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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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




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


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

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



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

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

Conclusions (of sorts.)

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

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

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


Observing my tutor group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is low stakes testing not actually that low?

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

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

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

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

How do you ensure a quiz is genuinely low stakes?

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

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

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

Getting ahead of the curve: premature babies

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

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

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

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

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

Wolke’s Strategy suggestions:

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



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



Analytical Paragraphing: should students PEE all over their work?

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

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

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

Structure it.

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

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

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

Commit it.

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

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

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

Manipulate it.

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

Forget it (forward)

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

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

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

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

Developing flair.

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

Marking it.

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

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

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

Take away

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

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

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

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

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

Guided self-reflection/meta-cognition.

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


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

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



– Bjork, desirable difficulties and spaced feedback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would I change about the app?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delayed feedback, leading to no end point assessments.

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

Final thought.

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



‘Bulletproof teacher psychology’ Pt.2-A solution

Like many people I was inspired by the numerous achievements of the British Olympic team at London 2012. On the dawn of the 2016 games, my mind is drawn back to some of the reading I did post-London.

One of the ‘marginal gains’ I explored after this time was managing my mind. Athletes often employ sports psychologists with the aim of find calmness in pressured situations, or simply maintaining optimal performance during competition. Disappointments can occur at all moments of the day, but if these are carried over to the main event then the athlete, or teacher in this case, suffers a significant performance drop.

It was with that in mind I picked up the dubiously titled ‘Chimp Paradox.’ Its author Steve Peters is a well respected English psychiatrist who works in elite sports people. He has worked with Olympic cyclists such as Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, as well as Liverpool FC, Ronnie O’Sullivan and numerous other top level athletes. Sir Dave Brailsford, Mr Marginal Gains himself, has described Peters as “the best appointment I’ve ever made.” Needless to say, I wanted a bit of what they were having. That sparkle, that certain something; more importantly I wanted that ice-cold optimal performance. What I learnt could, I believe, improve the day-to-day running of what is a challenging role to perform – even when you’re fortunate enough to love your school.

The Chimp Model


Above, bottom right is the model of ‘The Chimp’, ‘The Human’ and ‘The Computer.’ Peters obviously doesn’t believe this to be an anatomical representation of the human brain, but a useful metaphor for how that mind has been shown to perform. It is a useful model as well because it requires no extra knowledge, but allows you instead to focus on the function and managing those functions. In particular, I like the model of ‘The Chimp’, described as a near trickster, he is the first response system of the brain (see top-right.)  Things happen and up he pops with an emotional response. It’s how we all experience our brains, but more importantly it allows for some forgiveness- though not a dismissal of responsibility. One cannot simply say, ‘my chimp did it’ but equally you are allowed the breathing space to say- I did not allow myself enough time to dwell before I acted.

A simple explanation of the model.

The Chimp works with an agenda of procreating the species and also of survival at an individual level. It does this by acting impulsively without thought of long-term consequence, and interprets the world with feelings and impressions and uses emotional thinking to make sense of the information it has received. The Chimp brain operates by way of jungle principles.

The Human works with a society agenda and operates by considering consequences before acting. The Human brain searches for facts and truths and puts these together in a logical way in order to reach a conclusion or to form plans to implement. It works within the principles of a society.

The Computer is a fast operating system within the brain, programmed by either the Human or the Chimp and works by fulfilling either agenda depending on how it is programmed. The Computer is effectively composed of learnt beliefs and behaviours and contains values and a means of establishing reality and perspective. It filters information presented to it and selects what it wants from the information perceived before a memory is formed and then when stored, the Computer amends the memory and refines it continuously making it somewhat unreliable. The Computer also predicts what will happen and can therefore alter the original perception of what is being received.

Moving forward with the model.

It doesn’t excuse our actions rather holds them up to us, and allows us the possibility of change. It is a model that requests we think about our actions and allow ‘The Human’ to take the lead. Peters suggests that if you allow ‘The Human’ to take more control, then your actions will reflect your ‘true self’ and as a result your actions can be measured by you as desirable or not. For example, if you shout at someone in the street who has upset you – this may not be what everyone wants of you, but if it comes from your ‘Human’ brain, it may well be the way you want to represent yourself in the world. However, if it is not then you can assess this and change. The same can be applied to your emotional response to the way your classes or colleagues treat you and the expectations of your role.

Most of Peters model is about recognizing the emotions, by asking yourself things like “Do I want these thoughts, feelings or behaviors?” – when the answer is ‘no’ The Chimp is in charge.

When this happens you have to over-write the normal behaviour- Peters suggests the following steps.

  1. Allow ‘The Chimp’ to have its say in a safe environment. Let it rant or change the situation to give it long enough to think. Possibly, in the classroom this means having a routine to stop and think. 
  2. Use facts, truth and logic, to continue calming it and addressing its fears and concerns. This isn’t to say that when you feel disrespected that you aren’t being treated poorly, but responding angrily will not improve the situation.
  3. Unfortunately, sometimes you can only distract or reward your Chimp. E.G When the marking is done I will eat that chocolate, or such.

The Rewards.

If you can use this system to manage your mind better, then you could:

  • Overcome your ego and be honest about your teaching abilities, and areas for development.
  • Deescalate situations quickly and easily.
  • Find out who you really are and assess your actions clearly.
  • Spend less time stressing about work pending, or expectations and much longer actually solving the problems presented to you (this is not to suggest passivity.)
  • Maintain better relationships with students: which Hattie’s research suggests has significant impact on outcomes.
  • Feel more fulfilled with your role in school and see positives, even in moments of extreme difficulty.

‘Bulletproof teacher psychology’ Pt.1-The Current Situation

‘Precious resource’

Teacher are a precious resource at the moment in England, I don’t know if you’ve heard but the Education sector has a recruitment crisis. It is in a perfect storm of rising pupil numbers, falling teacher recruitment and poor teacher retention.

Official figures show that the country will need nearly 160,000 additional teachers over the next three years to cope with a projected 582,000 rise in primary and secondary age pupils by 2020.

A NASUWT survey from 2012 revealed:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

On a personal level my good friend Rob Howe, has blogged about his own experience in schools and suggested how bullying may even be occurring towards the teachers themselves.

” When I was an NQT myself, the pressure to perform in an ‘Outstanding’ school was constant. I struggled to learn the ropes at the pace I was expected and I was ostracised by my department as a result. I was threatened, put under mounting pressure and when my employment was questioned, SLT manipulated my position and showed me the back door.I left demoralised, on the brink of a breakdown. All at the age of 24.


It is this last section which shocks me the most. A breakdown is described as “a general term for an acute, time-limited psychiatric disorder that manifests primarily as severe stress-induced depression, anxiety, or dissociation in a previously functional individual, to the extent that they are no longer able to function on a day-to-day” Fisicaro et al. (1998). While I feel Rob may be using this in the more pejorative sense, the fact that this comparison can be drawn at all tells of the horrors of certain sections of our profession. People who educate for a living sometimes forget to allow for growth among their own, in fact they forget so badly that the cause great pain to their staff.

Teaching should be incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling – how that is achieved is probably a mixture of good management AND good self-management. It would be ludicrous to suggest that everybody was healthy in the profession and, of course, ludicrous to suggest that everybody had good mental health.

Even in good schools, which don’t do manage and support their staff well- teaching is a hard game to be in. It is easy to see how just the job itself could be mentally damaging. To be a teacher nowadays,I would argue, you need to be psychologically bulletproof. To deal with large workloads ,constant challenges and at times a social life (or life at all) on hold. The best tool at our disposal is not responsive mental health, it is preemptive: what I shall call ‘bulletproofing.’

Teachers don’t achieve their best, and are stifled from the growth and development. The cause of the stress may even be their skill set, but in some cases their management of themselves is the priority before developing their practice. The solution to this problem is vital to teacher and school alike, and it is not going anywhere. It is children who suffer the most from having over-worked, stressed teachers who lack good self-esteem.

More importantly, when teachers suffer the knock on effect is on the children. This doesn’t just have an impact on students who have teachers with psychological issues, but those with teachers full stop. We have to be calm, secure and confident. If we are not, our emotions will waiver and this will create uncertainty.

Regardless of the teacher, we can all improve our lessons by improving our psychology. Even if it is a marginal gain, it is worth the investment in time.

In part two I’ll deal with what I think schools and, perhaps more importantly, teachers can do to enhance this aspect of their performance- using the model given by Dr Steve Peters, who has been vital in sports psychology and the improvements made by both Team Sky and Team GB cycling. 

Do you need a 2:1 to teach?

 Damian, Atilla, Desmond and Richard: What’s in a name?

In a recent article published on TES, Oliver Beech  claims that a 2:1 should be the minimum qualification for teacher training. I have no intention of criticising Beech as a person, on the T.V series ‘Tough Young Teachers’ he had some dark moments, but who didn’t during their training year. The fact, that he expressed them in the way that he did simply makes him, him. He has come through that and I assume is still in teaching in some format or other.

However, I do have issues with his views. “The result of being educated at a top university is that teachers work with others who are driven intellectually and who approach pedagogy and curriculum decisions with a discerning eye. Their purpose isn’t just to teach a child to pass an exam but to inspire a culture of learning and intellectual curiosity: and the students can tell the difference.” I assume that Oliver meets his own criteria, and I think that it is great to have people in the education system who meet these aims. I just don’t think you have to have a 2:1, or higher, to fit this bill.

The reason I have a ‘Desmond’ is dead simple. I had to work three jobs to be able to afford rent, food and fees. My socio-economic background was certainly a limiting factor, but I do think these experiences taught me valuable lessons. People who grew up on the same estate as me, who failed at school became thieves and drug dealers. They would offer to steal food for me so that I could focus on my studies. They would at times arrive with stolen books from the library. I would refuse and tell them that a future teacher couldn’t handle stolen goods. I knew that to achieve what I wanted I had to get it all right, I’m not sure I would share all elements of y story with the children I teach but I feel proud of what I achieved despite my limitations.

The support of those in my area gave me a  sense of the community supporting me in my endeavour, and made me work harder. I used to read set texts underneath the counter of the off license I worked at. I worked at a bar where a Literature professor drank, and quizzed him on the topics I studied. I made the most of any, and all, opportunities. If that doesn’t ‘inspire’ children of the same background to pursue “learning and intellectual curiosity” all the way to University, at any costs and despite rocketing tuiton fees  and government interference, then I don’t know what will/would.

For the most part the I felt disconnected from the teachers who taught me. They were not therefore inspirational. In my eyes they were  ‘posh’; I didn’t think I could be like them, and I didn’t want to be. They had funny accents and said things that would get me beat up on the estate. I did, however, definitely want to be like my G.C.S.E English teacher, and she inspired me to take a degree and become a teacher. She was Liverpool swagger personified and once butchered me for calling her a Scouser. She could be terrifying, brilliant and mythical all in the same moment. She seemed like the sort of person who I could aspire to be, she reminded me of the women at my Mum’s local and yet beyond them too. It was unlikely that I would go to University at that time, I was unremarkable and poorly behaved. She changed that story. We need a variety of backgrounds, cultures and characters in schools – not out of some principal of equality but because connections are the start of a cycle of inspiring young people.

To my mind, we don’t need narrower parameters in selecting teachers, we need broader ones. It is vital students see their teachers as role models and experience people from all sorts of backgrounds. Stick me in a room full of old Etonians and I guarantee I will more than hold my own, and probably hold court. Not because I had one inspirational teacher from a similar background to my own, but because I experienced all sorts of different backgrounds through my teachers. But if were talking about inspiration, then there needs to be a hook into that person!

Also, the idea that a teacher with a 2:2 would lack  a ‘discerning eye’ puts an awful lot of weight on your degree as a measure of intelligence. Because I felt inspired by my teachers, I continued to study English Language/Linguistics long after I realised I would get a first if I dropped it and focused on Literature. I think it’s called the love of learning or ‘intellectual curiosity’ or somet….you’d have to ask one of those boffins what they’ve got nowadays! The reality is loving learning was more important to me than success. I knew that knowing more about linguistics would help me as a teacher, so I carried on.That being said, if I’d got a First in both elements I would undoubtedly be a better teacher.

However, that isn’t to say anybody who gets a First in Literature and Linguistics would necessarily be a good English teacher. In fact, I believe the opposite. The people on my course who got Firsts were near impossible to have a conversation with. They were odd. Really odd.  I’m not sure how important it is to be able to relate to your teacher, but I would not expect the students I teach to be able to relate to those people. I would say great teachers who have Firsts are the exception….and what an exception! Because don’t be mistaken here I completely buy into the importance of subject knowledge. COMPLETELY.

The one thing I’ve improved most since my training, is my subject knowledge and the reason is that it gets the best results in the classroom. Of all the things we can improve, better subject knowledge is the one which will help the most. I just don’t think a degree is a guarantee of subject knowledge. For a start our subject knowledge is often about the ‘how’ and understanding the process – not just knowing stuff.

Regardless the bottom line is that all of this is in wonderland unless more people want to become teachers. The profession doesn’t look an attractive prospect at the moment and so as Professor Smithers has stated, selecting the ‘best’ teachers  “depends on attracting sufficient applicants to be able to choose those who can make subjects come alive for children.” Whoever that may be.

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.