Always Moving

For busy teachers having your own classroom is much better than not having your own classroom. It is much easier to stay organised and to begin and end lessons crisply when you are in charge of your own space.

I have not had my own classroom for many years and nor do I expect one.

As SLT with a comparatively light teaching timetable it is quite right I fit in around those with heavier loads than mine. I move between lots of different rooms and do my best with clear routines and forward planning to make things work smoothly.

It’s fine. I am not complaining.

Moving between rooms gives me privileges. One of these is insight into the day-to-day working of those teachers who have much busier timetables than I do. Using lots of classrooms means I get to see how lots of teachers work.

Highlighted timetables stuck next to their computer next to a handwritten note that says, “Be Seen Looking!” Teacher planning folders neatly laid out in chronological order from first lesson to last. A planner left open showing when homework has been set and when it is due. A carefully crafted system of stationary storage.

It is inspiring and humbling – a reminder beneath all the top-down strategies and policies and new visions there are hundreds of professionals whose ways of doing things are the only reason anything gets done at all. It is a reminder every time we make a change at school level – whether it’s a reordering of the school day or more time for reading – other have people to make changes too. When we ask our teachers to focus on something new, we are also asking them to adapt and shift what they do – to write new reminder post-its and to effortfully think about things they weren’t thinking about before.

Their classrooms show just how busy they are and how little slack there always is. They impress upon us how important it is we do not waste the time of those working in them – that when we do ask for change we must be as sure as we can be this will be for the best.

My migrations between other people’s classrooms in different schools reminds me to see our teachers as complete and complex human beings; sometimes tough and confident sometimes fragile and vulnerable. Sometimes walking through a private personal hell and sometimes joyfully living the best years of their lives.

The evidence is everywhere.

The dogeared copy of a poem stuck to the wall closest to the teacher’s desk. The wall of cards from colleagues and grateful pupils. A mug printed with the picture of a proud father and newborn baby. The incomprehensible in-joke notes from one work friend to another. The flowers that appear in a vase for reasons I will never know.

Once – years ago – I accidentally read what a card blue-tacked to a wall of a fortysomething year-old maths teacher said after it flapped open when I brushed against it. “Dear James. Good luck in your new job. You’ll be great. We are praying they are kinder and fairer people. All our love, mum and dad.”

Although it is not my business I still wonder what humdrum low grade horror lay behind that short message.

Those we work with are multi-dimensional, hardworking and of value beyond what they do for us.

We must be careful with their time and honour them as people. While what they do is important, they are always more than what they do.        

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Red Kites over Lodge Park Academy – an assembly

When I gave this assembly earlier this week Miss Brattle told her class as they came in to be silent and sit up straight because they were going into a formal event.

I loved that because she was right.

Assemblies are formal events and so they should be.

Assemblies – like awards ceremonies and concerts and presentation – are comparatively rare and important things. In them we aim to be at our best so as to show respect for speakers and performers who have carefully planned and prepared what they will say or do.

We might show this respect by wearing our best clothes and taking pains to arrive on time. We may lean in and listen to show we are taking the person or people standing in front of us seriously.

You have all done this today and I am grateful.

You have played your part and now responsibility turns to me. I have a duty to say things I think are important and interesting. I have a duty not to waste your time. I hope I don’t.

There are things unique to every school that become so accepted people soon forget there is anything unusual about them at all.

Only in retrospect – with hindsight – do they realise what they considered routine and everyday would be quite remarkable anywhere else.  

Some schools have farms attached to them and students are expected to feed sheep and collect eggs from chickens each morning. Some schools have a sorting ceremony in which a magical hat puts children into houses. Some call their terms funny names like Michaelmass and at some teachers are called ‘masters’ and ‘mistresses’ and wear gowns and mortar board hats.

At Lodge Park we don’t do these things. There is nothing wrong with them but they are not us. If we just copied what others do we’d feel ridiculous.

But we do have things belonging only to us. These are an important part of our identity – our #LPASpirit.

It may surprise you to know not all schools have their own dance or poem.

Not all bang on about spirit and being your best self.  

Very sadly for them not all have Waffle Wednesday.

And there are our Red Kites.

Look up.

Next time you are out in the playground look up.

At first you will see our community of squabbling seagulls. You may also see pigeons eying the ground for little bits of leftover food although – of course – they are rarely successful as here we do not eat outside and always put our litter in the bin.

Look for longer – if you are only a little fortunate you will not have to look for very long.

In time you will spot a very different bird.

High above us all, higher than the seagulls and the pigeons silhouetted against the blue sky there will be a larger, rarer shape – a flaming tongue of burned orange and soot black feathers.

It will probably not be flapping its wings – kites soar and climb on columns of invisible air called thermals. If you listen carefully when it is quiet you will hear them too – a high pitched call of mountains, valleys, clear air and freedom.   If you are feeling philosophical you may wonder what we far below look like to them and what they think of us if – of course – they can be said to think in a way us ground-crawlers are capable of understanding at all.  

How lucky we are to be able to look at them and have these thoughts.

Because these kites are rare.

Most schools in Britain are not privileged enough to have such proud and savage guardians watching over them.

While I would not be presumptuous enough to say they belong to us I think we can say they are ours as long as we concede we belong to them too.

As Lodge Park Academy historian and student Iustina Cucos explains in her excellent article in Issue 6 of the Lodge Park Academy Local History Group Journal, available in our school library, Red Kites were driven close to extinction throughout Britain in the 19th century and had been eradicated from the Corby area altogether. Misunderstood and maligned as scavenging vermin bounties were offered for the heads of dead birds and they became an unfamiliar sight in our skies.

This was a great shame.

Red Kites are part of our national identity. For many years they were valued. There is something marvellous about the thought the same birds that soar above us wheeled above Shakespeare’s head as he wrote the plays you still study in this school today.

They are graceful animals that form lifelong pair-bonds. Both male and female birds help build their nest in the spring and both take turns incubating eggs and feeding new-born chicks. While we should always be careful to value animals for themselves and not for how similar to humans they are there is nothing wrong with appreciating their egalitarianism, loyalty and hard work and recognising how these qualities echo our own values.

Recognising their loss was all our loss, a small breeding population was brought in from Spain in the early 1990s, which became firmly established in Rockingham Forest and then began to flourish.

Corby’s – our –  Red Kite population is now so healthy and successful they have been used to seed areas elsewhere.

There are now Corby birds in Scotland which is very pleasing – something from Corby is now in Scotland just as so much that is Scottish is in Corby.

Look up then. Look up for our Red Kites especially in September which is a good time to look around and beyond ourselves standing as it does on the threshold of summer and autumn when we think of what we have achieved in the past and what our aims for the future should be.

Think of how our Kites teach us the importance of what has gone before and how wise choices we make might make us happier and more fulfilled. Reflect on how the story of the Corby Kites mirrors the Lodge Park story. Think about how they endured hard times and how they needed the help of others to return to their strongholds. Think about how this is true of us all – how we all have hard times and need support to get back on track and how once we are we should reach down to pick up those of us who have faltered and stumbled.

Look up at our Kites.

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First Day At School

Bessie started big school this week.

It has not phased her. Things like this do not phase her. Bessie is enthusiastic about new places and new people.

She expects to love everything, existing as she does in a state of perpetual optimism.

Every day is a treasure box but, like us all, she has her downs as well as her ups.

Disappointments are crushing and deeply felt but blow through her quickly because there is just so much in the world to be joyful about.

There is no time to sulk or dwell. There is bouncing and there is ice-cream. Beaches and chips. Sleepovers at Grandma and Papa’s. Armchair reading snuggles with her sister. Kitchen discos and riding in the shopping trolly.

To Bessie there is little to fear in the world and so to her why should big school be any different?

Bessie runs into life headlong– she launches herself into possibility unfettered by the tentacles of anxiety and fear which hold so many of us back from doing things we want to. Her first school report had her as ‘emerging’ in just about everything except confidence and sociability and this – a testament to her wonderful teachers – is a lesson to those who suspect it’s only possible for people to enjoy things they are ‘good’ at.

Her attitude demonstrates experiences of the world are open to everyone who lives in it – the best of life is not the preserve of those who always win at the things society values most.

Bessie’s perspective is infectious and expansionist.

It is inspirational to those lucky enough to live in her life. Shyer people who hold back and feel inclined to exist in the margins get sucked into her slipstream. Bessie wants this very much – she wants to bring people along with her. Everyone is invited to Bessie’s party. Unprompted she says she thinks her job is to look after people and I think she is right.

She certainly looks after me. 

I slipstream her all the time.

It’s brilliant to be able to walk into any setting and know within minutes Bessie will be talking to everyone she can find – that she’ll be inventing games and dancing – that she will pay no heed to the invisible rules making everything so much less fun. Watching Bessie work a room is an education – relentless charisma that liberates everyone from the need to conform to social niceties.

Bessie brings the party even when there is no party – especially when there is no party.

None of this means Bessie is inherently better than anyone else.

She is not too good for this world. She is not an angel sent from heaven.

To say so invites the sort of well-meaning romanticism that others, trivialises and dehumanises.

There are good reasons rules and social interactions exist There are – sadly – good reasons we can’t suddenly all jump up and start dancing in the middle of a meeting.  Bessie is disadvantaged as well as advantaged – what makes her wonderful also makes her more vulnerable and in need of greater protection.

She has the capacity to behave badly and to behave well. She has agency in what she decides to

What she shows us is those who are ‘different’ or ‘diverse’ or ‘non-typical’ or whatever term we use furnish us with different ways of seeing the world – windows into a universe far bigger and wilder than what are accustomed to seeing every day – evidence what society values and celebrates aren’t the only things worth valuing and celebrating. A demonstration how we organise things is not the only way things could be organised.

On Bessie’s first day at school – Monday – we found out from other parents who arrived later than we did our formidable daughter had appointed herself a sort of ‘chief greeter’.

There she was on the threshold. Smiling. Waving the other children in.

Inviting them all to the party. Inviting us all to the party.

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Be yourself

One of the strangest stories from back when Michaela first began accepting visitors was the theft of knowledge organisers. While those that worked there were – of course – offended I also remember them being really confused.

The knowledge organisers were drawn from Michaela’s curriculum.

What possible use could they be to a school that didn’t teach the same things they did?

I’m pretty sure the explanation for these thefts is around a common confusion of surface features and deeper structures. Surface features are the things you see as soon as you walk into a school building; signage, the way the school day begins, the way lessons start and the resources children use.

These artefacts are the products of much deeper and less obvious thought – the purpose of and reasons for these things are much more important than what’s visible on the surface. If you’ll forgive a very tired metaphor what is seen is only the tip of the iceberg.

The aping of practice without understanding of why it exists is only logical if you don’t have any rationale for anything yourself. My bet would be those stealing Michaela’s knowledge organisers didn’t have strong curricula themselves and so simply did not know what they were taking was just icing on a very rich cake.

This also happens when schools adopt the surface features of cultures alien to their own. And as with curriculum those most vulnerable to this are those least sure of who they are and what they stand for.

Michaelmas. Straw boaters as a requirement for the summer term uniform. Chanting Invictus. Lacrosse. Prayers in the chapel. Prep after school. Clicking to show appreciation of a good point made by a classmate – although there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things insisting upon them just because other successful schools do them does no good at all and is a confusion of form over substance.

Schools absolutely should be weird, odd places that have routines and practices completely indecipherable to outsiders. Some should have school farms for reasons nobody can remember. Schools in Scotland (and Corby) should make a big deal about Burns’ Night. Others should make their new Year 7s walk the boundary on their first day and recite a poem under The Oak Tree in Godwin’’s Field. These things are how schools become distinct, unique places that are identifiable things people can belong to and be proud of.

Schools that understand this are tapping into the same power even if the way it is expressed may appear very different – they know that frivolity is foam on the ocean – that beneath it lies years of tradition which gives a sense of permanence and a sense of belonging to something that matters.

Private schools are good at this. They should be. They have lots of advantages – long histories, track records of academic success, famous alumni and the self-confidence that comes as a product of it all. They know that although the outside world might laugh at their silly summer shorts this binds those behind their gates together. Perhaps this is why struggling schools in disadvantaged areas seem to most prone to aping the surface features of private schools  – maybe, I think the feeling goes, if we behave like them we will come to be like them in more substantive ways too.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Grafting rituals and routines from alien contexts often just looks silly. We don’t wear gowns. We don’t call our teachers masters and we don’t present the best scholar of the year with a gold-plated fountain pen. When we do these things we don’t feel like our supposed betters at all. We just feel ridiculous.

This sort of thought demonstrates a depressing lack of confidence in our communities too – a tacit admission what we have to offer is too meagre to bother celebrating and the best we can hope for is metamorphosis into ‘better’ sorts of people.

There is no reason any schools should be this insecure. We are all parts of communities of which we can be proud. If we feel we can’t be we should look hard until we are. If we can’t find anything to love about where we work we should get out. All areas have histories and schools should celebrate these  – whether it is a theatrical tradition or a culture of hard work in industry.

Schools should be expressions of the communities they serve – they should not be shining castles on the tops of dreamy hills. They should be rooted. They should have ways of doing things which proudly express who they are.

This is hardest in the most hopeless of places where many – understandably but wrongly – feel they have no heritage at all. Schools with huge staff turnover which have had ten different ‘mission statements’ in almost as many years. Schools in places where the jobs dried up years and years ago. In these places traditions may have to be started from scratch but when this is necessary these should come from inside the school and local community not imported from elsewhere.

Schools seeking to build a true culture – what James Handscombe would call an ethos – need to be clear on their values and then exemplify them in ways that fit the people who learn and work in them. Trying to corporatise your way into this through branding and businessy sounding soundbites never works because as much as they try convince us differently we all know corporations don’t love us and that we’ll never really belong to them.

We need to be schools – different to every other institution and different to each other.

We must be ambitious and proud and silly. We must be hardworking and weird. We want children to go to our schools to be surprised when they leave school and find that not every school had a rota for who fed the parrots and not every school finished the term with a performance of the school dance.

All of this is something Michaela understands very well. People ask a lot of questions about MCS but not enough people ask about who it’s named after and why.

It’s something we at Lodge Park Academy understand well too – which is why as much as we admire any other school we’ll never try to be anyone else.

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Good goal – three principles for better targets in schools

Nearly five years ago I wrote a blog post on why I thought assigning target grades to individuals is a bad idea.

While I’d always felt uneasy about it, the work of institutional psychologists Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham gave me a more nuanced understanding of why imposing target grades –  performance goals – on pupils in school was at best distracting and at worse actively damaging.

For those interested in why I thought and still think this, the post can be found here – in the years it’s been out there nobody has yet explained to me what I’ve got wrong. I also know lots of schools still do use target grades with individual children.

Anyway.

I’m not sure what more I can say about this now so over the last year I’ve switched focus.

Pupils are not the only people in schools assigned targets.

In one form or another most of us have them. They are supposed to be a central driver of school improvement. Many of these goals and targets are tied into formal processes affecting pay and career development.

Given their centrality and importance a great deal of care should go into forming the goals we set for and in schools. I know in some places this is true. I am also sure all those setting goals believe the targets they develop are well thought through and appropriate and have done their best in situations of huge complexity with little guidance.

But – having read up on goal setting theory over the last year I think lots of us could do it lots better.

It’s important to be clear about the scale of the challenge.

Setting goals and targets in schools is really difficult.

Schools are very complicated, multi-faceted and dynamic places doing many things at once.

There are lots of moving interconnecting parts sometimes working at cross purposes to each other. Trying to set meaningful goals can feel like pinning the tail on a bucking bronco in a hurricane. Blindfolded.

This can easily make target setting farcical.

Having a goal in one area does not permit other important but untargeted areas to be neglected and it is impossible to draw up a list of targets accurately encapsulating all aspects of any teacher’s role. It would be unwise to try. A teacher can’t say they are going to devote less effort to tutor duties and more to departmental targets, especially – for example –  if an unexpected personal crisis in a form group suddenly demands lots of time. The ever-changing nature of schools can make targets set in September irrelevant by Christmas – anyone who has been through a timetable change, an Ofsted inspection, a high stakes departmental review or an unexpected global pandemic knows this well.

The results of all this fluidity and instability varies from place to place but there is some commonality of experience.

In some schools targets are set for departments and teachers in September and then forgotten all about once the school year is in full swing. A few months later an email reminder about interim reviews prompts a brief flurry of anxiety and evidence gathering activity and then in the summer term, exhausted and with an eye on the holiday, everyone pays lip-service to the final review which has practically no bearing on anything whatsoever. Senior leaders recognise the futility of it all and vow to do better but by September other pressing concerns means nothing has really changed. In other places big dumb data is used clumsily to form targets which leads to wildly inaccurate judgements about general competence.

None of this does any good at all.

Perhaps because so many of us feel or have felt that target setting in schools is a bit of a nonsense too little attention has been paid to what makes a target good or bad. If they are – and in many places I think they are – pointless then it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of time getting them right. They become a paper exercise to get out of the way so people can concentrate on their actual job.

My sense is a lot of schools only have them because now all workplaces have them.

Typically most targets set in schools tend to be of two types.

The first is the sort of data based target I’ve already mentioned. Examples of this might be a certain percentage of pupils achieving or exceeding their target grade, or a department improving its proportion of pupils reaching a grade 4 or 5 at GCSE. Such targets are often based on whole school targets which are then cascaded down to departments and then individual teachers.

Such targets are what Locke and Latham would describe as ‘performance goals’ and are dependent on those assigned them having the capacity and resources to achieve them. They are informed by an assumption the target will motivate those working towards it and – by implication – that the absence of the target would make improvement less likely.  

This is a lot of assumption!

 Issues with such targets are compounded when they are made what schools often call ‘aspirational’ which often really means knowingly unrealistic. Locke and Latham have much to say on these sorts of targets – which they call ‘stretch goals’, which I want to discuss in more detail later.

The second common category are targets based around the completion of a task. Examples of this might be the efficient management of the options process, or training staff on using a new piece of software to track homework. Such targets probably don’t do much damage but they don’t do much good either as – effectively – they are really just aspects of someone’s job selected pretty much at random. Targets based on simple task completion – getting something done – can’t on their own be drivers of real improvement because they are usually logistical not strategic – often more about recognising what is already being done then finding ways to do things better.

Perhaps then it would be better if we did not bother with targets at all. Perhaps they are one of Joe Kirby’s hornets. Indeed a few schools, I think Adam Boxer’s is one, have done away with them altogether and have well formed reasons for doing so.

I’ve felt this in the past when unrealistic or pointless targets have distracted me from activities and strategies I believed would lead to genuine progress.

But targets do not have to be bad. And there is lots of evidence good goals do lead to much faster improvement than having no goals at all. Multiple studies in institutional psychology have found this to be true. One meta-analysis organised by Edwin A. Locke shows 51 out of 53 robust studies of goal setting found benefits to specific and challenging targets compared to having no goals or vague meaningless ones[1].

I think goals and targets are worth the bother.

I think making improvements to those we set in schools can make for more motivated teachers, greater job satisfaction and fairer more meaningful performance management.

Done well I believe goals can lead to improvement. I think they have the potential to be butterflys.

I’ve looked at available research on goal setting and performance at work and developed some principles schools can use to create targets that have genuine positive impact.

I know the research I’m drawing on does not in the most part come from education and there are issues with this – I’d be grateful to anyone who could point me towards robust school-based research on goals and task performance. In its absence I’m hoping at least some of the following principles will prove at least interesting and hopefully useful.

  1. Assure commitment to goals by developing them collaboratively.

Howard J. Klein, Joseph T. Cooper and Christina A. Monahan are concerned about how little most places of work do to ensure their goals are shared by the people who work in them. They summarise early research by saying ‘goal commitment was typically assumed rather than assessed and not sufficiently understood or examined given its central role, and inconsistency defined and measured’.

They have little confidence things have improved much since the mid 1980s[2].

This accurately describes the situation in many schools too.

Too often leaders assume teachers are committed to goals that are imposed upon them without any meaningful consultation.

Transformative Leader models of management are particularly vulnerable to this. Many of us will be quite familiar with how this happens – at the beginning of the school year the Head stands in front of the assembled staff and tells them ‘our goals for this year are X, Y and Z.’

The Head them assumes the goals they have imposed on their staff will be accepted and expects everyone to demonstrate commitment in their work. Leaders concerned about levels of commitment might try to ensure it by calling the imposed goals ‘non-negotiables’ or using other tough high falutin’ language to show just how much they mean business.

While there will be contexts in which this might make sense – for example in the very early stages of a turnaround – this approach is usually a mistake.

Those who have had unilaterally developed goals imposed upon them are far less likely to be committed to them than if they had been involved in their development. Most teachers – of course – will not loudly proclaim their lack of commitment to imposed goals to their superiors, or even think about it very much but they probably won’t work particularly hard or effectively towards them either.

Those simply imposed targets are much more likely to form their own personal goals and pursue these while doing the minimum they can in order to appease managers who may not actually be personally committed either. On occasion not assuring personal commitment might even mean teachers having goals at odds with those of the school they work in. A good example of this might be a teacher in a school they hate and want to leave – here a disgruntled teacher might devote more time and effort to visible CV building activities than working towards dictated school improvement goals. There is no failsafe guard against this– personal ambition does not always sit comfortably within institutional priorities, but there are ways to reduce tensions and foster greater alignment.

Leaders who meaningfully involve those they manage in goal setting are far more likely to get personal commitment. This does not have to mean frustrating lengthy meeting that never go anywhere. Perhaps the best way to do this is to create a genuine dialogue in which over time ideas, concerns and potential solutions and ways forward are discussed freely and openly. This means targets will be representative of a plurality of views and more likely to be regarded as shared and not dictated.

Leaders and managers following this approach might at times be surprised or even frustrated by the priorities and associated goals those they manage want to commit to. Expecting everyone to identify identical problems and solutions would be unrealistic given disparate backgrounds and levels and types of experience.

For leaders humility and honesty around who is best placed to assess need and develop goals is very important here.

Those who have followed my thinking and work over the last few years will know I’ve been strongly influenced by the BBC podcast ‘13 Minutes to The Moon’ which describes the Apollo 11 mission in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever walk on the lunar surface.

Two things stand out.

The first is just how astonishing the scale of the task was and the second is just how young those who achieved it were. The average age of Mission Control was twenty-seven. In a particularly striking part of the podcast a twenty-six-year-old flight engineer described a moment he had to make a split-second decision as to whether to abort the mission or not after a series of computer errors. He chose to go ahead and was right to. And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision because this was a system he had developed. He owned it. As the person closest to the problem he was the best person to solve it.

This can be an instructive lesson for those responsible for setting targets and goals for others. Often – perhaps usually – those lowest in a hierarchy are those best positioned to know what their goals should be. This principle has been supported by studies conducted by Harry Levinson, whose work is quoted by Steve Kerr and Douglas LaPelley in their work on stretch goals. They summarise his work by writing:

“goals must be established with extensive employee involvement.. the most useful performance feedback comes from peers, in part because higher management will invariably be unaware of structural impediments and other significant barriers to achievement.[3]

There are clear implications for schools – in most circumstances it is more likely an English Department will know and understand why pupils are underachieving on exam questions on Frankenstein and what to do about it than the Head Teacher is. Members of the English department will probably be best placed to know how fast improvement is happening and to give feedback to each other on it.

If true it makes more sense for the department to develop their own goals than it does for goals to be imposed upon them by a nominal superior. In circumstances when there is genuine reason to doubt a team or individual has the capacity to develop their own goals it is better to build this capacity than it is to impose targets upon them.

In summary then – and this sounds so obvious as to be almost trite – for goals to have any impact people must be personally committed to them. Personal commitment is more likely if people have a voice in the formation of their goals.

But there is much more to it and by bearing other principles in mind we can make commitment to goals more likely.

  • Make goals challenging but attainable.

In many schools ‘aspirational’ data driven targets have become common.

This typically means setting goals that everyone knows are unrealistic in – I think – the hope if you aim for the moon you’ll fall amongst the stars.

I think this approach to target setting is misguided.

Aspirational targets are what would be described in Institutional Psychology as “Stretch Goals”. They have a long history and have been well researched.

Stretch goals are designed to be transformative.

The idea is by setting goals that are deliberately very improbable then you create the conditions for a whole paradigm shift and exponential improvement. The belief is people can get so locked into one way of doing something they can’t see dramatically better ways and only by changing their entire frame of reference can they break out of their old limiting mental models.

I heard a good example of how this can work a while ago. The story involved a novice ultrarunner who smashed a record simply because they did not know other runners stopped for a few hours each day to rest. They assumed everyone just kept going and so – although not particularly quick  – they ended up breaking the previous fastest time by hours. This was not something the other athletes had even thought to do.

As attractive as they sound stretch goals are very difficult to get right and come with many health warnings.

Most people assigned stretch goals find them ridiculous and pay little attention to them. This is quite logical. Not doing so can be dangerous to self-esteem and sense of worth. Those who believe these goals to be genuine and try honestly to meet them quickly demoralised and even despondent as they fail and fail regardless of what they do and blame themselves.

Stretch goals appeal most to schools with the poorest results because the dizzyingly high stakes of success and failure make rapid improvement an ethical imperative.

For those performing worst this might make paradigm change seem not just desirable but necessary.

Schools pursuing this approach should be aware organisations that successfully use stretch goals reward those assigned them for progress towards the goal. They also make sure there are other more realistic targets too, which helps mediate some of the negative implications. Crucially institutions that have used such goals best know that they should not punish failure against them because this is a sure-fire way to demoralise and anger their employees.[4]  For schools this might mean that while their eventual goal is tripling GCSE 5+ passes, punishing teachers by withholding pay-rises or pursuing punitive competency measures the first year this isn’t achieved is likely to be highly counterproductive. They would almost certainly be better off recognising and rewarding more incremental progress towards this goal.

Rewarding progress towards a goal is an important aspect of what Locke and Latham call ‘learning goals’. These are distinct from what they describe as ‘performance goals’ because these are the steps towards what an organisation or team wants to ultimately achieve but not the ultimate achievement itself.

Learning goals aim to get people to learn how to do a specific part of their job better in the hope the eventual result will be an overall improvement in performance. In a school trying to improve examination outcomes this could mean setting a target of increasing ratio in do now quizzes by learning how to set questions that are accessible but require effortful thought. Once this goal is achieved the learning goal might change to increasing pupil thought in questioning sessions through the use of mini-whiteboards. Over time the accumulated result of these improvements should be the realisation of the overall target of better exam grades.

How challenging should these targets or goals then be?

Negative implications of assigning stretch goals might make it seem better to set easily achievable targets instead.

There is good evidence this is not true.

People – hearteningly – do generally appear to be more motivated by demanding, challenging targets than they do easy ones, or vague ones such as ‘just do your best’[5]. This is probably because self-esteem is built through achieving difficult things. Vague targets are ineffective because it’s usually impossible to tell whether it has been achieved or not. For example, issuing a target of ‘improve the quality of maths education at Gasworks High’ isn’t likely to be particularly effective because nobody can really say for sure if it has been achieved, which means the target can’t generate the sort of specific positive feedback that further motivates a team. High targets are also more likely to align personal and institutional goals – in most contexts people are aware high achievement result in reputational and often financial reward. People are just as aware that achieving easy goals is far less likely to lead to positive personal outcomes. Organisations setting high targets are tying institutional improvement to personal gain, which maximises the chances of personal commitment.

High targets work better than low targets – so long as they are perceived to be attainable, and a key component of the attainability of a goal or target is whether the person or team assigned it have the resources to achieve it.

This – when considered carefully – can be uncomfortable for those responsible for setting targets.

Too often in schools targets and goals are set without consideration of the resources a team or person has to work with or the constraints within which they work. A good example of this might be setting a very challenging data based target on the performance of a challenging GCSE class taught by a Year One ECT. If this teacher has not yet developed the knowledge and skills required to meet this target then it will do nothing but demoralise them. If a school only allows a history GCSE cohort two hours instruction a week for two years then expecting them to meet the same standard as pupils receiving the hours recommended by the exam board is just not realistic. If a school leadership has not taken effective steps in dealing with disruptive behaviour then expecting brilliant results will lead to disappointment for everyone. In all these cases those assigned a target have not been provided with the resources they need. They will fail and associated resentment is understandable.

This is complex in schools. Managing them means balancing resources carefully and compromises are inevitable. What’s given to one department, be it time, money, extra staffing or training, has to be taken away or withheld from another. While there is no way to completely get around this, these compromises should be acknowledged when targets are set. Demanding the achievement of high targets from a team that doesn’t have the capacity to achieve them is unfair and just shouting ‘non negotiable’ at their complaints is a sort of cowardice.

  • Give feedback on progress towards goals but be wary of high stakes accountability.

A reason many appraisal processes don’t work well is those subject to them are too rarely given feedback on how well they are progressing towards their targets. When there is a lack of feedback it is obvious nobody thinks the goals and targets are important and valued, and if something is not important or valuable then there is no reason for anyone to take it seriously.

Consistent, regular and specific feedback against clearly defined goals is a strong moderating variable in target setting. Locke and Latham argue this is because ‘Feedback allows people to decide if more effort or a different strategy is needed to attain their goal[6]’, which allows them to refine and perhaps even create new goals. It is important to stress how vital regular feedback is – ideally this should be part of an organic process in which there is a high degree of interactivity between the setting of goals, actions and the revision of strategies and even targets. In schools this is probably best achieved through establishing and curating cultures in which success and failures in efforts to meet targets and goals are discussed openly by everyone involved at multiple levels.

Two meetings a year can’t do that.

Better would be to decide on overall priorities and goals and then break these down and sequence smaller action steps over shorter stretches of time that eventually add up to the desired performance goal. These smaller steps should be specific and clear so feedback against them can actually be about something. Shorter, more regular and less formal feedback on progress against smaller learning goals is likely to be much more effective than long, formal and widely spaced reviews. Such an approach is also more likely to identify when there are issues threatening success or even if a mistake has been made with a strategy towards a goal or even with the goal itself. By the time a twice-yearly formal meeting has taken place it might well be too late to really do much about an impending failure.

High stakes accountability doesn’t fit comfortably with this approach to target setting.

This is typically associated with top-down target imposition which impedes the ability of a team or individual to develop their own goals. Things are made even worse when the failure to achieve dictated visible targets is punished whether reputationally, financially or through any other means. When this happens those assigned targets are incentivised to find shortcuts and indulge in gamesmanship that can work against the spirit of the original target.

This institutional issue is well known and often referred to as targetism. Bill Gates discusses this in his book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’, in which he points out problems in setting short term goals that ignore the bigger picture. His most memorable example is why trying to reduce emissions by building new lower carbon fossil fuel power stations is a bad strategy –while they may reduce emissions in the short term the long life of these new stations locks societies into emissions for a long period of time and lead to greater pollution overall[7].

There are lots of examples of this in schools. Among the most well-known are the gaming of controlled assessments and the mass adoption of the ECDL qualification as a way of making schools appear more effective than they really were. In both cases short termist visible, high stakes goals compromised the genuine improvement of education. This was not mainly the fault of schools and teachers – this is typical when such goals are imposed on individuals and teams and then suspending a sword above them.

Principles into practice.

How might these principles look in practice then?

This is something I am still working on and I am certain I have not got this right yet, which is why I am really happy to share what where I have got to so far where I work. I’m hoping that as well as being useful this model will generate critique which should allow us to make it work even better.

At my school departments set their own targets – which we call action steps – and key performance indicators at the beginning of each half term.

While these targets will be shared and agreed with SLT line managers, agency and responsibility lies with the department. If a subject leader is inexperienced they will get more support and guidance in developing their targets from the Trust or other colleagues, but the aim of this is to build their capacity to make their own decisions and run their own departments. While the senior team does identify some school priorities Heads of Subject have genuine freedom to develop different targets if there are reasons why these aren’t appropriate for them.

Quality assurance measures are also decided upon by the department – while they may wish to deploy SLT or external support to help them with this they are under no obligation to. When there are scheduled external reviews we make it clear these serve the department – they are there to provide more evidence for subject leaders and teachers to make better decisions, not to force a change of direction. Those providing external support are fully briefed on departmental priorities and expected to serve not override them.

At the end of each half term Subject Leads review their own targets and quality assurance with their SLT link and decide whether or not they have been achieved. This meeting is open and collegiate – it is important these meetings are not confrontational and stressful. If people feel they will be negatively judged on failing to reach a target they are much more likely to either set easy targets that are too easily achieved and have little impact, or slant evidence to create an illusion that’s rosier than reality.

It is important failure to achieve a target is seen as an interesting puzzle to be solved rather than a flunked test. Was the target unrealistic? Was there too little support? Have the team bought into it?  If not why not?

Review meetings have many possible outcomes; goals could be rolled over with more support or even abandoned. New goals could be set. Sometimes the result will be a combination with some targets rolled over, some achieved and some changed. It’s organic and complex because schools are organic and complex.

Why pretending otherwise might make life seem simpler, to do so is to hide from reality.


[1] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P5.

[2] Howard J. Klein, Joseph T. Cooper and Christina A. Monahan. Goal Commitment. Chapter 6 in In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P65

[3] Harry Levinson summarised by Steve Kerr and Douglas LePalley in Stretch Goals. Chapter 3 In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P27

[4] Steve Kerr and Douglas LePalley in Stretch Goals. Chapter 3 In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P28.

[5] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P5

[6] Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Goal Setting Theory, 1990. In New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance Edited by Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham. Routledge. 2013. P7

[7] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/633968/how-to-avoid-a-climate-disaster-by-bill-gates/

Standard

Don’t call people idiots.

In the build up to Sunday’s England game, during it and in the feverish disappointed aftermath people behaved disgustingly.

Some pulled up trees while others chanted and sang. Some drunkenly exposed themselves and – worst of all –  some subjected our best players to atrocious racist abuse.

Those responsible for these shameful acts have been roundly and rightly condemned – in the press, on TV, on radio and on social media. It’s been heartening to see such strong pushback.

Those who behaved so badly have been called lots of words accusing them of lacking intelligence.

These are words I once used. When I heard others use them I approved if I thought the subject of the insult deserved it. 

Now I try not to use language like this.

I get fidgety and uncomfortable when others do and wince when I slip up.

Sometimes – not always because it is hard to do – I ask people not to use such words and explain why.

One thing binding all these insults together is they are reserved for people we believe to be ‘stupid.’

 We use them out of anger and frustration when we see behaviour we cannot understand or easily explain.

“That man’s just torn down a beautiful sapling – what an idiot!”

“That woman just cut me up at the lights – retard!”

“Moron.”

“Cretin”

And so on.

I think the line of thought goes that stupidity – lack of intelligence – learning disability – is a root cause of terrible behaviour. That people who learn slower than others are more likely to do destructive and damaging things.

This is odd

To my knowledge nobody involved in the vandalism, public indecency or shocking racism we saw last week had a learning disability. There is no evidence any of these awful acts were perpetrated by people who had any difficulties learning at all. Were we to go further we would easily find historical evidence demonstrating some of the greatest crimes ever committed on humanity were inflicted by very clever people.

While we all have the capacity to do good and to do evil there’s no causal relationship between levels of intelligence and ethical behaviour.

So why are words used to describe lack of intelligence often insults?

We do it because when we describe someone as, for example, an idiot what we really mean is they are a bad person. We use the words like cretin and retard because we have been conditioned to think of intelligence as a moral virtue. Doing this is innately comfortable – it insulates us from having to think about the potential in all humans – including ourselves – to do wicked things. As in “only stupid people are bad and I’m not stupid so I can’t be bad.”

Clever is good. Not clever is bad. Clever people do good things. People who aren’t clever do bad things.

For lots of us this is very upsetting.

Those of us who learn slowly and those of us who love people who learn slowly are forced to play an unwinnable game with demonstrably nonsensical rules.  

Much of intelligence – like physical beauty – is innate and those who have less of it cannot do anything about the genes they were born with. If we equate slower learning with being a worse person then we condemn those who learn slowly to marginalisation, vulnerability and abuse. We obscure positive characteristics and make it much harder for people with learning disability to be accepted and fully seen as they are.

It is made all the more infuriating because it so obviously apparent the logic is faulty.

A recent essay written by one of James Handscombe’s students at Harris Westminster Sixth Form and sent on to me struggled hard but well with this. The author noted terms now commonly used as insults originated as supposedly neutral scientific terms created to describe specific conditions. These words were then appropriated by wider society as insults, leading to new terms being created which were then – in turn – also used as insults too.

The words themselves aren’t the real problem.

The issue is our underlying assumption a supposed lack of narrowly defined type of intelligence is bad, which means any word used to describe someone who learns slowly will sooner or later become an insult.

The words we use will always be caught up and overtaken by the attitudes behind them.

This is a hard fight.

Negative attitudes about people who learn slowly are woven into the very fabric of society and have been for a very long time. They unite people and groups of radically divergent political and philosophical views.

People may be diametrically opposed on almost every issue but united in their belief those who oppose them must be unintelligent.

There is no haven or refuge for people with learning disability.

The Right’s veneration of individualistic achievement and self-reliance marginalises those who can’t ‘get on’ on their terms regardless of how hard they work. The Left’s aim of levelling the playing field so all can compete fairly at the same game just doesn’t work for those who won’t win regardless of the point at which they start.

We can’t properly defend a marginalised group by accusing its attackers of being another vulnerable group.

We can express disgust and horror at the worst of humanity without linking terrible behaviour to slower learning. This would be both more inclusionary and more truthful.

Such language exists – we don’t need to make up new words.

If behaviour is xenophobic or racist we should describe it as xenophobic or racist.

If someone makes a comment designed to gratuitously hurt others we should describe it as cruel. If someone encourages others to join in a co-ordinated attack on one individual we should describe it as bullying. If someone hides behind an anonymous twitter account to abuse someone we should describe it as cowardice.

Fundamentally all I’m asking is people use the words they mean.

I  – honestly – get why things are the way they are and choices we make about the words we use are not made in malevolence. When we call someone stupid we do not mean they have a learning disability. This of course means it shouldn’t be too hard to find more accurate words.

We are all creatures of our own experiences and the experiences of most of us have been the fetishization of a very specific type of intelligence and I know some will find what I’ve written here precious and finickity.

Until I became the father of a child who will always learn some things slower than others it’s not something I had ever thought about.

But now I am.

I have friends with learning disability and as I work more and more in this world saying nothing feels more and more disloyal – perhaps even a betrayal.

So I’ll say what I mean.

Standard

How much curriculum should be insisted upon?

Fifteen years ago there were many teachers who focused on knowledge and thought hard about what exactly they should teach their pupils.

I was – alas – not one of the enlightened.  

Instilled with a poorly formed, disorganised and uninterrogated understanding of child centred learning I worked hard at facilitating meaningful learning experiences in my classroom.

There were few fads I did not fall for.

VAK; multiple intelligences; brain gym; learning to learn – I rushed headlong into lots of them. When I did teach knowledge what I taught was often the very last thing I thought of when planning.

My aim was for pupil to rocket up through the plains of basic recall, past the foothills of description and ascend the mountains of analysis and synthesis.

To get them there I spent a lot of time planning the activities children would do in lessons – marketplaces, unstructured group work and self-directed research and I was disdainful of activities designed only to increase how much pupils knew.

Experienced and wise older colleagues tried to put me right but I did not have ears to listen.

I was too young and proud – confident enough to deliver training on all the buzzy ideas I thought I believed in to teachers decades my senior.

When my Head of Department insisted all assessments contained knowledge tests I scoffed and rushed doing the ones I’d been allocated sure this wasn’t necessary.

As my classes neared examinations I felt the first prickling of unease. My GCSE classes seemed to remember very little of what I’d taught them through roleplay and diamond nines. So out of necessity I rescued textbooks from dusty and cobwebbed cupboards. I made summary sheets and began explaining and modelling – at first uneasily and regretfully because I felt this was somehow doing teaching wrong and evidence I’d failed at proper pedagogy.

The years rolled on.

Without me ever really being aware of it happening I stopped being an inexperienced teacher and more and more I found I was not teaching in the way my PGCE said I should.

I was talking more to classes.

I was testing them and becoming less and less swayed by the supposed learning styles and existing interests of my pupils. Although this worked but I kept it quiet. For observations I changed the way I did things to affectionate indulgence from the children in my classes who I am certain understood the game we were all playing when they suddenly found themselves doing activities we never normally did.

Then – and I’m not sure how this began – I discovered the work of people who did not think what I was doing behind my closed classroom door was wrong at all.

I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education and Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Through them I found E D Hirsch who I had heard of but knew only as some vague American child hating ogre to boo at whenever anyone mentioned him.

I was inspired by a lot of what Hirsch said but troubled too – and this led me to Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge.

I found teacher-bloggers who wrote about what ‘knowledge rich’ meant practically in classrooms. I began to blog myself and through this connected with organisations which provided platforms for teachers to share what worked and evidence it did.

A growing number of people began arguing we had spent far too much time and energy thinking about how to teach and not nearly enough on what to teach. As what felt a lot like critical mass was reached, the word curriculum began to be used more and more.

Rolling pebbles got larger rocks moving.

Suddenly the landscape shifted beneath us all.

Vanishingly small numbers of people now openly say knowledge isn’t the most important thing children should learn in their lessons.

Few admit to having ever said this at all although many teachers – like me – continue to feel this is what they had been told.

The voices of those who had always argued knowledge was of fundamental importance – such as Summer Turner, Christine Counsell and those she trained on the Cambridge History PGCE – began to be amplified and heard.

The knowledge rich approach was adopted enthusiastically by government which caused some understandable pushback given the sort of knowledge that – at least initially – seemed most valued.

Happily, productive recent debate – while fraught and sometimes unhelpfully bad-tempered – has been over what exactly should be taught.

The result has been more representative, more diverse and more exciting curricula that evolve and change. At least in many places.

What was once an insurgency is now the establishment.

The three Is.

‘Knowledge rich approaches’ are now Ofsted endorsed.

Ofsted divides the assessment of quality of curriculum into the now famous – or infamous – three I’s; Intent, Implementation and Impact.

We all know these words very well now.

To Ofsted intention is what a curriculum intends pupils to know, implementation is how well this curriculum is delivered and impact is how intention and implementation combine into positive outcomes.

But this a great simplification. Perhaps an oversimplification.

A great problem lies in any assumption it is possible to draw straight lines from what curriculum planners intend, through how teachers implement their intentions and –  all being well –  to strong outcomes as a result.

If we try too hard to plot these as a straight line on a graph, we are likely to do more harm than good.

The enacted curriculum

Summer Turner – one of the best curriculum thinkers we have – understands this well.

When she writes about curriculum she uses the word ‘enacted’, which encapsulates the inherent complexity well. Her chapter in the ResearchED guide to leadership is brilliant on this. For those who want to go further I can’t recommend Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners enough. Nuthall pays close attention to why children learn what they do and why this can be so different between children in the same class and demolishes the idea it is possible to ever be certain what children will take from a lesson or sequence of lessons.

The enacted curriculum -the curriculum experienced by individual children who study it – is affected by a near infinite variety of intersecting factors.

It is messy and complicated and ultimately what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday afternoon is more important than any piece of paper.

In fact what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday is the only thing that really matters.

There are so many variables. Getting hold of this is like trying to grasp water or catch smoke in a net.

A couple of examples might help.

Let’s begin with two imaginary Y8 history classes in the same school, Gasworks High.

Gasworks High is part of a large and well-resourced Multi Academy Trust. Both classes are studying the same part of a curriculum – an enquiry into trench warfare in the First World War.

Let’s suppose the first class is taught by Laura, the Head of Department who has a masters degree in military history and a longstanding interest in World War One. She is up-to-date on current scholarship and played a major role in planning and resourcing the enquiry which is taught across all schools in the MAT. The second is taught by Simon, an English teacher who knows little about World War One beyond war poetry which he has taught for many years.

While both teachers do their best to teach the same curriculum with fidelity what children remember from the lessons is very different. Most children in the first classroom gain a strong understanding of the trench features, military tactics and can explain reasons the war lasted as long as it did. Children in the second classroom know less about these things but know a lot about the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front.

The curriculum was the same but the two teachers were better at teaching different things because it was enacted differently.

What was achieved was different. Not necessarily better and not necessarily worse. Different.

And there is even greater complexity.

As Sonia Thompson has been saying for many years children do not arrive in our classrooms carrying nothing.  

They come with ‘backpacks’ of knowledge unique to them, which form their interests and affect their motivation towards different topics. The Matthew Effect means children who know something about what they are taught already are more likely to learn more than those children who are encountering something for the very first time. A child with a father with an interest in military history may learn more from military history lessons at school than a child from a background where nobody they know has ever shown much interest in anything that’s happened in the past.

This isn’t all just supposition – Nuthall shows just how complex the process of learning is and how much it of it is affected by factors beyond a teacher’s control – factors they are often not – and sometimes cannot be – even aware of.

All of this means those responsible for planning curriculum are naïve if they assume their intentions can be exactly and cleanly delivered in the classroom in which their work is enacted. What they intend will not be what happens.

So then, what should we do about this?

There is no definitive answer to this question that fits all circumstances.

How could there be? What’s best will vary according to context. Instead of trying I’ve decided to look at two deliberately extreme ‘bets’ schools might make and the advantages and limitations of each. Finally I intend to synthesise these two bets into a number of broad principles which mitigate the most worrisome implications of the first two.

I’m warning you in advance this synthesis will be a bit of a cop out. There will be no neat final answers to type into a pro forma document.

Bet 1: Enforce curriculum fidelity

Curriculum planners wishing to ensure their planning is delivered exactly as they intended could specify all aspects of curriculum to a very iterative level – core, hinterland the whole shebang –  and then enforce fidelity though high stakes quality assurance and robust associated actions.

In some contexts – at least for a limited period of time  – iterative prescription and enforced fidelity might be the correct bet to make.

If – for example – a newly arrived Head of Science at a school at the beginning of turnaround finds she has no subject specialists in her department and the only curriculum is a confetti of disparate worksheets downloaded ad-hoc from the TES website, she may well have no other choice but to specify exactly what should be taught lesson by lesson.

MATS, schools or departments adopting this approach wholescale would have to look out for and then eliminate variation and associated deviation.

They’d have to make sure teachers knew they were not supposed to go off script and keep them on the straight and narrow.

They’d have to make sure all teachers understood their own insights, explanations and opinions were not to be shared– this variation would make things less clear when the aim should be to transfer what was in the head of the curriculum planner to the heads of the pupils them with as little distortion as possible.

Anyone pursuing this aim would have to have a high degree of certainty the curriculum they’d created was a good one and would deliver the outcomes expected if enacted by its teachers in the ordained fashion, and that teachers had the capacity to perfectly enact what was intended.  

Sometimes this evidence might be available – for example with some synthetic phonics and Direct Instruction programmes – but more often it is not, making any such bet something of a stab in the dark.

This bet would mean accountability resting on the planner – if teachers had done exactly what they were told to do then disappointing outcomes would have to be owned by the person or people who designed the curriculum. Those responsible for its design and delivery would have to be, like Sauron’s Eye, constantly watchful on a panoptic scale for unauthorised deviation. Most people like at least some freedom when teaching and without close oversight there would be a constant risk to the model’s integrity through conscious or unconscious subversion.

Advocates of this approach would also have to answer the question as to what to do when children did not remember what they were expected to remember from a previous lesson or topic; a very prescriptive lesson-by-lesson curriculum would seriously reduce or even preclude the possibility of responsive teaching. This might be fine for the children who never drop behind but would be a disaster for those who don’t keep up whether this is through absence, poor behaviour or simple human forgetfulness.

Finally, anyone going for this model would have to be vigilant to the possibility of low morale and disaffection.

While it is not the role of all teachers to be curriculum architects the inherently creative and generative process of enacting a curriculum is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job- insisting on simple replication would be unpopular.

I expect what I’ve said so far has made you feel a bit uncomfortable.

It does me too. It just doesn’t sit well.

This command and control model is open to abuse and is probably more likely than not to result in disappointing outcomes.

This blog post by James Theobald contains helpful thinking as to why trying to make teachers reproduce perfectly what someone else has planned often ends up feeling unsatisfactory.

What James is getting at is when we plan a lesson much of what is planned is an expression of deeper unexpressed thought. This is why lessons so often fall flat when we try to teach them using someone else’s plan and resources.

Without their knowledge and mental models tasks and activities rarely hang together in a satisfying manner, leaving lessons feeling hollow and disjointed even when children have behaved well and tried hard.

I’m sure this is as true for curriculum as it is for lessons – all curriculum is the product of very deep oceans full of hidden currents that planners are often themselves unaware of.

It is often impossible for someone to exactly understand what the designer was trying to accomplish even if the designer fully understood their intentions themselves. Trying to force this often has a considerable opportunity cost  – if we are very iterative and directive about what is taught then we make it impossible for teachers who enact the curriculum to deploy their own mental models, which deprives pupils of their teacher’s true expertise.

Effectively we ask them to think with someone else’s brain.

Let’s return briefly to Laura and Simon in our imaginary history department at Gasworks High. In a very iterative and directive curriculum designed by Laura the children in her class would still know loads about trench warfare but those in Simon’s might well leave his classroom knowing little about trench warfare or about conditions in the trenches, which he would have been able to teach better had he had more freedom.

By making Simon teach what he doesn’t know well and not allowing him to teach what he does know well we could rob children of knowledge he could have effectively taught had he been allowed to.

We don’t have to go as far as this extreme example to identify other important concerns too – one centrally directed curriculum all are expected to follow can mean schools failing to capitalise on strength. A school lucky enough to have an RE teacher with a PhD in the theology of the early Church would be missing a great opportunity were it to prevent this teacher from sharing what he knows.

The more directive we are about curriculum the less agency teachers have in enacting it and the less agile schools and teachers can be. This is a risk with all deficit approaches to improvement – by trying to eliminate what we don’t like we can also destroy what we do.

Such strategies hinder a school or departments ability to play to its strengths and may result in an overall decline in how much children learn, sacrificing inconsistent riches and depth for a quixotic tilt at cold and illusory consistency.

Bet 2: Total autonomy

If trying to tightly control the content of curriculum causes so many problems perhaps then might it be better not to try at all?

Perhaps if teachers were free to teach whatever they wanted to teach they’d deliver what they know best really effectively. This would mean children in different classes in the same year in the same school leaving knowing very different things.

Perhaps that’s fine and we should try to be comfortable with it.

It is just about possible to envisage a context in which this might be a bet worth making.

I’m picturing Old Oak –  an independent school a few miles down the road from Gasworks High.

Here there is a highly qualified and very experienced English department in which there has been very low staff turnover in the past and low turnover expected in the future. In this school children move up with the same teacher so although there is no consistency between teachers everything important is taught at some point. Set changes are rare. Few pupils leave the school and few join after Year 7.

In this scenario letting teachers teach whatever they want might make sense.

It might.

But even if it did there would still be things to worry about.

What happens if someone does leave? How would the incoming teacher know what the classes they’d taken over had learned and what still needed to be taught? What problems might be caused by a system in which class changes were basically impossible? A completely decentralised curriculum would mean no common assessments – how would the Head of Department or anyone else work out which classes and individuals needed a bit of extra help? How is complacency guarded against? Is the curriculum revised?

Doing things this way would also be enormously labour intensive and potentially very limiting – while there are of course advantages to children in having teachers teaching what they know best, this also confines their experience of the subject to that of just one person who no matter how erudite can only ever be one person.  

And this could only ever work in Key Stage 3.

Once pupils began GCSE courses they would have to follow a common curriculum and allowing everyone to do whatever they wanted to before then might have serious ramifications at the sharp end of the assessment years. One might – of course – argue this is a problem with the way we do assessment in this country. While these are fun conversations to have in the pub they aren’t of much use to those of us who need to make decisions in the world we live in rather than the one we would like to live in if we ruled it.

Even in the kindest of contexts I can reasonably imagine handing total curricular autonomy causes very serious problems that make it a questionable bet.

In less amenable contexts the results of this bet could be catastrophic with new teachers fresh out of training expected to design as many curricula as the classes they teach. Some might do this really well. Others, as I did when given too much autonomy early in my career, might end up wasting weeks on activities in which little of substance was learned.  Even if teachers chose areas they knew well this would be extremely labour intensive and leave children at the mercy of the personal whimsy of whoever they happened to find responsible for them. The result of this – even in the very best case scenario – would be inconsistency on a massive, massive scale with no way of working out what was going on anywhere else.

It would make school and systemic improvement impossible and at scale would do the most damage to the already most disadvantaged children.

Neither total control or complete autonomy is an appropriate choice for the development and enactment of curriculum.

Both approaches cause more problems than they solve.

Bet 3: Between the two

All answers – and there are as many answers as there are classrooms in schools – lie at various points between the two extremes.

It isn’t possible to give one satisfactory, universal response to just how much a curriculum should be prescribed and how much left to the teacher enacting it. How much to insist on and how big a blank space should be left will be dependent on the subject, year group, teacher and class.

Very hierarchal subjects might need to be more prescriptive because progression to the next stage of a curriculum can be dependent on mastery of a preceding stage, whereas the benefits of cumulative subjects prescribing less content might more often outweigh the disadvantages of it in a greater range of circumstances.

A year group or class might be given a tighter more iterative curriculum than another because of issues with staffing and associated teaching in previous years.

The pupils of a more experienced teacher might benefit from them having more autonomy in enaction than a less experienced teacher because they are able to make more effective use of it.

But despite all this complexity I think it possible to be guided by a set of principles that frame this persistent problem correctly and might lead to better decisions.

Four Principles

  1. Prescribe the minimum you can get away with.

When I first began recording myself teaching and watching the videos back, amongst the most irritating of my many irritating habits was saying too much was important.

It had the reserve effect to what I intended.

By claiming everything was important I implied nothing really was.

It is easy to do. All of us – hopefully – believe every minute of time in our classroom is valuable.

This is as true of curriculum too – those who plan curriculum do not put in things they think nobody needs to know – they do not set out to deliberately waste time. But – as all teachers know –  classrooms are not carefully controlled laboratories and have no business trying to be.

They are unpredictable, serendipitous places and unexpected things often happen in them.

Sometimes lessons are cancelled because of a trip or because an inspiring speaker comes in. There are snow days and days in which the boiler breaks.

Some teachers are better than others and children in their classes learn more than in those in which practice is weaker. Sometimes it is really hot and although we all try hard not much gets done. There are many thousands of minutes in a year and it is unrealistic to expect children to perfectly remember everything they are taught in every lesson.

Unless intentional decisions are made about what to prioritise and emphasise we can’t have a clear picture of what from the curriculum has actually been enacted and learned, with lots of children likely to remember things that aren’t actually what we intended them to remember.

Curriculum planners need to decide what is most important and make sure this is understood by everyone teaching the curriculum.

They need to understand it is better to teach less well than more badly and the more they prescribe the less likely what they insist upon will be learned. Curriculum planners must also recognise and be alert to the potential of over-prescription and micro-management to limit the ability of teachers to use their own mental models.

They must also be aware insisting on nothing in specific being taught is almost always a terrible decision. The dangers of this are at least as serious as those presented by dictating everything that must be delivered to a very granular level of detail.

How much must be prescribed will of course vary across contexts and there will be circumstances in which a lot has to be dictated – particularly in more hierarchical subjects in which latter content is dependent on the mastery of earlier material, but we should aim to be as lean as we can – if there isn’t a compelling reason why it is important a pupil memorises something then we should not insist upon it. Curriculum planners should be asking themselves why and when pupils need to learn prescribed content. A mark of true expertise is knowing what is essential and what isn’t. If we find this a struggle we should be open to the possibility we do not understand the material as well as we should.

None of this is to say what we don’t insist on being taught isn’t important, or that we shouldn’t think hard about it.

To do so would be to misunderstand why Christine Counsell’s hinterland knowledge is so important – it is what gives meaning and richness.

Hinterland plays a foundational role in the memorable enaction of core and without it we have only impoverished facsimiles. We certainly should be talking about great hinterland and sharing beautiful examples of it but it isn’t something – in most contexts – that benefits from lots of particular aspects being insisted upon – instead all individual teachers should be aiming to find their own rich hinterlands – sometimes alone and sometimes collaboratively.  We should be comfortable with these being different.

Finally we also recognise the different nature of different disciplines means ‘the minimum of what can be got away with’ will vary enormously. And – of course – variations in levels of expertise and experience within the same subject will also affect how much has to be prescribed. 

The less a team knows and the smaller their hinterland, the more directive a curriculum is likely to need to be.

2. Teach and assess what is prescribed.

Once core prescribed content has been decided upon schools must make sure this is taught and what is taught is assessed.

The base for this is teachers understanding of prescribed knowledge within a wider curriculum containing rich hinterland.

This requires clear, unambiguous communication. In many disciplines, perhaps particularly so in cumulative subjects, the winnowing process is likely to be controversial with different members of the same team disagreeing as to what aspects must be emphasised although this will be less contentious if there is a shared understanding of what the curriculum is aiming to do. There is more likely to be acceptance of this – even if grudging – if team members have had a meaningful voice in decisions. If people have been consulted they are more likely to agree to compromise and align themselves with final decisions even when they don’t completely agree.

Alignment is necessary because without personal commitment not all content will be taught well and this will affect how much pupils learn in different classrooms.

With alignment attention can be more focused and less generic. Time can be spent on more specific things – say, for example, getting better at teaching the influence of the Church in the lives of medieval people instead of vaguer and more nebulous content like ‘religion in the medieval world’ which is much harder to pin down and improve at.

Once agreed content has been taught it must then be assessed if a teacher, department or school is to work out how successful it has been. Quality assurance and assessments – both low-stakes examples like daily reviews and higher stakes formal tests – should be aligned to core knowledge to be fair to teachers who teach the curriculum and the children who learn it.

Making sure teachers and pupils know on what material assessment will be focused makes it more likely children will remember the most important aspects of what they have studied. It makes it less likely they will remember things that  – while interesting –  might not really be that useful or valuable.

This problem can be illustrated by the story of King Henry VII’s pet monkey who drove him to distraction after it broke free of its keeper and ripped up his carefully kept financial reports. This is gorgeous hinterland. The point the story is supposed to make is Henry was a careful record keeper and used these records to extort tax from his barons. The records are important. The taxes are important. The extortion is important. The monkey is really interesting and helps us remember the records, taxes and extortion but isn’t the point.

We do not need to know how much children know about Henry’s pets but if we do not guard against it this is just the sort of thing they will end up remembering once what we wanted them to learn has withered away.

But maybe we do want them remember Henry’s pets. We certainly don’t want to stop them remembering his monkey if they find his monkey interesting.

None of this means doing anything as cynical and contrived as telling children exactly what will be on their tests. Principles of good assessment remain the same. Material should be drawn from a larger domain and teachers finding there isn’t enough to do this must consider the possibility they’ve stepped over a line into cynically teaching to the test.

3. Teach more than what is prescribed.

A danger of prescribing a limited amount of content is the implication nothing else is important and the creation of a disarticulated and lifeless skeleton.

Misunderstanding curriculum as just a skeleton is likely to result in formulaic, clinical teaching and the memorisation of facts divorced from context – it would be the straw-man caricature so beloved of the laziest critics of knowledge rich approaches.  

Such pedagogy would be likely to result in ever diminishing returns and less being learned than had a more expansive approach been taken.

To avoid this danger schools need to make sure their teachers know and understand a vital part of planning is working out how to best support core content by framing it within memorable hinterland that adds and enhances rather than distracting and detracting.

The distinction between core and hinterland is not an absolute one – what might be considered hinterland in one context might be core in another depending on what exactly the curriculum is focused on. Just as what we cover is a product of choices we make, what to emphasise should also be the result of intentional decisions.

And we cannot even be sure what we consider to be core and hinterland is what will end up being core, hinterland or ultimately not remembered at all by pupils whatever we think it is.

Let’s return to Sonia’s backpack again for a moment – children do not come into school carrying nothing. They have lots already and are already developing opinions and ideas about what they are interested in and what they learn in lessons may connect with one child in different fashion to how it connects to another.

When curriculum is enacted we may find Henry’s monkey does become core knowledge to some children, along with the core knowledge we’ve insisted on teaching. Who knows? Maybe a child has visited the Tower of London and was fascinated by the ravens they saw there. Henry’s monkey might build on this and kindle a lifelong interest that eventually results in a PhD in Monarchs and their Menageries.

Stranger things have happened and if you ask me Monarchs and their Menageries sounds pretty cool.

The point here is while we can’t predict the fires our sparks will ignite we can make more fires more likely be sending out lots of sparks.

A curriculum that teaches only the bare bones limits opportunities for unplanned but beautiful connections.

4. Devolve curricular decisions making to the lowest level you can.

A couple of years ago the BBC produced a brilliant podcast called “Thirteen Minutes to the Moon” about Apollo 11 – the mission in which NASA first landed human beings on the moon and then brought them back again safely.

Two things struck me.

The first was how astonishing an achievement it was and the second was just how young those who accomplished it were. The average age of Mission Control was twenty-seven.

During the thirteen minute descent of the Lunar Lander, a twenty-six year old recalls having to make a split-second decision on whether to ignore a computer warning or not – at that moment he had the power to abort a mission that had cost billions and billions of dollars and may well have resulted in NASA missing the target set by JFK to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He chose to proceed with the mission and he was right to.

And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision. Twenty-six or not and however junior or not he was the right person to own the decision. It was his system. He knew it. Nobody else – no matter how expert – was better placed to decide whether to go ahead or whether to abort.

The point I’m trying to make here is those who enact curriculum are best place to design it if they have capacity. This is because they know the ins and the outs – the sticking points – the bits that shine and the bits that need to be worked upon.

Those closet to problems are best placed to solve them and are more likely to be personally invested in doing so too.

For a piece of work completely unrelated to this I’ve spent some time this year looking at institutional goal setting theory, focusing on the work of psychologists Locke and Latham. One of the things they’ve spent most time exploring is the importance of being personally invested in achieving goals. Too often – I think – schools enforce goals without checking whether people even want to achieve the targets set for them.

Generally, it is more likely people will be personally committed to a goal if they have developed it themselves or at least been involved.

This is applicable to making decisions about what to teach broadly and what to focus on within broad areas – if these have been dictated and those who have been dictated to are not invested it is less likely they will enact curriculum effectively.

There is a balancing act to be struck here – one of the advantages of well-resourced and outward looking MATs is the way economies of scale allow for investment in national level expertise with the capacity to develop world class curriculum.

I am lucky to work for The David Ross Education Trust, which is one of these MATs.

This can be really beneficial so long as curriculum is designed in collaboration with and not just dictated to those who will enact it. The most effective large scale curriculum architects understand the developmental aspects of their role –  while they may take the lead in curricular development to begin with the ultimate aim should be to empower and develop subject communities made up of subject leaders and interested rank-and-file teachers to create and revise curriculum of which they are proud and to which they are personally committed.

This is also likely to result in better enactment of curriculum overall because it is more likely those closest to pupils will make better decisions about what to teach and how to teach it than those distant from them.

While this would be the ideal not all departments have the ability or capacity to design effective curriculum, which is why I’ve prevaricated; while it is best to devolve this to the lowest possible level there will be circumstances in which the lowest possible level is not the teacher or even school and it would be unwise to leave people solely to their own devices if they lack inclination, capacity or time to make good decisions about what to teach.

Leaders need to be hard-headed and careful – mindful those right at the beginning of the Dunning -Kruger novice to expert spectrum are unlikely to know they lack capacity.

Deciding how much of a curriculum to insist upon is not easy.

While recent systemic changes mean we are now clearer than have been for a long time about the importance of broad curriculum full of rich knowledge I worry these developments will not have the impact we want them if we aren’t judicious and careful about organising all the material into formats our pupils can digest, being intentional about what to give the most priority to and realistic about what we can know and control in a classroom.

I worry about displacement activity and work that looks great on a paper proforma but has little impact on real children in real classrooms.

We must balance prescription with autonomy, recognising the benefits and risks of each approach within the individual circumstances in which we develop synthesis.

Curriculum is not and should never be a monologue or diktat – it is a conversation in which what its designers create is only one part. Ultimately it is a generative process; the product of interactions between designer, teacher and pupil.

It is messy. It is unpredictable. It is maddening and beautiful.

If we are to avoid retreat into comforting but fantastical illusion we must accept this.

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What are we doing? Are we all doing it?

I have worked people who claim to be able to tell if progress is being made in a lesson within minutes of being in it.

One told me they could “smell” learning. Another told me they could just “feel” it.

Such superpowers elude me.

In a short lesson visit it is simply not possible to tell with any certainty if anything has been learned.

Life is much too complicated.

Certainly outside of our subject specialisms we do not know if the work children are doing is appropriate even if they are trying hard at it. Even within a subject we know well we can’t be sure what a teacher sets is worthwhile or not because we lack context and nuance.

We cannot know if every child in the room is listening properly to what the teacher is explaining. We do not know if what children are being exposed to will be remembered or if it will be forgotten.

As has been said by many people many times before, learning is invisible. It happens within our pupils and it takes place over weeks, months and years.

It can’t be seen in the ten minutes a member of SLT is in a French lesson on a Tuesday afternoon.

If the purpose of lesson visits were to work out if learning was taking place in them then they would not be worth the bother.

But they are worth the bother because this is not their purpose.

Lesson visits are temperature checks in which what we are really looking for is things are orderly and calm. When I drop in all I’m really looking for is whether pupils are clear on what they should be doing and that they are doing it. It’s wrapped up in the language I use “Hello! Good morning! What should we all be doing? Are we all doing it?”

If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’ I’m usually happy to go on my way. If pupils aren’t doing what they’re being asked to do I’ll stay and support the teacher until they are. If it isn’t clear what pupils should be doing I may ask questions to clarify things – for example ‘Sir, are we doing this in silence or are we allowed to talk about it? Do we answer in full sentences?’

This might seem unambitious but it is not.

So much has to go right.

Teacher explanation of tasks have to be clear. Pupils must know exactly what to do and then do exactly what they have been told to do. It means clear exposition and economy of language. It needs the teacher to check for understanding and follow up on pupils who choose to opt out.  

All of this working well results in lovely classrooms.

Safe, calm and orderly with neat clear ways of doing things and everyone knowing exactly where they are.

None of this – of course – means learning. But without pupils being clear what they’re supposed to be doing and then doing it, it is really unlikely learning will happen.

It is a proxy but it is not a bad proxy.

Necessary but not sufficient, but very necessary.

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Catch up? Make schools cooler in summer.

There are some sorts of answers we like more than others even when the other answers are better.

A while back a Head of Department (I’ve forgotten who so please let me know so I can credit you) wrote a brilliant blog post on this. The central plank of it was his memory of being asked at interview what he’d done as a Head of Department that had most improved results. His answer was that he’d adjusted the time allocated to different parts of the course so the component in which children traditionally scored worst got more time.

This was not the answer his interviewees were looking for.

They wanted something buzzy about CPD he’d done on questioning, or dual-coding or tier two vocabulary or something else cool.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things but I wonder if too often in schools we overlook simple, logistical and mechanical fixes because they don’t sit neatly within the mental contexts and frames of references in which we are located.

Too often we forget there actually isn’t a very clear line between what is operational and what is strategic and so miss powerful instrumental and technical fixes.

I’m thinking about this today because it is getting hot and I am remembering the many, many very hot classrooms I have taught five period days in. I am remembering steadily rising temperatures that peak after lunch when it feels almost unbearable. I am remember sweating all day and the constant smell of teenage deodorant. I am remembering paper fans and the almost shocked exclamations of “oh it’s hot in here” from every adult ducking in to pass on a message or collect a child. I am remembering headaches on the way home and a sort of intellectual curiosity about how awful the day was likely to be on the drive in.

As I’m remembering I’m wondering how many hours were lost to this temperature – how much learning didn’t happen because although we did our best it was really just too hot to remember anything much at all. I’m also wondering how many thousands and thousands of hours this would add up to if we totted up all the time lost in English classroom every summer and how much more we would all learn if we just got bloody air conditioning, or built classrooms that weren’t the sort of glass boxes that look great in an architects drawing but are a nightmare to be in.

What a superb spend of any extra money this could be. Almost certainly more impactful than an interactive whiteboard in every room or funding for tutoring for a handful of kids who probably don’t need it. Something that would last forever, continuing to have a positive impact for years and years to come.

But we won’t will we? Yes partially because it would be expensive but also because it isn’t the sort of answer we like. It’s too simply. Too logistical. Not the sort of answer we want.

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Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam)

There’s been some interesting discussions on Twitter this week. After a thread I tweeted on starting lessons blew up a bit Adam Boxer raised a concern about pupils copying Do Now questions if they don’t know the answer.

His issue was some pupils might not try to answer because it is easier to mindlessly copy than think hard.

Around the same time Tabitha McIntosh began a revealing and thought provoking discussion around cold calling with this tweet.

Both contributions were important and helpful.

Adam and Tabitha have good grounds for anxiety – I can very well visualise both my suggested strategy and cold calling going very wrong.

Imagine a hypothetical lesson which begins with pupils completing a Do Now. The teacher tells children if they don’t know they are to copy the question. Imagine the class is a top set with a large proportion of highly motivated perfectionists who know the teacher will go through the answers. Almost all copy without thinking for themselves. They want to be right and they want their books to look perfect. To them putting down anything they are uncertain about just doesn’t seem worth the risk – especially if it means crossing out. Plenty of children in this class know the right answer but don’t try to remember, which means they don’t get the benefit of retrieval or the testing effect.

It’s even easier to envisage a scenario in which cold calling could go really wrong. I’m picturing a class in which there are complex and troubling relationships between children and there have been many historic instances of cruelty and even bullying. I’m imagining a poor child being called upon for an answer and their horrified crawling hot blush as they go blank at badly suppressed sniggers behind them.

In this instance the teacher certainly should not have cold called.

Any strategy can be the wrong strategy.

When the wrong strategy is deployed issues often emanate from a lack of thought – sometimes the lack of capacity to think – about why it has been selected in the first place and what conditions need to be in place for it to be effective.  

In both strategies I’ve described the purpose is to raise ratio and maximise the chances all children doing the thinking rather than just a handful.

If this is not achieved by copying the question or cold-calling then the strategy has failed regardless of how successful this strategy might have been in other places and at other times.

Aping practices without fully understanding the purpose of them is at best risky – it’s like an untrained cook throwing disparate and uncomplimentary ingredients into a stew because they know that these are tasty things in themselves. It might not be noticeable (bay leaves), might result in an accidental culinary miracle (peanut butter and chocolate), or it might produce something inedible (chopped apple in school dinner curry).

It’s why a skilled teacher, like an experienced chef, is able to switch ingredients when the first choice isn’t available and still produce something good to eat – as Mark Enser points out in this post, reasons and thought structures behind strategy matter more than the specific strategy itself. If a chef knows they are looking for something sour they know they can replace tamarind with vinegar, just as teacher could replace cold calling with mini whiteboards if the class have a poor culture for error.

There are further complexities too.

Nobody likes to accept a compromise – I even wrote a blog post about them which appropriately nobody read. But as much as we may hate to do it, a middle ground has to be found. Both the imaginary scenarios I described earlier in this post were extremes and rare in real life. A combination of both classes is more realistic and this makes things even more difficult – the teacher cannot make decisions with any one pupil in mind – they must choose a best bet compromise that might not actually be the best thing for lots and lots of children in the class and they must often make decisions in the absence of important information.

Such is the life of a teacher.

If this is challenging for experienced teachers it can seem ridiculously so for trainees and teachers in the early years of their career. Every seemingly simple magic bullet ‘top tip’ comes in an invisible cloud of ‘buts,’ ‘make sures’ and ‘only ifs’. The end result of such an approach would be saying that because not everything works everywhere we shouldn’t advocate for anything – we’d condemn our least experienced teaches to invent effective teaching all on their own – a journey which takes decades and has an appalling attrition rate.

The answer must be to share ideas and strategies that do work and then find ways to unpick and understand the structures beneath them so when they are effective we know why, and when they are not effective we know why too, or at the least know the questions to ask.

To do this we need to be Adam and Tabitha.

We need to be open about our concerns even (especially) when it feels as if they’ve become uncontested pedagogical canon. Whether it’s copying questions in a do now, cold calling, retrieval practise, dual coding or anything else we have to stop to think about what we hope to achieve, what context we need for this strategy to be successful and whether something else might do the job better.

And we have to start somewhere even when our starting point might actually be the wrong one.

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