Powerful Classrooms

Last week I blogged about the research of Sam Twiselton that has shaped many of my thoughts around the development of a teacher from being task manager, through to a curriculum deliverer to a concept and skills builder. When I first came across this work, I began to read more around what features exists in the classrooms of highly effective teachers, and in what way their practice may be codified.

Schoenfeld paper, “What Makes for Powerful Classrooms, and How Can We Support Teachers in Creating Them? A Story of Research and Practice, Productively Intertwined.” describes the idea of “Powerful Classrooms”; while this was created specifically for maths it is equally applicable in many other subjects.

There is nothing novel or new in his dimensions of powerful classroom, but it creates a framework for the ingredients of successful lessons, and therefore shares the ideas that highly effective teachers cultivate. When planning lessons, I have taken the framework into consideration, while also using it is as a format to consider ow a student would interpret the lesson.

The research suggests there are five main strands that exist in powerful classrooms:

  • The Subject Knowledge (listed as “The Mathematics” in the research)
  • Cognitive demand     
  • Access to content (listed as “Access to Mathematics” in the research)
  • Agency, Ownership, and Identity      
  • Formative assessment

When planning (especially at A-level where the content could be thought of as more expert) I consider the subject knowledge  and how it is sequenced from what is already know, and how I will make connections clear between ideas.

Time is built in to allow time for students to process key challenging ideas, that are presented in small step-by-step chunks. This allows cognitive demand to be managed. Lessons are structure to ensure all pupils have an opportunity to participate through a range of questioning techniques as well as ensuring that no pupil is left behind, with all having access to the subject content being delivered,

Pupils have an opportunity to “do”, either as part of practice individually or guided. Ample opportunities are built in to allow student to apply their learning and critique whether what they have been taught fits into their schema. Where misconceptions and gaps in pupils thinking is picked up through formative assessment, clear instruction is used to drive pupil learning forward.

While this may sound like a very standard (possibly boring!) lesson format, 90%+ of lessons I have taught over the last two year have followed this framework. More often than not, I have found it as a detailed method to analyse the effectiveness of my planning, and more importantly, I have used it as a framework to consider why some of the lessons I have taught have not ended up as successful as I had hoped.

Below is a summary of the key parts of Powerful Classrooms which I have adapted. I have also included a format I use to encourage teachers I have worked with to plan through the lens of a student.

Each of the five strands, when broken down could be represented with questions that could be posed about the lesson and the learning taking place.

  • The Subject Knowledge:
    • Is the knowledge discussed in class focused and coherent?
    • Does the lesson present students with important subject specific ideas?
    • Are connections made between concepts, procedures, and contexts?
  • Cognitive Demand:
    • Do students have the opportunity to make sense of the key ideas of the lesson through activities that are appropriately challenging?
    • Does the lesson strike a balance between delivering the knowledge in small chunks through clear instruction, alongside presenting tasks that are challenging enough to drive progress?
  • Access to Content:
    • Do classroom activities and structures support the engagement of all students?
    • Is each student’s participation welcomed and actively encouraged, or can students “hide” from the subject specific learning taking place?
  • Agency, Authority, and Identity:
    • Do classroom activities and structures support students in building productive identities as doers and learners of the subject?
    • Do students have the opportunity to make and critique arguments and build on the thinking of their peers?
    • Do students have the opportunity to apply their knowledge to solve problems and evaluate their own learning?
  • Formative Assessment:
    • Do classroom activities draw out students’ thinking, and is this thinking used as the basis for instructional decisions?
    • Do teachers build on students’ productive thinking and address emerging misconceptions?

If you were to think about your own lesson as a student, as part of reflecting on your own practice, these are some questions you could ask yourself.

Planning through the lens of a student

The Subject KnowledgeWhat’s the big idea in the lesson?
How does it connect to what I already know?
Cognitive demandHow long am I given to think and make sense of what I am being told?
What happens when I get stuck?
Am I invited to explain my ideas, or just give a simple answer?
Access to contentDo I get to participate in meaningful learning?
Can I hide or be ignored?
Agency, Ownership, and IdentityDo I get to explain my ideas?
Do I get to develop other people’s ideas, and let them develop my own?
Am I recognised as being capable and able to contribute in meaningful ways?
Formative assessmentDoes classroom discussion include my own thinking?
Does instruction respond to my thinking and help me think more deeply?

Adapted from Schoenfeld, A.. “What Makes for Powerful Classrooms, and How Can We Support Teachers in Creating Them? A Story of Research and Practice, Productively Intertwined.” Educational Researcher 43 (2014): 404 – 412.


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