Distilling the best out of words

Tharby-language-cultureImage: @jasonramasami

Discovering a weakness in our own teaching practice can result in one of two feelings (or a mixture of both). The first is one of utter frustration and overwhelming fatigue. I cannot bear to face this out – under the carpet it goes. The other – as sickeningly saccharine as it sounds – is to treat it as a gift. Bravo! Finally I’ve found something that I can work on. This week’s epiphany had me languishing closer to the former initially, but beginning to shift towards the latter after some thinking.

Here’s the context. A few months ago I wrote a post about challenge.

Its concluding paragraph read like this:

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Looking back, the question mark after ‘simple’ was telling. I had a grandiose answer, but not a pragmatic one. I knew the problem, but not the solution.

After reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion this weekend, I got to considering two of the main strategies he advocates: ‘Right is Right’ and ‘Format Matters’. Essentially, ‘Right is Right’ is about holding out for the best answer in classroom dialogue, whereas ‘Format Matters’ is about insisting that students speak in full sentences with proficient grammar. It was only on Monday, during a class discussion with my year 10 group, that I realised how shamefully far away from this goal I have been for so long. The realisation was a tough one: for many years not only have I accepted sloppy speech patterns from my charges, not only have I regularly settled for half-complete answers but I have also prided myself on being skilled at leading question and answer sessions!


This uncomfortable insight has led me to a broader reflection. As an English teacher, words are my medium; my students will rise and fall depending on their ability to distil language into the best form they possibly can. This must begin in the dialogue I elicit in my classroom, but should extend further into other areas of pedagogy. It is the language culture of an English classroom that matters and this, I am starting to believe, is more important than any innovative, fly-by-night teaching strategy. It is the root, the bone, the beating heart of what I must do.

But how? First, it is a shared, guided process. Students will not progress if left to acquire sophisticated language by themselves; similarly, I cannot expect them to become the kings and queens of grandiloquence merely by lending an ear to my silver-tongued sermons. Second, it involves cutting the pace of my lessons and an acceptance that the growth and protection of a classroom culture is equal in importance to covering lesson content. And last of all, it will only be through deliberate and sustained practice that I can make it happen – I think it will take a year to make it so.

In a nutshell, this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Yes, that war is repetitive and inevitable, like the tide.

Becomes this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student 1: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Back and forward – how might you rephrase that?
Student 1: It’s repetitive like the sea.
Teacher: So war is?
Student 1: Repetitive too.
Teacher: Now as a full sentence. The phrase…
Student 1: So, the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is inevitable because the sea never stops.
Teacher: Who can take this insight a little further?
Student 2: War is like nature; we cannot avoid it.
Teacher: Good. Can anyone help her with a better version of ‘cannot avoid it’?
Student 3: Inevitable?
Teacher: Okay, fire away in a full sentence.
Student 3: The phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is repetitive and like the tide it is an inevitable part of nature that we cannot avoid.
Teacher: Good. Let’s write that sentence up.

I know that it will take time for students to learn how to respond to my cues and prompts, but once the groundwork is done this might well provide richer pickings than I have ever been able to offer before. Most beautifully of all, it should not add to planning time at all.

The ultimate aim will be to make refining and redrafting part of the fabric of classroom life. This culture will be supplemented through other strategies that I have already made headway with such as ‘live’ co-constructed writing, paired writing, Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, regular redrafting/editing of written work and allowing students more thinking and ‘mental rehearsal’ time.

The missing link, however, has been embedding this process further up the chain when ideas are first uttered in words. My new focus, I hope, will provide the missing link between speech and writing I have long been looking for.

Round and round we go: teaching English in spirals

spacing(1)Images: @jasonramasami

I have always struggled with setting learning objectives for my English lessons. At times they seem useful, at other times not. When they allow me to zoom in on disconnected, isolated knowledge and skill, such as grammatical structures or punctuation rules, they give clarity and emphasis to planning. Yet when I am teaching a chapter of a novel, a complete poem or a scene from a play – or teaching students to write an extended text – they fail to capture the breadth of what I would like my students to learn. More often than not I will stick to a title: ‘Chapter 2 of Of Mice and Men’, for instance.

The reason is that literary texts require immersion. For any lesson on a text or part of a text, I usually like my students to know and think about some or all of the following:

• The meaning of any new vocabulary.
• The events unfolding.
• The characterisation.
• How the writer makes use of literary devices.
• The themes, ideas, feelings and beliefs that can be inferred from textual details.
• The authorial viewpoint in light of the text’s context.
• etc.

The last four examples always lend themselves to debate and interpretation – which is why I believe that discussion, particularly at a whole-class level, is so central to English pedagogy. It is also hard to separate the above list into discrete skill sets without losing sense of the richness of the living, breathing text at hand.

Another flaw with learning objectives lies in the way that we assume that if the child has mastered the content on the day, they have learnt it. The problem here, of course, is forgetting. Without some form of repetition it is very possible that this performance during the lesson will not lead to meaningful changes in what a child knows and can do. An objective will normally need to span far beyond one lesson to be of any genuine use.

At Key Stage 3 we have adopted a theme-based curriculum that dips into high-quality prose, poetry and drama in a spiralling pattern over the year. This term it is ‘Inequality’ for Y9 who will be reading Of Mice and Men, a range of political poetry, studying rhetoric in a range of speeches, and writing a comparative essay and a speech. This circular design, however, will be accompanied by a linear structure. This takes the form of two-weekly decontextualized grammar lessons which will allow us to home-in on and practice the essential ‘skinny parts’ (as Doug Lemov calls them) of writing technique, away from the clamour of narrative and ideas.

At the heart of English teaching lies a problem. How do we tie everything together? How do we get our students to see that literature is a beautiful, throbbing nexus not a set of unrelated texts? How do we help students to realise that their reading should inform their writing and vice-versa? How do we ensure that grammar knowledge is reinforced and practised in the context of ‘real’ writing? How do we keep multiple plates spinning at once so that all that is to be learnt is informed by all that has been learnt?

Ideas coming from cognitive psychology are really useful here. For me, the most important are:

• Spacing – the importance of returning back to knowledge and skill in spaced intervals.
• Interleaving – teaching topics side-by-side to improve retention and possibly the transfer of knowledge to new contexts.
• Retrieval practice (the ‘testing effect’) – that we improve our memory by using our memory… most especially at the point of forgetting.


But how should these laboratory findings look in practice? I have deep misgivings – based on hunch I must admit – about a crude scientific application of these insights to scheme-of-work and curriculum planning. I prefer to think of them as ways to subtly enhance our existing pedagogy and curriculum planning.

I would like to return to the spiral metaphor again here. On each cycle, new knowledge – be it a new poem, new word, new grammatical rule – can be fed into the class’ existing body of knowledge, enriching and deepening it before the next circulation. Each time we go forward this new knowledge is deliberately linked to what they already know. This is doubly useful: the old material receives the revision and repetition necessary for consolidation in memory, yet this material also gives us a foundation upon which to construct new knowledge and skill.

The process should be both organic and structured.

So in practical terms, how might this look in the classroom?

 Explain new knowledge through analogy to prior learning. Introduce Shylock in comparison to anther racially disabused character. Crooks, perhaps. Or craftily return to key themes – power, gender, inequality – in every new text we teach. It is about creating an interweaving narrative that teacher and student can constantly dip in and out of.

Always build new knowledge into regular classroom dialogue. Once we have taught students word-classes, for example, we should never accept a comment like, “The word ‘gloomy’ gives me the sense that something bad is about to occur.” We should insist that they say “the adjective ‘gloomy’” instead.

Include regular memory practice. This could be in the form of quizzes, games or homework tasks. The important factors are that students must be compelled to use their memories rather than to reread their notes, and that they must be regularly expected to refer ever-backwards: to last lesson, last week, last term or even last year. I have written about memory platforms previously.

Pepper classroom discussions with memory questions. Which character from Much Ado About Nothing does he remind you of? Is this sentence written in the active or passive voice? Who presents the most optimistic vision of the future – Steinbeck or Priestley?

Redraft regularly. This allows students to revisit, revise and hone their work regularly; it also provides a useful chance to consolidate subject content. I have written about redrafting strategies and benefits here.

Provide an end-of-year goal that brings everything together. This might be a test or an exam covering all the content from the past year. Our year 9s will be completing a discursive essay on a philosophical theme or question of choice. This will be assessed primarily on the quality of written expression, yet for inspiration and examples they will draw on the literature they have covered through the year. The brainchild of our head of KS3 Jo Grimwood, this builds natural repetition and cohesion into curriculum planning.


So that students have the chance to gain, retain, link-back and transfer-forward knowledge and skills, the past should be constantly and deliberately kept alive in English lessons. With end of course English GCSE exams on the near horizon such structured immersion might just help students avoid potential catastrophe by helping them to manage much of their revision as they go. Whether we like it or not, fostering the retention of knowledge will become ever more important to English teaching.


The cerebral life of schools


Image: @jasonramasami

Much has been written about this weekend’s glittering, sweltering ResearchED conference. It is not my purpose to describe the day in detail; rather to share some of my post-event reflections. This post on the Turnford Blog – here – brilliantly captures Saturday’s prevailing wind: that even though we must heed caution when proceeding towards an evidence-based new dawn, proceed we must.

The event reinforced my belief that education should not forget the good already in existence – expertise, craft, experience, tacit knowledge, common sense, call it what you will. Martin Robinson warned that if we are not vigilant, ‘research’ might soon become the emperor’s new clothes, replacing one form of dictatorship with another. The revolution of the ‘rational’ could give birth to an equal or greater absurdity than the ‘irrationality’ it usurps. Let us make sure that the best of what already exists in our system, our schools, our classrooms and our minds always forms the basis of what is to come.

One of the glib assumptions that seems to be repeated about teachers is that we are a pretty stupid bunch. That’s why we need stuff like three-part lessons, starters, plenaries, learning objectives, AfL and lesson-grade descriptors to help us to teach correctly. Without these, we would quickly drown in the vomit of our own ineptitude, our classes watching on in ignorant glee.

Similar is the inference that we are easily duped by pseudoscience and quackery. Yes, it has been a travesty that Brain Gym and VAK (visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning styles) have replaced meaningful science in the field of education; however, how many experienced teachers have really and truly paid anything more than lip service to them? The problem, of course, is when such corrosive ideas are sold to inexperienced and trainee teachers who have yet to develop a sense of what works for them.

I know that I am limited to my own context and any attempt to generalise beyond is fraught with danger, but the following thought has been building for some time…

Teachers might, just might, be more canny than they are given credit for.

In this light, I think the rightful place for engaging with and in research is as part of a wider inquiry into the nature of our day-to-day actions and decisions. Research findings can become a platform for thinking about teaching: they pose questions rather than hand us gift-wrapped answers. Indeed, I am not convinced that the word ‘answer’ should ever be used when thinking about teaching. Because all actions in the classroom always have both benefits and costs, perhaps we should be searching for the better, not the best. Each time, for instance, I define the meaning of a new word to the class in my English lessons, it is likely that some kids are learning it for the first time yet one or two understand already. Time has been wasted for the minority so that the majority can reap the benefits. The notion that there is a right action that produces only benefits is a myth. Everything we do is both a success and a failure; our job is to work out the extent of each so that we can make better choices.

Such healthy scepticism often peppers the informal conversations in schools, yet it is not the dominant tone. Sadly, the prevailing narrative in education favours the easy answer, the quick fix, the crudely simple. Chuck a load of cash at socially disadvantaged children and, abracadabra, schools will right ingrained historical wrongs. If only.

Above all, teachers need to be given the tools to think with and the freedom to ask hard questions. Neat answers, tidy interpretations and coherent stories are juicily tempting but usually wrong. To get closer to the truth – or whatever you want to call it – we need to think as much as we do. A cautious engagement in research, I hope, can help to enhance this process. However, it remains the case that without the careful and critical thinking of the practitioner, research might easily become another fad.

To end my day at ResearchED, I trotted along to Tom Sherrington’s session. Taking into consideration methodological rigour, his own biases and values, and the perils of extrapolating from one context to another, Tom dissected four very different research findings. With zest and enthusiasm, Tom modelled for me not just how to critically evaluate research findings from a practitioner’s viewpoint, but why honest reflection and finely-tuned analysis should form the catalyst for action above, beyond, and sometimes in spite of, the evidence itself. You can read his blog here.

In education we must both act and think, taking on at once the guise of foot-soldier and master strategist. The cerebral life of the school is forgotten at its peril. Without thinking, nothing can ever come to any good.



In these posts I have discussed the pitfalls of making simple assumptions:

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

Reflections on a successful student

Investigating the threads: classroom craft or research?


Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?

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Image: @jasonramasami

As the new school year springs – or lumbers! – into life, I have been thinking about the beliefs I have about my students. Like all dedicated teachers, I would vehemently argue that I have the highest expectations for each and every student I teach. How dare you suggest otherwise!

But do I really? And more to the point: is it possible for any teacher to have genuinely high expectations of every student?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares the following experiment. Participants were given this question:

An individual has been described by a neighbour as follows: “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? (P6)

Did you go for librarian? I thought so. So did I. Your associative mind made it impossible to avoid this immediate assumption. Yet, as Kahneman reveals, there are twenty male farmers for every male librarian. (These statistics come from the United States, but I imagine that the ratio is not too dissimilar over here in the UK.) Statistically, it is more likely that Steve is a farmer even though his description matches our stereotypical understanding of a male librarian. Human thinking, Kahneman shows us, is prone to making judgements through a reliance on heuristics (rules of thumb that take the place of deeper thinking). The heuristic in this case was that a male library attendant is ‘meek and tidy’ and a male farmer is not. Judgements are immediate and implicit and they will form our expectations before we are even aware of them.

Now let’s segue to this morning as I slouched at my desk and put together some seating plans for this year’s classes. Some of the classes I had taught last year and some were new to me. I was looking through a list of names when I came upon ‘Ryan’. Now consider the fact that I had never met Ryan before and I had no data or information to go on: Ryan needs to sit near me at the front, I thought. A couple of minutes later, I came to the name Benedict. Benedict will be fine – put him at the back.

Now in my teaching career I have taught a few Ryans – one or two of them have been a little on the tricky side, but the majority have been paragons of virtue. As for Benedict? Well, I have never taught let alone met a person by that name! Yet his name made me smile – internally, at least. The tragic, brutal truth was that my initial expectations of both children – before even a photo, prior data or target grade; before even a glimpse of their brimming 12-year-old faces – were beginning to form implicitly, beyond my control. Kahneman also describes the priming effect: when we are exposed to a stimulus it can subconsciously influence our response to another stimulus. In this case, their names led to the first stirrings of an implicit judgement of their character and ability.

A little later in the day, I caught myself at it again. A year 10 student had surprised me in her summer GCSE English literature exam by performing better than expected (see, there’s that word again…). I was marking a piece of her creative writing from the back-end of last term and, low and behold, I was noticing things about her work I had never noticed before. Yes there’s a real fluency here. A lovely turn-of-phrase in this sentence too. My response to her work was transforming favourably in light of my new understanding of her. This time, an unexpected letter next to her name had raised my future expectations of her. Would I have read her work through the same filter if I she had not achieved that grade I wonder?

Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s study, 1968, into the Pygmalion Effect is one all teachers should know about. Teachers were told by researchers that a group of students were expected to be ‘spurters’ (an interesting turn-of-phrase I know!) over the coming year and should make significantly more progress than their peers. In fact, these students were chosen at random. The findings were shocking: these students really did make more progress than their peers even though they had no ostensible advantages. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: teacher expectation had had a genuine impact on learning. Rosenthal and Jacobsen posited four reasons for this: teachers create a warmer climate for those they believe to be more academically able; teachers teach more material to these children than they do to those they label as ‘dumb’; teachers also give them more chance to respond verbally; and teachers give them more feedback. See the following video for more information:

Coupled with this is the fact that ‘self-reported grades’ comes out as the top ‘effect size’ in John Hattie’s meta-analysis. In effect, this relates to students’ expectations of themselves – they are remarkably good at predicting how well or badly they will perform in a future test. Hattie states: “Our job is to never meet the needs of kids…our job is to help kids exceed what they think they can do.” Our job as teachers, then, is not only to raise our own expectations, but crucially to raise students’ expectations of themselves. Presumably, these self-expectations are formed from a hotchpotch of factors including teacher expectation, parental expectation, peer expectation and previous academic success. To disrupt and readjust these often entrenched presuppositions is no mean feat. Watch Hattie speaking about this here.

It might be a  KS2 score or a letter next to a name (L, M, H), it might be a word in your ear from a form tutor, it might be an uncharacteristically sloppy first piece of work or it might simply be the expression on a face… over the next couple of weeks you will, consciously and subconsciously, form hundreds of expectations based on the information in front of you. It would be impossible not to. Schools face a tricky dilemma. It seems intuitive to share as much helpful prior information about students as possible with teaching staff, but might this militate against the success we want our students to achieve through the unwanted side-effect of crystallising expectations at too early a stage?

I am usually one of life’s cynics, apart from in one domain. Despite what statistical evidence and common sense tell me, every season I expect Tottenham to win the league. This year my view was augmented by the fact that I had sound evidence that our new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, would build a tremendous, world-beating team spirit. (A former student of ours, a professional player at Southampton – Pochettino’s previous club – had shared with us the manager’s ability to generate a great team spirit and a winning mentality.) It seems strange, however, that this type of optimism rarely finds its way into my thinking about students.

And so, fighting back the expectation-whispering devils as best I can, I will try my hardest to put the data to one side and begin the year with unlimited optimism.


Related post: Reflections on a successful student 

Postscript – It would appear that, after a little extra reading, the Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s research into the Pygmalion Effect showed quite modest effects. I may have been guilty of hyperbole in my description of the study. However, this does not detract from the main argument of the post: that we should be wary of jumping to assumptions about students too quickly. Follow the link in the comment from dodiscimus below.