2. Identifying learning content

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

How we teach affects what pupils learn and there are important principles about instruction that are relevant across phases and subjects. But in order to make sense of these principles and be able to use them well, teachers need to have a detailed understanding of what they are teaching. Before we think about how to teach, we need to know what to teach. And the first step in instruction is to identify the learning content.

Presenter main

Pupils need to think hard about something in order to learn it and lesson time is precious. Teachers need to have a clear understanding of what they want their pupils to think about. And this is what we mean by identifying the learning content.

Identifying the learning content involves identifying what you want your pupils to know and be able to do at the end of the sequence of learning. Once you have this clear and specific idea of what pupils need to learn, you can check to see what content pupils may already know or may have misconceptions about. Clarity over learning content can make teaching easier and increases the likelihood of success.

There are several ways you might identify learning content. One approach is to look at the learning goals and use your own knowledge of the subject to break this down into more granular pieces of content. If a lesson objective or intention states that pupils should learn about the foundations of ancient Rome, what specific content sits within this? You might say, “I want my pupils to know that ancient Rome was founded on the banks of the River Tiber.” Another approach is to complete the task that pupils would do at the end of a sequence of learning. For example, write a paragraph, giving your opinion on whether the opening of a multinational fast-food chain had a positive or negative impact on Nigeria. Or if you’re in an earlier setting, you might want pupils to use a range of vocabulary to talk about the different farmyard animals during small world play. Once you have this concrete example, you can unpack the knowledge and skills that are required. You might identify more specific words to introduce to pupils so that they can add them to their play. Words like snout or trotter. Completing and unpicking a task is likely to reveal some content that pupils already have and some content that is going to be new to them.

Lesson objectives, units of work, and the national curriculum can be helpful in guiding you about what to teach, but the knowledge and skills required will change depending on the content that you’re teaching and who you are teaching. Completing tasks allows teachers to see the specific details that sit within them. Think about this objective:

  1. Which is bigger 3/7 or 5/7?
  2. Which is bigger 5/7 or 5/9?

What specific knowledge and skills do they require? These tasks appear similar, but when you break them down, you see that they require different knowledge and skills. In the first, pupils will need to know about fractions with a shared denominator, along with other foundational content about number. In the second, pupils will need to know about fractions with different denominators. Teachers need to know the detail of what they are teaching so that they can pinpoint what it is that pupils need to learn.

Once you’ve identified what you want your pupils to learn in a lesson, it is important to check that what you’re asking of them is manageable. Teachers can make learning manageable by ensuring they build on what pupils already know, break content down into smaller chunks, or identify the essential idea within more complex concepts, being wary of embedding misconceptions when they do this.

Having thought really carefully about what pupils will be learning in the lesson, teachers then need to design a way of quickly assessing for it. An exit task is one effective way of doing this. A good exit task tests for the most important content within a lesson. Pupils need to be able to complete it quickly, and teachers should be able to assess it quickly. It can’t assess all the content in the lesson. Instead, it should focus on the content that pupils need to learn before they move on. The better teachers identify the learning content of the lesson, the better they will know what to test for.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, we’re going to see an early career teacher working with their coach. It is a primary setting and the teacher is preparing a lesson of the year six class. The unit of work is rainforests and the teacher’s preparing a lesson about where the Amazon rainforest is located. As you listen, pay particular attention to how the teacher and the coach do the following:

  • Identify the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject

Exemplification: Sarah Cottingham and Paula Delaney

COACH (SARAH COTTINGHAM): So in this lesson, we want pupils to learn about where the Amazon rainforest is located. And we can see it’s the third lesson in the unit about rainforests and pupils should be building their understanding of what a rainforest is.

So this unit is all about understanding why rainforests matter, which links to that key theme of sustainability that they’ve been learning about from year one to year six. Pupils need that really strong understanding of what the rainforest is if they’re to understand why the rainforest is so important and some of those threats to the rainforest such as deforestation.

The end of lesson task, we can see, is to mould sourdough in the shape of the Amazon rainforest over a map of South America. The aim is to get pupils to really understand how big the rainforest is and to know which countries it covers. They then have to place a cocktail stick with the name of the country, into the sourdough on the map, in the correct place. They’re then going to mark where the Amazon river flows into the sourdough.

I know you’ve read the scheme of work really carefully, and you’ve completed the end of lesson task. So now let’s get a bit more specific. What knowledge and skills do you need pupils to know by the end of the lesson?

ECT (PAULA DELANEY): So by the end of the lesson, I want pupils to be able to name the Amazon river. I want them to know the countries where the Amazon rainforest is located. I want them to really understand the size of the rainforest as well. And skills wise, I want them to be able to read the Atlas.

 COACH: Great you’ve listed lots of important content, I would add that pupils need to know the Amazon rainforest is located in nine different countries and know some of their names. To make it manageable, focus first on these three countries: Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela as this is where the majority of the Amazon rainforest is located. You will also need pupils to know some of the core knowledge about the rainforest. So you need them to know if it’s close to the equator line, the climate’s hot and humid, there’s lots of rainfall and that it’s a habitat for lots of plants and animals. This is what pupils have been learning about in previous lessons so it should be part of their prior knowledge. As for the skills let’s break down the scale of reading an Atlas into something a little bit more specific. So reading an Atlas can involve lots of different things. Could you be more specific?

ECT: Yes, I want them to be able to locate certain countries in the map.

 COACH: Great, we could go further and add that we want pupils to be able to locate a compass on a map and use compass points to locate a country. We could just tell pupils that on an Atlas, the top of the page is always North. But in year one, they learn those four compass points, so it’d be good for them to have a chance to recall and strengthen that knowledge.

This is a really detailed list of knowledge and skills that we’ve got. What do you think the most important knowledge is that they need to take away from the lesson?

ECT: Essentially, I really want them to see how big the Amazon rainforest is and how many people’s lives are actually impacted by it.

COACH: Definitely, so first, pupils will learn what the rainforest is and then they’ll build upon that knowledge to learn about deforestation, which is that key issue within the theme of sustainability. This lesson gives pupils a concrete opportunity to see how big the Amazon rainforest is. They’ll build upon this in future lessons when they explore how many people the Amazon rainforest supports, why deforestation is a problem and why sustainability matters.

If pupils don’t understand how big the rainforest is, they’ll find it hard to understand deforestation and sustainability. This is one of the most important things they’ll need to take away from the lesson. So you’ll need to draw their attention to it and check they’ve really understood it.

Presenter exemplification analysis

In this example, the teacher and that coach spent the majority of their time identifying, in detail, the essential concepts, knowledge and skills that pupils needed to learn in a lesson. The lesson was precise and concrete. The Amazon rainforest is close to the equator. It’s located in nine different countries. They also made sure that the learning was manageable by building on what pupils already knew. In this case, about what a rainforest is. And they broke down some content into smaller chunks: being able to locate a country on a map rather than the larger scale of being able to read an atlas.

They used knowledge of the unit of work to know what the really important content was, like the size of the Amazon rainforest, and they prioritised content that would help pupils to achieve the end goals of the unit. In this case, understanding why rainforests matter. Having thought really hard about what they were teaching, the teacher was able to identify what content they would test for at the end of the lesson fairly quickly.

The time that the teacher and their coach spent in identifying the learning content is likely to speed up the rest of their planning and make their lesson more effective.

Presenter key ideas

Identifying the learning content means thinking hard about what you’re teaching. How much time do you currently spend on this? Before we finish, remind yourself of the key ideas that we’ve covered in this video. Which of these ideas will you focus on first?

  • Identify essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject you are teaching.
  • Provide opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components.
  • Plan formative assessment tasks linked to lesson tasks.

Presenter summary

Identifying the learning content is a rewarding task, but it’s demanding too. We often underestimate the knowledge and skills required and it can be especially difficult if you haven’t taught the lesson or unit before. I’d highly recommend doing this task with someone who knows the content and the subject well.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Stones wants to ensure pupils experience maximum learning in each lesson. She knows she needs to challenge pupils with new learning content but is unsure how to decide the right amount of content to do this. How could she identify and divide up content, and check if learning is taking place? How can she adapt others’ plans for her own classes to achieve this?

Key idea

Teachers can ensure pupils experience maximum learning by carefully identifying the content that pupils will think hard about at different points in a lesson, breaking this thinking down and checking learning along the way.

Evidence summary

Identifying key thinking in a lesson

Learning involves processes leading to a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding – if nothing changes, arguably nothing has been learned (Sweller, 2016). As time in lesson is limited, Ms Stones needs to prioritise a manageable amount of content for her pupils to learn about. Learning takes place when pupils think hard about something (Coe, 2013) so Ms Stones should consider and carefully specify what she wants her pupils to think hard about in each lesson.

Breaking down learning

Like all of us, pupils find new academic ideas difficult, and will often avoid thinking hard wherever possible (Willingham, 2009). Pupils may also avoid tasks where they fear they will be unsuccessful (Kluger & deNisi, 1996). Ms Stones can help her pupils by breaking learning down, making thinking more manageable.

When learning is manageable, pupils will achieve a higher success rate. Effective teachers break learning down to make it more manageable by:

  • Introducing new material in small steps.
  • Sharing models (including solved problems) to illustrate each step.
  • Asking lots of questions and guiding pupils to practise each step successfully.

To support a high success rate, instruction should be aligned at different stages of teaching. For example, making sure that pupils practise the same material that has been introduced to them (Rosenshine, 2012). Therefore, when selecting the content pupils must think hard about, Ms Stones needs to consider, ”what thinking do I want pupils to be successful with?” and ”how can I break this thinking down to make success more likely?”

However, selecting appropriate steps is hard. Sometimes a step that will improve a final performance does not look like the final performance (Christodoulou, 2017). For example, a violinist might practise their scales to be fluent before attempting to improve at playing a piece, rather than just repeating the piece. Similarly, pupils might need to practise their vocabulary before attempting an essay. Ms Stones should seek support from her mentor and colleagues when breaking learning down into essential material – concepts, knowledge, skills and principles – that she wishes pupils to think about and remember.

Ms Stones wants to support a high success rate, so she also needs to understand how manageable pupils are finding the steps she has selected. However, predicting how manageable steps are can be uncertain. For example, how manageable a step is can depend on pupil prior knowledge (Willingham, 2009). Therefore, even if Ms Stones has carefully broken learning down, with support from colleagues, she still needs to assess pupils to check how successful they have been with each step.

Checking key learning

Effective teachers regularly review learning, asking lots of questions which check pupil understanding (Rosenshine, 2012). The more precisely Ms Stones has identified what she wants pupils to be thinking hard about at various stages of the lessons, the more effectively she will be able to check for key learning. She needs to check the learning of as many pupils as possible.

Ms Stones wants to establish where all learners are in relation to the key content or steps she wants pupils to succeed at. An effective strategy for checking whole-class understanding of identified content is the use of ‘exit tickets’. This is an end of lesson assessment that pupils need to be able to complete quickly and that teachers should be able to assess quickly. Getting every pupil to complete an exit ticket as a low-stakes assessment at the end of her lessons will help Ms Stones to gauge how successful pupils have been with these steps.

Ms Stones’ assessment may pick up that pupils are not yet secure in their thinking about a particular step, for example if several pupils incorrectly answer a question or there is a common misconception or error in an exit ticket. If the success rate drops, Ms Stones should provide further support, for example breaking the learning steps down further in the next lesson.

Nuances and caveats

One approach to breaking learning down could be to set steps which pupils can already easily do, to ensure success. However, setting easy work might suggest the teacher has low expectations, which is likely to negatively affect pupil confidence and motivation (Coe et al., 2014). Furthermore, if pupils are not set challenging enough tasks, they will not learn as much.

Key takeaways

Ms Stones can deliver more effective instruction by identifying the learning content if she understands that:

  • Learning is a process leading to changes in pupils’ capabilities or understanding that happens when pupils think hard.
  • Breaking learning down should make thinking manageable enough for pupils to experience a high success rate.
  • Identifying manageable steps is tricky, so teachers should check all pupils’ key learning, and provide further support to ensure a high success rate.

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.


Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996) The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Stones can deliver more effective instruction by identifying the learning content if she understands that:

  • Learning is a process leading to changes in pupils’ capabilities or understanding that happens when pupils think hard.
  • Breaking learning down should make thinking manageable enough for pupils to experience a high success rate.
  • Identifying manageable steps is tricky, so teachers should check all pupils’ key learning, and provide further support to ensure a high success rate.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?