Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System

Last time I talked about what made a school discipline work. I was glad to see a really positive response from a number of headteachers and SMT members about the post, there were really only one or two disappointing ones. A few years back any suggestion that discipline was a management responsibility rather than about classroom relationships was highly controversial. It does feel like there are now just too many schools that have become effective on the back of sorting out discipline properly for that kind of denial to continue to be widespread, particularly among those members of SMT who are active on social media and can be challenged by hundreds if they make the types of excuses for poor discipline that we still often hear in schools such as: “kids like these cannot be expected to listen quietly” or “if lessons were engaging there wouldn’t be any discipline problems”. However, it is not so long ago that a committee of heads (and a few other establishment figures) were asked to look into behaviour in schools and produced a report concluding that there was nothing much wrong, and I do think that this has a lot to do with the idea I mentioned in my last post of a school with “good enough” discipline.

A school with “good enough” discipline is a school where it is possible for those in authority and those who are well-established to have no real difficulties with discipline, particularly in lessons. It is one where OFSTED is more than likely to say behaviour is “good” on the basis of how students behaved for the day and a half when they visited the school. It may even be that less established teachers who have low expectations of effort or concentration may also thrive, never really needing to confront behaviour. However, at the same time, it is a school where a certain proportion of staff are going to faces classes which do not expect to work or learn. The most obvious people in these categories will be new staff and supply staff. But it might also be teachers who are newer to the school, or younger teachers. In some schools it may be teachers of particular subjects. Or it may be teachers who are singled out for their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Sometimes it may just be teachers who have got on the wrong side of a particular ringleader or clique among the students. In the worst cases it may be those who have been undermined by SMT, as if one student is let off for treating you terribly, others will usually try. Tom Bennett refers to this situation as the “two schools“, the one with the good behaviour inhabited by the powerful and the lucky, and the one with the poor behaviour inhabited by the marginalised and the unlucky. I think of it as the “good enough” school. It tends neither to be a school with a really challenging intake (they would collapse into anarchy without a decent discipline system) nor a school whose intake have really high expectations (they can implement even quite complex discipline systems without too much effort) but one that is somewhere in the middle. It is one where there are enough challenging students to terrorise some staff, but not so many that those who are powerful or influential within the school cannot protect themselves from the worst of it and consider behaviour to be “good enough”. There is neither too much risk of immediate disaster, nor ambition to stand out for being excellent.

The basic feature of the school with “good enough” discipline is seen in the direction of travel of the workload relating to behaviour. Responsibility is always pushed downwards to those who are less senior and have less power. If you want to spot the signs of a “good enough” school discipline system, you are best looking to see if most, but not necessarily all, of the following apply:

1) The headteacher (and other SMT members) would not consider discipline their top priority. It would probably not be in the top three. They simply don’t seem to be part of the system either in terms of leadership (telling staff what is expected of them) or management (actually making sure things happen). In schools with decent discipline systems, even those with a very well-behaved intake, SMT are really keen on telling staff to enforce the rules and to raise their expectations. They feel that if there is a classroom in the school where the teacher cannot or will not enforce the rules then it is a problem for everybody and they will exhort teachers to punish more, ask for support and to refer incidents upwards. Managers also have a very clear role in the discipline system dealing directly with the worst offenders and a strong presence around the school site

2) There are two discipline systems. I wrote about this here. Reflecting the “two schools” there is a paper discipline system that will be shown to governors and inspectors that seems very thorough and supportive and there is what staff are actually expected to do, which will often involving lowering expectations and leaving struggling colleagues to sink. Often discipline is very informal, and sanctions are highly arbitrary. Students know that what they do is less important than who they do it to. Teachers who follow the letter of the system are seen as “inflexible” and lacking in behaviour management skills. If you could end up being complained about, or told off by managers, for following the behaviour system then you are most likely to be in a school with “good enough” discipline.

3) Departments have a major responsibility in the discipline system. The capacity of school departments to deal with behaviour varies massively. They differ in size; they differ in experience; they differ in available time. One department might consist of two part-timers, another might consist mainly of full-time staff who have been at the school for two decades.  One department might include two members of SMT and three year heads, another might be mainly NQTs. One department might teach every child in the school, another might mainly have sixth-formers. No school can ever hope to have a consistent discipline system if departments are heavily involved. Even delegating too much to year heads can create inconsistency, but at least year heads have a clear jurisdiction. Detention systems run by departments struggle because the same student can be in detentions in more than one department. Systems of removing students based on departments can be worse than useless if everyone is teaching at once, or you have multiple challenging classes in the department at the same time.

4) Teachers have to administer most sanctions themselves. What goes for inconsistency between departments is multiplied many times for teachers. Leaving it to teachers to supervise their own detentions, or call parents, guarantees that some staff will be unable to comply with the system. Schools might have a policy where you put every student who doesn’t do their homework in detention, but it is not a serious policy if in the first week of term a teacher finds that they have fifty students who haven’t done their homework. Asking teachers who have suffered verbal abuse or physical assault to call parents is idiotic, it just makes the whole experience even more stressful. Even the most dedicated staff will have to limit themselves to enforcing only those rules that they know they can enforce without running out of time in the week.

5) Inadequate sanctions. There are certain policies that will never work. I can give multiple examples but here I will mention a few of the most obvious ones. One is a policy of “telling them to put it away” in response to use of mobile phones in lessons. It has to be at least a detention, where practical it should be confiscation of the phone as well, although that will need an effective behaviour system to enforce. Anything less will ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and students will invariably have their phones to hand. Another place where sanctions are often inadequate are those for being sent out of the classroom. It has to be significantly more than a detention (particularly if detentions are hit and miss). The gains in terms of establishing a reputation and getting out of work from being removed from a lesson are such that a detention is not enough of a deterrent. Also, problems exist where the discipline system allows for multiple warnings without a punishment. There seem to be a remarkable amount of schools that have adopted systems in which punishments are administered on the third warning, that have also decided that every warning should be given only for prolonged and repeated misbehaviour rather than low level disruption. Warning systems work where behaviour management involves multiple students misbehaving and you need to ask them individually to comply. They do not work when a warning is considered a sanction rather than a sign that a sanction will be coming without immediate cooperation. They do not work where they simply make it harder for teachers to punish wilful and persistent misbehaviour.

6) The existence of “outlaws”. Outlaws are students who exist outside of the normal constraints of the discipline system. Some exist simply through how much of their behaviour is ignored because there is no capacity to deal with it. They will never attend the detentions that they have earned because there is nobody to chase them up or schedule them. They are the sort of student who owes forty detentions which are then written off when they attend just one. They have tested every system to the limit, have found the gaps, and now walk through them knowing precisely who to act up for, which days to be absent, and which detentions to run away from. The other sort of outlaws are those created directly by well-meaning intervention. Often on the SEN register, it has been decided that they cannot be held responsible for their actions and teachers are deterred or prevented from enforcing normal discipline with them. Any attempt to enforce normal classroom rules will result in protest, such as walking out or swearing at the teacher, and teachers will be blamed for having provoked them. These students already know their rights and privileges and will often tell you they have “anger management” in order to intimidate you before you ever try to enforce a rule.

7) Behaviour INSET is not about using the discipline system. If you want to have effective behaviour management then everyone needs to know exactly what they are meant to be doing and how the behaviour system works. It is not a good sign, then, if INSET on behaviour management is not aligned to that aim. While new teachers might need more training than that, it is never a good sign if whole school behaviour training is not about rules and sanctions. If managers hire somebody who will tell teachers that if they were just nicer to the kids, or made their lessons more engaging, then their problems will go away, then you can guarantee SMT has lost the plot on behaviour and are looking to ensure that those they are not supporting will blame themselves. The consultants who spread this message, some who actually make a living from this sort of nonsense, are no help at all and nothing would delight me more than seeing schools have the sense to put them out of business by concentrating on raising expectations not spreading blame.

Behaviour is about expectations. Students behave in the way they think is normal. Over time effective teachers (particularly in smaller schools) can raise those expectations. That is why, even in some of the worst schools, you will find veteran teachers who everybody behaves for. Sometimes a single department in a school manages the same thing and the students just know that is the subject they must behave in. But for a whole school to be effective then the expectations are part of a culture which has to be set across the board and consistency is what matters most. This is dependent on leadership setting a high standard, but also on well-managed systems that ensure everyone can easily maintain those standards even in the most trying circumstances. Judging by the reputations gained by those schools that collapse into chaos and those schools which crack discipline, most secondary teachers face schools with “good enough” discipline, where plenty of lessons are disrupted but there is enough order to protect key staff and to pull the wool over the eyes of inspectors. Though many schools seem to maintain this situation indefinitely, allowing this situation to continue risks spiralling into decline. Those schools that don’t settle for this, that push for better behaviour than the conventional wisdom accepts, and do so on principle rather than as a response to failure, usually become celebrated examples of high achievement.

Scenes From The Battleground

Back to School Part 5: Marking

This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.

Marking is a chore. Whether or not it has a measurable impact of pupils’ outcomes is arguable; that’s not the reason we do it. The reason we spend so much time marking is a combination of we’re told to, and because we think it’s the right thing to do

Of these I think the first reason takes up a disproportionate amount of our precious time and in the case of the second, we might possibly be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. You see, marking is conflated with feedback, and feedback is, like, really important, yeah?

There’s two things to say here:

  1. Feedback has a huge impact, but necessarily a positive one.
  2. Marking is not just a bout feedback; it’s an act of love.

I’ve written before about getting feedback right – basically it boils down to understanding that it should be concerned with clarity, effort or aspiration. This is important stuff, but the thing we really need to be aware of is that feedback is utterly useless unless it has a positive effect on pupils. And this is where I think marking and feedback are different: feedback is a process of trying to ensure pupils make progress, whereas marking is about showing you give a shit. It’s true power comes from increasing pupils’ conscientiousness.

And so, in predictable fashion, here are my top 5 marking tips:

1. Question, don’t describe

Ideally, the effort you put into marking should generate more work for pupils than it does for you. There’s really very little point in describing what pupils have or haven’t done; they are much more likely to learn if they are made to think, and simply reading a description is unlikely to provoke much thought. Much better to offer hints rather than complete solutions, and questions rather than descriptions:

  • Why have you done…?
  • How could you improve…?
  • Is ___ correct?

2. Keep it brief 

Imagine if you could mark every book every day. You’d go mad, right? But think of the benefits – think of the powerful routine that would be embedded as pupils came to expect that they would begin lessons by acting on feedback.

Naturally, the amount of time you’re going to spend marking depends in large part on what subject or what phase you teach. As an English teacher, I aimed to do an hour’s marking a day and pretty nearly always failed. For me, the most powerful reason for marking is that pupils know you’ve seen their books; what you write in them is far less important. So, why write anything at all? Instead, predict the mistakes you think pupils are likely to make and assign them each a number before you start marking. The most important thing you are doing is reading their work and getting to know how they think. Simply annotate the work with the number that correspond to the feedback you identified before starting marking. Then simply display each of the different numbered pieces of feedback at the start of the next less and get them to copy the feedback into their  books. As they then start work on making improvements, you can circulate and talk to them about the work you have read. Read Joe Kirby’s post for more details.

In this way I was able to get marking a set of around 30 books to under 15 minutes. I kid you not.

3. Focus

One of the many tricky choices you’ll be faced with when marking a set of books is what to mark. Everything? Or just a few  of the more glaring problems? This is Hobson’s Choice: if we mark everything pupils will be overloaded and end up learning nothing, but if we only mark selected extracts then we run the risk that they will embed bad practice. This is an insurmountable problem but one which can be minimised by asking students to highlight where they would like feedback. You can ask them to highlight where they have struggled, where they have taken a risk, what they are most proud of or anything else that occurs to you. Then, when we respond to this highlighting we will be giving feedback at the point at which pupils have identified they are ready to learn. And any feedback offered at this point is vastly more likely to be acted on.

4. Marking is…

I’m my drive for ever greater efficiency I’m all for lining up as many wild fowl as possible to take out with a single shotgun blast. And so with marking. Good marking is also planning. By marking pupils books we can see clearly what they are struggling to grasp and what they need more to practice further. I would aim to get proportionately more work back than I put in, so if I’d spent a minute marking a Year 7 book, I’d expect 10 minutes spend acting on feedback. And if I’d spent 10 minutes marking an A level essay, that should result in an hour’s lesson time redrafting and improving said essay.

Marking also has the additional benefit of being the purest form of differentiation. Each individual can be given specific improvement tasks tailored exactly for their peculiar needs. As long as lesson time is dedicated to ensuring pupils act on the fruits of your marking you can quite reasonably claim to have planned and differentiated your lessons.

5. Self assessment – don’t get me started?

When we ask children to self assess their work what we get back is, for the most part, bland to the point of meaningless. “I tried my best.” “I found the work really hard.” “I thought it was fun.” Who cares? What impact is such drivel ever going to have on learning? There’s acres of research to show that as a species we are dreadful at self assessment – consider for instance the Dunning-Kruger effect.

And further, I am wholly and utterly uninterested in the current fetish for pupil/teacher dialogue enacted in books. It is a quite spectacular waste of time to attempt to initiate dialogue through writing – why not just have a chat? The only merit for such nonsense is to provide an artificial means of accountability. And as such I abhor it.

Instead, why not make the ‘dialogue’ work like this:

  1. Pupils proofread for accuracy using a sensible and simple proofreading code, suggest possible improvements, and highlight where they would like feedback.
  2. Teachers ask questions and set questions to be answered in lesson time.
  3. Pupils answer questions and complete tasks in order to further improve their work.

How much more sensible does that sound?

And with that, I wish you happy marking and the very best of luck for the year to come.

The other posts in my back to school series are here:

Part 1 – Routines
Part 2 – Relationships
Part 3 – Literacy
Part 4 – Planning

The post Back to School Part 5: Marking appeared first on David Didau: The Learning Spy.

David Didau: The Learning Spy

Towards ‘Impeccable Behaviour’. Together

In my discussions with my new colleagues at Highbury Grove we’ve talked about the need to ensure that the teaching and learning agenda is put at the centre of all we do – in terms of CPD, ethos and our overall improvement strategy it is the most important thing. But we’ve also agreed that getting behaviour right is the first priority.  That’s not a contradiction; both are inter-related but one is the platform for the other.  We’re planning to implement a process leading to a school-wide step-change in the behaviour standards, raising expectations significantly and putting the necessary enforcement and support structures in place.

Although standards of behaviour are generally very good and the school feels like a relaxed and happy place, most people express the sense that they  expend too much energy in mopping up behaviour issues day-to-day, reinforcing basic standards  in lessons and the corridors ; staff definitely feel there is another level to reach.

I was very interested to read the OfSTED guidance published for September 2014.  The language used in the Outstanding descriptor is extremely aspirational. I like it – even though it presents a challenge:

The Outstanding Behaviour criteria.

The Outstanding Behaviour criteria.

Although I’m sceptical that an OfSTED inspection is sophisticated enough to evaluate a school against these criteria in an accurate manner, the descriptors are helpful for internal purposes.  What matters is that behaviour meets these standards on any and every given day ( ie when no-one is looking).

These are the stand-out phrases:

  • Pupils consistently display a thirst for knowledge
  • Pupil’s behaviour outside lessons is impeccable
  • [There is] an exceptionally positive climate for learning

We are going to be on a mission to create a culture where those three statements are a genuine description of standards in the school.  It won’t happen instantly but it can be done.

The Process:
We’re planning a transition process that other schools I know have followed.  Some have used the ‘Behaviour for Learning’ template developed at Ninestiles school in Birmingham. Others have taken their own unique approach.  We’ll be drawing on all the ideas we can find to create something distinctive for Highbury Grove.  The transition will take up the first half-term in the first instance.  We’ve already planned two additional half-day closures in September so that staff can address this issue in full.  This is a rough outline of the thinking so far:

Stage 1.  Establishing the principles

In our first half-day session we’ll consider the principles of excellent behaviour management.  I will be suggesting that we consider some of the following: (NB these are my early thoughts only – it’s open to discussion).

  • Our rationale for creating a system that leads to a highly disciplined school is that it enables us to focus on learning to the greatest extent possible;  the system is not an end on itself – we need it so that learning can flourish.
  • We need to re-affirm a shared belief that every student is capable of meeting very high expectations of behaviour, albeit with support in some cases.  We do not do any student a favour by expecting less of them than we do of others or by allowing the challenges in their lives to lower our expectations of them.
  • High standards of behaviour and uniform are entirely compatible with a friendly, happy, relaxed school and form the platform for high expectations of academic achievement. Compliance is not a negative; it is a positive as this frees us to focus on learning and positive relationships; compliance helps us to channel energy into productive learning and appropriate means for expressing views.  Student Voice matters; but it needs to be formalised such that learning and order have priority.
  • Staff-student interactions need to be characterised by a blend of ‘unconditional positive regard’ (to borrow from Vic Goddard) and assertive authority.  Teachers should be assertive without being autocratic; teachers should not say or do anything that actively harms students’ self-esteem: no sarcasm, no put-downs; no public humiliation.  We should seek to resolve conflict where it arises and repair and rebuild relationships where they break down.
  • All staff are involved in the system without exception; students should be expected to cooperate with any staff member regardless of their job role or perceived status.  Similarly, all members of staff need to follow the agreed protocols; actions that undermine the system or run counter to the school ethos will put unacceptable pressure on those staff members with the least confidence and experience. We’ll act as a team, supporting each other.
  • Individual teachers need to continually develop the skills of classroom management as the first line of enforcement, with a focus on building positive relationships and establishing firm boundaries.  The school system must  support teachers but the most effective learning will happen where teachers are able to enforce standards independently to the greatest degree possible. Where teachers need support to do this, they should receive it without prejudice; we don’t all have the same skills but we are all in it together.  We need both strong system and strong teachers.

(I will be promoting the superb Bill Rogers material as profiled on my blog and some of the ideas promoted by Tom Bennett as he describes in this excellent TES video series.  )

  • The sanctions system should be presented and enforced so that, to the greatest extent possible, students are making clear choices if and when they breach the agreed rules and teachers are simply issuing sanctions based on students’ choices; it’s not a personal decision they make.  Action A leads to consequence B; it is a choice students know is theirs to make – or not make.  Some rules will require automatic sanctions in order to be effective.  eg, if the uniform rules are broken, it is a deliberate choice leading to an automatic sanction, not a matter for negotiation.  Other rules, particularly those in classroom, need to be enforced through a clear warnings system which teachers use to lever the improved standards we’re looking for.  Students know they will receive warnings but that repeat offending will be met with a sanction regardless of who the teacher is.  The goal is that everyone knows the rules, the mechanics of the system and what will happen in any given circumstance.
  • The sanctions need to be delivered in a fashion that generates a significant disincentive for students to repeat their transgressions. Detentions should be long, silent and boring; not opportunities to catch up on work or talk.  Isolation days should be tough; a hard day with minimal contact with others;  a day that you do not want to experience again in a hurry.
  • Inclusion does not mean that we are afraid of exclusion where it is necessary.  A bottom line is that no student can be allowed to disrupt the learning of others.  The needs of the majority outweigh any challenges an individual may have in meeting our expectations where their actions impede the learning of others.  At the same time, we need to anticipate that there will be small number of students who will find the new system very challenging and will need pre-emptive support to prepare them.
  • Rewards associated with behaviour are problematic; the rewards need to intrinsic – through the affirmation of teachers and peers or the positive experience of learning and being able to participate.  We can’t get into rewarding students through extrinsic rewards simply for doing what is expected .

I’m thinking aloud here but that list captures my perspective.

Stage 2.  Agreeing the details.

After considering the principles, we will look to define a set of rules that are simple to communicate and to enforce. They need to focus on  behaviour in lessons; behaviour in corridors and around the school; behaviour outside the school.   We need to  agree the aspects of uniform that will be enforced by automatic sanctions, what we mean by ‘late’, what we expect in terms of personal equipment, use of electronic devices, noise levels,  movement in and between lessons and the extent to which  homework can or should be included among the other issues.

We need to agree to the details of the sanctions: a first level of warnings; a second level of routine after-school detentions with higher level sanctions including days spent in isolation, Saturday detentions and formal exclusions.  At my daughter’s school, for example, arriving late to a lesson results in an automatic detention the next day. The consequence: the majority of students are not late to lessons.  At KEGS, students have an automatic lunchtime detention if they break the uniform rules; shirt un-tucked or top button undone = detention. Consequence: 99% of students wear the uniform correctly at all times.  That’s what we are after – a system where students know for certain that a consequence will follow such that they change their behaviour in the direction of compliance. They know where they stand.

A major part of our second half-day session will be to walk through all the possible scenarios that staff can imagine. If X happens, what will follow? What should be said and done by the staff member and  how is this reported and recorded? It’s vital that everyone understands who does what and what are the follow-up actions will be.

In parallel with discussions among staff, we will be holding consultation meetings with parents and tutor-time sessions with students.  This is partly to build buy-in to the changes that will occur but also to factor in a range of perspectives about the way sanctions operate.  Everyone expects clarity, consistency, fairness and justice and, when the bar is going to be raised significantly, it will be important for everyone in the community to see this coming before it happens and to have had input into the system.

Stage 3.  The Launch

A key decision will be to decide a date for the change to occur. On an agreed date the new rules and sanctions will be introduced – a step-change will be made. We need to balance a the desire to implement the change as early as possible with giving ourselves the time to get everyone ready for it: students, staff and parents.

Ahead of the launch date, we’ll run assemblies and tutor-time sessions where the details are explained, stressing that the consequences will be enforced and that students have the choice to meet them or go through the hierarchy of consequences.

I expect that, in the first phase, there will be a lot detentions and isolations as students learn where the new boundaries lie.  Each teacher will be getting used to using the agreed language for the sanctions and it will take a while for everyone just to fully understand how it all works in practice.  Gradually, as the system kicks in and students adjust, the numbers will fall and we’ll get into a routine.

Stage 4.  The long haul: monitoring and adapting.

After the launch phase, we’ll be in it for the long haul.  We’ll need to be responsive, adjusting rules and sanctions depending on how well things are working. Individual teachers will need support, some more than others.  Students, parents and teachers will be asked to give feedback each term and then each year as to how they feel the system could be improved so that we’re continually ramping up the standards and getting ever closer to that impeccable behaviour and exceptionally positive climate for learning.

Uniform: A symbol of the balance point where expectations and enforcement

Uniform: A symbol of the balance point where expectations and enforcement meet.

Finding a New Equilibrium:

One of the ways I think about the change we’ll be undertaking is to think about equilibrium.  A relaxed and happy school is in equilibrium where the majority of students meet the school’s expectations and the need for conflict and challenge is relatively low. However, the level of expectations in that scenario can be low or high.   Consider uniform as an example; I always think that uniform is a reasonable indicator of a school’s expectations.  Of course there are a few great schools with no uniform at all (that’s a different debate) and there’s the clip-on tie veneer issue (another debate!)  – but there aren’t many great schools with a uniform that looks terrible. That’s because, in a great school, the school’s expectations are high and are met.

Let’s take Waterloo Road for example. (Not a real school, I do realise.)  Plenty of schools have the Waterloo Road look and this tells you something about expectations.  Within certain parameters, the students don’t expect to be challenged or sanctioned over the way they are dressed – it is just how things are; uniform is negotiable.   On the right, the school uniform is impeccable.  The students appear to expect to have to dress that way – it’s their normality, no arguments; they accept the boundaries and live happily within them.  In both scenarios, the students appear relaxed and happy; there is an equilibrium – but the difference in expectations is clear.  The boundaries are different.

At Waterloo Road some teachers will believe that  it isn’t realistic for students to dress smartly; it won’t be worth the energy to enforce it; it would risk the happy atmosphere to introduce more challenge.  Some parents may agree.  On the other hand, they may be desperate to change things but  feel the systems just don’t work – everyone is working alone and the students just bounce from one to another, flaunting the rules without sanction.  To secure a transition to a smart school look, Waterloo Road would have to address all of these concerns: Yes, it can be done; yes, it is worth it; yes, the system will support everyone in enforcing the expectations and yes, once we’ve finished, the school will remain a relaxed and happy place.  And, of course, there will need to be a big shift in peer group attitudes.  If you have a bit of self-belief and high aspirations, it isn’t actually that cool to go a school where everyone looks a bit rough in their uniform.

Does this translate in an analogous manner to attitudes to learning?  I’d argue that it does.  If you can’t challenge over a top button, will you challenge over standards of work, concentration and respect for the learning of others? It may not be a direct link ( a smart student may be disruptive in lessons and a scruffy student a delight to teach ) but, school-wide, there’s certainly a link in my view – and my new colleagues seem to concur.  The challenge, then, is to move from one equilibrium position to another. Just as in lighting a match to activate a chemical reaction or opening a parachute to undertake a terminal velocity transition, we need to engineer a system change that will get us to where we want to be. That will be a period of some turmoil and pain requiring significant energy, but the prize will be a relaxed and happy school with very high standards – impeccable standards!

Watch this space – I’ll let you know how it goes.



That Primary School Teacher Post

There were lots of comments on twitter about that post yesterday from a new primary school teacher. I thought it was genuine and worth sharing because:

  • The ideology described was consistent with what I had been describing in my previous post;
  • The ideology criticised was consistent with so much of what I’ve seen expressed on primary school teachers’ blogs;
  • It was consistent with what I have heard from plenty of others who have gone into primary teaching, particularly the academically able;
  • The effects of the ideology are very consistent with what I see as a teacher of year 7;
  • It is consistent with what we know about academic attainment in basic skills, not just in year 7 but throughout the population, i.e. they have declined over time as the teaching methods have gor more progressive;
  • I assumed that the many primary teachers doing a good job and opposing this ideology would either agree with the post or want it debated, rather than claim to be personally insulted at the suggestion that anyone ever disagreed or that everything wasn’t perfect.

I knew it would be controversial. As I said in my previous post, when it comes to early years there is a general hostility to questioning around methods. I also know from long experience that criticism of anything in the primary sector gets a far more hostile and personal reaction than criticism of anything in secondary. Criticise a fad in secondary or FE and everybody says “aren’t our managers idiots for forcing this on us?” Criticise a fad, or even the same fad, in primary and it’s like you just appeared on the News at Ten to declare that everyone in primary, staff and students alike, are completely shit and should be put down. Despite a number of brilliant exceptions among primary bloggers, there just doesn’t seem to be the same capacity for debate as in secondary or FE.

Some of the response was predictable. It was part of a fairly heated debate and was originally in the comments, so, of course, any passing member of the “tone police” could complain about the style of writing. Inevitably there were those who, having seen that I’d recently asked for evidence for some bold and apparently technical claims about the psychology of child development, thought it must, therefore, be appropriate to ignore context and ask for evidence for personal experience and opinion. And, of course, people were all too willing to interpret any general claim to be about what was universal rather than what was normal. But apart from these obvious time wasters, I was actually surprised at a lot of the other comments. There were a lot of attempts by primary teachers to claim nobody among their number held the opinions that were criticised in the post (what a relief) but these seemed to be arriving in my twitter timeline alongside those primary teachers who were claiming that nobody in primary education (other than the author) disagreed with the opinions criticised in the post. Simultaneously, I was seeing two arguments that appeared to refute each other. Additionally, there were people who simply seemed unaware that any of the debate from the last few years has happened. Some defended the criticised position on the basis of learning styles (although the worst offender later found reasons to delete her tweets). Others defended it on the grounds that discovery learning works well. One person even tweeted me this: 

Also surprising to me were some of the ad hominems. In particular:

  • It probably isn’t a primary teacher who wrote it (alongside claims it’s a wind up and declarations of disbelief and shock to be reading such views);
  • They show a lack of understanding, particularly of play, development, learning etc. (said several times over and it was also claimed they cannot be educated or that they needed to be trained);
  • “I hope this teacher never teaches my kids”;
  • It’s depressing or bad they want to be a teacher;
  • If they cared they’d come and visit us (really appealing when said to somebody saying something controversial anonymously);
  • They are attacking the professionalism of other teachers including those who say they don’t use the methods criticised;
  • The author is projecting their own problems onto the system.

I wasn’t so much surprised that ad hominem attacks were made. I was surprised how familiar they were. Look at the comments on my blog (and other blogs) from when I started and you will see pretty much all of them. This is exactly how I used to be dismissed. Of course, as time went on and lots of other tweeters and bloggers appeared expressing similar opinions, and it became obvious I had a significant following, this sort of attack has become rarer and rarer. It was a way to stop the debate and it didn’t work. I don’t think it’s going to work here either. Of course, the author might have had a bad experience but they haven’t had a rare experience. Of course, there are other views about pedagogy, but isn’t it time they were defended on the basis of evidence and reason not by demonising those who oppose them?

Oh, and just one more point, it was remarkable how many people assumed the author of the post was a man (and the only exception that really stood out was a male primary teacher). Any suggestion as to what that signifies? It could be stereotypes about former accountants, or it could tell us something about the sexual politics of primary teaching. Your opinions on this would be appreciated.

Scenes From The Battleground

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.

photo (73)

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…

View original 1,246 more words


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

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)