Why my Year 7 students need a strong grasp on irony.

“It’s like ra-a-a-ain on you’re wedding day – that’s only ironic if you’re marrying a weatherman and he set the date.” Ed Byrne on the Alanis Morissette song ‘Ironic.’

As Ed Byrne points out Ms. Morissette’s grasp on irony is at the very least debatable. Somewhere her English teacher is either devastated, or extremely proud. Alanis seems to have missed the point of that key term. Alternatively, she has understood it so well that she was able to create a song about irony which contains only erroneous examples, ironically.

Given the frequency with which she likely encountered this word it seems odd that she had not mastered its most fundamental concept. Irony is an ever present feature of narrative, humour and daily life. It is mentioned four times in context in the film ‘Treasure Planet’, which I watched with my friends and their kids (aged 6-10) the other night. Yet Alanis is most certainly not alone in not understanding. Having taught A level English language a few years ago I was shocked to see how many students did not know the key terminology of the course. Frustrated, I resolved to teach this terminology to all my groups, including Year 7.

The effect was some fairly awkward observations, whereby the students used the terms either constantly or incorrectly, or both. The observers commented on how they didn’t need to know this yet. Maybe they were right but how else are they to know it by A level. My colleague Bridget Norman, introduced us to the research of McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople recently.  They found that ‘children did not really know and understand words they had only encountered four times, but they did know and understand words they encountered twelve times. ‘ Twelve meaningful times in a two year course is near impossible- the journey to having the requisite language for expression is obviously going to be far longer than that.

Year 7 need to experience the language they need for the subject. Language is a concept and without concepts they cannot possibly articulate their views on the text being studied. There is nothing fundamentally more complex about some words than others, we feel we can rank but these rankings are almost certainly arbitrary. I did not understand the word ‘adverb’ until my undergraduate degree, yet I had the words ‘hamartia, semantic fields, and etymology’ at my disposal. The only difference was that I’d been taught those words. Being asked to analyse a text without the appropriate language is, after all, somewhat like having ‘10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.’ If the target terminology needs to be encountered twelve times then that needs to begin as soon as possible. It needs to be revisited and it needs to be expected in all of our students writing and verbal responses.

However, it is not just key terminology I am targeting, I want to expand their vocabulary too. All aspects of my subject are underpinned by the size of a child’s vocabulary. Low vocabulary, low comprehension and limited expression. Each group will have fifteen key new words to learn this half term. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, found that children from “higher income families were exposed to around 30 million more words than children from families on welfare”and the  achievement gap between PP and non-PP is a gulf nationally, it seems logical to suggest that there may be a link and something needs to be done. If only so students can understand the texts they read, “In order comprehend a text we need to know an estimated 95% of its vocabulary” ED Hirsch Jr Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World. Without a broad vocabulary students WILL be left behind, and in being left behind likely to continue the familial cycle of poverty.

As a result all of my lessons this term will be starting with a vocabulary activity. I’ve planned to use a mixture of progressive disclosure and bulked approach in teaching this key vocabulary. The students have been given a half-termly vocabulary list which they can revise from. I’ve also set homework so using the app ‘memrise’ to support this key knowledge. In addition I’m using the language regularly in lessons and having terminology analysis as a key focus across many lessons.

The vocabulary activities at the start of the lesson are planned out over the course of the half term. They begin with matching exercises, before progressing to antonym/synonym recognition and finally using the words in sentences. For example, I frequently ask Year 9 to describe a character from the text using one of the fifteen words, before justifying their selections. It is a really neat starter which hopefully should support excellent depth analysis. In addition to this, I use the words in my language as a focus- this is difficult to remember to do and the top end are finding it quite annoying, but in dropping these words in (plus a synonym or two) I’m hoping to make it stick. In the future, I may need to think about stretching the top end but I need to be certain that they’ve secured this language first and that these methods are working.

I am still in the earlier days of this practice but I am already seeing results. Students know begin responses with phrases like “Roylett is shown as ruthless here, his medical background indicates his obvious knowledge of the writhing agony Miss Stoner will experience.” Previously, I know for a fact they wouldn’t have used this type of language. I’m interested to incorporate ‘Slow Writing’ (detailed here) and Katie Ashford’s ‘Show Sentences’ discussed here.

How to teach them, and make them stick:

  • Memrise and similar apps.
  • Erroneous examples.
  • Antonyms and synonyms.
  • Using target language.
  • Regular quizzing with progressive difficulty.
  • Application to text/work studied.
  • Cloze sentences.
  • Student created examples.


Over the next year I am going to make this a key focus in my lessons and really zoom in on getting analytical data for the mot effective methods.  I will gather plenty of data and vary the methods across a broad group of students, and based on that I’ll try to cement some good practice. I intend to read a little more on the subjects and Andy Tharby has already recommended Isabel Beck’s book ‘Bringing words to life’ and I intend to delve into this for some strategies and deep thinking.


Zlatan kids- Listen don’t listen.

Over the Christmas break I was fortunate enough to be able to read several books which had been gathering dust since Christmas. One of which was a biography about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the enigmatic and temperamental P.S.G striker.  I often pick a sports biography to read in leisure time, mainly because they are easy to read and I know enough about the context that I can have long breaks from reading it.

Zlatan is the exact sort of footballer I loved as a child, he is capable of the magical moments which make people stand up out of their seats. He is completely bonkers and unpredictable. My childhood hero was Eric Cantona, and I see a lot of similarities between the two. As a young man these type of men seemed to be the ones to aspire to, the physical capable, and yet clowning, alpha. In adulthood I still enjoy players, and people, like Zlatan because they are divergent thinkers and do the unexpected. To me there is an authenticity in this. I recognise these type of children in my classroom and often think how misunderstood they are.

In the imaginatively entitled ‘Zlatan’, he talks about growing up in Rosengard, a tough area of Malmo; Sweden. The area, and it’s attitude, reminded of the place I grew up. The attitude of such locations in my experience is a natural cynicism and a questioning of authority; when he talks about his attitude towards coaches I can’t help but smile. He describes his method as ‘listen, don’t listen.’ Essentially questioning every teacher who attempts to improve him in favouring of being an authentic self.  It is essentially a statement of critique everything, and again I recognise this sense in myself and the attitude of those I grew up around. Watching the news on my estate was pretty entertaining, there was always a story underneath the story. While this may seem like conspiracy theory delusions,  it is worth remembering that these hunches have been proven accurate: historical evidence at Hillsborough enquiry, Thatcher’s declaration to allow certain cities to ‘rot’ and key aspects of the ‘Chilcot Report.’


I feel that this constant critiquing of given methods, is a fundamental part of what makes these people so creative. The link between council estates and creative appears to be strong, most British art (rock and fashion especially) have their origins in these types of backgrounds: this was especially prevalent in the 1990’s and I suppose I believe there is a link between this type of upbringing (listen, don’t listen) and that divergent non conformist thinking.


However with age I’ve come to realise that follow neat structure is actually a way to develop and is apparent throughout Ibrahimović’s book that he did follow patterns. He would regularly play football in the street whereby the rules of the game were fundamental clear and he would’ve experience patterns of play at an increased level . Following structures, is the most convenient way to master functional skills- without progress through this initial mastery all the divergent thinking in the world is useless. Einstein often talked about the importance of imagination above knowledge, I would agree that if we assume everyone has a requisite knowledge base then imagination is the differentiation factor. It is this single thing that determines the outliers in a group of, for example, graduates. However without knowledge this imaginative interpretation would be lacking. For instance, I distinctly remember a paper I wrote for my Year 5 teaching in which I proposed that the universe was singular because space was infinite and if there were other universes then there wouldn’t be infinite space. Therefore, only one universe was possible. I still can’t remember why I was wrong, but essentially what I’d read about the idea of multi-verses and space was wrong. My foundation knowledge was lacking even though I’d considered the problem in a creative way.

What is useful about this method though is the engaging in thought and processes. Arguing with an imagined interlocutor, is essentially unpicking the concept and assess It’s validity. This inevitably would lead to a person seeing things in different way. In a school setting we often diminish students for the very same behaviour that leads to this top end skill set.


I do believe it is vital that we allow an appropriate place for this. What I love most about footballers, artists and musicians is their ability to do the unexpected. Ibrahimovic is a prime example of that. In the clip below he mesmerises the defence in a way which few others could do, his gal and vision to attempt this are as though sent from above. An ‘Ole’ moment in the original sense of ‘a gift from god’…but what is best about this is that it makes my wife, a non-football fan, split her sides laughing. This is the end point of ‘listen, don’t listen’ but the real question is how do we appreciate this in those students who have it, and coach it into those who don’t.  All while, simultaneously, an egalitarian environment where all  students grow AND an environment where the Zlatan kids can gain the pre-requisites for their divergent thinking to have real impact on the world. It is also vital we teach them how to use these skills in a way that is sustainable in polite society, one thing that is clear about Ibrahimovic is how hard he made life for himself with this approach- BUT perhaps the two cannot be divided.

Why don’t they listen when we are modelling?

Eggen and Kauchak’s in ‘Educational Psychology’ define modeling as “changes in people that result from observing the actions of others.” In short, it is a game of imitation whereby we, the expert, explain the process of the action we wish students to undertake and perform the action live.

It may seem grand and unusual when applied to ones own subject, but is likely the most ancient skill of the teacher. We model all the time whether we realise it or not, in passing pens to students not throwing them, and in explaining how we unpick a question. From Bandura to Bjork, it has been found to be one of the most effective ways in which skills and behaviours are transferred. 

I think that humans know that this is one of the best ways to learn intuitively, yet when we model live often 3 or 4 students will not be paying full attention and need reminders. It seems odd to me that they can’t see the value in watching the thing they’re about to struggle with – which leaves one simple question ‘why?’ Why would you choose to ignore a useful working of the problem, when you know it helps. 

I asked one such student recently if he thought my talking through things like this was useful to him, he replied that it was one of the few ways he learns at the same speed as others. Yet, he frequently doesn’t listen fully to it. As exasperating as this is, something he said triggered a possible explanation. Almost throwaway, he said “I didn’t listen today because it didn’t seem that hard, until I had to start it myself.” 

The student hadn’t realised how far away excellence was, perhaps because he hadn’t bought into my explanation, or because he was satisfied with his current ability. In his book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence,’ Rom Berger describes, how excellence is ‘transformative.’

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

I believe that this is the case, but I think perception of the task at hand might feed into that. For some students a sense of things being easy might be incredibly appealing. Whereas for another, they may need to feel that they are drowning before asking for a rubber ring, or even seeing the value in one. This could happen across the ability range because it is a character trait not an academic one. 

This does leave us with an issue, one of judgement. Do we throw all students in the deep end before we model, while simultaneously telling others it will be a doddle for them? That seems unsustainable. Inevitably, demotivation would occur in significant number of students and maintaining positive relationships in the classroom would become extremely difficult when some students seem ‘special.’

Perhaps the solution is just to make it clear that a task is difficult, yet point to skills involved students already have and show how they support this new text. One solution to this, according to Agodini et al. (2009), is a ‘well-sequenced curriculum to ensure that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas.’ This enables challenge to be clear and real, without cognitive load impacting on progress.

It is also important to know the students who may ignore, and hook them in. The student in question will be reminded of our previous conversation. The whole class will be complimented on the fact that I know they can deal with this extremely difficult work, but I will also prove they are ready by pointing to the pre requisites they’ve mastered. That will also operate as a useful check point as to whether any misconceptions exist. 

Additionally, I may also start with a high quality example and then unpick how this was achieved. It may involve too much switching of attention to do this simultaneously with live modelling and so I may need to spread this over two parts of the lesson, or even interleave over two or three lessons. 

One thing is for certain I will not be launching into another well planned, clearly thought out piece of modelling without first laying some clearer foundations and ‘sussing’ out the room.

Why students need to believe you’re on their side: Controlling performance anxiety.

A recent study by Dr. Michiko Yoshie, Prof. Hugo Critchley, Dr. Neil Harrison, and Dr Yoko Nagai has pinpointed the brain area that is responsible for ‘choking’ or ‘bottling.’ Fundamentally, what they’ve identified is the cause for the differences between potential performance and actual performance.

In their study, published in Scientific Reports, participants’ brain activity was monitored while carrying out a task that required them to exert a precise amount of force when gripping an object. Participants reported that they felt more anxious when they believed they were being observed. Under this condition, they gripped the object harder without realising it.

Scan results showed that an area of the brain that helps us to control our fine sensorimotor functions, the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), became deactivated when people felt they were being observed.

They suspect that this part of the brain works in conjunction with the posterior superior temporal sulcus (PSTS), the part of the brain that deals with phonological processing and speech comprehension . This process results in what the neuroscientists refer to as the ‘action-observation network’.

The PSTS works with the IPC, which then communicates the correct (assumed correct) response from ones physicality. However, if we pick up negativity, our IPC is deactivated and our performance suffers. “We realised that AON might also be related to performance anxiety because when being scrutinised, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance” Dr Yoshie states.

Teaching implications.

While it is unlikely many teachers want any of their students to fail, it may be difficult for some teachers to root for all students, all of the time. Some teachers may themselves have an insecure attachment which they then project outwardly to the students. I think this evidence places teacher psychology as another key area for training and development. Without security in our own being, it is highly unlikely that we will create the satisfactory conditions to support children.

That is not to say that all teachers need counselling, or performance psychologists (as used in elite sport) but that strict clear procedures around behaviour and teacher happiness have to be placed high up on the list of needs for any school. Of course, we can all benefit from giving our psyche the same focus most of us give you our physical health, but that does not require a Dave Brailsford/Dr Steve Peters approach. It may simply involve writing down what makes us happy, and doing it more often. For those with real issues a therapist or simply giving themselves time to deal with this would obviously be the most appropriate approach.

As for the students, well there are now various types of neurofeedback training, which can help people to learn how to control their own brain activity. How effective these are I don’t know, but we do need to spend time helping students to process difficulties- especially with relationships and feelings of self-worth. Self-worth is formed socially and internally, Dr. Kristin Neff suggests that the best solution to creating self-worth in individuals is by focussing their attention on their self-improvement, and away from their comparative worth within the social setting. Again, I’m reminded of the importance of school culture (see my blog on ‘Growth mindset’ for that.) Creating a culture where success is a measure of development and not of position in the roster, is integral to self-worth, which has knock on effects of how we students see themselves, which has a knock on effect of how they see our interaction with them…..More importantly our culture informs how we respond to them, and their challenges.


Dr Yoshie also feels “you should sometimes have opportunities to perform in front of your supporters.” This may involve us sending successful work home to parents, or simply inviting a students friends who wait for them at the door in and saying, ‘come and read X’s story, it’s great/really funny/as good as anything in the library!’

This is not just fluff and nonsense, it has real impact. Yoshie states, “Such experience would help you to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence.” Performing your ‘Speaking and Listening’ assessment in front of your friends is significantly more likely to produce the confidence required for the end performance.

Final thought.


Over the last few days we’ve undertaken several tasks and listen to talks which left me realising how vulnerable some children must feel. Of course I was aware of these issues before but the problems children face now are increasingly complex. Even communicating with a friend becomes a public performance on social media. Their worlds are a psychological minefield that I am certain I could not have handled at their age. On top of that the world is increasingly confusing, and concepts of fear and hatred are broadcast in HD 24 hours a day. Conversely, statistics tell us we live in the safest time of human history (a story for another day perhaps!) How we ‘bulletproof them against the tundra of turmoil they experience is an extremely complex task, but what is obvious to me now (and was known to me previously) is that nothing is achieved absent from our students self-perception.

I don’t know of any solution to the above- I don’t feel that a ‘friendly’ or ‘chummy’ approach is appropriate, nor do I feel it would be effective. However, I am reminded that as adults we have had an awful lot practise at ‘soldiering on’ and rationalising before we react. I know I will not lower my expectations of students behaviour, but I do think I will smile more and perhaps I will explicitly state that I became a teacher because I want to see others succeed in English. Those aren’t complex changes, but they may well have far reaching impact. I will need to give serious thought to how I support practising ‘soldiering on’ and rationalising….Challenge is always high in my classroom, but dropping students in ‘the pit’ and supporting them out does not deal with psychology of that process.

Based on the study, ‘Why I tense up when you watch me:  Inferior parietal cortex mediates an audience’s influence on motor performance’, by Michiko Yoshie, Yoko Nagai, Hugo Critchley and Neil Harrison, is published in Scientific Reports on 20 January 2016 http://www.nature.com/articles/srep19305

Don’t know a lot about Dr Neff- only her TED talk- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4 and this – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201106/why-self-compassion-may-be-the-antidote-narcissism


Are we artists?

Recently, I’ve been think a lot about the conflict between working as an individual and working as a department. I think English teachers general inclination is towards maverick/anti-establishment type behaviour. Basically to ignoring instructions. One of my previous employers gave no instructions, held no meetings and (jokingly) denied the existence of a policy – everyone taught what they wanted and the department was packed with rebellious Dadaist existentialists (or such.) Strangely, this did not co-exist with a culture of trust or open discussion. On leaving the room colleagues would criticise each other, especially the senior members of department. One colleague, now a head of department herself, would share lesson plans and people would openly mock the lack of cohesion. In my current department the outline is considerably more structured. It would seem to go against all concepts of the teacher as an artist, yet, I have never felt more creative and trusted.

This contrast has led me to wonder what use it is to think of ourselves as artists and why, sometimes, teachers become frustrated with the more systematic elements of our role.

Perhaps in the past I’d bought into the idea of the teacher as an artist. We do craft a creative product, we do use judgement to decide on which method to apply and when, we are developing our ‘talent’ through reflection on our process and we are all a bit odd! So why does the idea of being an artist feel odd?

One explanation may be that paints, canvas and sculpture rarely answer back! We are agents of what we create, but our students must surely have some agency-if they don’t then we have probably got a bigger problem than just whether we are artists or not.

Second there is the recurring thought about progress versus aesthetics. Artists concern themselves solely with the message and the aesthetics. In education our primary focus is ‘have the children learnt.’ Granted, as a socialist, I am at times deeply disturbed by what a ‘fascist’ I have become in the classroom, but I don’t feel skilled enough to simultaneously make aesthetics and message a focus. I still feel like a baby teacher, (this will be my fourth year) and so the extent to which the students progress has to be my main thought.

As a result, I find myself becoming more of scientist, throwing hypothesis at the wall and seeing what sticks. I want to find the best ways to teach each element of the subject I love. I’m obsessed with it. I think about it almost constantly. My students are a vital part of that process, I think deeply about the psychological impact on them. I want them to be in flow, to feel like they get a good deal…a student left my room recently and simply said “I think I’m getting this now.” I nearly did a lap of honour. But, now I have to understand how I can replicate that experience. For every child, and across all of my lessons.

When I do understand it, will I share it with all my colleagues? Will it work in their room? Have they already solved this riddle? I’m not sure, but I do know that every resource they send to me allows me to run beta tests in my head. I grow from this. Perhaps the artist and scientist aren’t so different.

So here’s the rub- my department has some pre-designed, ready to roll lessons. I love them. They work. The kids feel successful and they appreciate being able to hook into some fundamentals that they can get right. Perhaps more importantly, we see massive differences in their writing.

It led me to wonder how the maverick/creative teacher might feel about these, some teachers might feel this strips them of their creativity. They could worry about their opportunity to take risks, to create those ephemeral, life changing moments when students acquire the spark that might create a lifelong love of the subject. However, working through a pattern or set of rules is a fantastic way to create those special moments. Most art movements have didactic rules and routines which must be adhered to- the creativity comes around that start point. For many a didactic approach terrifies and they imagine a production line approach. I have no desire to make my room into a production line, although I admire its consistency. Equally, I have no desire to sacrifice the future of the children I teach in favour of some grand political (anti-establishment) gesture.

Within these lessons students grow a great body of knowledge which allows them to have those ephemeral moments and deep discussion. Last week my lesson was interrupted by a deep discussion on the word classes, two of my students were arguing at the back of my room- expecting a private issue I slowly approached while the group continued to work. On arriving I was delighted to find them squabbling over the sentence ‘the glimmering diamond necklace’ and referring back to an earlier example ‘rapidly fragmenting line.’ They could not decide if ‘diamond necklace’ was operating as a adjective-noun compound, or a compound modifier. The passion with which they were discussing this and their deep understanding made a clear and what’s more is it spiralled into a discussion about the route of effective description. The basic knowledge of sentence structure caused, rather than hindered,the ephemeral moment. This is by no means a one off.

Are we artists? Does it matter? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that we must leave our egos at the door and just aim to benefit the students. Any objection can’t be based on a sense of the self as a creative, but equally to lose all flair would probably not benefit the students anyway. It is perhaps not human nature to follow orders, especially when these seems to contradict your sense of your self, but , and I think this is crucial, we are not trying to make an aesthetic statement, we are trying to leave students with more than they had before.


A year of great struggle for me personally, arguably the most challenging year of my career, yet easily my most enjoyable. I secured a job at a school I feel very passionate about, after having experienced a huge variety of different schools. I even had a short-term role leading development in KS4 in an EBD school, a role which I loved and would probably like to do in the distant future when I feel more secure about my abilities as a classroom teacher.

2015 was also my first real year as a blogger. Greatly inspired by David Didau , Joe Kirby and  Andy Tharby’s blogs I threw myself into weekly blogs during term time. I kept the blog anonymous, something which I will change in 2016, but kept it up more consistently. I am still developing as a blogger and intend to become more focused on my subject, that said I’m quite pleased with what I blogged last year.

So here are my most read five blogs from 2915.

1.Who’s afraid of the cool geography teacher- http://Tinyurl.com/oo22mkj

2. What I learnt from marking exam scripts – http://ow.ly/SoqTq

3.  https://bettersongtosing.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/what-i-learnt-from-teaching-my-nephew-to-swim/

4. A class reader? – http://bit.ly/1z4atPW

5. They’re good, but they’re capable of much more http://wp.me/p54U3w-k
I don’t know if these are particularly interesting, just the ones most read.

Working in a growth mindset school: my experience of working in a school with a growth culture. 

“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” Dale Carnegie

I have been working in a school that places growth mindset ethos at the centre of much of its work for over a year now, and my experience has surprised me. I had previously done a years supply work at a huge variety of schools, and loved it. Yet, I noticed an immediate difference at my current school- the students were not,generally speaking, afraid to fail. They stayed with problems that little bit longer. The classrooms feel significantly less divided into students who feel they can, and those who feel they cannot. I don’t have any quantifiable evidence but, the tangible feeling of difference means that it seems sensible to comtinue giving the students this message. Even if we have some questions about it, and I for one do. 

At the school I trained at one of the most respected members of staff once said to me, “the 10,000 hour stuff is a load of rubbish- we only make a small difference really.” She had a sense that students achieved basically what they would achieve anyway, she repeated this often. I couldn’t understand getting up in the morning to make no difference and I never looked at her with the same awe from this point on (which was arguably a mistake, she was a very good practitioner and I could’ve learnt a lot.)

It’s not that I think that ‘growth mindset’ is flawless scientific fact, it’s just that it is a logical imperative. It is the Pascal’s wager of education. We don’t know how much potential we have , so shooting very high and working to achieve the best is just good logic. Believing that hard work will result in progress is logical, it also implies trust in the experts who teach you- which likely will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Bjork et al. state this simply as “To be maximally effective also requires an appreciation of the incredible capacity humans have to learn and avoiding the mindset that one’s learning abilities are fixed” (2013.) It’s not the case that knowing about growth mindset is a magic cure for all ills, but that believing in possibility is significantly more likely to produce that possibility. We know that the human mind can grow if we force it to, if we ask it to repeat a certain process its ability to perform that will develop. The plasticity of the human brain has been shown in several studies, perhaps most famously in Eleanor Maguire’s study on the effect of ‘the knowledge’ on synapsids growth in the hippocampus of London cabbies.

It also nudges learners to see their errors as guides to excellence, not as signs to give up “Becoming maximally effective as a learner requires interpreting errors and mistakes as an essential component of effective learning rather than as a reflection of one’s inadequacies as a learner” Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell (2013.) I have a long held belief about my ability in mathematics and so I’ve trained myself to look for distractions as soon as maths enters the conversation. “If we allow for pi in this equation….” Swiftly becomes ‘I do like pie, even fray bentos – is it even a real pie…. I think I prefer puddings to pie.’ Rejoining the conversation I discover everyone else has a more profound understanding and I feel hungry. Needless to say I have barely maintained any mathematics knowledge beyond a ks3 level. I remember the number for pi by imagining a £3.14159 pie and wonder how I will make up the small change. Which is of course no use whatsoever.

My inadequacy leads me to avoid, and I am well rehearsed in this area. That is why a whole school ethos is so important, it provides students with a common language to explain their struggles. Sometimes they may use it jokingly, but in removing shame it allows them to grow.

Perhaps I will deal with my problems with growth mindset another time, but I know with certainty I would not want to return to an environment where the common belief is that for some students progress is a land akin to ‘sugar candy mountain’ of Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ So despite my reservations, I feel an amazing gratitude for the persistence this simple idea gives to the students. 

Student review forms and skat singers

During my first year of teaching I used to gleefully ’empower’ students with teaching review forms. I would peel through them disappointedly that they felt the lessons were too difficult, and they hadn’t learnt anything in several lessons. Ironically, these were frequently ones my mentor graded ‘Good, with features of Outstanding’ (but that’s a story for another time.)

I saw my students as the consumer and backed them to tell me, anonymously of course, what they thought and when they thought they’d learnt the best. I’d sit with the forms and look through them comparing my PPT, their books and their feelings. I’d slowly sink into a miasma of melancholic doom. They just weren’t learning! And they hated me, especially when I made them remember difficult words.

I was told that the students didn’t need to about ‘semantic fields’ in Y7 and arguably they didn’t, but they’d asked curiously and I’d taught them it. Or rather they hadn’t learn it, yet….but we’d covered it. Then in the reviews back came the word on the street- ‘this is too hard.’ But what if they were simply embedding it, what if we just needed to revisit it, what if they didn’t know what they knew and needed to see it once more in context.

With the benefit of hind legs I can see that my mistakes may not have been in my teaching, rather in conducting the student feedback in the first instance. I went into them blind with no concept of their quality as a piece of feedback. Yet as Daniel M. Oppenheimer suggests , ‘learners are prone to beliefs about their learning that can impair their effectiveness as learners.’ Their lack of confidence in the material therefore could explain their lack of comprehension; the learning may have been impaired not by any pedagogical process but by their approach. Straightaway the information is skewed.

In addition to this already bewildering area of working out if you’ve done teaching good OR if they’ve learnt owt reet good! Bjork,Dunlosky and Kornell reckon this:

“Assessing whether learning has been achieved is difficult because conditions that enhance performance during learning can fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas other conditions that appear to create difficulties and slow the acquisition process can enhance long-term retention and transfer.”

So they may well be down in the dumps, but that might be great in the long run. Their reflection on their own learning might tell us that they’re limiting themselves with their attitude, but it certainly can’t tell us whether the teaching was effective. Especially give that Bjork et al. say that, “Learners’ judgments of their own degree of learning are also influenced by … the sense of fluency in perceiving or recalling to-be-learned information” and that “such fluency can be a product of low-level priming and other factors that are unrelated to whether learning has been achieved.” So, in effect an amazing set of feedback from the students might tell you that the lessons were, in fact, not actually that ‘good.’

Where does this leave me, well first and foremost it makes me question every change I made as a result of these reviews. I never stopped having really high expectations, but I did stop the vocabulary quizzes. I did stop asking them at the door to give me one piece of ‘A Level’ terminology….and do you know what, I wish I hadn’t. If I hadn’t stopped they may well have embedded that knowledge. They may well have felt confident and successful.

The great irony is that I knew the student feedback forms were a nonsense on some level before I ran them. I sensed that I would get rubbish back. One class told me I never marked their books, shocked I peeled through their assessment folders. These were kept in the cupboard, and the students only looked at them before they started the assessments. A mistake, but they were marked. This had resulted from the loose departmental ‘no book marking policy’ and students memory lapses, I could learn very little from this feedback. Our memories are not computers, they’re not even tape players that diminish with time, they’re more like half-cut vinyls operated by half-cut jazz musicians. Recalling a crime scene we are likely to bee-bop, a scew-bop our way to imagining the perpetrator was a Hasidic looking chap- with a Fubu jumpsuit and a teddy bear. The idea that we could trust them to reflect on quality of teaching, assumes no other influence in our skatman domes; something which we just cannot trust it to do with any accuracy.

Quality of feedback is too important to be left to chance, and so it must come from experts. People further along the road than yourself. Self-reflection is vital but inputting poor quality data into this process helps nobody. Least have all students who could be learning something else in this time. 



On compromising sometimes, maybe.

When I first qualified I found myself compromising all the time. A student would ask if they could complete the task in a slightly different way, and I would allow them to. Before long whole sections of the lesson became ‘hear my suggestion.’ My classroom is now far more rigid, the task is the task- the scope for what students produce is rigid and the creativity occurs around that framework. It’s what Shaun Alison and Andy Tharby have describe as tight but lose, I like to think of it as the Stockholm town planning model. All the houses have to have a certain shape, window number etc. but outside of that the architects are free. The result is a coherent whole, the same is true in my classroom. 

This change occurred because I noticed the flaws of compromise in the real world. Looking at a motorway it is easy to forget that we have a more environmentally friendly network, that is often considerably quicker. The reason has to be about personal choice, and to my mind a lack of commitment to ideology. If you care about the environment as a government it would seem logical to convert a vast majority of road networks to this end. Agriculture etcetera. 

If we think our ideas are correct and we believe in ourselves as experts then we should stick to these rigidly. Yet, obviously we do compromise and in fact one recent moment I am very proud of involved a lot of compromise. A student who is a school refuser began to attend my lessons; building on my experience at an EBD school, I ignored his negative behaviour and praised his positive work. The other students in the class understood without me mentioning it. They seemed to appreciate that he was behaving in this lesson, and I’m aware this wasn’t the case elsewhere. The results have been excellent, the students behaviour improved beyond all expectations. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to challenge them in the way I do other students but that’s the next problem- this is just first base camp. 

So compromise, no. Except sometimes. Perhaps exceptional students require exceptional approaches- and perhaps that’s why teaching is an art. Perhaps the end decision comes down to the greatest benefit of the group, how much time/effort/skill can you donate to the whole group and how much would be lost by adapting. 

Olympic Journey: Born Winners?

Especially for Andy Tharby, a blog about what we can learn from the Olympics/sport etcetera and apply to school contexts. The Documentary referenced can be found here http://youtu.be/MsE0A7RSuOo  

The set up: DNA testing to find out which foods suit you best. If these systems work it is more likely for successful athletes to come from developed countries. It would make it easier to focus energies on those with ‘innate talent’- everything would get better faster and we’d all be much happier and fulfilled.

Should we spend lots of money on education?

Greg Rutherford does not use gyms and tracks (as much as other Olympic athletes) but instead runs around the wood near his house. When asked about his DNA he states that he has been tested, he states that he discovered that he has the ability to develop fast twitch muscles. He previously thought that he was able to reach peak fitness before/quicker than other people. He reflects constantly on his process, adjusting his programme and seeing what works for his body. He does come across as slightly obsessive – Long jump pit in his garden to minimise time away from family- towards his happiness and avoiding ego depletion.

He is very much Rocky V in his general approach though- and if recent revelations are to believed he is competing against, and beating, the steroidal Dolph Lundgren of the Eastern bloc.

Should we stream education?

Genetically matched training can double performance- if it were possible to identify dominant skills in individuals would it be I . The best interest of all to focus solely on those existing abilities. Dr David de Lorenzo thinks not; ‘No, this is for fine improvements post 18, we are not interested in killing dreams’- we are “just furnishing information to take you to your desired destination quicker.” His overview is that these are marginal gains, for adults. Double performance sounds amazing, but when it is in reference to Olympic athlete it can be as little as two tenth of a second. He definitely buys into Deweck’s growth mindset, but concedes the journey to excellence is certainly shorter for some.

Should we tell children about their existing talents?

“Categorically, no!” Says Matthew Syed-former Olympian & Oxford graduate- “Knowing about talent decreases motivation and resilience. Genetic factors are significant, but perhaps more so in areas that are simplistic in skill. Weightlifting, Basketball centres et cetera”.a lot of Syed’s thinking derives from Erickson’s ‘10, 000 hours of purposeful practice’ motif, as popularised by Malcom Goadwell. His view on knowledge of talent also seems valid when looking at real life success stories- almost all top athletes were mediocre juniors and had to fight for their place as best in the country let alone number in the world.

The issue here isn’t whether Syed is right, that seems bloody obvious but rather ‘how’ we should go about it, and of the moral right to ‘trick’ children in this way. Of course, some children will be the greatest in the world at their age group at that given point- how do we manage that? How do we tell them to keep doing the work that carved this talent without damaging…

Should we reward people?

Teaching is currently in an odd place, the government has decided to offer rewards for those with excellently yearly performance. This is problematic as research says teachers can’t be measured in this way, but it’s also troubling because unlike the private sector where this model is borrowed from, these payments are not bonuses. You either get them or lose your job. Grrrrreat. In British Swimming the approach is very much – carrot and stick. Chris Spice (performance director) has been part of setting up a team that is Results driven and he says “we are seeing those results.” Well then, the two must obviously be connected, thank heavens that was so simple! Unless of course it isn’t, and he is simply noticing a correlation between two things on a graph. His Swimmers now compete more and British Swimming has had a total upheaval in directors at the top. Research has shown that competition/testing is one of the most effective way to improve, yet Spice mentions this but never factors it in to the improvements…at least not in this shirt documentary. Nor does anyone mention the fact that the spread of events is narrow, the funding has increased or that the talent pool is currently quite large. All significant factors. No, it’s be have everybody loves money!

But do we? Of course we all think we do, that’s why millions of people play the lottery, but is it actually a decent motivator? Adam Beatty his mentality is very focussed on improvements in swimming. He is not competitive in the rest of his life, but completely obsessive in his pursuit of becoming ‘a legend.’ He doesn’t mention the bonuses once- he just talks swimming. seemingly his every thought is about water, waxed chests and speedos: deviant that he is!

The programme concludes with two excellent quotes from two amazing coaches.

“I’ve coached for 20 odd years, I’ve seen many swimmers with loads of ability, the difference is the desire.” Bill Furniss.

“Attitude can be coached, talent alone is not enough.” Clive Woodward.

For me that sums all of the above up. We have everything we need, we just need to get our hands dirty and our brows sweaty. Sometimes we want to intellectualise our efforts as a way of procrastinating- but the only thing that really matters is what we do. It is possible to be an excellent teacher/student who knows nothing of what they’re doing, but I’d argue that like Adam Beatty they’d have to be reflecting quite obsessively. Contemplation, even if not founded in research seems to be a uniting quality of all these athletes and indeed the excellent teachers I work with.

I’d like to finish with a far less erudite reference- as Lungrens character lies collapsed in his corner, Rocky turns to the Russian crowd and simply says, “If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change!” Well, that’s a good starting point –no glass ceilings and no excuses.

N.b this blog was inspired by some excellent points made by Andy Tharby (reflecting English) about how ludicrous using a sports model is – I won’t attempt to recreate his point for fear of not doing the, justice but I decided to challenge myself to, at least, learn something about any cross-over.