6. Supporting pupils to build increasingly complex mental models

This session will take approximately 60 minutes to complete.

Session overview

In this session, we are going to build on your prior knowledge from module 2 to think about how you can support pupils to build increasingly complex mental models over time. This is a challenging part of effective teaching and discussing curriculum design with experienced colleagues (including how to balance exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge over time) will support your development in these skills.

This session will focus on:

  • Revisiting how pupils learn
  • The difficulty of transferring knowledge
  • Thinking critically within a subject area

Revisiting how pupils learn

Take some time now to review the following content from module 2:

In session 3 you learnt about how to use worked and partially completed examples to support pupils to build their mental models. In session 4 you explored how to strengthen pupils’ recall of knowledge and were introduced to different strategies to build well-developed mental models including: building on prior knowledge, spaced exposition and practice and retrieval practice.    

Now watch the video of either Emily (Primary and Secondary) or Maria (Early Years) as they share how they have planned to develop their pupils’ mental models across a scheme of work.

  • Which features of session 3 and session 4 have Emily or Maria used?
  • How have they balanced exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge over the course of the scheme?

Record your answers.

Developing pupils’ mental models across a scheme of work – Emily Maule

Video transcript

Building up pupils’ mental models is of paramount importance as this is what allows for pupils to be able to remember over time and draw upon the concepts, knowledge and skills they’ll need for successful learning both now and in the future.

To support this, the first strategy I use in this scheme (and all schemes) is retrieval and spaced practice, such as questioning and quizzing pupils on their knowledge each lesson and then cumulatively quizzing them throughout the scheme. And then for subsequent schemes in year 7, I quiz them on previous material to keep that knowledge alive. Referring back to prior learning also reminds pupils of its importance.

The second strategy I use in all schemes is the use of concrete examples and illustrations to help pupils engage with abstract concepts. For example, in this scheme when teaching about volcanic hazards, I support the teaching of abstract concepts such as lava flows with concrete examples and images so that pupils can engage with the material and draw on anything relevant they might have stored in their long-term memory – even from films or books they have read or seen. 

A third strategy is the intentional teaching and revisiting of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary. I repeatedly revisit the vocabulary so that pupils are continually exposed to it. For example, starting off using technical language such as tectonic hazards, tectonic plates, mantle, pressure and friction means that we can use the correct terminology from the beginning and build up pupils’ familiarity with it throughout the scheme. 

Finally, in this scheme, as with all schemes, I have sought to balance the use of exposition with pupils practising skills and knowledge, whilst always narrating the links between new content and the core concepts. These features of classroom practice help pupils to learn and build confidence, instead of new content causing them to panic and then retreat.

Video script – How have you planned to develop your pupils’ mental models across a scheme of work?

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

Despite the fact that we teach topics/themes/core texts that break up the year, the vast majority of the EYFS is one long continuous curriculum that runs from birth to year 1. Thinking of it like that helps to remind practitioners of the need to build up pupils’ mental models across the EYFS, as they need to frequently revisit their learning and make those cross curricular links to develop now and be able to achieve success in learning as they get older.

The key way that I do this is through the explicit teaching of vocabulary, both topic specific and general conversation. In our setting both high frequency words and new story nouns are introduced and repeated with an action to help our students who struggle with communication to also retain the vocabulary. This is an approach that is used throughout the school, as we know that the use of consistent non-verbals (such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’) allows students to free up some of their working memory. I try to use BSL as frequently as possible for this, i.e. in our retelling of ‘The Leopard’s Drum’, we used the BSL signs for each of the animals. These signs then acted as a piece of scaffolding for students who needed it when retelling the story. 

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, I use retrieval practice in both this series of lesson and all (see Rosenshine for more on this). Quizzing is something that I initially found challenging to incorporate into EYFS but found that once I had dedicated a considerable amount of time to  embedding the routines with pupils, i.e. TTYP, Show Me (see TLAC for more on these AFL techniques) I discovered that it was an incredibly useful strategy to ensure children were retaining key knowledge and vocabulary from previous sessions.

Finally, in this scheme, as with all schemes, I made sure to create lots of opportunities for modelling following an, I do, We/You do approach. My EYFS works in a way that not all students will engage in the same activity at the same time as we need to develop the whole child and think of their Characteristics of Effective Learning. However, this being the case it is crucial that all students have the chance to observe and participate in writing opportunities. Writing is particularly important as we can see from data that that is the area where most children struggle to achieve. Pre-writing activities and talk in particular, such as we see in this scheme with opportunities to re-tell and engage in class discussion, are key. More students are entering school working below the expected standard for Communication and Language, so we need to first embed these prime areas before moving onto the specific.


Now review and edit your scheme of work, considering the questions below:

  • Where will you build on pupils’ prior knowledge?
  • Where would it support pupils’ understanding to use worked and partially completed examples?
  • How will you build in spaced exposition and practice?
  • Where will you build in retrieval practice?

When thinking about the last two questions, it is important to think more broadly about where your scheme fits into the wider curriculum. For example, you may want to include practice of information taught in a previous scheme of work, or the retrieval of knowledge previously taught. Working with colleagues to facilitate this will support the overall sequencing and coherence of your curriculum.

Prepare to share your evolving scheme of work with your mentor.

The difficulty of transferring knowledge

When thinking about supporting pupils to build increasingly complex mental models, it is important to understand that pupils are likely to struggle to transfer what has been learnt in one discipline to a new or unfamiliar context. This is particularly relevant for curriculum design, as we may want to make use of, and bring attention to, the links between different subjects and our own. This can enrich the curriculum and support pupils to build their mental models; however, because of the point above it needs careful thought and planning.

For example, we might want pupils to use their mathematical knowledge in a geographical context and assume that they can transfer their knowledge of the use scale factors and maps to a geography task. This assumption is understandable, but pupils are unlikely to be able to do this well because ‘the use of scale factors’ is an abstract idea and they are being asked to use this knowledge in an unfamiliar context. This assumption can lead to a frustrating experience for both teacher and pupils.

From what you have learnt across the modules so far, what do you think the teacher could do to support pupils to transfer their knowledge from one discipline to another?

Please record your ideas.

Below are some ways the teacher, in the previous example, could support the transfer of knowledge:

  • Check that pupils have the foundational knowledge of scale factors and maps that is required
  • Check that pupils have the foundational geographical knowledge required
  • Draw explicit links to this prior knowledge and support pupils to bring the right ideas from their long-term memory into their working memory
  • Provide examples of this knowledge being used in a maths context (that they are familiar with) and a geographical context (which is new) and get pupils to compare examples
  • Use worked examples and partially completed examples to support pupils to apply their prior knowledge in this new context

How do these suggestions compare with your own ideas?

Thinking critically within a subject area

Another important reason for thinking carefully about what concepts or knowledge should be taught in a curriculum is that we often want pupils to think critically within a subject. However, for pupils to think critically, they must have a secure understanding of the knowledge within the subject area they are being asked to think critically about. If we don’t explicitly teach the relevant domain-specific knowledge, our pupils are likely to struggle with any activity that requires critical thinking.

We are going to use a cooking analogy to help us to understand this idea. Let’s think about the ‘dish’ as the demonstration of pupils’ critical thinking about a subject area. Let’s then think about the ‘ingredients’ that are used to produce this dish as the relevant domain-specific knowledge.

Firstly, if pupils do not know what the ingredients are, they are very unlikely to be able to make the dish! However, often we will tell pupils what the ingredients are and expect that this will be enough for them to be able to make a dish. In order to think critically, or in this analogy use the ingredients to cook, they need to have these ingredients easily at hand.

For our pupils this means that they need to have enough relevant subject knowledge in their long-term memory to draw upon in order to think or ‘cook’ well. The more developed pupils’ mental models are, the better able they will be draw upon the knowledge or ‘ingredients’ when they are asked to think critically. In other words, pupils will be able to cook a far more successful and satisfying ‘dish’!

Another pitfall for supporting pupils’ critical thinking is to focus too much on the process or the product of their critical thinking. For example, spending a disproportionate amount of time on learning how to structure a critical essay or looking at model answers, rather than spending enough time to help pupils master the domain specific knowledge required to think well about the subject area. To use the above analogy again, we might spend a lot of time learning about how to use the kitchen appliances or follow the steps of a recipe, but without good knowledge of the ingredients and their properties, we would be unlikely to be able to cook anything that was edible or tasty.   

Your upcoming training session will focus more on how to help pupils apply knowledge and skills to other contexts.

One final word about curriculum

During this module, you have designed a carefully sequenced and coherent scheme of work. This will act as a guide for you and any other teachers you share it with. When it comes to teaching your scheme of work, remember that it serves you best as a roadmap.

A roadmap will show the destination (the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the content to be taught) and the best route to get there (the teaching practices and materials most likely to lead to successful learning). As you begin to follow the roadmap you have planned out, remember to be flexible, adjusting your route to the needs of your pupils as the scheme unfolds.

Viewed in this light, your scheme of work should be a dynamic and evolving guide. As you are teaching it, reflect on what’s working well and what isn’t. Make adaptations to it as you go, responding to the strengths and needs of your pupils as they emerge. Keep a note of these changes and add comments to help you to evaluate the success of the scheme as whole. That way, you can make amendments and improvements for the next time you teach it.

Note that one key indicator of the success of a scheme of work is that, at any stage, you can explain why you are teaching something, and your pupils understand why they are learning it. If we understand how a scheme of work links to the bigger picture, we can help our pupils to make these connections and the learning becomes more motivating and meaningful for everyone.

Finally, it’s worth adding the best curriculum design happens when teachers work together. So, proactively seek out opportunities to work with other teachers, contributing to curriculum development in your school and beyond.  

Related ECF strands

Subject and curriculum

3.6 In order for pupils to think critically, they must have a secure understanding of knowledge within the subject area they are being asked to think critically about.

3.8 Pupils are likely to struggle to transfer what has been learnt in one discipline to a new or unfamiliar context.

3f. Discussing curriculum design with experienced colleagues and balancing exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge.

3i. Providing tasks that support pupils to learn key ideas securely (e.g. quizzing pupils so they develop fluency with times tables).

3j. Using retrieval and spaced practice to build automatic recall of key knowledge.

3k. Ensuring pupils have relevant domain-specific knowledge, especially when being asked to think critically within a subject.