In French lessons we often talk about the “Big Four” – the four verbs that students really need to know.

Without a grasp of ‘avoir, être, faire and aller’ they are a bit stuck really… And yet, still in years 12 and 13 there are still basic errors and misunderstandings.

big 4 verbs

I have started another ‘Big Four’ list in French – the biggest obstacles to learning French. These are still a work in progress but the fact that every noun has a gender is definitely one, the past tense having three parts (je suis allé) not two (I went) is another, and the other two are adjectives (position and agreement in number and gender – les maisons bleues…) and negatives (the ne..pas around the verb being trickier to manipulate than ‘not’). I believe that these difficulties may be examined productively through the lens of ‘threshold concepts‘ (+ pdf) and I will be exploring this idea over the next year.

But what of the ‘Big Four’ of teaching itself? Could it be possible to distil such a complex profession into four simple ideas? Obviously not. So I tried.

Mark Twain

Number 1:

Positivity. Relentless positivity.

This for me is the backbone of who I am as a teacher. I believe that you can achieve. I believe in you. I believe that you can enjoy this and learn something at the same time. I believe in my colleagues and respect them and care for them as much as I respect and care for my students. Just as I am inspired and energised by people around me – staff, students, parents, the wider community – I aim to inspire and energise those around me. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. That doesn’t stop me trying.


Number 2:

Feedback. (Positive feedback!)

Be kind. Be specific. Be helpful. If you haven’t heard of Ron Berger or read his “An Ethic of Excellence”, try to see “Austin’s Butterfly” on YouTube.

Give feedback. Get feedback. Keep the feedback loop stable with a balance of positive and negative (remembering that Positive and negative in this sense refer to loop gains greater than or less than zero, and do not imply any value judgements as to the desirability of the outcomes or effects. Positive feedback reinforces and negative feedback moderates the original process). Get feedback from your students – it can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve your teaching, as well as fundamentally improving your relationships with your students by starting a real dialogue around learning with them. I have created a student feedback toolkit here which you are welcome to use.


Number 3:


Call it planning, call it making resources, call it whatever you like, we teachers need to look things up and to try and make good lessons. If we can do this by looking at what works or has worked elsewhere, then all the better. There is never a need to reinvent the wheel, most of what we do has been done before, elsewhere, perhaps better. Research doesn’t necessarily mean doing a Masters or accessing academic documents, it could be reading blogs, developing an online network, or simply collaborating with colleagues. The important thing to my mind is to be critical in what we do in the classroom: does it work? how do we know that? is there evidence out there to back up what we are doing? are we doing things that are having a potentially negative effect on learning? Hattie’s effect sizes, based on meta-analysis of thousands of studies on learning and progress, is the gold standard and a good place to start looking, but this Sutton Trust / Education Endowment Foundation report is perhaps more accessible and also includes a cost/benefit analysis as well as a reliability value for each intervention in terms of how solid the evidence is for each topic.


Number 4:


I didn’t really get this when I first came across this. Thinking about thinking? Hmmm.

However, when I realised what metacognition is all about, I started to understand its potential significance in learning. One easy way in is to look at helping students improve their exam skills by talking them through an exam paper – John Thomsett examines this idea here. I use a similar idea, but ask students to work out how many marks a complete beginner could get on the exam paper – it forces them to examine what they know, what they don’t know, and how a beginner could work out some of the answers.


What are your big four?

PS. Why 4? You may have heard that the brain can only process 5 or 7 things at one time – and this is based on some solid and well backed up research here. But there is also some research out there which suggests that the brain can deal with 4 things at one time. This may have serious implications for teaching, and the more I think about this, the more logical it seems to try to group things into 4s rather than 5s or 7s.