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


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!