Concrete not Sand – build on what they know!

I’ve encountered so many scenarios across the curriculum where students’ prior knowledge just isn’t secure enough for them to handle the new content of the lesson – at least, not to the level the teacher is assuming or hoping. Sometimes without even realising it, the teacher is building on sand. The learning is tentative or not grasped at all.. and students slip through the net; gaps widen.

Here are some examples – all real. They illustrate the assumptions teachers might make and highlight the lengths we might need to go to in order to ensure everyone of our students is learning.

Henry broke away from Rome, so he could divorce Catherine and marry Anne.

In the study of the Tudors featuring Henry VIII and his six wives, a lot of background knowledge is needed to understand the themes, narratives and significance of the story. I explored my own battles with learning this story here: How not to misfire.. exploring the learning process with Henry VIII. There’s a lot to take in, linking famous buildings (eg the Tower of London), images (Henry and his wives), the wider timeline, a huge range of historical details and themes. At a basic level it’s necessary to know about the monarchy – that there is a history of Kings and Queens going back centuries – and the approximate position of this story on a timeline. It’s helpful to know several key concepts:

  • monarchy/ power/heir to the throne
  • ally/allegiance
  • Catholic Church/Rome/Pope vs Protestant/Church of England
  • treason/adultery/beheading
  • marriage/divorce/annulment

A good curriculum will allow students to build this knowledge over time – spiralling over a few years, revisiting themes and concepts as well as some core factual elements. However, I’ve met students in Year 8 who were being taught about divorce, Rome and Anne Boleyn – who could not tell me why Rome was significant, what an heir means, that Catholics were a type of Christian, and what Catholics believed in relation to marriage compared to the Church of England. They were left with ‘Henry had loads of wives and killed them’ – because the story was just a soap opera that could have happened any time in the ‘olden days’ as far as they were concerned.

1/4 + 1/5 = 1/9

Imagine making this error and leaving it there untroubled. What are you thinking? In my (very many) encounters with this type of error, students often reveal very shallow foundations. How big is 1/4? How big is a 1/5? Sometimes students say a fifth is bigger than a quarter – it sounds bigger. Sometimes they can’t see that 1/9 must be wrong because it is smaller than both the other terms. They haven’t put 2/9 – adding the digits – suggesting some confusion with multiplication even though they don’t put 1/20 -which would suggest a simple misreading of the operation. There are so many things to unpick -and they mumble something about common denominominator or LCM which doesn’t really mean anything to them. The root issue: a lack of a spatial model for the entities involved – they are not visualising a quarter of something and a fifth of it and then thinking about a process for adding them together. It’s just number tricks devoid of meaning – and they’re guessing using half-grasped routines. And they’re 16 in a GCSE resit class – suggesting this root-cause issue has not been addressed successfully year after year after year.

It was a coincidence.

The students in a Y3 class encountered ‘coincidence’ in a story. They were confused. The teacher launched into etymology. Co + incidence (when things happen). They said the word chorally a few times, confirmed the spelling and moved on. I asked the group around me for an example of a coincidence. They couldn’t give me one. They could spell it and say it -but didn’t know what it actually was. There was no part of the lesson where examples were explored or asked for. This was assumed. eg. ‘If you and your friend’s Dads were both called Pete – that would be a coincidence’. I gave them a few and the penny dropped – ah yes, they had all experienced a coincidence and now had a word for it; the language had a home.

Plato was a philosopher. He was wise.

Students at KS2 were learning about Plato – actually a great scheme of work with huge potential. But, in this instance, the concrete home was missing. Plato. Who? Old man with beard in statues! Philosopher… ok, what? He thought about the world and was wise. Wise? Because ‘he made good decisions’. This was still passing some children by. ‘Good decisions’ about what? This wasn’t explored. What might make a good decision or a bad decision in life that a wise philosopher might have answers to? We didn’t get to this… so students were left with ‘very old statue man – Plato’ – ‘made good decisions’ without this seeming much of a big deal or relating to anything concrete in their world.

The water erodes the rock by hydrochloric (sic) action and abrasion.

The teacher ran through some forms of erosion caused by water – linked to waterfalls and coastal erosion. It was a smorgasbord of terminology; erosion, erodes, eroded, attrition, abrasion – and hydraulic action. Processes were explained verbally, with diagrams and hand actions (attrition is a pounding fist; abrasion is rubbing hands) – and students were asked to explain things in books and answer questions. One boy had settled for ‘the rocks get all destroyed’ instead of ‘eroded’ – the word erosion had passed him by despite it being said by others many many times. Words don’t just sink in in the way the teacher was assuming – and the boy had never been asked to generate the word until I spoke to him.

A girl was telling me that rocks can get eroded by ‘hydrochloric action’; she said ‘hydrochloric’ even while reading the word in front of her which was ‘hydraulic’. The teacher picked this up and corrected; No – like a bicycle pump or a car jack – the word is ‘hydraulic’. Unfortunately the student did not have experience of these things and the link to the word hydraulic. But she had done science practicals enough to know the work hydrochloric and, in the absence of a concrete home for hydraulic, that was hard to shift.

Mohammad Ali relinquished his titles to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

I wrote about this in a blog all of its own here: Vietnam, Ali, reading and the powerful knowledge gap. The issue here was the text in question was meant to allow students to show their understanding of the word ‘relinquished’ meaning ‘gave up’ or ‘handed back’. But this made no sense to many students who did not know who Mohammad Ali was or the significance of ‘Vietnam’. In fact the student in his story, on reading the passage, asked ‘is it about food?’ because she read Vietnam as ‘vitamin’. Without the concrete home for the text – the whole story of Ali and the Vietnam war – the meaning of the word relinquished not only seemed rather low on the priority list, it was impossible to explain.

Iron plus Sulphuric Acid makes? ..Zinc?

In a Year 11 Science revision lesson students were being asked to work out the products from some standard-pattern reactions. Copper plus Nitric Acid makes Copper Nitrate and Hydrogen. So… Iron plus Sulphuric Acid makes…..? The answer is Iron Sulphate plus Hydrogen – a simple pattern. You’d think. But some students were volunteering Iron plus Sulphuric Acid makes ….Zinc? Copper? Carbon? They were just guessing elements – words they’d heard. Here the concrete link from words and symbols to specific real world entities was wafer thin. They didn’t get that If you start with certain atoms; you still have them after the reaction. They didn’t have a sense of the idea that atoms can’t and don’t ever change into new atoms during chemistry. Iron can never turn into Zinc. This concrete idea about the nature of materials, of elements and compounds and how they combine to make a range of substances wasn’t there. And here they were rehearsing the reactions of metals as if this was a quick recap. No chance!

J’aime /jouer au foot /avec mes amis

Students were being asked something like Qu’est-ce que tu fais pendant le weekend? They had a list of vocab – all the things you can do at the weekend (swimming, going to the cinema, shopping, watching TV). But this was all atomised knowledge. They could recognise the words and match them to the images – over and over again. Cinema. Swimming, Shopping. But they couldn’t answer the question with any level of confidence or fluency beyond stabbing out the key action. Qu’est-ce que tu fais pendant le weekend? Cinema! Nager! To some, each lesson feels like adding more and more words to the list of things they don’t know, rather than increasing the number of things they can say.

Why? Because they hadn’t developed sufficient fluency with the connecting phrases – the chunks of language that provide flow and meaning. A lack of repetition and fluency-building – J’aime nager, J’aime aller au cinémaavec mes amis, avec ma soeur, ….left them inhibited and wary. Here the concrete foundations are about confidence with retrieving existing knowledge – rather than simply recognising and understanding it when seen. Too many students have very flimsy foundations in recall due to lack of practice at the level of phrases – the chunks of language we manipulate to construct sentences and share ideas.

The implications?

The main implications of this are firstly, to try to be as explicit as possible about the assumptions you might be making about students’ knowledge and experience. If you anticipate the issues in planning your curriculum sequencing, you get ahead of it. Secondly it is about checking that students do understand the basics rather than simply assuming. Check, check, check. Find out what they know and don’t know. And finally it is about accepting the need to go all the way back to the point where the students in front of you do understanding things and build from there. You can’t just plough on building on sand – you need to build on something solid. Find that solid ground – check it is secure and then you’re more likely to be successful with students building on what they know as you move forward. Consolidate. Consolidate. Consolidate.


  1. Thanks for doing what any good pedagogue should do, use examples! A great wee article that reminds me of the work greame nuthall did in The Hidden Lives of Learners.

    Liked by 1 person

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