The dangers of misconceptions: why clever people believe silly things.


For quite a long time I was not particularly concerned about misconceptions. Trained in a predominantly exploratory and student-centred style, misconceptions were inevitable in my lessons. Requiring novices to work in groups and to access material with limited or no support effectively guaranteed that, at least to some degree, children would misunderstand some content. The only way to avoid this was to make the content so simple that it wasn’t challenging.

This didn’t really worry me. After all, I thought, the world is a complicated place and misconceptions are part of life – I believed that by allowing my students to make them I was being more authentic and thought that their gradually improving historical skill would mean that, in the end, any stains would come out in the wash.

I now think this attitude was both misguided and damaging.

Cognitive load theory suggests that once a schema is formed it is quite inflexible. If we come to believe something which isn’t true, then we find it very tough to change our minds. This might be because we derive our sense of identity from our schemas, which means adapting them also means changing things about ourselves from which we get a reassuring sense of belonging and security. Generally, we don’t like what we hold close to be challenged so, when faced with contradictory information, we are probably more likely to ignore, disbelieve or challenge it than we are to engage.

This may be an explanation for why very clever people sometimes hold views that seem very silly to other people. I know an intelligent, articulate, kind and passionate creationist. I find this very hard to conceptualise. In order to interact with him I have to ignore the fact he is a creationist and actively avoid discussing any scientific topic as, I am sure, he does too. Neither of us are willing to listen to arguments that contradict the schemas on which our worldviews are constructed.

This has profound implications on the way we teach our children.

Firstly, this makes curriculum of great importance. If we accept that learning is the process of forming schemas (and I do realise not all people do accept this), then their inflexibility makes the responsibility of choosing what is in them an enormous one. If we teach something which is wrong there is a good chance we are helping form a flawed schema, which could last forever. I saw this clearly during my time in Ethiopia when I encountered children who’d been taught, from a governmentally approved textbook, that the rock hewn churches of Lalibela were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. As hard as I tried I could not convince them they were not. When, finally, I brought in an international encyclopaedia and showed them the real list, they reacted by saying “this book is wrong.”

Checking a curriculum for basic, factual errors is only the start. Some topics that are accepted culturally are evidentially problematic. For example, I am pretty sure that if we polled all British people, a large percentage would say that Britain and the USA played the most significant role in defeating Germany in World War Two. This belief is, at best, limited. A credible argument could be made it is actually just wrong, with the USSR playing a much more dominant role.

The point here is not so much that, especially in more subjective subjects like history, that we will ever arrive at a ‘right’ answer, but that if we are to avoid embedded misconceptions we must recognise and pay attention to what we teach before we even begin thinking about how we teach it.

This is not to say we should ignore teaching methodology. If we are to accept that misconceptions are dangerous then we must teach in styles that minimise them. This brings me, full circle, back to the concerns I raised regarding pure exploratory and student-centred methodology. If we allow students to access challenging material with only their friends to help them, we are inviting misunderstanding. A good teacher using this style will, of course, correct misconceptions where and when they spot them, but identifying them all, with perhaps thirty children talking at once, is very hard.

It is much easier when we teach directly. When we do this we can much more easily control what information children get at what time. We can use questioning and other methods to check whether children have understood. We can stop and directly re-teach if a misconception appears to be a widely held one. By doing this, we can be much more firmly in control of what goes into the schema and can be more confident it is correct.

I think this is actually a very, very important issue. The proliferation of information sources, real, dubious and fake, means we can now, more than ever, choose to reinforce what we already believe and ignore what we don’t like regardless of how convincing the evidence. If we want to, as we may well be predisposed do, we can retreat from real debate and reinforce our existing views even when they might be wrong more easily than we have ever been able to. Teachers can fight this worrying growth of tribalism and polarisation but to do this we simply must ensure that we do everything we can to stop children learning things which aren’t true.


Should we have proms?



This is not the blog I was going to write. Proms make me uncomfortable and I was happily planning a witty hit piece, but the discussion generated by a poll I ran a week or so back made me wonder if I was just being a curmudgeon. Now, while I still think they are profoundly problematic, I’m pretty sure just scrapping them would be a mistake.

Instead of going through all the reasons I dislike these parties, I’m going to explain why they are contextually problematic before proposing how we could adapt them.

Prom events is are an American import which make little sense in the context of the English education system. “Prom”, and I had to look this up, is actually short for “promenade”, which was the formal introductory parading of guests at a party. They began as graduation celebrations in 19th century co-educational American universities and, over time, spread into high schools. In the US they take place after a graduation ceremony in which children are presented certificates that prove they have successfully completed their compulsory education. This makes sense. In America, where teachers grade students themselves, graduating from high school is not automatic, requiring young people to achieve a passing grade in a range of subjects. It is quite possible to finish school but not graduate. The certificate has some value with employers and further education expecting it. This is why some students repeat years; if they haven’t yet achieved passing grades, they won’t graduate so stay on. Traditionally, the students themselves organised the celebratory party and staff weren’t expected to get very involved beyond vetoing inappropriate suggestions.

England is different. Finishing Y11 is not in itself an achievement. Everyone finishes and nobody asks whether or not a child ‘graduated high school.’ Instead, success or failure is assessed on the grades children achieve in external examinations. This makes the concept of a prom problematic. These generally take place months before grades come out which means nobody knows how successful the attendees have been, making it impossible to know whether or not there is anything worth celebrating. Instead, schools generally decide on prom attendance using behavioural and attendance criteria; nice children, regardless of their ability, get to go and challenging children, particularly those of lower ability, generally don’t. This is understandable but misguided because it takes the focus of schools away from academic achievement and onto behavioural compliance for its own sake. For many years I have been puzzled and frustrated by those young people for whom prom attendance is the main aim of Year 11, who won’t spend £3 on a revision guide but will happily put down £200 on a dress. In all the glitz and time-consuming excitement of organising them, schools that use prom as a behaviourist carrot to try and keep borderline students on role until July can very easily lose sight of the point; ultimately, what does it matter if a child attends up to the end of the year if they have nothing to show for it on results day?

Given how different the English context is to the American one, the rise and rise of proms needs some unpicking. The most cynical explanation is that they have grown because of American popular culture, which was aided and abetted by limousine and ball dress companies, which escalated as a result of peer pressure and competitive parents. This was the position at which I’d arrived before I ran my poll, when I would have been quite happy to leave it at that and advocate an, ideally Ministerial level, blanket ban.

But now I think that doing this, without replacing them with something else, would be wrong.

Schools don’t run proms just because of Americanisation and capitalism. Staff work hard helping young people to organise them because they want to celebrate one of life’s most important milestones. It is interesting to note that often it seems the more disadvantaged the area the flashier the party. The most advantaged of our schools often don’t run them at all. But, of course, there’s lots they do instead; prize giving ceremonies, awards evening, dinners and even balls. Schools that do this, as actually my own did, generally do focus on the academic success of their students. These schools have a culture of achievement and attainment and are confident that enough children will do well to make these events significant and memorable. But tor schools where great results are rarer, it is more complicated and, in the context in which they operate, the criteria for success has been lowered. What should such schools do? Nothing and allow their students to scuttle unheralded out into the world, shamefaced and subservient?

While I am sure this would be a mistake it doesn’t mean we should continue with events that, as well-meaning as they are, lower academic expectations and reward the bare minimum.

We could give our celebration events a more academic feel by holding them the autumn of the next academic year. This would allow us to hand out GCSE results and special awards, printed on high quality certificates, perhaps rolled up with a ribbon, to our students on a stage. There could be a speech before the party begins. If we must be Americanized then we should at least get it right, and this would actually be more in keeping with the original spirit. Of course, this would mean our students would have to return to the school, but I think this would be rather lovely; we’d get to catch up and see how they’re doing in their colleges or apprenticeships. For me at least, it’d make the wrench of seeing them go after their final exam less painful too. Of course, some might not choose to come back but by not doing so, they’d demonstrate they probably weren’t that bothered about it to begin with.

If we did I’d happily get over an ugly snobbery that says far more about me than it does about what teenagers want at their parties which, quite frankly, is none of my business. In fact, I’ll go further. Throw in a sit down dinner after the certificates and awards and I’ll stop saying “Carrie” when asked for a suggestion on the theme. Make the speech meaningful and keep it free of bullshit and I’ll even do the bloody birdy dance in front of everyone if I’m lucky enough to be invited.


Pay new teachers more



When I first began teaching I thought Head of Department was a really responsible, senior position. Vaguely, I thought that most teachers would teach for about five years with no extra responsibility and, assuming they were good at it, might become a Head of Department after about ten years. A few, in my mind, would become SLT around five years after that and, five years after this a very small number would become Deputies. An even smaller number would become Heads at some unspecified point after that.

I knew there would be exceptions. Some people were so good they’d be promoted faster and others, happy in their classrooms, wouldn’t be promoted at all. But, at my first school, one with a lowish turnover, what I saw didn’t challenge this view very much; our Head was in her fifties, most SLT were in their forties and Departmental Heads in their mid to late thirties.

At the start of my career, healthily I think, I didn’t really give much thought to what I wanted to end up as. I wanted to establish myself as a decent teacher and was happy with a future which was both vague and hypothetical. I didn’t consider financial factors at all. I just sort of assumed if I wanted to be a teacher forever I could be. While, of course, I knew my decisions might mean holidaying in different places, or driving an older car or owning a smaller house, I never thought that if I wasn’t promoted I might not be able to afford holidays, or that I may one day have to sell my car because I couldn’t afford the MOT, or that it might I never own my own home.

For me, protected by a middle class financial security blanket, life has largely worked out this way. I’ve never actually given much thought to ‘CAREER’, instead taking interesting jobs as and when they came up. As a result, I’ve been a teacher, VSO volunteer, SLT in an international school, a Head of Faculty and now a teacher trainer.

I’ve had an interesting and varied sequence of jobs. Sometimes I’ve earned more and sometimes less. Although, of course, it’s always nice to have more to spend, I have never had to really think about finances when looking at a job. This freedom has been the result of a relatively privileged financial position for which I’m thankful; I had no student loan to pay back and parents who were able to help me significantly in getting together a deposit for buying a house.

I’ve ended up where I have because I’ve had the freedom to choose roles without thinking very much about whether or not they would pay enough to make ends meet. My secure financial position has also meant I’ve been able to take risks; I volunteered on a subsistence salary for two years and then took a job in a developing world school that paid comparatively little, and made no contributions towards pension or National Insurance for the five years I was away. I worked in a really disadvantaged school where good results came hard and, I think, my linear career advancement probably stalled as a result. These risks paid off personally and in the long term may do financially too but each risk was covered by a safety net. If the worst came to the worst and I lost my job, I was always confident that the money behind me would mean I’d be OK for a year or so, at least, while I regrouped and reassessed. My advantages meant I had space to breathe and think about what was best for both myself and the children I taught. Space to get better in areas I wanted to get better in, space to question established practice, free from the worry that if I didn’t jump through hoops I’d still end up, ultimately, OK.

Life isn’t this way for many, many teachers and, in an increasingly less financially competitive sector, the situation is getting worse. Since 2010 teacher pay has been capped at a 1% increase which, taking into account inflation and rises to the cost of living, actually equates to almost a £3000 pay cut for a teacher on the equivalent of the old M1 with no extra responsibility payments. Although these figures will be disputed, I doubt many people would not accept that the 1% pay cap has very significantly affected teacher pay. During the same period house prices have risen from an average of about £170,000 to almost £220,000. These figures are for outside London and, as an aside, I am mystified as to how new teachers without independent sources of income manage there at all.

For many this has made a tolerable situation intolerable. While teachers, coming from diverse contexts, have never been on an equal financial playing field, in the past it was more possible for younger teachers to take their time if they wanted to. In 2004, when I qualified, a teacher’s salary was enough, just, for someone entering the profession to think it realistic, if careful, to get to the end of the month without going deeper and deeper into their overdraft and still realistically scrape together enough money to put down a deposit on a first home.

In many areas, for many, I am not sure this is viable anymore. Teaching starting salaries are low and punitive accountability measures built around the fatally flawed performance related pay model mean many can no longer count on earning more each year, creating further uncertainty.

I worry this is causing many young teachers to seek promoted posts, not because they really want them or feel ready but because they just need more money. I am concerned that this is affecting the career development of many younger teachers, who are assuming extra responsibilities before they are ready.

Promoted posts often develop and test skills only tangentially linked to teaching. For a Head of Department, administrative tasks such as tracking data on Excel, managing a budget and entering children for exams demand at least if not more time than focusing on getting better at teaching. For a good teacher, regardless of age, this isn’t a massive problem because teaching processes have been automated. For a less skilled teacher, as those at the beginning of their careers frequently are, this extra administrative load can distract them from improving their practice in the classroom, especially as training in these areas is, in my experience, largely non-existent. Categorically, this isn’t an argument we shouldn’t promote someone just because they are young and inexperienced, but if a decision is primarily based on the urgent need of the applicant to earn more money we are right to have misgivings.

Schools will, of course, say that they would never promote someone who wasn’t ready and I am sure a lot don’t, but problems with recruitment and retention are making it difficult for some schools, particularly those in more challenging areas, to avoid doing so. We are, regrettably and for whatever combination of reasons, a profession in flux. This instability, most acute in schools which struggle the most, means that SLTs have smaller and smaller pools from which to select candidates; faced with either no Head of French or one who’s taught for only two years and still has rough edges, it seems logical to fill the position and “make sure they are well supported”. Of course, as belts tighten, timetables increase and good intentions evaporate over the heat of the all-consuming business of running a school, this support often fizzles out. Hands are further tied as a culture develops in which early promotion becomes normalised; our hypothetical 2nd year French teacher, perhaps under financial pressure, may quite understandably become disgruntled if not promoted, aware that in other schools those with similar experience are advancing.

I know this is more complicated than I have suggested so far. Our expectations around finances and an acceptable lifestyle are different; one person’s affluence might be another’s poverty. But, if we have new teachers worrying about whether or not they will ever own a house or crying over an unexpected garage bill, then we are not paying them enough. Teaching is stressful enough as it is without adding financial insecurity into the mix and ignoring this as a contributory cause to the issues we face in our schools is wilfully myopic.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting more money, influence or prestige and, perhaps, there is something innately human in wanting to advance ourselves. But if we have young teachers who feel the only way which they can live dignified lives is to assume extra responsibilities they neither desire nor feel ready for, we have reason to be alarmed. These young people teach our children and we should pay them enough to get better at this, free from the financial worry that in doing so they condemn themselves to a life of perpetual insecurity.



We can'(t) be heroes


We all have heroes. My father, a GP, looks up to paramedics because they save lives under great pressure. I know soldiers who are awestruck by police officers for their ability to deescalate and diffuse potentially violent situations. My heroes are social workers because, day to day, they face the full iceberg of a child’s problems while I deal only with the tip visible in lessons.

Having heroes is part of being human; whatever we do there is always someone who seems to be doing a more worthwhile job than the one we do. But we are foolish if we try to emulate the roles of our heroes in our own roles; once a paramedic arrives my father would stand aside at the scene of a road accident. A soldier would not try to negotiate with armed insurgents in a battle. And teachers, as much as they might want to, should not try to solve a child’s serious social problems.

As professionals we must recognise and respect the limits of our expertise.

It can easily feel, especially in the context of seemingly ever more savage cuts to social services, as if part of our role, officially or not, is doing all we can to improve the sometimes awful lives of our most failed pupils. When, for example, faced with a hungry child with no money it is, of course, monstrous not to buy them lunch, but we must recognise that this is a human not a professional response. We step in because of systematic failure and such instances are not something from which we should derive any sense of professional pride.

While unfortunate, feeling pride over stepping in to help those most failed by society, is completely understandable. But it also creates an environment that makes it hard for teachers to develop a meaningful sense of system-wide professionalism.

As a culture we are confused as to what we want from our teachers. Our tropes, those that we absorb unthinkingly even before we consider teaching, cast the best teachers as being mavericks. Dangerous Minds. Dead Poets Society. School of Rock. All portray systems as being inherently inhuman with the most inspirational teachers being those who fight them for the sake of the children they teach. Of course, sensibly, we recognise these as fiction and if they remained as such, they’d be harmless. But such tropes extend into recruitment and the success stories we share. Adverts for teacher training show pupils talking about “the one teacher who didn’t give up on me” and when we reflect on our proudest moments we talk about how we succeeded with children who everyone else wrote off.

Such thinking is dangerous. If we are to define our success by our ability to transcend the systems in which we work then those systems, by definition, must be flawed. To be successful we must seek out dysfunctional environments and be functional within them. Planning and delivering sensible and coherent schemes of work in supportive environments is not enough. This sort of thinking makes it hard to enact more holistic systematic improvements because inspirational teachers reject systems. This is a serious obstacle to professionalism because it pits colleague against colleague. Other teachers need to be bad so we can define ourselves as good. In order to be inspirational we must not use the methods others do.

This thinking can be quixotic. It is naïve of me to believe that I can change the life course of a child by teaching them history for three periods a fortnight. By setting myself such an aim I condemn myself to failure. This can cause deep unhappiness as, week on week, year after year, I fail. In the attempt to achieve the impossible, I may over-reach the extent of my professional role. At best, I may become distracted from my core, achievable purpose and, at worst, may actually do damage by, for example, trying to counsel a bereaved child when I lack the expertise to do so properly.

It may also be egoism in that our desire to right the ills of the world probably says more about us than it does about the needs of our students. This can cause us to wrongly characterise those we want to help. We may see them as victims when they are not. We may see them in an unhelpfully and patronisingly romantic fashion. If we believe that our role is to save children, we may try to save children who do not require it and actually harm them in amateurish attempts.

We are professionals not amateurs. We are experts in our domains and this is no small thing. We should be proud. This is, of course, not to say that whenever we step beyond our professional role we should be ashamed, but we should be aware of the division between the human and the professional and should try not to conflate the two.

I am, of course, as guilty of getting this wrong as anybody is. A while back I wrote this blog, entitled “The Student of Whom I’m proudest”, which would, in my view be professionally irresponsible to share as an advert for teaching as a profession. It has a happyish ending, yes, but it is actually very sad because it’s really about how an educational system failed a student for a decade, which is shameful.

So, in the future, when I’m asked what my proudest achievement as a teacher is, I am going to resist making myself out to be the hero I am not. I am not going to say it was because I bucked a system, or beat the odds, or recognised something in a child that everyone else missed. Instead I am going to say that it was, as part of a functioning, skilled team that, from scratch, I helped develop a coherent history curriculum from which over time, in a small, meaningfully incremental way, hundreds of children benefited.


Why do we bother?


At university I studied a course on India under British colonisation. Seventeen years on I don’t remember much of what I learned, but something a professor taught me in a tutorial stuck. We were looking at sources written by East India Company Officers who’d been posted to obscure positions in rural areas. The sources were records of pretty mundane events; disputes between servants, descriptions of envoys, reports on the construction of roads and bridges. Everyday, procedural stuff.

In modern eyes the content of some of these reports is of course, at times, troubling and perhaps they should never have been written at all. But, if I may, I’d like to put aside questions about colonisation in general to focus on the quality of the writing, in the same spirit in which we can appreciate Kipling’s ‘Kim’ while recognising some of his views wouldn’t be tolerable today.

The reports written by these officers were, quite simply, beautiful. Written in cursive copperplate script, full of rich description and allegorical language so full of life, so colourful, so well-constructed and so measured.

And at the time nobody read them. Nobody cared about the petty squabbles of merchants. Nobody cared that the jute delivery had been late because a donkey had died. The reports were sent off and then largely ignored by senior bureaucrats, politicians and big decision makers who cared only about the headline figures.

So why did the officers bother? It can’t have only been because they were stupid enough to think anybody cared about what they were writing; after all, these were some of the smartest, best educated people in England.

Our professor taught us that these officers were typically northern English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish who had been well educated but lacked the nepotistic connections that meant they’d be able to ‘get on’ in England. They’d taken jobs for the East India Company because there were opportunities there. But this wasn’t why they produced beautiful reports. They produced beautiful reports because of their education. They wrote simply because they’d learned to write well and loved doing it, because their schooling had so automated the process that it had become almost as natural as eating or sleeping.

This story has nagged at me recently because it’s got me wondering whether, at least to an extent, whether in attempting to evaluate the quality of our education system we’re actually asking the wrong questions.

Our accountability measures are all built round exams, and, up to GCSE level, the ability of our children to meet somewhat contrived rubrics. If a child is good at meeting the rubric, they do well. If they aren’t, they don’t. As I wrote in this post, this has caused distortions in many subjects but, within a system in which meeting the rubric is the aim, these distortions are understandably of little concern to school leaders. If exam results go up, then we are doing better. If exam results go up, schools are succeeding.

But are they really?

It seems to me that the measure of a good education system should not be so much what happens in final exams, but what happens after formal schooling ends. Do the children who do well continue to write for pleasure? Do they write beautiful emails to their far away friends? Do they write poetry for their lovers? Do they work out maths problems for fun? Do they paint? Do they join amateur dramatic societies? Are they in choirs or in a brass band? Are they members of reading groups?

If the answer to these questions and other similar ones is ‘no’, then I’m not sure we can safely say our education system has succeeded, even if grades are good. Failing to recognise this runs the risk of missing the point, at least partially, of why we bother educating our children. Of course exams are important and I would accept that, as unpalatable as it may be to some, part of the role of an education system is sort children into groups

But this should not be THE point. If we lose sight of why, ultimately, we school our children, then we create a reductionist and technocratic educational landscape in which nothing we teach has any intrinsic value. This is really sad. I don’t, for even a second, believe that any of the East India Officers wasted their time in writing their beautiful but ultimately pointless reports. I think they derived joy from writing them. I think their lives were enriched by carefully watching the world around them and then expressing what they saw in accurate, lovely prose. I think writing these reports made them happier. This should be our aim. While, of course, there is some satisfaction in meeting criteria well, such rewards are fleeting and won’t sustain.

This isn’t some liberal, wishy washy call to stop testing children. If anything, I believe we should test children more. And, of course, while exams remain in the format they do then the primary job of a teacher should be to make sure their students succeed in these even if this means mechanically teaching “PEE” or “on the one hand, on the other”. But in doing so we run the risk of losing sight of why we teach our subjects. We don’t teach just because exam results provide extrinsic rewards in the form of money, power or prestige. We teach our subjects because through them lives are made better because they are worthwhile in themselves. I’d like an examination system that doesn’t make this more difficult.

I have some hope this might be possible if Daisy Christodoulou’s work on Comparative Judgement comes to fruition, and if this means we can move past set, formulaic exam questions as Michael Fordham has proposed. 


Making challenge meaningful

I have been thinking about challenge over the past few weeks, specifically, in edu-babble, ‘challenging our most able students.’

I think it’s one of those things that many of us don’t really understand quite as well as we think we do. Often, so called ‘stretch tasks’ are just more time consuming versions of the main activities and aren’t actually more difficult at all. For example, in a history lesson, a task such as ‘write a paragraph describing a feature of a trench”, is actually no easier than ‘write a diary entry from a soldier fighting in World War One.”

This often happens because of poor subject knowledge. Too often we assume that just knowing what is in the textbook or directly on the exam specification is enough to be able to teach effectively. It is not. If we do not know our subjects beyond the level at which we teach them, planning challenge is impossible because we simply don’t know the more advanced material. This leads to examples like the one I gave in my first paragraph, with differentiation being in the format of the task rather than in the rigour of the material itself.

Genericism is also partly to blame here. A non-specialist observing a lesson is unlikely to know which parts of a topic are more challenging than others, which can lead them to overstate the importance of the means of expression. Writing a diary takes longer than writing a description, so it must be harder, right? Of course not, but such thinking is too common even if it isn’t explicitly expressed. This leads to inappropriate planning as attention is diverted from the content itself and on to more generic, vague competencies. In my World War One example, the diary task is actually historically inappropriate, with disciplinary accuracy being sacrificed for ‘creativity’ and ‘engagement’. This is unfortunate because, even if such a task were more challenging, any challenge is not be within the discipline, so is arguably irrelevant.

The 2014 Sutton Trust Report into “What makes great teaching?”, while fairly non-committal on specific teaching strategies, is very clear on the importance of sound content knowledge to good teaching:

“As well as a strong, connected understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content.”

This is quite logical. If a teacher only knows the content at level to which they are teaching it, it is impossible for them to know how this material connects to more difficult concepts which then makes it impossible for them to know how students are best supported in moving from easier to trickier material. For example, in history, one way to easily increase challenge is to introduce different interpretations, especially when these challenge conventionally held ones. The harshness of the Treaty of Versailles is generally taught unquestionably as a cause of World War Two to Year 9, so introducing the work of Dr Margaret Macmillan, who claims that the cause of the War was that the Treaty was not in fact harsh enough, is a major challenge and students who grasp this will have been meaningfully stretched. This interpretation can be further fleshed out by describing previous examples of treaties in which losing countries were entirely obliterated making it impossible for them to fight any wars in the future. But, of course, if the teacher does not know about Dr Macmillan, or previous examples of peace treaties after the end of major wars, they simply cannot challenge the class with the material. Indeed, really shaky subject knowledge might actually result in a teacher being completely unaware that the conventional interpretation has been challenged at all, which would make them and their classes blissfully but regrettably ignorant and inevitably lower the level of challenge in lessons.

I would suggest, as a minimum, that teachers should know their subjects at least to the level above the one at which they teach. This can, as Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby point out in the excellent Know Thy Subject chapter in Making Every Lesson Count, help teachers anchor their teaching at a higher point, which is an easy way to make the idea of challenge appropriately subject specific. Schools need to recognise and prioritise this. It is not enough to just acknowledge that subject knowledge is important and then just leave it at that, or give a tokenistic one hour per fortnight to work on it. Improving subject knowledge must be in the lifeblood of a school. Teachers need time to do it, and schools should support its development by giving it at least equal time and resource as they do to more generic pedagogy. Of course teachers must take responsibility too, and should see the improvement of subject knowledge as both a professional duty and a perk of their role.

I think perhaps, as we so often do, we’ve over-thought it. At its most fundamental teaching is the passing on what we know to those who don’t. We cannot pass on what we don’t know. Our most able students should know lots and lots and, to learn more, they need a teacher who knows more than they do.

Simple really.


Discipline and mavericks. A tribute to Mr Wilkes.

“Let down your buckets!” Mr Wilkes shouts at window-shaking volume. It’s 1993 or 1994 and I am in my Earth Science class, a subject I think would be called geography today.

Mr Wilkes paces the front of the room red faced and miming semaphore. “The becalmed ship flagged back its reply. We need fresh water! We need to drink!”

We all lean forward, the front row not caring in the least about the spray of saliva as Mr Wilkes barks back the reply. “Let down your buckets!” He pauses, his chest heaving as he catches his breath, and then rounds on me “You, Newmark! Why did they say that?”

“Don’t know, sir!”

“Think, Newmark! Where did I say the ships were?”

“Off South America, Sir.”

“Yes! That’s right!” He turns to another boy. “Samra! Which river empties out in the Atlantic from South America?”

“Amazon, sir?”

“Right! So the ship does as it’s told and let down their buckets and when they pull them up the water is sweet. This sailors are saved! They’re in the ocean! Why was it sweet?” This time his tone makes it clear his question is rhetorical and he pauses only a moment before plunging on. “It was sweet because the Amazon was pumping out fresh water miles into the Atlantic. How could it not? A fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in that river. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Amazon is worth learning about.”

To this day I don’t know if he’d made up that story or even if it could ever happen. But I do remember that a fifth of all the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon.

Mr Wilkes was great teacher. Great for different reasons than what we, those fortunate enough to attend the first Dixons CTC in Bradford, were used to. We were used to excellent. It is only quite recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate how remarkable my experience of school was.

Excellent at Dixons CTC usually meant ordered, calm and purposeful. It meant strict discipline. It meant high expectations of behaviour and work. It meant well organised, clear lessons in which the learning was clearly ordered and made explicit and tangible. Lessons were consistent. The teachers rowed together. The biggest compliment I can pay my old school is that until I left it I did not know that not all children learned almost all the time, or that at other schools it was unusual for students to go to university.

Mr Wilkes was different. Mr Wilkes once gave a boy, who bragged about losing his equipment and so not being able to write, a five pound note. He made him go WH Smith at lunchtime and buy a pencil case. He wrote ‘Mr Wilkes’ on it and told the boy that he was loaning it to him, and if he lost it, he’d be contacting parents to get his money back. He checked on ‘his property’ every lesson.

He taught us plate tectonics by telling us all he didn’t believe in it. “Load of rubbish this is,” he said, “scientists will have changed their minds next week. Giant plates of rock floating on melted rock. Rubbish. But I better teach you what everyone is saying.”

As a ‘student manager’ (our term for a prefect I suppose), I learned a bit more about him from our Principle Mr Lewis. Apparently Mr Wilkes had been hired after he’d returned from living abroad for years. He wrote a letter to the school, got an interview and was hired after giving Mr Lewis (later Sir Phil Lewis), the impression that he was worth a risk.

And he was. In addition to our memorable Earth Science lessons he organised two musicals which people still talk about. “If you can tell it was made in a school, I’m not putting it on,” was how high he set expectations. And we rose to them. How we loved him. How we hung on every word. How shamed we were when we didn’t learn our lines, or if we dared laugh at someone who fluffed theirs.

Mr Wilkes was no avuncular Mr Chips figure. He could rage. When things went wrong, the man could shout. “Oh laughing are you?” I remember him screaming at a sniggering classmate. “I suppose there’s lots to laugh at. I’m old! I’m fat! I’ve got white hair. Anything else you want to say?”

Like Father Christmas in Narnia, Mr Wilkes was both frightening and kind.

Mr Wilkes seemed ancient to me when I was at school, but then again so did most teachers. But, even for a teacher, he was unusually old. Looking back, it probably wasn’t much of a surprise that he wouldn’t teach us for very long. When the end came it was sad.

Mr Wilkes became very ill and left. We only saw him one more time.

Just before I left school he came back to visit. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was to say goodbye. He arrived at reception. Thinner. Older looking. Tired. And the whispers began. Word got out. From class to class the news spread. “Mr Wilkes is here. Mr Wilkes is here.”

Our well-ordered school, for just fifteen minutes or so, broke down. Children streamed from classrooms. To begin with our teachers tried to stop us but, wisely and kindly, when they saw what was happening, stepped aside. Our school was built around a huge central hall, with an amphitheatre at one end, with classrooms opening off it. In the middle of the hall stood Mr Wilkes, leaning on a cane, looking around. Looking at all of us. And hearing us as we shouted and cheered. Someone began a chant and it caught on. Nothing clever. Nothing fancy. Just his name. “Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes! Mr Wilkes!” And he looked at us and turned round and smiled.

That was the last time any of us saw him.

I suppose this somewhat rambling post is a tribute to our brilliant eccentrics. Those that do things differently. But it’s also a celebration of a well-run school. A school with rules and order and tests and high expectations and tough love. A school wise enough to know that, on rare occasions, it’s not a weakness to make an exception for the exceptional. A school that knew even rebels thrive best in orderly environments.

Thank you Dixons CTC. Thank you Mr Wilkes.

And, you know, for years it bothered me that such an intelligent, erudite and well-educated man didn’t believe in plate tectonics. How could he really not accept convection currents? Couldn’t he see how America and Africa once fitted together?

But he believed in it all along didn’t he?

(Salutes to heaven)

Oh, Sir. I hope you’re laughing. You clever, clever man. You got me. You got me good. You got us all.

Oh and wow. Just found him. Here he is. One hour and twenty minutes in.