Latte or Espresso?

I’m very fortunate to have been given some time by my Head to think about how we teach more able students and to make some informal networks of colleagues and schools who might be interested in sharing ideas. Let me know if you are interested.


One key stopping off point for me last week  on this Learning Journey was a conversation with the estimable @nickdennis. He urged me to read better books.  One of the welcome offshoots of the TeachMeet and social media explosion of teacher interaction in recent years has been a growth of book publishing, adding hugely to the range of voices and experiences for us all to absorb and draw benefit from.  Yet, some of these books offer caffe latte:  pretty, frothy, packaged to perfection with illustrations and big-name endorsements but little substance.  I’ve just caught up with one such work from last year as part of my travels.  Written by a highly-regarded blogger and Twitter name, it promises fresh insight into teaching and learning and a stock of practical advice.  Instead I found the stock archetypes of the new genre:  asymmetrical saucer (grrrrr) (easy targets of ‘learning styles’ and ‘left-brain/right brain’ thinking), needlessly long spoon (Reader’s Digest-style anecdotes about past students and how they came good), pointless extra biscuit (pop psychology and sports metaphors abounding, typically relating to Michael Jordan and failing-but-never-giving-up) and an excess of froth with gratuitous logo/heart on the top (the feeling that I’ve read this before somewhere).  All with a slightly puzzling aftertaste.

this latte


So Nick has stirred me up and put me on an espresso diet ahead of the Wellington Festival of Education, which I am looking forward to this week. He has set me some Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice and mastery as homework, but in the meantime I am sampling the rich brew of Dylan Wiliam’s new book, Leadership for Teacher Learning (2016). Of course, it is unfair to compare such a heavyweight research-based tome with the type of book I’m stereotyping above:  I’m a sucker, too, for the new and glossy and want to read those I follow. I guess the simple point is that I need both.  I haven’t got the time and don’t want to spend the dollars to get behind the paywalls to read academic psychology journals, so Dylan Wiliam will do very nicely for the moment.

Here’s two Arabica moments from Wiliam’s first chapter:

It seems to me that a good guiding principle for the design of elementary schooling is that it should help children find their passion- the thing they love to do. For me, the whole idea of a school is that it exposes children to things that they would not otherwise come across.  Schooling should, literally, broaden the mind.

This should include art, music, dance and drama – and Wiliam quotes Sir Ken Robinson approvingly in this context. So far, no different to the cappuccino with sprinkles, you aver. No.  What adds to the flavour is that he then goes on to cite several pieces of research indicating a connection between engagement in the arts with improved learning in Maths and reading, and with success with innovation in STEM subjects.  I have to take on trust that the research has been peer reviewed and has produced findings of merit but, with that caveat in my coffee, I’m happy with the flavour.


Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Secondly, in the search for the ultimate self-roasted single brew, or just something better than we currently have, Wiliam dissects ‘policy tourism’. PISA scores have proved controversial for politicians, educationalists and teachers over the years.  Remember Finland in 2003?  Shanghai in 2009 and 2012?  Surely those education systems must be better than ours and must be doing a lot of things right to produce scores which are so much higher for their fifteen-year-olds?  Perhaps with my interest in able student provision, I can find an answer, the answer there?  No.  Without in any way criticising those countries’ education provision, Wiliam argues that cherry-picking particular features of those systems and using them as levers of reform is wrong.  We may identify the wrong features causing success, and we are assuming that any of those causal factors which we did, perchance, identify correctly would work for us. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, as they say in any self-respecting coffee house.

So, thank you Dr Dennis and Professor Wiliam from Dr Massey. You’ve helped clear my head and reawakened my taste buds for what, I’m sure, will be a rich diet of workshops and lectures later this week.  If any colleagues would like to get in touch about developing formative assessment in the classroom (Chapter Four, coming up) please do.  Especially if you are at Wellington Festival of Education either day this week:  the coffee’s on me.



SpA*rk: An unusual way to help motivate your students


At this time of year, many of us are perhaps scratching our heads with more than the customary vigour as exams loom.  Why aren’t my Year 11s working harder? Why do my Upper Sixth seem to have gone into Glastonbury mode already?  In my Department we decided to use an unorthodox method to tackle the difficult issue of trying to convert A level grade A predictions into A* results for more candidates.


We call them lunchtime ‘spark sessions’.  Three May Maydays to help turn the blossom to fruit.  Two of the sessions (still to come) will be offered by myself as a History specialist to our A Level historians:  they won’t be content specific but will look at generic skills of gutting an article (to foster reading skills) and converting spoken arguments to written arguments (to improve argumentative drive and flow within an essay).  That’s more than a nod to Martin Robinson’s Trivium and the modern uses of Rhetoric.  I hope that by listening to each other, and feeding off each other’s ideas, my students will really benefit by honing their powers of analysis and explanation.


But this alone won’t turn A predictions into the elusive, magical A* grades.  The missing element is motivation.  I have evidence.  These spark sessions were advertised in good time to our students by email and by letter home, no less.  Fourteen U6 were invited to the first session.  How many gave up a part of their lunchtime to attend the first session yesterday?  How many of our bright, privileged, able students attended a session purpose-built to help them secure the best grade possible?  Four.


The first session was supposed to be the magnet, to draw them in.  Rather than have a member of my Department lead it, I thought it would be exciting to ask a colleague with expertise in motivation and the psychology behind high achievement to speak.   Rick is a man of legendary status in my school.  He knows how sports teams work.  He has coached elite level athletes.  He has respect.  In spadeloads. His session was short and to the point:  are you being motivated towards an A* by external or internal factors?  What is driving you?  Our students were candid and confessional.  One wanted to prove something to a teacher.  Another wanted to have no regrets in August.  They all agreed that university places and parental pressures were elements driving forward their revision, of course, but Rick stressed the intrinsic and personal over the extrinsic and amorphous.  Job done.


So, who is the teacher in your school who could come in from outside your subject area and stretch and challenge your able students?  Every school has one, at least one.  The children will know even if you don’t.  These charismatic, talismanic figures may just help bring it all together in these final weeks.  You’re not relying on an expensive Tweacher to come in, full of  brimstone and passion but with no knowledge of your students, although that might work and certainly has its place.  This is in-house and can of course be reciprocal.  It’s unscientific, it’s not research-led, it’s not original – but it may just help spark the motivation that comes from within, the best and most powerful kind.

One-Hour Challenge

It has been a while since I wrote anything by way of contribution to stretching more able students, so here goes with a gentle re-entry to the fold.  In common with some other contributors, I’m less happy than I was with ‘gifted and talented’ as anything more than a convenient shorthand:  ‘gifted’ has too many associations with predetermined intelligence or a genetic advantage, or the perception thereof.  But that’s for another day.  For the moment, here is something which I hope you find useful and can adapt for your own situation.

Here’s a simple, open-ended task for your students.  Write an essay for one hour. It’s not an exam with invigilators, and relies on student honesty in terms of the timing.  They can use any books or resources they like.  What matters is the quality of the thinking and the cogency of the argument. I’ve borrowed the titles, or at least some of them, from the Examination Fellows challenges set by All Souls College, Oxford.  They offer an ideal combination of pungency and wit, simplicity and complexity, challenge and controversy.

AS College

Here is the task I sent to all students:


This Festive Challenge is open to students from any year group.  Scholars are especially encouraged to participate, but the One-Hour Challenge is open to all.

The following essays have been set, or are similar to those set, to those wishing to become Examination Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford.

Your challenge is to choose one title and write an answer in one hour.  You may think about it in advance for as long as you like, or not at all, and discuss it with whomsoever you like, or no one at all, but you must write it in (self-invigilated) exam conditions, on paper or computer, in 60 minutes.  From the entries, I will draw up a shortlist and then pass these anonymised essays to another teacher or teachers to decide the winners.  Prizes will comprise book tokens and immeasurable prestige.

Deadline: Friday 8 January 2016 4pm. No later.

  1. Make a robust case against keeping calm and carrying on.
  2. Improve the rules of any sport.
  3. Do religions have to be theistic?
  4. Ought human beauty to be healthy?
  5. Can you still be an explorer?
  6. Are there too many of us?
  7. Twenty-seven British Prime Ministers have been Oxford alumni. What is the right response to this?
  8. ‘Archaeology is an expensive way of telling us what we already know’ (Peter Sawyer). Discuss.
  9. If all human emotions are just chemical changes in the brain does it really matter if we feel love as opposed to sadness?
  10.   ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ (Monty Python). Discuss.
  11. How is the relationship between you and your body different from that between you and your online avatar?
  12. Does good writing do good?
  13. Is the physicists’ sought-for ‘theory of everything’ a chimera?
  14. Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain?
  15. Postmodernism – sooo last century. Discuss.
  16. Does multilingualism mean multiple identities?
  17. Does Mathematics need foundations?
  18. Is English the new Latin?
  19. How should we listen to music?
  20. Can there be a purely aesthetic appreciation of religious art?
  21. Who is the most overrated figure you have studied?


Students were given the Christmas holidays to complete the task, and the essays have just come in.  I’ve had about 25 essays, which is not that many for an entire School, but it’s a start.  There are essays from Years 7-13.  Students have argued for Gandhi being overrated, and for both golf and orienteering as needing improvements to their rules.  Monty Python films have, refreshingly, been studied by Year 8 students, and this generation of digital natives has not hesitated to assess what exactly their online avatars tell us, and them, about ourselves and themselves.

I’ll draw up a shortlist and then pass it to a couple of colleagues to put into a final rank order.  Book tokens and prestige are the prizes!  This idea came first from my predecessor in post, Judy Nesbit, and I have tweaked it a little.  Feel free to do the same, of course.

There is ample challenge here for us as staff.  How do we compare an essay about Edward Snowden with another assessing beauty?  But then we shouldn’t be expecting to stretch our students without offering intellectual challenge to ourselves.  In an ideal world, I should have tackled one of these questions myself.  A New Year’s Resolution, perhaps!

Please feel free to comment, question or criticise.  Without having read and assessed all the essays, I can’t vouch for the task yet – I’ll update in due course – but reaction has already been sufficiently positive among students and colleagues to warrant a repeat.

AS Library


Co-Construction: Students Building Lessons With You

This year I teach two Year 9 History classes, one in the ‘conventional’ fashion and one using co-construction.  Without further ado and to save you scrolling to the end of this post to see my assessment of the benefits to learning I believe I’m detecting, here they are:

  • there is a much stronger sense among students of how a lesson is put together to achieve learning
  • there is a much stronger sense of what that learning might actually be
  • they now have hard, practical experience of constructing a lesson, and then reviewing it and refining it for next time
  • this has generated  an overview of learning and progress which I might have occasionally managed with Sixth Form classes in the past but not with younger classes; this is metacognition

These are bold claims, perhaps, and they need to be accompanied by disclaimers.  I’m certainly not claiming that co-construction is the answer for my own teaching, let alone anyone else’s, nor that what follows is in any way worthy of  terms such as ‘research’ or ‘scientific’, ‘control group’ or ‘quantifiable’.  This is anecdotal, local, particular and personal but, imperfect as it is, my experience so far is summarised here in the hope that it may trigger responses and dialogue.

What is Co-Construction?

The easiest way to answer this is to read Tom Sherrington’s inspirational posts:

It was this that encouraged me to pick up some bricks.  I went through some of the ‘cons’ of what I perceived to be Tom’s situation:  ‘He’s a Head, his kids are bound to be onside’; ‘Parents won’t get too stroppy if it goes a bit wrong’ and for each force found an equal and opposite force:  ‘He’s walking the walk and is under pressure to get it right’; ‘He’s doing this with an IGCSE Physics class, that’s really high stakes’.  In the end, the matter mattered more than the anti-matter and I decided to launch my own experiment.  I am helped by the circumstances of a Head, SLT and Head of Department who are willing to encourage  different methods of teaching and learning, which I realise is an enormous privilege, but none of them will sit on the sidelines, either, if the particles collide, nothing measurable results and learning is harmed.  Having said that, one of the points I made when offering these thoughts to   @Teach_MeetBristol  led by the admirable @betsysalt and the inimitable @ICTEvangelist this week was that we can wait forever for the ‘right’ circumstances in terms of class, year group, set of resources, the absence or likely absence of inspectors, and so on, and these delays will just mean that we don’t do it.

Action this day, as Churchill reputedly urged.  I chose one of my  two Year 9 classes for the launch of co-construction  and this was the class with the less difficult reputation, but looking back now I think that the tougher class could have benefited just as much.

How does it work?

Students are in groups of 4-5.  We’ve changed them around a few times but now they’re settled in groups to which they like to belong.  We have fixed points we need to hit, ie Common Assessments derived from the Scheme of Work.  How we go about learning skills and knowledge to do well in those assessments is up to us.  We’ve planned sequences of lessons, some of which students have presented  and some of which I’ve led in conventional fashion.  What’s different about co-construction is that it takes what we’ve all done as teachers in a typical double lesson, asking students to research and plan a topic on say, factory conditions for children during the Industrial Revolution  and then present their findings to the class,  and makes that process part of a template for the whole year.  Just like us, the more they practise, the better they become.  The better they become, the more they think about what’s working and why.  They take full and equal responsibility for their learning.  It has been hard work.  Co-construction has needed a hard hat at times, but then I’m learning, too.

The prefix ‘co’ is vital.  This process doesn’t involve me sitting back and letting them get on with lessons.  Tom Sherrington makes this point very strongly.  He also affirms that there has to be stretch and challenge and sheer academic rigour to  the process, otherwise we sink to the lowest common denominator of dodgy Powerpoints and performance masquerading as progress.  We want enjoyable lessons but I’m not interested in ‘fun’ as a discrete aim.

The building site so far…

We’re only part way through the year, and it won’t be until the summer that I can take stock properly.  Pupils have filled in self-assessment sheets and stuck them in their books, and seem to respect what we are doing. Their goodwill has, of course, been the cement holding the whole edifice together.

I said to them back in September, rather naively, that with their vast experience as lesson observers they could use this year to share with me some of the best lessons and learning experiences they’d ever had, in any subject and at any age.  They therefore had every freedom to think about how to research and present to the class a topic such as the introduction of railways.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, their first efforts were fairly low-level and unskilful, with all due respect!   Over-reliance on the textbook, Q and A sessions which fell into ‘shout out the answer’, it was all there.  Of course, they needed to master the basics before they could move on.  The turning point came from them, not from me.  Emma and Sam (I’ve changed their names)  came up with a lesson plan which immediately raised the bar.  If you click on the photo you can see it clearly:


Sam’s mother is a primary school teacher, and that influence shows clearly in the plan, but I’m assured that Sam did much of the work himself and the sheer quality of his and Emma’s mini-lesson with the class supports that view.  They managed a variety of resources and methods, they hooked nineteenth-century railways to debates about HS2 today, and they thought about different ability levels in the class.

We’ve now moved on to look at World War I.  This is where it gets exciting.  Having taken a lead within their old group, Sam and Emma are now coaching their new group through the planning of a mini-lesson on what happened at the end of the war, a topic their group has opted for.  They’ve had several stabs at a simpler lesson plan; click on the photo to see what’s changed:


I love the term ‘cool down’ as an alternative to plenary.  I’m as excited by the process as much as the outcome.  They and the other groups have become self-aware, self-critical lesson constructors.  I’ve thrown at them some questions familiar to us all:  When you offer us your mini-lesson, how will the class learn?  How will you know what they’ve learnt?  How will the class know how to do well in the written taks you set them?  In the next couple of weeks they will peer-assess their mini-lessons and, as the next stage of our co-construction self-build, they will assess each other’s homework tasks using mark schemes I’ll help them put together.  If we can extend that by the end of the year to include parents in the loop of feedback and assessment, I’ll be delighted.

Lessons learned

  • To repeat the point, co-construction is self-build, Grand Designs, with the associated learning rollercoaster to experience.  I’ve spent more time meeting students outside of lessons and planning lessons than I have with the parallel class
  • I’ve failed to inspire them so far to offer, for example, an ICT strand to run alongside what we do:  a class blog, for example
  • We’ve gone at a slower pace and have covered less content than the parallel class
  • They haven’t magically stopped being Year 9s, so there have been some tetchy moments within groups

None of the above outweighs some of the gains:

  • This is student-centred learning in action, and it works.  There is a balance of individual, pair and group work but most of the time they have to make their groups work
  • They’ve raised their knowledge and skills bar and we are now all teaching to the top.  My sense is, although I need to think about this more, that the weaker ones are more secure in their groups and are being helped by what we are doing rather than floundering
  • Classically, my ‘weaker-on-paper’ boys are genuinely coming to the fore when talking to the class, and our collective peer assessment is able to reward this in ways which my book-marking would not.  This is differentiation, n’est-ce pas, and it has just arisen organically rather than artificially.
  • The fact that we are doing this across whole sequences of lessons makes genuine progress in History, whatever that is and however we might define it, more likely to happen than within a snapshot single lesson

With all due respect, I deliberately haven’t read Tom Sherrington’s more recent posts on his journey with co-construction, which include:

I’m just including the links without reading the text properly!   I know his great practice is out there, and I’m sure his Grand Design takes the whole process to a different level, but I have to do this in my own terms and adapt the general principles to my own class’s learning needs.  I’ll catch up with that reading at the end of the year.  Meanwhile, the building work continues.

The magnificence of Model United Nations: stretch and challenge for all your students

This is a quick post to champion the glories of the Model United Nations activity and to explain why it might help your students.  Some of you will know all about this so, in the words of the immortal Frank Drebin, nothing to see here.MUN

The first time I ever saw a MUN in full flow I was gobsmacked.  Where’s the teacher?  What’s going on?  Why are these students not sitting around, chatting, off-task malingering and timewasting?  Why do they look utterly serious and focussed on the task at hand?  And that was just a committee.  I then had the formality of a General Assembly (GA) to witness:  five students sitting at a desk and commanding a vast school hall, simultaneously inviting delegates to address the floor (‘Brazil you have been recognised.’), listening to  speeches, no, listening really hard to  speeches, judging the pace and mood of a debate, keeping track of time, reading and writing notes to delegates, responding to fierce Points of Information and Points of Order from the floor; in short, multi-tasking before the term was in common use and doing so with an effortless ease that would put most teachers to shame, myself very much included.  Not that the presence or absence of teachers seemed to make any difference anyway….The teacher who introduced me to MUN said that it had given him some of the most fulfilling experiences of his career, and I can now see why.  Great shout, Tim Woffenden.

And it hasn’t changed since.  Dozens of MUNs later, the sheer visceral thrill of seeing students lobbying, researching and debating to a high level (and the commensurate disappointment when they don’t) produces a physical response.  Am I sounding keen enough?  Why else would sixteen schools send a total of 200 sixth-form delegates to our Bristol Grammar School MUN on a wet Saturday in early February if they weren’t convinced of the benefits of taking part?  Some schools sent two or three teachers as advisers.  My school is a busy independent day school, but we had state and independent schools attending, including one whose teachers left Brighton at 4.45am to get to Bristol for the day, and then had to get home afterwards. Now that’s what I call commitment.

Martin Robinson @SurrealAnarchy in Trivium (Independent Thinking Press, 2013) avers that the purpose of education is to change people’s lives.  One way to enable this is to look at classical and medieval models of the trivium, the core skills of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.  How can we construct a trivium for the twenty-first century, asks Martin?  Well, perhaps the Model United Nations and similar activities could make a tiny contribution.  It’s cheap, cheerful, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t throw out everything you’ve already learned and requires enthusiasm more than expertise.  What’s not to like?

How does it work?  It’s really a school debating club, or role play.  Best advice is to start small and manageable with a lunchtime or afterschool club or activity and a topic or theme very much in the news.  As with the trivium there are three core elements to MUN.

1.  Research and resolution writing

Random googling and internet trawling is the bugbear of many a teacher, and MUN builds in rigour here.  The committee structure of the United Nations is aped by its Model junior, so many contemporary news topics fall under the auspices of a committee.  For example, concerns about global warming and climate change will fall under the Environment Committee; issues surrounding child soldiers might come under the Human Rights Committee; then there are powerful bodies like the Political Committee or Security Council. If students go to the websites of MUNs such as Cheadle Hulme (known to devotees as MUNCH) they will find briefing papers produced ahead of their conference to aid delegates and direct their research, with lots of links.  These can be used to indicate the depth of knowledge needed to flourish at MUN.  Knowledge really is power.  At first students may need directive practice, but they rapidly move to guided and then independent practice – or the I-we-you model used by Doug Lemov which Martin Robinson in turn discusses in his book.  Research skills soon blossom:  Embassy websites, the brilliant resources offered by NGOs, The Economist, The Times, JSTOR, the United Nations itself.  They move from the shallows to depth, from insight to information, from scan to substance.  This happens at their own pace, according to their own abilities and interests – doesn’t that have something to do with differentiation, too?

Resolution writing has its own specific, sometimes frustrating grammar.  Rules rule.  Preambulatory clauses require careful formulation to introduce and contextualise a problem; operative clauses demand absolute precision and concision.  Constructing a resolution offers stretch and challenge for the most able students, and the process of drafting, modelling and remodelling to perfection is entirely what Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence advocates.  Questioning, thinking, debating with others what to include and what to omit is an internal and shared dialectic.  What will this clause achieve?  Is this whole resolution likely to be thrown out or amended in debate- unless we add or take out this clause?  Wow, it’s exciting work even trying to get it right, and gutting to see a resolution or amendment demolished.

2.  Lobbying:  it may be dialectic or it may be rhetoric, but either way MUN requires it and allocates generous time for it.  This means that a resolution or an amendment has to attract signatories and support if it is to be chosen for debate amidst competing resolutions or amendments, and if it is to be voted through at the end of the debate.  This needs persuasion, inducement, cajoling, arm-twisting, and even threatening – within the bounds of acceptable MUN tolerances.  Students have to talk to peers they may not know, or at first like, but the goodwill of MUN invariably triumphs and the whole process, well, it just works.  Interestingly, the time allocated at MUNs for lobbying is often far greater than I as a teacher allow students ‘to discuss’ an issue, so that’s certainly something to take on board in lesson planning.

3  Debating:  the rhetoric here involves listening as much as speaking.  How can you contribute if you haven’t really heard what the delegate from China has said about same-sex marriage, or what the Ivory Coast representative is proposing to tackle the international arms trade?  Formulating an off-the-cuff response to a complex issue in front of other people is a skill that’s acquired and then polished.    Rhetoric in MUN terms ultimately has to be positive, because success means having a resolution strengthened, improved and then passed.  Clapping is then in order.  Declarations of war and motions to evict a country are so not MUN.

Cheeringly, hearteningly, MUN is a great leveller because the USAs and Russias and Chinas are often out-researched, out-lobbied and out-debated by Chad, Rwanda or South Sudan, and that is recognised in the prize-giving which ends most MUN conferences.  In that respect, perhaps MUN is just a game after all.

All this can be done in a lunch hour.   It can be done in your classroom, or some classrooms and a lecture hall or school hall.  If your students get the bug, you can take them to a one-day MUN near you (lots have been introduced recently) or a three-day residential MUN like the ones at Haileybury, Cheadle Hulme or George Watson’s, Edinburgh.  If they really get the bug there are MUNs around the world in The Hague, or Geneva or New York or Hong Kong. There is an MUN Society at Bristol University and at lots of unis.  Needless to say, the CV and Personal Statement possibilities are rich.

If MUN doesn’t stretch and challenge your students, I can only say I’m sorry, but it has certainly done that for mine.  Most schools have a Mission Statement or Aims which talk about producing well-rounded, civilised students who are ready to join society with skills designed to make them confident citizens of the 21st century.  Or something along those lines.  MUN won’t do that on its own, but it will help, and it sure ain’t box-ticking.  If MUN gives this much fulfilment to lots of teachers I’ve known who commit hours to it, at weekends and after school, imagine how much good it’s doing on its own terms for the literally tens of thousands of students across the world who experience it.

MUN is independent learning.  It’s individual, it’s collaborative, it’s teamwork, it’s communication skills, it’s rule-based game-playing and it just works. For that, it’s worth putting out the flags.


Knowing me, Knowing You

The very recent, very late-night debate between Messrs David Didau @LearningSpy and David Wray @DavidWray focussed on the centrality or otherwise of  Pedagogical Content Knowledge (or subject knowledge).  The debate is summarised in David Didau’s post ‘Can a good teacher teach anything well?’ a comment issued so contemporaneously that it almost took the form of a bootleg, uploaded even before the band had even got back to the dressing room.

My own three-minute punk contribution was

To this, David Wray responded:

Now, I’m sorry, David Wray, but your late-night braggadocio still hasn’t convinced me in the time I’ve had to reflect upon it.  I retain my conviction that pedagogic skills, a variety of teaching method, a variety of learning method and everything and anything else that constitute part of my professional make-up derive ultimately and irrefutably from my specialist subject knowledge.  I’d like to explore briefly four acrostic strands in the debate, acrostic, because it’s December and I’m being frivolous (see my last post) and I’ll do it until someone tells me to stop/grow up/start listening to Tales from Topographic Oceans…


Anecdotal evidence:  quite a few of the tweets and replies to David Didau’s blog addressed, quite reasonably, the experience of trying to teach a skill or a subject without having sufficient, necessary expert knowledge.  I agree entirely.  I love drama and have put on school plays, but my attempts to teach it  as an activity with Yr 7 were cringeworthy.  I had passion and behaviour management skills but the expertise of a novice, and it hurt.  Conversely, I have a PhD in medieval history, so you may think that I can handle an A2 course on The Crusades with aplomb, and in many ways I can. But what’s made me passably competent in doing so is not the direct application of my postgraduate skills but the acquisition of parallel, A-Level-specific skills supported by a lot of reading, hard work, tweaking, refining, mistake-making and re-thinking, not to mention sharing ideas and resources with first-rate colleagues.  To caricature, had I taken the view that as a university-educated medievalist I could teach anything pre-1500 with a casual glance through my pince-nez at a syllabus, leaving the students to trail in my academic-manque wake, I’d have done myself, the subject itself and most importantly the students themselves a huge disservice.  My expert, subject-based knowledge is my bedrock.  This isn’t just the nuts-and-bolts of dates, events, bulls and encyclicals, it’s the second-order concepts such as change and continuity, diversity, and significance; I was using these in my PhD before they’d been invented, or popularised, but now I have to really use them, explain them, model them, critique them, and sometimes that’s hard.  History is a hard subject, as multi-layered and polished as an Abba single:  beyond the apparent simplicity and catchiness there’s a craft and  complexity as rich as a Dundee cake. Discuss.

But what about the learners, I hear you ask? This was the missing element of the Didau-Wray tweetfest, to some degree, and one I wanted to raise with a Gifted and Talented focus.  Quite simply, it stems from the second part of my tweet above.  If I don’t know my subject from a learner’s perspective, in so far as I ever can, identifying the best parts (Richard I v Saladin!) and the harder material, the common pitfalls (surely we’re not confusing our analysis of significance across time and over time again?) and the techniques necessary to likely success, then how can my students?  Given that we all teach able students, how can we maintain an integrity in doing so if we are not much more than a Johnny-Come-Lately armed with a textbook hoping to stay a chapter ahead?  Do we imagine that our talented, or able, or high-attaining students, whatever we choose to call them, won’t see through our bravado?  Schools and colleges are imperfect places and subject experts can’t always be found to teach the subject, let alone a specific course for a specific exam board, but there are compensations that can be put in place for this and other strategies adopted.  Able students, no more but no less than all other students, deserve the very best that we can give them. if we don’t know our subjects, we don’t know what our students know and we don’t know what they don’t know.  Without subject knowledge, we’ll all be facing our Waterloo.

But what about the research?  David Wray referred to Shulman and his research, which I must confess to knowing nothing about.  I’m not going to dwell on John Hattie here because his findings are well-known.  Whether on YouTube  or in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) Hattie puts teachers centre-stage, and it would be a misrepresentation on my part to suggest that his findings champion knowledge over skills. It does seem to me, however, that his argument that learning is effective when teachers know when students are not progressing, or when we provide effective feedback, or act as evaluators, or adopt a range of learning strategies, to take a few of his examples,  are predicated upon Pedagogical Content Knowledge of a high order.

Expert teachers have high levels of knowledge and understanding of the subjects that they teach, can guide learning to desirable surface and deep outcomes, can successfully monitor learning and provide feedback that assists students to progress, can attend to the more attitudinal aspects of learning …and can provide defensible evidence of positive impacts of the teaching on student learning.’ (Hattie, Visible Learning p24).

On the next page Hattie talks about the way in which expert teachers can make lessons uniquely their own by adapting their lessons according to their students’ needs, as opposed to ‘experienced’ teachers who may just know a lot.  This brings us back to my PhD point above.  David Wray is right to point out that pedagogic skills matter, and none of what I’m suggesting here denies a role for the expert practitioner in his or her own right, but I can’t read Hattie’s high effect size for Instructional Quality or Teacher Credibility as being divorced from PCK.  We should be doing better than saying to students, Take A Chance on Me.

Aha!  A good teacher can teach anything?  There may be a few who can.  But it’s undesirable, in my opinion, that many of us should try, certainly not with exam classes.  It takes years of small venues, cramped dressing rooms and dodgy sets before you hone your sound, grab your audience and find your own voice.  Only then can you say Thank You for the Music.

Santa Claus is coming to town

santaSo, there I was in school with my eight-year-old son.  The scene:  imagine an impressive Christmas tree in the entrance hall with ‘presents’ beneath it in boxes satisfyingly large, boxes wrapped with a consummate professionalism, boxes artfully arranged at the tree base.  My first thought was of Minecraft blocks – by the way, if any of you can unlock the secret of Minecraft addiction, then educational fame and fortune surely await you,  gentle reader, since my boy applies a level of concentration and application to this game hitherto unmatched in his learning.The boxes were empty.  The ‘presents’ had no future.  Promising, enticing, illusory, they defrauded my son with a Fool’s Gold promise.  I’m pushing the metaphor outrageously in this post, but let me unwrap it a little further and get to the point.

Schools have come a long way in the last twenty years in recognising the needs of able, gifted and talented students.  We now have whole-school policies in place, together with faculty and departmental guidance on provision for able students; CPD sessions have been run and we are all professionally much better informed about the learning needs of a huge range of children than ever before.  Yet, unease remains.  Who exactly are our gifted students (see my previous post) and, once we’ve solved that tricky little conundrum, what do we do with them?  Here’s where we start to unpack the box.

The box itself won’t fool any Non-Specialist Observer.  My son, once bitten, may now look on the faux-wonderland of public-space Christmas decoration with a more critical eye.  We can construct and review our sparkling, shiny and seductive G and T policies, revised and laden with CPD updates and blog links until they reflect back to us exactly what we want to see, like horrible shiny foil gift wrap.  Which is us, looking slightly too pleased with ourselves, if we’re not too careful.  Many schools now have an SLT member whose role will include the shaking, unwrapping and inspection of the box contents, as a Non Specialist Observer or hyper-critical eight-year-old seeking, I hope, to find good provision in order  to praise it and share it.  Christmas tat, Secret Santas and cardboard containers won’t cut it.

Gifted is for life, not for Christmas.  I’m not here to tell you what to do, but here are some festively acrostic thoughts about what I’m going to be trying in 2014 to build sustained interest in learning for the academically talented, sportingly gifted and musically magnificent students for whom I have some responsibility.  Feel free to steal, disagree or ignore.

School Library-a precious but still underused resource.  I want to track my Scholars’ lending habits (quite openly) and see what that tells me.  You are what you read…
A Game of Chess.  I’ve read a suggestion that chess may have therapeutic qualities for some very able students quite apart from the development of thinking skills we would expect.
New qualifications:  in our school, the EPQ has been a big success, offering genuine stretch-and challenge outside the conventional A Level curriculum.  There are now ‘mini EPQs’ for KS3 and 4 which may well be worth a look – and if that’s too formal I may go with an in-house project or enquiry to foster independence and breadth
The Day – our Library has a subscription to this online newspaper.  It’s no good just  telling students to watch the news or develop an interest in current affairs if we don’t give them the simple and direct means to do so
And most excitingly of all, MOOCS – several of my students are already looking at these with interest.  Free, online high-level courses, and doubtless a mixed bag, but what better way to find out than have students sign up?  And to have a go at one myself.

Those are all cheap or free suggestions, with the exception of the subscription newspaper.

Inside the classroom is still where G and T provision matters most, though:  every day, every lesson.  ‘SANTA’ is bolt-on; ‘CLAUS’ does the gripping:

Challenge, challenge, challenge in questioning, in written work, in behaviour.  Rigour essential, aiming high natural, teaching to the top while supporting at the bottom de rigueur.

Link.  ‘Only connect’, as E.M Forster said.  Geography doesn’t exist in French schools without History:  it’s Histoire-Geo.  Nothing exists without Philosophy (discuss!).  Teaching any subject without bringing in numeracy and economics doesn’t add up.  Everything connects to everything else, and RS departments take a lead here which we can all follow.

Assessment does at least some of the differentiation for me – never miss a chance to ask a question when marking and push it to the next level.

Unconditional Positive Regard is my biggest challenge.  @vicgoddard says it’s the bedrock for all students, and he’s right.  That includes our very best students, who need it just like everyone else. Tough for me to show, and I need to work on it.

Support.  As Deborah Orr says, it shouldn’t surprise us that very able students may need careful pastoral care, but it still seems to surprise some teachers, and it shouldn’t.

So, there we have it:   a SANTA CLAUS of stocking-fillers or early New Year’s Resolutions on G and T learning for my own amusement and delectation for 2014, and perhaps for yours. When he was younger my boy had one of those stacking box sets.  Each box on its own seemed rather flimsy, but when neatly stacked inside each other they proved surprisingly robust. Maybe that’s telling me something. His experience in my school’s entrance hall doesn’t seem to have scarred him too deeply, if his enthusiasm for Santa’s Grotto yesterday afternoon was anything to go by, so the wonder of learning which should be integral to any 8 year old, or indeed any child in our personal or professional care, is alive and well.

Gifted and Talented: what’s in a name?

So what do you call the highest-attaining students in  your school or college?  We call ours Scholars, which may sound rather grand, but does the job for us of identifying pupils who are strong sports all-rounders (Sports Scholars) or  talented musicians (Music Scholars) or, in Years-7-11, the academic all-rounders are simply identified as Scholars.  The name suits us as an independent school, and I know of at least one other using the same label.

Our OFSTED equivalent is the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate, and ISI criteria define talented pupils as those excelling in a specific area eg music, art, design, drama, dance or sport.  Gifted pupils may have ‘special abilities in one or more subjects’.  No surprises there, and many schools do of course routinely use ‘gifted and talented’ as a generic label for a cohort of students who are recognised as having particular learning needs.  The waters cloud a little, however, with the addition of the term ‘able’. An able pupil is defined as ‘one who achieves, or has the ability to achieve, at a level significantly higher than his or her peer group in the school.’  So presumably ‘able’ is the generic, overarching umbrella term under which shelter ‘gifted’, ‘talented’ ‘very bright’ and lots of others.  Fine, but how do we as teachers define ‘able’ or its comparative cousin ‘more able pupil’ or its superlative sibling ‘most able pupil’?  What is ability, and what is potential?  How do we measure ‘significantly higher’ and what, indeed, is the ability profile of a majority of a peer group -which might be a class, a set,  or a year group, among other possible cohorts?

The ISI and DfE use the notional figure of 5% as a measure for gifted pupils nationally.  Within our school we reckon the figure to be closer to 30% in Years 7-11 and 20% in the Sixth Form; these figures are calculated from MIDYIS, YELLIS and ALIS data.

Schools use many different calculations and the data can be pushed this way and that but for me, the notion that up to a third of any class I teach merits stretch and challenge questioning, tasks and activities gives pause for thought.  It kicks into touch any sense of having two or three very sharp students who, in my case, will know more History than I do in terms of factual detail and, much more importantly, that they can see angles, make connections and read the past better than I can, or could ever do.  I’ve never had too much difficulty with that.  What does cause me to sit up and think is the idea that so many students in any class could do this, and should be routinely doing it, if I can find the means to help unlock that potential. Really, a third?

These are some of the questions with which I am grappling in a role which gives me responsibility for our gifted and talented students across Years 7-13, with the addition of supporting existing provision in our Junior School.  I’m struck by the paucity of literature and advice out there.

My first port of call, as so often, is Tom Sherrington.  His post champions the need to stretch and challenge all students in what he terms a ‘total philosophy’:  open-ended tasks, depth and rigour to all content, problem-solving; teaching to the top and supporting at the bottom, not ‘differentiating upwards’:

This month Tom brought us his latest thoughts on stretch and challenge in his version of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a Kitchen Video:

In terms of the sheer number of nods of the head as I read and re-read  his wise words, Tom’s blog serves as my benchmark against which I can assess other contributions to the discussion.  Perhaps I’m missing a trick, but I’m not impressed by either the quality or the quantity of suggestions out there about how best to provide for our most able students, but more on that another time.

Testing some of these ideas in  a wider forum, I went on an Optimus Gifted and Talented course in the impressive surroundings of The Oval in London recently.  There must have been over 300 teachers there; it was a huge event.  Just to focus on the point of definition, Ruth Powley spoke persuasively about the problem of schools data-crunching their statutory 5% of ‘g and t’ students.  What about, she quite rightly asked, the 95%?  The 5% may want to mask their achievements anyway.  She suggested self-selection, an intriguing idea which some schools seem to be using.  Not least, this gives you a higher percentage of free school meal children.  Ruth also suggested using the terms ‘able and ambitious’.  Does your school have an Ambition Plan?

At the same conference, Carmen Rodney HMI gave the OFSTED perspective.  She asked if you can show that all students are being stretched.  Inspectors will ask students if the classwork is sufficiently challenging, and  likewise homework, and marking.  ISI Inspectors will want to see the same things.  They fully acknowledge that different schools will have different names and labels for those whom they identify as their best drama students, mathematicians and linguists.  What matters is not the name but the learning, not the label but the attitudes it fosters.

Finally for the moment, no discussion of labelling and naming and its manifold implications for measuring progress, among many others would be complete without recommendation of the Gifted Phoenix blog, a remarkable body of work in its own right.

His forensic skills have dissected official literature and left the body parts exposed:

He tells us that there is, in late 2013, a disparity between the OFSTED Inspection Guidance with its references to ‘most able’ pupils and School Performance Tables which refer to ‘highest attainers’.  If the former is taken as a benchmark, many of the learners in many of our schools will be deemed to be ‘high attainers’.  They will be starting Yr 7 at L5 or having the potential to attain L5 in English and/or Maths at the end of KS2.  In the School Inspection Handbook there are references to the ‘highest attaining students’ rather than the ‘most able’.  Confusing, n’est-ce pas?


  • It’s not encouraging that several gifted bloggers and commentators have identified terminological inexactitudes and definitional blurring in official literature
  • Nevertheless what matters on the ground is settling on names and labels that we can live with in our school, and which our students, colleagues and parents can understand
  • My challenge is to keep my school’s ‘gifted and talented’ provision open and accesible because students don’t make progress in straight lines.  Students  can therefore become Scholars at any point.  We’ll keep the idea of self-selection under review, though
  • The numbers and abilities of the students whom I face every day who need ‘stretch and challenge’ is higher than my fixed mindset believes, so I need to grow a little…
  • But what about the high ability students who never quite produce the best  History essay or Maths solution?  If I teach to the top, challenge but support, I may help them get there.  They are simply not there yet, as John Tomsett reminds us. A former colleagues used to call these ‘the middle third’ of our classes because they are rarely in trouble, can easily go unnoticed but may have some, many or all of the attributes of our highest attainers.  They deserve better.

Comments, thoughts very welcome

Mr Dyson, Mr Gove and a Great British Success Story

What do Dyson vacuum cleaners and Mr Michael Gove have in common? Well, the title has served its purpose and got you reading, and perhaps tweeting and joking.  A vacuum of ideas?  An expensive replacement for something which didn’t need to be thrown out?  All contributions welcome…

Actually, I don’t want to go as far as Headteacher @AlexAtherton whose recent blog on offered 5 good things about Mr Gove.  His points are beyond my area of expertise.  But I’m trying to keep an open mind and exercise a contrarian spirit.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I can see no problem with, and much to commend, helping my students to gain a good chronological understanding of British History.  There is certainly nothing intrinsically superior about its Britishness; it’s simply a roadmap, a framework and a point of reference so that when we study, as my Lower Sixth do, the Renaissance in Italy they can map their sense of time and space across to later medieval and Tudor kings of England and know where they are and where they are heading
  • I can see no problem with facts tests, date and knowledge crunching or whatever other names we want to give to a process by which students learn about Weimar Germany, or antebellum America, or whatever
  • I can see no problem with linear GCSEs and A Levels for the students I know best ie the ones I teach

So far, so Gove?  Not really.  My sense is that the pendulum was moving this way in the later years of Labour, and there have been many older commentators in the press who have explained to younger audiences that we have been down many of these pathways before.  Nevertheless, I think that even ‘old hands’  such as myself have been taken aback by the sheer revolutionary force of the Gove proposals – as radical in their own way as Mr Dyson’s bagless vacuum cleaner.

To get to the point.  Mr Gove has come up with a hi-tech piece of turbo-charged kit to solve a ‘problem’ which may not have existed in the first place and, if it did, might have been resolved with nothing more than a stiff brush and some elbow grease. Sweeping away forty years of excellent practice in History teaching did not need, and does not need to happen.  I’m stating this unequivocally as fact, not opinion. 

Taking the foundation of the Schools History Project in 1972 as a convenient starting point, but by no means limiting myself to their approaches or methodology, many History teachers and students have been engaged during the past forty years in the wholly commendable, worthwhile and thoroughly rigorous exercise of encouraging in our classrooms the historical skills of thinking, arguing, explaining and understanding historical concepts and knowledge, among many other skills and attributes, with measurable and palpable success and excitement.  Huzzah, as young people used to say.

History is hard.  There is a lot of it.  More just keeps coming along.  But it is very well taught in many schools by comparison with other subjects, it is enjoyed by many students in comparison with other subjects and its value has never been higher, as a subject which has not ‘dumbed down’ at GCSE, A Level or University level.

Here, at last, comes my supporting evidence for the above assertions.  First, what follows has to remain anonymous  because I have not sought the permission of the people involved to go public with it – not that it is in any way secret, but anonymity will avoid embarrassment.  Secondly, what follows is true.  End of, as young people still say.

1.  A leading History educator – let’s take an Archangelic name, rather like Michael, and call the person involved Gabriel.  He is so well known to every reader of this blog who is a History teacher that you would know and recognise him instantly – from major HA and SHP Conferences, from books and articles written, and keynote addresses.  This angelic figure has recently and will again shortly be visiting Singapore – yes, Mr Gove’s favourite country, Singapore – to share expertise with that country’s History teachers.  I presume that this expertise will not rest on how we might in future be teaching the Heptarchy in Year 3 or the English Civil War amid the turmoil of SATs in Year 6 (maybe not such a bad coincidence), or how we might greet new arrivals to our Year 7 classes with an outstanding lesson on General Wolfe’s great successes at the well-known Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  No, I’m guessing that the discussions will revolve around crucial second-order concepts, the construction of valid enquiry questions, the importance of a variety of outcomes, the value of maximum pupil participation, and all the good practice carefully refined, debated and disseminated during the long duree of The Golden Age.  Oh tempora, o mores…

2. A leading History educator – let’s continue the Archangelic riff and call him Rafael – is so well known that you have certainly used his books, read his articles, been to his INSET courses – you get the idea. He has spent some time recently in Arizona sharing good History learning and teaching practice with the denizens and History teachers of that state.  In fact, not just Archangels have been visiting Arizona either in person or online in ‘webinars’ but so have powers, denominations and mere angels, all under the auspices of a leading educational provider – let’s call them the Heavenly Bodies Organization, or HBO.  As you will know, the USA’s educational provision is largely devolved as a responsibility of individual states, an example of good old ‘states’ rights’ for those of us who teach it.  So, presumably the education authorities in the South West had a good look around the market, found some frustrations with what they saw at home and decided to look to Good Old Blighty for inspiration:  rigorous specifications, high academic standards, exam papers that were tried and tested with mark schemes that worked – well mostly, let’s not exaggerate, you get the picture.  Money in the kitty for HBO.

So, falling to earth with a jolt:  History learning and teaching in Britain in 2013 is outstanding. Not always, everywhere, of course. But it is so sharp, so rigorous, so interesting and so damnably attractive that colleagues in Singapore and Arizona want a slice of it. They are prepared to pay, handsomely and repeatedly.  The free market has spoken.

The irony, Mr Gove, the irony.  You’d like our education system to emulate that of Singapore but in History, and perhaps in other subjects, they want to learn from us.  As we should and do learn from them, and from a host of other countries, too.  Our History ideas and practices are fit for purpose, fit for market and fit to sell around the world, like Mr Dyson’s vacuum cleaners.  Ain’t that something of which to be proud?  We could add it to Our Island Story. If there’s any room remaining.

Looking, learning, teaching, stealing

Florence from the Boboli Gardens

Florence from the Boboli Gardens

I chose this picture from our school trip to Florence back in February 2012 not least because of that amazing blue sky and the uplifting effect it has on me at this time of year.  There’s an interesting book by Ross King called Brunelleschi’s Dome:  How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, a title which begs a few questions but you get the idea.  We learn a good deal about how such a building is put together:  the scaffolding, the sacrifices and deaths of the builders, the workers feeding themselves on the pigeons they catch – and above all, the maths.  Oh, to be more numerate and to be able to grasp, yet alone explain to others, some of the basic calculations Brunelleschi used in translating a dome which amazed contemporaries from sketch to structure.

I assume that fifteenth-century maths is still recognizable, still works and is entirely valid in its own terms, just as medieval music can be sung and played today despite looking a little different at first glance. Similarity and difference intrigues me, as it must any History teacher, since barely a day passes without a student asking me explicitly or implicitly whether X [insert activity, feeling or belief] was the same in period Y [insert period, date] for Z [insert group,individual].  Interestingly, such questions surface less frequently from my sixth formers about nineteenth-century politics, for example, than from Year 7 about medieval castle garderobes, but they are just as valid.  How can we recapture what the French grandly call the mentalite of Pittite politics?  For historians, this  really wasn’t that long ago, but my contention is that it is just as hard to get into the ‘mindset’ of Whig and Tory politicians as it is to suggest some likely thought patterns of the faithful who donated towards, and physically laboured upon, Florence’s crowning dome.

Marcus Bull in his book Thinking Medieval coins the term alterity to suggest the sheer difference in the ways of past thinking.  However recognisably ‘similar’ we may think past actions and attitudes were to those of our own lifetimes and experiences, however many links and parallels we may try to draw between the past and our own times, we should constantly remind ourselves of that justly famous opening line from L P Hartley’s The Go-Between:  ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Not that we shouldn’t die trying to reconstruct, reimagine and retranslate for ourselves and our students a few glimpses into the attitudes of Haig, or Florentine Renaissance architects,  or the women who protested on International Women’s Day about conditions in Petrograd.  And, in the effort, I’m struck by the array of exciting tools at our disposal as History teachers.  One of the first INSETs I ever attended was by Ian Coulson, then a History Adviser in Kent.  He produced a cantilevered toolbox which contained an array of realia, toys and paraphenalia  which helped enliven his lessons and explain points and principles.  It was a great idea then, and it still is now.    My metaphorical toolbox of techniques and ideas is slowly expanding as I look, learn, teach and steal.  Here are three quick random  thoughts about what’s on my mind at the moment as a Head of History:

  • Twitter works:  dozens of ideas daily, including many from inspirational English teacher colleagues.  Filters needed, of course.  ‘Select and deploy’ app needs to be in default ‘proceed with caution’ mode.
  • Drama works:  History students love sketches,plays and role plays, and I’ve observed some great examples recently among the sixth form, especially.  But time and effort need to go into the set up/script.
  • Big Ideas work:  when you have at least some pupils cleverer than you are at least some of the time, they need and can cope with -isms, -ologies and -ics.  As professional lesson attenders, willing or reluctant, they are pretty good at looking, learning and stealing themselves.  Oh, and they can teach, too, but more on that another time.

Alterity remains as the Mole Grips in my toolbox, the one piece of kit I wouldn’t want to be without.  From the Boboli Gardens you can see olive groves which must have been just as important to those who  lived and farmed there as the buildings in the distance which we regard as unmissable and iconic, and probably more so. Thinking medieval, or early modern, or nineteenth century, remains the best job in the world.  Just look at the fun and passion which Richard brings to it in his blog:

Richard, myself and many others  will be sharing thoughts, tips and expertise in  TeachMeet here in Bristol in May 2013.  Please sign up!