Some concerns around the focus on lesson objectives.

One of my major concerns with learning objective and in particular ‘All, Most, Some’ objectives is that they are a form differentiation by outcome, identifying this inevitability is not all that useful. It may be better to start off with the desired outcome for all and try to scaffold and support in a way which avoids as many students as possible falling short. In addition to this they also, as Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison point out in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’, encourage students to not take the risk of failure. “Why risk failure and humiliation in front of my peers by attempting the other ones and getting them wrong?” It breeds a culture of teaching to the bottom and of low expectations.

I also feel that the way many schools use lesson objective is damaging for high start point students. Many schools use a lesson objectives approach which utilises Bloom’s taxonomy for their command words. For the high start point students this involves asking them to create something original. This assumes that originality is the key purpose of learning, in many cases this is not the case and in fact is not even desirable for novices.  It is highly unlikely that any student will create something that is original, this is if we even assume that originality is desirable for novices given that their breadth of knowledge is highly unlikely to actually enable them to produce something of a requisite quality to be considered original. Far better is for a teacher to teach with an exemplar in mind and show the process to create this.

Further to this, teachers using command words to identify the progress of learning is again muddled in its assumptions. First of all, not every lesson will result in students reaching the stage of analysis. It may be more meaningful to spend an entire unit simply understanding and remembering- especially if you don’t know anything. Remembering is, in many ways, a serious pursuit of obtaining the most crucial ideas that man has to offer. The idea that a 14-year-old may be able to deconstruct and reassemble these ideas or critique them is at best misguided. It will likely lead to extremely poor lessons as a good chunk of time will be given over to sending students into ‘the wilderness of unknowing.’ To cut a long story short a generic approach to learning is likely at the detriment to the mass of subject specific declarative and procedural knowledge required for mastery.

Another concern would be the amount of teacher time spent of creating these objectives and delivering them to students. A teacher can spend five to ten minutes on creating these headings and that time can be used far better on developing their own expertise. In English this may look like writing a model answer on the poem themselves and looking at likely errors students may make. Delivering objectives to students, by contrast, is highly unlikely to lead to them knowing anything other than what their objective is.

The idea of returning to these objectives as a meaningful task may also be flawed, looking at a slide which tells you the journey you are on is not a particularly useful way of progressing on that journey. To draw an analogy with map reading one would rarely pull the car over and look at the map in order to remind yourself you are heading towards Copenhagen. It is however useful to have a guide sat next to you who knows the exact route. Though any metaphor can break under duress, this one seems particularly useful in the case of Bloom’s orientated less objectives. While it is unquestionably the case that a teacher needs to know the end point and how to guide students there, it is not clear that lesson objectives help students know this route. It may in fact, at least in English be more useful to have them remember a series of scaffolded sentences to support analytical writing, for instance. It is worth pointing out that Bloom’s considers remembering a low-level skill.

Perhaps a more useful way of presenting student progress back to them is by quizzing the knowledge which teachers consider to be pre-requisites or by deconstructing an example of the desired outcome. In English this may mean stopping to show the students an exemplar paragraph before and identifying why it is successful, this can then be used to support student’s self-assessment and further their metacognitive process.

My final concern is that they assume that the lesson is a unit of learning, this can feed into an attitude of performance over learning. For instance, we could teach a lesson in which students are asked at the start of the lesson- what is the capital of Azerbaijan? When they don’t know, we tell them. At the end of the lesson we ask them again, magically they know that it is Baku. However, this knowledge is purely temporary (see, forgetting curve etc.) and so we have in fact observed only performance. This, unfortunately, plays into a confirmation bias which is a prevalent issue in education. We want the students to learn and therefore when they show the performance we want to see we assume they have learnt. This makes us feel good because we feel our teaching is successful and the student is given the gratification of having met your expectation and pleased you.


Month 1- Leading a department

This month has seen me undertake my first middle leadership role and I have to start first by apologising to every middle leader I’ve ever worked with. How on earth any of you put up with me while doing this job I will never know? If someone came to me right now as I typed this and bounded in excited about Comparitive Judgement, Knowledge Organisers, podcasts for the kids, snapchat revision posts, 80/20 revision guides, teaching narrative using Jungian archetype or the countless other ideas I’ve ranted in a frenzied excitement at you….I honestly think I’d hide in a cupboard.

For the most part my former HoD’s have listened and smiled! You absolute legends, how did you do that!?!

Now, about the actual experience. I feel it’s necessary to state that I had no intention of becoming Head of Department just yet, it was something I wanted to do in the next five years. I knew I was going to do it… I don’t believe in the law of attraction or some other such nonsense but I knew that I wouldn’t stop until I was competent enough to deserve the role. When I arrived at my current school ready to be second in department I was expecting a challenging but exciting new role. Within a week of being at the school it became necessary for a whole host of reasons for me to step up. I won’t go into that here as it involves personal matters that are not for me to share. I was ready to be second and to be mentored by someone. I was excited. Then in a single meeting I was in at the deep end and petrified.

I made a ‘to-do’ list, it seemed the only sensible thing to do. It was long but I told myself that I’d just reduce the time frame and complete the job one task at a time. What I hadn’t anticipated was the constant dropping in and colleagues asking for support. I’m not very good at saying no and maybe I’ll need to work on this, but it became evident very quickly that there were lots of problems.

I first set about making a department improvement plan, but I didn’t know all of the problems. I set about conquering metacognition within our department. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t important and , in fact, it is a whole school focus but for us as a department we cannot focus on this until we have a concrete sense of the focus of our work. For instance, there can be no focus on procedural knowledge checks if several members of the team do not know what the outcomes should look like. In short, there is no point creating a unified approach to analytical writing, if several members of the team do not know what is meant by analytical writing and are not in the habit of teaching it. So we started with our shaky foundations. I told the team we would be teaching 3 main styles of writing – transactional, narrative and analytical. It’s a reductive approach but we have to start somewhere. With our first CPD session I asked them to write a story, at the end of the process we clarified some procedural points and likely difficulties students might face. It’s a small step on a long road but we will get there.

But hold on, let me go back one huge and important step…. I had to tell my team that the adversity we found ourselves in was good. No wait, I had to tell myself that it was good and bloody believe it. I had to remind myself that finding myself in the role of HoD in a situation that an experienced leader would find tough was going to make me a better leader in the future. I told my team that we loved adversity, that it was our wheelhouse and that we would fight for each other and the students. I believed it and for now this is a motto of sorts for us. We aren’t quite a team yet, rather several fractions but there is no point forcing that…we will be brought together by our adversity and our success. By the end of the year, we will be held up by the school as a model of excellence. To me this seems inevitable, we will manifest it into reality.

Right, let me change gear here…you’ll notice I’ve a lot to talk about on this! Some things that have surprised me. I wanted to be Head of Department because I thought the role was leading a vision of English through your team. Clearly the word through is wrong there, but actually as one of my colleagues observed the other day my role is much more about delivering bad news in a way that people don’t hate too much. That is probably the best summary I’ve heard! Also the role isn’t so much leading. It’s a listening role! I listen to my team, I think carefully about what has been said and I adapt my idea. Sometimes I have to tell them they are simply wrong, but at other points in time I have to concede that I’ve not considered a very important thing. In his book ‘Leading’, Alex Ferguson says “you have two ears and one mouth” it’s more true for leaders than anyone else. The most inspirational head I’ve worked for doesn’t dress like a car salesman and spout grandiose narratives, she listens carefully and questions people. After ten minutes or so, I’m told, she might stop whoever is speaking and decide she’s heard enough before summarising the change (or lack of change)  in direction. This has been my most valuable weapon. Not my big mouth and big ego, or my hours spent reading research!

That being said, having worked in a team full of killers, as I have been known to call them, my competency has given me respect amongst my colleagues. I was fortunate enough to work for a good few years with the most argumentative and competent bunch of English teachers I can imagine have ever been assembled. At our best our arguments were combative and thought provoking but they were always well intentioned, they always had the kids in mind. I don’t have that in my current department because I realise that this takes time to grow but working in that team of killers means I’ve very few ideas left to be questioned. I’ve argued my ideas out countless times, and come up short countless times. I’ve borrowed the best ideas and formulated a vision. Implement that it turns out, is just a bit trickery than bombarding your Head of Department with it.

I have to end really simply though by saying, I am absolutely loving it and I just want to keep on getting better and better at it.



How to make your classroom more efficient. Clue-you don’t have to be a brain surgeon.


“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.” Atul Gawande, ‘The Checklist Manifesto.’


Teachers make on average between 1000 and 1500 decisions a day [Good and Brophy (2008) and Murray (1986)]. Each day we process an overwhelming amount of data and we process it to make more decisions than brain surgeons. Our working lives are increasingly complex and as a result we all make many small, but incremental mistakes or oversights. These oversights slow lessons and cause inefficiency, yet teachers (myself included are incredibly resistant to any support which we feels removes our professional status. Most likely because this status feels precarious in the current climate. Yet, I recently read a book that made me challenge my view on an area I did not believe could be challenged.

This comparison to doctors is a useful one, especially given that the book was written by surgeon, Atul Gawande. If Atul makes an error, for instance forgetting to wash his hands, he puts a patient’s life in jeopardy. The research told him that these small avoidable oversights occur more than 75,000 times a year in operating rooms. Worst still they cause avoidable deaths. Gawande’s found a surprisingly simple tool to resolve this issue, the checklist. When surgeons and nurses  in his hospital started using checklists before surgery deaths reduced by 47 percent. This shouldn’t be surprising other industries, such as construction, have a human error rate of  around 0.00002%

Resistance to Checklists

So why the resistance. Well, Atul explains that for himself and his fellow surgeons checklists somehow feel “beneath us ….an embarrassment.” It ran counter to their vision of themselves, “The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists” he explains. Yet, lives were being lost and so something needed to change “Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

My old hero BJ Fogg can help in overcoming the resistance of using checklists. Fogg’s work on habits tells us that the checklists will need to be efficient and effective. The more efficient, the more likely it’ll  be used. It needs to be easy enough, and effective enough that no arguments can be presented against it. And yet, it should never be finished as a document, for fear that people stop questioning it. John Wolstenholme, a highly respected teacher who is somewhat of an institution at my current school, once said, “you can never take their behaviour for granted.” That seems to be at the core of the purpose of the checklist. Never sleeping on the fundamentals.

Pause Point

Every checklist must have a clear trigger – a location or routine action that reminds you to pause and complete the checklist. See Fogg’s work on habit for more on this.


The books advises that a checklist should take less than 60 seconds to complete – any longer and you’ll start taking shortcuts. It should have no more than 10 items, in the book these are referred to as ‘killer’ items, if missed these cause poor quality and catastrophic inefficiency. In short, they have adverse effects on other people. Each item on a checklist should be a short and concise reminder of a routine that you are familiar with. For example, a pre-surgery checklist includes: “verify reserve blood.” This item description is sufficient for surgeons and so it should be the same for yourself, or your team.

Here’s an example of my first draft of my own checklist.

  • ALL resources ready
  • PowerPoint loaded
  • Any absent last lesson- support?
  • Whiteboard clean? If not, purpose?
  • Tidy room?
  • Lesson reviewed (compared to when last taught/planned/similar lesson.
  • Required knowledge for this lesson.
  • Revisiting – retrieval knowledge.
  • Journey understood – next steps for student progress
  • Classroom for removed students.

All of this might be different for colleagues at different points in their journey. Some of them are debatable and remember this is just my initial draft. However, it is important to remember these are just my initial draft and even completing this 30 or so word list has given me room for reflection.

Your thoughts.

What would be in your list?

Which ones of mine are pointless/needless?




Praise: How do we deal with orchids and dandelions? 

Imagine two twins. They are in the front garden playing happily on a summer’s day; their mother has just nipped in to get some lemonade, she is confident that her child is completely safe. They live in a very quiet neighbourhood. One of the twins has walked over towards the play house near the swing and has snuggled in to the seat inside, this twin is preparing for an afternoon nap. The other twin is walking towards the gate of the house, she has seen a furry creature and has decided to pet it. All of a sudden the creature turns around, it is a fully grown Irish Wolfhound, all 8 foot of it. Curious and excited, she pulls its tail and within the blink of an eye the dog has turned on her. It pushes it’s full height up against the gate and barks loudly. The mother inside doesn’t hear a thing. The dog owner turns sharply and drags the pet away, he thinks it is in a very excitable mood and takes it to the field for a good run. The little girl cries at the gate, unsure as to what her mistake was and petrified. When the mother comes out she sees one child crying and the other asleep and decides that they are both over-tired and need their beds. She carries them both up and turns off the light.

Many years later, when these two attend school, teachers will note the marked difference in their ability to stick with challenging tasks or respond with appropriate emotions. Child A, the sleepy twin, is seen as what some called a ‘Dandelion’ a tough flower which can survive any circumstances; whereas Child B, the curious tail puller, is seen as an ‘Orchid’ a flower which needs all conditions to be perfect to flourish.

It is possible that just such an incident could prove to be damaging for the second twin for the rest of their lives. In difficult lessons (and situations in general) they feel a terrible fear and stress ruins all their best efforts. The first twin, the napping twin, thrives in all aspects of school life. Perhaps this seems ridiculous, but studies of identical twins, where one twin has been exposed to trauma stressor but the other twin has not, have shown roughly an overall heritability of a form of stress disorder ranging from 32-38% (Southwick and Chandey, 2012.) Genetics do play a role in our ability to be resilient but that they are only part of the story.

From a teacher’s point of view this is fantastic, asked recently by a friend what I thought made successful students I stated four key factors- focus, obsession, curiosity and resilience. I don’t have space here to unpack all of them but the last of the four in many ways seems to be the most important. I think we have all taught students who need support with resilience, but often it can feel like something we don’t have any involvement in this area. However, recent research seems to show this to be not true.  There are specific interventions that can be done as a whole school, but more importantly many of the lessons learnt from the study seem extremely applicable to our classrooms and in particular how we praise and manage behaviour.
In America university researchers  initiated a program where they monitored high-risk children in schools and across communities and provide timely intervention to help them learn how to deal with stress

A study by Belsky et al was carried out on nearly 1,000 four-year-olds with behavioural problems or issues around stress and anxiety. They were put through a 10-year intervention program which taught them social skills and coping mechanisms. Their parents attended behaviour-management training programs. In addition, the study all provided, home visits and peer coaching sessions.
The findings were remarkable, it was found that those individuals who went through the interventional program reported lower instances of violent criminal behaviour and drug-crime convictions and higher well-being index later in life than those “orchid” children who did not go through the program. The earlier it was started the better (Bierman et al, 2015.)

What advice did I gleam from these studies and what can we do to help orchid students?

  • Use duty time and corridors to correct social mistakes.
  • Praise students for their hard work and resilience. Notice when they overcome difficulty.
  • Manage behaviour from a positive place- explain that you believe in the students and that is why you are checking their behaviour.
  • Provide scaffold for specific students- those who we struggle to manage their stress in times of challenge.
  • Take responsibility for students learning explicitly- if anxious students are nervous to start explain that you have provided a structure and that if the outcomes isn’t the right one, then you can adjust the scaffold.
  • Create a classroom culture which emphasises learning and not outcomes.

Albert, D., Belsky, D., Crowley, D., Latendresse, S., Aliev, F., Riley, B., , ., Dick, D., & Dodge, K. (2015). Can Genetics Predict Response to Complex Behavioral Interventions? Evidence from a Genetic Analysis of the Fast Track Randomized Control Trial Journal of Policy Analysis and Management DOI: 10.1002/pam.21811
Dodge, K., Bierman, K., Coie, J., Greenberg, M., Lochman, J., McMahon, R., Pinderhughes, E., & , . (2015). Impact of Early Intervention on Psychopathology, Crime, and Well-Being at Age 25 American Journal of Psychiatry, 172 (1), 59-70 DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13060786

A prospective teacher visits an ‘outstanding’ school.

Recently a friend of mine, who I’ve been trying to persuade to join the teaching profession since we first met, went to observe at an ‘outstanding’ school in their area. For obvious reasons I will not be naming this area, but I will say that my friend does not live near where I am from or where I currently live.  The experience has left them feeling like avoiding teaching forever, and I can’t blame them. The following is their experience in their own words, some details are changed for the purposes of anonymity.

Striding towards the industrial tower block building that houses this ‘outstanding school, I am awe struck by the behaviour of the students. Beneath the bridge that takes students under the road and towards the school building, many of them are openly smoking yards away from teachers. Their flash mobile phones read the same as mine, but while I pick up the pace to ensure I don’t miss the agreed meeting time with Mrs Brown; these boys light up another loosely rolled cigarette moments before the bell. The scent of nicotine still glued to my jacket, and the sound of shrill screaming ringing in my ear, I ask at reception if Mrs Brown has arrived to take me on my tour. She has not. She is dealing with an incident. Nobody seems to have been made aware that I was even coming. Not only is this building nothing like the one my own education occurred in, but the attitude of its students is also so far detached from my personal experience that I do not know where to look. I shrink into myself.

I have been persuaded to arrive at this building by a long-term friend. We no longer live in the same city, but we inhabit the same beliefs. We both attended fairly robust schools, mine in particular was prison-like and my fellow prisoners were at times cruel beyond belief. We both grew up in poverty, mine arguably more extreme. Regardless, we are both obsessed by social justice. He argues his work is a daily commitment to this, while mine is  a hollow purposeless pursuit of wealth. He tells me of his school where rules matter, and where children achieve excellence as a result. He tells me of students, who despite the challenges in their lives, some of which shock even me, go on to achieve phenomenal success. For many of you reading this, and for the majority of my friends with children of school age, this success may be more what you would identify with you children’s school. But it is most definitely not what this school is offering.

I believe that education is the only way to secure a functioning democracy, and it is because of that I am considering a career in teaching. It is because of that, that I feel schools must set meaningful rules and stick to them. It is because of that, that I know transmitting knowledge to students without fear is the best chance for social mobility, justice and equality.

Perhaps you are one of those people who argue that ‘poor kids’ have a hard enough time without teachers getting on their back, and I’m not disputing that some children have tough lives. But, I am disputing whether that is a kind action. I’m not coming into this starry eyed, but apparently there are those who believe that being ‘kind’ means being ‘lenient’ with certain students. That this is the only way to truly increase equality. I couldn’t disagree more. When people fail in my current role, we support them but we certainly don’t shift the goal posts. If anything we help them to see more is possible.

I wonder what to tell my friend. That I would go into teaching if it wasn’t like this? That I had a lovely time but it’s not for me? That I would like to see his school instead? None of it seems sufficient. I decided to tell him simply that I feel the sector is not for me. He will surely ask for details, but I don’t want to tell him about the boy who nonchalantly screwed up his work as he left Science, or about the girl who spent a whole English lesson moving her pen but not writing a single word. I decide not to tell him about the deputy-head who told me that the only thing that matters are GCSE results. I decide to simply tell him the story of my day. The bleak lessons, in the bleak building will sufficiently fill in the blanks.

As I leave the building, the bell still ringing in my ears, a boy turns to his friend and says “who is he?” I turn around. The other boy replies, “probably just some supply teacher who can’t hack this place.” I debate confronting them, but nothing I can think to say will change how they feel about their school or themselves and that, is all that matters. The grim and grey building stretches far up into the bleak clouds above. I am an educator, but I am not a teacher.

I’ve been trying to persuade Teacher A to join the profession for nearly six years, when they went to visit their local secondary I was convinced they’d catch the bug. The fact that they had not been put off by all the negative press or financial implications, suggested to me that they had finally ‘come round’ ….I guess the above is living proof that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Their experience is what makes pulls me towards teaching, but I can understand how it would pushing some away too.

Reflection: our most powerful tool and how it can stop us from being idiots (hose, in different area codes.)

During the summer holidays I was fortunate enough to stay in a friend of a friends villa in the south of France. What was lovely about it was that I was in a genuine environment and not the cold veneer of comfort which hotels often smack of.

I would get out of bed, set up the cafetière and then walk for a pastry. It was simple and idyllic. In the afternoon there were some jobs around the house- which I completed with varying degrees of success. One of these jobs was to water the plants using a hose, seems simple enough. Except some days it was not. Some days the hose would splutter. Fortunately, I found the solution; you simply needed to turn the connector at the bottom and bang back to full power. Except it didn’t always work. Some days it simply carried on spluttering. This inconsistency in outcomes was infuriating.

A few days into this problem I noticed a latch of sorts attached near the handle. It was lodged hard against the lever, I popped it back into position and the spluttering stopped.

The point here is, what I thought was the solution was actually not. Sometimes unscrewing the connector released the latch, sometimes it didn’t. Yet, I was so convinced that the first method worked simply because it had worked once. This led me to thinking about teaching, what else could I be still doing repeatedly because it had worked once? Have I ever blamed the ‘equipment’ while using the wrong method? Have I stepped back often enough and really thought about the process I’m applying?

So as I stood staring at a hose in Provence- I found myself questioning my practice. But most importantly I found myself questioning my mentality. How often as professionals do we submit to the possibility that we might have it all wrong? Obviously we don’t have it all wrong, but it is a useful question to ask yourself all the same. In a role which can be incredibly challenging we could be forgiven for not asking ourselves such debilitating questions. But what if your teaching could be made simpler, easier and more (consistently) successful by once in a while annoying yourself with a series of difficult questions about your habits and biases.

Questions to probe:

  • What if the method I use in situation X is wrong?
  • How would I explain my process to a naïve observer?
  • How would I justify my process to my harshest critic?
  • Why did I think that process would work?
  • What if I made this too simple?
  • How would I plan tomorrow’s lesson if it had to be a cover lesson?
  • What do my students think the process is?
  • Which three pieces of knowledge would transform these students performance/learning?
  • What if the student failed because of me?
  • What biases do I carry about learning/teaching my subject?
  • How is my own experience of learning this subject biasing my approach?
  • What if I did the opposite for 24 hours?
  • Who else is being successful? Are any of these people outliers in their approach?

Final thought.

I think it is important that we question everything we do, we owe that much to our students. However, I also think its about time we stop beating ourselves up for our errors. So many teachers take to twitter after having had a bad day at work, they chastise themselves and I think it’s idiotic. Achieving excellence is never about avoiding failure. It is about looking at the ‘black box’ and seeing why you crashed, then doing something about it. We need to get out of our heads (not in that way) as a profession, we need to be kinder to ourselves and we need to reflect with a level of self-care and detachment.

Vocabulary: My new approach.

A few years ago I played football with a very handsome young man, he was an actor and a model. On the surface his life was very simple, it basically involved being paid for being himself. He rarely got acting jobs where he was asked to do anything other than be himself, and his modelling relied on his looks and his natural athleticism. One day he was asked to attend an audition for a national soap opera; he couldn’t believe his luck. They’d head hunted him and they’d created a role for him. He couldn’t lose, or so he thought. Dressed in an expensive brand of clothing comping he’d recently modeled for he strode into the audition. It started out simple enough, “Dave (not his real name), we need to run you through a couple of bits to see how you take direction” -this, I’m reassured is fairly standard audition process. O.K he thinks, I’ve been doing this for the last ten years: light work! Then the dreaded words, “OK Dave, could you just be bashful.” He was stumped, expletives ran through his brain, but no definition and at that he froze. His reaction was nothing short of comical. He marched up and down singing ‘Heigh ho! Heigh ho’ …. “No, no,” says the director charitably, “not be Bashful, be bashful.” Next he tries, ‘bashing’ things. “Thanks Dave, that’s great” Needless to say, you’ve not heard of this friend of mine and you never will, well not through soap operas anyway. My point is simple, vocabulary is very important!

I’m going to start this blog with the assumption that you’ve picked 20 or so words that you want to teach your students this half term, and instead I’m going to focus on how best to explain these new words to your students.

It’s fair to say that memory and, how we access our students long term memory is a pretty complex process. The landscape seems to be constantly shifting and the more we learn the less simplistic it all appears to be. On a fundamental level there are some basic principles which we can focus on. Namely, timing (when  we repeat information-retrieval practice) and explanation (how we present the information.) Timing is to big an issue to cover at the same time, so let me narrow down to the ‘how.’

For many years I assumed that the best way to explain a new piece of vocabulary was to present it using an unusual example. If the word was ruthless for instance, I would first give the students a definition – “Ruthless boys and girls means ‘having or showing no pity or compassion for others’ and an example of this would be….” I would then give a frankly bonkers example of being ruthless. They usually involved sharks, old ladies and mafia bosses riding elephants. “Oh! How creative and wacky I am” I would say to myself.  I’m such a great teacher, they love the stories about ruthless Grandma’s attacking mafia bosses for treating the elephant cruelly.

On some level I should have been nervous about this approach. I enjoyed creating these examples and the patterns became a bit of an in joke, a form of rapport building. However, there is clearly far too much interference. The words are memorable because they are useful, everything else is white noise. The use of the same series of odd images made this even worse, there was nothing for the students to distinguish between the example for ruthless and exploit. The mafia boss had exploited the elephant…blah,blah, blah.

In their work on memory aids Einstein, MacDonald & Lackey (1989) discuss how different approaches may be more useful for different information. For example, a mnemonic which uses an exciting (and original) image may be useful (Bower, 1980) ; however, for vocabulary this images, become clustered. What is required, they suggest, is multiple exposure in the context the language is required and so I’ve adjusted my approach.

Recently, and somewhat unsuccessfully, I shared a document which I believe if we all pushed forward could revolutionise our teaching of vocabulary. My strategy now is simple, and four pronged. First I explain what the words mean, always with different examples, usually relating to their lives or texts I know they’ve previously studied, this builds on solid foundation. Next the students match the definition to the new word, I make a point of them over-learning these definitions. I’ve decided that the sweet spot is when they are bored of the task (more on that some other time.)

Next I give them cloze sentences, these are associated with the text we are studying. For example, “In his cruel and brutal beating of his native butler, Dr Roylott shows his _______________ nature.” One issue I’ve found in creating these examples is that words like ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ must also be understood and I always over estimate what the students can do. Once a student is comfortable with these examples I move away from the context and come up with more unique examples. It is worth mentioning that an example like, “Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw could be seen as ___________ ” is not a good example. Yes, the students understand this and it is relevant to many of their lives, but Donald Trump, Jose Mourinho or whoever else you care to mention will not be relevant in two decades time. In fact, Mourinho seems to be treating Shaw a little nicer these days and so the example is already dated. Your examples must be universal and so archetypal characters may be much more useful – “The stingy boss was __________ when he sacked all his staff so that he could keep his bonus.”ruthless.jpg

Your next step is to get the students to match synonyms/antonyms to the words. I would suggest doing these as a multiple choice question, for the simple reason that this gives you the chance to tease out what is different about the word ruthless compared to, say, ‘cruel’ or ‘unsympathetic.’ A great question to ask students at this point is, which word is most similar to ‘ruthless’ and why. This will clearly show you any misunderstandings the students have. Creating multiple choice questions is arduous to say the least, but you will definitely be able to use these next year and the year after, so stick with it.

Finally, and unfortunately this is the one which requires the most marking, you will need to get the students to come up with their own example of the word in a sentence. These will need to show clear understanding of the word. My personal rule is that I should not be able to ask “How was the person ‘ruthless’?” and that the word should obviously be used correctly. If you’ve given the students good enough examples they shouldn’t find this too challenging. This is the most important step, a student remembering that their teacher believes Roylott to be ruthless is not learning. It is a temporary state. It will not get them through a job interview (should the interviewer ask a question requiring the vocabulary you picked) or even enable them to analyse a spikey Portuguese football manager down the pub with their mates.

The task of making all these resources for each unit is not easy, but it is worth now “heigh ho! heigh ho! it’s off to work on our vocabulary resources we go.”

Links to my resources for this can be found here and the spreadsheet you can help add to is here.

After thought.

A fantastic way of revisiting these words is to give them an image of a ‘ruthless’ looking figure and ask them to describe the figure. I’ve only just started playing with this, but the responses so far have been great. Students throw all the words they’ve learnt at the image, and then have to justify for example how the individual is ‘malevolent’ et cetera.

80/20 Principle for GCSE Literature exams.

In November of last year I sat down with Chris Runeckles to discuss some success I had with my Year Eleven students. During the discussion we found that one of the key things I had done was to select the perfect elements for students to learn, and then repeat those elements again and again. I thought the students would hate it, but they’d appreciate it was necessary.

The basic principle I’d applied was that 20% of a thing often provides  80% of the results, therefore identifying  this 20% and focusing your energies there is obviously the most important use of everyone’s time. The difficulty comes in identifying the 20% and it is in fact a risky business. Get it wrong and students are armed with less than they require. However, get it right and your charges are armed with the most vital knowledge and plenty of time to elaborate on it.

The idea sprung from one student, who knew only a little of the core materials but was able to get top marks consistently. She’d distilled everything from the course and only accepted knowledge that had worked for her in mocks. Now, keep in mind that a lot of what she was able to do was because I had detail marked every paragraph. As a result, she was able to see exactly what worked and what didn’t, perhaps more importantly why it worked. This was not the most time effective way of leading to her success, and I didn’t even know it was happening.

The way I came to realise all of this was pure happenstance, I’d seated this student next to a boy who had the opposite problem. This boy knew 100% of the course, and yet he consistently fell below what he could achieve. You may think I’m exaggerating, but by way of illustration I will confess that I began to use him as a check for any declarative knowledge I was unsure of. Some things I’d taught and forgotten, this young chap, seemingly had forgotten nothing. I’ll blog about him some other time. I’ve learnt a lot from my failures with him.

The strategies, once I’d identified the core content, were easy enough. But identifying that content is the first and most important step on this journey.

First you’ll need to identify the key themes of the text. Don’t just google it, the key is what you think are the key themes – google after you’ve decided this will set you off debating and further your knowledge of the actual text. Next pick 40 or so quotes you feel are really important. Don’t be put off by this, you are considering too many options so that you can narrow them down effectively. I suggest the following methods: which ones have a technique attached to them, which ones cover the most themes and finally which ones make the most interesting analysis. The ones you can analyse in multiple ways are most helpful to your students, if there are several words they can narrow down to then you’re probably looking at a good quote to keep.

Another way to approach this is to look up quotations on apps like memrise, or in books such as the excellent ‘quotation bank’ series which evaluate and analyse quotes. Identify which ones frequently come up and check them against the criteria above. This may be quicker, but possibly less effective than the method I use.

Next which pieces of context fit best with these quotes. This may take some time but one easy approach is to scour the web for knowledge organisers on this particular text. Which theorists, thinker, idea or historical knowledge fits with the largest number of quotes? This is the quote you should teach and the knowledge you should put alongside of it. Make sure there is enough variety, imagine a student arrived today in your class knowing nothing; if they learnt all of the 20% could they go in and flow with any exam.

You’ll notice at this stage you’re scrapping myriad ideas, remember these are just the ones you will be drilling. You don’t have to abandon all your work. I spent two weeks debating which 20% I would teach prior to the exam. It wasn’t easy and I certainly made mistakes. But designing the curriculum is half the battle, teaching the content is simply being the artist you already are.

Finally, test the key content against exam boards questions. Could you really use it for every question? You will find some questions throw you, adapt your 20%. Use exam boards your students aren’t studying, use questions that have never been asked but test the endurance and durability of your 20%. I even tested mine against an ‘A Christmas Carol’ question that I knew wouldn’t come up: ‘How does Dickens present time in this extract?’ I knew no examiner would be so cruel, but once my 20% passed this test I knew it was the right content.


Don’t worry about students only knowing 20%, you’ve taught them for two years. Someone else taught them for three years before that and so on and so forth. They will arrive with far more than 20%, but be reassured that with 2/3 months to go you gave them the bits that really matter.

Example to fine tune your selection.

I often find examples more illuminating than explanation, so here goes nothing. This is how I made decisions around ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Let’s imagine that you have to pick between two excellent quotes,  “If men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire, blood and anguish,” and  “she impertinently made us of our name.” In my opinion the former is a far better one to teach using the 80-20 principle. First of all, it could be described as a tripartite/rule of three, whereas the second could be labelled as a declarative, I say could because there are many other ways of labeling them. This prejudices me against the second example for a number of reasons, foremost the label ‘declarative’ does not help us to analyse; it is pure labeling but it is obvious that the tripartite is having an effect. Arguably both quotes fit with two themes, at least and so this leaves both of them as pretty viable quotes. However, the fact that ‘fire, blood and anguish’ alludes to both the wars and hell makes it better for discussing the playwright’s purpose and delving into impact on the (largely Christian audience.) Equally, the language is significantly better for narrowing down to details in the first example and you don’t need me to explain that one to you. None of this is to say you can’t teach both, I for one do; I have picked these examples because they are both excellent quotes and therefore as useful for explain the minute details of the decision making.

How to use the 20%:

  • Model paragraphs based on key quotes.
  • Mark paragraphs based on key quotes.
  • ASk ‘Only Conntext questions’ things they wont ever best asked that link the text, who is the cruellest Scrooge or Birling? etc.
  • Start every lesson with 10-20 key questions, do not rotate these until everyone can answer them. BUT…elaborate on the factual recall. Ask those who got it wrong yesterday for factual recall, but request an elaborative question from those who got it right a week ago.
  • Ask them to re-write their paragraphs together.
  • Ask them to re-write their paragraphs for homework.
  • Get them to plan essays based on a whole variety of questions, even the ones you know won’t come up.

Try this link for ‘An Inspector Calls’ quotes –


Guest Blog: Final instalment from Rob Howe

  1. Why a guest blog? Because my friend has a totally different take on what our core purpose as beings, educators and elders is and I don’t want my brain to callus. I have my biases and interacting with those deep in thought punctures these.

    2. I don’t see why not!

    3. Here it is.


Across the globe we are undergoing a period of great transition. We are moving from one reality into another. From an ecological perspective we can see that we are moving into a paradigm of sustainability. To be successful in our transition it’s important we relate and behave towards the world, ourselves and each other differently to what we are presently accustomed to.


Our sustainable future depends on a collective shift in consciousness that sees us switch from external to internal yardsticks in our decision making. We become less concerned by materialism and are guided by a sense of inner rightness: “does this seem right? Am I being true to myself? Is this in line with who I sense I’m called to become? Am I being of service to the world?


The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves. Life is seen as a collective unfolding toward our true nature. Instead of setting goals in our life, dictating what direction it should take, we learn to let go and listen to the life that wants to be lived through us.”[1]


This way of being is radically different to what we have grown up with and been socialised by. Education of a sustainable future has to account for this evolution in consciousness and being – aiding individuals and groups, not just to evolve, but to be supported in their process of living and unfolding as well. From this point of view we see that formal structures, which presently exist, are too limited in their scope of support. They operate from a lower form of consciousness, which we’ve begun to outgrow and transcend.

Our thriving is dependent on our reconnection with village, not of place, but a village of relationships, interests and roles. Villages are vehicles of reconnection and are intergenerational. Villages recognise the different phases of our lives and the roles we play whilst moving through a certain phase. Childhood; adolescent rites of passage; the search by young adults for personal vision and purpose; entering a period of deeper service; becoming community leaders in our 40s and teachers for the youth in our 60s and beyond, providing spiritual guidance and direction for the un-initiated – are all phases which the village recognises, holds and supports.

Rob Blog

All in the village are engaged in the process of finding, being connected to and working from our creative path. We recognise the importance of understanding our gift and we are committed and are aware of the importance of sharing our gift with the world, so we can be in service to ourselves, each other and future generations.


The village remedies the ill of disconnection at the heart of our unsustainable culture. Our priorities in the village become one of connecting with nature – both externally in the world and internally within ourselves. It is understood that the future belongs to the nature smart. Mentors play an integral role in supporting the unfolding of the life process of a mentee’s life journey. It is understood by all that a double challenge is encountered whilst walking one’s path – following the calls of one’s deeper purpose and nature, whilst meeting the needs placed upon us by life and modernity.


As a result of gaining a sense of place, of being more connected to self and nature and of knowingly being in service to our planet and a higher purpose, our sensitivity and awareness will inevitably develop. Walking the path towards a deeper life of satisfaction and meaning will bring us to feel deep pain and suffering caused by colonialism, the tragedy of homelessness, the inhumane treatment of refugees and the trauma experienced from wars. It’s important the village supports us in tending to our grief so we can rebuild trust in our relationships, finding love and compassion, which will help us all to heal.

[1] Laloux, F, (2014), Pp 45, ’Reinventing Organisations. A guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness’, Nelson Parker, Brussels

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.