What exactly are we tracking?


Almost every state school in England tracks the progress of their pupils by using spreadsheets to analyse a number or grade teachers input into a software program at regular intervals.

In some this happens once a term, and every half term is even more common.

The purpose is clear; schools are responsible for the progress of their pupils and accountable for their results. In order to know whether pupils are ‘on track’ often to meet a target grade, about which my opinions are well known, then there has to be a way of knowing whether or not each child will eventually succeed. Data led inspection regimes have led to a perceived need that school leaders must know the grades their pupils will achieve at all times.

An entire industry has grown up to meet this need. While there are subtle variations between how each works whatever the system the principle remains largely the same; teachers enter data and the program works out whether each child is making expected progress or not. The program may also generate reports allowing leaders or teachers to see which individuals or groups of pupils need extra help. Such systems are also often used to hold teachers personally accountable for the outcomes of their pupils.

This is now all so ubiquitous that few would even think of questioning the orthodoxy and those that do can find themselves accused of educational heresy. This, however, is unfortunate because the process of data tracking is a house of cards in many schools and does need to be challenged.

While all tracking is tricky, the recent(ish) trend of doing so with GCSE grades even in KS3 is especially problematic. Even leaving aside the issues around the validity of the entry data (KS2 tests) on which the idea is based, there remain profound issues in using GCSE grades designed as a summative measurement to assess progress in a formative fashion, especially in the younger year groups.

Firstly, GCSE grades do not represent a half terms worth of work. They represent two, or indeed three, years of work and a number of exams that might total hours. The only way of inputting an anywhere near accurate GCSE grade would be if pupils sat the same number of exams, in the same conditions, on the same material as they will at the end of Y11 regardless of at what stage of school they are at. For example this means that in history, to obtain an accurate grade, teachers must make Year 7 sit three exams on topics they had never studied every six weeks. As pupils covered more and more of the course, the grade would slowly go up, in theory at least. If measurement was the point of it all, this would be quite a neat solution but this but is actually quite unacceptable because it would narrow the curriculum and mean teachers rarely did anything but set and mark exams with very little time left to teach anything at all.

But of course I have set up a straw man. No schools do this. Instead they assess pupils on what they have studied. In some subjects this is more authentic than others. In Maths, for example, the domain remains the same but increases in complexity, which might make GCSE grades more appropriate than in History or English Literature where students do not begin their courses until Year 9 at the earliest. Not knowing much about assessment in these subjects I think it best I leave this to others to think about, and will confine my concerns to subjects like history, RE and English Literature.

Time constraints and common sense mean that children do not sit full exams on entire domains of knowledge, or even the sample on GCSE specifications, at half-termly intervals. Usually, children will sit a handful of exam questions in a lesson which often only tests the material pupils have studied most recently. This makes tracking misleading because what is being assessed is actually performance rather than embedded learning; just because a child achieved a certain number of marks on a question a week after learning the content does not mean they will achieve the same three years later in their final exams, making any inputted grade potentially very misleading. This is the reason KS3 classes can appear to be doing far better than their eventual KS4 result.

Strong departments understand and try to deal with this issue by testing students on the entire domain, going back at least a year and sometimes longer. This is more satisfactory but still far from perfect. This is because the sample tested my not be representative of what comes up in the final exam; being able to answer a question on the Reichstag Fire really well does not mean the child will be able to answer a question on, say, Thomas Sydenham to the same standard. Conversely, a child may do really badly on a question, leading us to believe that they are in need of urgent help when this could be an area on which they are atypically weak.

Furthermore, that most schools teach different content in KS3 than is assessed at the end of KS3 results in mark-schemes and rubrics assuming an importance they really should not have. It is now fairly typical for children in the lower years to be set GCSE style questions which are then marked to a generic mark scheme drawn from the specification the department has chosen for their KS4 pupils. Departments that do this have rarely chosen to, but have no choice in order to enter as accurate a possible grade into a standardised tracking spreadsheet. This means that pupils can easily come to believe that there is a correct way to answer certain questions not just for their exam but in the discipline itself, which misrepresents these subjects. Sadly, this can make never setting a long extended essay to any pupil before sixth form seem a quite logical decision.

Even if put aside these ethical and moral considerations, and we had certainty that the grades we inputted were an accurate representation of each pupil’s sum knowledge of an entire domain, there remain profound problems in the practicalities of marking and assessment.

Marking of some subjects is, to a degree at least, inherently subjective. Just a quick look at the government’s own descriptors for 9-1 in history is enough to see this. Here, the criteria for Grade 5 is outlined as:

“demonstrate mostly accurate and appropriate historical knowledge, using first order concepts, combined with a clear understanding of key features and characteristics.”

 Who then is to be the judge of what ‘mostly accurate’ or ‘a clear understanding’ actually means when looking at a piece of work? Exam boards do try to clarify, but even these documents are largely subjective. This was shockingly exposed in March 2018 when Ofqual revealed that nearly half of English Literature students were awarded an ‘incorrect’ grade because of marking inconsistency and problems with the design of the exam. The same figures revealed that in history, 1 in 3 students may have been awarded the ‘wrong’ grade.

The implication of this on tracking in schools using GCSE grades cannot be understated; if even examiners are wrong up to half the time how can we have any certainty that what we are entering into our spreadsheet is an accurate representation of what a pupil will actually achieve? This probably also makes time-consuming, painstaking internal moderation processes a waste of time. Even if consensus is achieved, which often means just everyone falling into line behind the most influential person involved, this consensus is unlikely to be the shared with the person who eventually marks the exam scripts of the department’s students, making the whole ritual entirely pointless. Further complicating this are the unconscious biases we all hold, where what we know about a pupil, be it behaviour, their level of affluence and even handwriting can all play into the decisions we make when grading.

I get how much we really want to know exactly where our pupils are, I really do. The religion of high-stakes accountability makes it feel like educational careers live and die on the minute variances in a Progress 8 figure. Feeling like you don’t know what this will be is terrifyingly uncertain. But it just isn’t possible to get the degree of exactitude we want and all the tracking packages, clever formulas, powerful software, pretty graphs and RAGed lists in the world won’t change the fact that the data used to make them isn’t safe making any conclusions we draw from them unsafe too.

Those tempted by ever more sophisticated systems would do well to remember that no program can ever transcend the quality of the data fed into it.

The best we can do, in many subjects, is to give ballpark predictions based on the professional opinions of teachers as we were happy doing before we found ourselves buried in an avalanche of figures. It is actually very interesting to note that this is often what schools revert to near the end of Year 11 anyway, with it quite common for teachers to be asked, irrespective of all the data they’ve entered over the last five years, what their best guess for each pupil they teach is. Ultimately, when it really counts, we often do trust our own subjective judgement more than we do the robots and for good reason.

We all want children to learn more and get better grades. The best way to accomplish this is to spend time on the things that matter. The imperfections inherent to entering GCSE grades onto a spreadsheet means that agonising over the figures to the degree we often do just does not make any sense and can never be worth the opportunity cost.

Imagine how much time could be spent on developing curriculum and meaningful assessment, and improving teaching and subject knowledge if we cut the fat from tracking systems that can never do what we really want them to.


Low level disruption?


Those of us working in schools hear about low-level and high-level disruption a lot. We all know, or at least think we know, what is meant by each. Throwing a chair, fighting and swearing directly at a teacher would in most sensible contexts be considered high-level, while tapping a pen, whispering or passing notes is more commonly described as low level.

While this might appear very clear, I think such distinctions are profoundly unhelpful.

Firstly, labelling some disruptive behaviours low level implies they aren’t that detrimental to learning and creates a context in which they may not be taken seriously enough. For example, a child arriving late to the lesson and then making a fuss sitting down can distract an entire class for minutes at a time. This wouldn’t be regarded as high level disruption in many schools but is really damaging to the overall classroom atmosphere, even if we put aside the time lost. Labelling such behaviour low level and others too, such as pen-tapping or refusal to take off a coat at first time of asking, can make teachers following up appear fussy and pedantic and can even lead to their concerns being ignored by those who should support them. When this happens, it is very easy for schools to slide into culture in which forgetting equipment, arriving late to lessons, or talking when children should be working is actually tacitly permitted just because they aren’t perceived as being as bad as other misdemeanours. For schools in especially challenging areas this can easily become a race to the bottom with the definition of ‘low-level’ stretched to include things as basic as listening while a teacher is talking, just because this doesn’t seem as bad as what might be happening elsewhere in the building.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, the distinction between high and low level disruption is a subjective one, based on the perceptions of those involved. This ambiguity is a recipe for accidental and even deliberate confusion, which wastes time and may encourage some children to wilfully game the system. While throwing a chair at a wall may be dramatic and attention-grabbing, is this really any less disruptive than saying to a teacher who has just had a hair cut “it looks awful”, in a faux-sympathetic tone? Given the devastating emotional impact of such a comment, and the likely decline in quality of teaching as a result, a case could well be made that the second example is actually more disruptive than the first. We could, of course, have endless fun (and oh what fun!) thinking up examples of bad behaviour and deciding which is worst but while this may make for an entertaining evening in the pub, it is certainly not a productive use of time in school.

It just isn’t possible, without context, to really ever know what is supposedly ‘high’ and what is supposedly ‘low’ level, making hierarchical distinctions between misbehaviours profoundly unhelpful. It wastes everyone’s time trying to get to the bottom of what exactly was written on the note that made Sasha cry, or whether Mr Andrews gave enough warnings to Taylor for tapping his pen before sending him out of the classroom. It helps spawn Byzantine behaviour policies which try to list every example of poor behaviour that has ever happened in schools but never seem to reduce them. It allows children to waste time acting as jailhouse lawyers, undermining their teachers and schools by using a teacher’s failure, in the heat of the moment, to follow a complicated and exact procedure as justification for behaviour everyone knows was deliberately rude and disruptive.

If there is a distinction between high and low level disruption it is too complicated to waste time trying to define. Instead, we should recognise that all behaviour that affects learning, whether it is of an individual pupil or a class as a whole, is unacceptable and that classroom teachers are best placed to make these decisions. Indeed, making such calls, based on a clear and sensible whole school policy, is an important part of a teacher’s role.

So let’s stop taking about ‘high’ and ‘low’ level disruption. If it distracts from learning, it is disruptive and that’s that.


Eleven Principles for Great Explicit Teaching.


I would like begin by thanking West London Free School, and Louis Everett in particular, for organising this event and inviting me to speak today. This conference last year was, almost unbelievably to me now, the very first teaching event I had ever attended. I came away more inspired than I have been before as a teacher. So I am, of course, feeling some effects of imposter syndrome and can only hope that those of you who have come to see me don’t go away too disappointed, given the intimidatingly high calibre of the other presenters.

Before going any further I think it important I clear up some terminology. Put most simply, I will be discussing how to plan extended explanations of substantive content, delivered didactically to a whole class. Bizarrely, for something so simple, at its essence, just ‘teaching’ to me, there is no consensus as to what this should be called. When I first began writing on this I called it Direct Instruction but it has become clear this is misleading. Capitalised, Direct Instruction means something very specific and includes the scripted lessons that have recently caused so much controversy. Greg Ashman wrote a series of blogs on this, which are tremendously helpful to understanding the differences between the various types of didactic delivery. For convenience, I am going to try and stick to the term Explicit Teaching to describe what I mean, while doing my best to ignore the sniggers of those with minds in the gutter!

Please forgive me if I use other terms and I ask for your patience if I do slip; for the sake of this talk today any other words used can be treated as synonyms. While I, as will surprise nobody, have opinions on the merits and dangers of Direct Instruction, I will not be getting into these today.

The work of influential organisations, individuals and free schools teaching in an unashamedly traditional style has brought explicit teaching in from the pedagogical cold. A decade ago this style of history teaching felt distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers, of history or anything else, were guides on the side and were supposed to facilitate learning, not explain content. Didactic teachers were viewed with deep suspicion and many had a pretty rough time, with a fairly typical target from old-style lesson observations being ‘reduce the amount of teacher talk,’ regardless of how good this talk was.

Careers were blighted and, according to some teachers I’ve spoken to, some great practitioners were forced out of the profession altogether.

This presents schools and teachers who wish to plan and deliver great explicit, didactic instruction and explanation with a problem.  How can this methodology be developed and improved if the educational system as a whole has been purged of those who know how to do it?  Who do we have to teach it, either to ITT students or as CPD to more experienced teachers?  A twitter poll I ran a while back, along with my own experiences and other teachers I have spoken with seems to support the severity of this issue, with the great majority of respondents saying they had never, not once in their career received any training on explicit teaching.  This is a big problem, particularly in history, a discipline that lives on the telling of stories.  Explicit teaching will not improve outcomes if it is done badly and, if teachers are left to plan it with no support it will not, at least in the short term, be done well.  This could easily cause departments and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it does not yield immediately improved results.  Indeed, there are worrying signs that this is happening already with some dismissing didactic methods as a teacher dryly reading facts to children, who are then expected to just memorise and regurgitate them in tests.

So what can we do?

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, perhaps mostly factiously, concern was expressed as to whether we had enough experienced Civil Servants to make a success of bilateral trade discussions, given that for decades and decades most of these fell under umbrella EU laws. One proposal, somewhat ludicrously, was to round up retired, experienced Civil Servants and get them to do it. Whether or not this is true or just a funny story there are some parallels with the problems caused by the purge, for whatever reason, of great explainers from our classrooms. While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic history warhorses from their allotments and car-boot sales probably is not the most practical solution to this skills gap.  Fortunately, I do not think it necessary because, as Mark Enser many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly teaching for years. To steal Mark’s great phrase, which is annoyingly apt considering he is a geography teacher, it does seem to be what many of us do when nobody is watching, and when it counts the most. The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and didn’t share practice, because we had picked up the belief explicit instruction was somehow cheating; great history teaching, for many years, was seen to be facilitating learning experiences, through carousels, or role-play, market-places or whatever. Directly telling children things came to be seen a last resort when more creative methods failed. Many of us remember a time when the highest accolade a teacher could be given by a child was “you don’t feel like you are learning in their lesson but somehow you do”, which created the impression that great teachers never told children things directly, but instead smuggled learning into ‘fun’ activities in the same way my mum used to hide smashed up paracetamol in jam.

At the beginning of my career I remember being clearly told, with great seriousness, that whenever I taught something to a child I was robbing them of the experience of discovering it for themselves.

Teaching explicitly is, of course, the antithesis of this which means until quite recently there has been little interest, at least formally, in improving it.

Now, if we are to best take advantage of the opportunity presented by this change in the direction of the wind, we all need to start sharing what works best, so we can plan and deliver great explanations that help our pupils learn, understand and retain what we have taught them.

Outlining lessons I have learned over the years is not meant to, in any way, give the impression I have cracked it when of course I have not.  I remain as eager as ever to learn from others about what they do so I can further improve.  I am impatient to do so because what little have learned so far took me too long.  It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did explicitly instruct and influences outside education altogether.  All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I did not believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help – to do so would have been to admit defeat as a ‘guide on the side’ and invite the sort of ‘support’ that nobody wants.

Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I have learned might help other history teachers improve faster than I did.

Principle 1: Be sage before you step on stage.








If they are to inspire confidence and attention, anyone speaking about anything has to know what they are banging on about.  Not knowing the material inside out causes hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off.  If students have questions , without knowing more than they do, we will struggle to convincingly answer them.  Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention.  Knowing the textbook is never enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg.  For example, a KS3 book may include material on Henry VII’s pet monkey but without the context it is just a rather silly and distracting story whereas with strong subject knowledge it assumes meaning and illuminates something much more profound about a secretive and mysterious monarch.

Even in the lower year groups strong subject knowledge is crucial to planning great explanations because it is only by knowing more than we will deliver that we can be sure what we are explaining is of the most importance. It might be helpful to think of this process as a funnel or a sieve; by starting with a greater amount we can be more sure what we choose to deliver is of high value. For my own subject, history, Gustave Flaubert, provides a helpful analogy in saying that the writing of history should be like “drinking an ocean and then pissing a cup”.

Planning for great explanations should be seen in the same way.

To teach well explicitly, constantly upgrading our subject specific knowledge must be seen as a professional duty, privilege and perk of our positions. We must accept we can never know enough. We must read widely in our fields, listen to podcasts, and attend museums and lectures. Schools should support this; personally I believe that at least, if not more, time should be devoted to improving subject knowledge as is given to generic pedagogy.

We must be sages before we step on the stage.

Principle 2: What, not how


For many years most ITT and typically generic CPD emphasised the procedural at the expense of the substantive.  My early planning was almost entirely based around the activities I expected children to do with much less thought about the actual material. I confess with some shame that I once spent an entire fortnight facilitating the performance of Ra-Ra Rasputin: The Musical, which involved extensive group work, musical instruments, costumes and got me an ‘outstanding’ in an old style lesson observation. This meant that on the rare occasions I did speak to the class as a whole, my explanations were poor.  Feedback from lesson observations advised me to deal with this by reducing the amount of time I spoke to the class, which robbed me of opportunities to practise, knocked my confidence and made me worse at it.  To avoid this we need to think very carefully about what we are going to teach a class and how we are going to explain it.  Strong subject knowledge makes this easier because it means a better understanding of the most significant and important areas of a topic, which can then be better emphasised in the delivery.  I find making my own notes leads to better explanations, either through simple bullet points or mind-maps.

The process helps me identify potentially tricky spots, anticipate questions I am likely to be asked, and think up analogies and metaphors that build student understanding and retention of the material.  For topics on which I know my own knowledge is still shaky, I script out what I’m going to say after reading up.  I have a physical list of the areas in our curriculum on which I feel I am weak and try to work on these whenever time allows. The more I have learned about the subjects I teach the easier I have found it to explain them to my classes.

All this means my planning looks very different to how it did when I first trained.  Whereas formerly, it was focused on the activities in the lessons, now most of my thinking goes on the substantive knowledge and how best to explain this directly instead of trying to find gimmicks on which to tangentially graft learning. I plan in the same way I do my lessons; I start with the objectives and then develop explicit explanation that directly addresses these. This approach is clear in the microteaching YouTube videos I make, in which I write the objectives clearly on the board and refer back to these throughout my delivery to ensure what I am talking about remains anchored to the most important points and to stop me going off on a tangent.

It is also a good idea to share the main thinking points from the explanation with children before beginning. I do this this through writing the questions children will answer on the board and going through them first. These questions, if worded skilfully, can help to keep students listening out for the key points. At the end of an explanation I will usually lead a discussion around them before setting pupils off on independent work, silent work.

Principle 3: Teach children to listen:


Of all the untruths in education, saying that children will always behave well if a lesson is well planned, which often really means engaging in the most superficial, reductive sense, is perhaps the most damaging.  I am determined not to make this mistake here; even the best planned explicit delivery will be derailed if students misbehave.  Early in my career there was a culture in which if you taught this way it was assumed you actually deserved bad behaviour from your classes.  As a result children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach explicitly, creating a neat vicious cycle. Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful explicit instruction because if students are not listening carefully, they will not learn anything.  This makes it impossible for them to complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely.  Worse, disruption, whether we classify it as high or low level, which I actually think is a fundamentally unhelpful distinction, while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group, Just the tapping of a pen or, even worse, the scrunching of a water bottle can be enough to trip me up.

As the quality of the instruction goes down, so does the credibility of the teacher, which causes other students to switch off too.

If explicit teaching is to be successful teachers and schools must plan to develop and insist on perfect behaviour; children must listen silently, not interrupt and save questions until an appropriate time.  Children not used to this must be taught how.  While this process can be exhausting to begin with it is necessary.  It means stopping and starting again if even one child is fidgeting, staring out of a window, daydreaming or tapping a pen.  It means following up these apparently minor misdemeanours with sanctions which are, at least to begin with, likely to make children angry if they are unused to being picked up.  But it is necessary and, if the accompanying teaching is good, it will work in the end.  It might be helpful to remember, when deep in the fight, as I am with some children after recently moving schools, that all we are really expecting is that children listen while their teacher talks which should not be controversial. It might also be reassuring to know that in the end it does work; by the time I finished teaching at my last school, which was in an area considered challenging by any measure, the pupils in classes I had taught from Year 7 would uncomplainingly accept a sanction for staring out of the window or fiddling with a  pencil.

Sound subject knowledge and perfect learning behaviour are the foundations of planning good explicit explanation but, of course, strong delivery is necessary too.

While, of course, styles of delivery can vary there are, I think, some fundamentals worth sharing.

Principle 4: Vary tone, inflection and cadence.


Using cadence and inflection to stress and add further meaning to parts of an explanation is really effective in helping students understand what they are listening to. Really good subject knowledge makes this much easier but even a little forethought can help.  For example, if I am explaining that the percentage of the vote for the Nazis rose I will use a rising inflection whereas if it fell, my tone will reflect that.  If an event might be considered historically unexpected or baffling, I try to sound surprised.  Occasionally I will emphasis a particular point differently and more emphatically.  In one I punch a fist into my hand while explaining the influence of the SA to underpin the importance of violence to this group.  It might be a bit hammy, but used sparingly it is effective.

Principle 5: Use storytelling techniques:


People in general and children specifically find stories easy to remember and storytelling techniques can be effectively harnessed in the classroom. Daniel Willingham expresses this neatly in pointing out that psychologists call stories “privileged,” meaning that our minds treat stories differently to how the do other material.  Asking rhetorical questions to foreshadow later events or elements of an explanation help students identify a coherent narrative, which makes material easier to understand and retain.  Cliff-hangers are useful in building conceptual bridges between events.  For example, in my summary explanation of William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, I conclude by describing the meeting between the surviving English earls and bishops and asking students to think about why William might have worried about this, which is material we cover in the next timetabled lesson.

I draw heavily on metaphor and analogy in my explanations too.  Making conceptual links between different themes and events can be distracting if done unthinkingly but is powerful in driving understanding when done well. This is because by activating prior knowledge and using it to illuminate new material we can free up working memory. It is very important to be careful that metaphors, similes and analogies reinforce learning and do not detract from it. It is very easy to just tell a great story but, if this story is not directly supportive of the most important points it can easily become an albatross, with children remembering the story but not the point it was supposed to illustrate. I was guilty of this in a YouTube video I made on the NHS in which I told a story about my brother meeting a boy in Tanzania who was begging for a mattress on which his elderly grandfather could die. I told this story to try to illustrate why the NHS was so important but while, of course, compelling, it is actually distracting and is the only thing about the video many children remember. If I was to make this video again, I would regretfully leave it out. It is helpful to keep in mind Willingham’s insightful comment that ‘children learn what they think hard about’ to keep explanations focused on the most important points.

Sometimes metaphors occur to me on the fly while teaching, but mostly they come to mind before the lesson when planning what I will include.  One that worked particularly effectively was a comparison between a plate-spinner in a circus and William’s attempts to retain control of England and Normandy, ensure loyalty from his own supporters while defending his new kingdom from both Viking invasion and attacks from Welsh princes.

Principle 6: Repeat and link back:


Repetition of certain key phrases and terms is something I have stolen from oral traditions and cultures.  In such societies stories are the main way in which information is passed from one generation to the next and these can be very lengthy. I saw this first hand when I lived in Ethiopia and spent some time with village communities in which there was no schooling as we would describe it; there, children were taught important information about their society and culture by elders through long stories that they would in turn learn off by heart. To make this easier, elders used various mnemonics and devices, alongside frequent low stakes testing, just as the Ancient Greeks did. The Iliad and the Odyssey, while now written, would originally have been learned off by heart.  To ensure these stories could be remembered by both the poets and their audiences, repetition of adjectives and certain phrases are used carefully and deliberately.  For example, throughout both works, the goddess Athena is repetitively referred to as ‘bright-eyed.’  To a modern reader this can be jarring but this fixes her in long-term memory because it gives her meaning.  Willingham, I think, would call this chunking.  I try to use this technique in my own explanations by, for example, always referring to Harald Hardrada as ‘ruthless Hardrada’ and to Edgar the Aethling as ‘unsupported Edgar.’  I hope that doing this makes students more likely to remember what was important about both.

I am also trying to build and strengthen long term memory by, whenever appropriate, referring back to previously covered content.  Doing this makes students retrieve past information which then strengthens the memory.

Principle 7: Practise and rehearse:


We will not get better at delivering explanations if we do not include practise as part of the planning process. Giving a well-crafted explanation is best viewed as a short theatrical performance, which means we should rehearse before we go live. One of the most frequent questions I am asked about my YouTube videos is how long they take to make. The answer is hours. Before going live in front of a video camera or a class I practise to myself in a quiet room where I know I will not be disturbed. I inflict myself on family and friends. My wife is particularly long-suffering, patiently allowing me to explain things to her while we are on country walks. I then video myself and watch the recording back. The final videos I post on YouTube, which typically last no longer than five or so minutes, are the end result of hours of reading, thinking, deliberate practise and rehearsal.

This can feel quite strange to begin with, and indeed the first time a child saw me practising alone my classroom they were so freaked out that they returned wide-eyed and silent to their teacher without the exercise books they’d been sent to collect! I am, however, glad I persevered; eventually this became a normal part of my planning process, children and other teachers became used to it and rather than feeling self-conscious, I became rather evangelical.

Principle 8: Teach from the front:


For years, when explaining things to children for any extended period, I was a pacer.  In the early part my career I picked up the impression that good teachers should not teach from the front because this encouraged students to see a division between their space and the space of their teacher, which led to poor behaviour.  So, to address this, I aimlessly paced.  This meant walking the aisles between the desks, sometimes stumbling over bags and PE kits, while, owl-like, the heads of the children in my class swivelled around and around to track my circuitous meanders.  Gradually I worked out this did not work.  The main reason for this was it made my explanations worse because my movements meant I was focusing on walking and talking at the same time, which resulted in both being done worse.

Secondly, it made it harder for the children in my classes to concentrate on what I was saying because they had to listen while simultaneously tracking my position in the classroom.

So, gradually, I stopped pacing.  Now I teach from one position, at the front where everyone can see me, next to the board.  I still move but this is now purposeful and linked to my explanation.  For example, if I am explaining the attacks on the early Weimar government from the political left and right, I might walk to the left when talking about the Spartacists and over to the right when explaining the Kapp Putsch.  The only other time I’ll move will be in direct response to something that’s happened in my classroom; for example, if I suspect a child is on the verge of switching off I may move subtlety towards them to bring their attention back.

The work of my students and their ability to remember what I have said shows this to be much more effective than pacing. Cognitive load theory offers insight as to why.  If teaching should avoid overloading the limited working memory of our students, then staying put makes sense because it means children can better focus on what we want them to and not about whether or not we are about to face-plant in front of the whole class, which admittedly would probably be more interesting than anything I want them to learn.

Principle 9: Support with board work:


Those following my work will know, I am particularly, perhaps annoyingly, proud of my handwriting and board work.  This is something I have worked very hard at and the improvements I have made are clear when looking at the difference between earlier videos I made, and more recent ones, which are higher quality.  Clear, neat illustrations and text reinforce and support explanations because presenting students with information in more than one way strengthens memory.  However, any illustrations, whether they are hand-drawn on a whiteboard or displayed on a LCD projector, should be neat, directly related to the content and referred to at the appropriate time.  The key, as always, is strong subject knowledge and careful thought about the material being taught, which makes it far easier for a teacher to see which parts of the content would benefit most from visual reinforcement.  Crowded boards or too many distracting images overload working memory and undermine the overall clarity of the explanation.  Oliver Cavigliol’s outstanding work on dual coding has increased interest in this and his illustrations are increasingly informing my own board-work. This is also a good time to note my thanks to him for providing the illustrations accompanying this talk.

Principle 10: Beware of illusory superiority:


My acquisition of any sort of didactic competence was slow and faltering.  Nonetheless I did improve and by the time I had been teaching for five or so years, I was pretty proud of my ability to explain things clearly and concisely.  A regular feature of my lessons was “Mr Newmark explains in five minutes”, in which I would deliver didactically what the class then worked on for the remainder of the lesson.  These sections seemed especially popular with my GCSE students and, about four years ago, a class suggested I videoed them so they could use them for revision.  Flattered, I agreed.

I worked up a board on Vesalius and then got a student to video my explanation.  The process took about twenty minutes and, with the student sent off to eat their sandwiches, I plugged my phone in to my computer and watched back the recording on my classroom’s LCD projector.

It was no better than OK.  I said ‘um’ a lot.  I overused the word ‘right’.  I said everything was ‘a really important point’ which made me look desperate and gave the impression nothing really was.  A comment I had thought was funny when I said it made me cringe.  Some of my explanations meandered away into dead ends.  I stumbled over some words.

Bluntly, it turned out that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.

I should not have been surprised.  Psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority” in 1991 to describe the common phenomenon whereby individuals overestimate their own abilities in relation to others.  Put simply, humans are not good at accurately assessing their own competence.  In order to preserve our sense of self-value there is the possibility we are wired to assume we are better than others, when we might be of only the same or worse standard. Interestingly, as a bit of an aside, it has been suggested that one of the reasons some people are prone to depression is actually because they have a more accurate sense of their own abilities and talents than those without the condition.  It has also been suggested that the worse we are at something, the more likely we are to overestimate our performance at it.  This is very sobering and, given how pleased I was with my ability to explain well, I am glad I did not know about illusory superiority when I first watched back a video of my teaching for the first time.

Although unaware of why I had overestimated my own performance at teaching didactically I was at least self-aware enough to know I needed to improve.  I also knew I would need to get feedback from others because I had proved that my own instincts were not reliable in assessing my performance.

Fortunately that year I had a very gifted and, even more importantly, fearsomely honest Year 11 student who was both willing and able to effectively critique my didactic explanations.  The student picked up the same issues I did when asked, and offered more as I made more videos.  As a direct response to her feedback I planned my videos more carefully, practised before videoing, varied my vocal tone and inflection, clarified board work, slowed down and stopped labouring and over-explaining.  I then showed these videos to whole classes and asked them which they preferred and why.  Once students were comfortable they were not going to hurt my feelings (or at least I got good at hiding my hurt!), the feedback they gave became quite insightful and the improvements I made can be seen in the improvements between my earlier and later videos.

As I deliberately practised my delivery I found my explanations, even when they were not being videoed, improved.  I found myself stopping and starting again when I realised what I’d said was confusing, rather than just ploughing on regardless.  This increased my confidence and I began talking for longer and longer in lessons.  It was as student outcomes improved that I finally accepted that the length of my explanations had never been a problem in themselves; it had been the variable quality of them which resulted in students disengaging and not learning what they should.

This leads me to the final point I want to stress.  It was planning, deliberate practise and responding to feedback that made me better at teaching explicitly.   For years I had overestimated my didactic ability, and did not improve until I sought out external feedback.  Once I did realise I improved because I worked deliberately on weak areas, which has led to, in my view, better teaching.

And, of course, the process for me is ongoing.  I know this because videos I once thought really strong now make me wince. This illustrates how far I have come but also suggests I still have a long way to go.  Interestingly, as my position on what good explanation in history is has shifted, so has my opinion on some of my past work.

This might seem to imply that the process of critique and deliberate practice is a depressing one, but to me it is not.  It leads me to hope and believe that my explanations are constantly improving.  This is a very heartening thought.

If we want to get better at explicit teaching we need to view as it the performance it is and plan for it.  We must know our material inside out, rehearse, insist on full attention from our audience, and seek and act upon feedback from others.  Only by doing this can we overcome our own cognitive bias and be genuinely sure we are improving.

Principle 11: Make sure explanations reflect disciplinary as well as substantive knowledge.

This principle is a new one for me and it was as a result of last years WLFS history conference that I made it a priority this year. After seeing Jim Carroll speak last year, and then reading his recent work in Teaching History, I became concerned that my explanations may be giving the impression of certainty that doesn’t exist in our discipline. For example, in my video on the NHS, which I’m giving something of a kicking today, I strongly make the case its establishment it was the work of Beveridge and Bevan. Of course, this is a legitimate interpretation (I think at least), but my explanation is so certain it doesn’t reflect any of the historical debate and completely ignores Churchill’s 1943 broadcast in which he spoke of the need to establish a National Health Service on “broad and solid foundations” to provide national compulsory insurance “from cradle to grave”. My target for this year has been to include more of the historiography in my explanations, by demonstrating from where my interpretation is drawn. I am also trying to use more tentative, argumentative language to demonstrate that my interpretation is part of a broader debate and isn’t an unchallenged, uncontested truth. This year, I have also been trying to introduce the arguments of named historians into my explanations to make the argumentative nature of our discipline clear by saying, for example, “Morris claims that.”, or “Roper believes this happened because..”

Before concluding it is important that I acknowledge the importance of the contributions and patience of established history teaching experts such as Ian Dawson, Richard Kennett, Sally Thorne, Katie Hall and Alex Ford, in developing my embryonic understanding of disciplinary knowledge to more than the banal, depressingly bankrupt historical skills I had once believed it was.  While my initial schooling, in the importance of the substantive, was through Toby French and Michael Fordham, I now see there is a rich seam in the intentional teaching of the frame in which the knowledge sits, and I look forward to mining it.

Getting this right is, of course, quite a challenge to rise to, while keeping coherence and a logical structure but I think it is important I try. I’ll let you know, my community, how it goes.

That’s it!

Except to say that examples of my videos, good, bad and ugly, can be found on my YouTube channel, where my account is called TheBennewmark. Those who want to see an example of the work of which I’m proudest might do worse than watch “Why did Hitler become Chancellor in 1933?” For those who want to see a car crash, the NHS video continues to be embarrassingly popular.

Mark Enser https://teachreal.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/teach-like-no-one-is-watching/

Greg Ashman https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/faq-direct-instruction/



Am I allowed to sit at my desk?


I like children in my classes to work in silence a lot. History, the subject I teach, is built on reading and writing and these are best done in quiet, orderly atmospheres which give pupils time and space to think. While discussion to form and develop ideas is of course important ,and makes up a significant part of most of my lessons, this is only a piece of the puzzle. To solidify and crystallise ideas and concepts, and to practise, it is important children spend time working on their own.

The silent, independent writing parts of my lessons are often highlights for me. If the reading, whether done aloud or independently, has gone well, and discussion and explanation has been effective, the room assumes a scholarly, library-like feel with only the soft scatch of pens on paper and the turning of pages breaking a meditative tranquility. Some of my favourite moments in teaching are found in these quiet minutes, light streaming softly through classroom windows, seeing the cogs move, imagining I can hear the thoughts running through the heads of those in front of me. When we have this precious, purposeful calm I don’t interrupt with questions, explanations or funny stories because this breaks the concentration pupils need to do the work I’ve set. Intervening can also have unwelcome knock-on effects; it can make students feel they don’t need to pay attention in earlier parts of the lesson because their teacher will be available to explain what was already covered with the rest of the class individually to them later; it also worries children, who overhearing suggestions given to someone else, become anxious that what they’ve written isn’t quite right, lose confidence and ask for support they do not really need. Indeed, very regular and immediate help can contribute to learned helplessness with children coming to believe they are unable to work on their own at all.

Another unintended consequence of individually supporting students during silent working sections of lessons is that it is more difficult to maintain it with the rest of the class when you’re bent down or sat beside an individual child, making it impossible to be sure that the work produced by a child is theirs or that of the person next to them. Unnecessary intervention can turn a studious, quiet room into a savannah of noisy meerkats. Finally, intervening heavily makes it impossible to know when looking at work later whether or not pupils really understand teaching or whether they just aped a superficial response based on prompting. Of course, it might be argued that some children do require individual support and, in some cases, this is true, but as a general rule if instruction has gone well then most pupils should not require extra help to do the work and, if they do, the problem usually lies in what happened before the part of the lesson in which pupils were expected to work on their own; trying to fix this by intervening heavily to compensate is not a solution.

So I keep silent too. If it’s a class struggling to meet my expectations I’ll stand and use techniques described by Doug Lemov as “Be Seen Looking”, to make sure all pupils know they should be working alone. My favourite, ‘move’ for what it’s worth, is the tilting my glasses onto the tip of my nose and looking at unfocused children over the top of them if they look like they might be losing focus. I am short-sighted and so less able to see without my glasses but, as yet, nobody has noticed this. I will also, after children have had enough time to think on their own, sometimes quietly and unobtrusively circle the room, reading work over the shoulders of children without interrupting. This gives me a much better sense of whether or not the class as a whole has grasped what I want them to, and allow me to adapt my teaching in response. It also means I am able to tell whether or not children are just copying.

For classes used to my methods, who work well independently, an even softer touch is required. For these I may sit at my desk, doing my ‘Be Seen Looking’ from sitting, and only move around the room quite infrequently. Occasionally, if appropriate, I may even do a spot of marking or assessing, or even planning, with a quick look up now and again to check everything is going well.

I am, as I think I’ve made clear, quite comfortable with these methods and I hope even those that disagree will at least accept I’ve thought them through.

The problem is what to do if someone else, be they a Department Head, member of SLT or Ofsted inspector, comes into my room while children are working silence. Suddenly, while totally confident that what I’m doing is best for the children I am teaching, I become scared and usually lose my nerve. While I know morally I should just unashamedly carry on with what I’m doing this in practice is very difficult to do. Much more often my anxiety causes me to fire questions at my students, shamefully expecting them to perform like seals with balls on their noses for my new audience. I may pointlessly repeat an explanation of something I’d gone over earlier in the lesson or even start suggesting things they should put in their answers, in way I would personally advise a less experienced teacher never to do. I’m not proud of it; in effect, pretending to be a bad teacher in order to be regarded as a good one.

This same fear makes teachers up and down the country bounce from their seats like terrified jack-in-the-boxes and wander fear-crazed and aimless between desks every time they see a face at their classroom window

Teachers are quite logical in doing this. Sitting at a desk, or not directly teaching for whatever reason, has come to be regarded as cardinal sins in many schools. I have heard more than one senior leader describe teachers sitting at desks as a personal bugbear and one even said they had seriously considered removing teacher chairs from classrooms to stop them ever sitting down. While I get that some teachers sitting down may be doing so because they are lazy, it is illogical to describe all sitting teachers as idle ones when they may actually have very good reasons for expecting their pupils to work while they sit.

The reason for this silliness, as for so much else that has gone wrong in education, is that we are still confusing performance with learning. Learning and progress is invisible. So, in order to measure it we are dependent on proxies and rubrics, which rely on the observable actions of pupils. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, done thoughtlessly it warps good teaching and learning because it places disproportionate value on some aspects of the process over others. Questioning, explanation or jazzy bell-and-whistle activities are highly visible and so, in many contexts, seen as better than quiet, silent work, which gives an external observer very little to go on.

The problem with this is in the distortion. While of course, visible teacher and pupil activity is very important, so is quiet time in which to process and consolidate what has been taught. By creating the impression teachers and pupils should be visibly active all the time, we rob children of time they need to spend on more introspective work. It is this issue that caused the unfortunate rise and rise of the dreaded mini-plenary, which effectively officially endorsed the view that the most important thing was not learning, but rather that any learning should be observable to someone else.

I know all this but still I find myself afraid. Because I expect children to work independently a lot, there is pretty high chance that anyone randomly dropping into my lessons will find my pupils working in silence.

Is this OK?

I think it is but I’m often not the one who gets to decide. So, I would appreciate advice from Ofsted, SLTs, Department Heads or indeed anyone else, about what teachers should do if someone comes in to observe and finds a class working happily in silence.


Hope and Birmingham ResearchED


Some time ago I wrote this blog, called Plugged In, calling for more teachers to involve themselves in educational discussion and debate. It was well-received and even quoted by Schools Minister Nick Gibb in a speech in Australia.  The gist of the blog was that, whatever our pedagogical bent, we all benefit from open debate and discussion.

At the time I did not know whether to be more optimistic or pessimistic about the future. On the one hand, I knew how much I and others had personally gained from engaging, but on the other hand real life conversations made me acutely aware of just how few teachers were participating on a wider scale. One of the dangers of loud and frenetic online activity is it can make it very easy to forget that the vast, silent majority aren’t even aware it is happening at all. Indeed, and depressingly, I have even seen this held up as proof of the debate’s irrelevancy; so few know about it, the argument goes, that it can never make a real difference to how most schools function.

Oliver Caviglioli addressed this point in a conversation I had with him at a book launch in London. He said something that stuck with me. “It’s a small group,” he agreed, “but it’s a powerful one too.”

I am increasingly sure Oliver is right.

Those that know their musical history will be familiar with the old story about the Velvet Underground’s first record; hardly anybody bought it but everyone who did formed a band. This, I think, is what is beginning to happen in education. I am a comparative newcomer to all this, being active on Twitter for under three years and went to my first educational conference only a year ago, but already I see massive, massive changes. In this short space of time the plurality of informed, clever voices seems to have increased almost exponentially and the breath-taking rate of growth shows no signs at all of slowing. Debate is becoming more nuanced, sharper and more subject-specific; the last couple of years has seen the emergence of people like Mark Enser in geography, Adam Boxer, Deep Ghataura and Rosalind Walker in science, and many, many more in all sorts of subjects, perhaps most notably the Team English hivemind, who are all producing work of real quality. I’ve left our what’s going on in history, my subject, because I think if I started I’d never stop.

And this isn’t just a young teacher thing. Wise, older heads like Mary Myatt, Tom Bennett and Tom Sherrington, who’ve been around for years, are as active and involved as they’ve ever been. And it isn’t just an online thing either. The real heroes of this new flowering are people like Louis Everett, Jude Hunton and Claire Stoneman who organise the events at which we meet to share, argue and improve.

Perhaps I’m feeling so positive because I was so struck by the power of the Birmingham ResearchED conference that happened on Saturday. At the beginning of the event, all those who’d never attended a ResearchED before were asked to raise their hands and, looking around, I think it was at least half of everyone there. That’s perhaps 150 people who’ve given up their time and money to attend an event for which nobody was paid. That’s pretty exciting and a real cause for optimism. For these people, I really hope it makes as big a difference as the movement has for me and I hope they go on to do great things and, by doing so, make a tangible difference to the education of thousands of children.

I think we’re on the brink of something very special. Before too long, I think in less than five years, we’re going to hit critical mass. It’s going to get harder and harder to ignore the grassroots revolution. More importantly it is going to get harder and harder for those in the position to make big decisions to ignore those that these decisions affect. As Tom Bennett said, “the worms are out of the can and they won’t go back in.” Before long it will no longer be possible for schools to operate as silos, or for those in charge to treat them as personal fiefdoms. With knowledge does come power. People are going to argue back. They’re going to say no, they’re going to want to try things and they’re going to leave stagnant contexts to find places where their opinions will be listened to. The places they go to will act as beacons for the profession. It’s already happening, of course. Over the last couple of days I’ve been enormously heartened by messages asking for contributions and recommendations for school based journals and by the positivity of many teachers about their SLTs who are actively encouraging their staff to grow and thrive. It turns out that lots and lots of us care a lot, and we’re finding each other in a way we never could before.

It’s also worth noting just how challenging the current context is. We are operating at a time of year on year real term pay and budget cuts. We are struggling to recruit and retain teachers. And, despite all this at a time we might be forgiven for crawling under duvets and hiding, we have more grassroots events than there has ever been, be they ResearchED, Northern Rocks, TLT Southampton, BrewED or the sort of Teach Meets that helped kick start all of this. Although some will disagree with me on this, I think the biggest strength of this new enlightenment is in its diversity; while we may disagree passionately and publicly a lot, a wide spread of voices and opinions will make the general discussion far harder to shut down.

Of course, there are those who probably wish this would all go away. For those in positions of power, used to telling and not listening and unused to having to accept the fallibility of their opinions, this great democratic surge must be as frightening as Jenner’s vaccination methods were to the old smallpox inoculators. But I don’t think there are too many left of these and I suspect they know their days are numbered; they’ll have to adapt or leave the work for those better suited to it.

It’s  the most exciting time I’ve ever known in almost fifteen years of teaching.

Change is coming. It really is.


Drill and Thrill. On joyful low-stakes testing.


For far too long I persisted in the belief that source inference in history was a generic skill. Whether this was because of a fault in my training, environments in which this sort of misconception was typical, or my own stupidity for unthinkingly repeating methods that didn’t work, the effect was the same. It meant that I taught ‘sources’ in a decontextualized, bolt-on fashion, as if it were possible to work with them successfully without deep knowledge of period and context.

When pupils performed badly on source based questions, which they invariably did, I thought the answer was to give them more sources to work with. I think my reasoning went, if I thought about it at all, that if I just turned up the volume, at some point something would just sort of click. Of course it never did and, if a workable definition of madness is repeating the same actions again and again in the hope of different results, I should have been certified insane.

While admitting this is embarrassing, it is some comfort to know I am not alone. Even Doug Lemov admits that this was something he got wrong for a long time. The reasons my students were failing to ‘infer’ was because such a skill, if indeed it exists at all, is rooted in deep, contextual knowledge. Children without it, whether working with Shakespeare or the Bayeux Tapestry, simply cannot make meaningful inferences because they lack the knowledge to understand what they are faced with beyond the superficially obvious. This makes frustrating, facile responses such as “from the Tapestry I can infer that William’s soldiers used horses because William’s soldiers are using horses” all too common.

My poor understanding of how to best teach sources had the most serious consequences on pupils sitting GCSE source papers. In these exams, all questions are based on historical sources. For a long time I had bought in to the narrative that less knowledge was required for this than for the main paper. While I feel an idiot for believing this for so long, it is only fair on me to say that I was certainly not alone. I remember even an official exam board endorsed revision guide saying as much.

But finally, faced with yet another year of results I was sure should have been better, I did wake up and, four years ago, began to change my approach.

The first change I made was providing students with a list of the key dates, facts and events after teaching the content, at the same time as showing them examples of the sorts of sources which might come up in their exam. While an improvement, this had only limited success. The problem was giving the students the facts didn’t guarantee they would learn them. Some did, and these did better on the sources exam but, whether this was because they didn’t try, or didn’t know how, others did not and their results were no better than those of pupils in previous years.

The change that made the biggest difference was my introduction of a series of lessons that has now become something of a tradition in my lessons. Here is how the Never-Ending Quiz works.

I now end all topics, whether supposedly source based or not, by giving students a knowledge organiser summarising the most important aspects covered in the unit. Then, I tell children that we are beginning a quiz and will keep doing the quiz in every lesson until every student gets 100%. While I may (or may not) differentiate the content of the knowledge organiser, making it shorter or longer depending on the ability of the group and, of course, making considerable adaptations if there is a compelling SEND reason to do so, the pass mark is always the same. I have great fun telling children this, especially when they ask how long we will do this for. “Who knows?”, I say, rubbing my hands together and feigning excitement  “Could  be one lesson, could be until the end of the year! All depends on when we all get 100%.”

What follows depends, of course, on absolutely perfect classroom behaviour as the following read/cover/recite/check method relies on children listening hard to each other as well as their teacher.

The lesson begins with a short quiz on the content of the knowledge organiser before pupils have even looked at it. To do this I use my own copy, writing the number of the question I’ve asked next to the correct answer. This always results in very poor scores, which is deliberate as at the end of the lesson children find seeing the improvements they have made motivating and sometimes even thrilling.

Next, I ask pupils to take their exercise book and use it to cover up everything on their knowledge organiser apart from the first fact, which I read. Then, I tell pupils to cover the fact up and, using cold calling, ask a pupil to repeat this back. Then, I ask all pupils to slide their exercise book down to uncover the first two facts which, again, I read. Pupils then cover up all whole knowledge organiser and, as always, using cold calling I ask one student to recite the second fact and another to recite the first. For some or indeed all of these facts I may add details or explanation, which is an effective way to sneak in more knowledge than is on the sheet without pupils realising. We keep doing this, always going back to the very first fact, until we covered about half the sheet, and then run another short test. I make up this test in the same way I did the first, but use a different coloured pen to label the answers to avoid any confusion.

Whether pupils self or peer mark this test depends on the group. Either way I don’t collect marks but find out either by asking or circling the room and checking tests whether there has been improvement. If there has we move onto the second part of the sheet, if there has not we go back to the first part.

At the end of the lesson I run a final, full test, marking the answers on my own knowledge in a third colour. These tests I collect in and mark. If all, or the vast majority (I know, I know), have got all the questions right we are ready to move on. If not, which is actually very rare if the lesson has gone smoothly, we repeat the lesson.

I am sure there will be some reading this who will think this is the very epitome of satanic ‘drill and kill’. Indeed, if this process was described to me before I started doing it I might have felt the same. But it doesn’t feel at all like that in practice. When children see the dramatic improvements they are making they are exhilarated. There really aren’t words for the feeling of going from, say, 2 out of 10 to full marks an hour later. They don’t hate it. They hiss with satisfaction when they’re right, and groan when they get questions wrong they just knew they knew. They cheer when they get full marks. The classroom is joyful, not depressing.

And the results can be transformative. The year I first did this as preparation for the GCSE paper that sparked all this in the first place, before I gave the class so much as a sniff of a source, was one that showed a dramatic improvement. As a final benefit, lessons like this one provide children with a replicable revision strategy they can apply independently.

It turns out skill had never been the problem. It was knowledge all along.


Are SLTs too big?


A couple of weeks ago I sent this tweet:

“If schools invested more in subject specialism and developed really strong Department Heads, and made these potentially career defining positions, would they need large SLT teams?”

It got nearly fifty retweets and over one-hundred-and-fifty likes, which is a lot for me. As an aside, when this happens, the discrepancy between the number of RTs and likes is interesting. I have a suspicion it often means “I agree but would rather my school didn’t know that” which, if true, is a rather worrying indictment of how safe to express a professional opinion many teachers feel. Those commenting mostly said that while they saw my point, at least in principle, they felt real-world considerations would make this very difficult to do in practice.

The thinking behind my tweet began when I was considering the important of subject specificity for something else I was writing. If we are to accept that academic disciplines have discrete qualities, then those in charge of them must have a really strong and nuanced understanding of their unique characteristics. This takes years to develop. Nearly twelve years into being a history teacher, it is only fairly recently I began to feel confident in my ability to develop a really strong robust curriculum and assessment system, and meaningfully improve someone else’s teaching. It is also worth saying that for many years I laboured under the illusion I was ready when I probably was not, because I didn’t know what I did not know.

Some teachers will get there quicker than I did but, for anyone, this isn’t something that can be learned in a year or two.

Perhaps I am too influenced by my own early experiences, but I do feel that this was more understood at the beginning of my career than it is now. As I wrote about here, when I first started teaching being Head of Department felt like a really responsible, senior position and most people I knew in such roles were in their mid-thirties or older.

For reasons Dr Becky Allen explained about here, and perhaps others too, Senior Leadership teams appear to have expanded significantly over the last fifteen years and I worry this has undermined Department Head positions and weakened so called ‘middle’ leadership.

A larger raft of senior positions means more available spaces on the top table, which has incentivised applications. Whereas once there may have only been two or three Assistant Head jobs for the ambitious to aspire to, there are now often far more. This has normalised the concept of early promotion, with five years as a teacher now considered sufficient for promotion to Senior Leadership in some contexts. Problems in retention probably have not helped, because it has led to a typically less experienced demographic, which means those who do stay in the profession expect to progress faster than they once would have done. This has had a knock-on effect on Department Head roles, which are now quite often seen as stepping stones rather than destinations in their own right.

If I am right, and this trend is a significant one, then there are likely to be effects on educational quality. If promise in departmental leadership is rewarded by promotion out of it, the quality of subject specific teaching and learning will be eroded as subject leaders leave roles before they have fully mastered them, let alone had a chance to pass expertise on.

We may have created a self-perpetuating situation in which SLTS need to be larger than they once were, because lack of expertise in subject areas makes greater oversight and support necessary. As well-meaning as this help is, the quality is likely to be variable as those giving it may know little, or indeed nothing at all, about the area on which they are expected to advise.

Another consequence of a general deterioration in the quality of discrete subject based leadership might be that it is now harder for schools to give autonomy to department heads. Indeed, a couple of people I’ve talked to have cited a dearth of really excellent subject specific leadership as a significant obstacle to the sustained improvement of the schools in which they work.

What a shame. Ideally, Head of Department should have the potential to be a career defining position. Creating a curriculum for hundreds of children and then making sure it is taught and assessed well is a profound and inspiring responsibility and could form the basis of a lifetime’s noble work. Those who truly love such roles should be able to realise their professional ambitions within them. In some schools this is still possible but in others, where such positions are subordinated to large SLTS, a lack of autonomy, accountability without true agency and perceived lack of status makes this really tough.

It would be worth trying to change things. Schools taking meaningful steps to retain strong subject specialists as Department Heads for long periods are likely to benefit significantly. An excellent school is not excellent in a generic sense. Its quality is in the composite of excellence in many subjects, and there is no better way to assure this than by having each subject led by a talented and capable specialist. Schools aware of the noises Ofsted is making may also be wise to consider how best to get and retain subject experts in specialist leadership positions because, bluntly, developing a great curriculum requires it. Schools without sound disciplinary expertise are certain to find this beyond them.

It is difficult to know where to begin addressing this. Expecting schools, where decisions are usually made by SLT, to voluntarily reduce the size of their senior teams is, of course, expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. That said, here are some small steps that might have an impact.

More money would almost certainly help. Increasing salaries for strong subject leaders, to levels comparable to those earned by SLT in other roles, would send a strong signal that such positions are properly valued and respected, and create more of an incentive for those doing them well to stay in place. Fancy titles like “Director of..”, and “Lead Teacher” are all very well, but when they are not matched by more money those savvy enough to be really good at such roles will see right through the attempt to butter them up. Rather than indulging in such gimmickry, schools could, where possible, avoid replacing outgoing SLT like-for-like and instead use the money they save to fund pay rises for strong existing or newly appointed specialists. Schools with large SLTS who want to move to a greater degree of disciplinary specialism could also consider asking strong existing members to move to subject roles for the same salary, while making it clear these are not demotions but part of an explicit and intentional strategy to raise the status of departments. Many schools are already doing this to some degree with Heads of core subjects now a fairly common fixture in SLTs. This, while sensible, raises the question as to why this isn’t done for all subjects, which all have as rich a heritage and pedigree as English, Maths and Science.

As a short term measure, while subject capacity is being rebuilt, some schools could consider sharing excellent subject leaders and, as some academy chains are already doing, making part of their role the strengthening of disciplinary capacity until, in an ideal world, they have worked themselves out of position.

None of what I have written here is intended as a direct criticism of SLTs in general. Many work very hard and many are very effective. But, that said, if we are to be clear-eyed about what really drives the sustained and meaningful improvement of a school we cannot afford to ignore or even downplay the crucial role played by those responsible for planning and delivering its curriculum. We need our best in these positions.

Heads of Department are senior teachers and recognising them as such would be a powerful way to place curriculum, in the proper sense, back at the centre of schools where it belongs.