Review of the year: 2016


It’s that time of year again when, filled to the brim with mince pies and mulled wine, we reflect on the past and make resolutions about the future.

Bloggers perform this task by writing a meta-blog which is a blog about other blogs – blog eat blog, if you will.

A meta-blog is the blogging equivalent of a cheap compilations show on TV, a bunch of old clips sewn together by C-list celebrities bedecked in Christmas jumpers.

Not being one to let a bandwagon pass by without jumping on it, here’s my review of 2016 on my blog…

imagesFirst, a caveat:

When is a blog not a blog?

Blog: noun (informal) an online journal. Contraction of: web-log. 

My blog isn’t really a blog; it’s a repository, an archive of everything I write for various newspapers, magazines, websites, newsletters and books. Occasionally, I’ll feel inspired to write something exclusively for this website, but many of the articles below were written for other publications.


2016 in 12 blogs

2016 was a productive year, I blogged several times every month.  However, rather than simply list all the articles I posted, I’ll select my favourite article from each month…


In January I shared my thoughts on curriculum design and lesson planning.  I concluded that there were 5 keys to planning…

Key 1: Connect the learning

Think back to your school days. What most vividly sticks in your mind and what has been swept away like grains of sand on the cold winds of time? Students are more likely to learn if their interest is piqued by something extraordinary and unfamiliar: they need lessons to ignite new sparks and pose new questions. They need lessons to unsettle them, to discomfort and challenge them; students are more likely to remember something when it makes them alert and alive to the learning experience… READ MORE

Key 2: Personalise the learning

The best teachers tailor their lessons to accommodate what will always be a diverse group of students. They use diagnostic assessments such as pre-tests and low-stakes multiple-choice quizzes to identify students with gaps in prior knowledge and skills. These needs are then addressed through targeted intervention individually, in pairs and small groups. Whichever method of differentiation/personalisation we use, our expectations of students’ desired outcomes should remain the same. After all, students with differing levels of prior knowledge and achievement can all engage in answering big questions and exploring hypothesises. All students have the potential to deepen their understanding as a result of thinking and engaging with the discussion… READ MORE

Key 3: Grab students’ attention

Students need self-discipline, self-direction, and the ability to delay their gratification in order to be successful in school and yet many students are unwilling to work hard. Students typically misunderstand that their role is to develop their understanding, not merely acquire (and then regurgitate) the information that teachers provide them with. Often, teachers try to overcome this by issuing extrinsic rewards such as praise, prizes, and privileges, or indeed extrinsic sanctions such as low grades and punishments. But extrinsic rewards and sanctions don’t work very well, or at least not for very long – the best solution is to create intrinsic motivation, to make what you’re teaching worth learning… READ MORE

Key 4: Teach less, learn more & Key 5: Reflect

Teachers often fail to consider the gaps in students’ experiences and skills and wrongly think that what they need to do to rectify this is teach more knowledge. But understanding requires an iterative mix of experiences, reflections on those experiences, and targeted instruction in light of those experiences. Good lesson design, therefore, involves the provision of sufficient real or simulated experiences in order to enable students’ understanding to develop… READ MORE


In February I shared news of my ill health but took from my experience of illness the importance of motivation in ensuring students were engaged and learnt and made progress…

Life’s like the Wizard the Oz…

For six months at the tail-end of 2015 my life was like a macabre version of The Wizard of Oz. I was in search of a new heart and a new brain because mine hadn’t been working very well. It wasn’t their fault; rumour had it, it was my damn kidneys started it. My kitchen cupboards resembled a well-stocked branch of Boots. I was on a cocktail of medication which controlled the main symptoms but some of the pills sedated me, some sent me loopy with hallucinations. I could smell smoke all the time and saw the world as if through a kaleidoscope. I felt like I was trapped in the 1970s.

It was Hobson’s choice: continue to black-out, vomit, suffer chest pains and debilitating migraines or spend half the day struggling to get dressed and the other half confused by the dimensions of my own bathroom.

For several months, I chose to stare at my shape-shifting shower in stupefaction… READ MORE


In March I had a month off blogging because the college I worked for were inspected…talking of which…


Diary entry from March 2016:

Most people get a phased return to work following illness; I got a week-long Ofsted inspection. I returned home late on Friday night after a week spent living out of a suitcase. My five-year-old daughter insisted on waiting up for me. Apparently, she’d sat by the window for three hours as I crawled up the M1 just so she could wave to me as I pulled onto the drive. One day, I’ll take her in my arms and tell her how every one of the 10,800 seconds she spent staring into the darkness was worth its weight in gold just to see her smile after a sleepless, stressful week.

I stayed in a hotel next to one of our campuses. After breakfast (my only meal of the day), I met my inspector and spent the day with him, observing lessons, being interrogated, walking the floor, being interrogated, meeting colleagues, being interrogated, exploring our systems, and ‘negotiating’ the content and tone of the nightly summary feedback. My only respite from this routine came in the form of meetings with other inspectors and briefings with members of my team. Each evening, I retired to my room to prepare the next day’s schedule and compile additional evidence or revise for key meetings. For five days the outside world ceased to exist. I lived and breathed Ofsted… READ MORE


In May I related my experience of training my puppy to being a newly qualified teacher and found some surprising parallels…

One Man and his Blog

My new puppy, Meg, is a Border Collie – a breed well known for their social skills, eagerness to please, intelligence and boundless energy. But every coin has a flip-side and Meg’s propensity to be social also means she doesn’t like being left alone and cries through the night keeping me awake, her eagerness to please can translate as an over-zealous tendency to bite the children, chase the cats and herd the rabbits, her intelligence means she is quick-witted, often one step ahead of me as she sneaks into the food cupboard, and her boundless energy makes her tireless but me exhausted as I try to keep up.

Our training regime started by using Meg’s name as often as possible – always ‘Meg’, just ‘Meg’ (no silly nicknames like the rest of our pets and children acquire as soon as they leave the womb) and always enunciated clearly followed by a pregnant pause to gain her attention before a command is given.

Next, I taught her to ‘sit’ using a simple one-word command accompanied by a hand gesture, plus a treat as a reward the first few times she succeeded. The real secret to this obedience trick was repetition and then positive reinforcement. I kept doing it and whenever she got it right, I gave her a treat and made a fuss of her so she knew she’d done what I wanted her to do and to do it again the next time. It took patience and determination but it worked.

Being something of a control freak, I drafted a list of one-word commands and their accompanying hand gestures before Meg arrived and shared them with my family so we’d be consistent in the words and body language we used the moment our puppy crossed the threshold, thereby avoiding any confusion or mixed messages. Again, simplicity, consistency and repetition were key – plus plenty of praise.

On the morning of day two of our training she learnt to “sit”, “stay” and “come”. I was over the moon with her progress and considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Woodhouse.

On the afternoon of day two she learnt to wee on the carpet, chew the legs off the sofa, and bite the legs of my daughter. I considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Windsor, screaming: “Get outta my house!”

It was a game of two halves, shall we say… READ MORE


In June the sequel to Teach, my book about pedagogy and practice, was published and I wrote about

The sequel that wasn’t a sequel…

There’s a famous and possibly apocryphal story that Alan Bennett was asked to rename the film adaptation of his stage play The Madness of George III to The Madness of King George for fear that American audiences wouldn’t go to see it because they’d assume they’d missed the first two films in the trilogy.

Teach 2 is a sequel of sorts but it’s not essential you’ve read the first book.  You won’t find any exciting cliff-hangers being resolved in the pages of this book, or unravel any twisted plot-lines within the well-worn folds of its dust-jacket.

Instead, Teach 2 says some of the things I forgot to say in Teach as well as some of the things I’ve learnt since writing the first book because – and isn’t this just the best thing about life – every day is a school day.  And if I ever need proof of that, I watch an episode of University Challenge.  Just when I think I know it all, I sit through half an hour of Jeremy Paxman (seemingly speaking a foreign language) and I realise that I’m a complete and utter moron.

Teach was about the science of learning and whilst I stand by everything I said in that book I have come to regret not laying down some foundations first. For example, I didn’t make clear that before we can talk about cognitive science in any meaningful way, we need to address the rules and routines of an effective classroom.

So Teach 2 takes us right back to basics, to the building blocks that make great teachers and great teaching… READ MORE

Also in June, to celebrate Father’s Day, I wrote a personal blog about what it felt like to become a father…

An emotional birth

I first developed the capacity for murder when my daughter was born.

Prior to fatherhood, I wasn’t exactly a pacifist but I certainly wasn’t a violent man. Excepting one drunken pub punch-up as a teenager, I had never – until I became a father – experienced an emotion so raw that it could only be vented physically.

And that solitary fist fight of my youth hadn’t prepared me for my new life as a would-be killer. Indeed, all I’d gleaned from that particular blot on my copy-book was that the first rule of fight club wasn’t “don’t talk about fight club”, it was standing with your arms by your sides doesn’t constitute an adequate line of defence against a drunken man intent on punching you in the face. Repeatedly.

After the birth of my daughter, however, – and I do mean the very moment she was extracted from the womb and held aloft like a bloodied, scrunched-up Simba – I knew I had changed and that I was now a murderer-in-waiting. For at that moment I experienced, for the very first time, a love – no, not a love, a primal instinct that went way beyond love – burning at my core. And I knew then that if anyone was to cause my daughter harm I would not think twice about killing them in cold blood.

No second chances: that was the kind of man I was now… READ MORE


In July I published a four-part series on the importance of taking risks in the classroom…

Educated risks

In The Beautiful Risk of Education, Gert Biesta posits that education has three purposes: qualification, which has to do with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions; socialisation, which has to do with the ways in which, through education, we have become part of existing traditions and ways of doing and being; and subjectification, which has to do with the interest of education in the subjectivity or “subject-ness” of those we educate, as well as emancipation and freedom.

In Biesta’s view, therefore, education is not just about the reproduction of what we already know or of what already exists, it is about creating new beginnings.

If we regard education as a means of creating new knowledge and not just of “passing on” existing knowledge then we must move beyond notions of compliance and conformity and encourage greater risk-taking and experimentation in the classroom. Teachers cannot inflexibly follow a lesson plan if we are to focus on helping our students to engage with and come into the world… READ MORE


In August (the article published at the very beginning of September) I wrote about the difficult return to school following the summer break…

La rentrée

The French have a term for it: la rentrée.

If you ever visit France in August you’ll probably find it closed. Schools and clubs are what they call en congé; the government is in recess; and many businesses will have shut down for the summer too.

As colleagues, family members and friends go their separate ways for the holidays, they depart uttering the special valediction “à la rentrée”, which can be loosely translated as “see you in September”.

So far so familiar, you might argue. After all, we too wind down for the six weeks of summer.

But, for the French, ‘the return’ in September – la rentrée – is much more than a ‘back to work’ ritual: it marks an entire country’s return to normality after a long summer break. It’s not only a time for children and teachers to go back to school as it is in the UK, but also for most adults to return to work, and for people to see their family and friends again, and begin attending clubs and teams once more.

La rentrée, therefore, refers to returning home and getting back to reality, to a normal way of life. It means abandoning the carefree attitude and easy way of life that became a signature mark of the summer months and, instead, stitching yourself back into a starched shirt and tie, shackling yourself to a nine-to-five existence again… READ MORE


In September I wrote about making a success of the exam post-mortem meeting…

Learning lessons from the cause of death

Exam analysis meetings go by many names, most of them aptly funereal in tone, such as ‘post-mortems’ or ‘rapid improvement panels’ (RIPs). One by one, middle and senior leaders step forward, heads bowed reverently, to get a grilling from a grim reaper in the guise of academy sponsors, school governors and headteachers who form part of the post-exam review panel. The primary purpose of these meetings is to interrogate a school’s summative performance data, celebrating success where it occurs (recognising departmental improvements as well as individual accomplishments) and questioning underperformance or significant deviations from predicated outcomes in the hope that the same mistakes can be avoided next year.

Leaders should prepare their data analysis reports in advance of the meeting and submit it to the panel for their consideration. Panellists should interrogate the report, highlighting key strengths and weaknesses, and annotating pertinent questions and concerns. The meeting itself should focus on panellists’ questions rather than leaders’ presentations in order to try to ascertain more fully the reasons for certain outcomes and trends. There is no doubt that leaders can present their findings in a positive light, but what is needed is an honest account of the facts and an appropriate level of challenge, leading to an agreed set of SMART actions rather than vague promises… READ MORE


Throughout the autumn term I wrote a series of articles for SecEd magazine about Key Stage 3 – all of which previewed the contents of my new book, Making Key Stage 3 Count. You can read them all here and take a look at the book here.  In October, one of the articles looked at ways to avoid the Year 8 ‘dip’…

Transitions within a key stage

Year 7 is new and exciting, if not a little daunting; year 9 assumes a higher status because its curriculum often includes elective subjects, it comes at the end of a key stage and carries with it national tests (albeit now optional) and GCSE options or, in some schools, signals the start of a three-year key stage 4.

Year 8, however, which is awkwardly sandwiched between them, is often seen as a stop-gap, wandering alone and confused in the wilderness.

In year 8 there are no tests of any great import, no big decisions to make, and nothing is particularly new or exciting anymore. New school is now old hat. What’s more, it is often the year in which pupils’ hormones begin to rage. As a result, towards the end of year 7 and during year 8, pupils begin to get demotivated and their progress slows or stalls.

If you search online for “year 8 dip”, you will find plenty of frustrated patter in parents’ forums as mums and dads ask if it is normal for their son or daughter to be so demotivated at school and to be stalling in their studies.

The responses they garner are invariably reassuring: yes, it is perfectly normal and a perennial problem in schools. But aside from the chatroom chatter, there is precious little research or advice on how to tackle this phenomenon. So how can we avoid this “dip”? … READ MORE


In November I wrote a eulogy to public libraries which are under threat due to budget cuts…

A civilisation is built on its books…

Quite literally in the case of Edinburgh…

Edinburgh’s Central Library was opened in 1890 and was the first public library in the city.  It was gifted to the people by the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  At the opening ceremony, a telegram from Carnegie was read aloud.  It declared: “We trust that this Library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come.”

The library is an imposing Edwardian building with a grand entrance on George IV Bridge.  But its external elegance belies a dark underbelly… the building’s foundations lie two-hundred feet deep in the ancient rock of the Cowgate.

Most of Edinburgh’s Old Town is built on top of ‘vaults’  – a series of chambers formed in the arches of the South Bridge – and also overlays an amazing maze of medieval streets called ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’.

The Edinburgh Vaults were originally used to house taverns and tradesmen of various ilk, as well as to store illicit materials including – or so legend has it – the bodies of the people killed by the notorious serial killers Burke and Hare.

However, as the conditions in the vaults deteriorated due to damp and poor air quality, the tradesmen moved out and Edinburgh’s poor and homeless moved in, turning the Cowgate area into a slum around the time of the Industrial Revolution.

As well as the vaults, there is a warren of underground streets and houses deep beneath the library.  Back in the 1600s, these ‘closes’ were Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets, open to the sky and bustling with business.  But eventually they were built over and forgotten about.

When the growing library – which, as Carnegie had hoped, grew in usefulness year after year and also in the size of its stock – found it had more books than it could reasonably display to the public, it began to store older, less popular editions in the vaults and along the maze of underground streets deep below its public galleries.

As a result, we can say in truth but also with a little literary flair – that the modern city of Edinburgh is literally built on its books, with hundreds of thousands of tomes stretching out under the streets around the library like the roots of a tree… READ MORE


And now to now… this month I wrote about the six conditions I think need to be in place in our classrooms in order for students to learn and make progress…

Conditions for learning

Occasionally, on my teacher-training courses and when the mood takes me, I ask colleagues to draw a picture of something familiar, something a child might doodle. A boat. A car. A desert island. A house.

I give them five minutes and ask them to work alone and in silence. When the five minutes are up, I ask them to swap their drawings with the person sitting next to them so that they can peer-assess their artwork. At this point I reveal the assessment criteria.

If I had asked colleagues to draw a house, say, I might inform them that if they have included a front door, their neighbour can award them five points. If they have drawn a path leading up to that front door, they can have a further five points. If they have five or more windows, each with curtains, they can add another five marks. A chimney with two chimney pots gets them another five; a garage, five points; a driveway with a car parked on it, five points; and so on.

Trainees then calculate their partner’s total score and equate this to a grade before handing it back. It is rare – unheard of, in fact – for anyone to get an A or a B. More often than not, colleagues get an E or an F.

Having shared the group’s grades – in a deliberately public, humiliating manner – we discuss how this makes people feel and, invariably, trainees tell me they feel upset that their hard work and creativity has not been recognised.

Some say they feel angry and cheated because they were given a vague task and yet the criteria against which their work was assessed was specific and arbitrary. Others say they feel dejected and demotivated, unwilling now to dedicate any real effort to the next task because of the unfairness of the first… READ MORE


And that was the year that was, as they say.

I’ve been busy writing articles for SecEd magazine, SEN Leader magazine, the TES, School Business Manager magazine, School Inspection + Improvement magazine, and for this website which will publish early in 2017.  You’ll be able to read some previews on my blog shortly…

2017 Calender on the red cubes




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