Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

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Analogy is the bread and butter of teacher explanation. How better to clarify a new and abstract concept than by comparing it to an idea already (you hope) securely fastened in your listeners’ knowledge?

The analogy, however, is not just a linguistic trick; it is built upon sound cognitive principles too. Take cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, for instance:

“We understand new things in the context of what we know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

Inference is the bedfellow of analogy. If I described, say, the human long-term memory as being the brain’s internal hard-drive, you would I hope infer that this is the place we store hard-and-fast memories. For an analogy to work, such inferential links must be made. However, we have to proceed with caution. If our listener has no notion of the inner workings of a computer then our analogy will not only fail, but will also confound understanding even more. Knowing what our students know and understand is important here.

Thinking up analogies, both in advance and on-the-spot, is one of the joys of teaching. Below is an attempt to categorise some of my favourite strategies using examples from my English teaching.

The everyday life analogy. The computer example above is a classic version of this. Take an unremarkable, well-know object, process or scenario to help exemplify a less familiar or more abstract idea:

 “Using the same sentence structure repetitively is the writing equivalent of munching on boiled cauliflower, and nothing else, for the rest of your life.”

The prior learning analogy. This is so useful because not only does it ‘pin’ the new knowledge to something that we can cautiously trust they already know, but it consolidates learning from previous lessons. On a simple level it might be, “A verse is a paragraph in poetry.” However, comparisons across texts can be very fruitful: “Eva Smith is the Curley’s Wife of An Inspector Calls: a woman destroyed, objectified and marginalised by a patriarchal world.” It kills two birds with one stone.

The analogous story. It always fascinates me the way students respond to stories about my life, even if the truth is often contorted in the interests of learning! A sudden alertness becomes almost palpable as soon as I begin. One of my favourites is used in my teaching of The Merchant of Venice. To emphasise the cruelty of Shylock’s courtroom humiliation, I tell my students about my mate Dave. “When Dave was a teenager he carried a torch for a girl at school. One day, with this girl looking on, Dave played the most exquisite pool shot I have ever witnessed, deliberately sinking two balls in one go. His bubble was quickly burst, however, when it was pointed out that his jumper, emblazoned with a huge logo, was on back-to-front. Humiliation is all the more cruel when we believe we have finally triumphed.” The story may sound insignificant, yet teenagers seem to tap into Dave’s shame remarkably easily.

The immediate environment analogy. It’s difficult to misunderstand a concept if it can be likened to something immediately visible or tangible. Such analogies can be prepared for by bringing in an unexpected object or using an image; however there’s something magical about transforming a students’ perception of where they are through words. “Imagine the windows of this room were bricked over and all we had left were the tiny square ones up there,” I use to emphasise the claustrophobic bunkhouse of Of Mice and Men. This week when teaching the poem ‘Mametz Wood’, which features the unearthing of the skeletons of forgotten First World War soldiers, I asked my students to imagine what voices of the past might be lurking unheard a mere couple of metres under the classroom carpet…

The extended metaphor. My friend Gavin McCusker makes a link between writing and painting, describing the writer’s box of tricks as the ‘writer’s palette’. The process of redrafting work becomes like adding extra layers of detail to artwork. I often describe writing an essay like building a house: the introduction the foundations, the paragraphs the rooms, the doorways the links between paragraphs, the roof the conclusion…

The celebrity analogy. The efforts of sports stars are ripe pickings for emphasising an ethic of effort, practise and resilience. To the student who grumbles because you ask them to write for a decent period of time most lessons: “Do you think Gareth Bale could score a goal like he did last weekend by sitting down and listening to his coach or watching videos of others taking free kicks? He needs to practise every day to become that good.” I find the more relevant and recent the analogy, the more effective it is. Any reference to Pele tends to leave my class scratching their heads.

The spontaneous analogy.

Segue to a secondary classroom. The male teacher is taking the register.

Teacher: Smith?

Smith: Yes, miss. (Smith blushes beetroot.)

Teacher: Not to worry, Smith. Jones?

Jones: Yes… miss. (Jones is attempting to stifle a giggle.)

Teacher: (raising eyebrows, glancing disparagingly at Jones and speaking in withering tone) Even more inevitable than the death of Lennie in the final chapter of Of Mice and Men, Jones…

If we keep on the lookout for opportunities to drop in a useful analogy, we will find them. Even better if our students learn to do so too.

Analogy as a question. Sometimes it’s useful to hang an analogy in the air to help students solve a problem; it seems to spur curiosity. When teaching the Ted Hughes’ poem Hawk Roosting, we discuss the traits of dictators and despots – Hitler and Pol Pot, for instance. I then ask the question: “How does the hawk in the poem embody the characteristics of this kind of leadership?” When they read the poem, they have a reference point to build their understanding around.

The risqué analogy. Let’s face it, there are certain topics of conversation that teenagers find extremely memorable (and adults too!). Although potentially hazardous, this strategy offers rich spoils for learning. It goes without saying that one needs to tread carefully with the risque analogy. Here’s one – not a great example to be fair – that is repeatable. When recently studying war poetry, I asked Y10 students to consider the single sperm that produced each of us. “Beating millions to the prize, this sperm was insanely fortunate. In an opposing way, the soldier on the battlefield, one man picked from the millions, is disposable cannon fodder, just like those other sperms that were wasted along the way to your birth.”

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I find inventing analogies to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. It helps me to model an inventive approach to language as well as adding to the richness of classroom dialogue. One of the ultimate goals of teaching, I think, is to get students to make the connections for themselves.

Further reading:

I really enjoyed this post by Mark Miller about how understanding metaphor is a threshold concept in English.

This by Chip & Dan Heath on ‘sticky’ ideas is a must read.

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A second bite at the cherry: thoughts on redrafting writing

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Since Christmas, I have adapted my English teaching by introducing a culture of redrafting into my lessons. It is impossible to ask students to redraft every single written offering – time constraints do not allow – but it is relatively straightforward, especially if you bring homework into the mix, to make it a regular part of the learning cycle. When you consider that a professional writer – or even a layperson such as an educational blogger! – will edit and redraft rigourously and automatically, it is quite an embarrassment that eight years into my career the teaching of the process is still relatively new to me.

My reading of US teacher Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence inspired me to move towards this approach. Berger presents an idealistic image of students working as craftsmen, critiquing one another’s work and producing multiple redrafts – with excellent work the eventual result.

Although Berger’s vision is very laudable, there are a number of questions I am still grappling with. What follows are my reflections.

First off, redrafting motivates students. You might expect to hear moans of, “I’ve finished, why have I got to do it again?” ad-nauseum. In truth, I have asked over one-hundred students to redraft at least two pieces of work in the past three months, and only once have I had a complaint. It’s difficult to pin down a reason for this positivity, but I have a number of hunches: all are given more than one shot at success, all have an opportunity to feel pride and satisfaction, high expectations are made crystal clear and, let’s be honest, it is usually easier to write the second draft than the first.

Although motivation is desirable, I think students should learn from the process too. The first and second draft of a piece of writing require different kinds of thinking. To help explain my thinking, I am going to use cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s simple diagram of the human ‘working memory’ (taken from Why Don’t Students Like School).

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The ‘working memory’ holds the things we are thinking about at any given time. ‘Long-term memory’, on the other hand, is the ‘vast storehouse’ in which we house our knowledge of the world. Imagine my students are completing an essay on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the first draft, the students will be using information from the environment (see diagram): this might be the play text itself, their notes, an essay plan, a model example, task directions, written targets from their previous writing task, etc. In their long-term memories, ideally, will be factual knowledge (from the language, plot and themes of the play right down to how to spell ‘Capulet’) and procedural knowledge (how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, an essay, etc.). Unfortunately, working memory has limited space – our mind is said to be able to hold between 5 – 9 items at one time, known as ‘cognitive load’. As students are writing their first drafts, pressure will inevitably be put on the working memory. If you struggle to spell ‘Capulet’ – i.e. it is not stored in your long-term memory – you will either have to plough-on, guessing how to spell it, or focus attention on this and other spellings. Perhaps, as a result, you will not have enough room in your working memory to also clearly explain Shakespeare’s use of metaphoric language. It’s difficult to think of multiple things at once. Either way, the first draft will be lacking, especially for the weaker writer with less stored in long-term memory.

The great advantage of writing a second draft is that as the bulk of the essay is now written, it becomes available in the immediate environment, and thus lessens the strain on the working memory. Some of the problems with cognitive load are now circumvented.  It is, therefore, much easier for a student to make telling improvements while editing and redrafting because they do not have to hold so much information at one time and can now isolate their attention.

I am aware that the above is an over-simplification of the complex role of the working-memory. There is still much we do not understand about the human brain. However, I think it usefully represents how hard it is for students to make meaningful improvements to writing skill when they are knee-deep in difficult content.

Of course, as part of the redrafting process it is essential that time is built in for individual reflection, editing and proofreading before the second draft is started. It is important that students do write out a second draft from beginning to end. As well as the thrill of seeing your once-scrawled efforts becoming something more refined, the repetition itself might also be crucial to long-term learning. I have just finished reading Graham Nuthall’s brilliant The Hidden Lives of Learners. Nuthall’s fascinating research found that to learn and remember a concept, students must encounter it in its entirety ‘on at least three different occasions’. This is intriguing. Could the redrafting process become integral to learning by providing students with a further opportunity to revisit the key concepts they have studied?

One of the problems I have faced is that some students equate redrafting with ‘writing it up in best’. We can all very easily copy or type out our own writing tidily without engaging with its content. For a handful of students with weak literacy skills, this kind of handwriting and spelling practice is probably very useful. For the majority, it is unlikely that they will engage usefully with the key concepts again through this approach. I have had many a bright student return me, with a sheepish grin, a carbon-copy of the original draft.

So how will I combat this problem in future? Well, one idea is that students should be made accountable for their improvements. By stipulating that they must make regular improvements, and that these improvements must be highlighted, there is no hiding place. By simply asking students to make one change per sentence, or another arbitrary requirement, there becomes no option but to engage with meaning. On top of this, they could note not just where they have responded to teacher feedback, but where they have made autonomous changes of their own too. Of course, this also makes marking easy – I will need only look at the highlighted sections, not the piece in its entirety. In some cases, where the first draft is of a high quality, students might bypass the redraft completely and transfer their knowledge to a completely different extension task.

Redrafting brings with it marking implications. The idea that we might have to wade through two drafts rather than one is more than off-putting. My solution has been ‘rolling live feedback’. As students are writing, I call them up to my desk one-by-one to read through their drafts. Taking into account that feedback can be useful at any point in the drafting process and that kids tend to work at different speeds, I have found this a very successful strategy. It is a useful differentiation tool too: quantity, timing and style of feedback can be tailored accordingly.  In fact, it leads to less after-lesson marking, not more. I also find that it is important to make them aware that I have deliberately left errors for them to find. That way I avoid students coming to the assumption that everything left unmarked is correct and in no need of change!

Another problem I have encountered is the flippant ‘it’s only a first draft; it doesn’t matter if I make mistakes’ mentality. This, however, has a flip side. Students are more likely to take risks if they know that they can have a second bite of the cherry.

The ‘depth-versus-breadth’ conundrum is still a concern, and will be more so with the tougher, content-rich GCSEs due to be implemented from 2015. From an anecdotal standpoint, I am convinced that depth is of greater importance than breadth; however, I am not convinced that Ron Berger’s ‘minimum of four drafts’ and ‘it’s only finished when it’s an A’ are always a wise use of time. Be that as it may, I have seen higher quality work across the ability range in the last three months than I have seen in the previous eight years. For that reason I am going to continue with my strategy.

In summary, suggestions going forward are as follows:

1. Ensure students understand redrafting in terms of the ‘ethic of excellence’ AND possible advantages to memory/learning.

2. Make sure students are made accountable for both self-instigated and teacher-instigated improvements.

3. Consider alternatives to redrafting for very able students by considering how they can transfer their knowledge to another task.

4. Keep up a constant dialogue about, and modelling of, the practicalities and meta-cognitive processes involved in editing and redrafting.

5. Consider whether there might be benefits to memory from spacing out the redrafts.

6. Ensure that I help students cope with the fact that excellence is often elusive.

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The introvert in the classroom

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“If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or nineteenth century art. They are the artists, engineers, or thinkers of tomorrow.”

Susan Cain, Quiet

I thought I would start this piece by revealing a little bit of myself…

• I prefer not to be in large groups of people.
• I struggle with small-talk but love discussing serious matters in depth.
• I would usually prefer to read a book than go to a party.
• I enjoy spending time on my own daydreaming and thinking.
• I prefer to work alone rather than collaboratively.
• I like to arrange to do as little as possible during the holidays.
• I am uncomfortable in unfamiliar surroundings even though I love travel and new experiences.
• I am unambitious.

I do not expect to receive too many party invitations on the back of this – thankfully! What I am trying to say is simple. I am an introvert.

Unlike my extrovert brethren, who prefer the speedy, sociable glare of the here-and-now, I lean naturally towards reflection, slowness and quiet. Susan Cain’s quite brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which has reshaped my understanding of myself, has inspired me to write this post. The introvert-extrovert divide, as Cain notes, is the ‘single most important aspect of personality’ and, I believe, our understanding of it might have some interesting implications for education. Depending which study you believe, at least a half to two-thirds of Americans are introverts – I imagine that here in the UK, with our characteristically phlegmatic national psyche, the statistics are likely to be weighted even more heavily towards introversion.

So let’s roll back the years. What did the internal, unassuming child I once was struggle with at school? Group-work:  the loud shouted over the quiet. Noisy lessons: I preferred quieter conditions that allowed me to think deeply and carefully. Being put on the spot by the teacher: I would struggle to think quickly and so would appear less knowledgeable than I actually was. And the worst? A teacher in Y7 who expected us to learn from a series of worksheets with no instruction from the front.

You may think it  strange, therefore, that this introvert decided to become a teacher, a profession surely designed for the assertive, limelight-seeking extrovert. However, by shedding light on historical introverts such as Gandhi and Rosa Parks as well as a wealth of fascinating research, Cain’s book seeks to question the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ and reimagine how we view introversion. Great thinkers, leaders and teachers can often achieve greatness because of their introverted nature. In fact, for me, my natural temperament might be one of my strengths – I avoid too much superfluous off-topic chat, I plan my lessons meticulously and I read in-depth around my topic. I was once described as a ‘methodical yet interesting’ teacher and I rather like it (although I didn’t when I first heard it!). Even though teaching might seem to be more naturally suited to the extrovert personality, I like to think I have carved my own little niche through, not in spite of, my natural preference for quiet. Cain also notes the way we can put our introversion to one side and become pseudo-extroverts. This works best if we pursue ‘core personal projects’ – work that feels intrinsically worthwhile to us – because otherwise we risk burnout or unhappiness.

I have, however, not always used my personal experiences to shape my teaching practice. I have set up many a group-work task when an independent task might be more suitable. I have actively encouraged classes to be more noisy than they need be, even though I teach a subject that involves reading and writing, two naturally quiet pursuits. I have watched students squirm under my unforgiving stare after asking them to think on the spot. Why? Because I was trained to believe that student talk is everything.

By their nature, schools are set up for the extroverted personality to shine: large classes, collaboration and a wide variety of tasks do not suit the introverted student. Take Cain’s description of a group-work scenario she observed in a classroom. (Students are passing around a bag so that they speak one at a time.)

“Maya looks overwhelmed when the bag makes its way to her.
“I agree,” she says, handing it like a hot potato to the next person.
The bag circles the table several times. Each time Maya passes it to her neighbor, saying nothing. Finally the discussion is done. Maya looks troubled. She’s embarrassed, I’m guessing, that she hasn’t participated. Samantha reads from her notebook a list of enforcement mechanisms that the group has brainstormed.
“Rule Number 1,” she says, “If you break laws, you miss recess…”
“Wait!” interrupts Maya, “I have an idea!”
“Go ahead,” says Samantha, a little impatiently. But Maya, who like many sensitive introverts seems attuned to the subtlest cues for disapproval, notices the sharpness in Samantha’s voice. She opens her mouth to speak, but lowers her eyes, only managing something rambling and unintelligible. No one can hear her. No one tries…”

Sound like a familiar scenario to you? We learn later that Maya is an intelligent student and a very gifted writer.

So what are the implications for teachers? Firstly, I would be deeply mistrustful of any suggestion that introverts and extroverts learn differently. We do not; we just prefer to learn in different environments. However, next time someone tells you that all kids prefer group work, I can assure you that this is patently untrue!

Here are a few considerations for the classroom – some from Cain, some from me:

• If you choose to use group work, consider carefully who your introverted students will sit with and keep group sizes very small. (Interestingly, Cain presents a huge amount of compelling evidence that ‘collaboration kills creativity’ in the workplace – and presumably in the classroom too. A group will devise more ideas and better ideas if individuals work independently and share the ideas – preferably electronically or in writing – than if they have ‘brainstormed’ them together).

• On a similar note, the creative, multi-modal lesson may not provide the time and space that introverts need to think.

• Introversion is obviously not a get-out-clause. However, it is unhelpful to write report comments such as ‘he needs to participate more’ or ‘she is too quiet in class’. It creates anxiety in young people who become increasingly unhappy and frustrated with who they are. As Cain writes, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

• Nevertheless, some introverted children will need encouragement with speaking up and sometimes extra support at a pastoral level.

• Give kids an ample amount of time to think before they share ideas. When they do share, ensure that the ideas of introverts are given even weight to those of extroverts. Focus on what they say, not how they say it.

• Celebrate the deep interests of introverts. In time, these might become genuine talents.

• Calm parents who might be worrying about, or putting extra pressure on, their children. There is at least one parental conversation that might have gone differently this year if I had read Cain’s book beforehand.

• If you are an introvert yourself, sharing the fact with your introverted students and their parents can be very helpful.

• Remember that the definitive function of education is to help children learn not to engineer their personality. Yes, we must encourage pro-social behaviour and some degree of confidence; quietness, however, can hardly be described as anti-social.

• Finally, as cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham point out, ‘we remember what we think about’. For learning, what  is happening inside their minds is more important than what they say and do.

The world we live in relies on the harmony between the loud and the quiet. Both are important. We need those who reflect and think, along with those who act and speak. Although most fall somewhere in the middle, it is easy to forget the needs of our quieter students.

Social awkwardness often masks brilliance – so I like to think!

Susan Cain’s TED speech:

Becoming an excellent teacher: can we rewrite the myth of Sisyphus?

Sisyphus

One of the most unexpected things about starting a blog is how many new opportunities it offers to you. For most of my career I have hidden behind my classroom door – or, more recently, my computer screen – quietly getting on with my day-to-day business. So it was an honour and a surprise to be asked to present a key-note speech at the NQT Meet at the Sir Robert Woodard Academy this evening.

Being a novice public speaker, I wrote the whole thing out first before I practised it to death. Here it is in all its 2,000 word glory (a bit long for a blog post, I know). It draws on much I have read in other blogs over the past few months as well as the ideas of Albert Camus. I hope it is of some use to you.

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I have been given a difficult task, no an impossible one – describing what it means to be an excellent teacher. Please let me start with a confession. I don’t consider myself to be an excellent teacher, just one who is interested in the idea of what excellence in teaching might be and how we might reach such dizzying heights.

So, to start, I’d like to take you on back eight years to my NQT year…

Charles Dickens wrote ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ My NQT year could be summed up in the same way. Some memories come to mind immediately:

  • First, my wonderful Y10 top set, the kind of class who would let you get away with your mistakes – and there were many. I could probably name all those students even now.
  • I distinctly recall a fantastic piece of writing from one girl. I still have a copy somewhere. A dystopian tale set in a bleak black-and-white future. I can recite some of it to this day
  • Then there was the Y9 class who tormented me. I even remember punching a desk in rage (it was painful and rather pathetic – particularly as it did not make a sound). One girl in particular haunted me day and night; she made my life hell. I recently saw her from a distance in a local pub; it all came rushing back.
  • And last of all, my assiduous attempt to collate all my resources and planning on to CD ROMs. Ha, I thought, rubbing my novice hands together in glee, I will never need to plan again…

Oh, how wrong I was!

Before we move on, I’d like to remind you of – or introduce you to – the Greek tale of Sisyphus. As punishment from the gods, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a mountain. Once he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down again. For eternity, Sisyphus would roll that boulder to the top, only for it to roll down again and again and again. Futile labour, therefore, was a hideous punishment. It is too easy for us, as teachers, to go home in the evenings feeling like Sisyphus, feeling that our students have learnt little and that we could be teaching them in a more effective way.

How can we avoid our careers becoming like this? Could we realistically balance the rock on the mountain-top and in doing so become excellent teachers?

The first place we must look for help is our colleagues, our fellow ‘Sisyphi’ if you will. If others are finding strategies to balance the rock at the top, and have ways of sharing this with us, then we should learn from them. I think there are two ways we learn from our colleagues, the ‘hard way’ and the ‘soft way’.

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The hard way is unavoidable; it is part of the CPD package provided by our schools. It can be useful and necessary. More importantly, I’d like to talk about the soft way – it’s much more exciting. However, there are plenty of softer ways we can take the bull by the horns and do it for ourselves: observing colleagues, attending Teach Meets, videoing ourselves in action, reading blogs and educational literature and perhaps joining Twitter amongst other things.

For me, the last one on the list, awareness, has been so key – and it’s easy too. Listen and watch carefully the teachers around you admire as they go about their daily business. How do they talk to students? How do they diffuse situations? How do they subtly assert themselves? Reflect and then consider how you can adjust, adapt and reconfigure the way you do the small things. Watch and learn, as they say. It’s simple, powerful and adds no time at all.

There is another place we can look for help in balancing Sisyphus’ rock. There are those who stand to one side observing, measuring, quantifying and computing. These are the educational researchers. They have some very interesting things to tell us about the excellent teacher, yet there often ignored in modern schools because of our unhealthy obsession with what we think Ofsted want.

Have a look here at the six characteristics of a great teacher from a student’s point of view, taken from John Corrigan’s Group 8 Education student voice research. (Via John Tomsett’s excellent blog).

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Pretty obvious, and thankfully no mention of ‘differentiated learning objectives’ either. Maybe the possibility of balancing the rock is simpler than we imagine? Now take this synthesis of studies taken from Hattie and Yates’s wonderful Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn.

Expert teacher

Again, really useful, but also pretty self-evident and as we might expect. Yet how easy is it to get there?

Ultimately, I think, we are the masters of our own fate. If we are to improve and strive to be the best we can, we must take the lion’s share of the responsibility into our own hands. It is a well-repeated fact that after two or three years of teaching, most of us plateau – we reach a stage where we have overcome the initial difficulties and we make little meaningful improvement. You will need to face up to this yourselves.

One of the main ways to combat this is what is known as ‘deliberate practice’. Research agrees that to become an expert in a field we must practice it for 10,000 hours, or put another way, 3 to 4 hours a day over a 10 year period. However, this is not as easy as it seems. We need to identify areas for improvement just out of reach, strive to upgrade our performance, monitor our progress and revise accordingly. In other words, if we are struggling in class with our questioning or our explanations, for instance, we must consciously focus on as we are teaching, not just through our reflections. This is not as easy as it sounds. Through repeated practice we can embed unwanted skills as well as desirable skills, hence why our practice must be tightly and relentlessly focused on improvement.

You may have wondered why I am using Sisyphus and his boulder as an allusion today. In fact, it is part of my personal deliberate practice – to improve the way I explain myself in lessons by using stories and allusions to help students remember what I have told them. Even pronouncing Sisyphus correctly, as you might have noticed, has been a stretch!

Another way is, of course, through the reflective process. For me, thinking back over what has happened in the classroom and then adapting and modifying my approach is vital. There is no shame in teaching a bad lesson; it is how it informs future lessons that matters.

Last of all is ‘awareness’ again, this time in terms of what is happening around us. I have yet to meet the teacher who can perfectly predict how every event in the classroom will play out – over time we do gain a kind of sixth-sight built up from experience, but it can never be perfect. Teaching happens in the moment and we must be alive to the unscripted nature of the classroom and be prepared to act. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

This year I have set up a blog to record some of my reflections; I find it has made a huge difference by making my reflections sharper. It is also an exciting way to connect with teachers in this country and beyond. I know that I am no expert, but I would like to leave you with five tips. As with all advice, you will need to make them work for you, in your classroom, with your students – who are possibly very different from mine.

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Consider the use of time. Is the strategy I am planning to use worth the effort I am putting in? It is probably apocryphal but it is said that we spend more hours of our lives on the toilet than we do at school. If we are going to make time in the classroom count, we need to become more focussed. Our children only have once chance at school; we only have one life. A balance must be struck so that we work reasonable hours on useful tasks that genuinely make a difference.

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Put the long-term first, rather than the short term. I’ve spent too long in my career chasing that elusive ‘outstanding’ lesson judgement. Trust me, they are barely worth the paper they are written on. It’s easy to get kids to perform on the day, but very hard to get them to learn in the long term. Think of the weeks, months and years ahead.

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We are often told that great lessons must contain a pick’n’mix of the following: carefully worded learning objectives, individualised learning for each student, an engaging learning ‘hook’, 15 different tasks, a competitive element, books full of red teacher feedback, carousel tasks, group work, pair work, the teacher dressed up as Mary Poppins…(although you won’t find many ‘spoonfuls of sugar’ in my classroom!). You could find these in a fine lesson, I am sure, but equally you could find them all in an awful lesson. To my mind, even though it is essential to understand and employ a wide range of teaching strategies, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Never forget that sometimes we can be just as effective by simply telling students what we need them to learn. My hunch is that subject content is often more important than how we deliver it.

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I know I have said it before but the reflection process is so vital. I often say to my classes: ‘thinking is working’. It is so true for us too. What those not in education do not realise is that our minds never switch off. Sometimes it feels almost impossible to turn our minds from ‘teacherly’ thoughts and as such reflection is both our greatest friend and our worst enemy.

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Learn to love failure. There is no such thing as perfection in this job. Have a look at the statement above from Dylan Wiliam, the esteemed education writer.

Teaching is tough and rewarding, both intellectual and creative. We need to daily combine – on a Monday morning too – the determination of the marathon runner with the artistry of Van Gogh. This really is the toughest profession in the world.

So, let’s consider the original question: can we ever overcome Sisyphus’ plight? The answer is… probably not. Yet, for me, even though a truly excellent teacher can set the rock in place for hours at a time, it will not – and should not – stay put. When it does eventually come thundering down, we ascend the mountain the next time a little bit wiser than we did before. And that is the fun of the job.

My final words are simple. Let’s celebrate both our successes and our failures. Perfection is impossible, but doing a great job is not.

Enjoy Easter and the enjoy the rest of your careers.

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If you have got here and you are still reading, I am sure you would love this post from Shaun Allison about a truly great teacherMr Clarke.