole body of people, you’re going to be making mistakes.   The art of effective leadership is to know when to apply each approach and to what extent, to each individual.

Arguably, a tight behaviour management approach is useful across a school – because the norms and routines exist everywhere around a school and we can help each other by creating school-wide norms, not a miscellany from class to class.  But that just doesn’t transfer to teaching.   Where I enjoyed a tight approach in my early career, it was generated by the team I was in.  The people leading the team set up a whole framework and we followed it.  Heaven forbid the English-teaching Assistant Head i/c T&L had gone on a course and tried to impose his Vision on us!  Our regime was subject-specific.

Even when there’s a useful Rosenshine-style framework that contains a set of sensible generic ideas such as Daily Review – the use of simple retrieval activities to activate prior learning – extreme caution is needed.   In my Rosenshine book I say that the principles are there to lift us up, not to tie us down.  In an intelligent school, the use of Daily Review is understood in terms of the cognitive science around recall and schema-building.  When teachers are about to build on prior learning, it makes sense to activate that with a retrieval activity.  But that’s still not an absolute rule.  It’s part of the toolkit, the repertoire, the flow of learning over a series of lessons, used when needed according to the professional teacher’s judgement.  If a teacher is struggling to secure good student learning, it might be that more intensity around retrieval activities is something they need to work on.  But, where teachers use Daily Review quizzes, they do so with a clear sense of purpose, judiciously, for a reason, knowing why, using the information to inform next steps.  And guess what…… sometimes…. yes it’s true…… brace yourself……. INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL TEACHERS DO NOT START EVERY LESSON WITH A QUIZ.

Unlike the case of behaviour… routine questioning or quizzing or modelling or using group work in one class does not have a bearing on whether or not these things happen or are effective in another.  It’s all subject specific stuff with a context that varies over a day and children go with the flow readily.

In an unintelligent control-freak environment, TEACHERS SHOULD START  LESSONS WITH A QUIZ has become a thing it seems.  Here, the SLT has decided that it knows best how all lessons must be taught, regardless of subject, regardless of teacher experience, regardless of any sense of being responsive to what students might need.  I imagine myself in one of these schools – a demon physics teacher with excellent knowledge of research and a wide repertoire of ways to start a lesson.  You are NEVER EVER going to make me start every bloody lesson with a quiz.  I would simply refuse.  I would rebel.  I’d just do what I wanted to do anyway.  If, as a result I got any grief, I would make an almighty fuss and seek to expose the pure control-freak folly of the enterprise far and wide, whilst browsing the job-ads for a better place to ply my trade.  I will set a quiz when I decide it is needed and not because some eejits on a research-illiterate power trip have mandated it.

My worry is that way too many teachers don’t have the cocky-arse capacity I have to resist being told what to do by people they don’t respect.  They buckle down and follow the protocol.  At least with twitter, they have an outlet to raise a flag.  Hopefully, one day.. eventually…. intelligent school leadership will prevail everywhere and the Tight-Tight brigade will be consigned to history.  It’ll take a big effort across the profession to see that day.  Let’s keep calling it out.  Viva la resistance!


  1. Hey Tom.
    Thanks for this.
    It helps that:
    1. It is so detailed
    2. It is away from the binary glare of twitter.
    Have a good weekend,
    Ollie (@manxrunner)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. At a Headship interview a couple of years ago we were asked to do a presentation on culture. Having just read a book on the microbiota I decided to take things in a slightly different direction by suggesting that the ‘Bristol Stool Scale’ could become the ‘Bristol School Scale’ using the same principles. Just as there’s a healthy balance in the things we excrete biologically, so there’s a healthy balance to be struck in respect of school culture. Too tight or too loose, neither is desirable. Stools and schools suffer! I didn’t get the job 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Trust in a school stems from the leadership of the school, the level of scrutiny and accountability they demand from their staff, and the systems that they implement to monitor processes that they put into place. Tom Sherrington discusses some of this over at Teacherhead discusses some of these issues in action with his excellent post on tight and loose leadership. […]


  4. I totally agree. These ‘tight’ management styles can be demoralising and demotivating. I am a year 6 teacher in a local authority primary school in Somerset. Recently a maths book review was undertaken by my executive head, school head and head of maths (why it needs three people is beyond me!). They looked at three children’s books and I received a report with a few positive points and a long list of “EBIs” – even better ifs!! One of the EBIs commented on the need for more photographs of the children working and pink pen comments for ’next steps’. I can’t tell you how exasperated I am – I have 34 children in my year 6 class and my LSA has been used consistently to cover absent teachers (she has been with me for only 6 days out of the last 15). I’m a 45 year old woman with a previous career in law who wanted to come into education to make a difference. After 5 years in the profession I am starting to question whether I should stay in education.


    Liked by 1 person

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