Learning to love the humble multiple-choice question

There is something that is very frustrating in English lessons. It isn’t something that, we, English teachers talk about, but we do have to deal with it day in and day out. It is the student with the ‘scientific brain’. Or, maybe that should be the ‘logical brain’. It is something that all English teachers have to deal with in their lessons at some point. You can’t be a ‘proper’ English teacher until you have had a student state that they cannot see the deeper meaning of a poem. It might be prefixed with the following comments:
‘How do I know what the writer means? I didn’t write it.’
‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’
‘How did you get that from the poem? I don’t see it.’
They just don’t get it. Often, in English lessons or in parents’ evenings, I have had to justify the complexity of my subject. You see, Mr Curtis, our Cuthbert prefers Science. He finds things tough in English. I think this all boils down to the fact there are no right or wrong answers in English lessons. Well, there are blatant wrong answers: I think the poem ‘Futility’ is about aliens. Wrong. The rest are just shades of grey.
I used to think that this ‘right or wrong’ mindset was a gender characteristic. It makes sense that girls enjoy multiple meanings in a text because they are attuned to looking for meaning and emotions in how people speak and act. Therefore, it makes sense that boys prefer facts, clear answers and things devoid of ambiguity. But, over the years, this has proven to be all ‘a pile of pants’. These ‘logical brains’ are everywhere and they can be either male or female. I am also separating this from autism and the autism spectrum. Yes, most people can fit on the spectrum of autism and demonstrate autistic tendencies, but I see this as a phenomenon separate to autism.
Anyway, these ‘logical brains’ struggle when faced with a poem or text and they have to hunt for meaning. Moving from literal meaning to figurative meaning, is a rocky road for them. Why? Well, it could mean anything. These students could probably tell you what a metaphor is, but explore the meaning of one and they start to go all sweaty and start breathing heavily. I suppose, English is full of abstract concepts. Other subjects, apart from RE, deal with quite concrete aspects and you could say that knowledge plays a part in this. They have something tangible to prove its existence in the real world. Look, here are two chemicals and this is what happens when we put them together. Let’s measure them. I’d probably go so far to say that if a subjects used measuring equipment, then it is probably a ‘concrete’ subject. There might be some ‘abstract’ thinking, but generally the learning focuses on clear, concrete knowledge. 
Take these two questions:
What is faith?
What is the effect of the simile in the poem?
They are difficult questions. There could be a number of different answers and the teacher, when marking a response, will use their knowledge and understanding to decide on the appropriateness of a response. Reading mark schemes in English are hilarious. They tend to focus on skills and any possible answers are provided, but there will usually be a little comment: other similar answers can be accepted. Across the different exam boards, there are lots of variations of this one sentence. Open an English textbook and you see how publishers have tried to make English a concrete subject. There seems to be a clear right answer and no opportunities for different possible interpretations or meanings.
Recently, I have been working with developing students’ memory of key texts for exams. Over the last few weeks, I have been making it a habit to make a multiple-choice quiz for each chapter in a book studied. This is partly inspired by the great Joe Kirby and his team at the Michaela School. It was while I was producing one set of multiple-choice questions that I had an idea. Usually, my questions focused on plot, character’s thoughts and key quotes. Students had to select the correct ones. Then, I thought about how this could be adapted for other parts of English and, in particular, the analysis of texts.
My Year 8s are currently reading ‘Great Expectations’ and they are analysing extracts from the novel. Recently, they completed a comprehension style task on Pip’s second meeting with Magwitch. Their answers were pretty weak. They are an able group, but something about their answers was lacking. They wrote short, superficial answers. When feeding back answers, they saw the error of their ways, but still they struggled with the next tasks. There seemed to be a gulf between their verbal responses and their written responses. They can insightful and detailed explanations when talking, but put pen to paper and they struggled to even answer the question. Step forward, Miss Havisham.
I gave students a series of quotes about Miss Havisham. Under each quote, there were four possible different interpretations. Of course, I started with a silly one to get the ball rolling.

The students then discussed for a lengthy time each one. As a class, we decided which one was the most likely interpretation of the line. The great thing about this was that students were using evidence from other parts of the whole extract or novel to justify their point and their ideas.
The next part of the process involved students working on creating their own multiple-choice interpretations. I gave students a blank grid and they had a go at producing their own set of interpretations. This made for some interesting discussions. One pair looked at the possible meaning behind Miss Havisham’s prayer book:
[a] She was raised a Catholic.   
[b] She is constantly praying for something.
[c] She feels she has done something bad so she wants to pray for forgiveness.
[d] Faith is a strong part of her life now.
It did take a long time for students to make their own interpretations.  It wasn’t that it was too hard, but more a case of students wanting to discuss at length. To make students feel at ease, I did say that if they couldn’t think of four interpretations, they could invent a silly one. Often, this wasn’t necessary. The class engaged with the ideas and discussed things at length.
The potential for this, I think, is endless. Getting students to explore, the different meanings of a line, effect of a word, thought / feeling of a character or writer’s purpose. It opened up the dialogue. We were not limited by a right or wrong answer. We were focused on a more likely or least likely answer. A slight difference in interpretation.
While the students were creating their multiple-choice sheet, I asked them about the process. They said that it helped them to think. We discussed what the next step would be and one lad suggested that for comprehension the teacher should set it as multiple-choice answers, meaning that there are four possible answers to the question set. So, finally, I set students the following task for homework:
I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room,
too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A
fire had been lately kindled in the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go
out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the
clearer air–like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece
faintly lighted the chamber; or it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its
darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing
in it was covered with dust and mold, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was
a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house
and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle
of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite
undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its
seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies
running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public
importance has just transpired in the spider community.

I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same occurrence were
important to their interests. But the black beetles took no notice of the agitation, and groped
about the hearth in a ponderous elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing,
and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention, and I was watching them from a
distance, when Miss Havisham laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a
crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.
“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I
am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”
With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at
once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.
“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where
those cobwebs are?”
“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”
“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”
For each question, give four possible answers.
1.      What four thoughts / feelings are going through Pip’s mind / heart here?
2.      Why has Charles Dickens used the beetle image here? Give four ideas. 
3.      Why does Miss Havisham want her body to rest in this room when she dies?
4.      What is the purpose of the extract?
5.      What four things here link to the theme of death?  
6.      How does this extract link to other events / things in the novel?
7.      Create your own question and give the possible answers to it.
We are indirectly narrowing our students’ understanding of texts. Look at all comprehension tasks. They are based on having one clear answer. When we look at essays analysing a text, we are happy to accept a variety of ideas. We aren’t joining the two approaches together. On one, we are promoting a limited view of responses and interpretations; and, with the other insisting on having multiple interpretations.  
If we want students to explore layers of meaning, then we, as teachers, have to build that explicitly into our teaching. We need to show students in all things we do that there are often several meanings behind a text, line or word.
What is the purpose of the blog?
Old Style: To inform.
New style: [a] inform [b] describe [c] entertain [d] persuade.
Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

The problem with book monitoring

Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.

Albert Camus

Most schools these days routinely monitor students’ exercise books in an attempt to extrapolate the quality of teaching. In some ways this is positive and reflects the growing recognition that we can tell much less than we might believe about teaching quality by observing lessons. On the whole I’m in favour of looking at students’ work, but, predictably, book monitoring goes wrong for pretty much the same reasons lesson observation doesn’t work.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with observing lessons, work scrutiny or any of the other practices used to peer inside the black box of teaching quality, the problems stem from how the information gleaned is then used. If I observe a lesson with a checklist of criteria I will be viewing the lesson through a set of predefined parameters which will distort what I see. If I conduct a work scrutiny with something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 14.21.50

It’s not that I think Ross McGill’s approach is unhelpful per se – in fact, as he explains in his post, the idea that this monitoring should be accompanied by conversation with students is probably useful – but by using the pro forma he suggests then the best you can expect is to find what you’re looking for.

What, you might wonder, is wrong with finding what you’re looking for?

Let’s consider the Learning Policy Ross mentions in his blog:

1. Teachers must have a secure overview of the starting points, progress and context of all students.

2. Marking must be primarily formative including use of a yellow box which is clear about what students must act upon and selective marking, where relevant.

3. Marking and feedback must be regular.

4. The marking code must be used.

Number 1 is a clear statement of what the role of a teacher entails and as such seems an excellent way to hold teachers to account. But this is undermined by predetermining what good looks like in points 2-4. Why must a yellow box be used? Why can’t marking be irregular? What’s the reasoning for one marking code being superior to another? This sort of thing results in teachers marking books not for students’ benefit, but for the convenience of auditors. This isn’t a learning policy, it’s managerialism and it is to be resisted. Rather than creating unnecessary workload, it would be better to simply say, “We trust you to have a secure overview of the starting points, progress and context of all students and how you go about doing that is up to you.”

It comes down to whether you’re more interested in getting what you want or trusting people to do what is best. Instead of looking for items on a checklist we should be looking at what is there and asking questions about why it’s there and what it represents. As I’ve argued before, accountability only works if those being held to account are prompted to try to be their best instead of trying to look good. When teachers are told what good looks like they know that anything that deviates from this expectation is likely to be viewed with suspicion and subject to misunderstanding. The safe option is to cover your back, give the observer what they want and regularly festoon your books with yellow boxes.

The point is, none of this matters. The only thing worth checking for is the quality of students’ work. As such, if you really feel you need a pro forma to fill in, I suggest it looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 15.17.28

Now, let’s consider the evidence. Teacher 1’s students have produced work which is untidy and lacking in quality. Teacher 2’s classes, on the other hand, have produced some great stuff, but it hasn’t been marked. Teacher 3’s classes are turning out rubbish work which is also going unmarked and the students of Teacher 4 are working well and their work is being marked. What does this tell you? Which outcome do you prefer? What assumptions are you in danger of making? What questions would you want to ask?

The last two cases present few difficulties. It seems reasonable to have a word with Teacher 3 and suggest her books need marking. Even if we charitably assume that there are other methods the teacher might be giving feedback, clearly it’s not working. In the case of Teacher 4, both teacher and student seem to be doing exactly what’s expected and required. Case closed.

But what about the first two teachers? What has our scrutiny actually revealed? I’d want to have a chat with Teacher 2  to find out how this magic is being worked. It would be interesting to compare students’ work across subjects to see whether they’re all simply highly motivated young chaps who do what’s required despite feckless teachers. I might want to speak to some of the students to ask about the conditions under which their work was produced and to find out whether they have been receiving feedback through means other than marking. But, if the work is good, the last thing I want to do is tell off the teacher.

Teacher 1 though is a cause for concern. Despite the work being marked it’s just not up to snuff. Is this because their students blithely ignore their teacher’s earnest efforts? Might it be that the presence of marking isn’t providing useful feedback? If the teacher is working hard to mark, but the quality of work isn’t improving, maybe the teacher needs some support? Or perhaps the situation will right its self given time and should just be earmarked for further monitoring. It should always be remembered that teaching teachers equally is fundamentally unfair.

Both of these cases reveal circumstances where book monitoring could go wrong.It’s far harder to assess the quality of work than it is the quality of marking and so we have an entirely natural tendency to do what’s easier. If we’re just looking to see whether a marking policy has been followed Teacher 1 might get a gold star, despite the poor quality of work. And I can well imagine a scenario where Teacher 2 is forced to comply with a marking policy despite the successes of the students.

Another related point is about who’s doing the book monitoring. McGill makes the point in his post that it should be subject leaders and this is generally sound advice. The last thing we want is school leaders with a subject specialism in, say, DT, quality assuring maths books. I was once told by a PE teacher that the work my Year 7 class had been doing wasn’t challenging enough. When I asked why, he told me this was because they’d been studying The Lady of Shallot, a poem he’d seen being taught in a primary school he’d visited. “Hmm,” I replied. “That’s odd because Tennyson’s poetry is on the A level specification and I’m about to start studying it with my Year 13 class.”

Who cares if marking is regular or in line with a policy as long as the work students produce is of a fantastic quality? And if the work is ropey, only a fool would be happy if the marking meets expectations.

This should be the standard against which we hold teachers to account: Is the work great? If the answer’s no, then whatever they’re doing isn’t working. But if the answer’s yes, no other question need be asked.

Further reading

If Venus de Milo did feedback – what reach she could have had by Andy Day

Is book sampling valid? by Greg Ashman

Evidence? What evidence? by Toby French

The post The problem with book monitoring appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

What’s you motif when writing the story?

In my time, as a teacher, I have seen numerous lesson plans for schemes of work on story writing; and, if I am honest, they have bored me. Creative writing, sometimes, is boiled down to the following structure: 





Now, I am not a published author, nor am I a renowned critic, nor am I an expert on stories, but, this typical structure for stories, we often teach our students, has no relation to real stories. I think of the last five books I have read and none of them can be squeezed (with the flabby bits hanging over the trousers) into this framework. Yet, again and again on TES and other teacher sites I see this structure enforced on students. It just doesn’t work for me. I never see myself comment on a student’s resolution and I never criticise a student’s crisis in their crafted story. In fact, in exam reports I have never seen the following comment:
‘Students are commonly producing over-the-top complications and their resolutions never tie up any previous plot threads. Please avoid sub-plots. There seems to be a growing trend of students ending their stories with a cliffhanger, which is honestly disappointing for the reader.’

In fact, I find, all too often, that the way we teach creative writing tends to be from a lobotomy point of view. I, and many others, have taught schemes of work on the basis that the students in the class haven’t a clue about how stories work. Remember to use characters in your story. Don’t forget to use a setting. It isn’t that important for students to be told this. I have yet to read a story that has been set in an empty nothing and it is populated by no characters.

Having children of my own, I see that a lot of what has happened in the past has been spelling out the basics. My daughters could tell me, at seven, what a good story needs. In fact, they intuitively know. So when they tell me a story about Stinky the Mouse and his journey on a boat, they know what will make the story better. They know if Stinky loses his cheese, the tension will be raised. They know that Stinky must find his cheese, friends or home at the end of the story. You can see that, unlike me, my daughters have a better chance of starting a writing career than me.

I feel partly annoyed with myself that I taught creative writing in this way. I feel as though I have been teaching in such a basic way. I can’t take all the responsibility, because the National Curriculum enforced this structured way of teaching story writing on me, you, us.
This term, I have been working with Year 9s to write dystopian stories. You’ll be pleased to know that I haven’t even muttered the words ‘crisis’, ‘complication’ or ‘resolution’. I did use the word ‘opening’ and that’s only because they are writing their opening to their dystopian story. So, what did I use to help them structure their stories? Motifs.
When reading the opening of ‘Divergent’ I noticed how hair was mentioned. This hair motif is a constant pattern in the books. In fact, it is a constant motif used in dystopian fiction. We were able to make connections with ‘Hunger Games’ and how all the stories featured a scene where a character has their hair cut or style. Occasionally, this is through their choice or, as typically, in dystopian worlds the new hairstyle is forced on them. Of course, the symbolism of the motif is clear, but the message of the motif is far more profound. Do we fit in? Or, do we rebel?
To get the idea of motifs, I used the short film, Alma. Here is the link on YouTube:

We had to watch it twice to get the idea of the window motif.

The boy looks though a window.

The doll look through the window at the boy.

The boy looks at the glass eyes of the doll.

The boy as a doll looks out of the doll’s glass eyes.  

Another child looks through the window.

Clearly, the phases ‘the eyes are a window to the soul’ springs to mind. However, the idea was clear for the students.
We then, as a class, looked at possible motifs we could use to reflect the idea of a dystopian society:
Shattered glass
Reflections in mirrors
The class then formed a visual plan around the motif. I picked up on the ‘crack’ motif. No sniggers, please.

[1] A small crack in a wine glass

[2] A crack in a tile on the floor

[3] Two characters are splitting up – a crack in their relationship

[4] A news report on an earthquake

We were planning visually, creatively and symbolical and there wasn’t even a ‘crisis’ in sight. I had one lovely example of a student looking at ‘observer’ motif.

[1] A man watches another person

[2] A CCTV camera

[3] A bird

[4] An object
I noticed when the students started writing that the motifs told the story for the students. I didn’t need to worry about the overall structure.  As long as they knew that their motif had to be subtle and they had to avoid the same adjectives and verbs with each motif, then they would produce some great writing.

I know that if I focused on the opening, complication, crisis and resolution, I would have a typical Hollywood Summer Blockbuster, including 20 billion scenes involving CGI explosions and seven two-dimensional character, written on four sides of A4.    
So, when I am going to get students to write a piece of creative writing now, I am going to ask them one, simple question: What is you motif?

Thanks for reading,


P.S. ‘Stinky the Mouse and the hunt for the lost chunk of cheese’ will be available from all good retailers in December.  

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Is it just me or is Sugata Mitra an irresponsible charlatan?

Knowledge comes by eyes always open and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I first saw physicist, Sugata Mitra speak about his Hole in the Wall experiments in India I was astonished. Not only was he as  self-deprecatingly warm and funny as Sir Ken Robinson on a major charm offensive, the content of what he was saying blew any of SKR’s woolly rhetoric out of the water. Basically, his claim was, is, that children can teach themselves anything. All they need is access to the internet and teachers to stay the heck away and they’ll outlearn anyone in a classroom.

Here he is in full TED mode:

I got so excited, I wrote this. My naivety is embarrassing but then, I’d been taken in by one of the best. The first clue I had that all might not be rosy in the Self Organising garden was from Daisy Christodoulou. In response to my question about how she squared ED Hirsch Jr’s views on why students “can’t just look it up” with Mitra’ research. In responses she said this:

Of course this experiment is very inspiring, and if the choice is between no education and the ‘Hole in the Wall’, then the latter is clearly better than nothing. But the sample sizes here are tiny, the control groups not really controls (being an ‘elite urban private school’ doesn’t mean that the school offers a great education) and the time scale short. The findings from the schools in north-east England are not explained in statistical detail in the paper I read – perhaps they can be found somewhere else? Also, the attempt at a theoretical framework is really quite flimsy – “A study with connected cellular automata by Mitra and Kumar (2006) shows that presented with a ‘vision of the future’, a self-organising system will retain this image as a fractal and reproduce it periodically. The human brain is a connected system of neurons and will, presumably, behave similarly. In other words, the introduction (intervention) of an image to a neural network will cause it to retain and reproduce this image periodically. It is tempting, albeit speculatively, to link this effect with human learning.”

Mitra is right on one thing – this conclusion is entirely speculative and as far as I know has no other evidence to back it up. As they are presented, Mitra’s conclusions contradict many other similar experiments and most modern neuroscience. As that is the case, I would like to see a lot more trials like this, with greater sample sizes and more reliable controls, before I could be convinced. And I would like to see this evidence buttressed by a reliable and testable theory of how the brain learns.

All very reasonable. So I went looking for anything that might buttress Mitra’s assertions and, much to my chagrin, found nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.

This was something of a disappointment because I really wanted Mitra’s claims to be true. But, as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” And Mitra’s ‘evidence’ was very ordinary indeed. In fact, most of the evidence I did happen upon rather seemed to dispute my preferences. In 2013, Donald Clark suggested 7 reasons for doubt. Later that year he visited the site of a failed Hole in the Wall and spoke to a headteacher who said“I wouldn’t take it if you offered it to me for free.” This year Clark offered a further 10 reasons why SOLE is “not even wrong”.

Added to that, my own attempts to replicate his ideas with my own students turned out to be a disaster. Sure some of them loved crowding around an iPad instead of doing any work, but they really weren’t learning anything of value. What they did discover on the internet they didn’t understand.

Obviously my fumbling attempts mean nothing. We can argue that away by point out what a feeble-minded lackwit I am, but what of Mitra’s own research? Has he been able to substantiate any of his more outlandish claims? Tom Bennett wrote in the TES about why Mitra’s claim that pupils can teach themselves seven (SEVEN YEARS!) years ahead of their ages just don’t add up. Firstly his research is based on just 23 students and as such is statistically meaningless. As Tom says in characteristically forthright fashion,

You’ll forgive me for not being particularly impressed by hand-picked students taking part in a test where they’re made to feel special, given a thin slice of a syllabus to work on, and then tested for that exact piece of syllabus…and then scaling up that work into a magic GCSE grade. Give me a page of quantum physics to memorise, then ask me about it. Can I have a PhD?

Bennett also points out that Mitra’s research is not published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, Mitra has gone from strength to strength. He was awarded a $ 1 million TED grant to build classrooms in the cloud and is even now spreading his potentially pestilential at education conferences near and far. Here are a few of the things he’s been saying:

It’s fashionable to say the education system is broken. It’s not broken at all. The Victorian system, which is the model of education used practically everywhere in the world, does exactly what it was designed to do. Which is to have an elite class who will run the show, assisted by an army of clerks for whom a curriculum was designed and who were mass-produced to do their jobs.

So, it’s not broken, but what it is producing are people who are not needed. You know, an average boy from an average school in a poorer area would go out for a job interview, and the employer says, ‘What can you do well?’ And he’ll say, ‘I have good handwriting, my grammar’s excellent, I can spell properly and I can do arithmetic in my mind.’

Well, if I was the boss I would think: I don’t care about your handwriting, everything’s done on computers. Grammar is not particularly important, we deal with the Chinese and the Americans who don’t bother about grammar at all, as long as it makes sense. Spelling is corrected by the computer and you don’t need to know anything about arithmetic. In fact the less arithmetic you do in your head the better.

The Guardian, 2nd August 2015

The Chinese and the Americans “don’t bother about grammar at all”. Children don’t need to know how to spell, and the less mental arithmetic they can do the better. Really?  He goes on to say that GCSEs are unimportant because all they reveal is that “You’re able to work hard, to fit into the system properly.” These are good things, no? No: “…increasingly inside the modern world, particularly the IT industry, these are not considered as very good traits at all. What you want are people who don’t care about how they dress, don’t care about how they talk, would like to think of things from different angles. These are the guys who do well.”

What’s more frightening, that a professor of education technology is a true believer in the lowest common denominator for all or that he’s just saying it for effect? Charitably, I’m going to assume that Mitra actually believes this stuff and wasn’t just high on shrooms. That being the case, I don’t even know where to start! If he’s genuine, he even more dangerous.

My real beef with Mitra is that he swans around saying things like this:

… knowing is obsolete. People often think I’m saying that knowledge is obsolete, which I’m not. I’m saying putting knowledge in your head – that’s obsolete, because you can know anything when you need to know it via the internet.

This takes us all the way back to Hirsh. In this article he makes the following point:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

Now, maybe you don’t like Hirsch because the Tories think he’s a stand-up guy or some such. Or maybe you’re prepared to discount his views because you’re not a fan of core knowledge? Well, what about professor Kieran Egan, a self-confessed sympathiser with progressive ideals? In,Getting it Wrong from the Beginning he argues that a lack of emphasis on knowledge has deprived children of

…developing those resources that come along with a wide and immediate access to some of the world’s greatest poetry and prose.That [children] know where to go to find such poetry and prose perpetuates the absurdity that this is the same as knowing something. Knowledge does not exist in books or in computer files. They contain only codes that require a living mind to bring them back to life as knowledge. Knowledge only exists as a function of living tissue. (p68)

How can we take seriously a man who says, “Knowing is an obsolete idea from a time when it was not possible to access or acquire knowledge at a moment of need. The idea of knowing assumes that the brain must be “primed” in advance for circumstances that may require knowledge. Just in case.”

Mitra’s utilitarian conception is a very narrow, impoverished view of what education can or should be.  Do we really only want to equip children the minimum they need to tap in a search request into Google? I’m with AE Housman: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” As Tom Bennett argued recently,

We learn because learning itself is beautiful and valuable. We learn because we value the types of human being who have learned; people who are aware of their history, of how the world works, of how numbers interact, and how words can sparkle. As an extrinsic aim, we can also value such people as being able to make informed decisions in a democratic forum; true citizenship is only enabled by informed autonomous agent.

And then Mitra says things which are just plain daft: “So, we can safely deduce that if x per cent of what is taught (just in case it is useful or beautiful) is actually used by a learner, then 100 times x per cent is either left unused in the learner’s brain or is mercifully forgotten.” Does he think there’s a limit to stuff we can store in our brains? If he does, he’s wrong. For all practical purposes our ability to store information is limitless. We have room to spare to store every item of information we will ever encounter and will never come close to filling up our minds. Let’s say we do learn some things we never use, so what? Our ability to retrieve may well decay, but not our ability to store.

Until reading his latest TES article I might have felt content to dismiss him as  either a hypocrite or a philistine, but I’m increasingly convinced that he is, in fact, a dangerous crank spreading irresponsible untruths.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe Mitra isn’t a charlatan and I’ve just not understood the power and beauty of his guesses about how best to teach children. But this is the real kicker: if I’m wrong, we’ll turn out children who can spell, and do mental arithmetic. We’ll share some of the most culturally rich ideas and produce children who don’t just know how to look things up, but that know what to look up and have the wit and background to make sense of what they look up.  If Mitra’s wrong we’ll produce a generation of kids who can’t spell, who’ve learned that mental arithmetic is worthless and will be reduced to the very narrowest curriculum; that which they find directly relevant during the formative years. They’ll leave knowing nothing except that someone somewhere does know stuff and that it’s there’s for the asking. Except it isn’t. The stuff in our heads is what we think with. And the less we know the less we can think about. All these pathetic victims will have to look forward to in employment is some mythical IT company where no one gives a shit about how ignorant you are.

Good look with that!

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

Top Blogs of the Week : Schools Week (October 2015)

I appear to have forgotten to share this last month, so I’d better do that now. A few weeks back, Schools Week  published my review of the best blogs of the week.

Andrew Old picks his top blogs of the week 23 October 2015

Is there such a thing as a crap school?

By @SurrealAnarchy

Sometimes it is the most obviously true statements that are the most controversial. To say that some schools are terrible can lead one to be accused of attacking teachers or children.

Continued in

Andrew Old picks his top blogs of the week 23 October 2015
Andrew Old picks his top blogs of the week 23 October 2015


Scenes From The Battleground

Comparison is easy

The basis for poetry and scientific discovery is the ability to comprehend the unlike in the like and the like in the unlike.

Jacob Bronowski

Judging the quality of a thing in isolation is hard. Is this wine good? What about this restaurant? This cheese? This television programme? This child’s essay? But just because we’re bad at making meaningful judgements doesn’t mean we’re aware of experiencing any uncertainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and as cognitive psychologist and psychophysicist (who knew that was a thing?) Donald Laming puts it, “In such a state of mind people are unable to resist extraneous suggestion.” The fact most of the time we are unaware of this suggestion just makes the influence of unconscious bias all the more persuasive. Most of us rush to judgement secure and certain that we’re right. Sometimes we boast of relying on our intuition of trusting a hunch and going with our gut.

Relying on intuition will lead us into unconsciously using heuristics and falling into a range of cognitive traps and biases. In order to escape some of the grossest errors of judgment, we must mistrust the illusion of certainty and seek to avoid entirely predictable cognitive biases such as the anchoring effect, availability bias, the halo effect, base rate fallacy and so. As I’ve argued before, I think there’s an evolutionary explanation for our preference for certainty which makes it almost impossible to resist.

Laming goes so far as to suggest that “There is no absolute judgment. All judgments are comparisons of one form or another.” Our sensory equipment is incapable of adequately distinguishing between different shades of colour, auditory tones, distances, smells and even pain. However, we’re much better, although far from perfect, at making direct comparisons when two things are in front of us. As explained here, Chris Wheadon’s No More Marking system for making comparative judgements of students’ essays is one obvious way to avoid our predictable shortcomings.

But this also something for English teachers to consider. After I spoke at Threshold Concepts in English at researchED, a number of people asked me why I hadn’t included comparison, after all, comparison gets its own assessment objective at GCSE:

AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts

The point of exams is to differentiate between students of different ability. Surely if this is something which is explicitly assessed it must be something many students struggle to do well otherwise what would be the point of assessing it? Comparison is certainly a concept, but it’s not, I think, a Threshold Concept. Comparison is something we seem to be hardwired to do. To return to the questions in the open paragraph, we judge how good a bottle of wine is by comparing it to other bottles of wine we’ve drunk. We decide that this TV programme is better or worse than other TV programmes and we’re often prompted to change our assessment of children’s work when we realise the marks we’ve given it are too high or low compared to the marks we’ve awarded other essays.

Whenever I’ve taught students to compare texts, I’ve begun by showing them how easy it is to compare. For instance, what do these two objects have in common?

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 19.00.49

And what’s the difference? Easy isn’t it? Judgements are formed by pointing out similarities and differences.

After this straightforward start, I’d ask for a couple of emotionally robust volunteers and ask the class to compare them. After the nervous giggling and the blinding obvious were out of the way, their apparently innate ability to compare revealed layers of detail which might easily have gone overlooked when analysing in isolation. When we see things side by side sometimes this illuminates qualities of which we were previously unaware.

Then we move on to carefully selected texts. Poems are a good place to start as they’re short and can be easily viewed side by side. I’d recommend a brace of sonnets as they’ll have lots of immediately obvious similarities as well as differences.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 19.12.54

Students should find it simple to spot similarities in terms of form, theme and language. This done, looking for differences becomes much more focused and interesting. With a modest amount of modelling* and scaffolding, students are well on the way to writing a comparative essay. It certainly pays to explicitly teach students to use a range of discourse markers to signpost their comparisons and contrasts, but what really differentiates between students is how well they know the texts they are comparing and how skilled they are at all the other assessment objectives.

Writing literary essays might be hard, but comparison is easy.

*Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 19.25.59

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

Essay writing: style and substance

You have such strong words at command, that they make the smallest argument seem formidable.

George Eliot

As with most subjects, the step up from GCSE to A level English literature is tough. You can get a pretty good grade at GCSE without developing a critical style or understand much about the art of constructing an academic essay. Students’ work is routinely littered with stock phrases such as “I know this because” and “this shows” all of which shift the focus from having to think about subject content in sophisticated ways to simply learning a collection of fail-safe formulas.

Of the 4 (now 5) Assessment Objectives against which students are assessed at A level, AO 1 often presents the greatest hurdle to overlap, so how can we teach students to “articulate informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression?”

Here are three ideas I’ve found useful over the years:

  1. Writing a thesis statement
  2. Slaloming & tacking
  3. Nominalisation

Writing a thesis statement

Most often students write essays in response to a question. For example, ‘Cordelia’s death is the shocking climax of cruelty in Shakespeare’s exploration of evil.’ To what extent do you agree with this view? or,‘Tragedies leave readers and audiences with a final sense of emptiness and disillusion.’ To what extent do you agree with this view in relation to two texts you have studied? Test designers deliberately make the questions as open as possible to allow for as great a breadth of responses as possible, but attempting an answer can seem overwhelming precisely because there are so many possibilities. The trick is to narrow the range of options by constructing a tightly focused thesis statement which sets out the terrain to be explored. In addition, a good thesis statement should present an idea which can ‘tested’ against different interpretations and aspects of the text.

In the case of the question on King Lear we might come up with something like,

Cordelia’s death, whilst shocking, has more to do with the redemption of her father than as an inevitable consequence of evil.

For the question on tragedy we might construct a statement such as,

As both Richard II and Death of a Salesman demonstrate, the aim of tragedy has always been to leave audiences with a sense of catharsis.

Both statements can be tested, both offer students a clear way into an essay, both usefully narrow the field of possible interpretations to a more manageable pool, and both demonstrate to an examiner exactly what the essay sets out to prove right from the outset. Students can easily check whether or not their ideas are helping to build a case and pursue their argument along a pre-determined path.


Slaloming & tacking

Women+Giant+Slalom+Alpine+FIS+Ski+World+Championships+-7AQPuk5-t1lIn the same way that a skier slaloms between the poles set out on a downhill ski slope, so too should students follow a line of argument, weaving in and out between the points they make, always heading to a predetermined finishing line.

A line of argument should flow naturally from a well-designed thesis statement. Consider the example from King Lear above: Cordelia’s death, whilst shocking, has more to do with the redemption of her father than as an inevitable consequence of evil. What is the finish line? Such an essay begs for a conclusion in which death is seen in a larger context than evil, perhaps even with the sort of rhetorical flourish which links the death of Cordelia to the death of Christ, thus redeeming Lear and, by extension, the audience. Rather than setting off to stride from A to B, the path between our thesis statement and this conclusion is tacked towards indirectly.

tackingWhen a ship needs to sails against the wind, it needs to tack in a zigzag pattern to make headway. These metaphors help students to see that the points we want to make can be approached directly or indirectly, but the indirect approach is more artful and elegant.

So, we select textual references and position critical perspectives which allow us to follow a course. They act as markers around which we must navigate, always conscious of the conclusion to which we’re building. Sometimes we need to explain away or argue against an irritatingly awkward piece of information, but that’s all part of the game in a subject like literature. It’s not true to say that style is valued over substance, you still need to know your texts inside out, but the point is not to arrive at a universal and eternal truth, it is to be both erudite and stylish in the construction of your argument.

And on that point, nominalisation is one such way students can appear more erudite and take on that all-important critical style.


This is simply the act of turning verbs into nouns. Informal communication tends to be active and depends on verbs to communication this sense of action. Academic writing is abstract and depends on nouns to convey densely packed concepts or ideas. Turning an action into a concept is to nominalise it.This is sometimes the difference between a good essay and a poor one: essays which are nominalised tend to exude confidence and authority, essays which aren’t can suffer from sounding a bit vague.

Consider these brief examples:

  1. Because Cordelia dies at the end of the play, many people decide that King Lear is a play about the consequences of the evil things people do. Before she dies Cordelia is ready to forgive her father and because they are reunited we think the play will end happily. This is also suggested by fact that she dies offstage and that we only learn about it when Lear enters carrying her body and howling. When he says “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone” he seems pathetic and feeble; his grieving is undignified. This could suggest not so much that evil has triumphed but that Lear has to lose the last shreds of his authority in order to be truly humbled.
  2. Cordelia’s death at the end of the play is often seen as evidence that the consequences of evil are inescapable. Before her death, Cordelia’s reunion with, and forgiveness of, her father is suggestive of a happy ending. The arbitrary nature of her sudden death provides further evidence of the inevitability of evil, but a different interpretation of the lines “She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone” might lead to the conclusion that his grief and the pathetic desperation with which Lear clings to the possibility that she yet lives is proof not of the triumph of evil but of the need for the king to lose the last shreds of royal dignity and authority before he can truly experience humility.

Although both say pretty much the same thing, is one better than the other? Or more to the point, which better demonstrates “informed, personal and creative responses to literary texts, using associated concepts and terminology, and coherent, accurate written expression?”

Nominalisation sometimes gets a bit of bad press and Stephen Pinker demonises it as the ‘zombification of language’ with the passive lurch of an awkward noun replacing elegantly leaping verbs. Clearly nominalisation alone is not enough to elevate an essay, but teaching A level students about how to nominalise concepts provides them with a straightforward, easy to implement strategy to shift style from the clunkily informal to the confidently academic.

I hope these thoughts are at least marginally useful, do let me know if you have any other handy essay writing tips.



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David Didau: The Learning Spy

How to deal with criticism

The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.

Robert Green Ingersoll

Every now and then, someone pops up (usually a relative!) to tell me something I’ve written is crap. This is wounding. Like everyone else who blogs, I’m convinced of my own genius and sagacity. Anyone who’s critical is clearly a fool. Except sometimes someone like Andrew Old comes along who, despite his many and various failings as a human being, is no fool. As an example of the kind of arguments we used to enjoy, take a look at the comment thread on this blog post. I decided early on, that since Andrew wasn’t a fool, he must just be ignorant. Clearly he had no idea of what went in secondary schools.

When he proved he did, in fact, know quite a lot about what went on in secondary schools, I assumed the problem must be that since he was ‘just a maths teacher’ he really didn’t understand the complexities of teaching English. Patiently, like a great, grey glacier, his implacable persistence wore me down to the point where I accepted that he knew at least as much as I did about teaching and probably a great deal more.

At that point it became clear that he was evil. Obviously he was some sort of right-wing, child hating monster who’s only object was to ruin the lives of young people. This is as far as many people get. Andrew’s criticism is tenacious to say the least. I remember a few years ago he was in the habit of responding to opponents attempts to call a draw with “I think we’ll have to agree to disagree” with, “OK. I’ll agree to be right, you  can agree to be wrong.” Those drove people crazy! They’d get so angry that here was this intractable, relentless obstacle who would not back down or compromise an inch. Eventually, they’d descend to mud slinging and that would be that: an opportunity to learn lost.

Learning can be hard. We all want to be courted and complimented, teased, seduced into maybe considering there may be another way of perceiving the world. We don’t like someone coming straight out and telling us we’re wrong.

This is something I’ve learned the hard way and sometimes, from exasperation or impatience I’m just a bit too blunt. This was a low point for me. The emotional response is just too great to be able to hear what I’m actually saying and my words get distorted into caricature. When I wrote my provocatively titled book, I thought as carefully about the tone as I did the content. I really wanted was not so much to convince readers that what I think is right (obviously it is) but that I wanted to make people consider what it might be like to be wrong. In retrospect, I regret Chapter 3 which was just too polemical for some readers to get past.

I’ve got better at being criticised. Today I wrote a post criticising Michael Rosen’s views on grammar and, naturally enough, he was a bit critical of my criticism. He may well have felt a little stung. I’ve tried hard not to get emotional in response. Recently Daisy Christodoulou pointed out that my ideas on assessment weren’t as great as I thought they might be. Instead of sulking I went away to rethink, and, as a result, have learned something new.

So, how should we deal with criticism? For what it’s worth here’s my advice:

  1. Try not to take it personally. The other person will have feelings too and it’s ridiculously easy to escalate a disagreement into mutually ensured destruction. Resist the temptation to see others as trolls. Once I got so upset with Colin Goffin’s criticism that I took the unprecedented step of blocking him from commenting on my blog. Now that we’ve met and had a pint, everything is fine.
  2. You might be wrong: see what you can learn. Always seek to explore rather than confirm your biases. Look for evidence that you might be wrong, rather than just attacking the other person’s view. Argument – the clash of ideas – leads to learning. There is always someone who knows more and is cleverer than you. Don’t feel threatened by this: arguing with knowledgeable, smart people means you’ll learn faster. Dylan Wiliam has been a wonderful role model for me in this regard.
  3. The people who take the time to critique our ideas are the most valuable resource we have, cherish them. I spent many hours arguing with Ian Lynch. I still feel his loss keenly. Here’s a taste of his abrasive, but useful contributions.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to laugh at the insanity inside yourself. You can get away with so much more with charm, humour and self-deprecation. Tom Bennett is the master at this.
  5. If it all gets too much, you can always switch off. If you’re determined to check your notifications while strolling through a park with your loved ones, you’ve only yourself to blame. And for Pete’s sake, don’t moan about it. There’s nothing duller than reading about someone else’s wounded pride. If all else fails, the MUTE button on Twitter can be a God send!

And just so we’re clear, this advice is as much for me as anyone else. Carry on.

Oh, and by the way, once you realise Andrew’s not evil, you get to see what a sensitive flower he really is.

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

In praise of dignity and justice

They’ll ask me how I got her I’ll say I saved my money
They’ll say isn’t she pretty that ship called dignity

Dignity, Deacon Blue

In Microaggression and Moral Cultures, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning argue that we are at a turning point in the way we understand morality. In the past, morality was a matter of honour. Honour had to be earned in some way – whether through an accident of birth, the acquisition of wealth, good works, or public reputation – and respect was seen as honour’s due. A lack of due deference to those possessing honour was an insult to that honour; an insult that demanded redress. Hence duels.

Then, with the development of the social institutions whose purpose was to protect the rights of ordinary people, the concept of dignity became dominant. Unlike honour, dignity does not have to be earned, it is yours by right. Everyone deserves respect unless they transgress the conventions of civilised discourse and polite society. The conventions of dignity are reflected in our language: Politeness costs nothing. Manners maketh the man. Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy. Courtesy became the oil that greased our day-to-day interactions. As Jonathan Haidt puts it on his blog, “foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.” The ideal is to have a thick skin and, when pushed to the limit, “use the courts as quickly, quietly, and rarely as possible.” (C&M, p.714)

Now, Campbell and Manning suggest, we are entering a new era of morality: the culture of dignity is being subsumed by a new culture of victimhood. In this new culture, it is no longer assumed that everyone possesses dignity and worth. Instead, it is assumed that insults and slights are an attack on our honour and must be redressed. In contrast to the culture of honour, victims are not expected to seek this redress alone but to appeal to more powerful others for support. According to Campbell and Manning, this involves “building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offences”.

They say:

…the social conditions that promote complaints of oppression and victimization overlap with those that promote case-building attempts to attract third parties. When such social conditions are all present in high degrees, the result is a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.

This encourages the kinds of witch-hunts, moral crusades and public shaming that have become routine on social media. This has given way to a new kind of bully, the Cry-Bully, “a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper.” This has led to social media dominated by those who attack others mercilessly and then, when their victims retaliate, proclaim their victimhood to the world.

It’s a sort of Munchausen’s syndrome – causing one’s own misery then complaining about it – seen most sadly in the case of Hannah Smith, the 14-year-old girl who took her own life in 2013 after allegedly being cyber-bullied on the teen website Ask.fm. It turned out that some 98 per cent of the abusive messages came from poor Hannah herself, with only four posts being contributed by actual trolls.

This is an extreme example, but more common is the hysterical claim that the claim that ‘safe spaces’ are being violated wherever one person disagree with another. A typical Cry-Bully strategy is passive-aggressively attack their victim and then claim that anyone who rejects their interpretation is a ‘troll’.

Of course, this is just satire – it could never happen in real life could it? Could it?

Now of course, some people would counter that so-called ‘microaggressions’ can cause real damage. In this LA Times article, Regina Rini argues that Campbell and Manning’s theories are flawed. She points out that throughout history, only the powerful have a right to redress in cultures of honour or dignity. Of course she’s absolutely correct to point out that, “If you were a woman in medieval Europe, you were not expected or permitted to respond to insults with aggression. Even if you were a lower-class man, you certainly would not have drawn your sword in response to an insult from a superior.” But is she right about the limits of the culture of dignity? She points out that even in the recent past, “People of color, women, gay people, immigrants: none could rely on the authorities to respond fairly to reports of mistreatment.” She rejects the concept of victimhood:

The new culture of victimhood is not new, and it is not about victimhood. It is a culture of solidarity, and it has always been with us, an underground moral culture of the disempowered. In the culture of solidarity, individuals who cannot enforce their honor or dignity instead make claim on recognition of their simple humanity. They publicize mistreatment not because they enjoy the status of victim but because they need the support of others to remain strong, and because public discomfort is the only possible route to redress.

This seems pretty reasonable. She even acknowledges the argument made by Haidt and Lukianoff that “talk of microaggression corrodes public discourse; it encourages accusations and counter-accusations rather than critical thinking” but ultimately rejects their proposal that “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses”. She seems to suggest that accepting potential offence is synonymous with accepting sexism and racism. The irony is that, as Campbell and Manning point out, “microaggression complaints and protest demonstrations appear to flourish among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities.” And this is how an utterly necessary culture of solidarity is being warped and trivialised into one of victimhood.

Solidarity is certainly worthwhile and probably the only way for the genuinely oppressed to cope with their plights.n a truly dignified culture, solidarity would proabably be unnecessary, but we’ve got a long way to go before the marginalised and disadvantaged enjoy the same access to justice as do readers of this blog. Clearly, sexism, racism, and any other brand of -ism, are things we should not tolerate, but this rather misses the point. Surely we can accept that these are hardly binary choices? Instead can’t we embrace the negative capability required to accept a world in which racism and sexism are unacceptable and allow that others can disagree with us without us needing public redress for feeling threatened or offended? I

The current trend to seek out sexist or racist attacks in any kind of disagreement is alarming. Labelling those of the other side of an ideological divide as trolls, merely for expressing their opinions in a forthright manner is dangerous. Labels like troll should be reserved for those who genuinely seek to persecute others with threats, insults and aggression. The treatment Mary Beard was utterly unacceptable, but so is calling Germaine Greer a misogynist.

The key concept here is what Campbell and Manning call ‘overstratification’:

Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. [Therefore…] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality.

The culture of victimhood is, in part, one of envy. I’ve argued before that equality is unfair. In a society where everyone is equal, the disadvantaged are raised up and made to feel special, but if everyone is special, no one is. Instead, treating fairly, means recognising our differences and treating us accordingly. Some people need more help, some people are in a position to give that help. Where we claim offence for microaggression and seek the raise our moral status as victims of perceived oppressors, we take away from genuine victims. We caricature our adversaries as privileged and blameworthy, and cast ourselves as pitiable and blameless. But do we really believe that Deputy Headteachers with many thousands of followers on Twitter are pitiable? Do we really see them as blameless in their discourse with others? How can we take seriously the claim a successful white male that he is being victimised by other, less-successful white men in a world where women in some parts of the world are stoned for speaking out against oppression?

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 14.27.08

Campbell and Manning conclude their paper as follows:

What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity…. the clash between dignity and victimhood engenders a similar kind of moral confusion: One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization. Microaggression complaints and other specimens of victimhood occur in atomized and diverse settings that are fairly egalitarian except for the presence of strong and stable authority. In these settings behaviors that jeopardize equality or demean minority cultures are rare and those that occur mostly minor, but in this context even minor offenses – or perceived offenses – cause much anguish. And while the authorities and others might be sympathetic, their support is not automatic. Add to this mix modern communication technologies that make it easy to publicize grievances, and the result, as we have seen, is the rise of a victimhood culture.[p.718]

Being a victim is undignified

This ‘clash’ or ‘conflict’ is real. I appreciate that, as always, people tend to genuinely believe what they profess to believe. But be careful what you wish for. Dignity is made possible through access to the institutions of justice. Victimhood is made possible through access to the mob. If you believe in justice, in the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt, you should value the dignity of others. If you find yourself feeling oppressed by criticism of your ideas,  instead of rounding up a gang of mates to defend your honour and ostentatiously cowering behind ‘bully-proof windows and ‘troll-proof doors’, try reading these suggestions on how to deal with criticism.

If our culture of dignity is supplanted for one of victimhood, we might not like where it leads.

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).


What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.


Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.


One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.


Take the following examples:


He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.


He wore a bright red coat.


Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.


Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.


I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.



Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.


Year 7: The basics of the parts of speech, syntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.


Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.


Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.


A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.


For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:


Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.


Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.


The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.


Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:


Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.


To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James Murphy, Eric Kalenze and Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!


Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar


Tabula Rasa

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)