Skip to main content

Daniel Willingham's five step approach to self-improvement

For teachers in England and Wales, as you drive on to GCSEs and AS-levels, and exam leave and gained time beckon, it will soon be time to come up with performance management targets (slight groan?). I used to manage this in my department and, of course, had to come up with my own for my line manager. Teachers outside the UK might be able to make use of the ideas below.

I recently read psychologist Daniel Willingham's best-selling book Why Don't Students Like School? which I recommend. In Chapter 9 he lays out a five step approach for getting and giving feedback which I thought could be used or adapted as a genuinely useful (as opposed to tick-box) performance management (PM) target. I know this because I saw colleagues adopt similar, if less structured, approaches to self-improvement. See what you think. I'll summarise Willingham's steps and suggest briefly how they might be adapted for MFL teachers.

Step 1

Identify another teacher you would like to work with. (This could make for a shared PM target.) Make sure they are committed to the project. Ideally they would teach languages, but if there is no one who fits the bill for you, look beyond your subject area.

Step 2

Record yourself and watch the recordings alone. You could simply set up your smartphone on a tripod or a shelf so you can be clearly seen in action. Make sure this is acceptable in terms of school policy. It might be wise to film a lesson or bits of lessons where there is a mix of teacher-led and pair/group work. When you review the recording(s) take some notes. Try not to be too self-critical; just note objectively what you see and hear.

Step 3

Assuming your partner teacher has done the same, get ready to watch each other's classrooms. Willingham suggests starting by looking at tapes of other teachers not at your school, but online. For MFL I would suggest thew archived videos from Teachers' TV or the TPRS hangout videos from YouTube, e.g. this one for Spanish. Alternatively, skip this part and go straight to watching each other's videos.

It's important when comparing notes to maintain a constructive tone, of course, looking at very specific actions which lead to specific outcomes. You could, in MFL, consider how you do the following, for example:

  • Use gesture
  • Use pictures
  • Ask questions
  • Assure clarity
  • Correct
  • Use other drilling forms apart from questioning
  • Explain grammar
  • Use the target language
  • Model pronunciation and get students to be accurate
  • Use humour
  • Keep the least confident on board
  • Use eye contact and body movement
  • Manage distractions

It's interesting that Willingham focuses on using tapes, not personal classroom observation. This may be because the presence of an observer may change behaviours or make the teacher uncomfortable. I'm not so sure about this. Observation in UK schools is so routine these days, that you could choose to work this way rather than use videos. In any case, you could agree this with your partner.

Step 4

Now work with your partner, observing each other's videos. If you have done live observation meet together to discuss any notes you took and consider possible improvements or adjustments to your practice. If particular points arise (e.g. "You tend to move around a lot, which may be distracting and be a sign of insecurity" or "You ask a lot of closed questions, can you vary your questioning technique more"?) You could then plan in a follow-up observation or video to work on a specific area, using the idea of "deliberate practice" to improve your craft.

Step 5

PM targets require specific outcomes, of course, so you need to be able to demonstrate some change you have made. So follow-up videos or observations need to be done. A written review from your partner would do the job from a paperwork point of view.


This need not be a hugely time-consuming task and, if you do it with an admired colleague, it should be an enjoyable friendship-building activity. I know this is true - I have seen it at work. Everyone benefits, mutual observation becomes routine and the habit can spread. Keep paperwork to a minimum, beware of "formal meetings", do the discussion over coffee in free periods or build it into departmental meeting time if this can be accommodated. I think it's better if the process is "organic" rather than formal, always positive, but you do need to set aside a some time for it. The "gained time" period is a good one to choose.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…