726 ways to achieve good exam results! (Or why the solution should always be smaller than the problem.)

Image: @jasonramasami


What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

– Chip and Dan Heath, Switch

In the opening pages of Switch: How to change when things are hard, the Heath brothers share the story of two health researchers from West Virginia University who wanted to persuade the public to eat a healthier diet. Rather than telling people to eat less saturated fats or to cut their daily calorie intake, they went for an unexpected approach. Buy skimmed milk rather than whole fat milk. The researchers had worked out that if the entire population were to make this simple switch, average levels of saturated fat consumption would immediately drop to a healthy level. Just like that.

This is an example of ‘script the critical move’ – in other words, if you want people to make a change, give them sharp, simple first steps. In this case, buy 1% milk. It worked too: purchases of skimmed-milk increased significantly in the areas targeted by the advertising campaign.

I also found the book’s discussion of ‘decision paralysis’ very revealing – this is the finding that the more options we have to choose from in a given scenario, the less likely we are to make a decision or take action. If people are going to change, they need complete clarity. The solution, therefore, should always be much smaller than the problem.

This is an important message for schools and teachers. Indeed, I think it has implications for how we deliver our lessons…

“Right class, here are ten things I want you to do to make this a fantastic essay!”

“Now, have a look at your double-sided place-mat of 99 sophisticated connectives. (Make sure you don’t bend them; I spent three hours lovingly laminating them last night.) Use these to link together your ideas…”

“Oh, and before you forget, flick back in your exercise books to the three targets I set you last lesson…”

(5 minutes into the written task): “Oh by the way, I forgot to mention…”

Multiply the above by the number of subjects the child is taught, add to this any other target-setting structures your school puts in place and ask yourself a question: is it any wonder that some children just carry on doing what they have always done when we constantly swamp them in our good intentions? (Interestingly, I think these ideas run parallel to theories about the role of ‘working memory’ in learning – that we can only process a certain amount of new information at one time.)

Another problem lies in abstractions. Learning objectives, success criteria, exam board assessment rubrics are the villains here. They lure us into thinking that just by sharing them, students will be able to follow them. Of course, teacher modelling and the deconstruction of exemplar work help to increase clarity, but we also need to condense this down into something the student can easily remember and apply.

If I want a student to write more fluently, I might write the following in their book:

Write more fluently in future.

Clearly, that’s unhelpful. So I could try:

Try starting your sentences in different ways to create more fluency.

A little clearer, maybe. It gives some concrete advice. But ‘in different ways’ and ‘fluency’ are still as woolly as a woolly mammoth. So perhaps I could write:

Use adverbial phrases and prepositional phrases at the starts of sentences so that fewer sentences begin with pronouns and articles.

If – and it’s a big if – the child understands how to apply the grammatical terminology, this has potentially more clarity than before. It provides some concrete skills to apply; however, it does not really show the child when they should use these structures.

By sheer accident, last year I found a better option. It makes the critical move totally unambiguous and, most importantly, seems to lead to very good writing for those who need to make a change:

Start every sentence with a new word.

I happened upon a similar example this week when setting up a discussion with my Y9s. In the past, I would have asked them to ‘listen sensitively and conscientiously’ or to ‘consider the opinions of others when coming to conclusions’. Now I start with this simple instruction: use the first name of at least one other person in the class when making a comment. They have to listen; they have to agree or challenge; they have to be conscientious.

A reasonable critique of this argument might be that these ‘critical moves’ are not challenging in themselves. Switch second guesses this by also suggesting that a ‘destination postcard’ should accompany the critical moves. This is the long-term destination you want the child to aim for; the ‘critical move’ is just the first step in a much, much longer journey – one of many. For instance:

Start every new sentence with a new word … so that you can write with the fluency of an A* student. (Or, if like me, you are squeamish about the crude use of grades you could try: start every new sentence with a new word so that your writing makes me laugh/feel tense/sob onto your work.)

Over the next few months, we hit exam season. Suffice to say, this will be a nerve-wracking time for our students. So that we do not contribute to the burden, we should take time to cut back our well-intentioned advice to the barest and sharpest essentials. This might mean withholding the temptation to go overboard and doing a little less ourselves instead.



Cut 10 down to tips down to two tips.

Make 99 connectives, 5 crucial discourse markers.

And lest we forget… Keep the woolly mammoth where he belongs. In his icy grave.


Related posts:

10 strategies for talk better teaching

A simple classroom in a complex world

Wreaking havoc on the educational universe: the problem with change

Becoming a happier teacher

tharby feedback listening

Image: @jasonramasami

I’ve just finished reading behaviour and public policy expert Paul Dolan’s marvellous Happiness by Design. Originally it shone out invitingly from the shelves of Waterstones, but I didn’t take the bait until Mark Healy recently recommended it in this blogpost. I have often thought that we teachers are very adept at making ourselves needlessly unhappy – at work and in life generally – and this book has helped me to conceptualise this and find some potential solutions. For me, at least.

I am going to simplify Dolan’s theory as it is difficult to do it justice in a blog post, especially as I am no psychology expert. Essentially, Dolan redefines our understanding of happiness: he divides it into two separate parts, pleasure and purpose. Happiness through pleasure – fun, enjoyment, relaxation, etc – is not a new definition, but considering happiness through the medium of purpose – meaningful tasks, like teaching –  is perhaps a more revolutionary idea. Some of us, Dolan suggests, are more driven by one than the other, whereas others are better-balanced. Dolan suggests that although some will always be more orientated towards one than the other, we should seek to find more balance. If all your happiness comes from purposeful tasks, try to find more equilibrium by countering them with more pleasurable alternatives…and vice-versa.

Furthermore, Dolan questions how we measure happiness. We often focus on global, evaluative measures, such as how happy we are generally in life, work and relationships. For Dolan, these constitute an over-emphasis on inputs. He argues that we should concentrate on how these aspects of life really make us feel on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis – the outputs. In other words, we should pinpoint when and how we genuinely experience happiness, not when and how we think we should experience happiness. A new house, an attractive partner, a new gadget, a job loaded with kudos will only provide genuine happiness if they make us regularly attend to this happiness. Dolan gives many examples: a new car, for instance, will only make you happy if you are constantly attending to the happiness it creates. The truth is, when behind the wheel of your expensive new car on a busy morning, you are much more likely to be worrying about work, getting angry about the traffic or listening to the radio than thinking about the happiness the vehicle you have chosen to drive gives you. We are, therefore, in thrall to the idea of happiness. Yet it is not a theory. It is a feeling experienced now, in real time.

To create our own happiness, we need to design it. First, we must listen in to the feedback that we constantly receive. When am I feeling happy? When am I not? Am I paying attention to and noticing the things that genuinely make me feel good or the things that I think should make me feel good? The solution lies in using our insights into these feelings to construct our future actions. We should nudge ourselves in the right direction so that we design simple daily habits that will be conducive to happiness.

The book chimes with my nascent feelings about what makes me happy, both professionally and personally. However, it goes much, much further, providing a theory and practical framework for me to work from. Like many teachers, I think my happiness comes predominately – although certainly not exclusively – from the sense of purpose my role as a classroom teacher entails, not necessarily from the pleasure it imparts.

This post, therefore, is about the small, habit-changing decisions I am intending to make to balance the books, to chisel out more happiness for myself. I must apologise as this will be a navel-gazing blog, but I hope you will find it useful. I think that worrying about  teacher happiness is not a selfish act.  Surely a school of happy teachers is a better place for children to learn than a school where we all shuffle along in the pits of despair?

Anyway, Dolan suggests that a good way to commit to change is to tell others of your new routines so that you feel compelled to maintain them. That is the principal purpose of this post. I will start by sharing some routines I have already embedded which have had some impact on my happiness over the last year.

I’ve realised that lunch duties make me tired and stressed in the afternoon. For a number of years, rain or shine, I did an outside lunch duty every day. I would eat my lunch on the hoof, break up juvenile squabbles and watch litter blow across the field. Although I would earn an extra £100 a month for this privilege, it would also leave me drained and unprepared for the last lesson of the day. I jacked it in this year – and I’m never going back. Now I spend my lunch time chatting to my colleagues and cracking bad jokes. My day is so much more enjoyable. And guess what? I haven’t given the money a second thought.

I’ve realised that taking work home with me makes me anxious. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than a box full of unmarked books or a bag full of admin. Even sat innocently in a dark corner of the room or hidden away in a cupboard, I would find that the mere presence of unfinished work would taint my evenings and weekends. A year or so ago my bag somehow became smeared in luminous yellow highlighter ink and at the time I didn’t have the money to replace it, so instead I just stopped taking a bag to work.  I haven’t taken one since. I’ll take my lunch, yes, and sometimes a book or a kindle, but that’s it. In other words, I carry with me only pleasure-giving items, not purposeful ones. The physical lack of a burdensome bag seems to have had a psychological mirror-effect too! I feel light and free as I arrive and leave, like every day is an INSET day.

I’ve realised that receiving work emails on my phone makes it difficult for me to switch off from work. This all came to a head a couple of years ago when, at a beer festival, I flicked open my emails only to find a 1000-word tirade written by a parent and aimed at me. From that day on, I switched off my emails and, to be honest, I have never experienced that particular pain again. If I need to look at my emails in my own time then I will choose when to.

And now, here are a few adjustments I intend to make over the coming months.

I’ve noticed that riding my bike to school makes me happier and more energetic. Even though I made the resolution to ride into school every day this year, I failed almost before I started. This was for a good reason: I was knocked off my bike on the first day of term. In truth, I was lucky to escape with a couple of bruises. Nonetheless, after reading Dolan’s book, I have realised I must persist. My journey along the seafront is a beautiful one, however inclement the weather. Besides, even if I am knocked off again, research suggests that my projections of how unhappy I will feel after a serious injury are far more extreme than the reality would be itself (once the initial physical pain is over, of course)! To prime myself for riding every morning, I will leave my cycling kit next to my bed so it is unavoidable in the morning.

I’ve noticed that I am happier when the blinds are open. Dolan notes that natural light can cause increased alertness. He also shares the finding that a view of nature can lead to greater happiness – this is probably because it keeps changing and adapting, so never stale. This rings true for me. Sometimes, halfway through the day I will realise that my classroom is bathed in darkness, the blinds closed. I have a simple trick to counter this: before I go home in the evening as well is closing the windows, I shall also open the blinds. When I arrive at work the next morning the blinds will be already open and, in my busyness, I will not forget to do it.

I’ve noticed that I constantly check my phone for Twitter/WordPress updates and this distracts me from what I am doing. The edu-Twitter world takes as much as it gives (in my humble opinion). I have developed many habits since entering this world a year or so ago which distract me from enjoying ordinary life. One of these is to check my WordPress stats with obsessive regularity. So, what I’ve done is to delete the app from my iPhone. This is already working a treat. And, to be honest, I always know they will tell me: when I have just published a blog my stats will go up; if I haven’t written a blog recently numbers will stay at a stable level. Similarly, I have also today switched off my Twitter notifications; the benefit being that now I shall only check Twitter – like my school emails – when I feel like it.

I’ve noticed that I obsess about potential student failure. Much of Happiness by Design centres on the fact that we should focus on the now, rather than our projections, concerns or dreams for the future. Every year, my concern and anxiety about my students’ exam results leaves me in a panic. Even by writing these words I can feel my neck heating up, my mouth becoming dry. Nevertheless, every year the final results provide me with a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction; I’ve never felt anything different. I tend to accept them pretty quickly, too. Therefore, my fear of future unhappiness and failure is far, far greater than any feeling I have ever experienced on the day itself.  Indeed, even if the worst-case scenario were to show its hand – i.e. the results were so terrible that they threatened my position as a teacher – this would not be the end of the world. Dolan’s argument suggests that major changes or disruptions – such as losing or changing your job – are usually less damaging to happiness than you would anticipate beforehand. We learn to adapt to new circumstances very quickly and, in the long-term, these are unlikely to make us significantly less happy, moment-to-moment, than we once were.

I’ve noticed that my recent lessons with Y11 have become a bit dull and lifeless. A by-product of the anxiety I described above is that I find myself projecting it upon my Y11s. I believe this has something to do with purpose, too. Preparing for an exam involves teaching students about the mechanisms of the exam itself, rather than subject content. For example, I enjoy teaching students how to write a speech much more than I enjoy, say, teaching them the best way to organise their answer to the first bullet point of question one of the iGCSE extended paper. Granted, this does have some purpose, but only because it facilitates good exam results, not because it leads to any useful learning. So what’s the answer? I think it must lie in alleviating the pressure. Exams, of course, are unavoidable. So instead, I need to give more of myself do that I do not forget the importance of relationships, humour and a little time to remember that, ultimately, young people are much more than just a letter on a page.

I’ve noticed that some types of out-of-school work make me happier than others. Once again, this is inextricably linked to feelings of purpose. Some aspects of my work feel more purposeful than others (and, indeed, give me more pleasure, too). For me, planning is infinitely more purposeful and pleasurable than marking. I enjoy putting together a lesson, doing the research, searching the web for ideas and resources and considering how I will structure it all. If you have read this blog before, you will know that I am cynical about the current fetish for marking. Quite simply, if I do take any work home from now onwards then it must be the stuff I enjoy doing as, this way, it will feel a little bit less painful when I have to give up some of my evening.

I’ve noticed that unfinished work hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. And finally… Even though marking and admin tasks are burdensome and feel both purposeless and pleasure-less, this feeling is exacerbated if I leave them for longer. I have to add on the anxiety caused by thinking about doing them to the tedium of actually doing them. The only solution is to do them straight away. One of the strategies I have followed for years (but will now approach with more gusto) involves working late on Friday afternoons (or sometimes Saturday mornings) and the first day of holidays. Why such madness, I hear you ask? Again, if I wait until Sunday evening or the last day of holidays, then the anticipation of the work I have to do hangs over me, damaging my enjoyment of everything I do.


Two final thoughts. One, these are some of the actions that could cmulatively help me to be happier more often; yours might be very different. Two, I appreciate that much teacher unhappiness is created by adverse conditions within the school. If that’s you then here’s an evidence-informed solution to your woes. Vote with your feet – you are likely to be happier in the long run.

So, if you have made it this far and think that Dolan’s ideas appeal to you I suggest you buy the book

Thanks for reading.