The Complexity of the classroom

By Andew Currie

This week’s blog is penned by welcome newcomer Andrew Currie and focuses on the Complexity of the classroom. Enjoy!

If you sat down with someone and had to explain all of the decisions you make within one lesson the list would be extensive: from the tone of voice you use; to your positioning;  to the timings and the minute by minute alterations, you make to the complexity of your lessons. What Krievaldt and Turnidge (2013) refer to as ‘clinical reasoning’, an unspoken tacit knowledge which is developed over time in the classroom and so can be difficult to describe to trainees. So how can we unpick this complexity and begin to demystify this intriguing, intoxicating and sometimes infuriating profession we call teaching?


Many of my reflections come from recent discussions with Joe B at a recent National Association of school-based teacher trainers (NASBTT)  conference for SCITT directors, where we began to unpick just how we teach teachers, amongst a variety of other topics. As part of the course, we were provided with a copy of the book written by Katherine Burn, Hazel Hagger, and Trevor Mutton and Edited by Ian Menter: Beginning Teacher’s Learning. This pithy and precise book is a great tool for anyone involved in teacher education and will certainly form a major part of any mentor training I deliver moving forwards.

Many people use the analogy of the complexities of teaching to that of the driving of the car; when you first begin your lessons everything is considered and deliberate, every gear change and an indication is a carefully choreographed series of actions. The whole process is exhausting and you begin to wonder how you will ever complete a three-hour journey when a thirty-minute lesson leaves you ready for a lie-down. So it is a small wonder that we have trainee teachers reaching crisis point and wondering how on Earth they will see out the term, let alone their NQT year or even a career; indeed many do not. This is why according to a recent National Education Union survey, 80% of classroom teachers have seriously considered leaving the profession in the past 12 months. 


If we consider looking at teaching through the lens of cognitive load theory there is a great deal of extraneous load placed on teachers from unwieldy marking policies to excessive use of monitoring and data capturing. However, that is another post in itself and the load placed on trainees is determined at an individual school level. What I am interested in is the intrinsic complexities of teaching: how well are they understood by trainees and mentors and how can a better understanding of them support us in making trainees hone and perfect precise skills, rather than drowning in a sea of unfathomable practices. In the diagram below CL refers to Cognitive Load. 

In Beginning teachers learning  Burn & co make reference to Doyle’s  6 competing concerns of the classroom (1977) and through their  DEBT research project identify the 6 goals that trainees have when reflecting on their training year. By looking at these and understanding the inherent complexities within each one and reminding ourselves of how challenging these are for novice teachers, mentors and trainers can start a discussion around how to support trainees and prevent their progress from ‘stalling’  or even worse ‘crashing’ out of the profession altogether.

Pupil achievement

This is the goal of all trainees and their ideas of pupils achieving do not always tie in with those of the experienced teacher. Much is spoken about the progress made by pupils under trainee tutorage, however, for trainees’, this achievement may look very different to what the mentor may expect. It could be the successful completion of a task or the perception that the pupils have understood the concepts trainees were trying to teach.  

Pupil state

This is a biggie for trainees in the early stages of their training, I am sure that the word enthusiasm and confidence is a regular feature of many reflections.  Indeed the sticky issue of ‘pupil engagement’ is one that many experienced teachers still grapple with. This is a goal for many trainees as their perception of pupils enjoying their lessons is tied up with their self-perception of their ability to teach.

Pupil action

This is summaries by Burn as ‘what the pupils are actually doing’, and can range from the organisational challenges of a classroom to the behaviour management strategies. If the pupils are seen to be doing what is expected at a point in the lesson that is often good enough for trainees. However as the more experienced teacher will be fully aware, in the classroom, there is often more going on than first meets the eye.

Pupil knowledge

This could be understood by more experienced teachers as being closely tied to pupil achievement, however when unpicked has a lot more to do with the trainee teacher’s understanding of pupils learning. To what extent do trainees understand the current level of pupils knowledge on a topic? How regularly do they check in and update their understanding of the lesson or unit unfolds?


It is easy to forget that in their training year (and hopefully beyond) trainees hold a dual identity of both teacher and learner. Weekly they are gaining new knowledge of theory or strategies and reflecting on their impact on teaching; setting targets and producing evidence that they are indeed making progress.


Trainees and teachers can become obsessed with a particular strategy or approach and their focus on this can cause them to lose sight of the purpose or reasoning behind said strategies inclusion in their lesson. Indeed many mentors will have played out the following conversation in post-lesson feedback.

Mentor: So what went well in that lesson

Trainee: I used the AFL strategies of first of five

Mentor: Okay,  and why was that important?

Trainee: Well, my target was to include more AFL.

Mentor: Why do you think that was a target?



Burn et al (2000)  also explain that within any given lesson trainees can also be subject two 12 further factors which trainees take into account. I won’t unpick these but as you can see there is a huge amount of trainees and their mentors to consider.

Burn correctly identifies that we need to find ways of “managing the complexity so that trainees remain confident that they can succeed, but without distorting or denying its reality in ways that will ultimately inhibit their learning.”

So the question is how can we ensure that the complexity which is inherent to teaching doesn’t overwhelm trainees?

One suggestion is that to be explicit in identifying these complexities with new teachers and providing them with the time to unpack their own perceptions of each of these elements. For example is their perception of a successful lesson identified by the action, state or achievement of their pupils? How does this focus affect their approach to teaching?  Which ingredients do they hold in high regard and what is the impact of this on their planning process? This metacognitive approach to lesson evaluation could provide new and experienced teachers with a greater insight not only into their outcomes but into their own understanding of what it means to them to be a teacher.

It will be of little comfort to newer teachers that the concerns they have around their practice are unlikely to go away, instead they will be replaced with other concerns which will continue to improve their practice. If we as more experienced members of their team  begin to share our own concerns about our own teaching, this can be a great relief to trainees and NQT. It is our job to explain the fact that whilst there will always be difficulties to navigate, and bumps in the road, the journey is worth it.




Burn, K, Hagger, H,  Mutton T (2000) Beyond concerns with the self : the sophisticated  thinking of beginning student teachers [Journal of education for teaching]

Didau, D (2015) Does engagement actually matter? [ The Learning Spy]

Krievaldt and Turnidge (2013 )Conceptualizing an approach to Clinical reasoning in the Education profession [Australian Journal of Teacher Education]

Menter (2015) Beginning teachers’ learning [critical Guides For Teacher Educators]

Malamed, C : What is cognitive load?

Tickle, L (2018)  Every lesson is a battle’: Why teachers are lining up to leave [The Guardian]

National Education Union Survey Accessed at


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