“JUDGE A MAN BY HIS QUESTIONS RATHER THAN BY HIS ANSWERS”
When is a blog not a blog? Blog: noun (informal) an online journal. Contraction of: web-log. This 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 these pages, too. PLEASE NOTE: SOME OLDER ARTICLES HAVE BEEN MOVED OR REMOVED AS PART OF AN EFFORT TO SPRING-CLEAN THIS SITE AND KEEP IT LOOKING FRESH. WE APOLOGISE IF YOU ENCOUNTER ANY BROKEN LINKS.
NEW 5-PART SERIES! Literacy empowers
Y Kassam’s 1994 paper Who Benefits from Illiteracy? argues that: “To be literate is to gain a voice and to participate meaningfully and assertively in decisions that affect one’s life.”
“To be literate,” Kassam goes on, “is to gain self-confidence. To be literate is to become self-assertive. Literacy enables people to read their own world and to write their own history. Literacy provides access to written knowledge and knowledge is power. In a nutshell, literacy empowers.”
Accordingly, over the course of the next five articles I will share some proven strategies for planning and teaching cross-curricular oracy, reading, and writing… READ MORE: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
In their 2012 report ‘Moving English Forward’, Ofsted said that “There can be no more important subject than English in the school curriculum.” Why? Because, they said, “English is a pre-eminent world language, it is at the heart of our culture and it is the language medium in which most of our pupils think and communicate. [As such,] literacy skills are crucial to pupils’ learning in other subjects across the curriculum.” READ MORE
We must make sure that the texts to which you expose pupils are appropriate to their age and reading ability so that they do not contain unfamiliar or technical words that are outside pupils’ knowledge base. This is why early readers need simple texts to help them develop both speed and confidence. Although it’s sometimes tempting to give pupils ‘harder books’ as a way of challenging them, this is not always the best approach. Texts within a pupils’ knowledge base provide them with opportunities to practise their vocabulary, develop appropriate expression, and build confidence and belief in themselves as readers. Once you’ve developed accuracy, you need to develop speed, increasing the rate at which your pupils can access texts… READ MORE
NEW! The importance of reading fluency (Part 1)
I’ve recently discovered Instapaper, an app which collates reading material – newspaper articles and webpages, say – and converts them into audio so that I can listen to them on my daily dog walks. Text-to-speech technology allows me to ‘read’ articles, research papers and blogs whilst on the move, thus helping me to catch up on the backlog and ease my guilt somewhat. But there’s a problem… READ MORE
LinkedIn lit up this week. Unbeknown to me, I’d reached a ‘work anniversary’. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I set up shop as an education consultant, trainer and writer. You know what they say: those who can, do; those you can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, become education consultants. I’ve certainly met a few snake-oil salesmen in my time; ex-school leaders who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in twenty years but insist on telling practitioners how to teach. I was determined not to do that… READ MORE
Last year I wrote a book on transition but, like most literature on this subject, it focused on pupils’ transfer from primary to secondary school, as well as between the various years and key stages of compulsory schooling. However, whilst working with FE colleges across the country, it’s struck me just how important the transition from school to FE is and how unprepared students are for this change… READ MORE
Although genuine, sustainable school improvement is a slow, incremental process, time is often in short supply. The unrelenting cycle of inspection can put huge pressure on school principals and senior teams to demonstrate rapidly rising standards. What, then, is the secret to turning around an underperforming school in a relatively short space of time, whilst laying down the foundations for sustainable improvement? …READ MORE
The words “today, we’re going to revise for an exam” strike fear into students’ hearts. But when is revision not revision? Revision lessons have become synonymous with dull, repetitious labour. Revisiting by rote what students have already studied. Sitting past paper after past paper in silent rows, receiving nothing in return but a miserly missive in blood-red ink. As such, I’ve learnt over the years that it is better to talk not of “revision” but of “exam preparation”, and it is preferable to think of “exam preparation lessons” not as repeating what’s gone before but rather as a form of deliberate practice.
“Revision” implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it and make improvements, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas. “Practice”, however, implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error (or perhaps, as one teacher put it to me recently, “trial and improvement”). And so doing by receiving feedback, learning from your mistakes, and making tweaks in order to achieve marginal gains.
In short, exam preparation lessons should avoid learning by rote, reading and rereading class notes. They should, instead, make use of two teaching strategies which have been proven to be among the most effective forms of pedagogy in any lesson, be it exam preparation or not, namely: Practice testing and distributed practice… READ MORE
Our school years are amongst the most emotionally and mentally challenging because – whilst we’re at school, more than at any other time in our lives – we experience myriad transitions: there are changes to our teachers and teaching assistants; changes to the year groups, classes, and schools we attend; changes to the culture and learning environment in which we study (as we move from nursery to primary school, from primary school to secondary, and from secondary school to further or higher education); changes to the level of difficulty offered by the ever-evolving curriculum; changes to the nature and level of expectations that are placed upon us; changes to the resources and support available to us; and changes to our home lives, too… READ MORE
Before we begin, I have an admission to make: I don’t like the term “less able”. Less able than what, exactly? Less able than the more able? That’s a pretty banal and facile statement. Less able than they could be? Than we want them to be? Less able than the average student? If so, what’s “average”? No-one is “average”; rather, we are all made up of myriad individual characteristics. If you take an average of each of us (height, weight, IQ, shoe size, etc), you won’t find any individual who is average in all respects. This is known as the “jaggedness principle”.
So “average” doesn’t exist and we’d be wise not to compare students to the average, deeming some to be “less able” and others “more able”. What’s more, the term “less able” implies a fixed state of affairs. The “less able” are destined to remain less able ad infinitum. They will always reside to the left of our graph, there to languish in the shadow of the bell curve. No, I don’t like the term “less able” at all… READ MORE
Group work could take the form of competitive or cooperative learning. Broadly speaking, classroom learning activities can be either individualistic, competitive or co-operative. Individualistic learning is where students work more independently of each other and, perhaps, of the teacher. Competitive learning is where students or groups of students compete with each other for marks to see who is the best. And cooperative learning is where students are required to work together as they learn and have a vested interest in each other’s learning. Cooperative learning is, according to the research, the most effective of the three types of learning in terms of academic performance and classroom climate. What’s more, co-operative learning can improve students’ achievement by at least a grade according to Professor John Hattie’s well-known meta-analysis of the research evidence… READ MORE
When teaching to small groups, we increase the opportunities for students to ask us specific, detailed questions and are afforded more time to answer these questions. Small group teaching also provides more opportunities for students to deepen their learning by verbalising – articulating orally and not just in writing – their learning, explaining things to the teacher as well as each other. This process of thinking aloud helps students to make sense of difficult concepts and new knowledge. Small group teaching provides more opportunities for detailed discussions about what students are learning as well as what they need to learn next. It provides plentiful opportunities for the teacher to clarify with students exactly what they should be doing and the level at which they should be achieving. Small group teaching provides the opportunity for teachers to get to know their students and to be seen as approachable and available… READ MORE
School leaders are facing the biggest challenge of their professional lives: they’re simultaneously trying to balance the books amid a national funding crisis and provide the resources required to bolster teaching and learning and improve outcomes for learners. According to the National Audit Office schools face an 8 per cent real-terms cut worth £3 billion by 2020. And what is the government’s response? Ministers insist, mantra-like, that school investment stanks at a record £40bn. But to say that school investment is at a record high is to make a mockery of the figures… READ MORE
A lecture: A long serious speech, especially one given as a scolding or reprimand. Otherwise known as a chiding, a rebuke, a reproof, a reproach, a remonstration, a berating, a castigation, a tirade, a diatribe, an harangue, an admonishment, and a lambasting. I’s fair to say that the humble lecture has acquired something of a bad name for itself. But does it have to be this way..? READ MORE
One widely used dialogic technique is Socratic questioning, which can be used to: control a discussion, explore more complex ideas, uncover assumptions, analyse concepts and ideas, and distinguish between what students know and do not know. Socratic questioning performs two functions in the classroom: first, it probes students’ thinking and helps them begin to distinguish what they know or understand from what they do not know or understand, and second, it fosters students’ abilities to ask Socratic questions and helps them to use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others). READ MORE
Dialogic questions are questions that encourage discussion, questions that are open, philosophical, and challenging. Dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking. Critical thinking provides students with the tools they need to be able to monitor, assess and reconstitute their thoughts and actions. Critical thinking also provides students with a powerful inner voice for reasoning… READ MORE
Closed questions are great assessment tools to use in the classroom. They can provide valuable assessment information to the teacher about their students’ learning and progress, about who has “got it” and who has not, and about what needs reteaching, recapping or developing further. What’s more, closed questions used as a form of assessment reduce the marking load on teachers and make assessment “live” and responsive. Further, closed questions used as a form of assessment turn assessment into a means of learning, they are assessment as learning rather than assessment for learning. And one of the most effective forms of closed questions is the “hinge question”… READ MORE
Amid a focus on active learning approaches whereby students take the lead in the classroom and teachers act as mere facilitators, the art of quality teacher explanations – sometimes called “direct instruction” – has been, if not exactly lost, then denigrated and devalued. But here’s the unfashionable truth, the elephant in the room, the secret hidden in plain sight: the most effective, expedient way for students to learn is for the teacher – that educated, experienced, expert at the front of the room – to tell them, then show them, what they need to know. Rather than designing convoluted ways of enabling a student to “discover” new knowledge for him or herself, perhaps as a result of engaging in a range of group activities, teachers should take the shortest, simplest path: they should just tell them then show them what they need to know. In short, we should make effective use of teacher explanations (telling) and modelling (showing)… READ MORE
One in four children in the UK grows up in poverty. The attainment gap between rich and poor is detectable from as early as 22 months and continues to widen throughout the education system. Children from the lowest-income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education as the national average. White working-class pupils (particularly boys) are among the lowest performers. The link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial. The effective use of pupil premium (PP) funding is an essential aid in closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers. Schools need to ensure that they are making the best use of the school’s money and demonstrating its impact on pupil outcomes. The progress of every pupil who is in receipt of the funding should be monitored and interventions should be put into place in a timely manner as soon as their progress falters. Schools need to be sure that those interventions are the most effective strategies they can use and offer the best value for money for the public purse… READ MORE
I left primary and started middle school aged nine unable to construct a written sentence. It was only thanks to my burgeoning love of books – plus the dedicated, determined – if not scary – teacher who pushed and pushed me hard – that I first caught up and then overtook most of my peers. Books were my saviour and my escape. Books provided me with a ladder of social mobility. Books educated me in life and love. Books were my passport to world travel. Books were the haute cuisine on which I dined, the elixir from which I sought succour… READ MORE
One in four children in the UK grows up in poverty. The attainment gap between rich and poor is detectable at an early age (22 months) and widens throughout the education system. Children from the lowest income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education. White working class pupils (particularly boys) are among the lowest performers. The link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial with socio-economic gaps much greater than those between different ethnic groups.Effective assessment, tracking and feedback is essential throughout key stage 3 in order to ensure that every pupil achieves his or her potential and that attainment gaps are not allowed to widen. And yet, in a majority of its inspections between 2013 and 2015, Ofsted found many schools neglect these three years of a child’s education and are then forced to take remedial action at key stage 4… READ MORE
The Pupil Premium is money given to schools to help disadvantaged pupils. Ofsted said that while schools prioritise their Pupil Premium spending in key stage 4, they do not use the funding effectively in key stage 3 to ensure that gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers continue to close following transition to secondary school. However, this is a vicious cycle because if you focus your time and resources in key stage 4, and thus neglect key stage 3, then the gap will widen in the intervening years and that time and money will be needed simply to compensate for ineffective practice in the earlier phase of secondary education. If, however, the Pupil Premium is used effectively at key stage 3 and pupils are supported through high-quality teaching and interventions, then they will be provided with a better springboard to GCSE and fewer remedial actions will be needed in years 10 and 11… READ MORE
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… READ MORE
Making a pupil’s transition from key stage 2 to 3 smooth and effective takes more than just a little teamwork at the end of year 6. What is needed is long-term, genuine and sustainable collaboration between schools. We need early years, primary and secondary schools to work in close partnership on all aspects of a child’s education, sharing information and resources, in order to ensure that each child is well-protected and experiences a continuity of service and support… READ MORE
According to Galton (1999), almost 40 per cent of children fail to make expected progress during the year immediately following a change of schools and Department for Education (DfE) data from 2011 shows that average progress drops between key stage 2 and 3 for reading, writing and maths. Moreover, the effects of transition are amplified by risk factors such as poverty and ethnicity. Why should this be? Primarily, it’s because there is insufficient or ineffective communication between primary and secondary schools. This has a number of harmful consequences… READ THE SECONDARY VERSION | READ THE PRIMARY VERSION
Homework has had a rough ride in recent years with many teachers and parents calling for it to be scrapped. Those who fail to see the merits of homework tend to cite Professor John Hattie’s book Visible Learning which gives homework an effect size of 0.26, meaning there’s only a 21 per cent chance that homework will make a positive difference to a pupil’s levels of progress. One prominent advocate of scrapping homework is Tim Lott of The Guardian who, in October 2012, asked: “Why do we torment kids in this way?” … READ MORE
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 under-performance or significant deviations from predicated outcomes in the hope that the same mistakes can be avoided next year… READ MORE
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
I bought a Border Collie pup recently and, at eight weeks, have just begun training her. I don’t want to sound disparaging but the experience has reminded me a lot of my NQT year: it is full of highs and lows. Sometimes the good advice I read in books and online works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes things go my way, sometimes they do not. Sometimes I am the very picture of patience and calm, sometimes I bop her on the nose and shout at her and then feel utterly remorseful when she stares at me with her puppy-dog eyes (never has that phrase meant so much). Sometimes Meg is obedient and attentive, quick to pick things up and respond; sometimes she is tired, hungry, naughty, bored, distracted, incontinent, and noisy. Sometimes I am the best teacher and she is the best student, sometimes we are neither of us these things… READ MORE
Should teachers take risks in the classroom? ALL 4 PARTS NOW AVAILABLE!
To become ‘outstanding’, schools need to focus their efforts on supporting teacher experimentation and celebrating best practice. But this is not quite as simple as freeing staff to “go their own way”. We may loosen the restrictions on autonomy but only in the sense of allowing and encouraging greater levels of collective autonomy (teachers working together to improve their practice by taking risks), as opposed to individual autonomy (teachers working in a purely idiosyncratic way), because standard professional practice provides the scaffolding that’s required for the exercise of truly professional rather than idiosyncratic judgement… Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four
How can I make project-based learning work in my classroom?
The first step towards encouraging students to produce high-quality work is to set assessment tasks which inspire and challenge them and which are predicated on the idea that every student will succeed, not just finish the task but produce work which represents personal excellence. We also know that the most effective assessment tasks offer students an opportunity to engage in genuine research not just research invented for the classroom. We know, too, that a student’s finished product needs a real audience and that the role of the teacher is to help students to get their work ready for the public eye. And what is the best way of delivering all of the above? The answer is project-based learning… PART ONE | PART TWO
There is no silver bullet, no secret formula for teaching outstanding lessons – what works is what’s best. The best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students by regularly assessing them and then to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge… READ MORE
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. Teach 2 says 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. Whereas Teach was about the science of learning, Teach 2 takes us right back to basics, to the building blocks that make great teachers and great teaching… READ MORE
I had to say some fond farewells this week. After nearly three years, I left Derby College to take up my next challenge. Although I confided this in no one, it was always my intention to commit to three years or stay until such a time as we were inspected and judged to be ‘good’. It now seems fortuitous, therefore, that the two events have almost coincided. This week was therefore my last and, although I can’t say I’ll miss those long daily commutes on the train, I will definitely miss all the staff who work at the end of the line… READ MORE
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… READ MORE
Forget Christmas – in my house, the first week of December was much more festive. My family and I awoke early each morning and crept downstairs – nimble on our feet – to see if our New Vacuum had arrived. And one day, after a knock at the door and a signed chit, there it was, standing proud in the hall: shiny and new and beautifully designed, accompanied by its progeny of nozzles… READ ALL 5 PARTS HERE
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 shapeshifting shower in stupefaction. PART ONE | PART TWO
There is no silver bullet, no secret formula to teaching great lessons. What works is what’s best and the best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students – including by regularly assessing them – and to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge and skills. But here is some advice for new teachers on assessment, behaviour and curriculum… READ MORE
Should parents read bedtime stories?
Reading my daughter’s bedtime story is an innocent act that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, it is my sore labour’s bath, the balm of my hurt mind, and the chief nourisher in my life’s feast. Our bedtime story makes the world seem a better place, it is an oasis of calm and order in an otherwise cold, cruel world… Part One | Part Two | Part Three