“How do you know?”….the hardest question in teaching.

It is just 4 short words, but this brief question strikes right to the heart of all that you do – so why should it be so hard to answer?

The easy response is that it really should not be difficult to answer at all – however it is one that catches many colleagues out!

So what is the question asking?

If we look analytically then it is obvious that this is not a lead question, in other words this is not the sort of question that can open a conversation or enquiry. Rather, it is in response to a query or investigative study that is being made.

So looking at things in this light then it suggests that certain statements have been made by the respondent prior to the asking of this question.

It is also not a question that is solely founded in education – in fact in a huge range of scenarios this question would prove relevant and equally as searching.

In a nutshell the question asks this:

“You have made a statement about something – now give me the evidence that backs this up!”

It’s at that point the crunch happens – in short …you either have it or you don’t!

Let’s apply this to an education setting

Headteachers and the SLT, especially coordinators for the core subjects of maths and english make great effort to be able to be accountable. Record keeping and tracking of all children is the norm and indeed data analysis has become quite an art in itself, as schools not only produce useful data that can be fed back into the system, but also “just in case data” especially for OFSTED!

However, there is absolutely no point in producing data simply for the fact of “producing data”….data production and analysis should be part of a cyclical procedure that sees results and findings fed back into a system that looks to improve results and streamline and refine procedures.

But if we step away from school accountability and look at things a little less in the limelight; we can, at times, see quite a different picture!

Applying the question in different contexts

If we now turn our attention towards other systems and structures within school and ask the same question, just what sort of answers would we receive? I know what answers we may hope to receive but are these born out in reality?

Coordinators – aside from knowing what is being taught across the school in your subject; can you answer answer anything about achievement and if so “how do you know?”

In other words what data do you have to back up anything you may have said about achievement. If your subject is being taught and you are coordinating this subject, then doesn’t it follow that you should know how effectively it is being taught and how the children are achieving?

Any response that begins with the words “I think…” or similar suggests you are waffling!

Class teachers – In my opinion this can be a big problem area and is being exacerbated by the current problems with teacher workload.

Let me explain – We are all aware that the profession has a huge problem with excessive workload. This should be now a priority for school management teams and in most cases (I say this hopefully) is being positively addressed. But are we in danger of throwing the “baby out with the bathwater!” In other words are we choosing to now omit some aspects of things that are crucial?

There are certain aspects involved with teaching that are at the core of what we do in the classroom. One of these is assessment for learning and takes place in a variety of ways both in our planning and delivery of material. Basically, and in a very simplistic way….we teach a  subject topic or unit of work and assess as we progress through that unit. During our teaching programme we are constantly assessing what we are doing and how the children are responding and achieving. Ultimately we need to make a decision at the end of the unit as to how each child has achieved.

But , and here’s the big problem…how many teachers are actually making and recording those assessments? Are teachers just covering the unit of work before simply moving onto the next?

If let’s say I asked the question to a Y4 teacher about how the children achieved in “long division”…how would they answer. My guess would be that the member of staff would be able to say broadly how successful it went…perhaps name a few that struggled and possibly why. If I then followed this up with

“How do you know?” – what sort of response would that generate especially if the unit was completed let’s say 2 months ago?


In other words, what data or records do you have to backup the statements you are making.

Here’s another…”How are your children achieving in their reading?” (now this may be easier to answer in KS1)  “How do you know?”

In conclusion

In my opinion effective teaching and learning is based fundamentally on assessment for learning and its efficient implementation in the teaching process. However this is an incremental process which builds on itself to produce a finished and desirable result where every child achieves to their maximum potential whatever their ability.

In order for this to happen and maximise the learning involved therefore, I would expect both the school and staff to be able to answer these most simple of questions….

  1. What has been covered?
  2. How have the children achieved?
  3. How do you know?

So, is it the hardest question in teaching? – quite simply I think the answer is YES as it underpins everything that occurs both in an individual classroom and in the school as a whole.

The final question now has to be:- “can you answer it in your classroom or your school?”






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