Some links that may be of interest

Just a quick note to tell you about some bits and pieces you might have missed (and some things you probably haven’t missed but I feel obliged to publicise anyway).

  1. I was among the contributers to an article about grammar schools on the Prospect website. It can be found here.
  2. There is an OFSTED consultation going on. The form can be found here. I hadn’t really been paying much attention, until I heard a rumour on Twitter that FE colleges had been replying to say they want to keep graded observations. I doubt this is the view of many teachers in FE, so I thought I’d do my bit to publicise it. Some FE bloggers have done the same here and here.
  3. My ridiculous attempts to catalogue the UK education blogosphere are still going on. Details of the latest spreadsheet are here and there are several lists of different types of bloggers also to be found on the Echo Chamber blog if you look for them. Any time you can spare to fill in details about yourself (if you’re a blogger) or others will be appreciated.
  4. I haven’t forgotten about my Wellington petition. Details here and the petition here. It’s proved the point that more than 5 teachers prefer events at weekends, but it’s not really got enough to show how common that view is, so please help and promote.

And finally, I thought I’d publicise some of my favourite blogs. These are all ones that seem to be posting great arguments on a fairly regular basis. I’m slightly wary about doing this as bloggers I’ve recommended in the past have a habit of giving up, but I suspect that, if you like my blog, you are very likely to like these ones:

  • Webs of Substance An experienced maths teacher, now overseas, writing about teaching with a particular emphasis on research.
  • Esse Quam Videri  Another experienced teacher, this time a teacher of history and politics, who consistently writes well-argued posts about a range of educational issues.
  • The Quirky Teacher  A new primary teacher, and new blogger, but so far very prolific. They seem to have a knack for describing what goes on in their school in a way that (unintentionally) winds up a certain type of primary teacher, and entertains everyone else.

Hopefully, some of this will be of interest.

Scenes From The Battleground

Closing the language gap: Building vocabulary

But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.

Lord Byron

Like most teachers, as soon as pupils are sequestered in the exam hall I always used to race around trying to get my hands on the exam paper and anticipate how my eager charges will have coped. A few years ago I remember picking up the foundation tier GCSE English Literature paper and seeing a real gift of a question on the theme of dreams in Of Mice and Men. When they came streaming out I excitedly asked them if they’d done it but none of them had. Why? Because it contained the word futility, and they had no idea of its meaning. A poor vocabulary is a huge barrier to academic success.

In order comprehend a text we need to know an estimated 95% of its vocabulary[1]. This might sound surprisingly high but think about the last novel you read – how many unfamiliar words did you encounter? One or two at most? Certainly few enough that your understanding and enjoyment were not impeded. 5 percent of words might be about 10 per page – at that kind of frequency our ability to comprehend disintegrates rapidly.

Conversely, the more words you know the easier you’ll find it to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words. If you know 95 percent of the words not only will you understand the text but you have a good chance of learning the other 5 percent. If you know fewer the 90 percent, then you’re probably stuffed. This leads inexorably to the Matthew Effect: the greater your vocabulary the easier you’ll find it to read and the more vocabulary you’ll acquire. After the age of 5, we acquire most new vocabulary through reading. But if we don’t read, we don’t acquire it.

Obviously the best way to build vocabulary is to read, but apparently we only learn about 15% of the vocabulary we encounter in written texts so we need to read a lot to make sure we encounter words on multiple occasions before they’ll become pert of our working vocabularies. According to one source, if you read for twenty minutes a day you’ll encounter an estimated 1,800,000 words over the course of a year whereas reading for only one minute a day will result in only 8,000 words. Now I’m not sure of the source or of the maths but if it’s only slightly true then this suggests something important. Is twenty minutes a day doable? Is this something schools can effectively mandate? I have no idea how feasible it might be to get all children reading for twenty minutes a day, but it certainly seems a worthy and relatively achievable goal.

And while we’re trying, it might also be worth putting a vocabulary building programme in place. Many schools have a word of the week or word of the day in operation, but how do they choose what words to focus on?

Vocabulary can be usefully divided into 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)
  • Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
  • Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)

We don’t need to worry about tier 1 – pupils usually arrive knowing the basics and if not they will quickly pick them up in conversation with their peers. And we’re pretty good at recognising pupils won’t know Tier 3 words – these are our subject-specific key words. But Tier 2 vocabulary presents a problem – because we read these will be words that are so familiar to us that we don’t notice pupils won’t know them. But these are usually words that pupils will already have a conceptual understand of, even though they’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary.

Consider this text:

Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated his servants fairly. He was also a successful wool merchant, and his business required that he travel often. In his absence, his servants would tend to the fields and cattle and maintain the upkeep of his mansion. They performed their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to have such a benevolent and trusting master.[2]

The words in red might well be unfamiliar to non-readers but they will certainly know the underlying concepts:

  • Merchant – shop keeper
  • Required – have to
  • Tend – look after
  • Maintain – keep going
  • Performed – did
  • Fortunate – lucky
  • Benevolent – kind

This makes Tier 2 words relatively straightforward to teach: all we have to do is provide a synonym. If you explain that benevolent means kind, few children will struggle to understand kindness as a concept.

In her fantastically useful book Bringing Words to Life, Isabelle Beck suggests there are 7,000 word families which are very high frequency in written texts and very low-frequency in speech. These are words that feature heavily in textbooks and exam papers. They are part of the language of academic success; if you’re familiar with the likelihood that you will be academically successful is so much greater.

Obviously as a classroom teacher, you can’t teach all this as you wouldn’t have time to do much else, but giving pupils access to challenging texts will expose them to much more Tier 2 vocabulary than they will encounter in dumbed down, ‘student friendly’ texts.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 18.36.04But just giving pupils challenging texts isn’t enough. If we want to make sure pupils learn this vocabulary we should concentrate on the ‘golden triangle’ of recognition, pronunciation and definition.

  • Recognition – how is the word spelt? The ability to use phonics to decode new vocabulary and then to be able to reproduce the spelling makes a dig difference.
  • Pronunciation – how is the word said? Making pupils say it aloud and use it in a sentence increases the likelihood they’ll remember it.
  • Definition – what does the word mean? It might sound obvious, but if you know the meaning of a word, you’re much more likely to remember it.

If we were to design a vocabulary building programme that concentrated on the words with the most instructional potential and highest utility then we might make a real start in closing the language gap between word-rich and word-poor children. And because we’re focussing on building vocabulary, it makes sense to teach pupils prefixes, suffixes and roots to help them puzzle out the meaning of new vocabulary more easily. If you know bene means good or well, you have a chance of working out beneficial, benefit, benevolent etc.

Would it be possible for schools to use tutor time to introduce powerful Tier 2 vocabulary, focussing on the pronunciation, recognition and definition of words and then ask staff to encourage and reward pupils for using the word of the day in lessons? It strikes me this might be a lot more useful than a lot of what goes on in the name of literacy and would require little in the way of preparation and execution.

If you’re interested, this might be a good place to start when selecting words we want pupils to learn:

Do get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

[1] ED Hirsch Jr Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World

[2] Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Choosing Words to Teach


The post Closing the language gap: Building vocabulary appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Top Blogs of the Week : Academies Week (November 2014)

Academies Week have published my review of the best blogs of the week.

What I learned from ungraded lesson observations

By @frogphilp

A deputy headteacher in a primary school describes lesson observations in which no grades are given. While some teachers still want to be graded, he notes several advantages to observing without giving grades.

Continued in Top Blogs of the Week: Week commencing 10 November, 2014

Scenes From The Battleground

Tell Us About Your Blog (or somebody else’s)!


The compiling of details of every UK education blog is one of those little projects I’ve got started on lately. If you are a UK education blogger please check your details (or recheck them if you’ve already looked at them). Or if you are not a blogger, but have time to spare to help look up details about blogs, your help would be appreciated. This is information that I am frequently asked about. Thank you.

Originally posted on The Echo Chamber:

There is now an additional, partly editable version of the Ultimate UK education blog list here.

The editable columns are to begin collecting data about the blogs. Please edit it to inform us about yourself, or any other bloggers you know. The information will be used only to publicise the blogs and to answer the question of who blogs about education in the UK.

The information wanted is

  • Twitter Name: People are always asking me how to find their favourite bloggers on Twitter.
  • Gender: This should be M, F,  Unknown (intended for anonymous bloggers) and N/A (intended for group blogs).
  • Subject: This is intended to identify when a blogger mainly teaches one subject. If you teach many subjects (like most primary teachers) put “N/A”.
  • Role: As broad a description as possible. Preferably just Teacher/TA/Head/Consultant. No need to say if you are an AST or have a TLR.
  • Sector: This…

View original 164 more words

Scenes From The Battleground

Solving the essay problem – Part 1

I have just returned from Southampton and the fabulous Teaching and Learning Takeover, or #TLT14, as we know it in the Twitter world. And, what an event it has been. Full to the brim of great people and great ideas. The hardest thing for everyone was deciding who to visit. Like a teacher’s version of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (and mild in comparison to the real thing), I had to pick one teacher over another. Do I see X? Or, do I see Y? In fact, I wanted to see X, Y and Z.  Still this morning I feel bad, as I missed out seeing people. Nonetheless, it was fun.

Anyway, my talk was on essay writing. I had the perfect combination of the last session and essay writing. Nothing like leaving the dynamite stuff to the end.

Essay writing is a complex thing and I don’t think any school has all the answers, but I think there are a lot of problems. Simply: how we write. From birth, we are constantly telling students to add things to their writing. Add a full stop. Add a comma. Add an adjective. Add a wow word. Add a connective. By the time students reach us in Year 7, the pattern happens again. Add this. Add that. So much that writing becomes this overloaded mess. And, it is a mess, if we are honest. We give students lists of things to add to their writing before assessments. We give them level ladders to show what they need to add to get to the next level. We even given them writing mats to help them add some more. The problem we have with writing is that it full of too many things.

Like readymade meals, there is so much added that you can’t be sure what is really in it. Thankfully, we won’t find any horsemeat in our students’ writing.

Academic writing, if I am honest, is simple and concise writing. It deals with big-complex-head-scratchy-headache-inducing stuff in a clear and formal way. Academic writing explains and develops an idea. Look at how we as teachers talk in a lesson. We talk in an academic way. We concisely explain complex ideas and develop ideas and thoughts. We rarely use vague language. We don’t list ideas. We introduce and develop ideas. But, what do our students do? They mention everything they have learnt. They list all their ideas.

What does an essay really do?

An essay will generally do all of these at some point.
       Explains – reasons

       Evaluates – gives opinions  

       Criticises – flaws

       Clarifies  - rephrases

       Explores  - how others might see it

       Analyses – highlights specific things of interest 

       Links – makes connections to contrasting elements
All can be said to be elements of our lessons. Yet, we try to force all of these skills at once, or we try to enforce a structure on to the essay writing process. We try to get students to PEE (Point Evidence Explanation). But real essays don’t follow that pattern. I checked my essays from university. They didn’t. They were a patchwork of PEE. In fact the essays had all three at sporadic moments in the essay. Sometimes, I started with evidence. Sometimes, I used evidence in the middle of something. Sometimes, I finished with evidence. Relate this to the use of evidence in a court of law. When is the best time to reveal a key bit of evidence? When it is appropriate. Or, when it will get the best impact.

Most exam boards moan about the PEE structure and they are right to. Explaining an idea in detail doesn’t take a clear form, as the idea is abstract, transient and vague. Like capturing stars, there is no known way to do it. We try to put it down on paper. To assume, a simple structure will unlock a genius or academic writing is undermining education.

Because the focus is following rigid structures of development, students stumble. They list things. And, rather than develop an idea in a more intelligent way, they add more stuff. So we go back to the additives approach again. Add some connectives.

I have read quite a few essays recently and a striking thing I have noticed: how simple some of the writing is. Not just simple. Really simple. Going to essays dating to the 1950s and earlier, I am surprised at how simple the writing in comparison to what I have got into my head ‘academic writing’ should look like. There is a collective picture of what academic writing is.

Just look at these openings to some of the sentences I found:

We must not neglect…

We are familiar with ….

This blending of….

There are striking uses of …

So prevalent is the notion that…

In one sense…

It is even conceivable …

In the view of ….

The factor above all else…

One of the real problems…

The more perceptive of…

It reminds one of …

This blending of 

This is certainly not…

But in the case of …

It may be possible to suggest …

I read through books of essays and the writing often features words like ‘it’, ‘this’ and ‘the’ at the start of a sentence. The subjects of sentences are often very simple too. The idea behind the sentence is the complex aspect, not the sentence.

In fact, reading the essays I discovered how rarely academics used connectives or discourse markers. In one essay, I witnessed only two examples. Only two. Yet, we insist that students use them with aplomb. We tend to think that students need connectives to develop an idea. Rubbish. The ideas need developing. The use of connectives forces students to list ideas. Moreover. Furthermore. Additionally. They do not develop the original idea. Like icing on a cake, it looks good, but the cake still tastes of poo and has a soggy bottom.  

We need to help students to develop their ideas without the need of connectives. We need to look at the drawing board of how we get students to develop their ideas. We need to get our students thinking more. Just adding things will not make the think better. It just gets them to overload things.

We all want students to be better, but are we limiting the thinking through the teaching and how we teach things? The longer I teach, the more I realise how teaching some simple things can have a greater impact than far more complex things.

Let’s teach students to use a discourse marker once only in an essay. Yes, they help create cohesion and they signal the direction of the argument, but they don’t hold an essay together. The ideas and the development of ideas are what makes an essay hold together.

I will carry on more of the discussion in my next blog.

Thanks for reading and a big thanks to Jenn and David for organising the whole event.

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Essays Part 3: Making students think

The question that I often asking myself when marking is: ‘Why don’t they think for themselves?’ Thinking, or more precisely, original thought is gold dust in lessons; yet, it often rarely seen. That’s not without me trying. Try as I might, they rarely seem to step-up to the next level. At the recent TLT, someone asked me: ‘How do I get students to think for themselves?’ Again, I go back to A* essays I have marked and go all misty eyed. If only I could bottle what they do. Bottle it! I’d inject it daily. Or, inject them as my starter. Bring back daily milk too. I’d put it in that.

I often say to students that English is thinking. They look at me slightly bemused and a bit agog. Some get it. Some don’t. The problem we have with English is labels. The subject’s name, English, means students label the subject as reading stuff and writing long stuff. Rarely do they see reading as exploring how other writers think. Rarely do they see writing as showing what they think. English, for me, is the communication of thinking – I know, it doesn’t have a ring to it. But, the lesson is about thinking. What I think? What they think? What others think? What a Victorian lady thinks? What a repressed Edwardian man thinks? What their partners think?

Why don’t student see it as thinking? Could it be our insistence on analysis all the time? Could it be our insistence on labelling things? Could it be the pace at which we teach? Look at the English AQA GCSE paper, there is only one question that addresses thinking. What is the writer’s attitude to blank? The rest of the reading questions focus on spotting and picking apart things. It does focus, in part, on some thinking – what the reader thinks – but its starting point is always techniques. The exam paper isn’t really focused on thinking. It is about spotting language points and then talking about the reader’s feelings. Things have a knock on effect. The percentage time in lessons spent on thinking is reduced due to the insistence of students looking at techniques.

But thinking is hard to teach, isn’t it? I mean it is easy to teach a technique. They learn its definition. They comment on its use. They spot more examples. They have a go at creating their own example. In the terms of progress, it is great, because an outsider can see that a student has learnt said technique. Well, they didn’t know that at the start of the lesson. Brilliant, they do know it now. In fact, they know it so well they can even use it themselves. Outstanding progress.

Now, apply that to thinking. Observing lessons for thinking is a totally different ball game. The fruits of a lesson cannot be seen at the end of a lesson. They might not be seen in the next lesson, or the week after. Sometime, it might not show itself until one time it pounces out and shocks you. That’s why I struggle with non-specialists observing lessons. I admitted to a friend if I observed one of his lessons I wouldn’t know if it was outstanding or not. I wouldn’t, because I don’t know that subject. There might be some markers like students listen attentively and do the stuff they are told, but I wouldn’t really know whether it was outstanding or not because I am not an expert in how students think in that subject. Just as much as he wouldn’t be able to do the same with me.

An essay is a symbol of a student’s thinking. It shows the depth of their understanding and application of an idea.  The problem is knowledge and writing style get in the way of a good essay. A student’s insistent on copying everything off Google makes an essay focus on telling rather than explaining. A student’s insistence of impressive vocabulary, connectives and techniques clouds a clear point. Essays have been morphed into something else. They have moved away from being about detailed thought and moved to being these strange chameleons. Gaudy pieces of writing that repeat obvious and benign things.

How did I learn to write an essay? I think A-level English taught me how to write an essay. My teacher would give a weekly or fortnightly essay to complete. The teacher would give it back marked and I would then do the same thing again with a different essay title. I cut my teeth on writing essays with repeated exposure of essay writing, not explicit structures or approaches. I don’t even think my teachers referred to plans, example essays, connectives or any other gubbins.  Just write one essay after another. They were appalling at the start, but after a time I improved. I learnt how to form and develop an argument over time. My wife joked that she hated English and that she only did well with her essays because she learnt a formula and stuck to it.

Here’s the crux for me: Does drafting the same essay make us better writers of essays? I can understand drafting pieces of writing when the impact is important. Let’s make this horror story even more atmospheric. But, when has an essay ever been written for impact? It hasn’t. It is about clarity of thoughts and ideas and not about impressing the reader and ‘making them want to read on’. Drafting as a process is important, but is it misguided with essay writing? Essay are about writing down thoughts into a logical argument. Drafting often involves changing, adding or removing things. Yes, it can be used to clarify things, but students don’t see it as that. Drafting is about making things better, not about clarity.

Recently I have tried my ‘A-level days approach’ with a GCSE class. Before a big assessment, I, for several weeks, got them to write a two page essay on an aspect relating to the text being studied. I wasn’t drafting their final assessment. I was getting them thinking about unrelated aspects. Each essay focused on a different aspect. Was Shakespeare racist? Does Shakespeare define good and evil clearly in his play? Each subsequent essay showed progress. They got better. In fact, they were much better than the old way of drafting GCSE coursework, which amounted to copying things up and fixing the spelling mistakes. Now, I have always done this thing with A-level teaching, but never with GCSE. I have always printed off a sheet of common problems and great ideas to share with students. Has my obsession with the end product (coursework) at GCSE lead to me not using this approach? I think: yes.

Could also the problem be two-fold? How we teach essay writing. And, how we teach thinking in a lesson. A lot of teaching in English is towards the end product. Tasks are leading students along the merry path to writing a decent essay at the end. Along the path they pick up some ideas from the teacher. They also pick up some ideas from their friends. In effect, the student hasn’t had to do too much thinking, as I have merrily led them to some ‘answers’ without them having to apply their own thinking. Their writing is just a filtering of good ideas and great ideas. They cherry pick their ideas. We are teaching students to plagiarise ideas. We like to think this is them thinking, but it isn’t. Some will think. Some don’t.  You could say without others they would struggle to write anything. True. But, without them attempting to think, they will never think for themselves.  I mentioned in a lesson how some critic suggested Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ sounds like the word ‘dungeon’. I know almost every student will try to crowbar that point in because it sounds good to them.  

Essay writing can be a tool for a teacher to see how a student thinks independently. Without the teachers input. Without their best mates input. A blind essay, an essay the teacher hasn’t prepared students for, could help us to understand their thinking more. Without putting chances for students to independent thinking in lessons, we will not create independent thinkers.  Maybe, our insistence on verbal discussion of ideas has neglected the emphasis on an individual’s thoughts. Good things can come from group discussions, but surely students must come up with their own ideas first.

We have so much discussion about skills and knowledge over the last few years that it is easy to see how thinking has slipped through the cracks. It is a fine balance we tread every lesson between skill, knowledge and thinking. Perhaps, we need to build more independent ‘thinking time’ to lesson. Not a daft starter, but real time dedicated to problem solving without getting your mate to do it and copy off them.  Possibly put more problems in a lesson for them to solve rather than a glut of differentiated resources to alleviate the difficulty of a task.    

Why don’t they think for themselves? Maybe I am part of the problem rather than the solution.  My fear of them doing badly has meant that I have protected them from failing. I have structured the writing too much for them. I have given them ideas through discussions. I have offered some ideas to them. I have done everything, all designed to help them, and then I am expecting them to think for themselves.

If I want them to think, I need to be prepared to let them think in lessons.

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Exploring the presentation of a charcter in a play

I have been working on exploring the presentation of a character in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ with a group and I thought I’d share a resource.

The students are comparing the texts and looking at how the characters are presented in the plays. There were 4 slides in total. On each slide there are six questions. . Each student ( in a group of 6) has to take responsibility for their question and then at the end of the 10 minutes they have to, as a group, feedback link ideas to the coursework question.

Slide 1 – Presentation: Staging

1.When are they seen in the play?

2.Is there a pattern in the way they appear in the play?

3.Are they in the opening and closing scenes?

4.Are they part of the main plot? Or are they part of the subplot?

5.Who usually features in the scenes with them?

6.How does the character actually interact with characters?  Soliloquy / dialogue with one character / dialogue with many characters / speech to many characters

Slide 2 – Presentation – Character Development

1.Do they learn something by the end of the story? When?

2.Do they change over the course of the story? When? Why?

3.Does the character’s presentation differ at the start to the ending?

4.Does the character behave in a ‘predictable’ manner?

5.Does the character’s development in the story link to another character? The misfortune of one is highlighted by the fortune of another character.

6.How does the play show the changing of a character’s thoughts and feelings?

Slide 3 – Presentation – Construction

1.How does the writer portray the character through actions?

2.How does the writer portray the character through dialogue?

3.How does the writer portray the character through behaviour?

4.How do other characters interact with the character?

5.How do other characters make this character look better or worse?

6.How does this relate to the audience? Can they empathise with them?


Slide 4 – Presentation – Critical Views

1.How realistic is the portrayal of the character? When is / isn’t it realistic?

2.Is the character a stereotype? How? 

3.Is the writer consistent with his portrayal of the character?

4.What is the character’s function in the story?

5.What is the character’s symbolism in the story? Society?

6.What are the flaws in the way the character is presented on stage?

The nice thing about this approach was the results. The discussion my class had with these questions was very good. They were able to explore the presentation of a character really well.


Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Sutton-Gates Teacher Development Summit. Part 1

Right now, I’m in Washington DC to take part in a two-day event sponsored (all expenses paid) by the Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust. I’m one of 24 British Heads taking part, alongside my Heads Roundtable partner-in-crime John Tomsett, the legendary Alison Peacock and Sir Alasdair Macdonald, former Head of Morpeth in Tower Hamlets. Altogether there will be 80 people involved including delegates from Finland, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, Singapore and the U.S.

The hashtag is #globaleduchangemakers. This bit of un-British, unabashed hyperbole is an indication of the cultural exchange that’s about to take place. I’m ready for something “awesome”. I’ll settle for ‘decent’ or ‘reasonably good’!

This is the agenda:


I was invited to join the planning committee or Advisory Board by Sir Alasdair who has coordinated the UK end of things. Together with Jemima Reilly, current Head at Morpeth, Tracy Smith from Seven Kings and Alison Peacock, we’ve had some fascinating trans-Atlantic conference calls with our US counterparts, chaired by the Gates and Sutton Trust officials. Despite our different perspectives, there is significant common ground. All members of the Advisory Board are meeting face-to-face tomorrow, a day ahead, to fine-tune the event – it’s all very professional and detailed.

In recent years, both sponsoring organisations have published reports identifying problems with their respective school systems in the US and in the UK and are now keen to be associated with the process of finding solutions. The aim of this event is to generate ideas for a practical toolkit that could support work in schools anywhere. Our discussions during the conference calls have been geared towards finding a mechanism to tackle teacher development at both macro and micro levels: issues relating to school culture and leadership as well as practical ways to observe practice and give effective feedback. As a result, each day has a different focus.

Two major inputs will be delivered during the event. Robert Coe will share the findings of the Sutton Trust Report  ‘what makes great teaching?’ published on Friday to coincide with the summit.


He’s going to provoke people to question basic assumptions about good teaching and how we can evaluate the quality of teaching in a credible way. The other main speaker is Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of State for Education. In theory he is there to listen and learn as much as to promote his policy – but we all know how these things work in reality.

The pre-conference prep has been impressive. A number of us took part in recorded interviews via Skype to generate stimulus material. All delegates took part in a survey and uploaded their ideas onto a web-platform called Collaboratory. We were asked to submit a summary of one major effective strategy we have experienced around teacher development. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap across submissions from different so they have been grouped together in a number of common themes:

-Building a Culture of Leadership and/or Trust
-Collaborative Planning
-Collaborative Problem Solving
-Peer Observation, Feedback, and Coaching
-Rubrics, Standards, and Student Work

A few people will share their ideas in detail during a ‘Deep Dives’ session. My Deep Dive input will be about the process of engaging all teachers in drafting a shared statement about the kind of teaching we believe in, based on evidence, professional judgement, shared values and contextual experience; a collaborative process leading to a document that forms the core reference point for curriculum development, lesson observations and feedback. It’s based on the work we did at KEGS that lead to our Zest for Learning jigsaw.


International comparisons are always complex – there are just so many variables – but there is a strong sense that we share a common agenda. The need to understand the processes that underpin effective teacher development is critical to all of us and this event is an excellent opportunity to learn from other people and to share problems and solutions. Hopefully the toolkit that emerges from the event will be something that is genuinely useful.

I’ll report back after the event. And you can follow the live-tweets. Remember the hashtag: #globaleduchangemakers.




This much I know about…what I learnt yesterday at the Sutton Trust-Gates Summit

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about what I learnt yesterday at the Sutton Trust-Gates Summit.

Jet lag is a price worth paying. Sleepless, I went to the gym at 6 am and spent an hour engaged in conversation with Thomas Thaney, a mid-50s Morgan Stanley investor on the pros and cons of the Khan Academy’s flipped classrooms, the importance of teaching students debating skills and how, even as a Republican, he couldn’t understand how Obama is on the verge of losing the Senate in the mid-term elections, which are held today. He asked the simple question…Is Obama’s unpopularity fundamentally rooted in racism? Priceless.

Trust.  I spent the day with, amongst others, Dr Paul Browning from St Paul’s School, Sydney, Australia. His evidence-based research on the importance of trust in being an effective Principal seems to me to be fundamentally important to leading/creating truly great schools. Click on the image below to download his e-book Compelling Leadership.

CL book

The Big Teach? How about the whole staff watch a lesson live…teacher; students;  real lesson; proper work produced; post-lesson dialogue with teachers and students? As Einstein said, For an idea that does not first seem insane, there is no hope. For further details ask Andrew Dawson, Headteacher, St Mary’s RC High School, Manchester, UK.

Austerity engenders innovation. Anyone fancying a school-based MA in Leading Change and Innovation in Schools would save £4,000 tuition fees if they undertook lunchtime supervision 3 times a week. It now happens at the UCLA Academy, London, where Geraldine Davies is Headteacher, and it changed the conversations back to teaching and learning in every school she has led.

New Zealand is where it’s at! I laughed (a lot) and learnt with Barbara, Sarah and Barbara…like me, all fans of Viviane Robinson.

And I’ve got two books to read:

openbook hum


This afternoon I’m Deep Diving. Watch this space.  ;)


Solving the essay problem: Part 2

At the moment, I am planning for the GCSE Shakespeare comparative essay. It is a beast. And, in a very rare occasion (all my own doing so no need for any sympathy), I am doing it with both Year 10 and Year 11 at the same time. The Year 11 class are comparing ‘Othello’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’, while the Year 10 class are comparing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  You can see I like variety.

Anyway, during a lesson this week something happened. I was showing students three versions of a scene from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. We were watching the scene where Don Jon reveals his melancholy. Branagh’s version has this taking place during a massage. The creaky BBC version from the 1980s had this happen on a bed. The latest version from Joss Whedon also had this scene take place on a bed too, but with one difference: Conrad was now a woman and Don Jon was ‘very’ familiar with her.

Now, I am one of those people that can miss signposts. I have often missed a turning because a sign post was too big for me to notice. One student piped up: ‘Sir, is Don Jon gay then?’ Then, the student started to join the dots. He highlighted how one version concentrated on Don John being half-naked and massaged. He also connected how the bedroom tends to be the focus of conversations, highlighting the sexual nature of things. He then went on to describe how this is just a ‘men only discussion’. Finally, to add to his smugness he then stated how most characters pair off at the end of the story, apart from Don Pedro, because he is too busy, and Don Jon.  I then nervously coughed and added my bit. I made a reference to Antonio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and how he indirectly is the cause of trouble for another relationship. Shakespeare starts the play with Antonio being melancholic and ends he play being single. Oh and he gets to keep his ‘pound of flesh’! Cough. Cough.  

I have been telling students this week that English is 80% thinking and 20% learning. I have no evidence to back this statement up, but the above anecdote does actually prove my point. The student had learnt the story, the character and some other superfluous information, yet through thinking he had attained a clever interpretation of the text and interrogate the presentation of a character. It wasn’t a structured part of the lesson. It was spontaneous.  He had an idea and then developed it. I added to it. But, it became a fully fledged idea with evidence, connections and references to the writer’s ideas. It was a natural progression of a thought. No set structure. Just honest, old fashioned thought.

This is a problem with education: getting students to think. How any of us have moaned about students not thinking? How many of us have had essays given to us that are transcripts of our lessons? There are students that are trained to soak up ideas in a class. They don’t soak up and interpret them themselves. They soak and repeat. There are a large number of students that listen and repeat. I have had to address this issue numerous times. The students think they are doing well because they have lot of ideas – sadly, none of their own. My fear is that they don’t grow out of it in time for the exam. We sadly insist on structures for students to follow. Look at some of the acronyms I have collected over the years:


My ‘favourite’ is PEEASE.

Point / Evidence / Explanation / Analyse / Subquote / Explanation

It’s so good it trips off the tongue. That last sentence is dripping with sarcasm. I have always argued against formulaic writing. But, sadly, it seems to be ingrained in the culture of teaching English. It is a default setting when analysing texts by using PEE. Does logical thought think that way? Does the PEE structure mimic thought or the communication of a thought? Does it develop thinking? Or, does it shackle an idea in a rigid framework that constricts independent thought?

The use of PEE has been borne out of the need to secure a C grade; in the same way that KS2 SATs place emphasis on certain writing characteristics that supposedly embody a level 5. It is kind of a midpoint. The scaffolding to get to a certain stage. It is a way for students to develop ideas instead of describing plot details. On a wider level, it is a reductive process. PEE, in my opinion, prevents natural thought processes and connections to disparate ideas. I have read hundreds of paragraphs and the one thing that often happens in that a student often gets to the good stuff in the last two sentences of a paragraph. Or, failing that, they just repeat what they have previously said in the last two sentences.

I don’t think a rigid structure is the answer. In fact, I think the removal of a structure is quite an empowering thought to us as writers. The knowledge that PEE can be in any order is something we need to teach. You can start with either point / evidence or explanation. Look at academic essays and you see that the combination of these is not limited to the order of PEE. Looking at all the attempts to put a spin on PEE, they all amount to the same thing: one single acronym will not convey the complexity of the thought processes involved in expressing a point in an essay. Nothing fits the structure of PEE, because….. essayists do all of these skills (pointing, evidencing and explaining) all at once and at separate times and in no particular order. Now, teach that to students.  

Start with an explanation of what Shakespeare is trying to do.

Start with an explanation of how the audience reacts to a line.

Start with a quote.  

Start with a combination of explaining the audience’s reaction and explaining the writer’s purpose.

Maybe instead of destroying PEE we should split it up. We should mix it up. We should blend it all together. Instead of following a rigid structure, we should maybe focus on their writing being a mixture of these elements and not governed by a select order.
One thing I have recently done is show students this:


Level 5                                                                                  Level 7

Describe              90%                                                                       20%       

Explain                  10%                                                                        50%

Link                        0%                                                                          15%

Opinion                0%                                                                          15%


They adapted their writing and made better paragraphs as a result. What made their writing better wasn’t a rigid structure, but an understanding of how they should express their points. How to communicate things better. After all, isn’t that a fundamental point of teaching English. Making students communicate better.

Going back to the Don Jon dilemma, it has got worse. The theory is set to continue: Iago actively splits a couple up and Doctor Jekyll leads a double life where he dresses differently. I don’t think I will have a problem with them using PEE. More likely I will have a problem with students reducing everything down to Don Jon being gay.

Thanks for reading,

Next time: Part 3: Making students better thinkers   

Learning from my mistakes: an English teacher’s blog

Employment figures for 2014 in the UK

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

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

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

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

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