Am I allowed to sit at my desk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this OK?

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

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Hope and Birmingham ResearchED

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

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

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

I am increasingly sure Oliver is right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change is coming. It really is.

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Drill and Thrill. On joyful low-stakes testing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are SLTs too big?

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A couple of weeks ago I sent this tweet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New year, new school. On making a good start.

I started at a new school today. New timetable. New students. New policies, new rules and new ways of doing things. Having done this only once in the last ten years without a position of responsibility, I am a bit nervous. It is a useful and necessary nervousness though, in that it has me thinking about how to make the best start with children who do not know me, in a context where I can’t rely on the artificial gravitas a leadership position provides.

As a teacher, I will have to be at my sharpest.

In this post I am going to describe my strategy for opening my first lesson, mostly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts, and partially because I hope this will be useful to those who, for whatever reason, are in a similar position. Before going on it’s important to acknowledge there can never be a ‘right’ way to do this, and I anticipate plenty of great teachers will disagree with my way of doing things. Some will find this a bit draconian, others too soft; I hope that those who do disagree will at least trust my care for my pupils is genuine.

Disagreement is fine. Although I have my own views I am quite happy to accept that for some, in some contexts, another approach might be better and I would love to hear from others about what they do to make successful starts.

Before taking over a class I deliberately avoid anything, aside from relevant SEND information, that might make me form prejudices about behaviour. Although wanting to get a sort of heads-up of how children might act is tempting such information can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although we would never consciously treat a child differently because of what we have heard about their actions in the past, in practice it is very difficult to avoid doing so. If, for example, we have heard that “Darren is really rude”, then we are far more likely to interpret an ambiguous comment as disrespectful than the same comment made by a  child we have heard is unfailingly polite. Instead I try to treat everyone the same way and if a child is rude find out whether this is typical or not once it has become established as a clear pattern.

I will also make sure I understand the school strategy for removing child who refuse to follow instructions. This is extremely important as much of my opening routine is based on immediate compliance, and if a child is seen to get away with disobedience, then the whole thing falls apart.

In the first lesson I direct children to the back of the room as they come through the door and ask them to wait in silence until everyone has arrived. Generally, I try to stay away from lining children up in the corridor because this can make the ritual a bit of a show, which can lead to some children acting up. If any child leans against a wall, or talks, or touches another child I challenge this politely but directly, for example, saying “I asked you to stand up straight. Please do not lean against the wall.”

Once the whole class has arrived and is waiting in silence, I very briefly introduce myself (just my name) and tell them as everything will be made clear soon, I will not be taking any questions until I am ready. Then I direct children into a seating plan, boy-girl but random beyond that. I think this works because it makes it clear the plan is not a personal attack based on secret information. If a child talks while others are moving into seats I tell them to stop, but find at this stage, when children are generally still trying to suss me out, doing more is rarely necessary.

Once all children are seated in silence I ask two children, one boy and one girl, to hand out exercise books. If it is the start of the year I will model how I want them to fill in their personal details on the front. If it is midway through, as is the case for me, I will move them straight onto the next task, which is to copy out a brief list of rules in their neatest writing on the next clean page of their exercise book. These rules, concise and always containing “follow instructions first time without arguing”, are displayed on a simple PowerPoint slide with a plain white background.

I make something of a fuss about how much I value good presentation and emphasise that I care more about neat work than speed. While the children work on this in I circulate around the room acknowledging but not over-praising careful work. My praise is focused on effort, not just the neatest writers and use this to gather some informal data on handwriting standards, which allows me to be sure I am am being fair if I want to criticise untidy work in the future.

Once everything is calm and settled, and most children have completed at least two or three of the rules (depending on time), I ask the class to finish the rule they are on, and then to put their pen down and sit up straight. While they finish I continue to circulate, continuing to praise and reminding them to underline titles with a ruler.

When all pens are down I smile for the first time and thank the class for the smooth start. I also apologise, in a tone that makes it clear this is a courtesy and not an acknowledgement of fault, that I have not yet introduced myself and do so. I keep my introduction short but always emphasise that I am strict because I care deeply about my subject and their learning. I promise that they can expect me to work hard, and tell them that I expect the same.

Then I run through my rules, explaining the reason for each and being  as clear, concise and logical as I can be. For example, I may say “it is important you don’t talk when I do, because if you do it means you aren’t listening. We can’t learn when we don’t listen.” I always tell them that they have the right to disagree with my decisions and, inevitably as all teachers do, I will make mistakes. If this happens, I say, stay behind after the class and tell me what you think I got wrong and I will listen. The same is true if they come to me at break, lunch or after school. I promise not to be angry, to take them seriously and to remedy matters if appropriate. I do, however, say that challenging me openly in the classroom is wrong and, even if they are right about the perceived injustice, they will be punished for it.

At the end of my explanation I will ask anyone who thinks my rules are unreasonable to come and speak to me about it after the lesson, or if they feel uncomfortable doing this in person to write it in a note. Not once, in my entire career, has anyone done this.

Finally, before going on to teach my first lesson, which I keep as straightforward and lean as possible, I apologise again, for not yet knowing their names (again as a courtesy not an admission of fault), and promise that I will learn them quickly.

“For now,” I say, “I’ll have to point if I want to speak to you. I know that’s ordinarily rude, but I know you understand why I have to for the time being. Please say your name before speaking so I can start to learn them.”

Generally, I find this works but I know its only a base on which to build. To sustain a meaningful and purposeful classroom I must make sure I follow through on what I’ve said. I am teaching areas of my subject I never have before and whole subjects I haven’t taught for years, so there is lots to do. I’ll have to follow the advice I’ve given those I manage; ask for help, work with the team and to be kind. It is time to practice what I preach. I must work hard and I must care.

I will. I do. I can’t wait.

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The means are the end

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Philosophically, if that does not sound too pretentious, it has been a challenging year for me. Until a few months ago, I derived my sense of purpose from a belief that my work as a teacher changed lives and contributed to social mobility. My thinking went that by teaching poorer children better than someone else might, I would get them better grades. This would lead to them having more opportunities so they would get ‘better’ jobs and move up the social hierarchy. My reading, research and thinking was, as a consequence, predominantly orientated towards how to help my students perform better in examinations. I believed my value as a teacher could be measured by the outcomes of my students and that these were the result of my work; if grades went up I was doing a good job, if they went down I was not.

Such beliefs are not idiosyncratic. Indeed it can feel as if our whole education system is built on them. Schools are held accountable by Ofsted for results and , in turn, Head Teachers hold their teachers accountable for the results of the children they teach. Great teachers, as everyone knows, make a difference and, rightly or wrongly, we use examination results to measure this difference.

I now believe things are not as clear as this. Richard Selfridge’s writing (@Jack_Marwood), among others, has convinced me that I have probably greatly overstated my contribution to the results of my students. Children have enormously complicated, varied lives and their eventual results simply cannot be explained by any one factor. Believing that by teaching three hours of history per week I can override all other influences is egotistical and naïve, especially as this is also based on the belief I must be more effective than talented colleagues who work just as hard.

The dominant drivers of educational success and failure are not teachers or schools. Parental income and education, along with many other factors, have more influence.

Even if teachers and schools could become dominant drivers it is far from certain this would lead to social mobility anyway. As Martin Robinson pointed out in his wise, kind talk at London ResearchED on Growth Mindset, exam grades and social mobility are zero sum games; there are a finite number of top grades, a finite number of places at ‘elite’ universities and a finite number of high-earning, high status jobs. For poorer children to get into these, some richer children have to miss out. Evidence that this is happening any more than it did in the past is scant. So, depressingly, it appears that I had also overstated the link between educational success and upwards social mobility.

Michael Merrick’s thinking on what social mobility actually means has also, in the best possible way, troubled me. This year Michael said explicitly what I had sort of thought (in a half-formed, vague way) for a while but never dared allow myself to explore, let alone voice; when we talk about social mobility we are usually talking about a sort of social engineering. We are, in effect, trying to make poorer children less like their parents and more like ‘us’. I am not certain that this is always wrong in every circumstance, but it does make me very uneasy. If we are to do this we must think carefully and intentionally about whether this is ethical, and at the moment I worry that we haven’t spent nearly enough time doing this.

This line of thinking cast me, for a while, into a sort of mini-existential crisis. If the means do not lead to the ends, what is the point in them? If great classroom teaching does not result in positive social change is there any point in teaching at all? If the means are morally suspect then how can I be sure I am not inadvertently doing harm?

The search for answers to these questions, in effect a search for meaning, turned me towards philosophy. Here I have been helped by Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) whose post on fideism has probably been the blog that has most influenced me this year. I now have a renewed sense of purpose, found in the belief that teaching is a moral duty, regardless of the outcome of it. Instead of teaching history so my students will be rewarded by top marks I should teach it because, in itself, it is right they learn it. While exam results, of course, are important these should not be the only purpose of education because if we make them so, beyond being the low-water mark against which the success of cleverer children is measured, educating those who fail becomes pointless and this would be immoral.

By over-emphasising the result we devalue the process, which should actually be the whole point.

While letting go of our egos means we can no longer reward ourselves for the achievements of the children we teach, it also frees us from the pointless and often paralysing guilt we feel when they do not do as well. Accepting the influence of our roles is limited frees us from an exhausting cycle of self-congratulation and self-flagellation on things over which we have little control because it, quite rightly, subordinates results to our moral obligation to teach as well as we can regardless of apparent success or failure.

To use this as an excuse for fatalism or passivity would be very wrong. Viewing teaching as a moral rather than just a professional duty actually makes it a much more serious, profound responsibility. It makes ignoring research on the most effective ways to teach a moral error rather than just a professional one. It makes giving up on a child because we know they will fail the exam, or because they ‘don’t count’ on P8 figures or because they are unpleasant, actual ethical failures. It means the moral implications of a three year KS4 must be discussed as well as what this will do to results. It means accepting that regardless of how small or large our influence and how successful or unsuccessful we are, our moral obligation remains a constant that cannot be ignored.

With this new sense of responsibility comes a renewed sense of privilege. While teaching has many frustrations, some inevitable and some infuriatingly unnecessary, being engaged in this important work should fill those of us engaged in it with great pride. While we may argue about the best way to do it, or what it is fundamentally for, we agree that is right to educate children in schools. While sometimes we will enjoy it more than others, and we may doubt our ability, or understandably decide the personal sacrifices are too much and leave the profession, we will never reach the end of our working lives and wonder whether the time we spent teaching was wasted on something that did not really matter. In almost every country in the world, schools breathe in children in the morning and breathe them out in the afternoon hoping that between the bells they will have learned to be more.

Being a part of this noble enterprise is a wonderful thing.

So, while it has been a challenging year it has also been one in which I think I have grown. In January I am back in a classroom again and can hardly wait. As always I will be doing my absolute best for each child in front of me but it will not be because I expect to be rewarded if they do well or to avoid punishment if they do not.

It will be because it is the right thing to do.

Happy Christmas everybody. Enjoy the holidays. See you here in the new year.

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Where did textbooks go?

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Before my five years abroad, textbooks were used extensively in all the schools  I had worked in. With the odd, typically ill-judged creative exception I used them in all KS3 lessons. At KS4 children paid a deposit and were signed out one of their own. One of the irritations early in my career was children forgetting to bring them, and having to provide spares so there was always at least one between two. Another drawback was the annoying attrition, with new textbooks having to be bought each year to replace lost or damaged copies. This was something I thought my Head of Department was comically obsessed by though now, having done the same job, it seems less funny.

Despite the petty logistical issues, there was no debate whatsoever over whether we needed textbooks or not. Indeed, I think we would have said they were self-evidently essential. Without them how could students do homework? How could they catch up on work they had missed? How could they complete work they had not finished in lessons? How could they revise previous topics? If you told my department to teach without them we would have been baffled.

At the international school at which I worked for three years textbooks were even more important. Most of our students were from African backgrounds where education was strikingly traditional and parents, relaxed about many issues, absolutely insisted their children were issued with ‘The Book’ at the beginning of the year. The school was one of the least costly in the city and, in my administrative capacity, one of the most significant challenges was sourcing these. Sometimes I got so stressed about it I half wondered whether the universe was taking cosmic revenge for the pleasure I had taken in the struggles of the poor Head of Department at my first school.

In both contexts teaching was not limited to only the use of textbooks, but it was heavily reliant on them. If a textbook was poor, debate was over what to replace it with and how to afford it, not over whether a textbook should be used at all or not.

When I returned to England and took up a Head of Faculty role, it became quickly clear that things had changed. At the school to which I had been appointed there were no class sets of textbooks. Although there was an dusty store cupboard full of remnants, and in some classrooms there were a few half-sets used for exam classes, the neat stacks (spines all facing in the same direction, please) I was used to were completely absent.

I asked why and was told by those on my team that they used PowerPoint and their own resources instead. A couple seemed concerned about this but most did not, and some seemed positively proud. I trod carefully, aware that things change and that perhaps I was out-of-date. Nonetheless, with the support of SLT, I could not stop myself ordering full class sets for the History Department. The longer I was in the role the more clear it became that resistance to textbooks had become quite widespread, and this got me wondering how such a massive change had happened so abruptly.

Now, with attention back on textbooks following the controversial recent speech in favour of them by Nick Gibb, I would like to suggest some reasons for the decline in their use and the negative consequences of this, before finishing by briefly explaining why I think a move back towards textbooks, so long as they are good ones, should be welcomed.

Differentiation

In many contexts, whether rightly or wrongly, differentiation was interpreted as multiple activities and resources to meet the needs of individual children. As a textbook can only ever be one resource, teachers and school leaders came to believe that using them meant the needs of some learners were not being met. The only way round this was to produce multiple resources. Those that did not were seen as not caring, which contributed towards ‘competitive martyr syndrome’, (a phrase explaining so much of what goes wrong in many schools, coined by @terraglowach), as teachers sought to outdo each other by demonstrating they had spent longer than their colleagues resourcing their lessons.

There is always a very narrow line between providing children with work they can access but still moves them forward, and giving them work they can already do. A good textbook can help teachers avoid this by providing an appropriately challenging anchor point. Without this anchor point it is easy, especially for less experienced teachers, or teachers who aren’t experts in an area of the course, to end up giving children work that is too easy. In the attempt to produce engaging resources for individual children too much attention is often placed on drawing misleading parallels with what they are already interested in. I know this because, to my shame, I have been guilty of it; for example producing a worksheet comparing the succession crisis of 1066 to choosing a new manager for the England football team. This is misguided. It is important to remember that ultimately, the aim of education is to skilfully and incrementally adapt children to allow them to authentically access the subjects they study, not to twist these disciplines into things they are not.

The belief that good teachers produce their own original resources seems to have become a pervasive one and, in some schools, almost a de facto Teacher Standard. Comments on a Twitter poll I ran suggested lots and lots of teachers would feel nervous using a textbook in an observed lesson for this reason. This has resulted in a proliferation of amateur educational publishers, and, for every teacher capable of resourcing originally and well, there are many spending hours making material no better or even inferior to that made commercially by experts. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect teachers to be as skilled at writing resource material as those whose job it is to do it. This is not to say, of course, that everything on the market is of a high standard, but before reinventing wheels we should at least consider the possibility we might not need to.

Teachers who choose to produce all their own resources probably should not complain about being overworked and school leaders who, for whatever reason, forbid or even discourage the use of textbooks should recognise that such policies have enormous workload implications and must drastically reduce load in other areas.

Skills based curriculum.

The extent skills based curriculums were adopted has been robustly debated, and it is important to recognise that not all schools implemented these wholescale. That said, for a while in many places transferrable skills were fashionable. Even today, skills based descriptor success criteria and mark-schemes remain commonplace. For skills based curriculums textbooks can easily appear to be peripheral because they predominantly contain knowledge and the learning of this was often viewed as ‘low order’, and so not a priority. I myself, early in my career, picked up the belief that the actual knowledge we taught children in history was just a vehicle for the teaching of skills and in itself was of lesser importance. For these reasons, textbooks fell further out of fashion.

It is now pretty well understood that the acquisition of broad and deep knowledge is of fundamental importance because without it children are not capable of doing anything much at all. While a lovely idea, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that ‘skills’, if indeed these exist at all, are domain specific, non-transferrable and completely dependent on knowledge. Failing to provide a textbook, which forms a permanent record of what has been studied, makes it tougher for children to retain and reinforce the knowledge on which sophisticated thinking relies. While it could be argued that this information is now readily available on the internet, finding it this way is comparably time-consuming and full of distraction, especially for novices who lack the ability to discern the difference between the wheat and the chaff. It is likely that children from less educationally privileged backgrounds are affected by this more than their more advantaged peers, as they are less likely to have support to help them find the right material at home.

This is not to say that all textbooks are adequate – some are terrible and some schools effectively produce their own. This, however, is not a rejection of textbooks in principle.

Textbooks are boring.

This is quite the silliest justification for not using textbooks. In my experience, those who say this sort of things usually mean that text presented in a formal, academic style is boring and that interactive child-pleasing activities are preferable. This view, in effect a sort of bait and switch, is flawed because trying to engage a child in something by giving them something different to do is plain illogical. Sadly, even some textbooks do this by making embarrassing supposedly child centred references in the misguided belief this will make children interested in what, by association, is assumed not to be interesting. Examples of this in history include comparing the Battle of Hastings to a football match, or in geography this task, which asks children to imagine they are a panda.

A badly written textbook is as depressing as any badly written book, but the solution to this is to get a better textbook, not to abandon them altogether.

Boring, fascinating or plain silly; textbooks can be a lot of things. The issue is not the medium but the quality of the writing and production. Saying textbooks are boring is just as ridiculous as saying novels or poems are.

The arrival of the Interactive Whiteboard.

Interactive whiteboards have changed day-to-day teaching more than any other development in the last twenty years, but not in the way they were originally meant to.

When these first arrived the point was their interactivity; children were supposed to use them as much as their teachers and a whole raft of software was developed to facilitate this. Teachers were sent on whizzy courses and, for a while, there was real buzz around the all the fancy whistles, tricks and bells that these screens could do.

That common sense prevailed and the buzz faded almost as quickly as it arrived was probably a good thing. Most of these screens are now used for nothing more demanding than projecting PowerPoint presentations and showing video clips. While a few teachers have turned their back on it, using PowerPoint has become almost ubiquitous in most schools. This is quite understandable. Interactive whiteboards are very expensive and not using them for anything at all would appear to be a terrible waste of money.

It is difficult to overstate just how much PowerPoint has changed the planning and delivery of lessons. Before projectors and PowerPoint it was only possible to project images or texts overhead via fiddly OHTs, which meant what a teacher wanted students to work on had to be physically present. This created demand for textbooks because, without them, teachers would have to spend time finding or producing lots of standalone sheets or labour intensive transparencies. With the advent of interactive whiteboards teachers, because it was easy to do, began placing more and more on slides and there was a subtle but significant shift; before them children looked down at books whereas after them, children began looking up at big screens. As the importance of PowerPoint grew so too did the perceived importance of being good at making attractive presentations, which further increased workload.

The rise of PowerPoint, uninterrupted aside from the great Prezi bubble of five or so years ago, was not intentional. Interactive Whiteboards were not introduced so teachers could make presentations for their classes. It happened mainly because it was easy to use and preinstalled on school computers, and the fancy new screens obviously had to be used for something. So, the decline of textbook use, at least partially a consequence of this, was not planned either.

The consensus of research, helpfully collated and summarised here by Daniel Willingham, seems to be that, generally, we do not read as well off screens, particularly in comprehension, as we do off paper. While this research is focused on e-readers it seems at least plausible that these findings would hold true of bigger screens too. These findings are supported by this fascinating article from The Scientific American, which makes a convincing case for why reading long pieces of text from a screen may be more difficult than reading the same text from paper.

While PowerPoint, used thoughtfully as written about by Robert Peal here, is probably not in itself a bad thing, the implications of research is worrying for lessons in which content has effectively been typed from a textbook and into a presentation. The shift from textbook to PowerPoint may well have been to the detriment of learning. While we may be showing more information than ever before, the children in our classrooms could well be understanding less of it.

It is also instructive to remember that a PowerPoint presentation, unless it is printed thus negating much of the point, is not available to children outside of a classroom in the same way a textbook should be. This may well have contributed to the fetishisation of the standalone lesson, which caused so many problems in the recent past.

Schools for the Future.

Perhaps the most annoying untrue truism said about schools is that they should be preparing children for  workplaces that do not yet exist, by guessing what these will be and modelling themselves on them.

Back in the mid-2000s this meant going paperless.

Paperless meant no books, which meant no need for cupboards or shelves. This meant when schools did buy textbooks it was difficult to find places to keep them, which helped reinforce the impression that they no longer really had a place in schools. Without proper places to store them, those that were purchased deteriorated far faster than they had before and needed replacing more often, which made them seem more expensive than they had been.

While wise voices like Laura McInerney’s saw the danger and spoke out against it, such concerns were ignored.

Like jetpacks and hover scooters, paperless offices have still not arrived yet we are stuck with schools designed on the understanding everyone would soon be working in them. Many are now not easy places in which to use textbooks, which has made them logistically more unattractive than they were before.

Textbooks seem expensive

While the price of textbooks has not changed much, the range of items on which schools feel compelled to spend money has expanded dramatically. When I began teaching my history department spent money on books, stationary, the odd video or new-fangled DVD, and subsidising trips for children who would not be able to afford them otherwise. Now, in addition, departments can also spend money on, amongst other things, software packages, tablet computers and cameras. This has made textbooks appear less affordable than they used to be and, in addition, in some schools spending on such ‘old fashioned’ resources can feel like it is either implicitly or even explicitly discouraged. Even when textbooks are purchased, their perceived greater expense has made it less common to sign these out to students or to allow them to take them home, which was once typical practice. This is a real shame, as not making these available for children at home is to miss part of the point.

Ironically, day-to-day logistics mean that in many schools paper-based resources are not actually used significantly less than they used to be, which has increased photocopying bills and placed already squeezed budgets under even more pressure. These paper based resources are, inevitably, of varying quality and this is something Ofsted raised as a concern in 2015.

Changing specifications

Of all the reasons for the decline in the use of textbooks this is the one with which I have the most sympathy. Since returning from abroad five years ago, I have had to teach three different GCSE History specifications. Each has required new textbooks and other resources with no extra funding for this provided by government. My school purchased these books centrally, so while it did not affect our departmental budget, this was money that could not be spent elsewhere. I know many departments in other schools have not been so lucky and for these, ordering whole sets of new books every couple of years can understandably seem a very poor economy.

The big problem here is that most textbooks, unavoidably, are actually specification books which contain assessment criteria, mark schemes and sample answers. Not using up-to-date versions or using materials created in house, even if the substantive content is the same, puts children at a real disadvantage unless a lot of work is done producing extra resources to meet the demands of the examiners. As an old RE colleague once said to me, “God may not change but exam boards do.”

There are only really two ways to solve this problem; the first and most realistic, is for government to leave specifications as they are for a while. This, I have reasonable faith, is now quite likely. The uncertainty around 1-9 and the ensuing changes mean any significant alterations in the near future would be, to put it mildly, unwise.

This solution, as much as it will be understandably welcomed by teachers, is a depressingly reductionist one; ideally a good textbook should only go out of date if the content has to be revised because of developments in the scholastic field. The only real reason textbooks have a shelf-life is because of changes to course structures and if it were possible to avoid teaching to tests a good one could, theoretically at least, last forever. Good textbooks should have the potential to become classics used by generation after generation irrespective of changing fashions.

The only way to achieve this would be to, as Michael Fordham and Daisy Christodoulou have advocated, abandon set exam questions altogether and use Comparative Judgement instead of descriptor based mark-schemes. Aside from any impact this might have on the longevity of textbooks, this might well be wise given the unresolved issues around criteria based marking reliability.

In the meantime, while we wait for the arrival of this promised land, avoiding the use of textbooks is not a solution; in many cases, failing to provide them is to do our students a disservice.

Conclusions

Getting to the bottom of the reasons for the decline in textbook use has taken me far more time and words than I had expected when I began. It has been complicated and, just like the rise of target grades, largely unintentional. While the decline has created some winners (mainly ed. tech. companies), no one person, group or agency ever sat down and decided textbooks were A Bad Thing and ordered their elimination.

It is time to grasp the bull by the horns and make well-considered intentional decisions. If schools, departments or teachers really disagree with the points I have made here and decide that textbooks are undesirable in their context then, I suppose, not using them might make sense. If, however, schools are not using them simply because of the unintended consequences of unrelated changes and trends then this is, to me, not good enough.

So while we may well disagree over their content, I am in agreement with Minister Gibb.

More textbooks in schools would be a good thing.

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