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

GCSE results and the stories we tell ourselves

stories-we-tell-ourselvesWEBImage: @jasonramasami

This year I was staying in a North Devon village on GCSE results day. I had no internet access. By descending a ramp to the shoreline and huddling against a dripping wall that dangled with clumps of seaweed, I managed to pick up a 3G signal and download that fateful list of names and accompanying letters.

As always, I was met with a little bit of pleasant surprise and a little bit of disappointment. There were some expected patterns and some unexpected ones too. From the word go, I began instinctively to turn those abstract As, Bs and Cs into comprehensible human narratives. He did well because… She must have struggled in the exam because…

I have been mulling over these stories we tell ourselves, how retrospectively, through the solid lens of hindsight, we attempt to unearth those causal links that bring coherence to exam grades.

I had three GCSE classes this year – two Y11 groups and a Y10 English literature group. By and large, things went well for them. My Y11 top-set English Language results, however, did leave me puzzled. (About a third of our Y11 – around 120 students – are in one of four top sets. Grades should range from B to A*.) I was not quite expecting the range I encountered:

5 x A*
6 x A
10 x B
5 x C
1 x D

The AQA English Language GCSE is now made up of 40% controlled assessment and 60% final written exam. With the demise of speaking and listening, which once made up 20%, more rides on the exam itself than ever before. As we know, English results at the C/D borderline have also dropped this year. Naturally, the national picture needs to be taken into consideration, but I do feel that it is unwise to pass the buck completely.

So, I started conjuring up some narratives for my own class…

• The number of A*s suggests that I have a particular knack for teaching high-flying students.

• I should have taken more responsibility for the boy who got a D. Perhaps the fact that he was also being privately tutored meant that I took my eye off the ball in lessons.

• The number of Cs in the class suggests that I focused too much on the high-fliers. Did I attend to these students’ needs as well as I might have?

But these tales did not quite cut the mustard. I tried these instead:

• Too few students achieved an A or above. I failed too many who had the potential to do so much better.

• There was nothing more I could have done for the boy who got a D. I must learn to accept that sometimes under-achievement just happens.

• I was just unfortunate with the number of Cs. In small sample sizes, like a class of 27, freak results are more commonplace.

But was it all about me? And so I got to thinking about the wider social and individual causes:

• My A* students were those who always exhibited perseverance and hard work. All were from middle-class backgrounds.

• The boy who got a D was undergoing a number of complex personal issues. No teacher could have done anything about it.

• Most of my C students were those who lacked confidence in written exams. In the main, this was beyond my control.

When I got home from Devon, I examined the question breakdown data from the exam board:

• In the exam, eight students achieved A*. The poor quality of the controlled assessments (40% of the grade) I oversaw in class  prevented three students from achieving A*.

• Looking at his scores, my D student – who was actually quite capable – wrote next to nothing for each question.

• There was no single question that scuppered my C students’ performances. They got Cs and not Bs in the exam for a range of different reasons with no consistent pattern.

For any set of exam results, answers come in countless intertwining narratives. Pinning down concrete reasons is hard. As individual teachers we must not shy away from our personal responsibility, yet we must also remember that we are in thrall to the national picture, our school contexts, the decade of prior learning our students bring with them, the social environments our students are raised in, their individual characteristics and, of course, just plain old good and bad luck. If, with similar grouping and contexts, our results are significantly better or worse than those of our colleagues – or other very significant trends are apparent – then we can make cautious inferences about the quality of our teaching. If this is not the case, then we will need to accept that we cannot always be sure.

Results, therefore, give us a flavour of the success or failure of our teaching practice but not the full picture. Close analysis of letters and numbers can veer us away from the truth as well as lead us closer to it. The fact that my students averaged only 7.56 on question 4 of their English exam, for instance, is useful only if I know why this is the case and how to make it better next time round. Should more time be set aside for practice? Is the cause a lack of knowledge about language rather than a lack of knowledge about how to tackle the question effectively?

I worry that the brave new world of Performance Related Pay will lead to the oversimplification of these narratives as school leaders on a budget look to withhold pay increases and classroom teachers are forced to justify themselves through increasingly specious arguments. I believe that exam results, whatever they are, should spur the profession towards betterment, not hold it back.

Every year, after all the navel gazing, my exam results always boil down to two simple decisions:

• Get a little bit better at making sure that no-one in the class is ever left behind.
• Get a little bit better at teaching every topic I cover.

I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing next year!

What I learnt about great teaching from learning to brew beer


Image: @jasonramasami

Four years ago I became, almost despite myself, an all-grain brewer. What does this mean, you ask? It means that I can design a beer recipe. I can choose from a dizzying range of ingredients. I can combine hops, malt, yeast in an ancient scientific alchemy. I can manage the fermentation process. I can bottle-up and wait impatiently for maturation. And I can drink the stuff. Litres of it.

If I think back five years, however, I had not the slightest interest in becoming a homebrewer. If you had told me that within a year I would be able to make my own amber nectar, I would have thought you absurd. I have few practical skills, I don’t have a head for science and the closest I’d ever come to real ale was a pint of the mass-marketed stout known throughout the land as Guinness.

So what happened? My transformation was driven entirely by my friend, brewing expert and fellow English teacher Gavin McCusker. Gav decided he would like a brewing partner and that I was his man. Right from the get-go his vision of my brewing potential surpassed my imagination of who I was and what I was capable of.

This post reflects on my experience as a novice ale-maker and what I have learnt about the experience of being a learner…

Let’s get started. The learning process Gav took me through was devoid of any teaching ideology; instead it was purely pragmatic. How would he use the limited time we had to turn me into the discerning and skillful brewing buddy he so desired? He decided to take the hard option: he would need to design me in his own image. I was to be his apprentice.

The brew-day itself is the key to brewing; it is far more complex than managing fermentation (the few weeks that it takes for yeast to convert sugars to alcohol) and bottling. To master brewing, you need to master the brew-day.

1. It started off with watching Gav, the expert, in action. He modelled the processes, talking me through a huge range of procedures from mashing, to sparging, to boiling, to cooling the wort… Needless to say, it was very challenging and not a little confusing (made even more so by the fact that it is de rigueur to knock back one or two ‘sample’ ales along the way).

2. As Gav explained, he flaunted his mastery of the brewer’s glossary, refusing to ‘dumb-down’ for the sake of easy comprehension. The boiler was the ‘kettle’, the sticky pre-hopped fluid was the ‘wort’, the grain was ‘malt’. He took time to explain how ‘alpha acids’ determine bitterness, the way alcohol levels are measured in ‘gravity’.

3. The next time we brewed together it was more of a collaborative venture. Gav allowed me to practise the basic processes one-by-one while he managed the overall sequence. Instant feedback was readily available – I remember he was distinctly unimpressed by my stirring technique!

4. Gav was insistent that I did not buy specialist brewing equipment. Abiding by frugal ideals, the genuine homebrewer fashions ones own utensils. We made a brewing ‘kettle’ from the combination of an old chutney vat and an element taken from a Tesco Value kettle; we insulated the ‘mash tun’ with a couple of tent mattresses from Argos. It was slow, frustratingly time-consuming, but helped me to understand the minute mechanics of what I was learning.

5. When it was finally time for me to brew alone, Gav provided a written scaffold: an exhaustive list of procedural instructions, calculations and a recipe. He was available on the phone to answer my questions, but ultimately I was left alone, independent. And guess what? I made my first beer!

6. On cracking open and sipping my first brew I was up for more. I read around the subject, deepening my understanding as I did. Eventually, I designed my own beer from start to finish: Pepper Porter. Made from a mixture of pale malt, chocolate malt and roasted barley, it was named after Pepper, my dog. With chocolatey bitter depths, boy it was good on a winter’s evening!


7. Over time, my beer preferences have diverged from Gav’s. He prefers the heavily-hopped American-style beers all the rage in the Brighton area at the moment; I prefer something sweet, malty and more traditionally British.

8. Since learning to brew, I have experimented with many styles of beer. There have been disasters along the way (like the day the beer leaked out of the fermenting vessel, through the floor and dripped onto the head of my son’s visiting great-grandmother!). There have also been many successes too: such as the beer I brewed, to much acclaim, for my best friend’s wedding. Unfortunately, due to the demands of life, I have not brewed for several months. I know, however, I will pick it up again easily when I have the chance. It’s like riding a bike.

The process Gav took me on was not a self-conscious one; instead it was entirely organic. However, it mirrors remarkably the ‘Big 5’ that Shaun Allison has identified at my school. Beginning with the initial challenge, we moved through explanation, modelling and collaboration, all supported by feedback, questioning and scaffolding.


The process took time. It is now firmly embedded in my long-term memory. The sequence would have pleased the cognitive scientist. It involved repetition, spaced-out learning and the interleaving of procedural steps.

All the above factors, however, were not the most crucial. The most crucial factor was my teacher, Gav. He was indefatigable, never giving up on the vision of the brewer I could become, even if I was ready to throw in the towel on more than one occasion. His quest was relentless. At 7.30 on a Monday morning, he would come into my classroom to ask about my latest ‘gravity reading’. When I was having trouble with the ‘false-bottom’ of my mash tun, he took it to the DT room after school to perfect. His infectious enthusiasm for brewing exuded from every pore of his body. He encouraged, commiserated, cajoled, comforted and bullied me into becoming a brewer, never once allowing me to believe that this was not possible.

If brewing was an academic subject, my target grade, based on prior practical ability, would have been a D. In brewing terms, a D would be the equivalent of being able to brew a hop-less wort (which, unless you like sickeningly sweet Horlicks, would be entirely pointless not to mention unpalatable).

So what did my experience as a novice brewer teach me about teaching? Firstly, that for all the expert teaching methodology and research in the world, the relentless belief of the teacher in the student’s potential is the glue that binds everything together. Secondly, that expectation is everything: the teacher must make the unimaginable imaginable. And thirdly, that learning, with all its short-term setbacks, must be a long term venture.

Of course, Gav did not have a class of 25 in front of him; he was teaching me one-to-one. We also had a very tangible goal – lots of cheap beer! – to work towards. Even so, Gav taught me many lessons. This week, my Y8s have been set a Shakespeare sonnet to recite from memory. Some have managed it first time, others have not. It would be so easy to say to those who have struggled, “It’s okay, you gave it your best shot.” But no, instead I have said: “Go and practise again over the weekend. I know you can do it.” I became a brewer, they can learn a sonnet.

Cheers Gav!


Related posts:

Why is challenge such a challenge?

Differentiating the responsive way

Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition


Image: @jasonramasami

If you had told me a few years ago that today I would be writing a piece on why repetition is so important in the classroom, I would have been puzzled. Improving impact as a teacher has always for me been about trying to increase complexity, both in the technicality of classroom practice and the learning ‘product’ offered to students. Coupled with this is a personality trait of mine: I avoid repetition with a passion. I rarely re-read a book or re-watch a film and I have a personal target of visiting a new country each year. I am working at a deficit; at 34, I have tragically only visited 29. Similarly, I am always innovating in the classroom, trying to do things a little differently each time.

But is it worth it?

Perhaps I am just a mindless lemming, a victim of a Western consumer society in thrall to the lure of mass consumption. Some might argue that the progressive ideology of my ITT year, one that lauded constant creativity over the comfort of habit, has sunk its fangs into me to lasting effect. That’s probably unfair. What’s true, however, is that the most repetitive aspect of my practice has been that I avoid repetition like the plague. Habit, routine and repetition were, I thought, the darlings of behaviour management, with little essential use for learning itself. One example was my belief that every poem I teach should be taught differently: cut up this one, fill in missing words on that one etc, etc. Each time destroying the wholeness of a piece of literature in the name of variety.

My attitude has changed recently. I have read books by Ron Berger, Daniel Willingham, Graham Nuthall and Doug Lemov which all, through research or anecdote, place repetition (and I would include redrafting here) at the heart of learning. Lemov’s Practice Perfect has been the real clincher. Take this description of an experienced driver:

“Not only do unconscious habits you’ve burned into your memory determine many of your actions, but while all of this happening you may engage in some of your deepest and most reflective abstract thinking. While you are executing a series of complex skills and tasks that were at one time all but incomprehensible to you, your mind is free to roam and analyse and wonder. If you use practice to build mastery of a series of skills, and if you build up skills intentionally, you can master surprisingly complex tasks and in so doing free your active cognition to engage with other important tasks.”

Through repeating processes to automaticity, we may well create the space for new and innovative thinking. As teachers this is doubly important. We are practitioners ourselves, yet we also provide an environment for our students to practice in.

Here’s an example of a resource I have been using recently. Cobbled together in a modest five minutes, this was initially my attempt to get students to move from the phrase ‘this shows’ to employing a more tentative tone:


I have made my students – all of them, in every year –stick this in a visible place on their folders. By a combination of accident and design, it has become a focal point of my teaching of analytical writing. I remind them to check the sheet regularly, we employ the words explicitly in the models we write, I emphasise the words in my talk, they are encouraged to use them in theirs and, most crucially, they are beginning to use the language in their writing. Some students are clunky and artificial in their attempts, others more fluent, and others still have taken it and turned it into something much more exciting: Shakespeare’s description of ‘x’ is illustrative of his belief in ‘y’. The repeated use of the resource over weeks and months has not only helped students, but reminded me to repeat my core message about analytical writing. The sheet is imperfect – a Mark ll will be out next academic year – yet on its own it has had more noticeable impact than a whole gamut of ad-hoc strategies I have used in the past.

Another example comes from my new approach to teaching poetry. I get students to undertake this first, ticking off as they go:

Screenshot 2014-05-03 17.02.36

Each time they receive a new poem, they fill in the tick-sheet as they go – no instruction needed. The poetry lesson that follows also takes on a very set routine. In the past, in my desire to provide an interesting new experience each lesson, I have sometimes forgotten that new content is also a new experience. Might it be that my slavish adherence to variety has created more complexity than necessary? Students have been forced to learn both the task rules and the content. Another advantage of this approach is that, rather than starting from zero each time, I can subtly hone the strategy lesson-by-lesson. Repetition is often thought of as a traditional teaching method rather than progressive method. I think it might add value to both.

One last thought. I arrived at school this Friday in a post-parents’ evening fug. Year 8, period 1, came about with little planning beyond ‘consider Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth as a stage performance’. I started the lesson the way I start any lesson I have not planned in detail. (Let’s face it, this happens on many other Friday’s too!) The students wrote down at least three things they learnt about the witches last lesson. As they wrote, I circled prompting them: think about actions, think about motives, think about the words they used… Then they fed back; I questioned and probed, and they build-upon and challenged each other’s opinions. Within a few minutes on Friday, we were discussing whether the witches were proto-feminists or simply acting out of malice.

Only today has it occurred to me why this simple teaching strategy works so well. I have done it so many times before it has become automatic. Maybe that’s why my lessons always feel more productive on a Friday!

In all, a careful balance might be best. Too much repetition can have a negative effect on motivation; too much variety might make learning unnecessarily challenging for student and teacher alike.

The introvert in the classroom


“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:

Hearts of darkness: another voice against graded observations

heart of darkness

Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s most well-known work, Heart of Darkness, tells the tale of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter, and his colonial-era journey up the River Congo. Marlow becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic Kurtz, the tyrannical ‘chief’ of a station up-river who has become a ‘god-like’ figure to the people he brutalizes.

In more recent years, Conrad’s story has been accused – rightly or wrongly – of racism. For me, however, the most famous line of the novella, immortalised too in Francis Ford Copolla’s Vietnam-era movie Apocalypse Now, comes as Kurtz is dying: “The horror, the horror.” Kurtz’s final words are ambiguous: the meaning is deliberately nebulous, leaving us to interpret for ourselves. My reading, however, has always been clear: that, like Conrad’s depiction of Western ‘civilisation’, there is a dark side to all of us. We must learn to stare this in the face before it is too late.

I am very aware that this is a very dramatic opening to a blog post on education and graded lesson observation! Please hear me out. Recently, I have read a spate of fantastic posts from the big-hitters of the blogosphere – David Didau, John Tomsett and Joe Kirby to name but three – all questioning the purpose of graded lesson observation and providing us with alternative options. It was further encouraging to read this week in David’s blog that (a) Ofsted are listening to educational bloggers and (b) that Ofsted have now ruled that individual lessons will not be graded during school inspections. The momentum is gaining weight.

This is all promising, but how does it relate to Conrad and Heart of Darkness? Well, my big concern with graded lesson observations is the way that they, and the associated culture, unwittingly encourage us to hide our own ‘horrors’. If we know we are to be graded, if we know that this grade might be directly linked to performance related pay, then, for many of us, lesson observation becomes about covering up our weaknesses – our ‘hearts of darkness’ you might say. (Sorry if that sounds a little grandiose!).

Over the last few years, I will admit, I have sought to achieve ‘outstanding’ in my lesson observations. On good days I have been graded such. Yet has there been a cost to this? Have I really worked out how to become a great teacher or have I just learnt to successfully cover over the cracks? Could, impossibly, my earnest attempts at ‘outstanding’ have hindered rather than helped my students? In the spirit of veracity, here are a few of the obfuscating strategies many of us employ in an attempt to hide our weaknesses:

  • Ensure that we are teaching something ‘easy’ and covering up the fact that we know the class are already quite good at this.
  • Warning the class that someone from SLT is coming in to watch them before the lesson and expects to see PERFECT behaviour.
  • Offering future ‘reward’ lessons for a particularly good lesson.
  • Changing schemes of work around to incorporate an ‘Ofsted’-style lesson, even if this is not what the class need. (This is the worst crime as students are losing out directly.)
  • Putting all other marking and planning to one side to micro-plan a lesson over about three days.

And the list goes on… You could legitimately argue that even without graded observations, the sly amongst us might still employ such tactics. It is natural, and good for professional development, to spend longer on planning a lesson than we normally would. However, I do believe that the removal of grades would dramatically alleviate the problem. Most importantly, I think schools need to grow cultures in which we are not afraid to discuss openly our weaknesses and foibles. I would like to be comfortable enough to invite my colleagues to see me teaching my most challenging class, who are learning the material I find most challenging to teach. Then, perhaps, the feedback would be more useful.

Once again, in the interests of honesty, here are what I perceive to be my main weaknesses:

  • Poorly planned and executed explanations. Too often I have to rely on heavily-scaffolded tasks to make up for the paucity of my verbal offerings.
  •  Questioning students too much – especially when I have not given them adequate knowledge to work on.
  • Moving around the classroom too much and too nervously.
  • Offering feedback too quickly.

This is the stuff I try to cover up in observations; I would, ideally, like more feedback on this. (I am going to finally work up the courage to video myself at some point this year as I know this will help me to address some of the concerns.)

There are a couple questions – addressed well in the posts I mentioned at the start – that schools do need to answer before moving away from graded lesson observations:

1)      How would under-performing teachers be identified and monitored in the absence of grades?

2)      What alternative methods would schools use to encourage and motivate teachers to aim for the best?

       Leaders like Shaun Allison are drawing attention to the ‘bright spots’. Shaun is blogging about the great stuff he sees in lessons – here and here for instance. This is inspiring leadership as it imbues a sense of positivity – if the good things are highlighted they surely will grow.

So here is another voice – a lesser one I’m sure – to add a tiny bit more strength to the argument that graded lesson observations can be damaging. The more voices the better. Now that Ofsted are not doing it, surely schools must follow suit? My vision of an education utopia is one where our ‘bright spots’ are celebrated, and one where, finally, we can also feel confident and secure in sharing – and ultimately defeating – our ‘hearts of darkness’.

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

My problem with praise

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One of the most fulfilling yet challenging aspects of our profession is the way small daily events throw into question our deeply held beliefs or ingrained practice. Indeed, almost by the hour, my ideas are challenged and strained by small, everyday episodes to the point where they require recalibration. One such situation occurred  at a parents’ evening last week.

I would describe myself as a phlegmatic character; I keep my emotional cards well and truly close to my chest. Many of the wonderful English teachers I have worked with over the past eight years are very different, more outward, and by watching and listening to them I have learnt to be more ostensibly warm and caring. To an extent.

In 2006, during my PGCE year, I read Investigating Formative Assessment by Torrance and Prior, which has greatly influenced my career ever since. One premise I distinctly remember was that teachers should be careful not to shower praise on students; by saying ‘well done’ or ‘good girl’ we stop thinking and progression in their tracks, giving students the false impression that what they have said is enough and no further thinking is necessary. For Mr Undemonstrative here, this fitted comfortably into my worldview. A strong reason not to praise too much so that I could stay in my comfort zone.

The argument about the detrimental effects of praise is backed by extensive educational research. See Hattie and Yates here:

“Two readily identified fallacies are that (a) people learn more when’s they receive praise, and (b) people need continual praise to establish and maintain feelings of self-worth. Despite thousands of projects neither statement has any serious support. Praise makes people happier, sometimes, and in some places. It can steer you toward wanting to do certain things or induce you to stay in the field. But it does not assist you to learn.”

Exposure to this kind of evidence has made me more and more confident in my classroom style: during discussions  I probe my students, constant asking them to say more, never satisfied with their initial answers, almost always avoiding the handing out of praise . Until last Thursday, I was quite cosy in my belief that my Y11 top-set students were gaining from this approach…until I came face-to-face with Alana’s parents (I have hidden her identity).

Now Alana is a great student: articulate, perceptive, kind and thoughtful. She is a dream to teach. Yet for some reason, despite the fact that her KS3 level was the highest in the class, she seems to have slipped behind many of her peers this year. At parents’ evening, her mother shed the cold light of day on the problem:

“She has lost confidence in English. She thinks that her answers in class are not good enough and that she is letting you down. Actually, she has come home quite upset on a couple of occasions recently.”

In spite of my knowledge of the research, an uncontrollable sense of guilt overcame me. I responded in two ways: (1) I talked quite honestly about how much I valued Alana’s perceptive contributions to class discussion, and (2) I gave a trite rationale for my discussion strategy – if we were, say, in discussion in a board meeting it would be quite strange to stop mid-flow to effusively praise another board-member.

This small and seemingly insignificant event has got me thinking. At first, it was easy to find solace in the research and blame her previous teachers: ha, she has been praised so fulsomely in the past for her native ability and become so used to immediate gratification that now that the going has got tough, she has no coping strategy to fall back on. And then I tried another tact: the empathy thing. How would I like to receive little or no praise for my blog contributions? What if people at my school and on Twitter had not praised these blog posts I’ve started to write? Would I still be writing them regularly four months in? Probably not.

You see, some of us desire praise, whether we care to admit it or not. Some students, for a complexity of reasons, are more reliant on it than others. Even Hattie and Yates concede that ‘a modicum of praise’ sets a ‘pleasant environment’ in the classroom. Today, I read an interesting blog post by Alex Quigley – here – about ‘cognitive bias’, about how our decision making is rooted in our emotions. Perhaps I have taken to the ‘anti-praise’ philosophy too ardently because it fits in comfortably with my rather stoical worldview, and the fact that being ‘very nice’ sometimes makes me feel awkward!

I have written before about responsiveness, about listening to the needs of individual students. With Alana, I am planning to find subtle ways to praise her – maybe an extra word or two in her book, maybe a copy of her written work used as an exemplar on the revision website I have set up. Other students may be made of sterner stuff, yet I cannot pretend that she is not struggling and that lack of regular praise does not play its part.

I will not abandon my beliefs about praise – the research and theory remains compelling. The current thinking is that we encourage ‘the growth mindset’ by praising effort; this makes sense yet it entails a huge cultural shift that will take time to embed. Be that as it may, I find myself, once again, scratching my head and refining and rebuilding my teaching philosophy. Whenever I feel I have grasped some meaning, it slips away from me again. The endless complexity of this job is ever fascinating.


Not everyone will agree with me, but yet again I have been reminded that we need to win over their hearts as well as their minds.