Marginal Learning Gains: An Error Seeking Classroom by Zoe Elder

This Marginal Learning Gain is probably one of the purest as it really is tiny…but with big effect:

  • Frequently, quality learning and thinking opportunities are missed when students’misconceptions are overlooked or not recognised
  • The drive to ‘get things covered’ can often very understandably be overwhelming but with this, we may find that we miss some fabulous opportunities for our learners to delve deeper
  • Can we build in time in lessons to address frequently occurring misconceptions or simply enhance the feedback we get from learners that can directly inform our immediate next (teaching) steps?
  • For an in depth investigation of the Marginal Learning Gains concept, please take a look at Zoe’s blog here:

Often,  a clarification question will have the sole purpose to check that students are on the right track, give us information as to who’s ‘got it’ and thereby give us the cue to move on. But in doing so, there is a chance that we miss out on valuable feedback to inform exactly what our next steps need to be to maximise the learning for all our students.

If, on the other hand, we adopt an Error-Seeking mindset, if only for a specific amount of time during the lesson, we can make a tiny change to the clarification question so that what we actually try to find out involves clarifying who is not on the right track and who hasn’t quite got it so that we can respond to whoever might need some additional, more probing questions to secure their understanding. At the same time, we can seize on misconceptions and inaccuracies as ‘critical learning moments’, as valuable diversions and delightful imaginative tangents.

So, it very simply comes down to asking NOT WHAT THEY DO UNDERSTAND but rather WHAT THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND. A tiny change in what we ask, look and listen for.

Becoming an Error-Seeker involves observing learning-as-it-happens so that we can use all that we see and hear to inform how we frame questions to students so that their thinking continues and deepens. This may be a mindset that you adopt for a specific period of time (very much part of the MLG method see here).


  • “Who’s got it?”
  • “Is everybody clear with this?”
  • “Who thinks they have the right answer to this?”
  • “Is everybody clear on what they have to do?”
  • “What made it work?”


  • “Who hasn’t quite grasped this yet?”
  • “Who is nearly stuck?”
  • “Who thinks they’re in danger of coming to a complete halt any minute now?”
  • “Who is not clear on the first thing that they need to do now?”
  • “What prevented this from working?”

As always, when Error-Seeking questions are asked, the choice is still yours as to whether to jump in and offer your expertise or, alternatively, you can decide to hold back and respond to what you hear with additional questions. There really is no right or wrong answer to this; it’s a judgement call for you and will be entirely dependent on the group, what you expect them to achieve and the learning climate you feel you have already established.

By deliberately exploiting any insecurities in understanding and knowledge in a such a proactive way, we can go a long way to establish a safe learning environment where ‘failure’ and ‘mistakes’ are redefined as ‘critical learning moments’. In doing so, we ensure that there is a strong sense of AFFILIATION so that students experience a palpable sense of AGENCY over their own learning.

WD-40 Learning: The ideal environment for an error-seeker

One way to establish an environment where you can really use an Error-Seeking mindset is to design opportunities to regularly model ‘great mistakes’ where you invite students to explore what we actually mean by a ‘mistake’ in the first place. My favourite example of this is captured in what I have, for years, referred to as the ‘WD-40′ approach to learning.

The story goes that WD-40 is so-called because it took 39 failed attempts to devise a water displacement spray by Norm Larsen before it actually displaced water. Without the tenacity, determination and acquired learning throughout these 39 ‘failed’ attempts, we would not now have one of the most widely known and owned inventions. The Michael Jordan NIKE advert communicates a similar message, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the simplicity and easy-to-remember story of WD40 to illustrate the power of exploration and the value of the process of learning. Plus I always think of my Dad when I see or, more accurately, smell WD-40 as it was a key feature of his shed and tool box when I was growing up.

So a WD-40 lesson or learning environment is characterised by high levels of engagement by students and teachers alike in the process of exploration, the grappling with difficulty and the experience of struggle. The teacher in a WD-40 lesson actively encourages speculation, idea-generation and reflective thinking focused on:

  • Highlighting mistakes that need to be overcome and expecting students to suggest their own solutions
  • Establishing a climate for learning that makes it okay to present and share unfinished, drafted or ‘initial attempts’ and expecting students to suggest their own next steps
  • Encouraging students to highlight the areas of their learning have not been so successful and proposing their own refinements to improve

At the core of a WD-40 lesson is the teacher-mindset of The Error Seeker as such, you will notice that this Marginal Learning Gain is closely related to the MLG of Expectation

Gathering Learning Intelligence

One huge benefit of adopting the error-seeking mindset is that you can very efficiently gather learning intelligence to inform your immediate next steps. Observing learning techniques are fabulous activities for developing an Error-Seeking mindset as part of a WD-40 learning zone. In this way, you can avoid missing a critical learning opportunity when a student repeats a commonly-held misconception or frequently-made mistake. You can seize that moment and spend some time un-packing it to save time and energy further down the track when you find yourself correcting the same repeated mistake in a pile of Year 9 books, products or performances.

So an error seeking lesson is one where…

  • The teacher readily and easily adapts their teaching to meet the learning needs presented to them as they happen
  • The teacher stands back and observes learning as it happens, documenting learning and using this to inform the lesson design at hand and in the immediate future
  • Learners make good progress, learning from their mistakes and constructing their own solutions to overcome difficulties
  • The climate for learning actively encourages mistake-making as an integral part of the learning process and uses these as critical learning (teaching) moments
  • Learners develop a strong sense of self-determination and agency so that they can make their own decisions and solutions to challenging tasks
  • Teaching is matched to learner (a) needs and (b) potential because the learner-teacher feedback channel is always open and well amplified
  • You can introduce the FAQ board where students post their confusions, questions and ‘stuck’ moments and other students (including those from other year groups) can post their suggestions for solutions, strategies to get un-stuck and clarifications. If you haven’t got space free in your room, it might be an opportunity for a departmental FAQ board divided into topics, themes and a place where ALL students can help each other. Teachers can then monitor the board and identify common themes and misconceptions that run through a year group.


Leading 21st C learning: getting my bearings for the journey ahead…

  • This guest post has kindly been contributed to Wilmslow High’s ‘Lookout for Learning’  by Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), who is the headteacher at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, Essex.
  • I heard Tom speak at the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool at the start of December and his short speech is lengthened here in his thoughts on how to shape the learning direction of his school in the future.

In summary, his ideas and action points are based around:

1. Teaching and Learning:  Pedagogical enlightenment:

  • There is no formula and we need to celebrate diversity in teaching
  • It’s not a free-for-all: some learning strategies have proven impact
  • We’ve got be ambitious – every learning goal should be rich in challenge, aiming not to meet but to exceed potential

2. Leadership of Learning

  • We need teachers with the right attitude, teachers with a growth mindset (as well as students), teachers willing to learn and continually improve
  • Building Learning Power (BLP) – refer to Guy Claxton’s work for more information

3. Curriculum

  • The use of technology – it must be driven pedagogy!

I’ve been on a fantastic professional learning journey in recent weeks: listening and talking on the conference circuit (#lfe2012 #SSATNC12, #elconf); burying my head in my tweetdeck and the library of blogs and youtube clips that follow;  hosting a TeachMeet (#TMEssex); reading a couple of books and having the privilege of visiting some amazing schools.  All of this has brought me into contact with the ideas of some great educational thinkers (John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, Eric Mazur, Carol Dweck, Tim Brighouse), the thoughts of some great practitioners (John Tomsett, Alex Quigley, David Didau, Vic Goddard, Tom Bennett, Christopher Waugh, Mark Anderson, Zoe Elder..)  and the ethos of some amazing schools: Saffron Walden, Passmores and Wellington.  Of course… there has also been the joy of working at my own school where magic happens every day.  (I would say that wouldn’t I… but it’s true!!!)

From all of this, I am now looking ahead.  What works? What matters? What do we need to embed further or chuck out? What might things be like in 10 or 20 years and are we on the right path?  This is my attempt to make some sense of it all…I’m taking stock.

Teaching and Learning:  Pedagogical enlightenment

There is no formula and we need to celebrate diversity in teaching:

It seems clear that many voices of reason and experience are saying this.  Read Tom Bennett’s ‘Teacher’, David Didau’s blog, Michael Wilshaw’s speech – or even my own ‘balanced diet’ blog.  There are plenty of ways to skin the learning cat! In fact, the hoop jumping, tick boxing, formulaic approach does not achieve its goals.  We should take account of the evidence and experience from academic and action research…but we won’t succeed unless we find our own style; one that helps us to form the relationships we need with our students, enables us to know their learning needs in detail and allows us the freedom to be creative and responsive in the classroom.

We’ve got be ambitious: every learning goal should be rich in challenge, aiming not to meet but to exceed potential (Hattie); we need to adopt a growth mindset (Dweck) and instil that in our students. We need to set ‘hairy audacious goals’ (Wiliam) and not be content with any student falling behind, building our school systems around that imperative.

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John Hattie’s superb Visible Learning Pt1&2 presentations from YouTube

It’s not a free-for-all: some learning strategies have proven impact:

  • effective direct instruction is high-impact; this is timeless.  Having things explained well, (focusing on the process, not the final answer), is how we learn a lot of new things. ‘Chalk and talk’ is much derided.. but the ability to explain is a key teaching skill..and a key learning device. The KEGS experience is that for the most able students, strong subject knowledge is vital… it shapes the depth and rigour of questioning.
  • students working collaboratively: discussion of a problem, peer involvement in a task, peer assessment, peer instruction… these things improve learning to a massive degree.
  • learning aims and success criteria: when laced with challenge, if students know what it is that they are aiming at, their learning is better.(WALT and WILF.. are much derided because they become reduced to a formula;  but the concepts are still valid)
  • feedback is the key: detailed guidance on how to improve with short turnaround task repetition to act on the feedback.  Formative assessment should impact directly on subsequent work and lesson planning;
  • questioning in class should involve all students; not just taking turns. All-student response techniques are vital but this leads us to the need to do more work on asking better questions – finding questions that promote/necessitate peer discussion is the goal.
  • the idea of making learning visible (Hattie) – getting to know what and how students are thinking is powerful, linked to the Claxton/Lucas ideas of making the language of learning explicit:  ‘Going back-stage…’ – De-mystifying the whole learning process is what we should be doing; this meta-learning enhances the depth of learning in a subject.
  • ‘flipped learning’ has existed since books were invented; it’s not about technology (Eric Mazur). This is a simple idea of providing materials that enable students to pre-learn key concepts so that lessons focus on questions, feedback and peer instruction. The Mazur model demonstrates the power of peer-instruction, whereby students improve their collective understanding through discussion based on feedback to their initial responses.  This links completely to Hattie’s ‘peer involvement’ idea.Eric Mazur and his incredible learning platformEric Mazur and his incredible learning platform
  • I’m a massive advocate for homework but it needs to be re-defined and re-configured.  Pre-learning that helps ‘flipped learning’ or providing straightforward opportunities to practice are things that work. The more open-ended, unstructured or challenging a task is, the more consideration needs to be given to a student’s learning environment at home; if there is no-one to help when they get stuck… it can be counter-productive.  This suggests thinking is needed around supported self-study – providing an in-school or online environment where the inter-lesson work can be done successfully.  (See my post about what Hattie says on homework – which he commented on himself.)

I think our Teaching and Learning Statement is about right… the question is how we put it all into practice in the classroom:

The KEGS one-page Teaching and Learning jigsaw.

The KEGS one-page Teaching and Learning jigsaw.

Leadership of learning:

I like to think that I do prioritise this in my work, but I want to go further.  (John Tomsett’s recent post is superb on this.) At #LFE2012, Hattie was emphatic in stressing that we need to focus on teachers, not teaching.  We need teachers with the right attitude, teachers with a growth mindset (as well as students), teachers willing to learn and continually improve.

Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie both emphasise teacher development as the key

Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie both emphasise teacher development as the key

At #SSATNC12 Dylan Wiliam said exactly the same thing.  He suggested that recruiting ‘the brightest and the best’ is a mistake;  we need teachers who are most willing to engage in professional learning – ie those with the greatest capacity for self improvement.  I’d suggest these overlap to a large degree but the thinking is different.  Wiliam also suggested that ‘strengths and areas for development’ is a blind alley; we should be asking teachers to get better at what they are already good at. Finally, Wiiam stressed the power of teachers working collaboratively and I love this phrase: “as a team not in a team” which chimes with Hattie.  (See this excellent post exchange from Alex Quigley on Hattie’s definition of passion)

So my action points on all of this are:

  • To re-affirm my commitment to ‘rainforest’ thinking around CPD: no more one-size fits all CPD – and the importance of our Teaching and Learning Workshops.  We are on the right lines with this.
  • More time and emphasis on team planning and team review of student progress, where teams look at evidence (ie not just numerical data) on the impact of teaching and use that to inform their own practice, seeing it as a evidence of their own effectiveness.
  • To explore the idea of the role of the challenger…Wiliam bemoans ‘serial polite turn-taking’ in meetings. However if meetings have an appointed role of ‘challenger’, this legitimises challenge: Why are we doing this? What is the impact? How could we do it better? Instead of the ‘how lovely and hard-working we all are’ approach.
  • To continue to explore the balance of increasing trust and autonomy – enabling teachers to do what they choose and feel is right – with increasing challenge and accountability for making an impact – asking for evidence of impact.


Is our curriculum at odds with the prevailing wisdom on pedagogy?

Is our curriculum at odds with the prevailing wisdom on pedagogy?

Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas, Tanya Byron and Tim Brighouse, make a lot of sense and should have a greater influence on current discourse on the curriculum. Away from the absurd knowledge-skills dichotomy, there is a curriculum out there that would enable students more scope for creative risk-taking, self-expression and the opportunity to carve out a path that matches their interests – and that isn’t just a bunch of bolted-on collapsed timetable days.  (No more skate-boarding lessons.. but more metaphorical skateboarding! )

My school’s curriculum meets our needs by and large, but we struggle to fit everything in.  A grand re-think is needed.  Are we too linear, too boxed in by historical timetabling structures and the idea that all students should have the same experience?  Should students have more choice at a younger age?  Some big questions.  Specific points of action:

  • I’m committed to giving language learning the time it needs: 4 hours per week in one language; it works and is one of the most exciting curriculum developments I have ever seen
  • I want to find a way for coding and computer science in general to feature more strongly
  • I will resist all pressure to diminish the status of Arts versus EBacc subjects, whatever direction DFE policy takes.
  • I will try to expand the role of co-construction where students lead the curriculum – as in our Project 9 initiative.


Digital library, social media, mobile technology: It's our new reality.

Digital library, social media, mobile technology: It’s our new reality.

The consensus on this is absolute.  Technology in education isn’t about technology at all: it is all about pedagogy and curriculum.  The possibilities are unlimited and we are on a path that leads inexorably to greater integration of interactions that are social and explicitly educational. This is modern life.  The Wellington conference confirmed ideas from Mark Anderson and Daniel Edwards that  ‘internet enabled devices’ need to become standard bits of kit  and that we need to be heading for the cloud. The culture of banning and restricting, to me, is simply backward.  It is a clip-on tie solution.. that can’t last long.

My action points:

  • Get over the discipline issues and the constraints.  I like the idea of ‘devices on the table, not in your pocket; use them, don’t hide them’. I want to get to the heart of our network restrictions on mobile devices because we may be being far too cautious.
  • I want to know more about Googledocs and cloud based workflow. I see a revolution coming.  I think I’ve glimpsed the summit but we’re in the foothills…. it is exciting but also slightly daunting.  In 10 years time, we need to be fully immersed in the cloud. Make that 5 years.
  • I want more of my staff to be engaged in the online community that Twitter supports.  Arguably, people like Martin Burrett (@ICTMagic) and Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) have had more direct impact on teacher CPD than any single individual before them.  However, it is the dynamic community aspect that has the greatest power.


Foyer installation at Passmores representing the school's ethos: the journey rather than the arrival.

Foyer installation at Passmores representing the school’s ethos: the journey rather than the arrival. Each trophy celebrates an attitude to learning.

My recent school visits to Passmores in Harlow, Saffron Walden County High School and Wellington College all cemented my belief in ‘ethos’ as the driver for success in schools.  I feel it is true in my own school.  At Passmores, the ethos is palpable amongst students and in the staffroom; every child is being pushed and nurtured at the same time with a kind of tough love and relentless focus on raising aspirations. And it works. At SWCHS, the ethos was evident in the staff CPD session: a deep and strong culture of collaborative professional learning.  At Wellington it is all about thinking on a grand scale; resources are not a problem.. but you still need the vision and we can learn from that.

For me, this affirms my commitment to ethos-enhancing activities in my school.  We do this well with students.  I want to do more with staff….so that they feel that they have an even greater stake in shaping the school’s future direction.

To round up, none of this is about the exams our students sit, or the nature of inspections, our place in the performance tables, school structures, pay scales or constraints on school finance.  It is about the things we can control regardless; the things that really matter.  An important question for the system is whether we measure what we value, or merely value what we can measure  – or whether we can accept that many of the things we value can’t be measured? This means we need courage to do what we think is right regardless.  The realities of the system we are in may or may not support our goals.. but I’m determined not to allow them to dictate our values.

My big moment, wrapping up the keynotes at SSAT National Conference from 1.00

My big moment, and a call to arms, wrapping up the keynotes at SSAT National Conference from 1.00min