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.


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

Don’t know a lot about Dr Neff- only her TED talk- and this –