The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for learning

Can progress be both rapid and sustained?

We start out with the aim of making the important measurable and end up making only the measurable important.

Dylan Wiliam

Does slow and steady win the race?

‘Rapid and sustained progress’ is Ofsted’s key indictor for success. Schools across the land chase this chimera like demented puppies chasing their own tails. But just when when you think you’ve gripped it firmly between your slavering jaws, the damn thing changes and slips away.

You see, the more I look into it, the more I’m convinced that progress cannot be both rapid and sustained. You cannot eat your cake and have it: we either focus on the long term goal of learning, or give in to the short term pressures of performance.

This last week has been a watershed. Over the past year or so I have become increasingly certain that making progress in lessons is a nonsense and any attempt to get students to demonstrate their progress is a meaningless pantomime that benefits no one. The past few days have seen any remaining doubts shattered.

The arguments laid out here should be adequate to convince even the most entrenched and wrongheaded champions of ‘progress in lessons’.

But there’s a further problem. Basically, slowing down the speed at which students learn increases long term retention and transfer of knowledge.  We know from the Hare and the Tortoise that travelling faster is not always better. And as in folklore, so in education; in our attempts to cover the curriculum we can sacrifice students’ learning. We’re all under increasing pressure to teach to the test and the idea of not cramming in the content is, frankly, a bit unnerving. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place: slow down and risk lack of coverage, or speed up and sacrifice depth of learning.

Relying on direct instruction would seem more efficient and predictable than messing around with enquiry and discovery learning and, unsurprisingly perhaps, this is borne out by research. In our efforts to make sure we cover the course engaging students in  time-consuming, cognitively demanding activities that nurture deep understanding appears an unaffordable luxury. In GCSE English courses, reading and analysing an entire book has become a relic of a half forgotten and happier past. Breadth trumps depth. And the more pressure you’re under, the more you’re likely to skip.

The idea of pacing, asks us to plan our programmes of study so that  learning is chunked and topics are arranged coherently, with a clear sense of how long different elements will take to teach. Obviously, we also need to allow for some unpredictability depending on the particular mix of kids in front of us: as teachers we need to keep our expectations high but keep a weather eye on areas in which our students struggle. In this way we can arrive at the most efficient way of rigorously covering our content while still allowing time for the experimentation and inquiry which which is so vital for long term retention. This is something Maurice Holt and the Slow Education gang have been bandying about for some time but I was fascinated to discover the work of cognitive psychologist, Robert Bjork which seems to bang the same drum.

Bjork describes conditions which slow the pace of learning but increase long term performance as ‘desirable difficulties’. Now in a world in which ‘rapid and sustained progress’ is sought we might have a problem: rapid progress may well be the enemy of sustained progress. And as such, techniques which favour sustaining progress at the expense of the speed at which this progress might well go unappreciated by a pitiless inspection regime.

But, as ever, we need to do what is right, hold our nerve and be ready to explain our thinking. Here’s an outline of some of the techniques we can use to concentrate on sustaining progress:

Variation – As we’re all aware, variety is the spice of life; a steady diet of the same-old same-old, no matter how delicious, is enough to put off anyone. So it should come as no surprise that using the same lesson structures will, eventually  start to pall. The research on variation in lesson design looks specifically at mixing up deep and surface learning strategies rather than trying to cram in as much deep learning as students can stomach. This may at first seem counter intuitive; surely we’re better off prompting students to make profound connections between the things they know and challenging them to make increasing abstract generalisations and hypothesises? No, apparently not. The theory suggests that getting students to remember facts and expand their knowledge base is just as important as getting them to creatively manipulate all the stuff they’re digesting.

The point is that if we are more interested in long term retention and processing we need to provide students with a balanced diet of deep and superficial knowledge. This may be less exciting in the short term, and certainly, messing about with hexagons can look really impressive to an observer in a way that learning facts doesn’t but we need to keep our eyes on the prize and remember that being able to perform spectacularly in a lesson is not the same as being able to perform well independently in an exam.

Spacing – The concept of designing your schemes of learning so that new concepts and important information is regularly revisited is nothing new. I first came across it several years ago and, ironically, promptly forget about it. I was reminded of it when reading Nuthall’s essential The Hidden Lives of Learners and stumbled across his insight that new information has be encountered on at least three different occasions in order to be retained. Bjork contends that spacing “is one of the most robust results in all of cognitive psychology and has been shown to be effective over a large range of stimuli and retention intervals from nonsense syllables to foreign language learning across many months.”  And if we increase the spacing between reminding students about new information this “enhances learning because it decreases accessibility of the to-be-learned information” Or, in other words, the harder you work at having to call something, the more likely you are to remember it in the future.

Here’s another clip of Bjork explaining the effects of spacing on retention:

So, we need to design our curriculum to cover and recover information. There are various competing theories on the optimum spacing of learning but as long as we work out in advance when and how we’re going to revisit what we want students to retain we should be OK. One piece of home spun common sense is that we should ‘input less, output more’. What this means is that having encountered some facts we will learn far more if we try in some way to recreate this knowledge rather than just reviewing what we’ve learned. Writing this post is far better for my retention of all this cognitive psychology than simply reading it over and over. Although this is something every teacher knows instinctively, it’s nice to have some of our biases confirmed by the boffins.

Interleaving vs blocking – If we accept that spacing works, then interleaving is a great way to design your scheme of learning. If we’re just hanging around for a few days waiting for the optimum time to have elapsed before reteaching what will we fill the intervening lessons with? Happily, interleaving provides the answer.

Traditionally we ‘block’ learning. This means that students exhaustively focus on one particular concept or type of problem until they are considered to have mastered it and then they move on to another, related topic and so until they have studied all the components of a course in discrete blocks. Interleaving, on the other hand, involves doing a bit of everything at the same time so that students might tackle several concepts or try to solves several different kinds of problems at once. Here’s the kicker: when students’ learning is ‘blocked’ they perform much better during lessons – it looks like their learning. But when they’ve finished studying all their blocks of knowledge and are tested at the end of a course, their score decrease fairly dramatically. When teaching interleaves knowledge students perform worse during lessons but their retention at the end of a couse appears to be dramatically better.

The observant among you will have highlighted a couple of problems: if we observe lessons looking for evidence of progress, we will encourage teachers to block learning so that students perform better at the time of the observation. But is a system which (increasingly) relies on terminal exams, teachers who interleave learning (an their students) should come out on top. If the research is accurate, this really is a no-brainer.

Here’s Bjork again:

Feedback– Apparently, delaying and reducing feedback promotes learning. But this can’t be right, can it? Surely feedback is the most effective thing a teacher can be doing? Well, yes it is, but sometimes less is more.

I recently signed up to Dr Will Thalheimer’s subscription service on feedback and he has this to say:

Feedback (in most learning situations) tends to be more effective if it is delayed. It works the same way as spaced repetitions. In general, the longer the delay the better, up to a point where the delay can reduce learning.

In addition, some research shows that reducing the frequency of feedback can actually increase learning. Giving feedback after only half of all activities had more impact on long term retention than giving feedback on all of them. There are three reasons for this this:

1. Frequent feedback makes students too dependent on external validation and prevents students from developing an ability to rely on their own judgement.

2. Feedback works by “facilitating next-response planning and retrieval. In this sense, frequent feedback might provide too much facilitation in the planning of the subsequent response, thereby reducing the participant’s need to perform memory retrieval operations thought to be critical for learning”.

I’d advise taking all this with a large pinch of common sense but it’s worth considering whether the way we give feedback might be preventing students from becoming sufficiently resilient and independent.


It seems that many of the things we’re told to do in lessons because they’re great for demonstrating progress may actually be getting in the way of deep learning. If we accept that performance is not a reliable indicator of learning then we may have a problem. Most current educational thinking is all about checking students’ performance in lessons to judge their learning so that we know what to teach them next lesson. We’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that we need to check progress in lessons otherwise we’ll have no idea what students have learned. But real learning takes time. As Nuthall points out, “learning is invisible and cannot be seen in the activities of the teacher or students”. The fact that learning and forgetting can happen simultaneously mean that it is “impossible for teachers to judge what their students are learning without much more detail and individually differentiated data than they have available in the classroom.”

So, instead of setting up activities which test students’ current performance to use as evidence of progress and then acting on this to plan future lessons in the belief that we know what our students have learned we should instead listen to cognitive psychologists about how the brain works and how learning happens and design curricula and lesson accordingly.

Let’s focus on learning rather then performance, and let’s focus on progress which is sustained rather than that which is rapid.

Next post: strategies for designing lessons based on what cognitive psychology tells us: lessons for learning

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Live Lesson Obs: Making lesson observations formative

You can push and prod people into something better than mediocrity, but you have to encourage excellence.

David Lammy

We’ve all experienced the dread and agony of formal lesson observations, haven’t we? We’ve sweated blood over our preparations, filled in inch thick lesson plans and obsessed over meaningless details in our presentations. Or is that just me?

A while back now I read something (I forget exactly what) by Phil Beadle which went along the lines of “Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.” This nugget has rattled around in my stony heart ever since with the result that I’ve started to relax somewhat when I’m observed. But, I’m still an obsessive by nature and find it hard to resist staying up late the night before ‘tweaking’.

For sometime now I’ve felt unhappy about the process of lesson observations. It’s widely accepted that giving students a grade for their work gets in the way of them acting on feedback and actually learning something; most schools even have ‘comment only’ marking policies to enforce this very thing. So, why do we insist on grading lesson observations? Doesn’t this prevent teachers from learning too?

I fully understand the pressure on a school to compile databases on its teachers’ effectiveness and am sanguine about the reality that we all exist somewhere on spreadsheets as 1s, 2s and 3s: it’s just a fact of our (somewhat truncated) professional lives. But while I accept the inevitability of grading, there’s a very real danger that there’s not much point to lesson observations other than to add to the already groaning burden of teachers’ accountability. Unless, that is, the observation is developmental.

I try to make all my observations developmental. Instead of trying to decide if what I’m observing is any good or not, I focus on how my feedback might result in the teacher improving their teaching, and, like the canine pets of Russian behavioural psychologists, improving their students’ learning. I work on the assumption that if teachers are waiting to find out what grade I think their lesson is they won’t hear very much else. And as soon as I’ve told them, they’re either too relieved or devastated for any kind of developmental conversation.

At Clevedon School we have a healthy balance of judgmental and developmental observations. Every single teacher in the school has received a judgement so far this year and our spreadsheet is duly updated and kept in readiness in the event that the inspector should call. Whilst no system can ever be perfect, we’ve put some real thought into how we can take some of the pain out of the process and make observations valuable development for all. concerned.

Firstly, we wanted to get rid of all the time hanging about after an observation waiting to find out the result. Of course every effort is always made to see the teacher with 24 hours but even when this does happen the situation is cold. The lesson has happened and any opportunity for learning is diminished by time and distance. The other stone we wanted to shake out of the observation shoe was the fact that while we had to make a summative judgement of some sort, could the process not be, at least in some way, formative?

The result of all this cogitation has been christened, the Live Lesson Obs. Here’s the paper work we use:

The idea is, and this is a bit out on a limb, that the observer should actually speak to the teacher. And vice versa. As an observer you would run your finger down the proffered dishes available for each of the given courses and select a prompt for a conversation to have with the teacher being observed. This has a number of real advantages:

1. There is an expectation that teachers have to let students get on with some work and give them strategies to cope constructively with being stuck.

2. As a teacher, you get to explain your thinking to the observer as the lesson progresses. You can explain why particular students are doing particular things and why you may be deviating from the lovingly crafted plan you’ve given them. In my case, I take the opportunity to explain exactly why what the students are doing makes the lesson outstanding. In the same way that Ofsted’s judgements on schools’ effectiveness often come down to whether the head teacher is more assertive than the lead inspector, a successful observation comes down to the teacher’s ability to articulate why the lesson has been designed as it has and to point just how students are making progress.

3. As an observer, you get to ask teachers why they have made particular decisions and (this bit’s my favourite part) you get to prompt them to make changes or suggest possible improves at the point of teaching. This makes the process truly formative. If I see something going wrong, I don’t have to just sit and watch as the train wreck unfolds; I can ask questions and offer advice that might improve students’ learning and the teacher’s teaching.

4. As the feedback takes place during the lesson, there’s no need to go through that anxious wait to find out what the observer thought: for better or worse, you know.

Maybe you worry that this sort of process may be open to the abuse of incompetent observers? To a degree, any system of observation depends on the skill and integrity of the observer but another part of our observation process is that the observer becomes the observed. We usually operate in triads where the discussions between teachers are made transparent. Of course mistakes may still be made, but this should minimise them.

This makes the whole process of observations feel more like it’s being done with teachers than to them. Teachers feel empowered by being able to explain their thinking and observers get to check out their judgements by asking the teacher if what they’re interpretation of what they’re seeing is accurate.

None of this is unique or particularly innovative, but the effect can be magical. We’re all agreed that improving the quality of teachers is the key to improving standards and this has helped to turn what is often merely a laborious way of monitoring into a system rooted in professional development and growth. Having experienced both in the fairly recent past, I’m unequivocal about which I prefer.

Related posts

What’s the point of lesson observations?

Are teacher observations a waste of time?

Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give

Of cabbages, round tables and kings

Back in the day King Arthur had a problem. Bickering barons made a great deal of fuss  about who was the biggest cheese. When they sat down together for a friendly chat things soon came to head because on your traditional rectangular table everyone would vie to sit nearest the king – the further away you sat the less important you were. The solution? A round table! The table has no head and everyone gets to feel valued and special. Ah, if only all life’s predicaments could be fixed with furniture: IKEA would have a seat at the United Nations.

Guess where the boss sits

The table has since become a powerful symbol for equality. How can you have a hierarchy if everyone is equal? Indeed. Small wonder then that the group of Twitter heads have chosen Headteachers’ Roundtable as their name. There is a small issue here though. Roundtables are synonymous with equality; Heads, not so much. Schools are, by their very nature, hierarchical with a single point of accountability for all that happens within them. As teachers we know and accept this. Some of us aspire to the stresses and strains of headship, some don’t. But regardless of our position within the hierarchy of the school we work at, don’t we all have an equal right and responsibility to have our say? Much of the resentment that teachers feel comes from the fact that their views are either ignored or marginalised. Clearly much of the resentment headteachers feel comes from a similar place. So is gathering a group of headteachers around a table, no matter its shape, the best solution to what ails us? Why is it that Headteachers have the monopoly on what’s right for education in the UK?

Like many teachers, the idea of a grassroots opposition to the lack of consultation and anti-teacher rhetoric which spews out of Whitehall is attractive. I’m all for the existence of a pressure group with the clout to get Twigg and various other toothless politicos to listen to them. We all want to put checks and balances in the way of the executive arm of government no matter our view on politics or the mandate of the party (or parties) in power. But how representative are the views that the Heads Roundtable are putting forward?

For those unaware of their 6 point plan, here it is:

  1. Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving specific grades and levels in examinations and tests respectively;
  2. Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve;
  3. The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years);
  4. The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains;
  5. “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve;
  6. School accountability measures should encourage collaboration between schools and explicitly develop systems leadership.

Some of these you might agree with, some you may not. But it’s important to remember that this plan derives from the collective wisdom of 12 people. I don’t for a moment doubt their sincerity and accept that they believe they are acting in the best interests of the students for whom they are responsible. But is that enough? That’s what most of us would claim, isn’t it?

Anyway, that’s the moaning over. For what it’s worth, and in the spirit of constructive criticism, here is my critique of the plan:

1. We’d really need to know what the alternative ways schools might be assessed are. Rightly or wrongly, the most important thing schools do is churn out students qualified in some way to play a useful role in society. Currently (and for the foreseeable future) this is weighed and measured in terms of exams. It seems reasonable therefore to hold schools to account for the results their students’ achieve. The problem with the way these results are used. Even Ofqual now seem to agree that league tables are the work of the devil and the root cause of everything that’s wrong with our exam system. And anyway, don’t Ofsted assess schools on more than just their results? Or is that naive?

2. Which brings us to the role of Ofsted. The latest noises made by Wilshaw in his speech to the RSA suggest that finally Ofsted might be willing to let teachers teach. Who’s to say a local partnership would do a better job? I certainly think that the manner in which Ofsted inspect could be changed and the idea that the lead inspector should be responsible for help schools act on recommendations is appealing. There’s lots wrong with Ofsted, but maybe the devil you know is preferable to a mushrooming of nebulous ‘local partnerships’?

3. The idea that our education system should not be a political football is great. However, the suggestion that the ball is licked out to touch for 20 years is full of potential pitfalls. Laura MCInnery’s A Letter To Future Education Ministers: Could Curriculum Review Look Like This? is better thought out and more likely to appeal: her idea of a review board would achieve the same ends by a much more palatable means. All prospective reformers should read this and remember that, “So many efforts continue to proceed in innocence, as if implementation were just a matter of bringing good ideas and clear thinking to the benighted.” I’m sure the Twitter heads don’t consider us as benighted, but the temptation to do what we think is best for everyone can be overwhelming.

4. I really don’t have a strong opinion on this, but as far as I can tell the tide is already shifting against large national chains so maybe it’s not much of a bone of contention?

5. OK. Here I wholeheartedly agree. Norm referencing is not the way forward and I have already written my opinions on this here.

6. Collaboration between schools would appear to be a positive thing. Do current accountability measures really encourage competition local rivals beyond the kind of annual hurrah which comes from seeing who’s top of the tables? And collaboration should be as wide as possible. It seems obvious that primaries and secondaries should work more closely, but the (implicit) suggestion here is that collaboration should be local and narrow. Why? Why not involve national chains? Why not involve the private sector? Why not collaborate internationally? And I’m not 100% sure what ‘systems leadership’ actually is but I’m all for things being developed explicitly rather than being left as an implicit muddle. None of the ideas in this point would appear to be at odds with government policy, but maybe that’s just my ignorance talking.

Bravo to these heads for getting the ball rolling but if I were King Arthur I’d want to focus on Point 5. The argument that norm referencing is bad would be a clear clarion call to arms that most teachers would be happy to support.


How not to improve a school

Everyone agrees that ‘lasting and sustaining improvement in student outcomes’ is a good thing and there’s little doubt that we should also seek to narrow the gap in achievement between different groups of students. Nuff said. But how should we go about it?

Ben Levin, writer of How To Improve 5,000 Schools is pretty clear on what we shouldn’t do. We should avoid the following assumptions:

  • a single change can lead to rapid improvement
  • strong leaders can force schools to improve
  • incentives will motivate schools to improve
  • change must driven from above through policies
  • new standards and curriculum models will lead to improved results
  • data and accountability will lead to improvement

So, what should we do?

Prof Hattie, Dylan Wiliam and The Sutton Trust all urge us that it’s ‘the quality of teaching makes all the difference’ (Visible Learning for Teachers). Obviously leafy post codes, middle class kids and supportive parents will have a huge impact on a school’s outcomes but remember the second part of what we’re all after? The bit about narrowing the gap? If we’re going to achieve that it might be better to focus on the following:

  • high expectations for all students – even those kids. Get them to enjoy doing something difficult rather than the easy win of completing word searches and other educational evils.
  • the quality of relationships between adults and students – make them believe you like them, even if you don’t. If you fake it for long enough you’ll start to believe it. Be fair, consistent and really try to avoid being a grumpy git on a Monday morning.
  • students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. That means no sweeties or merits as incentives:  the task is the reward. Reward their effort not their success
  • a rich and balanced curriculum – learning should not always be formal – there is a need to veer between the efficiency of direction instruction and the excitement of discovery learning
  • a focus on effective teaching practices in all classrooms every day. That means stopping teachers from perpetrating well-intentioned nonsense and focussing on what the research shows are the most effectives strategies. (Effective formative feedback is still top of the list.)
  • data and feedback which is used to support learning and not used as a stick to beat teachers with

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High performers

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Should we stop doing ‘good things’?

Stress. How much is too much?

Like most teachers, I’ll be back at school on Monday and already I’ve got the heeby jeebies. Apart from all the usual planning and preparation, controlled assessment folders for the new GCSE specification need final moderation. Every English department is in the same position; this is our first run through with new marking criteria and so much is riding on us getting these marks right. There can be no mistakes.

I know I’m not the only one to be feeling the pressure at the moment. The new watchword in education is ‘accountability’. If students don’t make ‘expected progress’ then I’m at fault and liable to be sacked. Obviously if my results were poor this would seem a reasonable pressure to be under, but they’re not; they’re excellent. So why am I feeling under so much pressure?

There seems to be a belief that effective leadership is about being uncompromising and brutal. Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw has said this explicitly.

Take that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there. Being a headteacher is all about being the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight, as powerful as any chief executive. I’m not that bothered about distributed leadership; I would never use it; I don’t think Clint would either. We need headteachers with ego. You see heads who don’t use ‘I’ and use ‘we’ instead, but they should. We need heads who enjoy power and enjoy exercising that power.

Well, it’s a point of view. He’s also said

A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.

The problem with Sir Mike uttering these pithy pearls of wisdom is that they lead to situations like this: What keeps me awake at night – A tale of two head teachers. The head in this article is described thus:

He rarely praises staff, but passes criticisms down through senior management. He has regular pupil attainment meetings with teachers, telling us that problems at home cannot be taken into consideration when getting levels up. Head Number 2’s staff feel unappreciated, demoralised and permanently on edge.

Is this really what we want staff in schools to feel? Can this really be the best way to lead effectively? Does SMW really think this is a successful model of headship? Maybe he’s been misrepresented by a cruel education press?

If this really is what he believes then it might pay him to consider the following question. What happens if you put something, or someone, under too much stress for too long? In the case of a steel bar, it breaks. In the case of a human being, they break down. Stress is caused by threat or challenge and we need to feel some of that if we’re going to perform at our peak, but there comes a point at which the pressure applied becomes too great and performance drops off. Yesterday, I came across The inverted U hypothesis which suggests that if too much pressure is applied to athletes then their performance is reduced. Now, I understand that this is sports psychology and only a hypothesis but it seems like common sense.

I haven’t been able to find any evidence for Wilshaw’s views, but maybe there is some. If so, I’d really like to see it.

It’s also worth reading Alistair Smith’s High Performers for an antidote to SMW. My favourite quote from this is still the advice to leaders to “Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability.” Yeehaw!

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High Performers  
Who inspects Ofsted?



High Performers

The postman delivered High Performers – The Secrets of Successful Schools by Alistair Smith this week. For anyone who’s not read it, the book contains bucket loads of wisdom and tons of practical advice on every single page. To tell the truth, I feel a little breathless about all the good stuff contained therein. Alistair took it upon himself to visit 20 high performing schools up and down the land and try to distill what it is that makes them successful. Predictably, he found that there is no ‘one size fits all’ silver bullet which can make schools outstanding but he has gleaned all sorts of juicy tidbits which are certainly worth digesting.

Rather than debating the worth of the book as a whole, I’m just going to spread out some of my favourite snippets for you to chew over and mull at your leisure.

Good leaders will:

  • stop the school and staff doing good things to make time for them to do even better things
  • kick out something old to make way for new initiatives
  • say no to new initiatives which don’t further the school’s core purpose
  • ask for feedback from staff – three things they do well and three things they could improve
  • don’t try to change human behaviours when people are tired and at their most vulnerable
  • look in lessons every period, every day
  • give authority to teachers at the point of need
  • give teachers the freedom to fly
  • support staff rather than try to catch them out
  • find ways to involve the staff in the future direction of the school without creating any extra work for them
  • make the point that the school is and always will be a safe haven for learning
  • do whatever they can to attract talent and retain it
  • keep what’s already good and works well
  • put people before policies
  • speak positively to each and every member of staff at least once every week
  • Strip out every demand on teachers except that they prepare for and teach to the best of their ability
Good teachers will:
  • go the extra mile
  • ask good questions and listen to the answers
  • make it safe for students to take risks and fail
  • ban pointless classroom activities
  • know the names of all the students they teach
  • teach the skills of peer and self assessment
  • avoid unhelpful comparisons between students
  • catch children being good and being successful
  • tell every class they are the best you’ve ever taught and that they will beat all previous records
  • use an agreed checklist of what constitutes great learning to help plan lessons
  • become a scientist and investigate their teaching
  • orient classes to learning rather than performing
  • consider the social, emotional, physiological and cognitive dimension to preparing students for exams
  • use technology in service to learning, not for its own sake
  • think beyond inspection criteria
Good middle leaders will:
  • support but also challenge
  • encourage staff to take risks
  • talk up and take pride in their team
  • keep themselves physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually attuned to the rigours of their role
  • take a responsible and realistic attitude to financial spending
  • put effort into planning for the short, medium and long term
  • be resolute when necessary
  • stay up to date and professionally informed about new approaches to and understanding of learning
  • encourage colleagues to do the same
  • model high standards in their own teaching
  • be strategic in how talent is deployed
  • know the students
  • shift the culture on observing lessons and giving feedback
  • make it easier for others to do their job
  • be supportive of the leadership team as far as possible
  • be positive and have consistent values
  • communicate regularly and clearly
  • be on top of performance data
  • involve others in the decision making
  • contribute to the life of the school
  • never ignore a misdemeanour
  • challenge mediocrity
This is just a taste. The book is packed with lots more sound advice and these, and many other ideas, are explored in detail. I didn’t agree with everything but it was all worth reading, if only to test whether my alternatives are robust enough. If you work in a school, whatever your role, this book is worth buying.

For other recommended reads, look here

But is it art?

No. 5 – Jackson Pollock

I’m a big fan of art. I wouldn’t claim to know a lot about it, but it speaks to me. Whether it’s standing, enraptured in front of The Ambassadors, climbing Louise Bourgeois’ towers, peering into Tracey Emin’s tent, or trying to mentally piece together Cornelia Parker’s exploded garden shed it grabs something inside me and compels me to be present. To pay attention. To be interested. I get heartily sick when yet another curmudgeonly professional complainer comes along, takes a cursory glance at (for instance) Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 and scoffs, “That’s not art! I could do that.” Yeah, maybe you could. But you didn’t. He did. That’s why he’s an artist and you’re not.

I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, Are You Indispensable? On one level it’s about business and careers and marketing and stuff which generally turns me off. Stuff which doesn’t speak to me. But what he’s really writing about is art. He says,

“Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive , who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substance.”

And maybe there are artists who teach. I’ve definitely met some. And they’re not all art teachers. I mean teachers who put so much more into their lessons than they need to, who care more about their students than anyone expects. Teachers who are passionate about their subjects and about engaging children. Know anyone who fits that description? Maybe on a good day it’s even you.

Godin asks if we are selling ourselves short. He says that the idea of a day’s work for a day’s pay is abhorrent. “The moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you are capable of being.” We’ve all made this trade if only for a day and it’s toxic; it eats away at everything we believe to be valuable.

The alternative is to love what you do. To treasure it. Over the summer I read a blog post on Life Hacker with the provocative title If You Wouldn’t Do Your Job For Free, Then Quit. Life’s too short to not do something you really want to do. We teachers are pretty damn lucky because society has made sure that we haven’t gone into teaching for the huge financial rewards. Would I do my job for free? Well, obviously I can’t afford to, what with mortgages, mouths to feed and what not. But would I? To be frank, there are some parts of it would happily do without, but the actual teaching, the interacting with kids in a classroom bit is fantastic. I can’t imagine not doing it. The fact I’m paid a salary makes it possible for me to do it full time.

So does that make me an artist? On a good day, yes, it does. Godin says, “A day’s work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.” He goes on, “Being open is art. Making a connection when it’s not part of your job is a gift. You can say your lines and get away with it, or you can touch someone and make a difference in their lives forever.” He’s not talking about teaching here (not specifically anyway) but he could be. That last sentence sends shivers down my spine. Everyday we have the choice to make a difference to someone’s life forever. Or not bother. Seems a pretty straightforward choice when laid out in those terms, doesn’t it?

So, this got me thinking about the kids. Since reading (and writing about) Carol Dweck I’ve become very aware of trying to intrinsically motivate my students and today watching Dan Pink’s TED talk reminded me of all the reasons this is so vital:

What happens if we tie all these ideas together? It seems fairly obvious to me that I should be trying to encourage my students to create art. To do something meaningful, that they can be proud of, that could make a difference. What is it? I’m not sure yet, but I know absolutely, deep in my soul, that it’s got nothing to do with wordsearches!

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Back to school

What I really like about going back to school in September is that it’s a new year with no mistakes. The students’ books are graffiti free and and all the dates and titles have been neatly underlined. There is nothing to mark and my lessons are inspirational and well planned. the annual rot has yet to sink in. I also like deciding on my new school year resolutions. I have to say, I can’t be bothered with the proper New Year resolutions and avoid them as the mass market nonsense that they are. School year resolutions are different though. They’re normally things I want to do rather than things I want to stop doing. Anyway, after this week’s #ukedchat on setting targets for the year ahead, I felt the time was ripe for posting about my own targets and those of the wonderful English faculty.

This year, we started off with a Faculty meeting where we all shared 3 things we wanted to do differently, or try out this year. In order to set a good example, I shared mine first. They are:

  1. Get my classes blogging
  2. Work through the list of daft ideas compiled by my Year 11 class off the back of me reading Dancing About Architecture.
  3. Experiment with QR codes as a way of engaging students.
We then spent some time chatting about what we wanted to do and then shared our ideas. What came out of this was inspirational and quite took my breath away. Some of the highlights follow:
  • relinquish  control in the classroom and focus on observing student lead learning
  • Design Critical Skills challenges to use with all year groups
  • Get out of the classroom – find excuses to take classes outdoors
  • Get Year 7 to perform an entire Shakespeare play
  • Find ways to work on students’ intrinsic motivation – get them to work for themselves rather than for the teacher
  • More out of school enrichment; links with other schools
  • Give students more time to reflect on their learning – use meta menus
  • Allow students to “fail” and learn through failure
  • Make kinaesthetic learning more of feature of lesson
  • Smile more
  • Get students to set targets for teachers
  • Increase student lead learning by getting them to set their own assessments
  • Take risks – get out of comfort zone
  • Sign up to Twitter and find ways to use it in the classroom
I think you’ll agree that that’s a pretty good list of resolutions. I left the meeting feeling hugely excited and enormously proud to be part of such ‘can-do’ faculty.
It’s now Friday night and despite feeling shell-shocked by the first week back, I still feel really excited about the year ahead. Some of the good stuff booked in for the term ahead includes:
  • presenting on Dweck & mindsets to the whole staff – this has changed my on teaching massively and I can’t wait to see what effect it has on the school
  • Critical Skills training in October – this is something I’ve wanted to do for years and I have to stop myself drooling at the thought of it
  • best of all – Phil Beadle, my teaching hero, is coming to my school! We had some great INSET on day 1 with Ian Gilbert from Independent Thinking (he is a clear exception to my thoughts on motivational speakers) where I shared my admiration of the great man and his brand of “lunatic” teaching. Ian described me as Beadle-lite which he assures me is not an insult! But which he clarified as being “like @PhilBeadle but without the endearingly cantankerous belligerence…” Have decided that maybe there’s a compliment in there somewhere.
So far, so good. I’ve really enjoyed the first week back and am most excited byt the success of my class blog project: please visit Mr Didau’s English blog – the kids would be chuffed if someone replied to any of their comments.


Team Meetings: some stuff I’ve learnt

What with the introduction of Personal Learning & Thinking Skills, I’ve done loads of team work with students over the past few years and it was timely that tonight’s #ukedchat‘s topic was ‘How do you build (or mould) a new team at the start of a new academic year?’ One thing that came out of the conversation was how fortunate I am to have such a dedicated, hardworking team of teachers to work with. Sadly, this isn’t everyone’s experience.

Lots of people were keen to point out that sharing your vision for the team is crucial in getting team members on side. Others went as far as suggesting that teams should be consulted on this vision. Obviously, this is a central tenet of Dan Pink’s marvellous book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.

Each week myself, the second in faculty and our AST have a ‘steering’ meeting where we discuss stuff that’s on the horizon and share ideas on how make progress as a faculty. We had been saying for months that we needed to rewrite our faculty vision statement but there had always seemed something more pressing to discuss. So, on Strike Day last July (all of us are NASUWT members, not scabs!) we brought along ideas about our vision for the English team – we have a really productive and exciting few hours putting our ideas together. At our next faculty meeting I asked everyone to  spend 10 minutes writing down their vision for the faculty in 100 words or less. Together we arrived at the collection of words on the attached image. Hopefully, this will help guide us when making decisions and working our way through the school plan. Most importantly perhaps is that fact that this is something we have agreed as a team – we all have a vested interest in making it work.

Interestingly, most of this evening’s suggestions seemed to focus on different ways to hold team meetings. When I started as Head of English 3 years ago I was clear about what I didn’t want and a few things that I did: I didn’t want rambling, unchaired discussions that went on interminably and I did want food: I’ve always made a point of supplying snacks!

This was fine as far as it went, but I was challenged by my line manager to introduced single item agendas for meetings. Initially I thought that was stupid: how would we wade through all the admin that piles up when you only get to meet twice a term? It took a while, but we eventually tried it and it worked. From there we introduced a Top Tips session to start meetings with all team members expected to bring along some suggestions. Last year we had some memorable Top Tips on kinaesthetic learning, differentiation, AfL and questioning to name a few. These are, unsurprisingly, great CPD and have helped every member of the team to feel valued.

The other big change I’ve made is to ban admin from the agenda. If it’s not learning focussed, it’s not on there. I’ve backtracked on this once or twice and always regretted the time it wastes. Instead, we have a weekly email brief which lists upcoming deadlines and important information that staff need to know, but doesn’t need discussing. This year, I’ve managed to convince the person who organises duty rostas to leave the English team free one day a week so that we can can have a morning briefing once a week in case anything slips by the email.

Our plan for faculty meetings in the coming year is that each team member should take a turn at chairing a meeting. It worked really well last year when our second in faculty chaired a couple of meetings and I enjoyed not being the focus. So, we’ve put together a list of learning focussed ideas for each of this years meetings  alongside a list of who’s chairing. I have a super-organised team and they really like to have these things in advance. Not only will this involve the whole team in a more meaningful way, it will also provide opportunities for them to develop leadership skills and will hopefully produce some excellent CPD.

One of the excellent pieces of advice I was offered tonight was to vary the room meetings are held in so that everyone’s displays etc. can be admired. To date, I’ve always held meetings in my room for convenience’s sake, but this seems like a change that is very easy to make and hopefully worthwhile in helping build the team. We’ll see…

There were loads of other great ideas mentioned (I really want to try to get the team using Twitter and building their own PLNs) and I look forward to the round up so I can remember what they were.

How to make friends and influence people

So, you’re starting a new job. You’re probably 1 part excited to 9 parts terrified. Don’t worry: that’s fairly normal. This post aims to suggest 10 straightforward ways to settle in to your new role whether you’re an NQT or an old lag in a new school; a fast track careerist or frantically treading water. It might sound a bit Machiavellian and cynical, but these ideas will make your life easier and happier.

The original social networker

1. Get noticed

Most schools have some sort of staff briefing one or more times a week. Say something. Not too often or for too long, but say something about what you’re doing, students’ successes, a child in your tutor group. This gets you on people’s radar and as long as you don’t irritate or bore them, this is a good thing. You can also get stuff on daily email briefs in lots of schools – let people know what you’re up to, blow your own trumpet ‘cos no one else is likely to.

2. Volunteer for stuff

Again, not too much or too often. Schools will happily suck the flesh from your bones if you let them so be judicious about this. I’d recommend something which gets you out of your faculty/department and meeting new, and hopefully, interesting people. This will allow you to make allies with likeminded people across the school as well as getting you noticed as a keen bean by the leadership team

3. Go out of your way to be nice to support staff

This cannot be stressed enough. Make it a priority to find out who the caretaker is and engage him in conversation about graffiti on chairs or how hard chewing is to get out of carpet. Do not ask for anything. Rinse and repeat with the person in charge of reprographics, the IT support team, the office staff, cleaners etc. This will pay huge dividends when you actually do ask them for something. If they know and like you they are much more likely to want to help you. This sounds terribly manipulative, but it’s important to remember that these people work terribly hard behind the scenes to make teachers look good – they’re human too.

4. Do stuff for your head of department

I love it when people volunteer to do stuff without being asked. There are always a range of jobs that need to be done in any faculty from tidying the stock cupboard to running detentions. In a smaller department this is even more crucial – one team member not pulling their weight really antagonises those who are. Also, if you’re up for doing some of the rubbish jobs you can be sure that when the ‘treats’ get handed out your name will be near the top of the list.

5. Do at least one lunch duty a week

This gets you out and about and noticed by the kids as well as other staff. It also means that you’ll see students in a different context and really helps to build your relationships with them. Do not be tempted to join in their football game though – this is a sure fire way to make a fool of yourself. It’s also worth finding where students go to smoke and then never EVER going anywhere near it. Who needs that grief?

6. But don’t work through your lunch break

In my school the staff room is very underused and every faculty has their own social area. This is great for getting to know the people in your team but that will happen anyway. Try eating lunch in the canteen (if you’ve done No. 5 you may even get a free lunch!) as well as in the staff room. Make a point of chatting to the PE tribe and the maths clan and finding out who does what. Just don’t stay in your room planning the afternoon’s lessons. This may seem like a good use of time but you’ll benefit far more from some adult interaction.

7. Stand outside your classroom between lessons

This is vital. Not only does it calm students as they leave and enter your room, it also makes you present in the school. The battle for schools is won or lost in the corridors – pick up litter; tidy displays; engage students in conversation. Let them know you’re there. Do not, under any circumstances, be tempted to shout at them shout at them. You may see more experienced staff doing this and children meekly obeying, but it’s not going to work until they know you and realise it’s not worth them refusing to comply. Other teachers will appreciate your presence – it helps to make you feel part of a team and not just an isolated adult among a seething tide of feckless children.

8. Share your resources

Far too many teachers keep stuff to themselves. Maybe they think other people won’t be interested or worry that what they’ve produced isn’t good enough. I make a point of emailing any interesting lessons I’ve taught around to my colleagues. Generally they appreciate it and often they send stuff back. Sharing your work lets people know how creative and hardworking you are as well as just being helpful.

9. Take part in staff socials

These are often dreadful and can be particularly daunting if you’re new. It does pay to go though. You get to see a new (possibly unwelcome) side of your sober straight-laced colleagues. I’d advise against getting too inebriated – especially if the Head’s likely to be there. Most departments organise a couple of outings a year and they are an important part of fitting in. Gone sadly are the days when teachers would go out for a few pints on Friday lunchtime, but it’s worth finding out who meets up after school for a natter. It’s a great way to get a handle on your school’s gossip, but I would avoid joining the ‘whiny teacher club’. It may surprise you to hear it but there are some teachers out there who don’t seem to like teaching much. Avoid them.

10. Take time

Obviously it’s a cliché that it takes time to fit in, but it also requires a commitment of our time. Don’t shoot off home at 3 o’clock. Don’t bury your head in marking. Invest a little time in chatting; blow off some steam; swap amusing stories about the kids’ ‘hilarious’ antics; show people you are a human being. You’re going to (hopefully) spend a fair bit of time with these people so it’s well worth getting to know them. To paraphrase the words of Feargal Sharkey, a good colleague is hard to find.

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