The dark art of creativity

I was recently reminded of the ‘schools are killing creativity’ trope that was so prevalent a few years ago. Tempting as it may be to nod along with Ken Robinson and his cronies, it’s worth contemplating the creative power of constraints. Without clear knowledge of forms and ‘rules’, creativity is inevitably stifled. Ideas become a kitchen-sink soup with everything chucked into the pot with little regard for structure or purpose.

Children’s imaginations are already pretty vast and the younger the child, the greater the depth of their imagination. We don’t need to teach this, it just is. Sir Ken claims that children arrive at school with genius levels of divergent thinking; by the time they’ve got to 13 they appear to have had most of this surgically removed. But education is by its nature convergent:  we teach people that no, a 13 foot paperclip is just silly. Ken defines creativity as “the process of developing ideas that are original and of value”. This process is distinct from imagination. We can imagine loads of stuff without actually creating anything worthwhile. It’s not creative to come up with ridiculous, impractical nonsense; it’s creative to work within boundaries.

This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. And it’s the ‘having worth’ bit that’s important here. Writing down lots of interesting numbers but leaving out all the pesky calculations is not worthwhile. Similarly twanging randomly at guitar strings may well give vent to your feelings but is in no way a worthwhile creation. One could perhaps argue that daubing paint randomly on canvass worked for Jackson Pollock but I (and perhaps he) might argue that he went through a rigorous process of experimentation before arriving at a new and beautiful form.

And that’s the point: creativity requires form. In order to write a sonnet one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, comprehensible framework for how to structure these ideas will help pupils to have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth.

But there are some pretty unhelpful myths out there. Consider this from Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

No. They didn’t ‘just see something’; you’re only able to connect things when you know an awful lot. If you don’t know stuff, what are you going to connect? This kind of synthesis is only possible with hard work and effort.

Or what about this from sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury:

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.

Bollocks! If you don’t think, and think hard, you’ll never learn anything. It’s only possible to ‘simply do things’ after lots and lots of practice.

This from Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams is more helpful:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Acknowledging that creativity is a process and that we make mistakes along the way is much more honest. Surely it’s only through making an awful lot of mistakes that we start to understand which ones have worth? And contrary to most other creativity gurus, TS Eliot pointed out that “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” If we’re not stressed, if we’re content not thinking and just aimlessly plucking ideas from the inchoate jumble of an undisciplined mind, we’re unlikely to come up with much of value.

So, instead of wringing our hands at children being unable to dream up daft ideas, let’s worry about the fact so many leave school with only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen is that able writers seem pick up an instinctive, implicit feel for how writing works without ever necessarily being to articulate why. And everyone else doesn’t.

If we really want children to be more creative we must feed their imaginations. We need to teach them stuff before we can expect them to question and criticise. We need to show them how ideas coalesce into something useful before they can start making their own connections. And we need to give them rules if we want to give them something to kick against and escape from. Constraints force creativity: too much freedom stifles it.

How many uses can you think of for an actual paperclip?

The post The dark art of creativity appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Pedagogy Postcard #13: Open-Ended Tasks.

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.


In this post I want to suggest that open-ended tasks can play an important role in creating opportunities for students to explore their ideas; they can be a great source of top-end differentiation and lead to lovely, unexpected outcomes.  But, they can also fall flat if the expectations aren’t clear.  It’s no good just to hit and hope  - because if one option is to produce something mediocre to complete a task, then that is what you’ll get from some students.  At the same time, if you prescribe every detail, you may deter students from exploring things in ways you hadn’t considered possible; you may actually limit them.  As ever, it’s about getting the balance right.

To illustrate this, here a few of my son’s pieces of work from the last year. (He gave me permission to include them!)

RE Creation Myth Year 7

RE Creation Story homework.  Became a labour of love.

RE Creation Story homework. Became a labour of love.

In studying religions, creation stories emerge as a recurring feature.  Asking students to devise their own creation story is a good way for them to explore the concept, using symbolism and narrative devices to communicate the story.  My son was set this for homework and immediately saw it as an exciting project.  The brief was simple  - to write a creation story accounting for the formation of the Earth and to annotate it explaining each part.  They were given a rough guide  - it should be about a page long – and were shown an exemplar from previous year.  He loved doing it, spending ages coming up with ideas, then writing it and organising the annotations on the bigger sheet to produce something he felt really pleased with. It’s a lovely piece of work, full of imagination.

Here, a combination of factors made it work.  There was enough structure and guidance given for him to know what to aim at; there had been an element of standard-setting with the exemplar but, beyond that, he had a high degree of freedom to make it his own and he got a great thrill from it.  I quizzed him about what he learned from it and I was satisfied that it had also done the job of illustrating the value given to creation stories in religious teaching.

English Dialogue Year 7 

An English homework that captured my son's imagination.

An English homework that captured my son’s imagination.

My son has always enjoyed putting on voices when he tells a story. He’s got a whole range of characters he can adopt for comic effect when the opportunity arises.  This English homework was a fabulous opportunity to put something he is quite good at to good use. They were asked to produce a play script that illustrated different modes of speech.  This is packed with challenge in terms of writing.  There were a few rules including the need for at least three characters.  The image above shows what my son came up with – the excerpt is about a third of the whole thing.  He loved it so much, he spent a whole evening writing it from planning it to typing out the dialogue.

This task worked because it sparked his imagination.  It’s so open – he could write about any situation, with any characters, in any voice, for any length.  It was set in a light-touch ‘see what you can come up with’ manner so he wasn’t under any pressure to deliver.  That gave him the confidence to be playful and experimental with his writing; he didn’t have to be correct or overly formal.  However, the teacher is one who is a natural standard-setter; he knew he couldn’t turn in any old rubbish and expect her to be particularly impressed.  That combination of freedom and high expectations delivered a great outcome.

Maths Hat Year 6

My tweet about the Maths Hat homework.

My tweet about the Maths Hat homework.

Here’s an example of an open-ended task that didn’t work out for my son.  For World Maths Day – or something like that – they were asked to make a ‘Maths Hat’.  That’s it.  It was meant to be a fun activity to celebrate maths but my son didn’t  relate to that.  He saw it has a task that was required but one that he didn’t value.  For him, maths could be fun anyway – or not, depending on the nature of the work.  He’d have happily done some actual maths of an interesting nature to celebrate Maths Day – but a Maths Hat?   He found this woolly hat in his room and saw his chance; three minutes later with some scissors and a stapler – job done!  Maths Hat finished.

No doubt you could conjure up all kinds of creative ways to make a maths hat  - and certainly his classmates went in with top hats of various shapes and sizes covered in geometry and algebra.  But here, for my son, some ingredients were missing.  There were no clear expectations or minimum standards; there was no link to the associated learning and no challenge.  It might have worked at some level as an optional task explicitly for a bit of fun – but in this case the option to produce something rubbish was there and my son took it.  (To be clear, his teacher was fantastic and he got Level 6 in Maths – she knew her stuff.  The Maths Hat was an aberration as far as my son was concerned,  not a symptom of any deeper issue.)

Y10 Physics videos and other products

Another example of the issues with open-ended tasks is with my own lessons in recent years where I’ve asked 10 Physics GCSE students to undertake a number of open-ended tasks. Usually these are when I feel that students can benefit from trying to synthesise information from research with the material covered in class into a format that they can share with each other.  This could be a video, a publication of some kind or a presentation in some form.  In order to give them a choice and get variety in the lesson, I often offer a free choice of the presentation format.  I might get a couple of websites, a couple of Powerpoints, a few written reports and a video.

Where I am happy with the outcomes, it is normally because of a few factors:

  • I have worked harder up-front to set out the parameters in terms of the standards expected. I’ve established the success criteria in advance with students and spelt out the things I don’t want as much as the possible options I might want.
  • I’ve encouraged them to use media devices and tools that they know, that they don’t see as too much of a novelty and have the skill to use properly. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a badly made video with dodgy sound quality that was meant to be saying something about science – if only they had kept the camera kept steady or the website links worked. (If students can’t do these things well, they need to be shown how before they use them in a new context.)
  • I’ve been very clear that the science content has to dominate over all else.  The purpose of the activity is to give them the opportunity to use their knowledge and imagination to convey the scientific concepts in an interesting manner in order to develop their understanding – not to have a laugh making a hilarious video that will have their mates in stitches.

With those things in place I have had some real gems including a great set of ‘Eco House’ sales videos and websites that packed in tons of science about energy conservation and heat transfer with a fair degree of polish.  Where I have been less happy, I’ve let some of the criteria slip and been subjected to bad Powerpoints, ‘funny’ (tedious) videos, lame leaflets, low quality websites with lots of animation but no physics – and so on.   It can feel like a horrible waste of everyone’s time unless the set up is done such that the outcomes are excellent.

Two final thoughts: 

  • If everyone in the class has slightly different subject matter, then there is a good reason for students to pay attention to each other’s work. If they’ve all done the same thing, it’s hard to get a class motivated to sit through presentations about things that they already know.
  • Sometimes students respond to a challenge to go beyond your expectations.  A KEGS history teacher colleague asked her class to undertake a major piece of work researching aspects of the Renaissance and presenting their findings, within a week.  She said ‘I bet you can’t do all of that in a week’.  They said ‘I bet we can’.  She said ‘Ok, then, get your ideas together and make something that will dazzle me’.  And they did. Spectacular, breath-taking Year 8 work followed.





OFSTED Culture

I can’t resist passing on a few bits and pieces about the effect OFSTED has on schools. I have done a little editing, here and there for the sake of clarity and anonymity, but made no significant changes.

The first is from a teacher’s comment on my last blogpost.

We’ve had OFSTED in twice this year, and the DfE. Additionally, we have an adviser appointed by the academy chain who is also a lead inspector and receives a ludicrous amount of money in order to try to impose “what OFSTED want to see”. He’s quite open about it and also very insistent that listening to Wilshaw is tantamount to professional negligence in that it’s almost certain to land you in a category. I really don’t want to get into a debate about the existence of ‘a preferred teaching style’; there is no debate.

I just want to mention the following. Firstly, ‘didactic’ is no longer a description of a teaching style. It seems it’s now an egregious expletive which has the ability to induce a physical reaction in certain quarters.Secondly, apparently well planned, orderly, productive lessons in which there is demonstrable evidence of progress can and are routinely awarded a 3 on the grounds that they lack either: “glitter”, “sparkle” or “oomph”. Lastly, I’d like to point out the perils of success through means which fail to exhibit the necessary degree of glittery crypto-progressive orthodoxy. My school has one highly successful department; the only one which regularly gets within spitting distance of national progress targets. Staff, students, parents and SLT all regard it as outstanding within the school’s context. Although, for the latter, it’s always been a little bit of a black sheep given that its methods are somewhat ‘traditional’-I was going to say didactic but I didn’t want any unsuspecting OFSTED types choking on their lattes.

Anyway, come the feedback, this department was slated for its approach while the others more wedded to ‘preferred’ styles were deemed as having ‘effective strategies for improvement in place’. Little stall was placed in the inconvenient fact that these ‘strategies’ had patently failed to make any impression on results in the previous three years. Rather, it was suggested that SLT direct a ‘learning enquiry’ at the one successful department in order to ‘improve engagement and boost progress’.

Now I wasn’t especially surprised at this turn. What did take me aback was the embarrassed silence that greeted my assertion that possibly this finding was a tad inverted and perverse. I saw a see of concerned but indulgent faces who seemed to regard me as a precocious child lacking the intellectual sophistication to grasp the sheer naivety of my statement. I must stress – I really must stress – that these people weren’t simply suggesting that what I had said was inconvenient; that we all had to just ‘play the game’; that we could get back to the real world once the inspector had left the building. They actually agreed with the inspectors.

It was a clear sign to me of the tragic cognitive dissonance OFSTED induces. These were ostensibly professional competent educationalists who, faced with overwhelming unequivocal evidence tending toward conclusion X, instead, presumably due to a form of conditioned response mechanism, arrived confidently at conclusion not X.

Two things are clear:

  • I have to get of teaching
  • OFSTED must die.


The second is from a chair of governors at a primary school who emailed me, about the effect of OFSTED on their school. They asked if I was aware of the recent guidance about grading lesson observations and explained how it contradicted everything they’d been told to do previously.

 In one of our regular chats recently our head was fairly incandescent about it the new guidance. It’s not so long since our school, despite being consistently in the top 5% – 10% in the authority in terms of attainment and progress measures, was graded “requires improvement” on the basis of the quality of teaching, due to individual lessons being judged as RI, for reasons such as “that high-achievers group could have been off doing independent research”.

In our post-OFSTED action plan, we have paid our dues in terms of doing all the things that seem to be expected of us, and trying to encourage a dispirited staff to push on towards the re-inspection. Now it seems the rules have changed again. It doesn’t seem so long since I was reading a rubric about what proportion of lessons had to be judged good for the overall judgement to be “good”.

I’m keen to get this sort of sentiment published. I feel one of my roles as a chair of governors is to provide a sympathetic ear and to some degree calm him down, but as I said explicitly to him recently, I recognise I don’t have as much “skin in the game” as he has. I think I hear some echoes of the things I hear at our school in your work: that feeling of being judged by people who don’t really have an appropriate level of accountability for judgements they are making.

As a governor, I do want the best from our staff, but I also feel quite protective towards them as well. They should have a reasonable degree of work/life balance, and I’m keen that they are treated in a way to ensure their longevity in the teaching profession. One thing that has disturbed me as a result of our poor outcome last time round is the seeming desire from OFSTED and HMI to see “blood on the carpet”. This arrived in the shape of one of our teachers deciding she had had enough and was moving on to other things. On the one hand, it does give us something it seems OFSTED/HMI want to hear  (“separating the wheat and the chaff”), but on the other, this didn’t seem to me to be a case of a bad teacher ; just one that couldn’t fit with the current regime.

Certainly, anecdotally, it seems to be getting more and more difficult to fill teaching posts. In particular, I shudder at the day our head moves on. One of our assistant heads would certainly be a good candidate, but I believe he really has no interest in applying. Can’t say I blame him – the stakes are just too high – even if you turn in the numbers an inspection team can walk in and after a fairly cursory examination decide you’re still not good enough.

The saving grace in our case seemed to be that the parents just didn’t really believe the outcome of the inspection, which does seem to be something that happens elsewhere.

Finally, and you may have already seen this, we have an example of a school complaining about OFSTED. Obviously, a school with a lowered grade has a vested interest in complaining, and their results are such that the judgement is not a huge surprise, but some of the comments about the behaviour of inspectors are worth reading. This is mainly because none of them sound particularly unlikely or at odds with the sort of story I hear about OFSTED all the time.

Lateness of inspectors disrupted timetabled lessons. KS3 students who were to meet with the inspectors waited in the designated classroom for the entire break time yet they did not all arrive to interview them. They were then asked to return at the start of lunch, however, the inspector was not ready to see them then either. The meeting for students  with inspectors, when it did take place, overran by approximately 10 minutes during which time the class due to go in were waiting in the corridor. The corridors are narrow and this caused some congestion. The member of staff whose classroom it was had knocked and politely asked when they would be finishing but was told she would ‘have to wait’… The inspection feedback criticised the congestion in this corridor with the inspector in question commenting that she actually felt ‘unsafe and intimidated’ by our students. The congestion and late entry to the lesson was of the inspectors own making.

…Following an observation of an ICT lesson the inspector demonstrated little understanding of the subject and criticised the topic despite the fact that the teacher had followed a lesson suggested by the exam board. The member of staff was also criticised for not demonstrating progress in the exercise books despite being told that the member of staff had returned from maternity leave just the previous day and this was the very first lesson with her new group.

The quality of observation of a History lesson can also be questioned as the member of staff was informed that her lesson was a secure 2 and when asked how it could have been a 1 she was informed that she should have turned her classroom into Parliament House to set the scene. This comment has no relevance to a member of staff who teaches in over 11 classrooms due to inadequate space within the school building.

…During feedback to a member of the Maths department, the inspector stated that the lesson was a secure 2 but, when asked, could not provide any suggestion as to how to increase this to a 1 and was told ‘keep doing what you are doing’.  In the same lesson the staff member was praised on progress as it was evident that Level 4 students were understanding Level 7 work yet after being informed that the significant majority of the class were performing at least their expected levels and, in most cases, above these levels andhad been for the past two years, the inspector stated that he could not judge progress over time. He did not look into the students’ books so it is unclear how he arrived at this judgement.

As I mentioned last time, Civitas are interested in hearing about people’s recent OFSTED experiences. I genuinely believe that the attempts to reform OFSTED currently taking place are sincere, but I think it might take decades to undo the damage they have already done to teaching and learning in schools.

Scenes From The Battleground

(Slightly Delayed) Blogs for the Week Ending 6th April 2014

Originally posted on The Echo Chamber:

This is round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post. There is no 

Chalk Talk Podcast

 this week, but I would still like to choose the blogpost of the week some time tomorrow. Any suggestions gratefully received either in the comments below, or on twitter, directed to 


  • Tackling Homophobia: RE GCSE – Not just a matter of conscience.
  • Clinical Practice in Education: Panacea, Placebo or Suppository
  • I’m still here! 
  • CEIAG isn’t about letting the big business wolf through the door
  • Identity crisis? No, I’m a male nursery teacher!: Is your class library a Tesco experience? 
  • Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools 
  • Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog: I’ve got the power – Question 2 and 3

View original 1,350 more words

Scenes From The Battleground

Does it do what it’s supposed to? Assessing the assessment

In response to a request for constructive criticism of the English assessment model I helped design, Michael Tidd got in touch to query whether it met his 7 questions you should ask about any new ‘post-levels’ assessment scheme.

For the record, these questions are:

  1. Can it be shared with students?
  2. Is it manageable and useful for teachers?
  3. Will it identify where students are falling behind soon enough?
  4. Will it help shape curriculum and teaching?
  5. Will it provide information that can be shared with parents?
  6. Will it help to track progress across the key stage?
  7. Does it avoid making meaningless sub-divisions?

My initial response was that I was unsure whether it did in fact successfully meet these criteria, and this post is an attempt to think through what might need to be tweaked or jettisoned in order to improve it.

1. Can it be shared with students?

In its current form some of the wording will probably be opaque to most pupils. I’m suspicious of ‘translating’ rubrics into ‘pupil friendly’ language because it’s almost impossible to retain the nuances of meaning from the original. Having said that, the descriptions we settled on were stripped of most of the meaningless adjectives and adverbs that plagued National Curriculum levels and so it ought to be relatively straightforward to communicate to pupils where they are and what they would need to do in order to make progress. What’s more difficult is to determine targets. In the past there was a spurious but at least widely agreed consensus that pupils ought to make at least 2 sub levels of progress per year. This was something that could be easily communicated, if not fully comprehended. But in a post levels system, pupils will need to know what they can do, and what they ought to be able to do next. And in those terms the descriptors we’ve come up with ought to be able to serve that purpose.

2. Is it manageable and useful for teachers?

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 05.16.53English teachers have had to contend with assessing pupils’ work using 15 different Assessment Focuses each divided into 8 distinct levels. To say that this was an unwieldy way to mark work is something of an understatement.

These 8 writing AFs, 7 reading AFs and 4 speaking & listening AFs have been slimmed down into 6 ‘organising concepts’ that, we hope, capture the essence of what experts and academics in the field of English do. And these concepts have been divided into six quite distinct ‘levels’ of mastery that should avoid any pointless hairsplitting about whether work is ‘competent’, ‘clear’, ‘confident’ or ‘sophisticated’; it ought to be obvious at a glance whether pupils are ‘working towards’ being able to operate with a concept or able to do so ‘sometimes’. So is it manageable? Yes. But is it helpful? I thinks so. One criticism of this system was that it is ‘vaguer’ than NC levels. While it’s certainly true that our descriptors are generic in nature, I’m not sure that they’re actually any vaguer than what is currently in place, but vagueness may have some advantages in that it might prevent us having too much certainty about making pronouncements on what pupils can and can’t do. My hope though, would be that these generic descriptors will be used to design specific rubrics for each assessment task and will therefore be made as specific as thought necessary to be useful.

3. Will it identify where students are falling behind soon enough?

This may be a weakness. Tidd argues that “NC levels were too broad to be able to identify students who were not making progress, but sub-levels did not link closely enough to the content.” While this system should be able to record meaningful information (rather than just data) about pupils’ progress, it may not be able to do so in sufficient detail. Is it enough to be able to highlight where a pupil is ‘secure’ and where their progress is ‘exceptional’? It’s not clear how these stages intersect with age related expectations and therefore it may not be agile enough to flag up where children are falling behind. This needs further thought and any suggestions would be welcomed.

4. Will it help shape curriculum and teaching?

Well, seeing as this assessment system was the starting point for the curriculum that was subsequently designed, this must be a resounding ‘Yes!’ The programme or study and individual schemes of learning have been put together in order to allow and encourage pupils to criticise and create knowledge and engage dialectically with the content that is to be taught. A potential failing is that our ‘beyond’ category occupies a position above ‘exceptional’ and gives the impression that you can only be critical after mastering a concept. I’m not sure whether this is true and it runs the same risk of putting ‘creativity’ at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy. Creativity is dependent on the quality of what you know but making it the apex of a hierarchy of skills suggests that you can only be creative after you have been analytical and evaluative. This may not be a particularly useful message and maybe we could do more to encourage pupils to go ‘beyond’ at an earlier stage in their mastery of a concept?

5. Will it provide information that can be shared with parents?

Yes. The fact that alpha-numeric labels have been stripped away will mean that teachers and parents will be forced to communicate at the level of what pupils can actually do rather than the obfuscating shorthand of trying to encapsulate a child by assigning them a number. As Tidd has pointed out, a system which nails the first of his criteria (communication with pupils) should do well in this category too. I’m of the opinion that anything that makes it too easy to fool ourselves into believing we can absorb information at a glance is problematic; I think we should have to work at trying to understand where are children are and what we need to do to support them to make further progress. But where this system may fall down is in the potential weaknesses highlighted in the response to Question 3: if the stages are not related to age-related expectations, will parents be able to make sense of how their children are performing in comparison to everyone else? And does this matter?

6. Will it help to track progress across the key stage?

Tidd acknowledges that tracking is not the same as assessment, but contends that the ability to track progress is an essential component of a useful assessment system. There are 2 concerns here: the tracking of coverage and the tracking or progress. Firstly. can (and should) an assessment system be used to map out what has been taught? Or is that the job of the curriculum? And secondly, can the assessment system indicate whether expectations are being met annually and across a key stage? This brings us back to the issue highlight above – because I’m not sure how well our system captures age-related expectations, I’m not sure how well it can be used to track progress. Certainly it can be used to track what pupils can currently do, but what does this actually tells us about what they should be able to do?

7. Does it avoid making meaningless sub-divisions?

The fact that the content of English can rarely be reduced to a binary yes/no assessment of understanding and progress means that assessment design has always focused on the ‘skills’ on the subject. The foundational knowledge of grammar might be usefully assessed in this way but most of what pupils know in English is specific to very narrow contexts: knowing the plot of Oliver Twist will not help you understand the plot of other novels, but having a general understanding of how plot development works might. Michael Young discusses in Bringing Knowledge Back In the need to teach ‘powerful’ knowledge over ‘context dependent’ knowledge. Most knowledge that is taught, Young argues, is limited to being procedural and skills based; it deals with specifics and doesn’t allow children to make the generalisations and judgements that come with acquiring ‘powerful’ or context-independent knowledge.

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 06.11.33

For these reasons, our assessment system has been organised around the powerful, organising concepts that underpin mastery of reading and writing. The subdivisions we’ve made within these concepts have, I hope, real meaning and will be useful.

On balance, I think this systems stands up pretty well although I’m sure there are many other useful tests our assessment system could undergo in order to tease out its fitness for purpose. There is always the caveat that it’s very hard to spot self-deception on your own, so I’d be very grateful for any further feedback or critique. The next step might be to subject any assessment tasks and specific rubrics to Rob Coe’s 47 criteria for a useful assessment.

If you haven’t already read the original post describing the process of design the assessment system and curriculum, please have a look at One step beyond: assessing what we value.

The post Does it do what it’s supposed to? Assessing the assessment appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

What’s the tone of the headline? AQA Question 2

Every so often, I like to blog about a lesson I have taught that week. Not because I think I am amazingly great – I am not: I still have a pile of marking to do and there is always something I haven’t done. But, because I like to share and see what others have done. Writing a blog on a lesson becomes the equivalent of throwing a pebble in the pond. Lots of waves are generated. In the past, I have described a lesson and as a result of that I have had several suggestions of how else that specific lesson could have been done.

In fact, I am one of those sad people that likes looking at schemes of work. I enjoy reading old – very old – text books. It is not for the joy of finding a worksheet full of flared trousered teachers or teenagers with hair that resembles candy floss. It is more about the joy of finding a different approach or a novel way or idea of doing the same thing Plato did teaching all those centuries ago,  than finding a worksheet that will keep a class quiet for five minutes. It is the oh-never-thought-of-doing-it-that-way thing I like. Therefore, I am sharing this lesson. I could, if I wanted to, put all my resources on TES, but I find it frustrating that the website, great as it is, tends to collect resources rather than ideas. I don’t want an instant lesson; I actually love planning. A ready-made resource doesn’t really appeal to me. I want ideas. That’s why I blog. That’s why I read blogs. They help me plan. They feed my inspiration.

Right, the lesson! Well, I am preparing students for the last big push on the AQA Unit 1 exam. Psychologists would have a field day with me, because I am starting to enjoy the exam and the teaching of it. Now, I haven’t gone all ‘Blue-Peter’ and overdosed on positivity; it is just that with all the model answers I have written and all the time I have spent on it, I have gone all ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. I have fallen in love with my captor. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Anyway, this lesson was about question 2. The headline and picture question.

Explain how effective the headline and picture are in the article and how they link to the text.

Step 1:

I explained to students the problems in the last mock.

What were the problems in the last mock exam?

* Not enough language analysis

* People didn’t show they understood the tone of the piece of writing
* The picture’s symbolise wasn’t fully explored
*The links made were pretty poor

Step 2:

 I then gave students a sheet of headlines from a range of different sources. Rather than dive in for the techniques employed, I asked students to identify the tone of the article from the headline. Was the tone shocked, comical, disgusted or something else?

I caught TB from my pet cat: Teenager tells how she was rushed to hospital with severe lung damage

The horrible word in the exam question is ‘effective’. As soon as students see it they hone in on it. Everything becomes about things being effective. But, it is something more subtle that is needed in the exam. Focusing on the tone shows understanding of the text and an awareness of how the headline is used. The headline doesn’t just make you want to read it, but also hints at the emotional impact of the story. I am feeling sad. Oh, look there is a story that sounds a bit funny, so I will read that. Oh, that other one looks depressing. Better not read that.

As we did this, we noticed that the tone of the headline might be more than one thing. Sometimes headlines started with a serious tone and then changed to a comical tone.

 Step 3:

Next, I got students to highlight the language devices employed. While doing this, I reminded them to see if they could link the technique to the tone.

Analyse the headline  - look at the language

Think of…

*punctuation – any form of punctuation

* sounds (harsh / soft /rhyme / alliteration)

*Which word is the most dramatic / effective?

* Techniques (exaggeration/ emotive / puns)

* Facts / numbers / statistics

* First and last words

*Reason for the choice of words

Doctors snapped my unborn baby’s arm in two … to save her life: Maternity ward drama as medics battled to deliver baby so big she got trapped during birth


There’s so much to be said from the headlines in the exam, but student opt for the most obvious ones, which means that they miss the subtle or plainly obvious ones. Like some of these here:

·         Start and end feature something shocking

·         Writer tricks reader into thinking the doctors are evil – they withhold the reason for the snapping for later

·         Ellipsis used for dramatic emphasis   

·         Starts with an emphasis on action – snapped (onomatopoeic word)

·         Alliteration of baby, big and birth

·         Doctor becomes medic

·         Battled has severe connotations

·         Two halves of the sentence have didn’t tones


Step 4:

Then we discussed how things could be linked to the text. Mostly, things in the text prove, support or challenge ideas in the headline.

Link those together -  writer – technique – reader

The writer uses a serious tone by using a fact( ********) in the headline so that reader is shocked by the amount of people that has died.

Link again….

The text reflects the shocking nature of this by referring to the names of these people: ‘************’. 

Step 5:

After making links, we then focused on the pictures. Now, I have done quite a bit of work with the students, but at this stage I felt that I need to go back to basics.  I discussed with students these set questions:

What does it show?

What does it hint at?

What does it symbolise?

Describe / Suggest / Symbolise

I found that teaching students to analyse pictures like this helped them to step up their interpretations. They were able to build up ideas in detail. Too often students neglect to say what is in the picture and its relevance to the text. Again, when thinking of these things students had to think about the tone of the text. 

Link ideas to – writer – picture -reader


The picture shows the boyfriend smiling and the celebrity wearing animal fur which highlights the writer’s anger and the will provoke the reader to feel shocked that he might get away with it, while the badgers are dead.


Link to the text:

This is supported when the text says….


Step 6:

Finally, this is where things get scary. I printed off headlines and pictures from the Daily Mail. (Sorry, to say this but the Daily Mail website is brilliant for resources for this particular question.) I didn’t print anything else off the article, just the headline and picture. Students then proceeded to annotate the sheets and the analysis was great. Each student had a different headline. They had to do all the above in 5 minutes and they did it effectively.

As a plenary, students read out two things about the headline and two things about the picture. I modelled an approach to the question and made students experience the thought processes needed for the exam.

 Next lesson, I will be getting them to write a response the question, yet this text will be about a new article that they haven’t seen. Oh, and I will be writing a response at the same time.  

Feed me, Seymour! Feed me now. I am off to read some more textbooks from the 1970s.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Pedagogy Postcard #8: Big Picture – Small Picture:

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.


 (NB, I’m a stickler for saying ‘dissect’ as in disperse, disappear and dissipate; not rhyming with bisect. That’s the true meaning.  We do not ‘die-sect’ a heart or ‘die-sect’ a poem; we ‘dis -sect’ them. Thank you. )

When I encounter a new idea or fact I always ask myself ‘What does this have to do with anything? How does it link to what I already know? Where does fit it to the big scheme of things?’ As a student I always wanted to know the course structure and the scale of each module so I could gauge the depth needed for each component of learning; I need the big picture in order to make sense of the details. I think a lot of learners are similar and learning itself is the same.

What does this mean in practice?  At a course level, it’s obvious enough. Students benefit from seeing an overview of everything they’re going to learn so that they can see where they’re going. Here’s an example of a GCSE English course outline:

English GCSE Course Outline.

English GCSE Course Outline.

This kind of big picture is common enough but I’d say it’s not universal.  My Year 9 co-construction class wanted to make a plan like this very early on as I profiled in this post.  Constructing the big picture lesson by lesson was an early part of the process:

The 9M Masterplan for Physics and Chemistry

The 9M Masterplan for Physics and Chemistry


However, Big Picture thinking is even more important at a pedagogical level.  In a physics lesson this week, for example, I made an error. I was trying to save time by cutting out some background, introducing the idea of the Boltzmann factor, cutting to the chase with using the equation. Disaster. Without sufficient context, the numbers didn’t make sense; students had no intuition for whether the answers should be going up and down or by how much…there was perplexed confusion all round. I had to start again the next lesson. My mistake was to miss out the big picture.

In history, this is very obviously linked to timelines and chronology.  For example, what was the significance of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846?  It’s impossible to understand the details and the nuances of the motivations of the politicians of the day without taking a much broader view: Britain’s industrial revolution; the development of global trade; the workings of parliament and the origins of political allegiance; the social context of early 19th Century Britain.   There are lots of specific details than can be disorientating and overwhelming unless they are framed in a wider context.  For some, simply getting their head around when 1846 was would be a challenge in terms of the scale of time and some recognisable reference points that help them to connect to that era.

In English, the analysis of literary texts should be approached within a context where the general appreciation of each work as a whole entity has value.  We love books and poems for how they make us think and feel, first and foremost; we study them afterwards.   It pays to know the whole book, the whole play or the full text of a poem before ripping into the analysis.  That’s where the joy or reading lies. Sometimes, premature analysis can kill the passion for a text rather than enhancing it.

As I’ve tried to illustrate in my ‘Punter’s Guide to Essay Writing’ post, this also applies to essays themselves.  In comparing two poems, two sources or two perspectives, there is enormous value in the broad comparison of each one taken as a whole as well as looking at the structural components of that comparison – such as the language or sentence structure of a poem.  In the analogy, Rooney vs Aguero is just one detail compared to the overview of United vs City.

In exam preparation terms,  I find it always pays to give students a sense of the full scope of a topic. In Maths, for example, the big picture of A* topics can give students a sense of where they need to focus:

A* Maths topic overview

A* Maths topic overview

Another important reason to keep the ‘whole’ together before dissecting it is to maintain a level of challenge.  For example, you might want students to consider the issues surrounding the plan for a new hydro-electric power station, looking at case-study in China.  Some students will gain enormously from the challenge of devising their own parameters for the analysis.  They’ll see it whole and break it down themselves.  If you do this for them, by giving them a structure (environmental impact, economic benefits, political factors and so on) then they lose an opportunity to think for themselves.  It diminishes the level of challenge.

Similarly with maths problems.  It pays for students to struggle a bit, not knowing exactly where to begin before you give them the clues and walk them through the steps.

What is the value of d? What angle does it make with each side?

What is the value of d? What angle does it make with each side?

This is the way to teach problem solving, giving away the clues only to those that absolutely need them.







Rip Up The Script

It’s the end of a long day and I am exhausted. I walk through Marston, a sprawling estate on the edge of town, on the way to the station. A forest of concrete, its roots formed by the streets and houses frequented by the youngsters that pass in and out of the school doors each day. My eyes glance over the huddles of kids on corners and strewn litter on pavements. Cigarette butts pepper the pavement like snowflakes. Kids race past, screaming and jeering, peddling their BMXs as fast as they can. A broken streetlight flashes moronically. Dogs bark in the background, muffling the mumbles of the men and women who stand in shop doorways and discuss their days. Row after row of box shaped dwellings decorated with pebble dashed frontages, broken fences and rusty garage doors line the streets. A siren wails in the distance. A baby cries out. Music blares from a teenager’s bedroom window. A mother yells.

To the kids I teach, this is home. This is where they spend their free time. This is where they sleep, where they eat, where they argue with their siblings, meet up with their mates, and watch TV with their parents. Marston is the place that has helped to shape them; it’s where they will spend the most formative years of their lives, and many of the decisions they make whilst here will determine their futures.


On my left is the community centre, a small building doused in good intentions, Slimming World posters, and graffiti. Behind it stands a stinking skip, and a group of bored looking boys, whose bleak stares peep out from under hoods, caps and coats. Clouds of sweet smelling smoke hover above them: they brazenly continue puffing and passing as I trudge past. I think I recognise one of them. It looks a bit like a kid called Jordan, who I taught last term. He was always very quiet, and didn’t seem to have many friends. He was despondent and always looked as if his mind was far, far away. At the time I thought he was painfully bored; as a naïve, optimistic newbie, I thought that I could win him over. Nothing I tried worked. He eventually stopped coming to school, and today is the first time I have seen him in over six months.

I think back to a conversation I had recently with Mr Foster, a very wise and experienced member of staff. He told me that, for some reason “lots of kids from Marston don’t really see the point in coming to school. Many of them don’t give it much of a chance, and make their minds up that they will hate it before they even start.

“It’s like a script they get handed: ‘you will hate school’. They can’t seem to get out of that mindset.”

Mr Foster’s words echo in my head as I pass by. Scripts. Many our pupils are given such scripts to follow, and get stuck in a vicious, unrelenting cycle of underachievement and low aspiration. I think about this as I glance once more at the group of boys. Jordan avoids my gaze and pulls his hood over his eyes as he breathes out a ring of smoke from his nostrils.


Further up the road, I pass Frydays, the local chippie. I notice a small girl struggling over the threshold with a buggy, and watch as a lanky boy in a tracksuit helps her squeeze the cumbersome item carefully into the building. They both look exhausted. The girl is called Shelley. I didn’t know her that well when she was at school full time, but she gained celebrity status across the campus when she became pregnant last year. She had always previously been known to the teachers as ‘one of those kids’- the naughty ones, the ones who get into fights and confrontations on a regular basis, the ones who snarl and sneer when given instructions. Many teachers were not surprised when she revealed her predicament to the world and came in clutching a scan of her future offspring. Kids made comments that revealed both their immaturity and their insensitivity.

“Well yeah, obviously Shelley got up the duff!”

“Blatently! That was always gonna happen!”

Shelley’s notorious classroom behaviour had gradually built her a certain reputation across the school. Her starring role in school, the script she had been handed, was that of a truculent, aggressive failure that would not amount to much. The prophecy bestowed on her informed the majority of her actions throughout her time in school. It was a reputation she seemed to feel obliged to live up to. It seemed that teenage motherhood was a part of her script, too; those who stood on the side lines and watched her tumble through life were certainly expecting it. I wonder if she was.

Bad Scripts

Like many areas across the country, the levels of deprivation in Marston are severe. I can cite all the relevant statistics about unemployment and GCSE pass rates, but I realise that I don’t really need to. The poverty hangs around in the air like a disease; it’s a foggy haze that envelops and entraps people in a prison of narrow horizons. The place has its own script, one that is performed over and over again by the kids who pass through the gates of Galaxy High.

But I cannot change the social circumstances these children find themselves in.

I cannot change the decisions or the mistakes they make. I could try to blame those mistakes on their backgrounds, or the places they come from.  But I don’t want Marston to condemn them. I don’t want to keep using the location of their upbringing as an excuse for their underachievement. I don’t want to keep recycling the same old scripts, over and over, whilst the place crumbles further and further into decay.

Understanding where they come from and the challenges they face is vital. We spend our days worrying about observation grades and dealing with data and the whims of senior leaders, but in doing so, we can forget about the challenges that dwell in the places our pupils call home, and that it is our job to help them overcome them. Poverty and cultural deprivation can explain underachievement and low aspiration, but they don’t have to excuse or justify it.

We cannot change the social circumstances these children find themselves in, of course not. As teachers, such things lie far outside of our locus of control. What we can control is the experience they have whilst they are in school. We can make sure that they arrive on time, that they behave, that they work hard in lessons and that they achieve their very best. We need to realise that places like Marston need education to help lift them out of poverty, and that is something entirely within our power to give.

We have the power to rip up the scripts our most deprived kids are given, and work with them to write new ones. Being born and raised on a council estate does not have to mean that you will fail in life. With the right support, the dedication of a committed army of teachers, and a collective conviction that all can achieve- no matter what- we can start to change the shape of these children’s futures.

Tabula Rasa

This much I know about…daffodils

I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about daffodils.

The only way to make your cut flowers last is to keep them out of the sun, away from radiators and change their water on a daily basis. You wouldn’t stand on the mantelpiece sipping yesterday’s bath water, would you?

Dennis Madden, flower seller, 54, London


Daffodils are important. They are beautiful because they are here with us fleetingly. They symbolise for me both the beginning of spring time and the impermanence of things. Rather than Wordsworth, if you have never met with Gillian Clarke’s poem, here it is. It forms part of one of my most remarked upon assemblies…

Miracle on St David’s Day

“They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude”
The Daffodils by W. Wordsworth

An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.

I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coal as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic

on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun, a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big, mild man is tenderly led

to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.

He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness
the labourer’s voice recites “The Daffodils”.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.

Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

When he’s done, before the applause, we observe
the flower’s silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are flame.


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)