How to teach using a booklet and visualiser

booklet

Early in my career I was part of a teaching paradigm shift, caused by the installation of electronic whiteboards in almost every classroom in English schools.

Before the arrival of these (enormously expensive) pieces of technology PowerPoint was rarely used, and when it was it tended to be for staff training and not day-to-day teaching. Schemes of work at my first school were held in a library of folders in departmental offices, which were followed and contributed to by teams working collaboratively. While, of course, there was some deviation from these (mine were usually unwise!), this centralisation of planning meant curriculum was coherent and departmental heads had oversight of it.

Interactive whiteboards, or just MASSIVE SCREENS as they were much more commonly used as, changed everything. Lessons became PowerPoint presentations with material that would once have been found in textbooks now projected above the heads of the pupils. This coincided with the strange belief that textbooks shouldn’t be used at all and that They Who Must Not Be Named would raze to the ground any school in which they saw them.

One of the effects of this was a decentralisation of curriculum. Teachers began creating their own lessons. In some contexts Schemes of Work became a hotchpotch of directionless standalone lessons. With lessons saved to personal memory devices and private areas it became more and more difficult for anyone to know exactly what was going on in each lesson. While the strongest departments continued to share and work collaboratively, the result was that in many contexts planning became atomised. Personal relationships and internal politics sometimes complicated this still further with some teachers reluctant to share their work with others. All of this increased workload for everyone, because everyone was now expected to plan their lessons effectively from scratch.

Fifteen years into my career, in my school and in others, we are seeing another paradigm shift. This time though, it is much healthier one.

Booklets and visualisers are changing everything.

For those still unclear on the terminology, as I was until fairly recently, a booklet is really just a personal textbook that contains the material pupils will need alongside the tasks they need to complete. This, in effect, is an embodiment of the Lemovian principle of ‘everything in one place’, which results in less time being wasted on transitions between different resources and activities.

In our Trust, in each subject, each booklet is drawn from a planned and sequenced curriculum that covers the entirety of the five years pupils are at secondary school. Each pupil in each year gets the booklet at the same time, which means that assessments can be genuinely standardised. As the pupils keep these booklets with them it makes setting homework very simple, as it is usually something as easy as ‘learn what we covered on pages 3-4 for a test in your next lesson’, or ‘answer question 6 on page 7’.

Writing the booklets is a task shared out among all the history teachers in the MAT (working at a larger scale does make this much easier), which means no one teacher is overly burdened. There is no getting around the fact that doing this well does take a long time, with most of our booklets (that last roughly a half term each) coming in at between 30 and 50 pages. Regardless, we’re finding most teachers don’t mind. Having ownership of an entire unit of work that will be taught to hundreds of pupils is an inspiring responsibility and very different to frantically typing text onto PowerPoint slides in time for P4 after lunch. The greatest advantage of this approach is that it means that everyone then benefits from really high quality work from the rest of the team – instead of spreading out the work thinly and producing lots of lower quality resources, the more focused booklet strategy means overall standards are much higher. It also offers opportunity for further professional development – some members of our MAT history team asked to write booklets on topics they knew little about so they could improve their own subject knowledge. It is also important to remember that the big effort is only at the beginning. Assuming the booklets are of a decent standard, work the following years is really just editing them based on the feedback of the teachers who’ve used them.

Having these booklets radically changes planning. Freed from time consuming resource creation teachers can concentrate all of their efforts on effective delivery. For most this means annotating their own copy of the booklet with the words they’ll need to teach, scripted explanations, diagrams and the questions they plan to ask. Most teachers at my school now also keep their own exercise book in which they model tasks and project onto the board using a visualiser (more on this later).

Teaching using the booklets is very straightforward. Much of most lessons is spent on teachers reading the booklet with pupils, elaborating on the material through explanation and checking understanding through questioning. Page, and even better, line numbers make it really easy to keep pupils on track and to refocus those who have for whatever reason lost their place (“Lucy, page 3 line 26, please”). For pupils who have been absent it is now much easier to catch up – read the pages in the booklet you missed and then just ask the teacher about what you didn’t understand.

Assessment is much fairer; because pupils take booklets home with them they always have what they need to study from. No more trawling the internet for vague ‘revision’ websites and fairer for those pupils who might not have books at home to help them.

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While booklets on their own have a huge impact, when combined with the use of a visualiser the effects are transformative. Again, for those who have not come across them a visualiser is basically a camera that can project work on a desk up onto the screen at the front of the classroom.

The Nuneaton Academy, where I work, now has visualisers installed in every classroom and it has been really interesting to see, without any particular direction from SLT, how their use has increased and created consistency in practice. While consistency is not, of course, a positive thing in itself I think even Mark Enser would approve of what is going on; teachers are simply, without external direction, moving to the method that works best.

In most lessons this now means the teacher places their own copy of the booklet the class is working from under the visualiser and reads, or asks pupils to read, from the text. The teacher then highlights key passages and annotates them to illuminate and add further layers of meaning and understanding, while talking through their thought processes. Pupils follow along, adding their teacher’s annotations if they are helpful and their own if there is something else they think worth noting down. Some teachers task pupils they know to be good annotators to sit at the visualiser freeing them up to draw on the board or to give more expansive explanations, while providing peer role-modelling for the rest of the class.

The visualiser is even more effective when used by teachers to model work. Putting their own booklet or exercise book under it and then completing the tasks while explaining why they have included the material they have, or how they are linking seemingly disparate points together provides pupils with strong models. The teachers I’ve seen do this best incorporate this into the “We” section of the “I, We, You” teaching sequence by pausing to ask pupils what they think should be included before setting pupils off on independent work.

The efficiency of all of this has meant I’ve had to make some alterations to my teaching and unlearn some internalised habits, but overall the switch has been pretty painless because it has been so intuitive and easy. It all feels very different to the days in which we were frogmarched into training on how to use the IWB for engaging learning games. Already I’m finding I’m clicking the PP icon on my desktop less often and even when I am using it, it’s mainly just to show an image in the booklet on a bigger scale so I can point out the details in it, or to show something that reinforces the material in the booklet.

In some ways seems a shame. A bounty of the Great Stupidity I have banks and banks of PowerPoints, representing probably thousands of hours work, stored in neat folders dating back more than a decade.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever use any of them again. I wish I’d never had to.

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First snow

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The radio tells me for the first time this winter in some places it is snowing. Not heavily. Just a few bright white flakes from a grey sky, too small for anyone to tell each one is perfectly unique.

In the warm I’m tearing up just a little bit.

There is a picture of us last time it snowed, Amber, Bessie and me. If you just looked at the photo without knowing anything about us you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. We are smiling and my mum, dad, brother and my sister in law are there with us. The sky is bright blue and in the next photo we took my brother’s dog is nosing a drift.

But something is wrong. While you’d never know it, that photo was taken two days after our daughter received her diagnosis of Williams Syndrome.

The brittle smiles mask fear. The photo doesn’t show that couple in the photo, who used to be us, had not slept for two nights. The photo in the snow does not show the long dark hours, the weight of dread, the exhaustion of too much fear in too little time, or the stomach flipping nausea caused by a familiar world shifting forever

The photo does not show any of that. Nor does it show what was to come. It doesn’t show the appointments with Speech and Language. It doesn’t show the sleepless nights. It doesn’t show the appointments with the geneticist, or the liver specialist, or the growth specialist, or the Community Nurse, or the paediatrician. It doesn’t show horrible blood tests or nasty cannulas. It doesn’t show scary results, or the two weeks we would spend in hospital. It doesn’t show the fitting of a nasal feeding tube, or the pump and syringes that go with it.

All it shows is a cold moment frozen in time. Two people more scared than they’d ever been but desperately trying to hide it for each other’s sake. Two people who know they have to be brave because the future is sure to be hard. Two adults and a baby too small to know she’s the unknowing, innocent cause of all the worry.

But this fear isn’t why I’m crying. It is relief and release, flushing away the emotional dirt and infection of months of accumulated anxiety.

Things feel different, as if something broken has healed in a way that has strengthened us all.

When I look at the photo of us all in the snow it’s not the difficulties we’ll face but don’t yet know about that make me emotional. It’s the answers to a prayer, which went ‘please help us bear this.”

It’s the kindness and dishevelled warm competence of our paediatrician. It’s the hospital nurses, doctors, cleaners and porters who smothered our daughter in love when we were exhausted and at our lowest. It’s the nursery where her key worker cares so much about her she wept when she heard Bessie was in hospital. It’s the responses of our friends. It’s the overwhelming positivity of everyone in our families. It’s my wife turning into some sort of superhuman, able to work and play and love and care on an hours sleep a night. It’s my parents moving from their home of more than thirty years to live by us without so much a second thought or backward glance.

But more than all this it is Bessie. Bessie of the beating heart and healthy little body. Bessie of the charismatic ‘Ello!’ as she enters a new room. Bessie of the ‘ooh!’ when she sees something she likes. Bessie of the hugs and the kisses. Bessie of the slurping of water and the guzzling of food that tells us her tube won’t be there for very long. Bessie of the determined crawls and the first steps. Bessie who sings in church. Bessie who dialled the police when left to play with a phone at the doctor’s. Our daughter. Our joy, our pride and our everlasting love.

When I look at the photo now I hear a whisper I wasn’t able to hear when it was taken, it’s saying “No you’ve got it wrong! Bessie is not a burden you will bear. She is a gift you have been given.”

I get that now, and it’s all such a relief.

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Perfect behaviour improves test scores.

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This post is about the impact of perfect behaviour on the test scores of the pupils in my Y9 history group, and why making sure children in school behave well should be top of the list of things SLT do. It was prompted by my thoughts after teaching a group about which I have had no behavioural concerns for the first time in my career.

This is not to say I’ve been fire-fighting terrible behaviour at all other times.  I’m reasonably sure that colleagues at the schools in which I’ve worked would say my classes were generally orderly and purposeful. But, while it’s always dangerously flattering to be told otherwise, they’ve never been perfect; although it may not be noticed by an observer, subtle, low level poor behaviour has always been a factor that negatively affected the learning of at least a few pupils in each of my classes. To distinguish between what is considered good behaviour in most contexts I’ve worked in, and what good behaviour really is, I’d like to begin this post by explaining what truly exemplary conduct looks and feels like to me.

Perfect behaviour at my school is very easy to see. There is no ambiguity. It begins with every pupil silently entering the classroom and then writing the date and title down without being asked to. It means that pupils then move straight to the first task (always a retrieval quiz of some sort) as soon as they have finished. It means that teachers can take the register and warmly say good morning to every child while smiling at them each individually.

It creates an environment in which pupils say good morning back because they want to, not because they have to.

Perfect behaviour means that children listen attentively while a teacher talks, and make notes in their booklets.  It means that when someone in the class is reading, the other children track the text, annotating and highlighting as they go. It means that when teachers ask a question pupils try their best to answer, and if they struggle say things like “can I have a bit of help, please?”, and never “dunno.” It means they listen to each other as attentively as they do to an adult. It means that when they are explaining or modelling something, pupils sit upright in their chairs and listen. It means never staring out of the window, fiddling with pens or distracting themselves or others. It means that if they don’t understand, they put their hand up and say ‘I don’t get it, could you explain it again, please?’

The effect of all this on me as teacher has been profound. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I look forward to lessons. I like the Y9 group a great deal. I know all their names, whereas in the past, a half term in on two lessons a week, I might only really know the names of those I corrected and nagged most often.

Before going on it is important that I make it clear this exemplary behaviour has not been the result of any mystical horse whispering on my part, and nor has it been created by engaging, inspirational teaching that enthuses pupils in their learning so much it doesn’t occur to them to misbehave. The conditions in which I teach existed long before I started work at my school. They were created by a system put in place by the Head, outgoing Vice Principal and SLT, and maintained by teachers who stick to it. This means giving pupils one warning for any misbehaviour and then removing them from the room if it continues. This was something that Professor Becky Allen was astute enough to notice a few weeks back when she watched me teach; her most telling observation was ‘you wouldn’t be able to teach like that in most schools.’ And she was right.

It was partially because I liked my Y9 group so much that I found taking their first set of tests in quite daunting. But this was only part of the reason I was apprehensive. Mainly it was because for the first time in my career, this set of results would provide clean data; there was nobody who’s poor performance I could attribute to their own inattention or bad behaviour. The results, whatever they were, would be the product of the child’s own ability and my own teaching, added to the amount of work they did at home to consolidate and extend learning.

As a class they did better than almost any I’ve taught before, and better than any I’ve taught for such a short time. The average percentage, on the first part of the test, which sampled all of the curriculum we’ve covered so far, was about 60%, with the lowest score 29% and the highest 98%.

Of course I can’t be sure that the reasons I think they did better, which I’m about to go into, are definitely the reasons the tests were so pleasing, but I’m comfortable sharing them as things to think about.

  1. The test was aligned to the curriculum.

That I have to even point this out is concerning. As bizarre as it may seem, I’ve often had to administer tests that are not fully aligned with what I’ve actually taught. This can happen for a range of reasons, but the main one is that many schools do not actually have a common curriculum that goes into enough detail to what should be taught to pupils. Without this, teachers may stress areas of topics that are never tested, or neglect to teach areas that then come up in an assessment. It’s difficult to say whether this is worse than actually sharing assessment questions before they come up and teaching to them, which also seems regrettably common. The MAT I work for (Midlands Academies Trust since you’re asking), has avoided this by producing one common curriculum that is taugwht in each of the four schools with all pupils in each school sitting exactly the same test. The result is that teachers can be sure that if they teach the prescribed curriculum, their pupils have the chance to do well. For anyone mentally smacking their forehead and shouting ‘how obvious!’ it may be interesting to learn that this issue is one identified by Dylan William in his latest book as a reason for pupil underachievement in many American schools.

  1. There was little extraneous mental load on pupils.

Anyone teaching a class which doesn’t behave perfectly knows how much pupil attention can be devoted to events in the classroom which aren’t learning. From the appearance of a spider through to the passing of notes or the appearance at the door of a class clown sent out from another lesson, there can be an infinite number of distractions. When this happens it is inevitable that pupils will miss out on some learning, because it is much hard to focus on reasons for the stagnation of medical thought in the medieval period when someone two desks down is breaking wind deliberately. In a classroom with perfect behaviour there are no distractions making it entirely logical that the pupils in it will learn more.

  1. All pupils have been exposed to the curriculum at least once, perhaps more, and have had the opportunity to increase their exposure to the material outside the classroom.

A great deal of time in my lessons is spent on whole class reading. This may involve pupils reading aloud, but more commonly this means me reading to pupils from the booklet. The result of this is that, even in the absence of any other teaching, I can be certain that all pupils have been exposed to everything on the curriculum. The perfect behaviour of the class, in regards to tracking, means that they will have read everything in the booklet at least once. Pupils in this particular class have actually engaged with almost everything in the curriculum more than once. Their completion of retrieval practise and cold call questions has meant that most concepts have been covered multiple times. Their behaviour has also meant I have been able to talk for longer and link back to previously covered content much more frequently, further increasing the number of times each piece of knowledge has been taught. That this has had a positive impact on test scores will come as no surprise to those familiar with Nuthall’s “Hidden Lives of Learners”, which provides an evidential base for the common sense assertion that the more times you are exposed to something the more likely you are to remember it.

  1. My feedback has been better.

The excellent learning environment has made it much easier for me to spot errors, gaps and misconceptions. While pupils have been working it has been easy for me to move around the classroom and read what they’ve produced, and has meant that on the many occasions when I’ve spotted something that needed addressing, I’ve been able to quickly stop the class and fix it. In a chaotic classroom this just isn’t possible because some pupils are quick to take advantage of the times in which the teacher is reading the work of another pupil by misbehaving. Teachers, of course, are quite aware of this which means their attention can’t be focused fully on either reading work or managing behaviour, which means both get done worse.

  1. Pupils tried their best in the test.

I think this is really the result of the other four positive impacts of great behaviour. Because pupils have worked hard, they are more confident and so gave their all in the final test. This makes the information I’ve got back really powerful and useful. In the past I often felt I couldn’t be sure whether a pupil scored very badly because they actually knew nothing, or because they didn’t think it was worth the bother of trying. Now I feel confident that if a pupil doesn’t write anything for a certain question it is because they didn’t know the answer, which means it needs reteaching.

In conclusion, I’m more convinced than ever that the single most impactful thing any school can do to improve its results is to make sure pupils behave perfectly in lessons. As I hope I have demonstrated here, the effects are profound and far reaching.

 

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Don’t reinvent marking

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Back in the days of what I call edu-twitter 1.0 (I. e, when I first started using it), Joe Kirby then of Michaela School, wrote a blog post called “Marking is a Hornet”. The post is about why written marking has little or no impact on learning and takes up time teachers could be spending on more productive things.

It was a paradigm shifting piece of work. At the time it was written many schools, perhaps because of a misunderstanding of John Hattie’s work, had fetishized written marking. At the school I worked in at the time, teachers were expected to mark and provide written feedback at least every two weeks. At some schools things were even worse, with teachers expected to mark the corrections pupils had made to work based on round one of marking, effectively doubling the load. I’ve even heard stories from teachers working in schools that went further, expecting teachers to mark the work of their pupils three times. One acquaintance of mine left teaching after the school at which he’d worked introduced a new policy which required every piece of work a pupil completed to be marked the same day they did it.

The result of this madness (part of a period I am calling The Great Stupidity in the hope it will catch on), was disaster. Teachers have always worked long hours and there was little slack. With nothing else cut, evenings, weekends and half-terms disappeared in a storm of different coloured pens, post-its, stickers and proudteacher hashtags over photos of stacks and stacks of exercise books.

Many were either unable or unwilling to keep up and the profession lost people it could not afford to lose.

Joe’s work was taken up by other talented teachers, including Jo Facer and Toby French, whose ‘Marking is Shit’ posts and talks popularised the idea of whole-class verbal feedback as a more effective and less burdensome way of helping pupils improve their work.

Serendipitously, this flowering of ideas coincided with the emergence of evidence that written marking had no demonstrable impact on pupil outcomes. This, understandably, was a cause of real anger among teachers and leaders in schools who felt our inspectorate had pushed this such approaches in their reports. This, predictably, was denied by Ofsted, which promoted Alex Ford to do some digging. The result of his investigation was this post, which I still don’t feel he gets enough credit for. This post convinced Ofsted, who should be commended on their willingness to engage with robust critique, there was an issue and resulted in them forbidding their inspectors to ascribe any outcomes to either marking, or a lack of marking.

This created a context in which schools felt safer to be more original and creative with feedback policies and, I think, has helped reduce workload for many teachers in many schools.

So far so good. But there is an emerging threat.

I once read a fascinating piece of music journalism which described the evolution in rock and roll music. The article said that new movements in rock and roll are actually very short lived; what starts out as original, exciting and fresh soon ossifies. The Heavy Metal of Black Sabbath and their contemporaries became Hair Metal, just as Nirvana’s originality and sense of danger was corrupted into Puddle of Mudd and the unspeakable awfulness of Nickleback.

I’m worried something comparable may be happening in our schools, with the spirit of Joe’s original work being twisted and distorted into involved time-consuming formats that are actually recreating the issues with the marking polices they have replaced.

I’m seeing PowerPoint slide templates in which every pupil in class is named with each given a different target. I’m seeing overly prescriptive whole-class feedback sheets which must take as long to fill in as marking the books. I’m seeing resurgent ‘marking codes’ projected onto a screen instead of being written in books. I’m seeing starter activities that demand teachers give their pupils feedback from a generic template.

This isn’t happening because anyone has bad intentions. SLT love consistency and teachers sometimes needs protecting from themselves because if they think hard work in itself impresses those above them in the hierarchy, they will quite naturally find ways of trying to show they are willing to work hard.

We need stop this now. Firstly, as Tom Sherrington has said about Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, when we turn anything into a checklist we kill it; those that first developed whole class feedback as an idea envisaged relaxed teachers reading the work of their pupils, jotting down what needed to be retaught and then simply reteaching it. What can be very simple should not be overcomplicated. Secondly we may be in grave danger of losing any ground we have gained in regards to workload.

Let’s go back to the source material. Read Joe Kirby’s post. Read Jo Facer’s work. Untangle. Uncomplicate. Simplify.

In the face of an onrushing storm of school budget cuts, the recruitment and retention crisis, and rising pupil numbers, failing to do so could be a total disaster.

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Things that haven’t worked for me, and the things that have.

Ben's-Negative-List
I’ve been teaching fifteen years. To mark it here’s a thread of all the things I’ve earnestly tried, that did no good whatsoever. Made in the hope it’ll save some other people some time.
1. Differentiation based on favourite learning styles.
2. Card sorts.
3. Role play.
4. Puppets.
5. Music in lessons.
6. Timing how much I talk and trying to cut it down.
7. Trying to engage pupils by designing activities around their existing interests.
8. No pen day.
9. Treating girls differently.
10. Treating boys differently.
11. Treating PP differently.
12. Assessing every lesson and putting the results on a colour coded spreadsheet.
13. WALT.
14. WILF.
15. All/most/should.
16. Brain gym.
17. Flipped learning.
18. Telling pupils to work hard so they’ll get to university.
19. Telling pupils to work hard full stop.
20. Group work.
21. Telling pupils how their brains work.
22. Cross curricular projects.
23. Singing.
24. Dressing up.
25. Telling pupils stories about my personal life.
26. Showing Horrible Histories videos in lessons.
27. Funny hats for different thinking ‘styles’.
28. Project work.
29. Information races.
30. Market place activities.
31. Pupils teaching each other.
32. Jigsaw groups.
33. Pencil crayons.(Sorry geography).
34. Stencils.
35. Mysteries.
36. Poster work.
37. Making stuff.
38. Blooms.
39. Trench warfare with paper balls.
40. Phoning parents repeatedly about poor behaviour.
41. Making personalised revision timetables.
42. Putting paper in coffee and then burning the edges.
43. Guided visualisation (WEIRD)
44. Messing around with seating plans.
45. Horseshoe arrangement of desks.
46. Waiting for silence with a difficult group in a school without systems.
47. Mediation.
48. PRIZES!
49. Making a documentary.
50. Claymation.
51. Negotiating rules.
52. Insisting pupils look up all new words in a dictionary.
53. Getting pupils to form a hypothesis about something before they’ve been taught anything.
54. Promising a ‘fun’ lesson if children work hard.
Ben's-Positive-List-green
Here’s my list of things that have worked. It is longer than I thought it would be.
1.Reading loads about the topics I’m teaching.
2.Planning and scripting explanations.
3.Learning names and using them.
4.Apologising if I get a name wrong or mispronounce it.
5.Spending time consciously getting better at writing and drawing on the board.
6.Regular testing.
7.Never allowing shouting out. Ever.
8.Saying ‘good morning’ to every child when I take the register.
9.Reading aloud to classes expressively and sometimes hammily.
10.Sharing scholarship.
11.Becoming comfortable with pupils spending lots of the lesson listening.
12.Telling children to stay safe over the holidays and meaning it.
13.Sharing worked examples.
14.Reading work regularly and telling children how to make it better.
15.Never apologising for the type of work I set.
16.Looking over my glasses at pupils who’ve gone off task and saying ‘ahem’.
17.Directly answering questions when I’m asked them.
18.Being patient when children don’t know things I think they should.
19.Half smiling like the child has tricked me into it when I see great work.
20.Making time when children want to talk about something they’ve learned in my lesson.
21.Walking and talking slower when I feel stressed.
22.Seats in rows. Boy girl seating plans made randomly. No changes unless parents ask for them.
23.Saying ‘welcome back, we’ve missed you’ to pupils who have been off for sad reasons.
24.Saying ‘welcome to the country, we’re glad you’re here’ to forlorn, lost children whose whole life has changed overnight.
25.Always having a stash of pens even when school policy says PUPILS MUST ALWAYS HAVE PENS.
26.Ditto A4 Lined Paper.
27.Asking for help after I’ve worked out who is actually helpful.
28.Cold Calling. (I’d be even better at this if I could crack always asking question before saying name)
29.Expecting silence as the norm when working.
30.Dressing smartly.
31.Smiling at a child when they’re working, look up, and catch my eye.
32.Getting children to practise routines for stuff like handing out books.
33.Telling the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth at parents’ evenings in word everyone understands.
34.Never saying anything bad about another teacher or even hinting I might agree with what a child says.
35.Putting huge maps on my classroom walls.
36.Chisel tip board markers.
37.Lined whiteboards.
38.Letting pupils take textbooks home.
39.Letting pupils take exercise books home.
40.Booklets and Knowledge Organisers.
41.Not holding grudges.
42.Being really, really good at hiding the fact I do have favourites.
43.Learning about how children learn but not bothering them with it unless they ask.
44.Saying ‘no sorry, I’m too busy’ nicely.
45.Making time for my lunch.
46.Making friends with the people I work with.
47.Reminding myself that although I probably have less influence than I think, that doesn’t absolve me from doing all I reasonably can.
48.Not viewing all children as problems that need to be fixed.
49.Exercise and eating well.
50.Twitter.

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Happiness. The greatest ambition of all.

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Someone close to me was at a dinner party a few years ago. Also there were a married couple who’d recently had a baby. Over coffee they were asked what it was they wanted their child to be when they grew up and got the reply ‘just happy’. My friend privately scoffed; “yeah right, that’s what everyone says just because it’s what they think they’re supposed to say” they thought.

I think many of us who aren’t parents, or can remember a time when they weren’t parents, can relate to this. ‘Just happy’, on the face of it a call to low expectations and mediocrity, sounds like a cop out, doesn’t it? Who, given the choice, wouldn’t want their child to achieve more? Who wouldn’t want their child to outshine others by becoming a doctor, rocket-scientist, professional athlete or even Prime Minister? As we are ambitious for ourselves, so it seems quite natural to be ambitious for our children too.

As I’ve written about in more length here, this sort of ambition is morally problematic; a prerequisite of most high profile, high flying careers and lives are innate gifts and rich environments that some have and some have not. If we mark the success of our children by what they achieve compared to others then we are condemning some to certain failure. And, even if we put aside the unevenness of the playing field, we are wrong to suppose that a consequence of rising to a dizzy height is inevitable happiness. I think it odd that this belief is so pervasive given that barely a week goes by without news of the profound unhappiness of the eminent. Success of any degree is not a failsafe immunisation against life’s hardships, trials and cruelties.

This, of course, has enormous implications on our work as teachers. In an all-consuming drive to push up outcomes it can be all too easy to create the impression that the result of hard work is always better results, and that better results invariably means happier people. As Michael Merrick explain well here, setting up this narrative may actually be unethical.

So there is no ‘just happiness’ is there? Happiness is a precious, strange and elusive jewel that alludes people for all sorts of reasons that we don’t understand. I’m actually not even sure what happiness is because in my life it seems to shift and twist so that I think while I have been fortunate enough to be happy most of the time, what this feels like now is very different to how it felt when I was twenty. This is why wishing happiness for anyone is the greatest and most mysterious ambition of all.

As the father of a child who is unlikely (not definitely though!) to become a doctor, rocket-scientist, professional athlete or Prime Minister I actually find this line of thought reassuring. She may not achieve any of the things the unwise regard as the marks of a successful life, but she is quite capable, although of course not certain, of happiness. We are sure. It is there in the way she looks at her mum, and the way she bounces when picked up by someone she loves. It is there in her rapid, triumphant ascents of the stairs and streaks down long corridors. It is there in the way she hoots with joy when she sees her grandmother. It is there in the way she throws her arm at the book she wants and the insistent ‘dat’ she uses to say which one it is she wants me to read.

I am not naïve enough to think that her capacity for happiness will inevitably mean she ends up happy. As packed with beauty and kindness as it is, the universe is an unpredictable, precarious place in which to live. So as her family we will do our best to maximise her chances of carving a place in which she will fit while understanding that as much as we do, we can’t be certain of anything.

Yes, my daughter may not contend the tawdry, vulgar competitions so often and so unthinkingly used to measure success or failure. But in the race that matters most she’s got as good a chance as anyone else.

That’s enough for me. It has to be, given that it’s all any of us has.

N.b For anyone interested in my daughter and how she’s changing my thinking every day:

A different sort of blog. A different sort of daughter.

Living independently.

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Intelligence is not a Virtue

mountain landscape with a path at summer sunset

That schools are results driven institutions is not, I think, an inherently Bad Thing. Schools are publicly funded and the children in them are the responsibility of the community in its widest sense; we all have a stake in how well they do. If (and I do recognise what a big ‘if’ this is) results of tests are valid indicators of, for example, how well a child can read or do arithmetic then a school does pupils no disservice by trying to improve how well they do in their tests. This is because literate and numerate people are typically better able to navigate the world and so more likely to achieve personal fulfilment and satisfaction.

Even when exams are cohort referenced and so indicators of how well a child has done in comparison to his or her peers rather than of a set standard, as is the case with GCSEs, a drive to improve results usually still remains ethical. GCSE results day is very stressful because we all, whether pupils, parents or teachers, recognise the stakes are high. As much as some may flinch from acknowledging it, an important purpose of GCSE results is to stratify young people by their ability, and to then afford greater opportunity to those who do best. As unpleasant as this truth it, we must face it; however we feel about the moral ins and outs, any school that makes out results do not matter is concealing the truth from its pupils.

So far so uncomfortably good. It may not feel nice but it’s hard to think of a much better way of doing things.

But this can, very easily and quickly, trip up into a much more disturbing direction of thought.

If a drive to improve outcomes is done without care, thought and intelligent compassion, schools can easily create the impression that intelligence, a key component and prerequisite of strong results, is actually a virtue in of itself. Unless we are very careful about how we talk to pupils and their teachers, and unless we create school cultures that loudly celebrate more than just high grades in public examinations, we can very easily construct a narrative that the more intelligent someone is, the more virtuous and valuable they are. By association this, of course, means that those who are less intelligent are less virtuous and of inherently less worth. Most distressingly, this means that those who are of very low intelligence cannot be virtuous and are of no worth at all.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the logical fallacy here, but for clarity I’m going to do it anyway. Intelligent people are not invariably virtuous and unintelligent people are not invariably not virtuous; it doesn’t take much historical knowledge to find numerous examples that prove this. Josef Goebbels was a gifted man and nobody would argue Harold Shipman was stupid. It would be fairer to say that intelligence is more likely to equate to eminence or notoriety, but this is not the same as virtue.

Whether it is virtue or eminence that we wish for our pupils, we could all rest easier if all our children competed on a level playing field with all having an equal chance of high achievement. This, for what it’s worth and as something of an aside, is one of my most significant concerns about right-of-centre political thought; if we genuinely did have equality of opportunity then the idea of the American Dream, or ‘we want people to go as far as their talents can take them’ it might work. But we don’t.

Intelligence is highly heritable. In fact probably no less so than physical attractiveness. Even if everyone had the same IQ at birth, environmental difference over which people may have little control especially as children, also has a profound effect. This means that, whether implicitly or explicitly, we set high academic grades as a measure of inherent worth as a human then we set the bar at a height some of our children will never be able to reach. It is worth returning to the cohort referenced nature of public examinations again here; we must remember that our system is set up to deliberately preclude the possibility of all children doing well in their GCSEs; for a child to do well, another child has to do worse to balance things out.

Regular readers of this blog may well have already worked out why I’m writing this post. I have a dog in this fight. It’s personal. My daughter has a rare genetic condition which makes it very unlikely that she will achieve a string of 7s, 8s, and 9s at GCSE. That’s fine. I really couldn’t care less. But I do care very much that this might mean she comes to see herself as somehow less valuable as a person than an Oxbridge graduate, or that any learning difficulties she may have somehow puts a ceiling on how complete a person she can be.

This kind of moral difficulty is often dealt with by giving those with diagnosed learning difficulties a sort of condescending pass out that implies people with differences are innocently virtuous by dint of a sort of sepia-tinted mystical quality no matter what they do. Yuck. I certainly don’t want this for my daughter, because this others her and cuts any sense of agency and purpose away from her life. This cop out also swerves the substantive point, because it fails to address the fact that learning ability is a spectrum with no cut off points; some children, whether they have a diagnosed condition or not, will struggle to learn as fast as others.

So what to do? I certainly do not want schools to slide into a sort of ‘we are all different, it doesn’t matter how you do, don’t worry about your results, just be happy’ stew. This would rob every one of purpose and direction, which we require to live meaningful lives. Nor do I want some people to be steered down cul-de-sacs or to complete qualifications that have no value, and are really just there to keep people busy because we don’t know what else to do with them.

Instead I’d like schools to focus on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as virtuous. This is something open to all of us, from the straight 9 student to those struggling with very severe life limiting conditions that make learning to eat unassisted a real challenge.  It would mean that worth is measured not by the destination but in the earnest pursuit of a journey. It would make the virtuous those who humbly submit themselves to learning more from wherever they start. It avoids low expectations for the intelligent and promotes high expectations for those who are not. The parallels with Dweck’s Growth Mind-set are, of course, clear. But it isn’t the same. Dweck’s error, in my view, was in applying a consequentialist justification to her theory. It also means that those trying and failing to replicate her findings in further studies are missing the point. It actually doesn’t matter whether or not having faith in your own ability to learn leads to better measurable outcomes or not. The important thing is that we see the attitude as a virtuous in itself. After all, for many of us, it may be all there is.

To conclude I’m proposing a new motto for schools. I don’t speak Latin so this is probably flawed and I’d welcome comments on how I could better express what I’ve written about here, but how about “indagatio veri” as a starting point?

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