Authentic Assessment and Progress. Keeping it Real.

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There are many progress paths. The bell curve helps to define standards at any given point but does not fix the path that follows.

This post is based on the ideas that I outlined during my workshop at #TLT14 in Southampton.  It forms part of the process of rethinking assessment at KS3 now that levels have gone.  This is a live discussion at my school and is very much a work in progress.

A good starting point is to revisit the many very good reasons for moving away from levels.  A recent TES post by Tim Oates explains this very well:

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I’ve explored a lot of these ideas in previous posts:

  • The Assessment Uncertainty Principle
  • Great Lessons 5: Journeys
  • Assessment, Standards and The Bell-Curve.

In replacing levels, we should be seeking to implement a system that tackles some of the problems levels created.  Here is a re-cap of some of the problems that I see:

  • Levels create the impression that learning follows a linear progress path in equal-sized steps.  This an illusion – though widely held as true and enshrined in the levels-of-progress concept.
  • Levels suggest precise parallel standards between subject areas within a school  – 5a in History is as good as a 5a in Science – even though almost no work is done in schools to measure this, beyond checking distributions on a bell-curve model.
  • In reality, levels and sub-levels have become general bell-curve indicators for a cohort not statements of absolute attainment – so the detail of what has been learned and understood is largely absent from the discourse between teachers and with parents.
  • The moderation needed to ensure that a 5a in English in School X in Birmingham means the same as a 5a in School Y in Exeter doesn’t happen.  Again, it is largely an illusion that this level of national standardisation is meaningful.
  • It requires precious time and effort to explain how a piece of work can be assessed on a level scale; meaning and detail are lost in the process.  Similarly, it takes precious time and effort to explain how the next level might manifest itself in a real piece of work; more detail and meaning are lost.  Using levels does not help to explain the next steps in a child’s learning in most situations; it’s far more effective to explain the steps in the context of the work itself.
  • Very often, the demand to show progress through incremental steps through the levels forces teachers to make arbitrary decisions and to concoct perverse attainment statements that do not fit the organic nature of their discipline.

A possible solution:   Authentic assessment and progress reporting

What is authentic assessment?

In practice, there are just a few different ways to measure performance from which teachers can make deductions about learning:

  • Tests. Right and wrong answers or extended answers evaluated for quality. This generates an aggregated score.
  • Qualitative evaluation of a product against some criteria – a piece of writing, a painting, a piece of design, a performance. These can generate a wide range of outcomes: marks, scores, broad overall grades or levels. Teachers’ professional judgement is critical.
  • Absolute benchmarks: A straight-forward assessment that a student can do something – or can’t do it yet. I’d suggest that there is a very limited set of learning goals that are simple enough to be reduced to can do/can’t do assessment; in most cases there is a proficiency scale of some kind.

Across the range of disciplines at KS3, different situations in different subjects lend themselves to being assessed using a particular combination of these measures. There is usually an authentic, natural, common-sense mode of assessment that teachers choose with an outcome that fits the intrinsic characteristics of the discipline. My suggestion is that we simply report how students have performed in these assessments, with data in the rawest possible state, without trying to morph the outcomes into a code where the meaning is lost.

Let’s explore an example:

In science, students learn about balancing chemical equations in Year 9. They take a test with several questions of increasing difficulty.  Each question is assigned marks based on the number of elements that can be right or wrong. Some or all could be multiple choice questions.  The marking generates a score which indicates the level of a student’s performance.  It could be expressed in raw terms – say a mark out of 30, but a percentage would also to help make comparisons with other tests.

If consistent tests are used over time, the range of marks for any cohort will tell teachers about the performance of each student in the context of that specific topic.  Over time, a series of tests allows teachers to build up a profile of a student’s learning and progress.  Some tests might be harder than others but teachers can see this from the pattern of performance of the whole cohort.   The more tightly focused each test is on a specific set of concepts, the more precise the information will be about any student’s learning.

Teachers would know that a score of, say 70%, is an exceptional score for student with a low starting point, representing excellent progress.  For a High Starter ( to borrow from John Tomsett), 70% might represent progress below the expected level.  For both students, the feedback can focus on the details of balancing equations and the wrong answers. This is miles away from the nebulousness of a 6c.   At the end of each term or year, the cumulative data from tests would represent a strong basis for a discussion with students and parents and for making an overall statement about attainment and progress in a report.

This will work if the tests are well designed to sample the curriculum and to span the range of likely performance levels.  It’s no good if lots of students gain full marks in every test because that would suggest that their is a ceiling on their potential attainment in that area of the curriculum.  The details of all the tests could be shared with parents and students (perhaps online) so that it is clear and transparent. Eg High Starters should be aiming to achieve at least 80% on the unit tests and in the practical assessment. The tests cover the topic with questions like these…..

There is a case for exemplifying standards more explicitly with samples of writing. Not all of science is made up of right and wrong answers; there is always the question of depth:

A:   When someone is running they need to pump more oxygen to their muscles and take the carbon dioxide to the lungs so their heart has to beat faster.

B:  During exercise, energy is released from respiration in muscle cells as they contract repeatedly.  The heart rate increases in order to regulate the supply of oxygen to the cells and the rate at which the waste product carbon dioxide can be expelled via diffusion from the blood into the air via alveoli in the lungs… Etc.

Without the obfuscation of a level ladder, it is possible to illustrate different levels of depth in an extended answer.  This may link to the number of marks given in an assessment and could be used as an exemplar for parents and students.  It is expected that Middle Starters making excellent progress will be writing answers like Example B by the end of Year 9. 

I could make up a similar  example for maths.  There is likely to be a series of topic-specific  tests and, in conjunction with some exemplars of the increasing level of challenge of content areas through the curriculum, this would give all the information needed.  In History and Geography, each unit could have specific outcomes described with success criteria for a synoptic assessment allowing progress to be measured relative to a starting point. Exemplars for written work could be produced and the students’ books would serve as an organic record of progress for all to see.  In Art or DT, success criteria could be used referenced to some exemplar work for students to benchmark their work against.  Grading or levelling might work here at the impressionistic level that NC Levels were originally designed – not the basket-case of sub-levelling that we ended up with.

It might be too confusing for parents to engage with 10 very different modes of assessment across the curriculum.  (One reason levels are held onto by some is because of the illusion of simplicity – an opiate for the masses that masks the underlying house of cards). At KEGS, we devised a generic *, 1,2,3 system that was explained in detail for each subject with specific attainment criteria defined and shared with students and parents.  At Highbury Grove I think a similar system could work but we’d need to add in another dimension to account for the broader range of starting points.  The principle would  be the same: students with starting point X, should  be aiming to reach standard Y by the end of the year, with the standards defined and exemplified by subject.  We haven’t started work on this yet but it is the direction of travel.

Progress will be relatively easy to report, focusing on attainment relative to the starting point and the progress of the cohort.   We’re going to use the simple four-stage code: Excelling, Good Progress, Some Concerns, Poor Progress.

A parent at KS3 could be told that, in Science, a Middle Starter child’s progress level is S (Some Concerns) because the assessments (eg a test average of 48%) indicate that progress isn’t yet in line with that expected for a student starting at that point.  A similar assessment for a Low Starter might warrant a progress level G (Good Progress) and for a High Starter in would be P (Poor).  The combination of progress and attainment is critical to understanding the full picture but the progress measure is the most important.

If I was told my son was Excelling – I wouldn’t necessarily need to know precisely how – I’d trust the teachers to know what they are doing.  However, if I needed more information, I’d expect the teacher to say “your son is Excelling, because for his age and starting point, his score of  82% in the science assessment represents excellent progress”.  In History, it might be a question of showing me my son’s books or an essay at parent’s evening so I could see the progress (or lack of it) with my own eyes. During lessons I’d expect my son to be informed of his areas for development in some depth; he should know which 18% he got wrong and why.   Similarly, he should know where his writing in English needs improvement based on an authentic assessment that suits the process of assessing English.  Levels? Marks out of 20? Approximate GCSE Grade? Whatever is the most natural and retains the most detail.

(See: Formative use of summative tests.)

Standards and Moderation

An important reinforcement to this approach will be the routine moderation of work between teachers within departments and between schools.  If there was a national database of tests and samples of work that exemplified standards for children of different ages then schools could  cross-reference their own standards easily.  In the short term this needs to happen though school-to-school collaboration.  Teachers in next-door classrooms ought to have a shared understanding of what ‘exceptional work’ might look like for their parallel Year 8 classes.  Moderation should create upward pressure; if one school is getting much better work out of the Year 8s who came in with Level 6 in English, then it would lead to a review of standards.  Currently, because everyone’s version of a level varies, that discussion is often reduced to an exchange of mutual suspicion about the validity other people’s assessments.  If we ‘keep it real’, that won’t happen.  It will just fuel an upward spiral of challenge.  That’s the theory in any case.  Let’s see!

As I said, this is a work in progress… and, as ever, I’m more or less thinking aloud.


Negative framing and No Pens Days

The framing effect is an example of cognitive bias, in which our reaction choices depends on whether it they are presented as a loss or a gain. Our tendency is to avoid risks when they’re framed negatively is presented but embrace risks when a positive frame is presented.  Cognitive psychologists, Tversky & Kahneman explored how linguistic framing affects our responses to choices in hypothetical life and death situations. They asked participants to choose between two treatments for 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A was predicted to result in 400 deaths, whereas treatment B had a 33% chance that no one would die but a 66% chance that everyone would die. This choice was then presented to participants either with positive framing, i.e. how many people would live, or with negative framing, i.e. how many people would die. The results probably won’t come as much of a surprise. Treatment A was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented with positive framing (“saves 200 lives”) dropping to only 22% when the same choice was presented with negative framing (“400 people will die”.)

This effect has been shown in other contexts:

  • 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasised, with only 67% doing so when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration.
  • 62% of people disagreed with allowing “public condemnation of democracy”, but only 46% of people agreed that it was right to “forbid public condemnation of democracy”.
  • More people will support an economic policy if the employment rate is emphasised than when the associated unemployment rates is highlighted.

The implication is clear: framing statements negatively has a power effect on our perception. Which brings up to No Pens Day. For those of you who don’t know yesterday was No pens Wednesday. The Communications Trust are responsible for this initiative in which schools are encouraged to instruct pupils to ‘put down their pens’ and ‘pick up their language’. Guess what? The kids absolutely love it!

“The buzz around the school is palpable. The children genuinely look forward to a day in which they know that writing is banned and clues are scattered throughout the school, however we have found that the day has often resulted in the most fabulous writing in the following week as the children have gained so much from their day.”

“I work with young people who have difficulties with their behaviour. No Pens Wednesday showed how putting speaking and listening at the heart of the school improved relationships and engagement for our young people.”

“As a SENCO, so much of my work is aorund [sic] enabling the children to say something, because until they can say something – they can’t write it. If a child can only speak in one or two word answers, they can’t write a sentence” 

“We all, staff and children, thoroughly enjoyed it and will be doing it again next year.”

“No Pens Day Wednesday gives children the opportunity to take time to think about and communicate their ideas rather than rushing to pick up their pencils to start writing”

“A really wonderful day in school which I feel is just the start of embedding speaking and listening throughout the curriculum. Thank you for making it possible!”

And here’s what Professor Mick Waters has to say on the matter:

Now I’m sympathetic to some of these aims, but Waters expresses my reservations clearly: writing is boring and a lot less fun than talking or screwing up tissue paper. “We could make life so exciting without a pen.” The assumption is that if you’re unfortunate enough to have a pen, life is dull. All the benefits of oral communication can’t be achieved with pens. But that’s just wrong. The opportunity to write things down can enhance discussion and aid creativity. Imagine a meeting in which you weren’t allowed to make notes or jot down thoughts. Is that really ‘preparing children for adult life’?

The SENCO quoted above has experienced a problem I’ve written about at length in my book The Secret of Literacy: “until they can say something – they can’t write it”. I have a simple theory about writing: Talk is an incredibly powerful lever for cognitive change. Once you can say something it change how you are able to think. And once you thinking changes, improving writing becomes almost incidental. If we want children to be academically successful, he solution is to make them speak the language of academic success. But none of this should be seen as anathema to the process of using pens or writing. “Picking up our language” need not (maybe cannot) come at the expense of “putting down our pens”.

Waters’ point about children being made to produce reams of writing is fair. Children write an enormous amount in school. But most often we don’t value what they write and so we actively teaching them that writing is unimportant. We’re hardly likely to tackle this incredibly damaging lesson by telling them that No Pens Day is all about “improving relationships and engagement” and that to achieve these aims “writing is banned”.

But that’s not to say I’m against speaking and listening or think that writing is the only route to worthwhile learning. Far from it. To my mind discussion and debate are at the very heart of what we should be doing in schools. I’m not against the principle of No Pens Days so much as the way it’s been branded. (And the irony that The Communication Trust has miscommunicated this message should not escape us.) Why not rebrand as Debate Day or Speech Wednesdays? I doubt very much whether The Communication Trust or Mick Waters is actively against writing. Probably what they want is for teachers and children to place an increased value on speaking and listening. So why not define our aims by what we want to achieve rather than what we might be opposed to?


The post Negative framing and No Pens Days appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

This much I know about…what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!)

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what Year 7 pupils’ parents really worry about (and why your keepy-uppy skills really matter!).

I am convinced that the best pastoral care for students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds is a good set of examination results. I thought I’d state that clearly at the outset just in case I get attacked for being blobby and soft and someone seriously suggests that I should be sacked for writing what follows.

You can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. This ubiquitous mantra may have become a cliché, but if you do have children you will know it possesses more than a grain of truth. We worry about our children’s happiness endlessly.

When my sons went to secondary school above everything else I just wanted them to have a few good friends. I believed that academic success would only follow once they were emotionally secure at school. Don’t get me wrong – my sons’ academic success matters hugely to me, but only in the context that academic success will give them greater choice in life and so, perhaps, greater chance of being happy.

When reshaping the curriculum in these times of tumultuous change, you must begin with the type of education you want for your students. Next year all our Year 10s will be taught our new Happiness course for one hour a week. It has been conceived by our Religion, Philosophy and Ethics teacher Robin Parmiter, one half of @DiscoMisterUK, and was developed last autumn when Robin enjoyed a two-days a week sabbatical at the Farmington Institute. Students will learn about how some of the world’s greatest thinkers – including my favourites, The Stoics – have wrestled with the concept of happiness. They will then reflect upon what they want from life in order to be happy in preparation for the most important examinations of their lives.

Our school’s core purpose is to inspire confident leaners who will thrive in a changing world. I received this email on Friday which confirmed two things for me: firstly, that we are getting ever closer to fulfilling our core purpose and secondly that students feeling safe and happy is the bedrock of an academically successful school.

From: Peter Smith’s mum*

Sent: 18 July 2014 11:20

To: Mail

Subject: END OF YEAR

Dear Mr Tomsett

My son, Peter Smith will today finish his first year at Huntington School.

I am a very anxious mother, Peter being my oldest boy of three.

I imagined he would miss the bus, he would forget his sports kit, he would not know his way round the school.

None of these things happened – quite the opposite.

I am extremely proud of his first year with you, his progression in his education, his aptitude for taking on new subjects and ideas, his enthusiasm in areas I never imagined.

I feel content and enthused every day he comes to school, knowing he is safe, he is happy and he is growing into a (rather hormonal) confident young man.

As parents, we are quick to pick up on faults – I feel it is important to also share thanks.

So thank you Mr Tomsett, thank your staff and how jealous I am that you can do so many keepy uppies in your work shoes…… Peter has a whole new level of respect for you. (I coach football and can only manage 11 keepy uppies)**

Enjoy the summer.

Mrs Smith

*Names have been changed

**When I was on lunch duty the other day, a student’s football broke to me and, unable to resist the ever-present inner-child, I did a few faultless keepy-ups and thumped the ball left-footed forcing a great save from the keeper.



Headteacher’s Report. Six Weeks In.

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Through struggle to the stars.

I love the Highbury Grove School motto:  Per Ardua Ad Astra.   Through struggle to the stars.  It captures the spirit of the school’s journey and spirit of the staff.  It’s the message we’re giving to our students too:  Work Hard; Aim High – or better still, Work Extremely Hard; Aim Extremely High. Why? Because the stars are worth reaching – with all the joy, wonder and personal fulfilment that learning and achievement bring.

Six weeks in, I can safely say that I love my new job.  I really do. Every morning I zip into work on my bike relishing the challenges that lie ahead.   It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, finding out who everyone is, getting a feel for the dynamics of the different populations – students, staff, parents and governors – and trying to move forward with some confidence and clarity.   It feels like we’re on a mission and the commitment from everyone associated with the school is magnificent.  I couldn’t ask for better conditions or better people to deliver the ambitious goals we’ve got for the school and that is pretty exciting.

I’ll write about my experience in the classroom in due course – that has been an education.  Well, more like a re-education; wonderful and challenging in equal measure.   For now, to give a flavour of the journey so far, here is an edited version of my Headteacher’s report to Governors. It illustrates the range of issues I’ve been dealing with.  This is Headship.

Headteacher’s Report to Governors. October 2014

  1. Introduction
  • A priority issue has been to complete a draft of the School Development and Improvement Plan. The style is deliberately evaluative rather than absolute.

I’ve inserted some extracts in the relevant places below to give you a flavour : (The Development Plan numbering is different to the report – in case you find that confusing!)

  1. Staffing, HR and Professional Development
  •  I am exploring a new recruitment and retention strategy based on creating optimum working conditions, clear progression pathways for all staff and comprehensive, tailored professional development.
  • I’ve undertaken a first-wave review of SLT roles and responsibilities leading to some changes.
  • I have identified some gaps on the TLR structure for providing appropriate career progression for teaching staff.
  • The Appraisal system in the school needs to be reviewed during the year so that we can adopt an approach that is far more orientated towards career development rather than accountability and target setting. Crucially, this needs to apply to all staff in every role equally.  We’re introducing the BlueSky software to make this work efficiently.
  • We’ll be undertaking a review of contracts, additional payments and loadings to eliminate anomalies and give greater clarity for all staff.
  • We’ve already made progress in implementing a CPD structure that can support staff at different levels. We will soon be joining the National Teacher Enquiry Network and will use their framework as a tool for planning future CPD. In May we will be holding a Teaching and Learning Conference on our INSET day where all staff will share their learning during the year.
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  1. Community and Partnerships
  • The Parents’ Consultation event in September was a great success with 160 parents in attendance representing a good cross-section of the community.  (This is as wonderful event – a great buzz with lots of excellent ideas coming forward). A report based on their views of the school will be published soon.
  • Our Open Evening was very well attended and the immediate feedback was very positive.  There’s a strong sense in which people in the local community are determined to support their local school.
  • I’ve undertaken several Primary School visits to talk to the Heads about transition and partnership: In November we will be hosting a meeting of Heads of our feeder schools and Transition Forum meetings for Maths and English.
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  • I have attended my first meetings with other Islington Secondary Heads and partners.
  1. Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Achievement
  • The Examination Review has been concluded for Y11 and Sixth Form outcomes.
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  • During this term we will commence our Review process. We’ve decided to focus on Key Stages rather than Year Groups, starting with Key Stage 4. This will include lesson observations and work sampling.  (In the New Dawn of grade-free lesson observations, we’re determined to foster a strongly supportive, developmental spirit behind these reviews – exciting times.)
  • In addition, I am beginning the process of observing every teacher myself, focusing on one faculty at a time, with 5 or 6 observations each week. My lesson observations are intended to be informal and exploratory; each teacher will see me for feedback as part of the process of allowing me to understand each teacher’s perspectives, strengths and areas for professional development. (Probably the best bit of the job so far… I love doing this.)
  • We’ve established a Curriculum Working Party that has had one initial meeting so far. We will be looking at models for every aspect of the curriculum, hoping to present options for consultation and decisions in the Spring Term.
  • We’ve had some initial discussions at SLT with a view to using this year to devise a new assessment and reporting system.
  • Homework has been a prominent issue this term. We’ve succeeded in giving it a very high profile already.
  1. Pastoral Issues, Behaviour and Student Support
  • The top priority of addressing behaviour has led to a launch of our Behaviour for Learning strategy with two very productive half-day closures. The opportunity for all staff to work in integrated groups was received extremely well by everyone.
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  • We have introduced a two-week cycle rotating House and Year Group Assemblies. I am currently leading most of the House Assemblies, which gives me an opportunity to deliver coherent ethos-reinforcing messages to all students.
  • We have re-started the student breakfast service from 8am every day;
  • The English department, Learning Support Team and Library are  to making a big push on our Accelerated Reader scheme
  • We’ll be conducting a review of intervention, learning support and reading development,using data tracking to work out which strategies have the greatest impact.
  • Acquainting myself with the school’s exclusions processes has been necessary already this term. (I’m so impressed with the Behaviour Team at HGS and all the Heads of Year – a non-teaching role that works very well.)
  1. Sixth Form Developments.
  • We have held the first meeting of a Sixth Form Working Party. This group of staff will run some student focus groups to find out what they’d like to see in the Highbury Grove Sixth Form. I have outlined the idea of an HGS Baccalaureate.
  • We’ll be hosting a National Baccalaureate Summit at HGS in November, gathering various people with an interest in this area.
  1. Buildings, Systems and Finance.
  • I’ve had initial meetings with all the key people involved in our PFI and Facilities Management contracts.
  • Enhancing communication systems has been an early priority introducing universal parent email, insisting that every family has an email address.
  • We need a long-term rolling plan for IT replacement, upgrades and developing wireless access so that we make the necessary capital investment year on year.  That process has now started.
  • I have had productive meetings with the Business Manager to explore our budget profile, some forecasting and the projected surplus.  It’s important to know where the pressure points and opportunities lie.

Thanks to everyone who has made these early weeks such a joy.   In particular, I’m grateful to all the students who have welcomed me and taken time to share their ideas.  I’ve run several small meetings with key opinion-forming groups of students who have told me what they love and what they’d like to change about the school.  I’ve had students asking to rent a theatre for our school production with a fully costed proposal; a student asking to run an anti-poverty campaign linked to our  music programme; students asking to set up a new magazine.  Every day different students stop for a chat in the corridor in the most lovely engaging way.  Thank you all.


Fluency in Mathematics: Part 3

I gave a talk in March at Pedagoo London (my first public appearance) and again the weekend before last at the La Salle Education maths conference on fluency in mathematics. This post is based on those talks and so, inevitably it has taken several posts and revisits some old ground. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

Finally we come to my advice for teaching for fluency. Firstly, something I started doing this year, is starting all learning objectives with “know” or “practise”. I find this covers everything that’s worth teaching and establishes what you are trying to achieve. But the big challenge is over resources. Here are my recommendations.

1) This is an American website (note the lack of an “s” in “math”). However, it has a wide range of free worksheets that emphasise practice. It’s particularly good for number bonds and times tables.

2) Ten Ticks. Probably already known to every maths teacher reading and very common in schools. But there is often a sniffy attitude that Ten Ticks sheets have too many questions on. I beg to differ. If you are using them sensibly (don’t just read off the levels) then they provide the right amount of practice, and usually the right level of increasing difficulty.

3) Mymaths. Again I’m recommending something that is already widespread. However, what I want to point out, to those who already have access, are the many “Beat the Clock” activities. These are absolutely ideal for developing fluency.


Beat the Clock game on Mymaths

4) Make your own worksheets on Excel. If you need students to repeat very similar work then you can create worksheets in Excel which can then be significantly altered by changing only a few cells. So, for instance, by making the answers random numbers it is possible to generate similar but different equation questions repeatedly.



An Excel Spreadsheet. The answers are randomly generated and can be easily changed to generate different versions of the same worksheet (below).


5) Old Textbooks. The fashion for letting students look things up themselves and the hostility to practice has seen textbooks expand their explanatory material and decrease the number of questions. Most of the high achieving maths departments I’ve worked in, or visited, have had textbooks from ten or more years earlier.


A page from a textbook published in 1919


A page from a textbook published in 2008. Those 2 questions are the only ones covering those topics.

The most important principle is not having to hide that you are doing any of these things. Teachers should be allowed to get kids to practise.

If you have any other resources that are good for developing fluency, please suggest them in the comments. Two things that came up in the questions after the talks are Times Table Rock Stars and mental mathematics practice. The latter is one I use a lot, particularly where it is possible for students to hold up answers.

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Okay, this isn’t me giving my talk at the maths conference, but if you look closely, it is me sat behind Johnny Ball. Really.

Scenes From The Battleground

Can you be too independent?

If the man doesn’t believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean, it does nowadays, because now we can’t burn him.

Mark Twain

Today I discovered I had been ‘let go’ by Independent Thinking Ltd.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 20.30.08Of course accidents happen, but I hadn’t received this email so it came as something of a shock. This post is in no way intended to be sour; it is merely an attempt to work through how I feel.

For those those of you who may not be aware, ITL are essentially a employment agency for education consultants. Here they are in their own words:

More of a network than a company and more of a movement than an organisation, for over twenty years Independent Thinking has been making a tangible difference in schools worldwide. We help young people, teachers, school leaders, parents and others involved in education rethink what they do and why they do it – all with the purpose of ensuring education is so much more than the passing of exams.

We aren’t a speakers bureau although we have some of the world’s leading educational speakers. We aren’t a consultancy, although we are more than happy to work with you to help you become even better. We are not a panel of educational experts because we don’t believe there is such a thing.  We are not a publishing company although the Independent Thinking Press has won awards for its ground-breaking education books. And we aren’t a training company because, well, the word ‘training’ comes from the Latin ‘to drag’.

We don’t employ people, own fancy offices or produce glossy magazines and, because we were set up to make a difference not a profit, we put back as much as possible into our work.

At Independent Thinking, we believe education is about integrity, passion and compassion, creativity and professionalism. It’s about doing the right thing, being healthy, being happy, growing and serving. It’s about living up to our motto to ‘To do things no-one does or to do things everyone does but in a way no-one does’. And it’s about having a laugh while you’re doing it. After all, education is too important to be taken seriously.

My connections to them began back in 2011 when I first met the founder Ian Gilbert at my school. He said I had ‘presence’ and expressed an interest in working with me. Naturally, I was flattered and having recently read Ian’s books I had a great deal of respect for him. When I took the plunge and quit my full time job late last year, ITL were great and found me enough work to keep the wolf from the door. In return, I’ve spoken at 3 of their ‘Big Days Out’ for nowt. After the first of these days out in October 2012, I was told I wasn’t ‘on message’. This surprised me as I had assumed they were all about independence. And surprised as well because I too believe “education is about integrity, passion and compassion, creativity and professionalism.” And I too am sure that education is “about doing the right thing, being healthy, being happy, growing and serving.” But that’s not all either of us believe.

Suffice it to say, although the folk at ITL gave me a leg up and helped give me the confidence to think independently, I’ve never felt part of the establishment there. And as time’s gone on it’s become increasingly clear that our ideological differences have made for a sometimes abrasive relationship.

Needless to say, I asked if the email I should have been sent on September 10th could be forwarded to me, and here it is:

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 20.32.40

It’s never nice to hear your colleagues have been complaining about you behind your back and it’s a great shame that this wasn’t a discussion we were able to have in the open. I’ve no idea who they are and this kind of anonymous whispering can be toxic; it starts you wondering about who. Was it someone I thought of as a friend? Because there are some really lovely Associates at ITL. Martin Robinson is one of the most interesting thinkers in education and a helluva guy; Hywel Roberts is one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet; Nina Jackson is a woman of wonderful warmth and wit; Lisa Ashes is a pocket dynamo who should never be underestimated, and Phil Beadle is someone I genuinely consider as a friend.

And horrible too to wonder what exactly about my actions and behaviour can have caused so much consternation. Certainly I’ve never publicly said anything disparaging about ITL or any of the people who work for them, so maybe they’re complaining about my support for things I hold dear and of which I’m proud? Maybe it’s been the fact that I’ve been holding Ofsted to account and finally succeeded in making my voice heard in the new Inspection Handbook? Maybe it’s the work I’ve done with a number of schools to improve pupils’ literacy? Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve made it my business to question assumptions and leave no stone unturned in my desire to work out whether we might be making mistakes in the way we’re thinking about education? Might it be that I’ve pointed out that some of the advice teachers are routinely given might be bogus? But maybe it’s that I’ve publicly changed my mind about some of my beliefs; people don’t always like to have their beliefs questioned?

But could this really have had a negative effect on a company that prides itself on helping “young people, teachers, school leaders, parents and others involved in education rethink what they do and why they do it – all with the purpose of ensuring education is so much more than the passing of exams”?

Here I am talking about my philosophy of education with an ITL logo in the background:

I still get incensed by the lack of WHY in education. (Although I’m much less sure about the last 30 seconds or so.)

The trouble is, as I’ve said before, people ‘involved in education’ don’t agree what eduction is for. We are often unwitting slaves to our ideologies. We put being right before doing right. As Francis Bacon put it, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” And because of this, some people ‘involved in education’ say or do things which other people vehemently disagree with.

Here’s something Schopenhauer (who knew a thing or two) had to say about that:

If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth; we should not in the least care whether the truth proved to be in favour of the opinion which we had begun by expressing, or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no moment, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence; but, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not suffer us to allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary’s right. The way out of this difficulty would be simply to take the trouble always to form a correct judgment. For this a man would have to think before he spoke. But, with most men, innate vanity is accompanied by loquacity and innate dishonesty. They speak before they think; and even though they may afterwards perceive that they are wrong, and that what they assert is false, they want it to seem the contrary. The interest in truth, which may be presumed to have been their only motive when they stated the proposition alleged to be true, now gives way to the interests of vanity: and so, for the sake of vanity, what is true must seem false, and what is false must seem true.

This is a tendency I regularly examine myself for and at times find myself wanting.

So, in conclusion, I find my public persona doesn’t fit with ITL’s ‘direction of travel’. Charitably we could infer from this that they would rather forego making money than working with someone whose beliefs differ. Maybe that’s honourable? But I just don’t know whether a different ideological standpoint is grounds for sacking – is it just code for ‘we don’t like you’? Maybe we could have reached a rapprochement? As Michael Corleone said in the Godfather, something to be said for “keeping your friends close and your enemies closer”? Who can say. But I do admit all this comes as something of a relief. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath or clenching my jaw and can finally relax.

I wish my friends at ITL the very best and if I’ve had a negative effect on their livelihoods by criticising something they hold dear then I’m genuinely sorry. I’d like to believe though that I’ve only criticised ideas and never those who hold them.

The post Can you be too independent? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

This much I know about…why a happy staff room is the best thing for our students

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why a happy staff room is the best thing for our students.

I know I work harder when I’m happy. And anyone who knows me, will know if I’m happy because I’ll be puffing my cheeks and burbling a tune, usually something like Loving You by Minnie Riperton.

The high-pitched bits are a problem.

I know through experience that my colleagues work harder when they feel happy and unthreatened it keeps their Amygdala under control! Even Starbucks have realised this truth – a truth which seems common sense to me (I wrote about staff well-being some time ago here) – after they were alerted to a New York Times article about the inconvenience to their employees of their work schedules.

 [We] … work to ensure that Google is… an emotionally healthy place to work. So says Lara Harding, the People Programs Manager at Google. Her view is cited in the introduction to Happiness and Productivity, a research report in which its authors, Andrew J. Oswald, Eugenio Proto, and Daniel Sgroi, claim that they have provide[d] evidence…that happiness makes people more productive. They conclude that if well-being boosts people’s performance at work, this raises the possibility, at the microeconomic level and perhaps even the macroeconomic level, of self-sustaining spirals between human productivity and human well-being. Their report is well worth a read…

View this document on Scribd

This mix of experience and evidence is compelling: one might even call it wisdom. It certainly makes you think about what you should do as a Headteacher if your school’s examination results dipped this summer…as I wrote some time ago, In the current climate of fear…it is too easy to threaten staff in response to being threatened oneself. Headteachers have to do the opposite. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job.



This much I know about…what we are up against when all we want is our students’ examination papers marked accurately

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about what we are up against when all we want is our students’ examination papers marked accurately.


Our students deserve the very best; no one I have ever worked with would disagree with that claim. And when it comes to public examinations nothing but the very best service is acceptable for our students. When they have prepared for the examinations and their scripts have been dispatched for marking, we must all have faith that the marking will be fair, accurate and expert. If we cannot believe that is the case, then the system becomes unfit for purpose.

My students’ AS Economics results were a bit disappointing this summer. We recently received their recalled scripts. This morning I sat down for twenty minutes with my co-teacher and perused the papers. As you might expect, there were some mistakes our students could have avoided; yet there were numerous instances where, at best, the marking was justifiable but truly harsh and at worst plainly inept. I have chosen one example which typifies my numerous concerns about the quality of marking of my students’ scripts and helps explain why I have written a blog post which is uncharacteristically whingey in tone!

NB: Before you read on, bear in mind that there are just five raw marks between grades in this AS examination, so dropping two marks is 40% of one grade at AS level.

Here’s OCR GCE Economics 2014, Unit F581: Markets in Action, question 1 b):

Question paper

And here’s the mark scheme:

Mark scheme Airfix

And here’s Candidate A’s answer which gained a full two marks:


And here’s Candidate B’s answer which gained zero marks, because, as the electronic notation makes clear, the same examiner who marked Candidate A’s script thought Candidate B’s answer was “TV” or “Too Vague”:


Sometimes you need someone else to confirm that you’re not going completely mad. When I showed Kate, my PA, both answers without her knowing what exactly they were and why I was showing them to her, she exclaimed, “Well I reckon that student has copied that one.”

It’s almost enough to drive one to write to a letter of complaint to Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of OCR…



Improving the basics: Inspired by Austin

Here’s a very short post to report on some fabulous work my Year 8s did this week.   I marked their first few pieces of work and then devoted a double lesson this week to redrafting: a slice of Directed Improvement and Reflection Time.

We started the lesson by watching the Ron Berger Austin’s Butterfly video:

Austin's Butterfly.  The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.

Austin’s Butterfly. The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.

The students immediately got the message: the boy who made the first and final drafts was the same boy.  He just needed to know what the standards were and how to reach them.

Then I gave out their books and asked them to redraft as much of their work as they could in the time focusing on two main themes:

Presentation: pencil and ruler, underlining, diagrams, handwriting.

Science content:  adding explanations, correct use of terminology, adding ideas about forces between molecules.

The examples that stood out the most were from two boys who I thought had serious difficulties with writing.  Turns out, they just needed to aim a bit higher.  Through the redrafting process and the praise they received for their improvements, their attitudes shifted significantly; their self-believe grew and they left the lessons beaming.  I didn’t expect quite such a big effect.  Here’s a sample of what they did:


Student 1.

This student engaged in a fantastic discussion with me about molecules and forces. He came up with this idea (illustrated with his fingers) about molecules in ice being like balls with sticks giving the solid structure. Still plenty of room to improve but even he couldn’t believe he could do work like this.


Student 2

This student responded superbly.  Once he realised that excellence was in his grasp, he just made a decision to produce something really good – instead of the slap-dash effort he’d defaulted to first time around. That applied to his presentation and his thinking.

I’ll be doing this again.


Marking wars

There’s a battle inside every English teacher. It’s not a fight between Austen and Bronte. It’s not a war between Dickens and Poe. It is instead a marking battle. The battle between accuracy and creativity.

When I mark, it is often with the focus of accuracy and technical improvement. I will circle a mistake and make a student identify what the mistake is, with the hope they learn from this and never do it again. My mind is always set on accuracy. Targets will be driven by errors and I might spot spelling, punctuation or grammar mistakes. However, my marking doesn’t focus on creativity. I am chained to accuracy and I never seem to escape it. The beast is far stronger than creativity. If I am honest, it is only with creative writing does my marking address the creative aspect. I then might say: I like how you have developed the character and how you end the story. The rest of the time the marking focuses on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This week I did something different. For a few years, I have discussed and blogged about how we neglect the effect of writing in lessons. An insistence on the purpose of writing has led to some dire writing and some boring efforts in class. I have explored in Sexy Sprouts how students should be taught to change the effect of their writing and for me this has really helped my students. This week I thought about this writing for effect in more detail and applied it to my marking. What if the drive behind my marking was focusing on the effect? What if I solely focused on the effect and left the accuracy alone?

As a result of this thought, I asked a group of students to describe a setting for a ghost story. After teaching students the difference between ghost and horror stories (which amounts to one going Ahhhh! and the other going Oh!), the students set off to write their settings.

Enter the red pen from stage right.  

I marked the work with a very different approach. Instead of the boring ‘two wishes and a star’ approach, I simply put the word atmosphere and a number out of ten next to it. The effort was ‘draining’. Most students scored a two or a three out of ten. Then, I got them to revise their setting without any direct teaching. They got underway with the task. Next, I got the students to assess each other’s work. Again, they only marked it out of ten for atmosphere. Finally, the students wrote a third version. At no point did I actually teach the children how to produce an effective setting during this process. I even refrained from providing them with good examples. I only said to them to avoid the most obvious words.

The result: brilliant examples of progress for very little work and marking on my part.

The difference between version one and three was startling. Students had produced clichéd settings in the first version and by the time they got to version three I was reading atmospheric and detailed, original writing.  My only advice / marking was a word and a number. Prior to this experiment, I have listed to students what would make their writing better. And, they have typically selected to follow or ignore my advice.

I think this approach was more successful than others, for me, was due to the way students were writing and I was responding. There was sense of cohesive focus rather than a disjointed list of features to include. All too often improving writing concentrates on adding things. This approach focused on developing and linking things together. Students were improving the whole text and not tiny aspects. Does this mean that a lot of my marking focuses on the small tiny aspects? Yes, I do. After all, God is in the detail. However, maybe this approach is something that needs weaving into the way I teach. Of course, I can’t possibly do it all the time, but maybe I could do it occasionally.

Along with this approach maybe I have to adapt the language I use in task setting. Persuade. Advise. Review. Comment. This terms used to describe types of writing are so plain and we are expecting students to come up with creative ideas based on these vague, beige types of writing. Perhaps, I should be asking students to make a letter about the dangers of smoking that makes me laugh. Or, they should write a description of a beach that makes me worry.

When you look at the mark schemes for the exams, the writing always refers to technical accuracy and the effect. Yet, we tend to focus on one and neglect the other. I will rarely say that a piece of non-fiction needs a funnier start.

Now don’t get me wrong: I value accuracy but I tend to think that our overriding focus on it has slightly overshadowed some elements of creativity.

There’s a battle in my head, but this time creativity won and surprisingly accuracy was injured.

Atmosphere: 2  

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Employment figures for 2014 in the UK

Employment is the most basic requirement for the development and growth of an economy and United Kingdom is not an exception in this regard. From the past few decades, the world economy is in the grip of unemployment and even the economically developed country like UK had to face the brunt of this situation. However with the arrival of the year 2014, there seems to be a lot of improvement in the employment situation of UK. In the recent report drawn by the Statistical Authority, it was found that the unemployment rate in UK has reached its all time low of 7.1%. It is pertinent to know that this rate was 7.4% in the last three months of 2013 and economists around the world had anticipated for a decline of merely 0.1% which is very low as compared to the current reports.

According to office of National Statistics(ONS), there is a fall of 167000 people who’ve been affected by unemployment in the current year. Now there are just 2.32 million people in UK that are devoid of employment. The decrease in unemployment rates in the present year even indicate that now maximum number of people in the UK are having work and are capable of supporting their families. This value even indicates the biggest ever quarterly increase in the employment levels of UK. Despite of all the predications made by labor markets around the world, today Britain is experiencing an economic revolution that certainly needs more fuelling from the government.

This rate of unemployment at 7.1% is the best so far, ever since the economy of UK has started recovering from economic depression. According to ONS, following statistics relating to employment in UK in the year 2014 have been generated so far:

  • The rate of unemployment among the active population in UK is around 7.1% in January, 2014.
  • The total number of people that have a job and are actually working comprise of the 30.15 million of the total population.
  • UK government grants certain allowances to the unemployed population and it is astonishing to know that the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s allowance in January 2014 fell by 27600 people. So now the total number of people claiming such allowance is just 1.22 million.
  • The ONS conducts employment and unemployment survey every month but compares between data of three months i.e. quarterly comparisons are made.
  • In 2014, the economy of UK experienced a major change because the employment rate jumped by 280000 points to reach the biggest quarterly high of all times to record a number of 30.15 million. An important thing to note down is that such an increase in employment was last seen in Britain in the year 1971. The employment though increased well, it was the wage growth of people that drew attention of various governmental agencies. The wage growth in UK is going flat at 0.9% from the past 5-6 months which is not even at par with the current inflation rate of 2% here. Thus much of work is required to be done in this regard and a lot of major policy changes could improve the same numbers.

    There are many learning based employment apprenticeships schemes in Birmingham available for young people (aged 16 - 19 etc) - one provider of apprenticeships (Gordon Franks)