What did I learn from #TLT16?

That moment when you go to an education conference and get tempted to write a blogpost. AMIRITE? I went to the wonderful Teaching and Learning Takeover at the University of Southampton organised by the indefatigable Dave Fawcett and Jenn Ludgate.

Here’s a list of thoughts, noting which inspirational and lovely people I learnt it from.

1) Sharing best practice is a bad idea. John Tomsett showed a clip of Dylan Wiliam explaining that flitting from one shiny new thing to another stops us from evaluating the things we try, and embedding the good stuff as habits. Teachers: resist your magpie tendencies!

2) Teachers thinking aloud can help students think better. John Tomsett also gave the practical example of how effective it can be to do a piece of work with your students and say out loud what you’re thinking at every stage.

3) Find the kerbs and turn them into ramps. Nancy Gedge gave a session about the SENCO code of practice which made me (a complete novice in matters of SEN) think about how teachers can look to change the environment for students that have a special educational need in order to let them have access to the work. We shouldn’t aim to ‘fix the problem’ the students have – we’re not medical professionals and it can’t always be done! – but we should ask ourselves whether the social or physical environment of our SEN students might be limiting in the first place.

4) It’s ‘high-, mid-, low- starters, not ability‘. John Tomsett suggested that this change in language helps embed an automatic conversation about progress, not fixed ability. “If that’s her starting point, where do we want her to end up?…”

5) Cumulative linear exams, means UK teachers show more interest in psychology findings than our US counterparts. Yana Weinstein suggested to me in conversation that part of the reason why UK teachers seem to care more about scientific strategies for improving how well pupils memorise what they learn (tautological for some!) is that we in the UK have a secondary curriculum at GCSE and A-level which assesses knowledge accumulated over several years. Therefore it becomes more important for us to help our students memorise things so they retain them over time. In the USA, every piece of work counts towards an average grade, thereby creating a disincentive to memorise things for longer. Click on Learning Scientists for more stuff on this (- free resources, you magpies!).

6) Professional respect from your peers is a powerful thing. I overheard so many conversations where one teacher thanked another for their contribution to the day, for sharing something they could learn from, for passing on a useful link or contact, for giving up their time to share advice. People were there because they love learning about how to teach better, and that’s about it. I had no idea whether some of the people I spoke with were based at a school or at a university; whether they were headteachers, senior leaders, classroom teachers, edu-gurus, or newly-qualified teachers. A teachmeet like #TLT16 is a great leveller and I think more teachers should have the chance to attend something like it…

…talking of which: who’s going to this one in North London that Keven Bartle is inviting us to on November 12th?

The answer to: “What’s the point in studying this?” (feat. Brian Cox)

“What’s the point in studying this?” 

Teachers are often asked this question, especially (I suspect) in secondary school where the tantalising promise of subject choice at GCSE and A-level overshadows option subjects in the earlier years, and where the contrast with option subjects subjects English, Maths and Science teachers to the same question in the later years.

I was never really satisfied with the answers that I came up with for my French students; there doesn’t seem to be one answer that satisfies everyone who will ask that question of their teacher.

Now, I have come to think that there are three approaches teachers can take.

Answer 1) “Because you’re doing well in it, and it will make you more clever.” A bit of a white lie maybe, but might work with those students who are asking this because they are finding the work difficult. I think it is important that students experience mastery of a topic. As a teacher you should try to spot the (at times small) improvements they are making and point them out. An answer that addresses the ‘big picture’ of the validity and benefits of what you are studying won’t address the essentially emotional trigger behind the question in the first place. If this question is born of frustration, then you owe it to the student to get them to experience some success and try to boost their confidence by pitching the work right and pointing out real improvements to them.

Answer 2) “Because some day, you might have to help your kids learn this too.” The truest answer that you can give. The purpose of an education system is to pass on what we already know as humanity, so I think it’s essential that we teach a curriculum that’s as broad and deep as possible, for as long as possible. It’s true that my students may never use French again, but at least they can make that decision as adults having had a genuine option to do the opposite. As parents, it’s their children who might end up being francophiles who want to go on to study French at university or move to Quebec or something. At this point, what they studied in school, might suddenly become helpful again. We should remember we’re educating future parents.

Answer 3) “Because Brian Cox says so.”

Have a read of his concluding remarks to the BBC Human Planet series (2014)

“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe but we’re also rare. And because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So what are we to do to secure our future? We must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. Because if we do that then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.”



Teaching the uncommon way

This blog is written in reaction to criticism of Uncommon Schools that I came across on Twitter. It has given me the opportunity to develop my own thinking on the subject.

Whenever I use the word practice or practise I mean it in the sense of performing an exercise repeatedly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it, as in I am practising my French, or “Practice makes perfect”, said Confucius. Please forgive any misplaced ‘s’ or ‘c’!

This blog (and my opinion)  is based on the following experience:

  • Having read Teach Like A Champion (TLAC), Practice Perfect, (and parts of) Leverage Leadership.
  • Having attended Uncommon Schools teacher trainer training earlier in October (see this post for my initial impressions).
  • Having heard Doug Lemov speak in September (see this post for what I learnt)
  • Having taught in a school in the UK where these techniques were not consistently applied, but where I referred to TLAC on occasion to supplement my ‘toolkit’ of teaching techniques.
  • Having taught in a school in the UK where TLAC systems were embedded, studied, and commonly used by all staff.
  • Having read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s blogs here and here about his visit to Uncommon Schools in New York which add far more to this discussion than I can hope to with this post.
  • I have not visited any of the Uncommon Schools.
  • I have not done extensive research on inequalities within the American public school system.

In this post I will:

  1. Define what I understand to be the “Uncommon Schools” (or TLAC – used interchangeably) approach to teaching and learning.
  2. Explicitly address some of the criticisms and concerns that some people have expressed.
  3. Reflect on my own emotional reaction to the debate.
  4. Issue a challenge to the critics of the approach.

1. My take on the Uncommon Schools approach.

Teaching is a performance profession (like an athlete in a stadium, a soldier in a combat zone, or an actor on the stage) and requires the performers to practise and rehearse before they perform. Most teachers currently plan then perform. Uncommon Schools is structured around a professional development and initial teacher training framework that prioritises practice. The pattern is: plan, then practise, then perform. I suspect many interpretations of the short video clips available online ignore the purpose of the said clips in the first place: they are there to assist teachers when practising their own teaching. When Usain Bolt is training for the 100m sprint, he does stretches, weights, short sprints, aerobic work and so on. He may well spend several weeks practising the first 5 steps of his 41-step 100m sprint. He will then practice the next 15 steps. In theatre rehearsal, actors will do vocal exercises, readings with scripts, dance rehearsals, read-throughs and so on. There are several characteristics of what defines a good practice, one of them being that if working on one particular technique, it is helpful to control as many extraneous and intrinsic variables as possible in order to allow you to focus your efforts on improving that one technique you have identified. In order to practise a teaching technique, you have to isolate it before integrating it. Usain Bolt would never perform a 5-step sprint, much like a teacher would never teach an entire lesson to children on how to fold their hands. But both will form a critical part of a performance routine, which contains multiple techniques, all of which cannot be practised simultaneously in preparation. Finally, the basic premise is that being a good teacher is something that can be taught, through coaching and deliberate practice.

We can all learn from other teachers and the expertise is already out there somewhere. The people who wrote TLAC take data gathering seriously and use it to identify the teachers who seem to be bucking the trend. They then go in and observe those teachers’ classrooms and attempt to codify what they are doing on a granular level. This is, in essence, an empirical approach, and is designed to help share best teaching techniques. It is more than ‘just’ top-tips, although that certainly comes into it. It seeks to identify common practical things that appear to be working across many classrooms, and then disseminate them in such a way that allows others to pick them up and adapt them quickly. For me, one key detail about the way this is done make it work: Each technique is given a name. This is not mere ‘branding’. It helps create a common language for teachers (and observers!) to share when dissecting the details of an activity. It’s a shorthand, a professional terminology, that describes the things that teachers do.

Humility and a growth mindset are the necessary conditions for learning from others. The one thing that Doug Lemov knows about TLAC is that at least some of it is wrong. You will hear him say so continuously for the simple reason that there are always limits to the empirical approach. It may well be that something has been observed in a lesson, but misunderstood by the observer. Or a top technique was just completely missed by the observers and the effect was ascribed to the wrong ’cause’. One example that was given to us was the extent to which teachers who wrote TLAC initially underestimated the sheer variety of ways and importance of checking for understanding that was used by the teachers they observed. The humility inherent in the approach is also evident in the way they are very keen to learn from other professions where relevant.

Short video clips are helpful to analyse because they allow us to unpick our own teaching. At the Uncommon Schools training I attended, the video clips were not presented as something to be copied unquestioningly. We were encouraged to approach them critically. There were four ways that we engaged critically with all the video clips that were presented to us:

  • The Picasso analogy. Doug Lemov compared how teachers should practise to how artists develop by first imitating the greats before developing their own style. The analogy has two important messages: first, that it is possible to learn from copying other teachers and secondly, that to be really good, you have to make them your own.
  • Comparing the same technique in different settings. For every technique that TLAC has identified and encouraged us to isolate and practise, we were shown two, sometimes three, clips of teachers using it in very different settings (e.g. questioning to stretch and challenge students aged 5 vs 17 years old. The Grade 1 teacher invited a student up to give an answer to the whole class, then in a sing-song voice encouraged the class to ask a follow up question that asked for evidence for their opinion to stretch the student – “how do you know?”. It was calm, focused, and empowering for the student who volunteered to give an answer because they were quasi-teaching their colleagues. In the Grade 12 class, the teacher stretched his student by deliberately remaining silent while they spoke, giving a small follow-on signal to encourage them to develop their answer, rewarding it with a simple, but powerful, “well said” at the end, before asking another student to add to this. It demonstrated high expectations, how students could learn from each other, and the importance of giving students time to articulate their thoughts in complete sentences). This comparison carries two important messages also: first, that each teacher tailors the technique depending on their own personality, and secondly, that the particular class context may require a modification of the technique to suit the students.
  • Practising the techniques ourselves within our own subject area. We scripted our own versions of various techniques and practised them on each other and gave ourselves feedback. This had one important message: first, although the principles behind some of the techniques may be fundamental (e.g. giving students wait time to respond to questions), some may need to vary by subject (e.g. helping students construct analytic sentences).
  • Planning how we would introduce a technique to our students. We were encouraged to come up with a ‘roll out’ speech (of no more than, say, half a minute) to explain a given technique to our students. We scripted it, practised it on each other, and refined it in the light of feedback from our peers. The two important messages here were: first, scripting an instruction, then practising it, is very helpful. It was evident when an American turn of phrase (e.g. “good job”) rang false in my RP. A teacher of primary school who I worked with took a very different tone to a Head of Sixth Form also present, for example. Secondly, it is crucial that your students are respectfully treated – you should explain to them in advance what you will do so they don’t feel that you’re trying to catch them out, and you should explain the reasons why you would employ this technique as well. Here’s an example of Colleen Driggs doing a ‘roll out’ speech for the technique ‘Cold Call‘.

2. My response to some criticisms and concerns

I will now explicitly address a few common criticisms and concerns that I encountered in this particular Twitter debate over the last couple of days about the approach Uncommon Schools take to teaching and learning:

“[the children] are being drilled, not taught.” + “Don’t think much learning is involved.” + “this is training, not teaching”

I think this is misunderstanding the nature of the short video clips that are being observed. A video clip that focuses on how a teacher establishes a routine to get students to sit still and listen is obviously not going to demonstrate a lot of probing questioning, discussion, or thinking on the students’ part. Secondly, I query why drills are a bad thing. As a languages teacher, I know that frequent, low-stakes tests and drills are crucial for automating core language skills. Speak to most maths, music, drama and sport teachers and they’ll tell you the same, I’m sure. There is an implicit assumption made by critics in this line of argument that drills are bad, which they need to explain fully and justify with evidence as currently I’d suggest the opposite is the case. (And I’m not saying that all that students should be doing is learning by rote, being drilled on disconnected ‘pub quiz’-style facts etc.). Thirdly, it could be that the drills being referred to in the criticisms of the videos are behaviour drills and routines. The whole purpose behind routines and behaviour drills is to increase time for learning. Here’s where data can be helpful (!) – if you establish a routine that helps students pack up their bags in unison, stand behind their chairs in silence, and leave in a calm orderly manner, you might be able to allow two minutes more time at the end of your lesson to study. Add that up across the school day, and across the school year, and you save hours. A criticism of this on the grounds that it is ‘behaviourist’ and Pavlovian conditioning is very simplistic. It ignores the huge benefit that routines have as a safety net and time-saver.

This is the result of a broken system.

In some ways, I agree with this. Social inequality is huge, and the education sector picks up a significant part of this burden. Uncommon Schools serve disproportionately disenfranchised and poor communities and are getting them fantastic academic results. They can’t solve all of society’s problems, but they seem to be doing a good job of what they can have an influence over: their students’ attainment and progression.

However, I suspect I am being faux naive with my interpretation of this criticism. Implicit within it may in fact be the assumption that the school ethos is damaging, the teaching techniques draconian, and the students suffering. I refer back to Harry’s blogs as they contain more data on which to base a judgement than a 1 minute video clip of a teacher asking students to fold their arms and sit still.

“The teachers don’t own the practice – they are parroting it.” + “there is a lack of humanity [in the teachers].”

I hope my description of the training above helps demonstrate that this is not the case, nor is this the intention. At the training, I sat with very human teachers, of a whole range of ages and levels of experience (not always the same thing!), who were able to adopt the Uncommon Schools approach without turning into a bird and losing their humanity.

3. How did I feel to train like a champion?

There is a romantic ideal about teaching that I hold. It’s the part of me that loves The History Boys, that reflects fondly on the witty repartee when I was a form tutor, that believes that education is exciting for its unpredictability and variety. There is nothing in the TLAC or Uncommon Schools approach that forbids idiosyncratic personality, as far as I can see. In the UK school where I have taught which fully embraces this approach, teachers joke with students, nurture them, ensure that all can participate fairly, and invest huge time and energy into supporting learners with SEN and those who have EAL. They meet with parents often, and run fantastic enrichment for the children. Part of the reason they are able to do so much is because bad behaviour is so quickly and efficiently dealt with through in-class and whole-school routines, and a consistency in TLAC techniques (individually adapted and applied!) helps with this. Some TLAC techniques have a strong focus on behaviour management, it’s true. Done well, this helps create a safe environment in which to teach and learn. My skeptical nature may baulk at a few isolated video clips, but is appeased and reassured that we are not meant to parrot them, or start teaching in an American accent! TLAC appeals to my optimistic nature because it believes all teachers can be taught to improve, and suggests a way this can be done.


4. Challenge to the critics

Find something in this approach, or in Harry’s blogs on the same topic, that you agree with (yes, even in isolation), and write about it.

If you have actually read this far, thank you – it’s a waffler. Next post: supershort.




Uncommon Schools Training – practising to perform

A few initial thoughts half-way through a two-day training organised and taught by the brains behind Teach Like A ChampionDoug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Colleen Driggs.

Teaching is a performance profession like sport, drama, music. There’s quite a simple definition for what this is: when you’re doing it, can you press pause and ask for help? No – the show must go on. As a result, the focus of your improvement as a performer – your very integrity as a professional, in fact – should be based on being prepared for the big show. How do the other professions do it? In crude summary, I would put it as follows:

Plan > Rehearse > Perform

Or for Rehearse, substitute ‘practise‘ or ‘train‘. Currently, a lot of teaching goes like this:

Plan > Perform

A theatre company wouldn’t read a new play on Monday night and perform it on Tuesday morning (though please correct me if there is a company that would do this). Barcelona wouldn’t field a team that hadn’t practised its tiki-taka drills ad infinitum. Teachers need to work out a way of rehearsing. Or practising or training or whatever you want to call it.

Practising is deliberate, and deliberately artificial. To get good at something you don’t just do more of it. After a certain point, you have to pull it apart and isolate individual elements of what is a complex process in order to improve it. It reminded me of this clip a teacher friend of mine sent me a while ago of a cello lesson led by Yo Yo Ma. Tell me that this isn’t this minimum level of detailed, methodical, deliberate, practice you’d expect from someone who charged you money to see them perform!

Watch in particular how he isolates a specific skill – even going so far as to tell one of his students to ignore the notes (!) at 1’27” to get the technique correct first.

Yo Yo Ma is giving detailed and specific feedback to adults, but there is a contract of mutual-respect. Listen also to how mature and professional the conversation is at 3’05” – 4’00”. We tell our pupils that feedback is a gift, so we should be actively looking for some for ourselves at every opportunity.

When I practised, I became “bad” at stuff I’m normally “good” at. But that’s good. I stumbled over basic phrases, over-thought the words I used, forgot to do basic things like ask my “pupils” to put their pens down and look at me as I practised a scripted instruction. Basically, I felt like a novice teacher again – and this was a great thing because I was able to take apart my usual habits and make small, considered, changes to phrases I’d normally use unthinkingly. For example, when asking a question, I will now make a concerted effort to do it as follows:

Questions – Pause – Name [of student to answer]

rather than: Name – Question which is what I would unthinkingly do.

Why? Because this small tweak is more likely to make more of my students pay attention and think about the question, than if they already know I’m not asking them before I’ve even posed the question.

Practising with other teachers is awkward in a good way. I felt out of my comfort zone (basically role-playing with strangers and colleagues), but this made me focus and learn more.

We can learn from army officers too. And this has nothing to do with behaviour management or ‘school discipline’. Doug Lemov shared an anecdote about a professor at West Point who uses cold call in all his classes. (Cold call is when the teacher calls on specific students regardless of whether they have raised their hands to answer a question.) The effect of this is that students can’t ‘hide’ in his class because they might be asked a question at any moment. This is crucial because as an army officer they need to know what to do because if they don’t people might die. Their teacher realises this and constructs the lessons in such a way that all students must pay attention most of the time.

We can predict what will happen in our lessons, just not always whenWork out the scenarios that might happen, write a script for what you’ll do in that scenario (literally – write down what you will do and say!), and practise it.

This isn’t an ‘American’ way of doing things. It’s just an open, purposeful, collaborative, time-efficient, and, above-all, professional way of getting better at getting better.

Advice for an English Language Assistant abroad

I offered an ELA abroad some advice. Being in a bit of a rush, what I wrote was not thought through as much as it might have been, although it drew on my own experience of being an English Language Assistant to teenagers in a lycée in Paris a few years ago. I thought it worth sharing because I think it’s quite revealing about (a) the problems I had, and (b) what I think is manageable for a new teacher in a short amount of time. I’d be very interested in your responses.

Start your lessons the same way each time with a short task that gets them working on their own, head down. Egs: phrase match up/ translation task/ quiz on previous lesson/ questionnaire (especially for first lesson). They build up a routine with you and this allows you to sort out any issues at the start of lessons because the other kids know what to do.

Stand square on in the middle of the room. Don’t rock to and fro on your feet. Don’t shout. Smile when they are being good. Raise your eyebrows and confront those who are messing around. Say thank you for following your instructions.

Set up a simple routine for getting silence. Egs: “3-2-1 silence look this way” or raise your hand up straight and stand still until they look at you. Explain to them explicitly what you expect from them when you do this, and then practice it, then praise them for doing it right.

Have a clipboard with you when you teach with their names on it so you can log how many contributions they are making. Also makes you more authoritative and in control.

Aim to teach a small amount to mastery, rather than a large amount.

Have a medium-term plan (over about 6 lesson) so there is continuity – what words/phrases/topic do you want them to learn over half a term? How will you test it at the end? Write it out, decide on it, share it with them.

Focus on them getting good at things, don’t worry about making it “fun” yet – that will come as they experience success with you…and because you are who you are, and because you’re novel, it will be fun already.

38 things I thought and learned upon watching Doug Lemov. And 1 query.

My grandmother used to lecture on Early Modern European Literature. Sometimes, she would catch a glimpse of her students’ garbled notes or, more usually, read back contorted and misunderstood versions of what she had tried to say in the essays they would submit at the end of her course. Here is my version, in note form, of what Doug Lemov talked about during his Policy Exchange/Teach First lecture at King Solomon Academy last week. [David Didau (among others), has written a proper blog about it here; Sam Freedman has shared what an organisation like Teach First could learn from the Lemovian approach here.]

Stuff he said (or I thought he said).

  1. Los Angeles, New York, and other districts in the USA, collect and publish a league table which ranks individual teachers by contextual value added measures.
  2. Zenaida Tan is an example of how the best teachers are often ‘hidden’.
  3. A definition of ‘system failure’ is when the best teachers are unknown. Not because we can’t celebrate their success, but because we can’t learn from them.
  4. Ranking individual teachers is evidence that the teaching profession in the USA is working on an industrial model which pits the authorities against the staff. The focus is no longer on learning from the best, but on protecting jobs and trying to root out the ‘worst’. This is a waste of effort.
  5. We can learn a lot from outliers in any field. If this were any other industry in the USA, there would be a whole lot of industrial espionage going on. In teaching, these teachers are left to be or, even worse, unknown.
  6. Teaching is the most important job in the economy – just look at house prices in areas of good teaching!
  7.  GDP growth around the world correlates with educational outcomes. However, this does not correlate with the number of hours children spend in school.
  8. In teaching there are two types of challenge: the first is the Exotic Challenges. These challenges are unpredictable (e.g. beginning a new school year to find a pigeon has nested in your classroom). Teachers have to deal with these situations on the spot and use their common sense, wit, and nous, to overcome then.
  9. Secondly, there are the Endemic Challenges. These challenges are predictable – you might not know when they will come, but come they will. This could include: an illiterate student; a backchatting student; a student who refuses to do any work. Your teacher training should equip you with some basic, effective strategies for dealing with these situations. But a lot of teacher training doesn’t.
  10. It is wrong that every teacher often has to ‘work things out for themselves’; it is right that if we can predict a challenge, we should have an answer lined up for it in advance. It shouldn’t take a teacher 20 years of experience to work some of these out.
  11. But getting good at applying tried and tested techniques, doesn’t come in one go. We have to get “a little better at every interaction every day.”
  12. School systems and, in particular, teacher training, must have a role. Teachers said to Lemov: “we have to be better; you have to be better at helping us.”
  13. Breakthroughs in innovation have historically been preceded by breakthroughs in measurement.
  14. When we have a tough challenge, the first thing we do is give it a name.
  15. Doug Lemov and his team took an empirical approach to working out what works. They mapped out state school systems by poverty vs educational outcomes in order to identify the outliers. They then studied what they did in minute detail.
  16. The best teachers are innovators.
  17. The best teachers do what might seem counter-intuitive.
  18. The best teachers are “obsessed with data to see if their pupils’ have mastered something.” This is why the new edition of Teach Like A Champion has two chapters on techniques for Checking For Understanding.
  19. In a great classroom, praise is meted out to those pupils that have “changed their minds”. This is because the best teachers create a culture where failure is encouraged and learned from. The teacher in the video clip we were shown wanted to know which pupils had got the answer wrong at the first attempt – and then celebrate the fact that they changed their minds because that meant they had just learned something.
  20. It is important for a teacher to practice routines and formative assessment techniques. This is because it will take away the stigma of getting something wrong.
  21. Practising classroom routines like handing out paper is important because it saves time in the long run.
  22. To make your ‘cold calling’ or 100% response systems in class even better, set up the expectation that any pupil’s written answer may be displayed for the whole class to analyse and reflect upon. Call it “showing off” someone’s work to spread the positive vibes.
  23. Remember the power of bright spots. When you see a teacher colleague do something well it’s a gift because it’s an opportunity for us to learn something new for our own practice.
  24. If you’re teaching a class you see only once a week, all the more reason to establish excellent routines – and to drill them to a level of automaticity. You can’t afford to waste any time, so sweat the small stuff.
  25. The characteristics of good teacher CPD and training is that it (a) is embedded in the fabric of the school and (b) includes lots of time for practising.
  26. Identifying “best practice” doesn’t contradict “innovation”. Teachers should be presented with what has been shown to been useful, and proven to have worked in certain contexts, and then it’s up to them how to embed it.
  27. Tell teachers what vision you have for their students and then work out together how to get there.
  28. Kids aren’t becoming robots in Uncommon Schools.
  29. School leadership should be split in two: there should be an Instructional Leader and a Director of Operations. This is important because it helps embed teacher development in the fabric of the school. The instructional leaders should be coaching, observing and training.
  30. The only thing Doug Lemov knows is that some of what he knows must be wrong. He can’t wait for someone to tell him what it is.

Stuff I thought.

  1. Doug Lemov calls teachers superheroes, but he’s not the sentimental type.
  2. He believes the correlation between poverty and educational outcomes is immoral.
  3. His empirical approach, and the way he uses data, demonstrates that teaching can learn a lot from other disciplines. (In Practice Perfect, a lot of parallels are drawn, perhaps unsurprisingly, from sport and music.)
  4. Data is not some sort of scary, reductive, inhuman, malignant influence. It’s thanks to data analysis that Zenaida Tan was identified. It’s thanks to data that we can begin to work out what works.
  5. Teach Like A Champion is not ‘teaching by numbers’. No point knowing the techniques if you don’t know what the rationale behind them might be. Just because you can get your class to click or jump when you clap, doesn’t mean that you should always use it.
  6. Of the two clips we saw, the teachers consistently gave their pupils very specific praise.
  7. When I go back to the classroom, I want to teach using an overhead projector.
  8. Structure liberates. If you have drilled your class to get quiet, you can do more noisy things, knowing that you are still in control.

One query.

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

The oft-repeated quotation from Michael Barber’s 2007 McKinsey Report (How the world’s best performing education systems come out on topdeserves further scrutiny.

Luckily, Professor Chris Husbands has done that for us here. Here is the crux of what the Professor thinks:

It’s a great quote. And it’s wrong. It took me a long while to work out what was wrong with it, until a line from Bob Schwartz, professor of practice in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, triggered my thinking. “What”, asked Schwartz in an OECD essay, “is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning: the answer is teaching”.  And that captures the difference.  It’s just as good a quotation, but it is different in three important letters: it’s teaching, not teachers.

A moment’s thought tells you that Schwartz has to be right and McKinsey have to be wrong. We can all teach well and we can all teach badly.  Even good teachers teach some lessons and some groups less well; even the struggling teacher can teach a successful lesson on occasion. More generally, we can all teach better: teaching changes and develops. Skills improve. Ideas change. Practice alters. It’s teaching, not teachers.

The three letters also have important policy implications. If you pursue the line that the important thing is teachers, you focus on people. You need to sack the weakest teachers and you need to design a system which guarantees that you can replace them quickly with better ones. Of course, performance managing very poor teachers out of the profession is important, and it is important that we recruit the brightest and the best. But these turn out to be very, very slow routes to improving the quality of an education system.

I don’t think Doug Lemov would disagree, but I’d love to hear what he thinks.

What I learned from ResearchED 2014

“Memory is the residue of thought.” – D. Willingham, Why don’t students like school? p.54

I didn’t take any notes, so this is an experiment in what I was thinking about, I guess. Let’s see if I can explain a few things that I learned about at ResearchED 2014.

John Blake

Let’s apply Occam’s Razor to the concept of ‘cultural capital’. Does the metaphor even work? Capital is something you accrue, like culture, so in that sense it works. But you can’t spend culture. Once you’re well educated, you remain well educated. You can’t get rid of an education like you can get rid of cash. On the other hand, given the well documented Matthew Effect in reading and exponential knowledge acquisition (i.e. once you have some, you learn more, faster), maybe the metaphor could be tenuously extended to ISAs and savings accounts with compound interest……I’ll stop there.

Working class is a nebulous and loaded phrase. We’d be better off focusing on how much someone actually reads as a child, and then furthering our analysis by using usefully measurable categories like poverty, gender and race.

Andrew Old interviewing Ofsted

Ofsted should be a lot clearer about the fact that they see themselves as ‘on a journey’. Not grading lessons seems a really positive step, but also it should be made more clear that inspectors are happy to discuss individual lessons with teachers as part of a more developmental conversation (as Sean Harford explained). It was generally agreed that it was a good thing that Michael Cladingbowl and Sean Harford were willing to field questions, and that Ofsted leadership are engaging in a far more open dialogue with the profession. However, given that their judgement can make or break a career they need a better answer to “who watches the watchers?” than “please follow our complaints procedure.” One positive starting point could be explaining how they monitor the validity of Good/Satisfactory grades, and standardise them across their observations. As Andrew pointed out, it may seem harder to define the middle grades than a 1 or 4.


Andrew Old on having rational debates within education

Learn what the fallacies are, and then avoid them. Also, don’t be afraid of being convinced in a well-researched, rational case, that has considered the evidence and, as relevant, your values.

Andrew seems to get some peoples’ backs up on Twitter. In person it is clear how thoughtful and thorough his reasoning is. The key principle I took away from this talk is to discuss the actual ideas, the evidence base, the methods, and the conclusions. Try to avoid ad hominems, equivocating, appeals to authority and relativism about the definition of “truth”.

“There is no such thing as absolute truth.”

“Is that statement true?”


Michael Shaw and Ann Mroz

This gruesome twosome discussed journalism and how it does and doesn’t misrepresent research. The main thing I took from this was a sense of perspective on how furious people get about how stuff is reported. I was also impressed by how clear they both were about (a) their complete and utter openness to being corrected if wrong about a story, and (b) their commitment to sharing both sides of a story.

Also, news is there because it’s new. So stuff that hasn’t gotten rigorously proven yet may be written about! Get over it!

Also, “turkey slapping”.

A brilliant day – very happy to talk about http://www.thebrilliantclub.org and http://www.researchersinschools.org with lots of people and plenty of food for thought as we attack a new school year!

Soviet school education as summarised by my dad

I have enjoyed following many debates about education since I joined Twitter and begun reading blogs. To get a bit of perspective on some of the things being discussed, I’ll sometimes ask my parents for their perspective and about their experience. They both went to school in the USSR, my dad also completed his degree in Leningrad.

I asked my dad about his memories of the Soviet education system. What strikes me is the importance of subject disciplines within the programme of study, and yet the fact that maths wasn’t a subject per se. Also, the fact that the best elements came from the Prussian gymnasium system is telling. And there’s an interesting reflection on a very specific type of group-work. Here’s what he wrote as I translated it (original Russian from his email to me is at the bottom of the post):

The successes of the Soviet Education system in the post-war period (from 1945 to the end of the 70s) were predicated on the inevitable need to maintain the military-technological race with the West. A mass of literate engineers and technicians was needed, able to read technical drawings, make basic calculations, master some sort of machine or mechanism. And the Soviet regime did not spare resources and effort on this – which was not so difficult to achieve in a country where the average standard of living was indeed very low. And the teaching profession, despite the low wages, was very prestigious – as opposed to today.
Until the end of the 40s, the basic provision of secondary education was seven years of school – to 14 years old, after which the majority of teenagers went to work or to a specialised technical school (tekhnikumy), either daily or in the evenings. From the end of the 40s, the basic provision expanded to a ten year model to the age of 17 (in towns, not in the villages). From the fifth to the 10th classes the sciences (hard and natural sciences) were taught very thoroughly – in more detail than in the West – and this is something that the immigrants from Russia were convinced of when they found themselves in Israel or in the USA in the 70s – so their level of preparation in the hard sciences turned out to be, as a rule, higher than their peers.
For instance Soviet schools did not have a subject called ‘mathematics’. Until the fourth class you were taught arithmetic, and from the fifth to the tenth class you had separate lessons in algebra, geometry, to which were added trigonometry in the final two years as a separate subject. Further sciences were taught as distinct subjects – physics, chemistry, biology and human anatomy, and even astronomy in some schools. In the cities, nearly every school you had physics and chemistry lab equipment – separate spaces with necessary equipment, setup, instruments etc. In some schools you even had biology labs. Of course I’m talking here about European and Siberian parts of the USSR, In central Asia the situation was worse – there they had fewer ten-year school programmes.
The educational system was founded on principles developed in Germany in the 19th century and widely adopted in the Russian empire. The German approach to education is systematic (and regular). In each subject the emphasis is made on each subject’s place in the universal order of things. That is to say on the subject-specific theory and foundations that belong to it, and how it differs from other fields of knowledge. For example, what does physics concern itself with as opposed to chemistry, or chemistry from biology. Secondly, the curriculum [literally – programme of study] is detailed and cumulative, designed over a 3-4 year sequence. Thirdly, the responsibility for the fruits of his efforts lies with the individual efforts of each pupil – and in order to strengthen this responsibility exists a system of assessed work and exams – both oral and written.
In the 20s and 30s the Bolsheviks still experimented with school education. For example, a so-called ‘brigade method’ was introduced, when one or another aspect of knowledge had to be mastered not by the individual, but by a group of students, or a ‘brigade’. Classes were grouped into small groups of three to five students, each group was given a separate task, and the marks were given collectively, and not to any individual student. But what would you do with the lazy ones? After the war, this method was rejected. In an unofficial way (for the fifth – tenth classes), the Gymnasium system of pre-revolutionary Russia was restored. At its core: cramming, obligatory use of summaries of each subject, obligatory homework, random marking of homework during the lesson which was graded, written coursework every three or four weeks or at the end of every term (of which their were four not three), exams in certain subjects at the end of each school year – i.e. in June. What’s more, in algebra, geometry and physics the exams were written exams. If you failed your exams you had to resit them in September.
That’s about all that I can remember right now. Pose me questions and I’ll try to answer them in detail as much as possible.

Some context for The Brilliant Club Inaugural Conference

When we began our work at The Brilliant Club, it was part-project, part stab-in-the-dark. Jonny Sobczyk and Simon Coyle, who founded the organisation, ran the pilot at the school where I was teaching at the time and, taken by the idea and the possibility of setting up an actual organisation of our own, I decided to join them in the venture. We attained charity status in early 2012 and, just over 2 years on, are very proud of the scale and quality of the work we are doing across 4 regions of the UK (London & South East; Midlands; East of England; North East England).

The problem that we exist to solve is a very specific one within the broader debates and activity around social mobility: at highly selective universities the number of students from non-selective state schools, and in particular from the poorest backgrounds, is disproportionately low. The Sutton Trust provides a swathe of research on the issues, slicing through the data in a number of different ways – here is one particularly pertinent example about uni progression rates by individual school – and also making recommendations. The Higher Education Funding Council for England also analyses students’ secondary to HE progression rates. In 2010, when setting up The Brilliant Club, we looked at their report on trends in youth HE participation. A few key trends and findings stick out for me personally:

  • In 2010, at the 25 most academically selective universities in England, only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the student intake was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils, and just over a quarter of the intake (25.8%) from independent schools. This proportion may be changing, but only slowly and with huge regional variation.
  • 80% of disadvantaged young people – those from low HE participation neighbourhoods – live in the vicinity of a highly-selective university, but only 1 in 25 of these disadvantaged young people attends such a university (compared to 1 in 4 from the highest HE participation neighbourhoods). (Link here, page 5)

Within these two research findings, we had a defined problem and a potential solution: given the proximity of schools serving low participation communities and universities, there would surely be a way of building good links between them. What was needed was a scalable way of doing so that focused on meaningful academic experience to develop realistic aspirations and improve attainment, giving timely and accurate advice, and creating a precedent for progression to highly selective HE courses for pupils from low-participation backgrounds. Of course there is a huge amount of widening participation and fair access activity already ongoing – it is a growing part of what universities do (look at the latest WP budgets for next year here). We wanted to add to the effort as the problem is big enough to warrant multiple solutions and collaborations.

We have found that the PhD and post-doctoral research community is perfectly placed to be this link. Our PhD tutors – selected at an assessment centre that looks for their ability to communicate and their motivation for working with young people – have a wealth of subject expertise, a passion for their area of study, extensive experience of universities (and in many cases the world of work). They design courses for small groups of pupils that the school will select to take part in the programme. The pupils are selected using a mixture of contextual factors (such as eligibility for FSM and parental history of HE) and teacher discretion. The courses are based on an aspect of the PhD tutor’s research and will be categorised as ‘Arts & Humanities’, ‘STEM’ or ‘Social Science’. From the pupils’ point of view, it is like being taught a university module with a final assignment at the end that will be graded in a university-style (1st, 2.1 etc.). All courses include trips to our partner universities. We work with Year 5s upwards because we believe that starting the conversation with pupils when they are younger helps give them time to inform themselves about progression to university before it becomes necessary for them to make any decisions. At crucial transition points between key stages, starting young helps equip pupils with some very important perspectives on where their education can take them.

I want it to be normal for academics to be seen in schools and for pupils from all backgrounds to think of university – including the most highly-selective courses and institutions – to be their right and entitlement. It is rewarding, therefore, when the conversation with the pupils we work with moves on from “what is university?” to “which course would I enjoy the most?” to “I wonder whether I would want to do a PhD myself?”. And at the same time, it is incredibly rewarding to see what our PhD tutors get from it. As a lapsed teacher, I didn’t quite realise initially how exciting it is for an academic to teach their particular area of research as opposed to a general ‘introduction to…’ undergraduate course. Moreover, the Research Councils of the UK have a strategy of Public Engagement that encourages researchers to take their specialisms to non-expert audiences. Some of our PhD tutors have gone on to become teachers (including through http://www.researchersinschools.org – the new ITT partnership launching in September). Others have remained as teachers and researchers in academia or moved to industry. We hope their professions are enriched by a more detailed understanding and experience of the state education sector.

The Brilliant Club Inaugural Conference will be taking place at King’s College London on Thursday 24th July, bringing together academics, teachers, widening participation professionals and third-sector organisations like our own. It is fully booked, but we have a livestream from the main lecture theatre which will capture the panel debates and keynotes. At this conference we hope to begin to answer the question:

How can universities and schools help pupils from low-HE participation backgrounds secure places and succeed at highly-selective universities?

Have a read of the programme and take a look at our livestream here. If you’re on Twitter then please get involved @BrilliantClub and on #BrillWP14

Finally, can you find your school on this POLAR 3 dataset? How likely young people are to participate in HE varies across the UK mapped out by small local area.

Open invitation to University Learning in Schools: A research project for London

Two recent trends within secondary education in England have led us at The Brilliant Club to join in collaboration with Achievement for All and the GLA to run a research project exploring ways to enhance KS3 teachers’ subject knowledge and pedagogical skills. These two trends are:

  1. GCSE reform which aims to assess pupils across more challenging content.
  2. Efforts to engage further with research across the profession, as epitomised by initiatives such as ResearchED.

We asked ourselves a question: would a partnership between researchers (who possess exceptional subject knowledge) and teachers (who possess the pedagogical experience), help improve student outcomes?

Over the last term, five teacher-researcher pairs have created academic units of work to enhance teacher knowledge and teach aspects of their research to KS3 pupils. The units of work have been taught, and will be disseminated at a free CPD event for KS3 teachers on Friday 4th July. The day will have three parts – a keynote presentation from Sam Freedman, Director of Impact and Research at Teach First, an academic lecture by the researcher which will teach the subject-knowledge to the delegates, and an afternoon workshop by the teachers that taught the module to disseminate the resources.  Teacher delegates will be able to attend an English/Humanities/Science stream for the day.

We are finding that the teachers involved saw the benefit of this approach in preparing KS3 pupils for the new GCSE qualifications, and their reflections will form part of the workshop that they will give in the afternoon when presenting the free materials. The researchers are from King’s College London, UCL, CERN and Warwick University. A (brief) summary of each module can be found in the table below:

English Language

How we use talk and writing to develop understanding 

Explores the importance of talk and the ways in which we talk as we learn, considering the use of technology in providing a means for a form of ‘talk’ through text-based communication.
English Literature

Travel Writing

Introduces pupils to travel writing extracts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From Byron to Patrick Leigh Fermor, via Mary Kingsley, this module will further pupils’ knowledge and understanding of life-writing, descriptions of place, and recounting exploration, adventure and discovery.

Global Childhoods

Explores concepts of children in society and introduces learners to a global perspective of what it is like for children living around the world. This module will introduce the theoretical underpinnings of ‘childhood’ from a biological and sociological perspective, and apply them to children in the home, at work, in school, and at war.

Antibodies:Weapons of Microbe Destruction

Focuses on antibodies starting with their function in tackling pathogens, in the immune system to application in medicine and in the research laboratory.

LASERs: Cutting Edge Science

Explores the diverse applications of laser technology and the crossover with physics, using Quantum Theory, Electromagnetic Waves, Optics and Thermodynamics.


From attending educational research conferences over the last couple of years, it has become clear that, provided it is structured in a manageable way, many teachers are keen to be part of an educational research project. Should it still be of interest, we are offering further opportunities for delegate who attend to get involved in the research project:

  • Teach the resources that you receive in your school and let us know what impact this unit of work has on your pupils.


  • Register your interest in being partnered with a PhD Researcher next academic year to design a KS3 unit of work of your own.

More information and free signup is here: http://bit.ly/freecpd. I hope this is of interest to:

  • School leaders/teachers responsible for curriculum design, teaching & learning, and preparation for GCSE reform
  • KS3 subject teachers looking to improve their subject knowledge
  • Non-specialist teachers in English, Humanities (Geography) and Science (Biology/Physics).