Contemporary educational ideas all my staff should know about


Key ideas from different sources.

Key ideas from different sources.

As I look ahead to starting my new job at Highbury Grove,  I’m thinking about all the conversations we are going to have about learning.  To a large degree I want my teachers to be as up-to-date as possible within their own subject domains. They should know the latest OfSTED position ( eg with Moving English Forward or Mathematics: made to measure ) and be up to speed with exam specifications and assessment requirements.  Subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogical knowledge are going to be key drivers of everything we do.

However, in order to fuel the collaborative effort of reaching the ambitious goals we have for the school, we’ll need to establish a shared conceptual language for talking about teaching across the school as well as within departments. Inevitably, different teachers will have engaged to different degrees with certain ideas depending on the books they’ve read, conferences they’ve been to and blogs they’ve browsed through and the content of their PGCE or other ITE programme.  It strikes me that it would be a huge benefit to us all if we’re more or less on the same page when we’re discussing contemporary ideas about pedagogy, learning, assessment, motivation, neuroscience and so on.   I don’t want people quoting half-remembered snippets from a Dylan Wiliam thing they attended years ago or citing Hattie effect sizes as absolute measures or talking about Growth Mindset, never having engaged with what Carol Dweck has actually written.

One of my first actions, later this week in fact, will be to buy a ton of books to stock the staff CPD library.  I want to make it easy for everyone to read the books that will inform our discussions.  Already, we’ve bought in copies of Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment, Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers and Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21st C.   But there is so much more for us all to absorb and share.

Over the last two years, I’ve found that I can engage much better with the ideas in some of these books when I’ve seen the authors express their ideas directly – either in person at a conference or through some of the video material on the internet.  In this post I’ve gathered some of the videos that I’ll be recommending that all of my staff engage with at an early stage.  Each one links to a key academic or thinker and their ideas.  Of course, there is also the growing world of teacher bloggers and teacher authors to engage with too and I’ll be promoting general engagement with all of that material – especially the people on my blog roll.

However, to ensure we have strong common ground, I want to focus on a few key researcher-writers and their work:

Visible Learning: John Hattie – the idea of measuring impact

John Hattie’s work provides an important insight into the nature of educational research and the notion of measuring impact.  The idea that some strategies can be shown to have had more impact on average over time relative to others is crucial and his general message about the implications for teachers and the profession is very strong.  This video, (with a counterpart Part 1) gives a very good idea of Hattie’s thinking.  Of course, the effect size concept is problematic and is open to misinterpretation. We’ll need to have that discussion – but people will need to know the principles first.


Formative Assessment: Dylan Wiliam

Dylan Wiliam is someone most people know of even if they haven’t engaged directly with him or his work.  His website is packed with materials to browse through.  He has been leading the way for the last two decades in getting teachers to think about what they’re doing and why. Inside the Black Box was a revelation when we first encountered it back in the 90s.  However, following the national adoption of AfL 10 years ago, lots of the ideas have become rather distorted, spawning various superficial AfL gimmicks or misconceptions about the meaning of ‘formative’ – but I firmly believe that every teacher should know very clearly what Dylan is saying.  This video is one of several recordings of his engaging presentations (cut in at 1 min 30 to get over the long musical intro!)  Alongside his recent book, I think that videos like this could help us to establish a good shared understanding of what we mean by formative assessment and feedback and what these things can look like in practice.


 Lessons from Cognitive Science:  Daniel T Willingham

The field of cognitive science is giving us ever greater insights into how learning works.  There are lots of people in this field but Daniel T Willingham does a very good job of making the ideas accessible and relevant to our school experience.  This book, Why don’t students like school, is a must-read. He provides a handy summary in the concluding chapter which gives a feel for the key ideas and their implications for our practice.  In particular it gives a firm steer in terms of the discourse around thinking, memory, teaching factual knowledge and the need for conscious effort and feedback to secure improvement.

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A great summary of Daniel Willingham’s book provided in the concluding chapter.

This interview with Tom Bennett for ResearchEd 2013 gives a superb insight into Dan’s thinking:

I’d also recommend watching this gem of video where Dan explains why learning styles don’t exist:


Robert Bjork and Desirable Difficulties

On YouTube there is a whole series of fascinating short videos where Robert Bjork explains some key findings from his research into memory.  From these you can get an idea of his findings and the general idea of ‘desirable difficulties’ necessary to secure long-term memory, possibly at the expense of the sense of short-term progress.  This clip is a good introduction but I’d recommend watching them all.  If we can all talk about storage, retrieval, interleaving and so on, we’ll be in a better place.


An Ethic of Excellence: Ron Berger

Ron’s book is an inspiration to many people who read it.  The attitudes that is promotes are so powerful, providing significant food for thought as we look at shaping our ethos.   A specific example is shown through this classic Austin’s Butterfly video about the power of critique.  It’s the spirit of it that is most crucial – that we shouldn’t accept mediocrity from any student; we should have aspirational goals for everyone and use specific techniques to enable students to reach them.   I’ll be referring to Austin’s Butterfly a lot – as I have done in a couple of blog posts here and here.


 Guy Claxton and ‘below the line’ learning

I find that Guy Claxton is often misrepresented as being ‘anti-knowledge’ or his ideas are adopted by evangelicals who elevate Building Learning Power to the level of some kind of concrete theory of learning that must be followed almost on principle.  For me, Guy’s ideas and his mode of presentation, provide a useful provocation to question some of our assumptions about what we learn, how we learn and why we learn in certain ways.  The idea that pedagogy could be devised to deliver a deep, knowledge-rich curriculum that simultaneously gives space for students to develop certain dispositions that might serve them well in the future – is inviting. It might be difficult to deliver without losing one or other aspect and that’s the challenge. But the idea is sound and certainly worthy of debate in a school.   To me, Guy is promoting ‘knowledge AND dispositions’, not one or the other. Here he is:


 Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset.

Growth Mindset is so in vogue at the moment, it is natural for anyone who has been hit by a bandwagon to approach this cautiously. However, as with Guy Claxton’s ideas, there is great power in considering the extent to which  student attitudes to learning are influenced at every level of the school – in all of the messages we give in public and in the classroom.  The issue of labelling students such that they have their horizons limited or are lulled into complacency is very common; we’re all guilty of it to some degree.  Here Carol is setting out the key ideas:


Pygmalion Effect: Robert Rosenthal

This video tells the story of some research that shows the power of teacher expectations. It links in with Hattie’s research – as this is one of the highest effects he cites.  Higher teacher expectations lead to better outcomes.  Obvious? Well – it’s worth watching this to see how teachers can change their interactions with students leading to better outcomes when their expectations are raised deliberately:


 Doug Lemov:  Practice and Rigour

I’d like my staff to know about Doug Lemov and his two books: Teach Like A Champion and Practice Perfect.  Of course the American context is different but there is huge merit in engaging in several of Doug’s ideas.  Strategies like 100% or Right is Right show how very high expectations and rigour in discussion can be achieved.  His ideas about teachers’ practice are also very interesting – we won’t get better as fast as we could if just repeat our mistakes over and over again in lessons.   We need to rehearse and practice specific strategies until we do them better.


Martin Robinson: The Trivium 21st C

I have already sent my staff a suggested reading list and this wonderful book was at the top.  I’ve written about the book in this review and I am very excited about working with my staff (and with Martin’s Trivium network) to explore how the ideas behind Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric can be brought to life in the classroom and beyond.

@SurrealAnarchy Martin Robinson's wonderful book

@SurrealAnarchy Martin Robinson’s wonderful book


Lesson Study

The NTEN Lesson Study Cycle.

The NTEN Lesson Study Cycle.

I’d like all of my staff to know in principle what Lesson Study is and how they could engage with it if they choose.  I might use some of my own posts on this to get people started but, beyond that, there is a wealth of literature we can access via NTEN and other sources.    The first step is to make sure everyone knows about it.

There are lots of other ideas we’ll need to wrestle with together – ideas about Behaviour Management, technology and assessment  for example. The goal should be that we’re always seeking to make sure the latest thinking is made available to everyone and that everyone does their best to engage with it.   That way we’ll have the most fruitful discussions about taking the school forward.



Barriers to Effective CPD


This is a slide from  the presentation I gave at the SWAT Conference in Poole – the full slides are embedded in this post.  However, without a commentary, the presentation is not entirely self-explanatory so someone asked me to flesh this bit out.  My talk was about setting up an effective CPD culture.  In one section I ran through some of the barriers that I’ve encountered in various contexts:

Time: too ad hoc, too inflexible, insufficient.

In planning CPD, it’s obviously important to consider the time constraints. When are teachers given the opportunity to attend workshops or courses? When are they going to be able to discuss ideas with each other? When will they be able to report back on their initial actions?   If you don’t have a structured timetable for CPD sessions across the year, ideas won’t take root.  On any given INSET day, teachers are often overly managed – they need time for themselves and their teams to absorb ideas and plan their next steps.   Teachers should be trusted to use free time as they need to.   With time-intensive processes like Lesson Study, the time has to be found and lessons covered if necessary; you can’t expect these structures to flourish if they rely entirely on teachers using their free periods.   My school has seven INSET days; we feel we can justify that. Why do so many schools only have five?  Who says you can’t have more and what would they do about it?

The blind leading the blind

Although excellent CPD can flow from teachers working in groups sharing ideas, it can be problematic if the groups don’t have people  in them who can drive things forward, offering challenge and/or contemporary knowledge of the issues at hand.  I’ve seen situations where teachers are simply recycling half-learned snippets of information, for example quoting weird out of date distillations of the ideas of Claxton, Hattie or Wiliam; where they are promoting ideas that have been debunked for years – or where they’ve been unable to use an hour’s meeting effectively without significant guidance, because of a lack of understanding of the problems or the capacity to provide solutions.   It’s really important that self-directed CPD groups have the tools to function effectively otherwise the time is wasted and bad ideas are propagated.  A key job of a Head or CPD leader is to make sure that any CPD is being led by people with the required expertise.  Who in your school has the most up-to-date pedagogical expertise? Who is reading the books and engaging with research?

A Bang and a Whimper

This is the classic ‘visiting speaker’ pitfall.  A lot of school leaders fret about the need to ‘get someone in to inspire my staff’ for an INSET day – but fail to plan any process for following the ideas through.  Six months down the line – what happened to all that motivational buzz from all those inspiring ideas? Often the answer is ‘nothing’.   This can apply to lots of other CPD events too. Without a follow-up process, CPD events are likely to have a very short-term effect if any.  It’s much better to plan a sequence: Input; follow-up 1; follow-up 2 – so that from the start, everyone knows that the CPD is a process, not an event.

Plantation Thinking

I’ve explored this idea more extensively in my plantation vs rainforest post.  Still too much teacher CPD involves the whole staff attending compulsory sessions for everyone at once.  This is problematic on many levels.  Given the diverse needs and interests of any group of teachers, it is highly unlikely that they all need to receive the same professional development.  Forcing everyone to have the same inputs breeds resentment and resistance from people who feel they’d rather be learning about something else.  Given the limits of time across the year, teachers should be given opportunities for CPD to be tailored to their needs.  If people have chosen to engage with something, it’s far more likely that they will act on the input to influence their teaching.   ‘Whole school initiatives’ can be problematic here. Yes, we want everyone to work on literacy – but that still doesn’t necessarily suggest the best way to take things forward is for everyone to hear the same talk.

Good CPD programmes consist of a range of workshops and courses that people can opt into – or have recommended to them – according to their needs.   Fundamentally this is about fostering a culture of professional trust where quality takes many forms – it is fine for different people to do things different ways.  One Head at the SWAT conference told me this was a ‘lightbulb’ moment – it had never occurred to him before that CPD could/should be tailored to individuals and all his school CPD involved getting the whole staff together in one place every time.

Opportunity Costs: Deckchairs on the Titanic

Time for CPD is precious so it’s important to use the time wisely.   There is a danger in wasting time on superficial matters that are unlikely to change practice.  I can think of several ‘training sessions’ that I’ve sat in where I questioned why we were doing it at all – where it seemed we were only there to humour the speaker who’d taken the trouble to come in.   What if the best use of time would be for a team of colleagues in a department to sit together to plan a set of lessons or assessments, or discuss their subject knowledge for a particular topic – instead of sitting in the hall listening to more input.   I think the input on INSET days should be lean – so that people have time to work on the ideas and put them into practice.  Normally, people are itching to get on with things – so let them.

 OfSTED Compliance: inertia and inhibition

All too often I’ve heard teachers tell me ‘I’d like to do that but my Head of Department won’t let me’. Or it could be the Headteacher telling me ‘if only we could get away with that’.   If you probe a little, invariably this is because of their anxiety around OfSTED compliance.  Too much CPD is built around the demands of the inspection regime  and the process of presenting the school to inspectors when they arrive.  The truth is that outcomes drive inspections these days to a massive extent – and truly great student outcomes are driven by excellent routine practice.  Any training that improves practice IS preparing for OfSTED.  Surely?  At the same time, you get a lot more buy-in and momentum – more actual change in classroom practice – if a CPD process is driven from an internal ground-swell; an intrinsic sense of purpose, rather than a top-down directive.   Of course OfSTED matters – but not to the extent that it dictates the CPD agenda for every teacher; that’s the wrong way around.  I think that is especially relevant with changes to performance measures; schools that have relied on Y11 intervention strategies to get through the hoops will become unstuck unless something much deeper is going on.

The Jaded Eye-rollers of doom

There are blockers to every change.  Sometimes they are just a pain – it’s a default mode to be utterly cynical about any initiative.  Of course, that could be based on bad experience and there is a place for healthy scepticism.  But, you can’t build an intelligent research-engaged CPD culture where people take a few risks if the doom-bringers knock everything down before you start.   However, it might be worth finding out why their eyes are rolling.  I’m now thinking of this managing change grid – it’s always worth revisiting:

Managing Change from Tim Brighouse via Vic Goddard

Managing Change from Tim Brighouse via Vic Goddard

Often it’s a lack of incentive that cause the blockers to roll their eyes.  Why do I have to do this thing exactly?

The hyper-puppy evangelists of the new

It is great to have people in a school who bring in new ideas and are enthusiastic about trying things.  BUT, it is all too easy to be dazzled by bright new shiny things – the latest fad or gizmo that is going to change everything.  Teachers are often deeply resistant to being sold things – it happens too often; they’ve learned to be cautious.  It is a giant cringe to listen to someone rave about their new idea when they appear to be all Enthusiasm and no Substance.  In truth, the eye-rollers of doom are normally people who’ve been burned by too many hyper-puppy evangelists.  If you have a great idea, you need to sell it carefully.  Just because you like this idea, why should I have to do it too?   It is often better to start with an interest group – volunteer pioneers who trial a new idea and then share the thinking across the school.

For example, Edmodo is taking off at my school.  Slowly. We’ve never done a whole school CPD session on it or actually any formal session.  People have shared their ideas through our CPD marketplace and have set up ad hoc meetings for interested parties.  If we’d ever told people that this is THE THING – they’d have run a mile.  New isn’t necessarily Good – but you still need to try things.  At KEGS we’re getting better at sharing the fact that some ideas don’t work as well as we’d expected.  If your boss wants you to prove something has worked – you’re going to find a way to show that.  If, on the other hand, you are simply encouraged to measure impact honestly and openly without prejudice,  that’s a different thing altogether.

The talk I gave goes on to describe the research-engaged culture that we’ve been trying to develop at KEGS, alongside explorations with Lesson Study and our Departmental Review system.  It all links together.


This much I know about…the nature of power

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about the nature of power.

Once or twice in life you make a wholly unexpected, yet highly significant, connection with an individual: so it was for me with Eduardo, our tour guide in Havana. An ex-teacher, I gave him my copy of Why Don’t Students Like School.




I always believed the aphorism, Power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely) to be true. Well, now I’m not so sure. On the way to Havana Eduardo happened to cite Frei Betto, a Catholic Priest and Liberation Theologian, who said this: Power does not corrupt; power reveals you as you are…

Old school is sometimes best. I contemplated purchasing a new SLR camera for the trip to Cuba, especially as I was about to turn fifty. However, the shop assistant made me feel so hopeless in the shadow of his overwhelming expertise that I decided instead to tidy up my twenty-eight year old manual Minolta, buy a couple of reels of black & white film and stick to what I know. Here’s a glimpse of Havana through my SLR’s 50 mm fixed lens.


Havana’s water system


boys footie

The ubiquitous Beckham



Seat covers at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba



Early morning at the HNC


Road up to HNC



 Car enhanced

The (American) symbol of Cuba…


gangsters enhanced




Our cab driver Moises


It’s not all romance, however, as Simon Reeve illustrates quite beautifully…


Our Meeting with Tristram Hunt July 2014

Originally posted on Headteachers' Roundtable:

Screen shot 2014-07-23 at 00.00.49

Members of Heads’ Roundtable with the full Labour Education team and Chris Husbands from the IoE.

On July 15th, five members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable met Tristram Hunt at the House of Commons to discuss our Education Manifesto. Our original meeting had had to be re-scheduled when it clashed with maximum media fall-out from the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ situation. Hearing the news that Michael Gove had been replaced at the DFE on the day of our meeting, we fully anticipated another push-back but we were in luck. In between division bells sounding for TH to rush out to vote and a Radio5 Live interview to comment on the end of the Gove era, we had a good hour of discussion.

Having read our manifesto, the Shadow Secretary said that he agreed with most of it and certainly the general thrust.  We acknowledged that we’re delighted to see that…

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Can we trust the evidence of our own eyes?

Unwisely I got embroiled in an online discussion this morning on the merits of research versus the experience of seeing stuff work with our own eyes. The contention is that although research may have its uses, there is no need to waste time or money researching the “blindingly obvious”.

On the face of it, this would appear to be self evidently true. Why bother testing the efficacy of something we can ‘see’ working? Well, as I’ve pointed out before, we are all victims of powerful cognitive biases which prevent us from acknowledging that we might be wrong. Here’s a reminder of some of these biases:

  • Confirmation bias - the fact that we seek out only that which confirms what we already believe
  • The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight - the belief that though our perceptions of others are accurate and insightful, their perceptions of us are shallow and illogical. This asymmetry becomes more stark when we are part of a group. We progressive see clearly the flaws in traditionalist arguments, but they, poor saps, don’t understand the sophistication of our arguments.
  • The Backfire Effect - the fact that when confronted with evidence contrary to our beliefs we will rationalise our mistakes even more strongly
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy - the irrational response to having wasted time effort or money: I’ve committed this much, so I must continue or it will have been a waste. I spent all this time training my pupils to work in groups so they’re damn well going to work in groups, and damn the evidence!
  • The Anchoring Effect - the fact that we are incredibly suggestible and base our decisions and beliefs on what we have been told, whether or not it makes sense. Retailers are expert at gulling us, and so are certain education consultants.

In addition to all of these psychological ‘blind spots’ we are also possessed of physiological blind spots. There are things which we, quite literally, cannot see. Due to a peculiarity of how our eyes are wired, there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc – this means that there is an area of our vision which is not perceived. This is called scotoma. But how can that be? Surely if there was a bloody great patch of nothingness in our field of vision, we’d notice, right? Wrong. Cleverly, our brain infers what’s in the blind spot based on surrounding detail and information from our other eye, and fills in the blank. So when look at a scene, whether it’s a static landscape or a hectic rush of traffic, our brain cuts details from the surrounding images and pastes in what it thinks should be there. For the most part our brains get it right, but then occasionally they paste in a bit of empty motorway when what’s actually there is a motorbike!

Maybe you’re unconvinced? Fortunately there’s a very simple blind spot test:

R                                          L


Close your right eye and focus your left eye on the letter L. Shift your head so you’re about 24cm away from the page and move your head either towards or away from the page until you notice the R disappear. (If you’re struggling, try closing your left eye instead.)

So, how can we trust when our perception is accurate and when it’s not?

Worryingly, we can’t.

On top of this we also fall prey to compelling optical illusions. Take a look at this picture:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 16.09.37

Contrary to the evidence of our eyes, the squares labelled A and B are exactly the same shade of grey. That’s insane, right? Obviously they’re a different shade. We know because we can clearly see they’re a different shade. Anyone claiming otherwise is an idiot.

Well, no. As this second illustration shows, the shades really are the same shade.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 16.14.23How can this be so? Our brains know A is dark and B is light, so therefore we edit out the effects of the shadow cast by the green cylinder and compensate for the limitations of our eyes. We literally see something that isn’t there. This is a common phenomenon and Katherine Schultz describes illusions as “a gateway drug to humility” because they teach us what it is like to confront the fact that we are wrong in a non-threatening way.

Now clearly there are times when we absolutely should accept the evidence of our own eyes over what we’re told. Despite her advocacy for research, @Meetasengupta suggested a great example: “If I see a child being slapped, but research says kids are safe in nurseries, I’ll believe my eyes.” But we would be foolish indeed to believe to draw any conclusion about all nurseries or all kids based on the evidence of our own eyes. And as @nastyoldmrpike points out, for the most part anecdotal evidence is an oxymoron.

So should we place our trust in research or can we trust our own experiences? Well, maybe. Sometimes if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. But we’re often so eager to accept that we’re right while others must be wrong that it’s essential for anyone interested in what’s true rather than what they prefer to take the view that the more complicated the situation, the more likely we are to have missed something.

It is however entirely reasonable to ask for stronger evidence when findings conflict with common sense and our direct observations. The burden of proof should always be with those making claims rather than with those expressing quite proper scepticism.

Here’s Katherine Schultz says that our obsession with being right is “a problem for each of us as individuals, in our personal and professional lives, and… a problem for all of us collectively as a culture.” Firstly the “internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, and we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. Secondly, the “attachment to our own rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to, and causes us to treat each other terribly.” But an exploration of how and why we get things wrong is “is the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap [we] can make.”

Here she is talking about being wrong:


The post Can we trust the evidence of our own eyes? appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Blogsync: The Klingon Phonics Test

This is my response to this month’s blogsync:  

What is the best place for testing in schools?

Testing is a key aspect of formal education, but can this be taken too far? Are our current tests fit for purpose? Should progress testing alone be used to define school performance?

There are more responses to this topic here.

My daughters are in that lovely pre-test stage. They are awaiting to do their phonics test. The test that has fuelled several ASBOs on Twitter. Their school has sent home some flashcards of words to help them. So, most nights I come home and I work through the Klingon list of colours, I mean, these words that are absolute nonsense. My daughters are good, but I can’t see the point of it all. It is just a funny measuring stick to judge students.

In discussion with other primary teachers, they have told me that the testing and preparation for the phonics test doesn’t help able readers. In fact, according to them, it forces good readers to go backwards. My daughters generally sight read words, yet the phonics test is focused on blending sounds, which is something my daughters do if they don’t recognise a word. Whilst I have been reading most nights with my daughters and helping them increase their reading speed and word recognition, I find that now they are preparing for an assessment that is regressive. One teacher even said that the most able students do badly because of this sight reading and blended sound issue.

The problem I find with this testing is one that occurs across most schools. It is the form of testing that follows this mantra: We all know it’s silly, but we have to do as the government has told us to do it. I admit that I have said that to students, meetings and parents. The test process is not for the teacher’s benefit, but for a politician’s benefit to show improvement.

I love tests. I adore them. In fact, test me on tests – I’d love you to. I think testing is an important part of my life as a teacher. I test. I am tested. I comment on tests. I advise on tests. I predict tests. Everywhere I look, there are tests. Yet, what I don’t like is a test that has no value at all to the students or the process of learning.

Step forward the KS3 English test. Oh the joys of that test. There may be NQTs reading this thinking how lucky they are that they don’t even have to consider this assessment. But, it was a hilarious experience. Students were prepared for the test. They worked hard. They sweated within an inch of their life. They were told the assessment will really ‘help’ them in life. They then got the results in the next academic year, when they were using a new grading system and working on the GCSE. For them, the value of the SATs had disappeared overnight. It became meaningless. Why the KS3 SATs never started a riot I’ll never know. The realisation that the test was not for their benefit. They got nothing out of it.

It is only right that a maker of things should test the produce they make. A baker should taste or check his bread to see if it meets to a high standard. But, should a baker check the bounciness of his bread by throwing it on the floor? What value has this to the consumer? They never throw their bread around the room. It has no value to them at all. Yet, it is something that they must do, as their Head Office has instructed them to do it. But, at the same time, I baker will not take the bread out of the oven during the cooking stage. They might peak through the window, but they don’t cut a bit off and taste it. They wait for the bread to be ready.  

But, the testing that goes on in schools is dictated by a system outside of education: politics. I test students all the time. At the beginning. In the middle. At the end of learning. However, the testing structures we have are assessing at the end of the learning – KS2 and GCSE.  That timing warps learning and education. It is seen as a ‘do or die’ moment. Students, teachers and schools ramp up the pressure because everything rides on this. This one single measure. This one single test makes a school a good one or a bad one.

What if a school was allowed to enter a student when they wanted to for the KS2 test? What if our system for assessment and testing was based on the child? The child takes the test when they are ready. After all, when a child is ready they are ready. Politicians want to see progress, yet the systems hinder those making progress. What if a child is ready before Year 6? The same goes with GCSE. I am not talking about modular exams – yuk! I am talking about terminal examinations. If a student is ready, surely they should do the exam. Having students tread water is not a sign of an effective education system.

Visitor: So, what have you been doing in Year 11?

Student: Well, I have been doing stuff that I have been doing in Year 10 because some students didn’t get it, so we had to do it all again.

Visitor: Interesting, but you did get some revision out of it?

Student: Yes, I did, but it was pretty boring.

Because, we have years and years of data, using the current model of assessment, we are never going to change the exam structure. There will always be a KS2 test. But, what would be nice is if the child, rather than the government and the school, were factored into the process. A politician wants students to leave school with a certain level of proficiency. Let’s assess them when they are proficient and not when it convenient for a statistic. You take a driving test when your driving instructor thinks you are ready. Not, at the same day every year across the land.

Hopefully, a model like this would avoid the dreaded teaching to the exam that exists for several terms a year. Because, we all know it happens. Real teaching goes out the window and drilling the students for the exams take place.

Right, must dash, I have bread to test and some more Klingon words to go through. Splage. Crooge. Brack.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. This blog contains 40% fairy dust and it is purely a hypothetical exploration of something that will never happen.

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

The Slow Writing eBook – Secondary Section

This is a bit of an oddity for my blog. For once, it isn’t a collection of mindless dribblings from my brain. For once, it has a purpose. Yes, a real genuine purpose! David Didau ask me to oversee the secondary section of an eBook (non-profit making) looking at the practical approaches to using his ‘Slow Writing’ process in teaching. The book will provide examples, approaches and ideas of how it can be used in the classroom. Therefore, I am searching for some examples and approaches to using ‘Slow Writing’ in the classroom.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Slow Writing, here’s a brief overview. Like Ronseal, it does what is say it is.

Students slow their writing down by focusing on specific elements needed for a particular sentence.

Sentence 1 – Start with an adverb

Sentence 2 -  End with a simile

Sentence 3 – Include a list

Students write one sentence at a time. Rather than rush ideas out like a nasty dose of food poisoning, students ponder and think before they move on to the next sentence. The benefit of this approach is that a student crafts the writing rather than blurt everything out. It teaches students the benefit of thinking before they write.

Anyway, back to this eBook. I have been tasked to organise the section for the secondary teachers. Now the primary teachers have probably made a display for their section already, including lovely, colourful laminated handouts – I am only jealous of the primary teachers ability to turn everything into something glitzy.  I need people to contribute to the non-profit making book. I need ideas, examples and contributions of any kind. Three ‘need’s in one paragraph makes me sound needy. Well, yes, I am needy. I am not just focusing on English lessons; I’d like to hear how it has been used in History, Geography and other subjects. How have you used it?

 If you fancy writing a bit, then this is the current format I am working to.   

Description of approach.

Explanation of approach – step by step

Benefits of approach

Possible extended tasks


I am looking for contributions of 100 – 400 words. Here’s an example written by me to give you an idea of how it could be approached:


Slow Writing

Approach 1: Writing slow with emotions

A Year 8 class were writing a horror story and I was trying to move their writing away from their usual approach of describing blood and guts. So, I got students to write a paragraph about going up a flight of stairs, describing the experience to the reader – with the hope of scaring someone! Initially, I gave them some pictures of stairs and students collected some adjectives for describing things in the picture. Then, we wrote a paragraph together; however, the sentences created must show the protagonist feeling the emotion or the reader must feel it. The golden rule was that they couldn’t mention the actual word given for the emotion.

Sentence 1: Confused.

Sentence 2: Cautious.

Sentence 3: Scared.

Sentence 4: Happy.

Sentence 5: Scared.

An example:

The stairs were before me and for some strange reason the steps were smooth, tidy and neat while the rest of it was blackened and crumbling. When I started climbing, a creaking sound was made by my nervous footsteps, highlighting my presence to what was in the house. A shadow brushed my face. A moth landed on the bannister on the top step, making me laugh with my own stupidity and nervousness. Then, a hand shot out and crushed the moth.

By doing this, most students were able to avoid some predictable writing and they presented some ‘fresh’ way of producing something that is usually drenched in clichés and stock phrases. It made students think hard about how they could create the feeling rather than chuck a load of adjectives to make things seem creepy. They often make every sentence scary, thinking that that is the secret to good writing.


Possible variations

·         Using it for non-fiction writing. Students build up the emotional gradient with each sentence. Start serious and build that up to a climax in the last sentence.

·         Students alternate two opposing or contrast emotions aiming to build cohesion in a paragraph.

·         Develop originality by taking a typical piece of writing and get students to fit in incongruous emotions into their writing. Create a persuasive text with the following emotions – disgust, fear, isolation and indifference.  

I am hoping to put the secondary examples in some the following categories: creative writing, non-fiction, analysis, explanation, Geography, History, RE, Science, MFL and many more.

Don’t worry if you haven’t used ‘Slow Writing’. I’d like people to experiment with it next term. As it stands there isn’t a definitive deadline for the eBook, but I’d like to get things done for the October half-term. This will give people time to try things out. Or, experiment.

So, if you fancy being part of this excellent project, then DM me on @Xris32 or visit this page and leave your details.

Thanks for reading,


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

First Impressions of the New OFSTED Handbook

The new OFSTED handbook is out and can be found here. Although it was meant to be simplified, it replaces not just the old handbook but the old subsidiary guidance and, therefore, is actually quite lengthy. I am too busy to be able to read it from cover to cover, but I have had time to look into a few of the key issues that I’ve been blogging about.

The new handbook really spells out what I would want it to on observations; stating that there is no grading and no required style of teaching.

From the description of what should happen during an inspection:

The key objectives of lesson observations are to inform the evaluation of the overall quality of teaching over time and its contribution to learning and achievement, and to assess the behaviour and safety of pupils and the impact of leadership and management in the classroom. When inspectors carry out observations in lessons, they should not grade the quality of teaching for that individual session or indeed the overall quality of the lesson…

…Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment. They will not look for a preferred methodology but must record aspects of teaching and learning that they consider are effective, and identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved…

…Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection…

…When giving feedback to teachers following lesson observations, inspectors should not provide an overall grade for the lesson or for the quality of teaching (numerically or in words). If asked, inspectors should provide feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of what they have observed. Inspectors must ensure that this feedback does not constitute a view about whether the teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or otherwise, or indeed whether the quality of teaching itself was ‘good’ or otherwise, as neither of these will be graded.

The guidance on how to grade teaching and learning in a school makes the same point and spells out what inspectors should not be looking out for or taking objection to:

Inspectors should not grade the quality of teaching in individual lesson observations, learning walks or equivalent activities. In arriving at a judgement on the overall quality of teaching, inspectors must considerstrengths and weaknesses of teaching observed across the broad range of lessons. These must then be placed in the context of other evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time, including work in their books and folders, how well they can explain their knowledge and understanding in subjects, and outcomes in tests and examinations…

…Ofsted does not favour any particular teaching style and inspectors must not give the impression that it does. School leaders and teachers should decide for themselves how best to teach, and be given the opportunity, through questioning by inspectors, to explain why they have made the decisions they have and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their choices. Moreover, inspectors must not inspect or report in any way that is not stipulated in the framework or this handbook. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to expect that all work in all lessons will be matched to the specific needs of each individual pupil. Inspectors should not expect to see pupils working on their own or in groups for periods of time in all lessons. They should not make the assumption that a particular way of working is always necessary or desirable. Its effectiveness depends on the impact of the quality and challenge of the work set. Pupils may rightly be expected to sit and listen to teachers, which of itself is an ‘active’ method through which knowledge and understanding can be acquired effectively. Inspectors should not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding. When observing teaching, inspectors should be ‘looking at’ and reflecting on the effectiveness of what is being done to promote learning, not ‘looking for’ specific or particular things. Inspectors should gather robust evidence to judge and report on how well pupils acquire knowledge, learn well and engage with lessons.

It also states clearly that the information that inspectors will want to see includes “records of the evaluation of the quality of teaching, but inspectors should not expect to see records of graded lesson observations” [their underlining]. This really gives managers little excuse for grading lessons. This needs to be widely publicised, and I would hope that trade unions would start making sure their representatives and members are fully aware that any attempt to grade teachers in observations is neither required by OFSTED, nor in line with OFSTED’s practices, but entirely down to the willingness of managers to grasp at excuses to label their teachers.

I’m hoping that the guidance on marking is vague enough that it might help break the delusion that marking must be acted on in writing to count. As before inspectors are to look for “[c]onsistently high quality marking and constructive feedback” as part of outstanding teaching but elsewhere they are simply looking for “whether marking, assessment and testing are carried out in line with the school’s policy and whether they are used effectively to help teachers improve pupils’ learning”. I hope this causes some schools to reflect on whether their marking policy actually helps teachers and students, or is there only to appease OFSTED.

You may also recall that here I described a school whch had been marked down, despite good results, apparently for an achievement gap:

Roughly speaking, this school has absolutely great results (best in the city in most respects) but has been graded as “Requires Improvement” because the relatively small number of FSM children at the school have, despite doing well, not done as spectacularly well as the non-FSM meals students.

Now this school is known to be one of the best there is in the area, and had been “outstanding” previously. Rumour has it, it’s a school that OFSTED inspectors have been known to send their own children to. While closing the gap between FSM and non-FSM students is important, an OFSTED grade of “Requires Improvement” becomes meaningless if it ignores the great success of the majority of students in the school, and only pays attention to a minority of students. It becomes more than meaningless, but actually ridiculous, if the minority whose results do count are judged, not by the standards of other schools, but by the high standards of the school. In effect, it tells schools that they can do badly in OFSTED if the majority of their students do too well. Rumours from the school involve inspectors who, when observing lessons, were only interested in what FSM pupils did. None of these inspectors appear to be HMI. If this is what OFSTED’s emphasis on “closing the gap” amounts to, it’s as destructive to schools as any of their other demands.

This now seems to have been addressed. Guidance on achievement says:

Where in-school gaps are narrowing, inspectors should check that this is because the progress and attainment of disadvantaged pupils is rising, and not because the progress or attainment of non-disadvantaged pupils is falling. Where an in-school attainment gap exists or widens, inspectors should consider whether this is because disadvantaged pupils attain more highly than other pupils nationally, while non-disadvantaged pupils in the school attain even more highly.

Several footnotes might also help make judgements based on the achievement gap less unfair. It is stated that that inspectors should be “considering in-school gaps in the context of national gaps”. Outstanding achievement now has an exception to the rule that the results of the disadvantaged most be rapidly approaching other groups: “[w]here the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is high, any in-school attainment gaps need not be closing rapidly”. Good achievement has a similar exception: “[w]here the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is high, in-school attainment gaps may exist”.

I can see why OFSTED were confident about meeting me last week. The new handbook does seem to have addressed most of the points I’ve raised. However, I may well return to it if I uncover anything that seems less positive. Let me know if you find anything. Also, when term starts, let me know if inspectors are doing what they are supposed to. Just today I got an email from somebody, who went through an OFSTED during last half-term, telling me:

…the inspector asked to see my planning and she graded me and the lesson she’d observed.  She said she knew she shouldn’t be doing it, but did anyway!!  I was most surprised about both.

Scenes From The Battleground

A reblog: Teachers: show your working

I know it’s pretty cheap to reblog a post which sings your praises (and to be fair, I don’t do it much) but this evaluation of a session on The Secret of Literacy I gave at Teach First’s Impact Conference last week by primary teacher Jon Brunskill struck a chord. In it he talks about the concept of ‘enlightened competence’ and very kindly suggests that my ideas about literacy had the effect of engendering this quality in the audience. Maybe so, but more importantly (for me) it made me notice my own practice and descend – or ascend – into some sort of mystical meta-conscious vortex…

Anyway, enough navel gazing, here’s the post:

Usually at education conferences, I find that there are two sorts of sessions.

The first kind is the really practical sort of session; you leave with some new skills and/or knowledge which you can put in place in your classroom to help make you a better, or more efficient, teacher.

The second kind (and these are usually the sort that attract me) are the paradigm-busters. These sessions take a thing that we believe, grab it by the scruff of its neck and give it a Jack Bauer level of interrogation.

I’ve long been a fan of David Didau’s website because I found his writing does the latter. I was most pleasantly surprised, however, after attending his session at Teach First’s Impact Conference, that what Didau teaches also does LOADS of the former. I attended two different sessions run by Didau, the first on literacy and the second on grading lessons and Ofsted. This post is about the first session.

Enlightened Competence

We were treated to a tour de force of Didau’s accumulated wisdom on how we can best help children to use English in a manner that will ensure them the opportunity to be academically successful. Didau’s slogan, “making the implicit, explicit” challenged audience members to examine exactly what they do when they engage in the written word.

This reminded me of Maslow’s model of competence, which begins with unconscious incompetence, followed by conscious incompetence (the uncomfortable stage that I found myself in for most of my first year of teaching), then conscious competence, before we finally get to a stage of unconscious competence.

Read more on Pedfed…

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David Didau: The Learning Spy

Slow Writing eBook – contributions wanted

Hey all!

In a flush of Twitter inspired enthusiasm, @redgirob, @bryngoodman and I have come up with a crazy idea. What if we put together a crowd sourced, not for profit eBook detailing the various uses, applications and examples to which my idea of Slow Writing has been put?

Hang on, I hear you cry, what bleedin’ ‘eck’s Slow Writing?

Where’ve you been? I’ve written several posts on it:

Slow Writing: how slowing down can improve your writing

Black space: improving writing by increasing lexical density

The art of beautifully crafted sentences

A new twist on Slow Writing

Revisiting Slow Writing – how slowing writing might speed up thinking

But if you can’t be bothered to wade through that lot, this sums it up:

I first came up with the idea when teaching an intervention class  of Year 11 C/D borderline boys in about 2008. Broadly speaking they were willing, but no matter what I tried the writing they produced was leaden, plodding stuff. I gave them all kinds of outlandish and creative prompts which they would dead bat and produce yet another dreary yawnfest. Needless to say, we were all getting a bit irritated with each other. Out of sheer frustration I decide to give them explicit instructions on how to write a text sentence by sentence.

Sort of like this:

  • Your first sentence must starting with a present participle (that’s a verb ending in ‘ing’)
  • Your second sentence must contain only three words.
  • Your third sentence must contain a semi-colon
  • Your fourth sentence must be a rhetorical question
  • Your fifth sentence will start with an adverb
  • Your sixth sentence will be 22 words exactly.

And so on. Much to my surprise they loved it. I remember one boy saying, “Bloody hell! This is the first time I’ve written anything that isn’t rubbish!” and asking if he could take it home to show his mum.

Also David Riley produced a web-based Slow Writing app as part of his Triptico suite of teaching tools

Since first writing about it in 2011, many many wonderful teacher have used, adapted and experimented with the idea, and we thought it might be a nice idea to collate it all in one handy guide.

After a very hasty discussion we think the best option is to put ideas from both primary and secondary teachers into one volume, but that may well depend on the interest we get. @redgirob will be collating primary submissions and Chris Curtis (@xris31) will be looking after secondary contributions – if you’d like to get involved, please register your interest here. The plan is to charge a nominal (?) price and give the proceeds to a charity on which we have yet to decide (Feel free to suggest appropriate organisations and good causes.)

This is an exciting opportunity to see your name in print!




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David Didau: The Learning Spy

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)