Marking- Many ways to skin a cat- Part 1.

Odd expression really isn’t it. I can’t think any nice ways to skin a cat. In fact, I can’t think of any reasons why I would skin a cat. Was cat fur a vital resource at some point. Why think of more than one way of skinning a cat. Surely none of them are pleasant.

Anyway, marking as Joe Kirby has said on several occasions is a hornet’s nest . It is high effort, for relative low impact and we must focus on butterflies. Things that are relatively low effort, but high impact.

Of course he’s right, he often is, but for many of us abandoning marking would result in a long walk to the dole queue. So what can we do about the problem of marking. Well, first we have to work outwards from the fact that huge bodies of research have shown that feedback is one of the single most effective strategies in the teacher’s locker. Then we have to accept that red pen, book marking may not be the most effective method, but it is often a requirement of our roles as teachers.

Over time, we may be able to change the landscape of expectations around schools- I’ve heard of schools where teachers mark every piece of work every day- but in the mean time here are 5 of the 10 strategies I have used in my classroom to mark quickly for high impact.


  1. Live marking

As the students are working, you can either walk around and mark their work, or you stay at your desk and have the students come to you. If you stay seated there will be a time cost, but you will be able to monitor behaviour far more easily.

This is best applied to tasks which will take a full lesson or longer, as you will likely not get through all of the class in a single lesson. As methods go, it requires excellent pre-teaching and a good intuition that they’ve ‘got’ the idea of the task.

What’s great about live marking is that by the end of the two lesson cycle, your third lesson, DIRT, is ready to go. It also means you can go home, and see the people you love, or at least those you tolerate lovingly . Win-win.

2. Paired writing

One way in which to reduce your marking workload by half, particularly earlier on in the term when students are feeling less confident is to have them construct a paragraph in pairs. This works best with analytical writing, and needs careful explanation. The students MUST, and you will need to emphasises this, must argue about the wording. Yes, argue. If they do not, they will miss an opportunity to explain why one idea needs ‘hedging’ or another idea needs explaining fully.

How you pair the students is entirely up to you, but it is important that you think carefully about ability and existing relationships. The students also need to be embedded in how to perform the task, what for example is hedging, when should they use it.

A few difficulties with this idea is that it may not pass a stringent marking walk, or equivalent. Also unless you are very exacting with your monitoring you don’t know which student misunderstand which idea. It is best used judiciously, and I maybe only use it once or twice a year.

3. Dialogue marking- Question marking

Suggested by my colleague, Marie Maloney. Very similar to ‘T target marking.’ You give all students the same quotation to write about, after annotating the extract (together or separately depending on the needs of the class.) From there you simply prepare a series of questions they will most likely need to have answered to have dealt fully with this question. Once you take the work in, you quickly scan for a question they have no answered and add the appropriate code (Q3.)

This involves knowing common errors with the particular quote, and text as a whole. It also involves superb knowledge of procedural knowledge errors. Without this, it is basically just another way of formatting T targets and does not add the depth that their analysis needs, or reflection that creative writing requires.

4. Focused marking.

After a sequence of lessons, share a criteria with the students. You then take in as many or as few books as you feel fit. Only mark for the criteria you have shared. In fact at times it may be useful to mark only parts of that criteria. Be it, the parts that are closest to being learnt or those elements in which the largest number of students are struggling- use your judgement.

Many people spend an inordinate amount of time marking every single detail. For the most part students will not learn by you correcting every red mark on their books. Try to live by the rule, ‘my marking should result in more effort by them than me.’

5. Quiz based marking.

This fits nicely with the above. Say for example, you’ve given a writing task which requires students to use the four front loaded phrase types you’ve just taught: adverbial, adjective,participle and prepositional. The students write a lovely story in which they attempt to use these sentence types. You could take their books in and spend an evening looking for these sentences. Alternatively, you could create a quiz which tests their knowledge of these sentences. In four quick quiz questions you can estabilish if the students can identify an adverb,participle, adjective, and preposition. If 17 of 20 can’t do an adverbial phrase, chances our they’ve not used that in their writing. Re-teach it and ask them to re-write two sentences using an adverbial phrase. Of the remaining 3, one student got the question about participles wrong and another prepositional. Again re-teach and ask them to use in their writing. The remaining student got all four questions correct, and you will need to think of a challenge task, possibly relating to difficult sentence types.

There is a small chance that a student will be able to answer all four quiz questions correctly, and not have used them in their writing BUT the effort you’ve been saved will help them have a better teacher today. So they WILL benefit eventually and more importantly, you’ve caught a lot of fish in your big net, so relax.

Equally, there is a small chance that a student will have used a sentence, but got the relating quiz question wrong. This student will tell you about this…almost always. Again, this is not a perfect method, but to increase the amount of purposeful marking you’re doing. It’s not a bad idea.

Again, I’ve not used this idea often but it comes highly recommended from a colleague and I’ve used it to some success this year.




Guest Blog 2, by Rob Howe

 First an explanation. Why a guest blog at all? Well, the answer is simple I feel the voices in education are increasingly bickering over minute details. In the past I would read blogs and experience dissonance, now everyone appears to be saying the same thing. Why Rob? Rob is a friend of mine who encouraged me to be a teacher, he was an English Teacher himself and by all accounts a very good one. He became disillusioned with the education system, although he still describes himself as an educator. The way in which this series of blogs came about is easy to track. We were at a pub and I could feel Rob’s deep dissatisfaction with my thinking and ideas; we’d usually broadly aligned on education and..well most things. We talked about personal growth and found common ground again, but once we returned to education a tension arouse. A few months passed and at this point I decided to E-mail him about  how he felt I had changed, why he was disappointed in some alterations in my thinking and on a larger scale why he’d become dissatisfied with education. The resulting blogs are sprawling and engaging. I really enjoyed reading them, and I hope you do too.

Read Rob’s story in his book ‘Being an Explorer’ available on Amazon: here

‘On Teaching and Education’ – Part 2 of 3.

Mainstream, formal education moulds every person within it to become a compliant, consuming worker. We are taught (passive reception of knowledge deposited into our empty minds) to think, see, imagine and relate to the world in a very particular way. Mainstream, formal education does not concern itself with aiding our personal and collective evolution. Instead it intends to preserve the status quo which we all feel the effects of.


It will take large scale catastrophe and shock to alter formal educations current trajectory and aims. But until then, the work of guiding meaningful education falls upon the shoulders of NGOs, grassroots community activists, as well as charitable organisations such as The Eden Project.


It’s easy to criticise, but another matter entirely to construct a working solution to education. I’ve expressed the belief in the first blog of this series, that disconnection is at the heart of our unsustainable culture. Therefore, the primary purpose of an education system in a sustainable world is to connect:


  1. A person with themselves
  2. A person to their community
  3. A person and community to nature


My favourite definition of sustainability is John Ehrenfelds “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the earth forever.” I love the idea that it is essential for all life on earth to flourish if we are to live in a world which is sustainable.

When we drill down into flourishing we see our flourishing is intimately related to our understanding. When we understand we begin to value. When we value we start to care. When we care we move towards thriving, because we pay attention and give love to the relationships which matter to us.

As a designer of education, an important question for me to consider is, how might I create an education system which addresses the three dimensions of our social reality and aids our understanding of their/our interrelation?

Briefly, when addressing the personal domain it becomes clear that what a person is assisted to learn so they flourish has to change from the current curriculum. Equally important is a consideration of pedagogy and how a person and groups of people learn.

When addressing the social dimension we ask how communities learn, form and flourish.

Finally, we ask how personally and collectively we develop our connection with nature.

These broad questions have the potential to inspire thoughts and ideas which enable the mind to imagine a form of education which exists beyond the present formal system. I can share more of my ideas around these questions in a future post, but for the time being, I’ll briefly touch upon some inspiring models.

First of all there are the Erasmus + non formal education programmes delivered by a multitude of NGOs across Europe which aim to develop the key competencies of any participant around an area of their interest. Experiential learning characterises non formal education. The EU acknowledge that these programmes are supplementary to formal education, rather than all encompassing. They do, however, acknowledge the importance of one’s participation as being voluntary.

In the 90s the Finnish implemented an initiative which saw the impenetrable boundaries of schools dissolved as the free movement of learners between multiple venues of learning was recognised as important.

Jon Young, aided by a life of experience, is pioneering a pedagogy of nature connection which lends itself to this freer form of education.

The language we use to define this new system of education has to be innovated and the relationships between educators and learners also require our attention.

Some of the shifts we shall see between the old and the new

  • From top down, to bottom up
  • From oppression, to flourishing
  • From outcomes, to process
  • From invisible pupils, to supported learners
  • From mass education, to personal mentoring
  • From exclusion, to inclusion
  • From passive learning, to participatory learning
  • From competition, to collaboration

If you allow yourself to stand in the position from which I speak and resign your objections for a few moments, so you can imagine what it is I am beginning to describe and imply, I hope you sense, what it is that Einstein was getting at when he said,


“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”


More on the vision in my next post.

The praxis of translating idyl to form is often messy and difficult, but with a vision, belief and tenacity, anything can be achieved.



GUEST BLOG: Rob Howe (Founder of ‘On That Level’)

 First an explanation. Why a guest blog at all? Well, the answer is simple I feel the voices in education are increasingly bickering over minute details. In the past I would read blogs and experience dissonance, now everyone appears to be saying the same thing. Why Rob? Rob is a friend of mine who encouraged me to be a teacher, he was an English Teacher himself and by all accounts a very good one. He became disillusioned with the education system, although he still describes himself as an educator. The way in which this series of blogs came about is easy to track. We were at a pub and I could feel Rob’s deep dissatisfaction with my thinking and ideas; we’d usually broadly aligned on education and..well most things. We talked about personal growth and found common ground again, but once we returned to education a tension arouse. A few months passed and at this point I decided to E-mail him about  how he felt I had changed, why he was disappointed in some alterations in my thinking and on a larger scale why he’d become dissatisfied with education. The resulting blogs are sprawling and engaging. I really enjoyed reading them, and I hope you do too.

Read Rob’s story in his book ‘Being an Explorer’ available on Amazon: here

‘On Teaching and Education’ – Part 1 of 3.

I’m about to rip into the education system. If you work within education you may be asking,

“Who is he to critique the education system?”


“Why should I care?”

Professionally I’m a qualified English Teacher, but primarily, identify as a global citizen.

I dip in and out of teaching whenever I need an income to meet my living costs, but favour listening to the calls of my soul. Presently I am co-founding a charity, which aims to educate rather than mould those who engage with it.

I’ll share more about the moulding nature of education later on. But first, it’s important I start from the beginning.

Modernity is looking at life through an outdated lens. Collectively we are misdirected and we’re beginning to notice. Many of us have been building our lives upon a set of values which do not serve us. One could argue our misdirection is a result of social engineering, but I shall steer clear of unfounded claims and navigate by what is empirically true.

The challenge of our time and what we shall be remembered for by our children’s, children’s, children’s, children’s children is the climate crises and the 6th mass extinction of life upon earth aka the anthropocene.

The anthropocene is a geological term and can be understood as the carbon footprint made by humans upon earth. It is rooted in the fundamentally flawed Cartesian perception of the world which sees the mind and body as seperate. The anthropocene exists because central to it is the belief and view that humans are separate from the earth. We believe our planet is a resource to be capitalised upon. The value of growth inherent in Capitalism fails to recognise the finite resources of our planet.

Our future depends on telling a new story based upon connection, but again, I shall write more about the solution in future posts.

You may be asking, “What has education got to do with the anthropocene?”

My reply, “Everything.”

The purpose of education is to produce consumers and workers. The education system perpetuates the old story of disconnection which is central to the problems we face.

It’s not all bad. Education does teach us some important skills, however the leaders do not recognise what our personal, collective and planetary needs are, and so are unable to tailor a curriculum to respond to them.

The incompetent leadership of education is manifested through performance management which places its focus in the wrong places in unproductive ways.

Whilst this is the case, everybody suffers.

Formal education doesn’t concern itself with recognising every individual as a unique being with infinite potential and possibility. It fails to acknowledge every persons uniqueness and doesn’t allow its students and teachers the freedom to explore, discover and grow.

Instead education rigidly defines success criteria and expects every student, regardless of their unique blend of intelligences, to ‘do well’, meaning here to achieve their target grade. Anything beyond that is deemed a failure.

Currently education is failing because:

  1. It does not create citizens who are aware of the global context around them
  2. It fails to nurture the competencies and outlook central to thriving
  3. It continues the narrative of separation

I will continue exploring the effects of education upon us personally in the next blog. I will also begin exploring alternatives which already exist.


My search for optimal health and well being- Nootropics and vitamins.

Nootropicsalso called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers—are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.


Around October this year I went to the doctor with what turned out to be whooping cough. In China they call it 100 day cough. It was horrible. I needed about 12-14 hours of sleep a day and by period 3, I was exhausted.

My work unquestionably suffered.  I did everything I could to avoid it damaging my work, but it did. I woke earlier in the day, because that’s when I had more energy and I left work earlier and took a nap. I woke from the nap and got on with another few hours of work. I had taken on an extra load at work and I was seeking perfection in this .Just to make it worse, I was having a difficult time at home and that took up a lot of what little energy I did have. Both my wife, and I were grieving. A topic that I wont go into here, but needless to say I wasn’t coping and I was being strong for her. I was probably being lousy at that too.

I wanted to improve in the following areas: I wanted more energy, I wanted better sleep and I wanted to stabilise my emotions, especially given how difficult a time this was.


I decided that if it was possible to sub-optimal, it was possible to be optimal. Maybe baseline was me minus whooping cough, but maybe I could get healthy and then go beyond that point.

I started delving into the ways in which I could do this. I knew that I wanted something entirely backed up my science, but I knew that I wouldn’t have time to methodically test the effect on myself. I resolved to do this later and use my own intuition initially.

The process.

I looked at a lot of possible solutions. I enacted many of them. Nootropics was a word I’d heard banded about in various podcasts. I’m a huge fan of Doctor Rhonda Patrick and I knew that it was a burgeoning field of study.

I spoke to a friend who is completing a masters in nutrition and he gave me access to a whole field of research. I looked at the papers covering the major research and which supplements had good evidence for being effective. The following supplements had strong evidence for effectiveness in peer-reviewed articles.

I took a number of supplements over the course of around 12 weeks. I used some in conjunction as this is what the research indicated. I took others individually. Generally I took each supplement, or pairing for around 4 weeks.

Detailed below are my notes on the impact.

My notes on the supplementation.


L- theanine

is one of the key ingredients found in green tea. It is believed to be one of the key ways in which buddhist monks enable themselves to enter deep states of meditation. I wanted to experience a sense of calm which allowed me to see my problems for what they really are. The perspective that this would allow me I hoped would allow me the liberation to deal with my difficulties.

I was also excited by research which stated that if it is used in combination with caffeine, it improves memory and cognitive performance. I started to add this to my daily coffee intake. I took one 50mg dosage with every cup of joe. I noticed a much deeper focus, and did not feel sleepy.

In truth I never felt sleepy taking L- Theanine. I found when taken in conjunction with Matcha tea, it helped me relax before bed. But that basically meant taking nearly 300mg. According to my fit bit, the nights when I took this 300mg dosage were filled with far deeper sleep. On average I was restless for only 8 minutes compared to my usual 20 plus.

The fitbit sleep tracker is notoriously useless, but any measurement is worth considering. I would say the evidence is that I moved less in my sleep. Generally speaking the general agreement amongst sleep doctors is that less movement equals better sleep. Though there are certain exceptions.

Bacopa monieri 

 The research around Bacopa stated that impact on memory was only experienced in the subjects after 4-6 weeks. My personal experience tallied with this, I took an online memory test every Sunday night and the trajectory was upward and progressive. Bizarelly enough it began to dip at around 7 weeks and has remained roughly the same since. My conclusion is that the notable impact takes roughly 4-6 weeks to have impact, but that benefits decrease to an optimised level but you cannot maintain the peak point.

Notable research also suggests Bacopa has impact on:

  • Attention- Increase.
  • Anxiety- reduction
  • Depression- minor reduction
  • Forgetting- minor reduction

I couldn’t speak about depression and anxiety because as part of the grieving process I certainly had to make a number of changes which could account for my improved moods. Was bacopa a meaningful factor…possibly. The studies that show this only conclude a minor reduction in depressed feeling, and I would question whether this could be separated from asking participants to think regularly about their mood. Reflection may well have been the cause.

Ginkgo biloba  

Perhaps the most researched product I tried during my six week trial. This was a supplement I took because of the research into long term effect. I wasn’t expecting to find any huge changes. Particularly given how unscientific I was going to be. I genuinely didn’t feel any different after taking this supplement. With the others, the effects were immediate but there is no research talking about immediate repercussions of taking this. Rather like cod liver oil it is about long term health support.

  • Limits cognitive decline
  • Memory
  • Stamina/blood flow
  • Sleep (minor)


Second most researched. I was already taking this after gym workouts and weekend football, and have always found it amazingly effective in recovery. But I had no idea about its effectiveness in reducing fatigue.

Of all the supplements I considered this was by far the most effective. I took it with my coffee and L-theanine, I normally stop being useful about 4:30 but stay at work until 6 to avoid the traffic. Taking this supplement at 4:00 I often found myself staying until half 6 and not even noticing.

I would really like to test this in a more scientific way. As I’m absolutely certain it is revolutionary.


The one thing I’ve kept up is the ‘hacked’ version of coffee. I’ve also used L-theanine in conjunction with Zinc, Magnesium and Valerian tablets to help with sleep.

The coffee is unbelievably effective, I was drinking around five cups of coffee a day. I now drink two and add a spoonful of creatine and take a theanine tablet. The result is a much more effective work day and I would definitely recommend book ending your school day in this way.

As for the sleep, I have always struggled with sleep and I will definitely blog about the effectiveness of my new routine sometime soon. It’s been transformative.

I would also like to come up with some sort of actual test of my own to prove it works for me. Though, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point though to be fair…I based my purchases on peer-reviews. I felt a difference. I guess that’s good enough for me.

Other supplements I considered and my rationale.

Huperzine Was perhaps the most ‘hyped’ supplement I found, yet there is not a lot of research – seems to promote neurogenesis ( the process of birth of neurons wherein neurons are generated from neural stem cells) but given my time constraint I decided to ignore this.

Panax ginseng

 I decided that it was probably not a priority to try this. Minor impact on cognition and small impact in glucose reduction.  Neither of which

Rhodiola Rosea.

I struggled to find a reasonably priced version and so couldn’t take these. Despite them being the most heavily backed by research. Bit gutting!

Nicotine – 

 I deemed this too risky to take up. After 30 years without so much as a drag, it seemed ridiculous to take up the world’s biggest addiction study!

  • Minor increase in memory and cognition
  • Minor decrease in HGH
  • Addiction risk – patches limit this.
  • Appetite suppressant

Melissa officinalis

Some research claims it has relaxing qualities though does have cognitive benefits. I decided that this wasn’t worth time.


Sounds absolutely amazing, but doesn’t appear to be commercially available. Please correct me if I’m wrong on this!

  • Significant memory increase and cognition. Especially short term memory, and task orientated work.

Blueberries & fish oil.

Solve life essentially.  I already eat blueberries like a kid would eat haribo and take fish oil every day.






A teacher questionnaire on retrieval- Junking my thoughts in an (un)blog.

It was early morning when a bright eyed colleague bounced in and told me, ever so politely, that I would love to fill in her questionnaire. Fortunately for her, she was absolutely right. I am a geek and enjoyed spending the time thinking deeply about my approach to various areas related to mastery and retrieval.

It struck me that it might be worth dwelling on some of those questions, ponderings and sharing what few insights came as a result of those statements.


I do think retaining information is difficult, in fact I know it is for the vast majority of humans. The only way around this is to develop effective strategies of learning and to repeat things continually.

I draw a definite distinction between difficult and impossible though. The great Muhammad Ali, famously said “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”

My concern with my answer is not in my agreement, but rather in whether my students feel the power to overcome. Do they feel those little wins that lead to the big ones, or do I spend too long on the next challenge and the next one and …. You get the picture.



I left this question blank. Structure/routine. Routine is describe at times as the enemy of progress, a sure fire way to form rigid and ineffective practices. Yet, I think where knowledge is concerned the teacher must embody Robert Collier’s famous quote, “Constant repetition carries conviction.”

With knowledge recall there must be structures, else there will be slips between the cracks. I think I left it blank because I know the answer. I do try to return to core knowledge/information at the start of every lesson, but some lesson openings are chaotic. Students enter in the wrong manner and so dealing with that becomes priority.

I need to start thinking more carefully about how I ensure nothing gets in the way of a consistent retrieval practice. A very simple solution is to add a quiz slide to every title page. I always greet students at the door, perhaps I can change my posture so that I can also monitor their start to the lesson once in the room, and their approach to the quiz/task at hand.




If you’re not sure why my answers are in the agree boxes- google ‘Didau learning performance.’ There you will find far better explanation than I can offer.


I’m not sure why I ‘Strongly agree’ with the first statement, but only ‘agree’ with the second. Perhaps because the former feels reassuring, hopeful and comforting, while the latter is disorientating and frustrating.

I think the latter seems more counter-intuiting too. While true, it seems as though performance is about the best indicator we could possibly hope to have and so philosophically I see the point. But…so what. What on earth could we do about that. Ignore performance, carry on teaching long after we’ve gathered (reasonable) evidence of learning, self flagellate just in case. It all seems somewhat hopeless. How are the children benefiting from this idea.



It is evident that this is true. If you don’t have reference points to form memories, you will find it more challenging. If you have a short-term to long-term transfer deficit, you will find it more challenging. This question more poses, the ‘so what now’ of retention.

It suggests to me a varied spacing option, some students will need to return to the same information, while others move on to the next lot. A colour coded question system might support this or simply an unfolding list of questions. Whatever I decide on needs to be simple and light on extra workload. Else it will simply not be sustained.

Conclusions (of sorts.)

Well this isn’t so much a blog as a junking of thoughts. To some extent, that’s why I’ve not blogged in so long. My thoughts are swirling around at the moment. I see lots of details I know I will be tweaking, but I feel like a million dots are about to connect in one. This year spent reading and listening has left me with more questions than answers, but its left me wiser. I promised myself I’d shut up more this year, and read, listen and learn. I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve definitely improved. I’ve been staring at a magic eye and now a vision is emerging.

I’ve changed so much this year, but I know there are so many things I want to change further. I’m going to come back to my questioning and thinking really deeply about how I sequence. I’m five years in and I’ve formed habits, many good, but it’s time to break or reconsider some.

Timing my feedback, retrieval practice. Wording comprehension questions, and ensuring that the vocabulary is in place to make this meaningful. I’m boiling a million stews all at once.

Observing my tutor group

One of my favourite things to do is pop in on my tutor group. I like to check that they are meeting the high standards we as a school set for them, I also ask them to say “good morning” as they arrive and “thank you” as they exit. I check how they move around the corridor and once in the lesson I try to catch them getting it right. 

There is a massive advantage to doing this- it also means I get to see other teachers teach. Today I popped in on my colleague Ben Crockett. What struck me most was his speed at building relationships, he seemed to have names down almost immediately and he quickly got to grips with their personalities. It was a joy to see. He made a point of getting the pronunciation right on the more difficult names and dealt with all of the class with a great fairness. 

He started his time with them by helping them to achieve excellence. The first piece of work in their books will be a standard to beat. In helping them achieve this excellence he asked them to recall last years learning, which credit to their previous teacher was excellent, and then helped them structure a response that will most definitely build their confidence. 

The other thing that struck me was how often he praised. When subject specific language was used Ben was there to praise them, and when they remembered their previous learning Ben was there to praise them. 

Furthermore, he dropped extra terminology and knowledge; reframed incorrect answers with additional information and wasn’t afraid to repeat difficult content for those with lower Georgraphy starting points.

I was only in half the lesson, I could write more but we would t want Ben getting a big head! 

Perhaps some amongst you will see nothing remarkable here, but my tutor group were worried about having Ben. They’d only seen him running Geography detentions, and were unsure as to how the lesson would go. All anxiety dispensed in one lesson. They came to see me afterwards: pleased as punch. From this basis Ben can now challenge them to aim higher, more importantly, I feel, he can deal with behaviour from a solid foundation built on respect. 

When is low stakes testing not actually that low?

Anxiety can feel like a “heart attack” and suffers describe it as feeling like ” you’re about to die.” The NHS describes a panic attack as “a rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms” and may also include an “overwhelming sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety”. None of my students have ever had a panic attack at the thought of a quick quiz, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel anxious or indeed that it feels low stakes to them.

We assume because the quiz doesn’t mean too much to us in terms of data that we are running a ‘low stakes quiz’, that decision is not ours. The person experiencing the test is the one who decides that. Recently, a student of mine had to be calmed down before an LRA lesson. They were having a panic attack. The student was well aware that the lesson only involved selecting a book and reading quietly. That didn’t matter, to them the exercise was fraught with things that could go wrong, and ways in which they felt threatened. It doesn’t make sense- but that’s almost the root cause of anxiety. An illogical fear that the individual cannot control.

This isn’t to say that we can’t run low stakes quizzes just in case, simply that we aren’t the ones who place value on the stakes. Therefore, the most important thing we can do when administering these quizzes is not check how they’ve done on question 8, the most important thing we can be doing is reading the room. Not helping with difficult questions, not telling them how long is left, and not checking how they did last time- just simply watching. How are they experiencing this quiz, are they in flow; equally are they struggling enough. Has Dani stopped because of fear of failure or because today is just one of those lazy days. If so, does Dani need a harder set of questions, or just a (metaphorical) kick up the proverbial!

It is vital that we check learning, and that we give students the benefit of the testing effect (Toppino & Cohen, 2009.) But, we must measure the cost. This is what many of us are already doing, but it feels worth saying given how much we speak about low stakes quizzes and their benefit. Because if we simply believe a quiz is low stakes because we say it is then we lose any value it may have had.

How do you ensure a quiz is genuinely low stakes?

Have a quiz sheet at the back of book for students to record their resutlts, instead of having them shout it out. Any practical solution to this problem is beneficial, but anything that adds too much time to your day is probably not worth the cost.

Alternatively, @ChrisRuneckles has suggested just having the class put their hands up for questions they got wrong, so that you can re-teach this section. Sometimes telling the students the answer might contribute to the testing effect but actually returning to the work and re-teaching (well) is surely the most high impact thing we could do.

Some of this comes down to our behaviour, and manner BUT most of it falls on judging how well you pitched it. Our rooms are packed with Goldilocks and if the work is too hard or too soft, they will take their minds elsewhere. Equally if we constantly aim to make the porridge/bed just right then we rob children of the chance to both embed/secure knowledge through giving them work they can definitely manage and to develop resilience when work is just out of their reach (or even massively out of their reach.)

Getting ahead of the curve: premature babies

In education we are constantly focusing on narrowing the gap, whether the gap is between those who have low (ability) entry points or those who come from households with low cultural capital.* In the past some schools have found themselves in a position of being responsive to these shifting focuses- other schools have been ahead of the curve, at times by ignoring these shifting sands altogether and focusing on every child. One curve which I’m intrigued by at the moment is the increasing number of premature children, we will be teaching. In England, survival rates of very premature babies increased from 53% in 2006 to 80% in 2011. This is significant given that research from the University of Warwick (Replicated by, Katri Rikkonen, professor of psychology at University of Helsinki)  has shown that the IQ of adults born very premature or of very low birth weight can be significantly lower than their punctual and weighty brothers and sisters.

Professor Wolke, who led the research, has stated that “some children born very premature or with very low birth weight score low on cognitive tests but beat the odds and improve into adulthood”. The issue for us as educators is how they achieve this- for some this may be a natural process of growth but it seems reasonable to suggest that an excellent education would have a significant impact.

One solution is early national level intervention- Wolke believes that “early identification of cognitive problems in these children may help to plan specialised therapeutic and educational interventions to help them and their families.” Though his research doesn’t point to any particular solutions, our colleagues in early years sectors and therapeutic roles (speech and language etc.) likely have a significant role to play here.

Their likely are not specific approaches these children will need at secondary school, but it seems fair to say that we should prepare ourselves for more children with low start points. As an English teacher, I feel I’m noticing more children who lack basic reading and writing skills. Friends I’ve spoken to in primary are finding that start points are lower and lower- they’re having to learn how to teach things they’d previously considered nursery/home lessons. The sooner we all prepare for these difficulties the better.

Wolke suggests several strategies which run counter to other research I’ve read (see below) , but I for one will be spending a lot of time over the Summer thinking deeply about how I adjust for those with low entry points in my subject.

Wolke’s Strategy suggestions:

  • For less demanding tasks, provide reinforcement and structure them to ensure success; for more demanding tasks, personalise and provide support as appropriate for the young person’s developmental stage.
  • Find assessments which take account of cognitive workload demands to provide a more detailed picture of strengths and weaknesses for planning support for children born preterm.
  • Use adaptive computerised working memory training.
  • To maintain attention (above IQ as the greatest predictor of educational success), educators need to organise learning tasks in smaller chunks.
  • Use attention training and focussing tasks.
  • Support social integration by assisting group work, special peer mentoring, and liaising with parents over activities to increase friends.
  • Use innovative computer assisted interventions to support social skills and integration.
  • Children and young people with autistic type features and rigidity may cope better with predictable routines and graded changes.



*I focus here on low cultural capital because this is a proven factor in childhood intelligence, whereas Free School Meals can be a marker of parental involvement in Higher Education or even self-employment. Both of which, can involve a higher availability of culture capital to a child and therefore skew figures on effectiveness of strategies aimed at improving outcomes for ‘disadvantaged’ children.



Analytical Paragraphing: should students PEE all over their work?

I can’t remember the last time I asked a pupil to do a PEE paragraph, I’m sure in the right hands it can effective. However, in my hands it becomes a mind forged mangling mechanism. In goes an excellent idea, outcomes a blanding. I’m not sure if that is because I don’t really understand the procedure, or if the structure itself is flawed. Perhaps structures themselves are THE problem, but more on that later.

I’ve never really been clear on what the P is and it seems too quick to jump the final E after one piece of dropped evidence. P stands for point, of course, but what does that mean? Surely every part of the paragraph should contain, or advance the ‘point.’ To my mind, P only ever ends up as a pointless sentence- “I think the writer build tension by using metaphors, ‘(INSERT SIMILE) This makes us imagine things which are tense more clearly, which makes them more tense.” Of course, I’m sure this is not what most people find being produced but it is what I received, and I’m also sure I wasn’t alone.

In writing to a structure, we do limit ourselves: that is inevitable. The issue is how to take someone from understanding a text, to manipulating their understanding into a structured paragraph without limiting them to a structure. I’m not sure this is possible, in learning anything new the beginning has to be rigid and structured.

Structure it.

I think the first thing to do is to teach them a structure…. one that has been thought about deeply. As counter intuitive as that sounds, given what I’ve just said, the start point has to be a process else students are simply left to flounder.

  • Topic sentence – State, label evidence, explain.
  • Narrow- Word class, clause or phrase- Quote- Explore.
  • Only Connect- Remind, hint, link.
  • Intention/impact- Audience/reader impact, authorial purpose: message, structure, characterization.

I’ve aimed to hit the criteria for successful English analysis, the fact that this is a general approach means that there are settings where a specific adjustment needs to be made. For example, when comparing poems students need to remember to order their ideas in a fluent way and use connectives in their topic sentences.

Commit it.

Remembering things changes our brains permanently. Once the language is committed it can be played with- but never before!

I recently explained this with an analogy that I think holds water- it is somewhat like a Jazz musician learning the chords, before attempting to be productively discordant. It is the product element that cannot be achieved with a good grounding in the conventions of the thing itself.

In committing it to memory they also get to rehearse verbally, and mentally before recording. I always think this is the best form of proof-reading.

Manipulate it.

I think it is important to spend time actively teaching them how to manipulate the structure. Some of this time will need to be devoted to language learning. What does suggest actually mean? Is it different to connotes or implies? Before instructing the pupils on how to toy with key phrases, to give the illusion of free flowing improvised structure.

Forget it (forward)

The processing is then to slowly strip the structure back, almost inviting the students to forget it and remember their own ideas.

I invest heavily in what I refer to as the ‘Yoda technique’- muddle the words but keep the meaning. The students are given a ‘base form’ of each step (as shown below) and then they re-word it.

“The use of the verb ‘sprinted’ by Almond positions the reader to…..” becomes “In using the verb ‘sprinted’ Almond positions us to feel….”

There will be occasions whereby they need to be reminded that certain things need to be included, or of particular phrases but for the most part this is a pretty straightforward process.

Developing flair.

The next stage in development is to model how to display flair and shortcut certain elements of the process. For instance, Kate Ashford recently blogged about ‘show sentences’and while certain parts of this process concern me, this is undoubtedly an excellent way of developing flair. The use of adjectives attached to the characters shortcuts a lot of analytical waffle. Similarly Doug Lemov’s golden sentences, explained here, offers a scaffold for deeper, more analytical thinking- but more importantly forces students to use the language of analysis to explain the thoughts they already have.

Marking it.

The fantastic thing about sharing a structure is, you’ve just planned your marking or peer assessment. You share a language with your pupils. They know what your DIRT targets mean, and frankly they are annoyed at themselves for not having remembered it in the first place!

Recently I taught my year 9’s, who’ve used this system extensively- I’d planned for what I thought would’ve been a ‘lively’ lesson. They came in, read the poem, wrote the paragraphs, and gallery critiqued each other in silence. The only energy we had was when one boy disagreed with a girl about the intention of the description “black snow.” It was a lesson where I could easily have gone to the shops for ice-creams. The simple reason for this autonomy was a series of shared process, both in analysing the poem and in writing the paragraphs. All that remained for me to do was check for misunderstandings and hand out different coloured pens.

I create the targets based on the sequence (Topic sentence , narrow, Only Connect, intention/impact.) So far, there has not been a mistake that these targets couldn’t point to. If they fall short, I’ll adapt them or create banks of specific questions.My colleague Marie Maloney recently introduced me to Dialogue Marking Questions (DMQs)  these would provide the perfect solution. You simply write 5/6 questions of the sort you would normally ask in lessons related to a specific quotation, assign each question a number, and push the students thinking back toward the right process.

Take away

This is not the finished product for me. There is a way of blending this with what I do to teach students vocabulary and terminology- this third way will probably utilise Katie Ashford and Doug Lemov’s ideas. I know that I need to work on helping students to forget forward- but I also need to think carefully about what being discordant/creative/divergent means in analytical writing. Perhaps the writing itself is actually formulaic and the idea is the divergent part, but I feel flair is a vital part of analysis. It is, almost, a creative art in itself.

Memrise- Can a quizzing app have real impact on learning?

First of all– I am in no way associated with this product. I do not think it is perfect and have even asked a friend to help me create a better piece of software. However, it is useful for some things. Here is my experience and suggestions for using this software, and similar software.

My 15MF this week was on the app memrise- it is available on mobile, tablet and computer (the app. not my 15mf.) It quizzes students on a particular subject, and allows for teacher created content.

There is very little I want to add to this excellent blog based on the talk- but I would like to add a few things that I believe need to be resolved with the app.

Guided self-reflection/meta-cognition.

While it is an advantage that the app supports students to think about their learning, ,and explicitly tells them when they haven’t learnt, I have a slight issue with the fact that this ‘scaffold’ remains in place throughout the course. Eventually, the app should ask the students to select areas for development and quiz them on it. The app could then feedback whether they are accurately predicting what they do and don’t know.


Easy to track and assess & visual clue to planning revision session.

It is very easy to track students using this app, but it is worth bearing in mind that seeing which students really haven’t put the effort in does then mean some chasing on your part. Whenever new technology is introduced teachers, rightly so, often assess its workload impact – we hope it will reduce, reduce, reduce. This app may not do that, but it will help to ensure you that homework is completed properly.



– Bjork, desirable difficulties and spaced feedback.

The feedback is instantaneous, always and forever. I don’t know if this isn’t a factor in lowering long term motivation, but it certainly doesn’t seem to tally with the research into feedback.

-Feedback: is it right for your students- at this moment and in this way?

“Simply providing more feedback is not the answer, because it is necessary to consider the nature of the feedback, the timing, and how a student ‘receives’ this feedback” J. Hattie, 2007

We are the experts, and we know our students. How feedback should be given needs to be dealt with by us. It needs to be tailored and well timed. The robotic element of memrises feedback has advantageous (low-threat and consistency) but in lacking the personal touch it also loses that ability to transform. As Hattie points out, some feedback has a negative impact. It is definitely keeping an eye on the impact of memrise’s feedback over a longer period of time.

In addition,the following comment on Shaun’s blog struck me in particular,

“If one wishes learners to ‘Ace that test’….then electronic quizzing until the learner passes the test might be the answer. If one wishes learners to understand the concepts ……. then a bit more sophistication is necessary and possible.” Brian (no surname given so, insert Python joke.)

Memrise may well just improve students ability to do well at memrise. Particularly if it is not backed up with good quality classroom teaching. We are the sophistication Brian refers to. Memrise is just a quick and easy way to a foundation, in my humble opinion.

What would I change about the app?

The app is not teacher centred at the moment. I think the company need to review this, every teacher that uses this app brings potentially 300 clients with them. That’s a significant market- when you consider most schools have nearly 200 members of teaching staff.

To make the app more teacher-friendly I would change the following things:

Excel spreadsheet- As with socrative a downloadable spreadsheet, or better still an automatically updating spreadsheet.

In the age of accountability, it would be nice to be able to record everything that the students are doing. On a more learning focussed point- it is a format teachers are comfortable analysing data with.

Detailed specific feedback for teachers- which questions did they get wrong most often; as individuals and as a group.

At the moment students can see specific difficult words. Teachers cannot, it would be good to not have to ask students for screen prints of difficult words. This would support teachers to adapt future lessons. At the moment teachers can ask students to printscreen, or end a lesson by asking students to display their ‘stats’ page, but surely this can be simpler.

Delayed feedback, leading to no end point assessments.

Once students complete 100% of the course, the course should switch to  a flotation type graphic…think Speed with Sandra Bullock…if it goes below the red line…BOOM! That way students have to maintain the knowledge. This could roughly calculate the likely forgetting curve, based on Ebbinghaus and other such research into this phenomenon, and then test students periodically. Dropping below could have a classroom based consequence, or perhaps a reward for those who’ve spent the longest ‘floating.

Final thought.

Some of these limitations are where the teacher operates, but I think the app could better support retention with this small adjustments. As I said in the 15mf this is not a replacement for good quality teaching and feedback, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.