Why children do not care about being successful adults.


Part of growing up as a teacher is becoming used to being given advice, both requested and unsolicited, and learning how to react to it in the culturally appropriate way. This means smiling, nodding and making a pretence at gratitude even if the advice is poorly timed, unwelcome, unhelpful or just plain crazy.

This cynicism, while useful in surviving the day to day, could of course lead to us missing really great pieces of advice with the potential to genuinely improve practice.

But usually we don’t miss the really good stuff. It sticks, burrowing deep into our psyches where it connects to other great stuff until, eventually, we find ourselves passing it on to those less experienced than us whether they want us to or not.

To my shame I cannot remember who first told me “children don’t want to be successful adults, they want to be successful children”, but it stuck and I think it a useful insight to understanding so much of what goes on in the lives of our students.

Childhood is a strange, bizarre and often surreal world that most adults forget soon after they leave it. A few writers retain an understanding. Phillip Pullman, Donna Tartt, William Golding and, of course, Roald Dahl among others seem to have a talent for authentically describing the shimmering, dark world that children inhabit. The very best understand that childhood is as full of fear is it is curiosity and is filled with dread as much as it is wonder. One of the reasons Stephen King’s best work, which often does involve children, is so unsettling is because he reminds us what it was to be filled with joy one moment and deep foreboding the next. A time when weeks lasted years and years were incomprehensible. A time when most of what scared us was completely beyond our own control.

Childhood is all-encompassing and those in it, usually in full on survival mode, do not spend time thinking systematically about what will happen them to when it ends. Indeed, I wonder if this is really any easier than it is for adults to think about what happens to us after we die.

I remember feeling this very keenly as a boy of about eleven, when I moved from a local primary school connected to my church, to a middle school some distance away. Here, for the first time, I felt different. I was different. It was a predominantly working class school and I was middle class. The other children already knew each other well, I did not. I went to church every Sunday. Few other children there did. For these reasons, and perhaps others I was not aware of, I did not fit in. Quickly labelled posh, I was mimicked and laughed at. For a while, I was very down and knowing this upset my parents made me even more sad. There were tears. I stopped working as hard at school because I felt that ‘clever’, on top of all the other things that marked me out as atypical, was a label I was better off without. I became obsessed by football I think now, not really out of genuine interest but because I knew this was what the other boys liked and thought learning enough about it might be the key that led to acceptance and contentment.

I do not share this story for sympathy. I would be a fool to. My privileges have, of course, in the long run very predictably turned out to be enormous assets, educationally, financially, professionally and personally too. But, as a child I neither recognised this, and nor would I have cared if I had. My school life was miserable and I would have done anything to be happier. The idea that by working hard I was more likely to be a successful adult one day, and should take comfort from this abstract idea, was inconceivable to me because my world was all-encompassing and the idea of ‘growing up’ had very little meaning.

To accept this is to accept that trying to motivate children by asking them to imagine their lives after school might be at best limited and at worst ineffectual. If we are to make children want to be successful at school, then we must make being successful at school part of being a successful child, not a sacrifice necessary for a better future. This is easier in affluent areas where academic success is culturally valued and celebrated, but much tougher in areas where to achieve well academically is to mark yourself out as being fundamentally different to your community. In such instances we need to become the community. Although visits, external speakers and good careers support can be part of the answer they can only ever be part. To normalise hard work and academic success we need to create a culture and ethos in which working hard, and being proud of doing so, is regarded as part of the criteria of being a successful child. We must have strict rules and routines that create a culture in which no child feels ashamed or different for working hard. We must wage war against insidious nasty terms like ‘boff’, which are designed to alienate those who study diligently.

We must not dumb down or over-praise. We must normalise following rules, wide reading, the practise of difficult tasks and an appreciation of art. We must work with our local communities to normalise success but not be afraid to stand as unashamedly different when values diverge.

We must not imply that the point of all this is just the exam grade because, by doing so, we re-inforce the impression that school is only a painful necessity and make learning for its own sake seem weird and pointless. In doing this we also run the risk of creating a very misleading view of the future; school is only ‘the end of the beginning’ and implying that it is the final hurdle is to invite disillusionment and high drop-out figures.

It is, of course, possible. I take heart from the great northern colliery brass bands, which show that world class standards of achievement are not beyond the reach of poorer communities when they are made part of a strong identity. In my time in Ethiopia I marvelled at how one of the world’s poorest countries produced some of its best runners and came to see why; when high class achievement and the hard work necessary to attain it is normalised, it is possible to do exceptional things.

Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children. We should make that easy for them by creating conditions in which being a hard-working academically engaged child is part of successful childhood identity.


Elephants, riders and debate on Twitter


Inspired by the blogging of Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) I have been reading very basic philosophy recently.

I think I like David Hume best.

Hume lived in the eighteenth century. Many philosophers before him had been consumed with identifying what it is possible to actually know, given that our senses and reason itself are unreliable and cannot be trusted. Hume agreed with this, believing that beyond mathematics, we cannot know anything for certain. On the face of it this is a paralysing conclusion; if we cannot know anything then how do we proceed? Any decision we take and any action we make is, if you accept Hume and other thinkers of his school, based on unsupported foundations. Hume goes further, writing that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. By this Hume means that the choices we make are not really a product of reason at all, but are in fact based on instincts that we cannot objectively untangle. We may use reason to explain our beliefs and choices, but this is done post-hoc and is self-justification, not empirical inquiry.

Hume’s ghost haunts the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful “The Righteous Mind”. In this book, about why good people disagree over politics, writes “the mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” By this, Haidt means that humans are, primarily, instinctive creatures and that our ‘higher’ reasoning faculties are designed to justify our instinctive choices not to challenge them. Haidt uses this metaphor to explain why good people of contrasting political beliefs struggle to understand opposing arguments. Almost always, these arguments are between riders, who are unwitting slaves to their elephants.

For those of us interested in education there is a lot to think about in the work of Hume and Haidt. We inhabit a world in which it is very difficult to work out what works. We work in diverse, chaotic schools that contain so many variables that attributing success or failure to one thing over another is, in many cases, impossible. Was it our Growth Mind-set programme that resulted in our 7% GCSE A*-C improvement or was it our new literacy programme? Did our results fall because we introduced vertical form groups or was it because we stopped doing as many interventions after school? Is recruitment and retention an issue because of bad behaviour or is it because teaching does not pay enough?

Without clarity we are, whether we admit it or not, often led by our elephants. We make instinctive decisions about what to believe and then seek out evidence that reinforces the preconceived opinions and views that make us, us. Teachers like me, inclined towards pedagogical conservatism, seek out evidence that supports this teaching style and find it very difficult to listen to a teacher of a very different pedagogical bent with an open mind. I am sure the same is true in reverse.

We see this play out on edutwitteer where tribalism makes it even harder for us openly engage with the arguments of those outside our alliances. Even in the comparatively short time I have been an active member of the community I feel things have changed. We are no longer just pixels on a screen to each other – we are meeting more and more in real life. We are sending each other books and presents. We are becoming friends. This is wonderful but it brings with it the danger of further division, as personal loyalties strengthen our elephants and cloud our riders. As tribes coalesce it may become more and more difficult for us to find space in which debate can be truly meaningful and we run the risk of ossifying into silos lobbing empty slogans at each other.

Hume may offer some insight on how we can avoid this. He believed that we should hold our opinions lightly, knowing them to be based on instinct and our own experiences, and so fallible. This is not, for one moment, to suggest that we do not have fierce debate and disagreement or that we should all join hands and sing as one big family, Hume points out that while we know nothing for certain we still have to live in the world and this means having opinions, which of course means encountering and engaging with those we disagree with. Haidt has helpful things to say on how we might do this. He points out that opinions are rarely changed when we engage only on an intellectual, logical level.

Instead he says we should talk to to each other’s elephants.

I am always heartened when I see off-topic, warm exchange happening between those who disagree on educational philosophy. Whether it is a thread on Star Trek, gardening, football or a conversation about parenting, the effect is the same; the sun comes out and, as elephants relax, their riders find themselves better able to talk about more controversial topics later. It works because these small flares of humanity show that whatever and however strongly we disagree, we have respect for each other as people and make it harder for us to assume the worst of each other’s intentions.

It is in this spirit debate is most meaningful and productive. If we really want to influence each other, we must move out of our silos and meet with those with which we disagree.

Anyone fancy a pint?



Ten principles for great explicit teaching

Ten principles

I would like to begin by clarifying 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 which, at its essence, is just ‘teaching’ to me, there is no consensus on what this is 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 currently causing 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. 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 I use can be treated as synonyms. While I, as will surprise nobody, have opinions on the merits and dangers of Direct Instruction, I am not attempting to get into this 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 teaching felt distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers 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 standard ‘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.  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 schools and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it does not yield immediately improved results.  There are worrying signs that this is happening already with some dismissing direct instruction as a teacher dryly reading facts to children who are then expected to just memorise and regurgitate them in tests.

While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic 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 has pointed out in this great blog, which I will tweet out at the end of today, many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly teaching for years. To steal Mark’s great phrase, it does seem to be what many of us do when nobody is watching.  The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and would never share practice, because we had picked up the belief explicit instruction was somehow cheating; great teaching, for many years, was seen to be facilitating learning experiences with directly telling children things a last resort when more creative methods failed. The highest accolade a teacher could be given by a child was “you don’t feel like you are learning in his lesson”, 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. 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 was little interest, at least formally, in planning to improve 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.

Outlining the lessons I have learned is not meant to, in any way, give the impression I have cracked it when of course I have not.  I am eager 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’.  Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I have learned might help others 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 on about.  Not knowing the material inside out means hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off.  If students have questions we will struggle to convincingly answer them.  Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention.  Knowing the textbook is not enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg.  For example, a 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 rather more profound.

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 can 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

ra ra

For many years most ITT and 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 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, dented 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 like this one:


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 will 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. It should come as no surprise that 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.

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 skillfully, 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.

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 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.  Children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach explicitly than it would otherwise have been.  Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful explicit instruction because if students are not listening carefully, they will not learn.  This makes it impossible for them to then complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely.  Worse, disruption, whether we classify it as high or low level, while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group.  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 misdemeanors 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, that all we are really expecting is that children listen while their teacher talks which should not be controversial.

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 something might be considered historically unexpected, 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.  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. It is helpful to keep in mind Willingham’s insightful comment that ‘children learn what they think 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: Image of a chain.


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, 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.3

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.

Principle 8: Teach from the front:

teaching from 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 swiveled 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 the deterioration of both.

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.

Principle 9: Support with board work:


As quite a few of those who follow 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.

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 I talked about 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.  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, 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. Planning is key to all this because it provides purpose and intentionality.

That’s it!

And, because I am sure everyone has been simply dying to see me practise at least some of what I have preached, here is the video I am proudest of:



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/


Do Schools Infantilise Adults?


As everyone knows, owners of dogs inevitably come to resemble their pets. As the years roll by, the resemblance becomes stronger and stronger until only immediate family members can tell them apart.

This is a scientific fact.

Perhaps the same mysterious forces that cause this phenomenon also cause adults in schools to eventually act like the children they teach. Rigid rules, quite necessary for children, and the rewards and sanctions used to enforce them often form the basis of an ecosystem in which everyone in the building must live.

Heads of Department become to teachers what teachers are to their pupils. They, in turn, are ruled over by Assistant Head Teachers, who are in turn ruled by a Deputy. At the apex of the pyramid sits the all-powerful head. Outside of uniformed services, I can think of no other English system as rigidly hierarchical. Heads assume enormous power with some dictatorships benign and others, of course, much less so.

Hierarchies in schools are not necessarily a bad thing in themselves. Schools are enormous, sprawling, multi-faceted beasts and for them to function it is important that people know who is responsible for what. There may also be some value to children in the very visceral demonstration of power, control, rights and responsibilities that a school hierarchy provides; “I do what my teacher tells me, they do what their boss tells them and their boss does what the Head Teacher tells them and we all have to look after each other.”

If this a purpose of very visible and rigid school hierarchies then all well and good but, of course, we should also understand it is something of a charade. My Head Teacher is my boss at work but their control over me evaporates when I walk out of the building. They are my manager, sure, but as people and even as professionals, we are equal. Even at work their control and influence should not be authoritarian. Although I will have to follow policies even if I disagree I, of course, as a professional have the right to disagree and the right to say so. Nothing should be ‘non-negotiable’, which, incidentally is my current least favourite phrase in education.

While school hierarchies do not always operate in this way, something about school culture, formed in the behaviourist spirit of how we manage children, can easily make infants of us all. Leaders at all levels, accustomed to dealing with children for many years, can speak to colleagues in a way that would be considered completely unacceptable in any other industry. Dissent, even sensitively expressed, is easily read as insubordination with those expressing it cast as troublemakers. A real motivator for many teachers working in schools is simply, like a child, to avoid getting in trouble. Blind adherence to school policy can come to be viewed as an essential characteristic for survival.

Those higher up in the hierarchy are certainly not solely to blame for this – it is sometimes wrongly assumed that those in more senior positions will not listen, which makes teachers too quick to moan and complain privately without ever expressing their misgivings in a measured, professional manner. Because hierarchy can make any dissent feel like an act of sedition those disagree with school decisions can too quickly come to revel in their rebel status and, by so doing, miss opportunities to responsibly raise legitimate concerns. In my fourteen years of teaching I have only once got a defensive, negative reaction when I have calmly and politely raised concerns with someone higher than me in the food chain.

The results of this, whoever or whatever is to blame, are devastating. This blind acceptance of hierarchy has created conditions in which terrible ideas thrive. Most teachers are not idiots. Lots of experienced teachers were not fooled by VAK. Very few teachers were convinced by Brain Gym. Plenty of teachers are developing legitimate concerns around the unthinking, headlong rush towards full Growth Mind-set. No profession is immune to questionable ideas but in cultures in which responsible and mature debate is encouraged, bad ideas do not last as long. As any history teacher will tell you, rigid, authoritarian hierarchies stifle debate and cause many to feel there is little point in rocking the cart even when the apples in it are rotten to the core.

The infantilising effect of schools on adults can also often be seen in the way we teach each other. I am sure that many of us suffer from illusory superiority in our perception of how good we are at teaching other adults. Years of teaching children causes us to automate habits and mannerisms really not appropriate for grown-up audiences and can also lead to the regrettable dumbing down of content. Our lack of faith in each other can be staggering. Being given scholarly work to read is rare. Far more common are the dreaded pieces of flip-chart paper and big marker pens. I, quite honestly, have lost count of the number of times early in my career I drew a cartoon ‘great teacher’ who has “Big Ears For Listening and Lots of Arms Because He Is So Busy.” Occasionally, when this sort of nonsense is inflicted on me I look around the room slack-jawed and wonderingly think to myself “every person in this room has a degree.”

This sort of childish nonsense acts like Quaaludes on our profession; syrupy guff that makes real debate about anything actually important impossible. But, for whatever reason whether conscious or unconscious, this often seems to be what we as a system want; a world in which we all just go along with anything for an easier life and one in which just reading a book and talking about it to a colleague feels somehow subversive.

Schools do not have to be this way and, of course, many are not. Just because we teach children does not mean we should treat each other like them. Abandoning hierarchy altogether would almost certainly be a terrible, terrible idea, but this does not mean, behind closed doors, we cannot read, debate and form policy as professional equals.

Educating children is hard. To do it well we cannot act like them or assume childishness on the behalf of the adults we work with.



Knowledge Organisers: Part of the answer but no panacea


I am an Aston Villa fan and, for the last few years, it has not been much fun. Since the departure of Martin O’Neill in 2010, the team has undergone a gradual but inexorable decline which, after a few desperate years in the lower reaches of the Premiership, resulted in relegation in 2015. In a strange way, that I am sure only those familiar with this sort of thing will understand, it came as something of a relief.

Since O’Neill’s departure and the appointment of Steve Bruce who is in charge now, we have had six managers. Each brought hope, some more so than other, but all failed to halt the slide. The most fascinating aspect of this whole grim story has been tracking the multitude of different players, of all positions and styles, who have been signed in this strange, chaotic period. I still waste time on Wikipedia looking them up, interested in what happened to them, the more obscure the player, the more strangely satisfying it is seeing where they have ended up. Some hung on at the club for years after I thought they had left; skirting the squad, in the reserves, out on loan or simply sort of missing, officially a member of the team but forgotten and unmentioned, embarrassing reminders of past mistakes.

Many history curriculums, especially in struggling schools, look like Villa’s squad. A desperate, understandable desire for instant improvement too often leads to high turnover of ideas, teachers and subject leaders. Each new person, keen to show that they know what needs to be fixed, feels the pressure to make changes quickly. Often, these changes are made thoughtlessly, with new staff keen to bring in what they know, convinced that this will bring better outcomes, or at least enough breathing space to survive Apprentice style review meetings. Old units are thrown out and new ones brought in, the result is often a Frankenstein’s monster.

Year 7 begins with “What is History?”, then it does not, then it does again. The Romans invade but then bow to the Vikings, before regaining supremacy two years later. The Industrial Revolution takes two lessons one year, a full term the next, before being folded into a homework unit.

Where there is stability it is often not based on what is most historically significant or how it fits into an overall narrative. Instead it is based around what is in the stock cupboard or in the textbook store, or what teachers are familiar with teaching.

The result of all this is incoherence; curriculums that are nothing more than a hotchpotch of topics selected by many different people which add up to precisely nothing. Just like the Aston Villa squad Steve Bruce inherited in 2016.

In the recent past the extent of this problem could be hidden by using the armour of ‘skills’. A belief, for whatever reason, developed that the point of history in schools was to develop transferrable competencies and that these could be formed through learning almost anything. This armour has turned out to be made of tin. Skills, if they exist at all, are nothing without a solid, coherent knowledge base. This has been increasingly understood and has resulted in the ‘knowledge based curriculums’ moving into vogue.

This, of course, is a welcome development. We now know what had been forgotten; to be good at history, children must know a lot. Departments all over the country are slaving away at Knowledge Organisers and are becoming increasingly effective at finding ways to help their students remember many, many facts.

As great as this is, it is no panacea and I think there is a new threat. For all the schools that give a great deal of thought to what should be learned, there are many that are not, and are simply producing lists of random facts based on existing, flawed curriculums. We, as a profession, may be in danger of fetishising the simple memorisation of content as a virtue in itself. The quality of a child’s history education is dependent not only on knowing lots of stuff, but also knowing stuff that connects together to form meaningful schemas. Failing to do this could result in history in schools becoming nothing more than revision for a pub quiz that will never happen.

Now that we understand the fundamental importance of knowledge to history it is important we think harder than ever about what should be taught and learned. We need to take time to plan curriculums that join together and tell important stories. Of course, we will not all agree about what should be covered in such a short space of time (two years in many schools now), but it this is this we should be debating. Not how, but what and why.

Should we fail to develop coherent, powerful curriculums I feel there is a very real risk that the knowledge bubble will burst. Knowing lots and lots of random stuff will not lead to better history or better outcomes. If this is all we teach, then SLTs will dismiss ‘knowledge based curriculums’ as just another failed fad and we will have squandered a glorious opportunity.

Conceptually ‘what’ has beaten ‘how’. We must now turn our attention to just what ‘What’ should be.


Seek Meaningful Feedback.


Of all the ludicrous things I have been told about management, there is one stand out nugget. In a training session years ago, someone defined great leadership like this:

“When everyone around you is telling you that your idea is wrong, great leadership is knowing you are right and going ahead anyway.”

Wow. My favourite part of this gem is that it serves just as well as an example of swivel-eyed insanity. I love visualising it in action; I, as a newly appointed Head of Faculty, decide that everything, in every lesson will be taught through fidget spinners and Pokemon Go! Around me, a slack-jawed well-qualified team of experienced professionals shake their heads furiously. “No,” someone manages to spit out. But I, as the good leader I just know I am, smile knowingly and tap my nose. “Trust me guys,” I say, “trust your leader.”

This is a really extreme example of something I think is too common in education. Often leaders plough forward without meaningfully consulting those around them. Seeking proper feedback on the impact of the decisions they make is even rarer.

Of course, there are always systems for feedback, but more often than not, these seem designed to tick a box rather than actually provide any meaningful information. Sometimes such systems, typically an email or paper based survey, seem deliberately designed to obfuscate and any negative information is either dealt with in five dismissive minutes in a meeting or ignored altogether.

This happens for a few reasons. Firstly, seeking and acting on feedback, means actually having to accept that something you are doing might not be working, or is unpopular. This can be hurtful and hard to take if you have poured a lot of time, effort and money into a policy or strategy. For example, if a school decides to go full Growth Mind-set and invests heavily in expensive consultants, training for staff, resources, posters and other paraphernalia, it takes real integrity and bravery to admit, after meaningful consultation, that all this effort has had no effect. It is easier to plough on regardless.

This sort of thinking is understandable – as a system we are too addicted to the idea of short-term-fixes leading to instantaneous improvement. A leader daring to admit that a plan they had pushed through had not worked might be brave, but this bravery would be unlikely to lead to a positive professional outcome.

This can lead highly dubious logic with leaders too quick to attribute improvements to changes they made, even though any progress made might well be down to something else entirely. To return to the Growth Mind-set example, any improvement could be down to different cohort demographics, or better teachers, or anything else. Conversely, if there is no improvement, it is tempting to those deeply invested in a policy to explain this by saying that they need to do more of it instead of just stopping.

The cumulative effect can be devastating – because there is no meaningful feedback on what is not working, nobody knows what is having a positive impact and what is not, which makes dropping anything at all seem too risky. New initiatives are added on top of old ad infinitum, resulting in spiralling workloads, and low morale which, predictably, is ignored.

This is why many of our schools are so layered in questionable ideas. Thinking hats sit atop blooming pyramids. Mountaineers scale resilience cliffs. Reading Ninjas jostle for space with mind-maps and challenge walls. If there was any value in any of these ideas, it is lost when exhausted teachers try to implement them all together. The result is a cacophony of nonsense from which nothing worthwhile can ever emerge.

Seeking and acting on proper feedback can help immunise us against this chaos but we must be brave enough to accept that doing this properly will sometimes mean hearing things we really don’t want to. It means sitting down with another human empowered to speak openly, preferably over tea, and asking “why do you really think the results were disappointing?” It means being ready to accept that it might be because a policy we thought was ace, was actually time-consuming, confusing and unpopular. It means resisting the urge to defend our policy by implying the person giving us feedback was just doing it wrong. It means feeling hurt and disappointed, but hiding it so that we can build a collegiate ethos which means we have a genuine understanding of what is really going on in our schools. It means resisting the urge to take credit for an improvement that is not really down to us, and not shirking the blame for the effects of the mistakes we, however well-meaningly, have made.

The costs are high, but then so are the benefits; if properly seeking and acting on feedback means avoiding making the same mistakes and focusing on what works instead of what we want to work all of us will be better off.

If everyone around you is telling you that your idea is stupid, it almost certainly is. But, if you don’t listen, nobody will tell you. Instead, they will tell each other and think you a fool


Why target grades miss the mark

I would be very surprised if there were many people in the room not familiar with stickers like the ones up on this board. Target grades are so embedded in our schools, so deeply entwined in educational DNA that we have come to take them for granted. I hate them and if I had my way we would stop using them right now. Today I hope to convince you that I am right. I am going to explain where they came from, how some helpful thinking was corrupted and the role unthinking inspectorates played in embedding them in schools. I will go on to explain, using research around goal setting, why they are likely to be at best a waste of time and at worst, actually damaging to learning. I will finish by sketching out a very rough proposal of what we might replace them with, which draws heavily on the work of Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodoulu.


When I left the UK in 2006 there were no Target Grades.  When I returned five years later they were everywhere, screaming out from SIMS and multi-coloured Excel spreadsheets, and shouting mindlessly on the front of exercise books

Their greasy fingerprints were all over lessons too.  Outcomes, written carefully on every board, were often tagged with the different target grades of students in that particular class.  For example in history, my subject:

Describe the Night of the Long Knives (C)

Explain the causes of the Night of the Long Knives (B)

Evaluate the significance of these causes (A).

The expectation was that, in the very best lessons, students should have individual target grades and given different tasks to do, multiplying planning by three.  This came as a particularly unpleasant shock. On a training day I heard a consultant ask “why should the higher ability start at the same point the lower ability do?” and saw people around me nodding in agreement. I was baffled. How could a student explain what caused the Night of the Long Knives if they didn’t know what happened in the first place? Describing the fire would only take a student with a C target a few minutes.  Should I just get them to repeat that in different ways until the end of the lesson?  Should I stop them moving onto explaining?”

I thought maybe I’d misunderstood and so anxious to catch up on what I’d missed while away, I read lots and asked lots of questions, but didn’t find the answers I got at all illuminating.

I learned that Target Grades were generated from tests children sat at the end of their primary education in English and Maths.  From an average of these three grades an acceptable level of progress had been decided upon, and this was used to set a target for other subjects.  The success of the child and, by association, their teachers and school, was assessed on whether they failed to meet, achieved or exceeded this target.

I found this simply mind boggling.  How could the average attainment of a child in two subjects be used to predict their attainment in completely different disciplines?  Most children I taught in Year 7 had never really studied history meaningfully but, as I understood it, I was supposed to assume that they were already as good at it as they were the subjects they had learned.  When I raised this I was told “just be glad you don’t teach music, art or PE.  At least in history they do read and write.”

I asked more questions and got myself even more confused.  Someone else told me that results of these KS2 tests were used as an assessment of the child’s intelligence and capacity to learn; if they had reached a certain standard in one subject it was assumed they could do so in others. To me this made no sense at all.  The KS2 tests tested aptitude in discrete subjects and weren’t designed to test intelligence.  The outcome could be the result of any one or combination of a huge number of variables of which intelligence was only one, including the ability of the teacher, the level of parental support and the degree to which a primary school taught directly to the test.  The assessments were not intelligence tests and I didn’t think they should be used as a general indicator of a child’s capacity to learn.


When I brought this up I got a different answer.  I was told that I had misunderstood and these tests were actually used to assess the level of different generic skills a child had reached.  Seeing English and Maths as the trunk of a tree with the other subjects as branches initially seemed quite neat.  In this conception, children had developed different generic competencies.  If a child could describe well in English, as demonstrated on their KS2 test, they would be able to describe well in history too.  This helped explain the very Bloom’s influenced learning outcomes that had also mushroomed while I was away.

I allowed myself to be satisfied with this for a while but something just did not fit quite right and nagged at me.  The first problem was that the various skills that students were assumed to have were very different in history to how they were in other subjects; what I regarded as a good descriptive paragraph was different to the sort of paragraph their English teacher wanted them to write.  While their English teacher might be overjoyed to hear Elizabeth’s dress described as a ‘glowing rainbow waterfall’, such linguistic extravagance had me reaching for the sick bucket. It seemed it was also assumed that a child who wrote good historical descriptions of one thing should be able to do so on something they had never learned about before too. The most important part of my subject of all, knowledge, barely got a look in – put simply, knowing more did not seem to be regarded as making progress.

This had led to generic ‘skill’s becoming something of a red herring as the importance of knowledge was downplayed and vague, subjective and undefinable ‘skills’ became goals in themselves.



This approach to differentiation, based on target grades, continues to cause big problems in history teaching.  In a recently blogged about lesson I saw, judged highly by Ofsted according to the blogger, students were given one of three different versions of a worksheet according to their target grade.  Each child was told they could choose a worksheet that was aimed higher than their target but not lower.

This just doesn’t make any sense.  If a student is capable of doing work, then surely they should do it. Allowing them to choose exposes an important flaw in lessons that use this approach.  Even if this model were effective in supporting progress from different starting points, by its very nature it can never close gaps between students; higher ability students do harder work and learn more, lower ability do easier work and learn less.  In classrooms and schools that work like this the weak can’t ever hope to catch up with the strong, as gaps between students are consolidated and never close.

Target grades also wreak havoc at KS4 where they can easily result in teachers focusing on the wrong things, when they are inappropriately combined with mark schemes.  A scheme for an old style 8 mark question may say that students can get 6 marks for a one sided argument.  It may appear logical to translate this to a ‘B,’ and by doing so assume that a good target to set for a student with a ‘B’ grade target would be to “either agree or disagree with an interpretation and support with evidence.”   But that 6/8 does not mean a ‘B’.  It means 6 out of 8 on a paper carrying over 80 marks, which in itself holds only 50% of the total.  A quick look through the past exam scripts of my students show what a dangerous misconception this is.  Of all my students who have got ‘Cs’, hardly any have achieved the percentile equivalent of a ‘C’ consistently on every question. In almost every case, they’ve got very high marks on some questions and less than half on others.  The problem was not that they hadn’t grasped a ‘B’ grade ‘skill’ as assumed by the target system, but that they had inconsistent knowledge over the breadth of the course.  The target for these children should have been more revision, not teaching them to meet self-limiting criteria.  If a child is capable of getting full marks on one question, then they are capable of doing the same on all of them, which makes the idea of a generic or skills based target grade still more absurd.

Problems surrounding subjects outside Maths and English have often led to terribly meaningless target setting with action points often vague, non-specific and completely unhelpful.  In history, I’ve seen ‘describe in more detail,’ ‘explain your points’ and ‘analyse the sources you use,’ which, while they may satisfy a school’s marking and reporting policy, are all pretty meaningless.

This system casts a shadow half a decade long.  In “Making Good Progress” Daisy Christodoulou points out that teachers often unwittingly underscore disadvantaged children and it is plausible that something similar happens as a result of averaged KS2 scores.  Less is expected of a child who performs comparatively poorly in their KS2 tests, for whatever reason, than of one who performs well. They are generated a lower target grade, likely to be put in lower sets and typically given easier work to do. It is worth pausing for a moment think through the implications of this; many of us in this room will rail against grammar schools and increased selection, as I do. But if we are putting students in different classes by their KS2 test score aren’t we, at least to some degree, doing this already?


Teachers working with subjective mark schemes suffering cognitive overload may unconsciously look for short-cuts when grading work.  A target grade provides this short cut, and means they may be more likely to give lower grades to students with lower KS2 data even if the work is of the same standard as that produced by a child with a higher KS2 test score. If the child wasn’t really low ability to begin with they can soon become so as they internalise the message that they aren’t one of the smart kids, drop further behind and become demoralised. The effect of having low expectations, for whatever reasons, was extensively studied by Rosthental and Jacobson in the 1960s and, while their work has admittedly come in for some robust critique, does provide some evidence that using data to form targets and sharing them with staff may well have the unintended consequence of lowering expectations.


JL Austin’s work around the transformative effect of language gives a compelling explanation as to why this might happen.  Austin finds that there are many things that people say that don’t just describe the world but change it. For example, in a Church of England marriage ceremony when a vicar says “I now pronounce you man and wife” they aren’t simply describing something that exists but altering reality itself.  We can extend his insight beyond just what people say to things, like the KS2 tests. Those that advocate for these exams and scores might well say that they know that they are intending to change reality. They might say that this is the point. However, the issue is the mismatch between reality that is described in the test and its performativity. It is here that we must be especially careful. While it might be argued that these grades are appropriate for the subjects in which the child actually took tests (Maths and English), clearly we are on much shakier ground when we start using this non-specific data to guide the teaching of students in other subjects. We must be certain what we do has validity, a vicar announces the banns of marriage before the ceremony and so can be confident in its legitimacy. If the data on which targets are based is not legitimate then nor will any performative effects.

There will, of course, be those who seek to defend the policy both within their own schools and across England as a whole.  I anticipate the most common will be that they raise aspirations and so lead to faster progress and if there is convincing evidence they do result in better outcomes then the policy, for all its flaws, might be worth continuing with.

But there isn’t.

The evidence base on the impact of GCSE target grades based on KS2 data of any type is very scant indeed. Given how widespread it is and the impact it has on the day-to-day working lives of both students and their teachers, this is quite staggering.  Of course, this also makes it impossible to say it has no positive impact in individual contexts but given such a confused birth, which I will go into later, and the many problems I hope I have demonstrated it causes, we must do better than that.  In the lamentable lack of specific study, I have looked at examples of target setting in other domains to see if there is evidence of either positive or negative impact, while being acutely aware of the irony of this given the problems I’ve identified with non-specific target grades.

In the absence of research conducted in English schools I am indebted to Ryan Campbell for pointing me towards studies on the impact of Performance and Learning Goals on businesses.  While I am aware that there are issues in applying findings from one area to another, I am hopeful some inferences may be illuminating.


Goal-setting theory was originally conceived and developed in industrial/organizational psychology.  Studies by psychologists such as Locke and Latham identified two types of goal; Performance Goals and Learning Goals.  Performance goals are outcome orientated with typical examples being an increase in productivity or profits, or a reduction in wastage.  Learning goals are intended to improve the knowledge or skill of an individual or organisation. While learning goals may eventually contribute to a performance goal they are fundamentally different.  Target grades in English schools are, in effect, performance goals because they are measures of the standard reached across wide-ranging domains of disciplinary knowledge and offer no support in achieving them.

Studies by Locke, Latham, Seijts and others found that having specific, challenging performance goals did indeed lead to better performance than easy, vague ones.

This might appear to support the use of target grades, but these findings came with a number of important provisos.  In order for performance goals to be effective, those set them had to be personally committed, couldn’t feel that they conflicted with other goals they may have and had to have the ability to achieve them. Target grades do not meet any of these criteria.

Firstly, not all students set target grades will be committed to them, especially in subjects they dislike.  As teachers we hear this regularly, with “you only care about getting grades so the school looks good’ a depressingly familiar refrain.  This was most manifest a few years ago when re-sit results counted, which resulted in children happy with their original grade made to retake exams, in a depressing educational version of Groundhog Day, in order to reach targets that had been imposed on them.  The failure of children to buy in to the grade set for them may partially be because of a lack of consultation and, interestingly, early on the FFT recognised this and recommended that the data they provided be used as the basis for a conversation between parents, teachers and pupils, which then generated what was described as an ‘agreed expected grade.’  This approach could be criticised by saying those with low aspirations will set inappropriately low grades, but it is important to remember that any positive impact of setting challenging targets is negated if those involved are not committed to them.

It would probably not be fair to say that all, or indeed most, children see the achievement of a target grade as in conflict with other goals they may have.  That said, I do feel that some do see things this way.  Children from backgrounds in which academic success is neither common nor valued have other goals which are very important to them.  For example such children may derive immense and understandable satisfaction from being a caring sibling, a good footballer, a vivacious party-animal or a cheeky and popular local character.  Achieving good grades at school, and the work necessary, might be perceived to be in direct opposition to this; studying hard can mean not doing other things from which these children build self-worth.  Locke and Latham (2006) are clear on this in writing that performance goals can only be effective where there is “discontent with one’s present condition and the desire to attain an object or outcome.”  If children are content living in the world in which they do, target grades will be seen as at best an irrelevance, and at worst an implicit criticism of their values.  Of course, such issues don’t affect all children so perhaps it might be argued that it isn’t an argument against target grades in general, but just a suggestion they be applied to those who see no conflict between achieving them and their other aspirations.

My final concern surrounding target grades as performance goals is more fundamental.  Seijts and Latham find that performance goals can only be successful if those involved already have the knowledge and skills required to meet them.  They use the example of The American Pulpwood Association to illustrate this, which issued performance goals to pulpwood crews, resulting in increased attendance and productivity.  Crucially, this only worked because the loggers already had the knowledge and skills to effectively fell and process trees.  It was motivational because they had the basics down already.  Seijts and Latham explain this is because before the processes needed to perform well have been automated, mastering the required knowledge and skills will fully occupy cognitive resources – the imposition of an external performance goal is a dangerous distraction.  The implications for target grades are very clear; if children are guided to think about reaching a grade they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills required to reach, they will not be able to focus clearly on the steps they need to make to improve.[4]

This is damning to target grades.  Students, by definition, are novices in their fields of study and lack the knowledge and skills required to achieve the grades assigned to them.  Seijts and Latham couldn’t be more unequivocal on the consequences of this:


Seijts and Latham 

This might well make for uncomfortable reading.  Although concerned with businesses there are clear parallels in the manner in which target grades are assigned and the consequences of this.  I very recently heard of a school that issues detentions to students who fail to achieve their target grade in tests regardless of how hard they studied and am sure few teachers are unaware of instances of ‘bending the rules’ or even outright cheating on exams, coursework and controlled assessments.  Such instances, while of course not excusable, are certainly understandable; teachers are as much victims of the target grade system as their pupils are.  They too are not always given the means to attain their performance management goals, typically based on target grades, and they too can be punished when they fail.

Of course, good schools do provide children with the support to reach their targets but these very helpful ‘learning goals’ which I’d like to discuss in more detail later, are subverted by the performance based target grades that hang so distractingly and pointlessly over their heads.

These serious concerns got me wondering where this all began and why it became so widespread, so I did some digging.

Widespread target setting in English schools began with the Fischer Family Trust.  The Trust compiled a wide range of data, including prior attainment (not ability) and socio-economic variables to make statistical links between them and the outcomes of individuals and groups of students.  This information could be used by schools to assess how well their pupils were doing compared to children at other schools.  This could be extremely useful and powerful information, allowing schools to see when their expectations of cohorts a whole were too low.  Some schools began to use this information to set targets for individual pupils and some began sticking these targets to the front of their pupils’ exercise books to give them something to aim for.  Schools were in control as to what these should be and most, as a result of a ‘my expectations are higher than yours’ arms race, set targets at the very top end of what was statistically possible.  Many schools set targets that, should all students achieve them, would place the school in the top 5% of those in the country.

The Fischer Family Trust never advocated this.  Their original advice was that if schools and students used the data for individuals it should be as a starting point for discussions that would result in an agreed expected grade.  To understand how it turned into what it did we need to look at wider political factors.

School league tables and ranking played a significant role.  Schools in disadvantaged areas realised that the raw attainment of their students would not compare well to those in more affluent schools so sought a measure that would demonstrate their pupils had made progress from lower starting points.  FFT data offered this opportunity; a child who arrived in Year 7 on lower grades from a more socially disadvantaged background was less likely to get as high a grade as one who arrived on higher ones from a more advantaged one and it seemed fairer to judge them on the progress they’d made since joining the school and against other pupils with similar contexts.

Target Grades and data tracking became inseparably linked, enshrined in the Teacher Standards, and encoded in the very DNA of English schools.  After 2010 most schools stopped using FFT, which did try to recognise the effect of demographic on attainment, and began to form targets based purely on raw KS2 scores.  This was partially because the DFE, under Michael Gove’s well-intentioned instruction, got rid of Contextual Value Added (CVA), believing taking into account demographics meant accepting differentiated standards by advantage and the inevitable failure of the poor.  Many if not most schools now disregard context completely and simply add three or four levels to a child’s averaged KS2 data to make this their target. As well-meaning as this is, outside of English and Maths, it is wrongheaded because the point from which each child is supposed to be progressing has very little, if anything at all, to do with the subject they are studying.

Ofsted inspections embedded this.  While they have never officially required schools to share targets or put them on exercise books schools that did were praised and other schools, predictably, followed suit, creating an annual ceremony of cruelty in which children were divided into the clever and not clever in front of their peers, with a sticker placed on their books to remind them daily of which one they were.  Head Teachers working between 2008 and 2012 remember the practice spreading like a virus at local and national conferences as the idea that this was what Ofsted wanted took hold.   As Alex Ford pointed out in his important post on how inspection regimes promoted extensive marking, praise or condemnation from Ofsted can very quickly become an important driver of school policy even when there is no evidence that the policy is effective, especially for those schools struggling to improve outcomes and wanting to prove that their methods are the same as more successful ones to avoid criticism.

A short analysis of twenty of the most recent Ofsted Reports for schools I’ve either worked at or know reasonably well suggests this is still fairly common.  Of the twenty I looked at thirteen mentioned Target Grades explicitly.  In all these instances comments were approving, either praising their use or describing insufficiently challenging target grades as a reason for slow progress.  No Ofsted Reports questioned the use of Target Grades or the data on which they were based which, of course, would make it seem logical for SLTs in struggling schools to insist on their use.  Some reports included Target Grades in material on teacher appraisal and performance management.  One team even reported of one school that “teachers are aware they may not get a pay rise if students do not achieve their Target Grades.”  Such policies are likely to have really worrying consequences.  As I’ve already mentioned targets in school are no longer typically based on FFT data and are more commonly based on a simple numerical value (either 3 or 4 levels depending on the school) being added to each child’s mean KS2 score.  This means that the targets of students in a class in a socially disadvantaged area may actually be those achieved by only a very small percentage of children from similar demographics nationally.  To successfully meet their appraisal targets teachers at some schools have to achieve this with every one of the children in every one of their classes.  Failure is inevitable and such performance management systems has meant that employment at the most disadvantaged of England’s schools is perceived as a real career risk, which may well be making the recruitment and retention crisis more acute in the disadvantaged schools where good teachers and leaders are most needed.

How did we get here.png

So to summarise, the Fischer Family Trust gathered data on the grades students were statistically likely to get and schools turned these into targets for subjects students hadn’t get studied. Schools used FFT data to take into account context but in 2010 the DFE said they couldn’t, so instead schools started adding either 3 or 4L of progress to raw KS2 data.  This has generated targets that some students are statistically highly unlikely to ever achieve.  Ofsted didn’t tell anyone to put these target grades onto books or share them but somewhere, at sometime around 2008 a school did.  Inspectors reported approvingly on this policy and soon most schools were doing it.  Some schools have tied this to Performance Related Pay, which has made meeting appraisal targets all but impossible for some teachers.  If this sounds a confused mess it is because it is a confused mess.  Target Grades are an answer to a question nobody asked.  (12) The result was a decade long multi-vehicle wreck of a ‘policy’ which only happened because nobody was driving.


Despite all these issues, schools often continue to require teachers know the target of all the children in their classes and that children be able to parrot off these grades at the drop of a hat. While Ofsted were originally mainly to blame for this, SLTs must accept some responsibility and step up. We have created a generation of school leaders to which school management is so inseparably entwined with data tracking based on progress towards target grades that they honestly don’t know how to run a school without them. This is no excuse. Ofsted have now made it clear that student are not expected to know their target grades and that schools should pursue policies most beneficial to their pupils, and should not be preoccupied with worrying about ‘what Ofsted want.’ We should take them at their word and SLT should abandon any pretence that target grades can be defended and consign them to the educational dump, with VAK and brain gym, where they belong. The genie is out of the lamp now and refusing to defend the policy or worse, shutting it down by refusing to engage, will increasingly and quite rightly lead to anger, resentment and poor morale.

Ofsted can help. I’d like them to tell inspectors not to ask students or teachers for target grades, certainly outside Maths and English.  I’d like them to insist that inspection teams refrain from making comments on students making progress, or not making progress because of either the presence or absence of Target Grades, certainly outside Maths and English.  Schools should stop using KS2 data to set children outside subjects in which they took tests, I think they should stop using the achievement of Target Grades, outside English and Maths, as a way of directly assessing the effectiveness of teachers and that schools should not use them to make decisions around career and pay progression.


While I am of the firm belief that abandoning target grades would, at the very least, have no negative impact on the education of England’s children I am also pragmatic to know that it is unlikely to happen if nothing is put in place to replace them. It’s because of this I’d like to return to Learning Goals and link these to a very rough, embryonic idea for how we could perhaps move to a more sensible assessment and tracking system.

Learning Goals

I propose, humbly and with full knowledge that much thinking and critique is necessary, that we replace target grades with subject specific learning goals based on the knowledge organisers gaining traction in English schools.

The knowledge children need to know should be carefully curated and standardised at departmental level and, while informed by content required at GCSE, would not be solely based on it, to avoid the very real concerns Amanda Spielman spoke about recently. Standardised exams would be given at the end of each full term to test the degree to which this knowledge has been embedded. These exams would, as has been well articulated by Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodolou,, contain a range of assessment methods relevant to the subject area, but would not (perhaps should not) be in the same format each time. They would test content over a long period of time, not just on the material taught in the immediate weeks leading up to them.

School data tracking would not track progress against any grade at all, apart from perhaps in the latter stages of Year 11 when it might be appropriate, but on how much the child had improved. Progress could be tracked with a simple 1-3 number, representing improvement, stagnation or regression. This progress number would also take into account, especially in the most knowledge rich subjects, that the amount of material on which children are tested is continually growing, which actually means maintaining a score might actually mean improvement.

Learning targets set by teachers would be subject specific and based on discrete knowledge, not generic skills. For example, in my subject, history, a target might be “revise the reasons why there was a disputed succession to the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor” if this was an area on which a child had performed relatively poorly. The child could then be given the relevant knowledge organiser and a productive homework after the test would be to complete work on this. I am completely certain this would be more productive than the standard “describe features in more detail’ sort of nonsense which still seem to be very widespread.

In implementing such a system it would, of course, be very important to ensure that the vast majority of children do make progress and succeed, with careful thought given as to how to best support those that do not. This is not just necessary at an individual level but to the cohort as a whole; if a critical mass of children are not improving then this becomes normalised and students, perhaps more influenced by their peer group than anyone else, would lose motivation to do better.

I hope that the ethos this would create would be one in which continual improvement is expected and that an increasing body of knowledge has intrinsic value. Freeing children from having to think about how close or far away they are from a target grade, with all the other problems these have, would allow them to focus on learning for its own sake from the point at which they are at, which I think would be far more helpful in building intrinsic motivation than the system we struggle with at the moment.

As always, I am up for robust critique of what I have written here and am well aware that there is probably a huge amount I’m too uninformed to have even considered, the unknown unknowns, if you like. I’d be grateful to anyone who can constructively point out where I’ve gone wrong. Specifically, being very aware that much of the research I have used is not education-based I would very much welcome work on the impact of target grades in English schools, as I would more refined suggestions as to how, if we really must, we should record and track progress in a more meaningful way.

Can we be blunt? Target grades in their current form are a dangerous nonsense. They have already had far too long in the sun. It is time for them to go. Nobody, teacher, parent or child, will miss them.