Mark Burns is an experienced former teacher who helps teachers to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms through video analysis. He is the co-author of 'Engaging Learners and Teaching Backwards' and 'The Learning Imperative'. Here are his suggestions for a practitioner's toolkit to maximise students' feelings of competency.

by Mark Burns
25th August 2020



It was like watching a totally different student. Earlier in the day I’d been in a geography lesson with Malik, where he’d given the impression that he’d had it with school aged just 14. He appeared disinterested, and barely did anything without continuous prompting by his teacher. Yet now, in this maths lesson, he’d come alive. He was working like a trojan and pushing himself. Not only that, he supported and encouraged those around him to persevere when they encountered difficulties.

Near the end of the lesson, as students were packing away, I took the opportunity to share what I’d observed with Malik himself. ‘Why the difference?’ I asked. ‘Because in this lesson, she (his teacher) makes it do-able.’

This was a salutary lesson. Whichever way we dress up strategies to engage students, by far the most powerful motivational trigger for humans is that satisfying feeling of increasing competence. Being good at things. For Malik, as his teacher helped him to achieve competence, he was motivated to take on the next challenge she’d present. So much so, Malik told me that maths was his favourite lesson. Indeed, he looked forward to days when he had maths!  

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I find it is usually this feeling of competence that underpins why many secondary teachers were motivated to continue studying that subject at school which they now teach today. It’s often a key factor in determining whether novice teachers carve a career in the profession or find it too overwhelming and drop out. 

So how can we, as teachers, maximise the impact of competence as a motivational trigger to engage our classes in thinking hard about what we are teaching? How can we ensure that we teach in a way that gains clarity on the extent to which our learners are clear?

Key to this is appreciating two important messages. First is the importance of modelling and explaining effectively so that students understand how to create their own ‘version’, be it an essay, practical application of a skill in PE, or explanation of a process in science. The payback of investing the time in creating shared clarity with students is that there is a common language for reflection, feedback and improvement. This common language enables students to reflect accurately on their own learning journey and see the improvement they’ve made.

Alongside this, teachers also need to be able to create rich opportunities for dialogue so that they can establish whether students have the same understanding as the teacher intended. The second important message, therefore, is the danger of assuming. As one teacher ruefully reflected after a lesson where shared clarity had not been achieved: ‘When I asked my class if they understood, they confidently said “yes”. I didn’t realise at the time that they were clear on the misunderstanding they had made of what I’d just told them!’ The most effective teachers I’ve worked with don’t fall into the trap of making assumptions. In fact, I always argue that assuming is simply a synonym of guessing.

Download Mark Burn's Competency toolkit below with a range of teaching ideas to try in your classroom:






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