Are you are as good as you think? Overcoming illusory superiority. (3/3 of didactic teaching series).


For the reasons I’ve written about here and here, my acquisition of any sort of didactic competence was slow and faltering.  Nonetheless I did improve and by the time I’d been teaching for five or so years, I was pretty proud of my ability to explain things clearly and concisely.  A regular feature of my lessons was “Mr Newmark explains in five minutes”, in which I’d deliver didactically what the class then worked on for the remainder of the lesson.  These sections seemed especially popular with my GCSE students and, about three years ago, a class suggested I videoed them so they could use them for revision.  Flattered, I agreed.

I worked up a board on Vesalius and then got a student to video my explanation.  The process took about twenty minutes and, with the student sent off to eat their sandwiches, I plugged my phone in to my computer and watched back the recording on my classroom’s LCD projector.

It was no better than OK.  I said ‘um’ a lot.  I overused the word ‘right’.  I said everything was ‘a really important point’ which made me look desperate and gave the impression nothing I’d talked about really was.  A comment I’d thought was funny when I said it made me cringe.  Some of my explanations meandered away into dead ends.  I stumbled over some words.  Bluntly, it turned out that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority” in 1991 to describe the common phenomenon whereby individuals overestimate their own abilities in relation to others.  Put simply, humans are not good at accurately assessing their own competence.  In order to preserve our sense of self-value there is the possibility we are wired to assume we are better than others, when we might be of only the same or worse standard.  It has also been suggested that the worse we are at something, the more likely we are to overestimate our performance at it.  This is very sobering and, given how pleased I was with my ability to explain well, I’m glad I didn’t know about illusory superiority when I first watched back a video of my teaching for the first time!

Although unaware of why I’d overestimated my own performance at teaching didactically I was at least self-aware to know I needed to improve.  I also knew I’d need to get feedback from others because I’d proved that my own instincts were not reliable in assessing my performance.

Fortunately that year I had a very gifted and, even more importantly, fearsomely honest Year 11 student who was both willing and able to effectively critique my didactic explanations.  The student picked up the same issues I did when asked, and offered more as I made more videos.  As a direct response to her feedback I planned my videos more carefully, practiced before videoing, varied my vocal tone and inflection, clarified board work, slowed down and stopped labouring and over-explaining.  I then checked showed these videos to whole classes and asked them which they preferred and why.  Once students were comfortable they weren’t going to hurt my feelings, the feedback they gave became quite insightful and the improvements I made can be seen in the difference between this video, and this one.

As I deliberately practiced my delivery I found my explanations, even when they weren’t being videoed, improved.  I found myself stopping and starting again when I realised what I’d said was confusing, rather than just ploughing on regardless.  This increased my confidence and I began talking for longer and longer in lessons.  It was as student outcomes improved that I finally accepted that the length of my explanations had never been a problem; it had been the variable quality of them which resulted in students disengaging and not learning what they should.

This leads me to the final point I want to stress.  It was deliberate practice and responding to feedback that made me better at teaching didactically.   For years I’d overestimated by didactic ability, and didn’t improve until I sought out  external feedback.  Once I did realise I improved because I worked deliberately on weak areas, which has led to, in my view, better teaching.

And, of course, the process for me is ongoing.  I know this because videos I once thought really strong now make me wince. This illustrates how far I’ve come but also suggests I still have a long way to go.  Interestingly, as my position on what good explanation in history is has shifted, so has my opinion on some of my past work; at the time I was really proud of this video on the NHS but now feel it is so inappropriately and distractingly political that I’ve contemplated taking it down.

This might seem to imply that the process of critique and deliberate practice is a depressing one, but to me it isn’t.  It leads me to hope and believe that my explanations are constantly improving.  This is a very heartening thought.

If we want to get better at didactic teaching we need to view it the performance it is.  We must know our material inside out, rehearse, insist on full attention from our audience, and seek and act upon feedback from others.  Only by doing this can we overcome our own cognitive bias and be genuinely sure we are improving.


Good direct instruction – practical suggestions. (2 of 3)


Sound subject knowledge and perfect learning behaviour are the foundations of good didactic explanation but, of course, strong delivery is necessary too.  Good quality explanation means children are more likely to remember what they are taught.  While, of course, styles of delivery can vary there are, I think, some fundamentals worth sharing.  This post aims to do this.  My final post in this series will be focused on the necessity of deliberate practice, accompanied by self and peer critique.

Teach from the front

For years, when explaining things to children for any extended period, I was a pacer.  In the early part my career I picked up the impression that good teachers shouldn’t teach from the front because this encouraged students to see a division between their space and the space of their teacher, which led to poor behaviour.  So, to address this, I paced.  This meant walking the aisles between the desks, sometimes stumbling over bags and PE kits, while, owl-like, the heads of the children in my class swivelled around and around to track my circuitous meanders.  Gradually I worked out this didn’t work.  The main reason for this was it made my explanations worse because my movements meant I was focusing on walking and talking at the same time, which resulted in the deterioration of both.  Secondly, it made it harder for the children in my classes to concentrate on what I was saying because they had to listen while simultaneously tracking my position in the classroom.

So, gradually, I stopped pacing.  Now I teach from one position, at the front where everyone can see me, next to the board.  I still move but this is now purposeful and linked to my explanation.  For example, if I am explaining the attacks on the early Weimar government from the political left and right, I might walk to the left when talking about the Spartacists and over to the right when explaining the Kapp Putsch.  The only other time I’ll move will be in direct response to something that’s happened in my classroom; for example, if I suspect a boy or girl is on the verge of switching off I may, in a technique I’ve seen identified by Doug Lemov, move subtlety towards them to bring their attention back.

The work of my students and their ability to remember what I’ve said shows this to be much more effective than pacing and, more recently, I’ve discovered that cognitive load theory offers insight as to why.  If teaching should avoid overloading the limited working memory of our students, then largely staying put makes sense because it means children can better concentrate on the explanations of their teacher.

Thoughtfully vary cadence and inflection

Using cadence and inflection to stress and add further meaning to parts of an explanation is really effective in helping students understand what they’re listening to. Really good subject knowledge makes this much easier but even a little forethought can help.  For example, if I’m explaining that the percentage of the vote for the Nazis rose I will use a rising inflection whereas if it fell, my tone will reflect that.  If something might be considered historically unexpected, I try to sound surprised.  Occasionally I’ll emphasis a particular point differently and more emphatically.  In this video I punch a fist into my hand while explaining the influence of the SA to underpin the importance of violence to this group.  It might be a bit hammy, but used sparingly it is effective.

Use storytelling techniques

People in general and children specifically find stories easy to remember and storytelling techniques can be effectively harnessed in the classroom.  Asking rhetorical questions to foreshadow later events or elements of an explanation help students identify a coherent narrative, which makes material easier to understand and retain.  Cliff-hangers are useful in building conceptual bridges between events.  For example, in my summary explanation of William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, I conclude by describing the meeting between the surviving English earls and bishops and asking students to think about why William might have worried about this, which is material we cover in the next timetabled lesson.

I draw heavily on metaphor and analogy in my explanations too.  Making conceptual links between different themes and events can be distracting if done unthinkingly but is powerful in driving understanding when done well.  Sometimes these metaphors occur to me on the fly while teaching, but mostly they come to mind before the lesson when thinking about what I’ll include.  One that worked particularly effectively recently was a comparison between a plate-spinner in a circus and William’s attempts to retain control of England and Normandy, ensure loyalty from his own supporters while defending his new kingdom from both Viking invasion and attacks from Welsh princes.  To ensure students did really understand the analogy I showed them a short video of spinning plates but later work showed it had been worth it.

Repeating and referring back

Repetition of certain key phrases and terms is something I’ve stolen from oral traditions and cultures.  In such societies stories are the main way in which information is passed from one generation to the next and these can be very lengthy.  The Iliad and the Odyssey, while now written, would originally have been learned off by heart.  To ensure these stories could be remembered by both the poets and their audience’s repetition of adjectives and certain phrases are used carefully and deliberately.  For example, throughout both works, the goddess Athena is repetitively referred to as ‘bright-eyed.’  To a modern reader this can be jarring but this fixes her in long-term memory because it gives her meaning.  Willingham, I think, would call this chunking.  I try to use this technique in my own explanations by, for example, always referring to Harald Hardrada as ‘ruthless Hardrada’ and to Edgar the Aethling as ‘unsupported Edgar.’  I hope that doing this makes students more likely to remember both.

I am also trying to build and strengthen long term memory by, whenever appropriate, referring back to previously covered content.  Doing this makes students retrieve past information which then strengthens the memory.

Supporting illustrations and board work

As quite a few of those who follow my work (hi Tarjinder!) will know, I am particularly, perhaps annoyingly, proud of my handwriting and board work.  This is something I’ve worked very hard at and the improvements I’ve made are clear when looking at the difference between the earlier video I made and more recent ones, which are higher quality.  Clear, neat illustrations and text reinforce and support explanations because presenting students with information in more than one way strengthens memory.  However, any illustrations, whether they are hand-drawn on a whiteboard or displayed on a LCD projector, should be neat, directly related to the content and referred to at the appropriate time.  The key, as always, is strong subject knowledge and careful thought about the material being taught, which makes it far easier for a teacher to see which parts of the content would benefit most from visual reinforcement.  Crowded boards or too many distracting images overload working memory and undermine the overall clarity of the explanation.  Oliver Cavigliol does this tremendously effectively and his illustrations are increasingly informing my own board-work.

I hope the techniques I’ve outlined in this post are useful to others.  Of course, all get easier with deliberate practice and critique, which will be the focus of my final post in this series


Direct Instruction

Mr ChipsIn the early stages of the Brexit aftermath, one of the many unforeseen difficulties that came up was the Civil Service’s lack of experience in negotiating bilateral trade agreements.  The line of reasoning went that most civil servants had no knowledge of this because they’d always worked in a world in which trade was governed by the laws of the European Union.  One proposed solution, mostly facetiously I’m sure, was to call back retirees from their gardens and barn conversions in Spain to help.

We might be on the verge of a shift in education too, which perhaps while not as significant as leaving the EU, could enormously impact England’s children.  And, just like Brexit, the change may well expose significant gaps in the expertise necessary to make the process work.

The work of influential organisations such as ResearchED, individuals like David Didau and the success of schools such as Michaela have brought direct instruction in from the pedagogical cold. A decade ago this style of teaching was, to be put it mildly, distinctly unfashionable. Good teachers were guides on the side and were supposed to facilitate learning, not explain content as sages on the stage. Teachers who did teach didactically were viewed with deep suspicion and many had a pretty rough time.  Careers were blighted and, according to some teachers I’ve spoken to, lots of great practitioners were forced out of the profession altogether.

This presents schools and teachers who wish to explore direct, didactic instruction and explanation with a problem.  How can this methodology be developed and improved if the educational system as a whole has been purged of those who know how to do it?  Who do we have to teach it, either to ITT students or as CPD to experienced teachers?  A twitter poll I ran before writing this post seems to support the severity of this issue, with the great majority of respondents from a reasonably large sample saying they’d never, not once in their career received any training on direct instruction.  This is a big problem.  Direct instruction won’t improve outcomes if it’s done badly and, if teachers are left to work it out with no support it will not, at least in the short term, be done well.  This could easily cause schools and teachers initially interested in this powerful pedagogy to misunderstand and dismiss it when it doesn’t yield improved results.  There are worrying signs that this is happening already, with confusion surrounding the justtellthem hash tag leading some to dismiss direct instruction as a teacher dryly reading facts to children who are then expected to simply memorise and regurgitate them in tests.

While it is a wonderful image, rounding up the old didactic warhorses along with the old civil servants from their allotments and car-boot sales probably isn’t the most practical solution to this skills gap.  Fortunately, I don’t think it is necessary because, as Mark Enser points out in this blog, many of us have been, whether consciously or unconsciously, directly instructing for years.  The problem is that for a long time many of us have been doing it secretly and would never have dreamed of sharing our practice, for the reasons I explored in this earlier blog post. Now, if we are to best take advantage of the opportunity presented by this change in the direction of the wind, we all need to start sharing what works best.  Toby French has already begun this and anyone wanting to get a good sense of how the didactic works in a typical classroom should look here.

Outlining the lessons I’ve learned isn’t meant to, in any way, give the impression I’ve cracked it when of course I haven’t.  I am eager to hear from others about what they do so I can further improve.  I’m impatient to do so because what little I’ve learned so far took me too long.  It is the accumulation of a frustratingly inefficient decade of trial and error, chance conversations in staffrooms, snatched observations of a few teachers who did directly instruct and influences outside education altogether.  All of this was done stumblingly and secretly because I didn’t believe teaching this way was really allowed so it never occurred to me to ask for help.  Now that the environment has become more conducive my hope is just that some of what I’ve learned might help others improve faster than I did.  This post, part one of two, is focused on how to plan for good direct instruction while the second will be on improving and refining delivery.

  1. Subject knowledge is king

If they are to inspire confidence and attention, anyone speaking about anything has to know what they are on about.  Not knowing the material you want to deliver inside out means hesitation, repetition and deviation, which erodes credibility and causes students to switch off.  If students have questions it is likely we will struggle to convincingly answer them.  Children will quickly sense fakery and, quite understandably, stop paying attention.  Knowing the textbook isn’t enough because this is only ever the visible part of the iceberg.  A book may include material on Henry VII’s pet monkey but without the context it is just a rather silly and distracting story whereas with strong substantive and disciplinary knowledge it assumes meaning.

To teach well didactically, constantly upgrading subject specific knowledge must be seen as a professional duty.  We should read widely, listen to podcasts, and attend museums and lectures.  We must be sages before we step on the stage.

  1. Prepare what, not how

For many years both ITT and CPD emphasised the procedural at the expense of the substantive.  My early planning was almost entirely based around the activities I expected children to do with less thought about the actual material.  This meant that on the rare occasions I did speak to the class as a whole, my explanations were poor.  Feedback often advised me to deal with this by reducing the amount of time I spoke to the class, which robbed me of opportunities to practice and made me worse at it.  To avoid this problem we need to think very carefully about what we’re going to teach a class and how we’re going to explain it.  Strong subject knowledge makes this easier because it means a better understanding of the most significant and important areas of a topic, which can then be better emphasised in the didactic delivery.  I find making my own notes leads to better explanations.  The process helps me identify potentially tricky spots, anticipate questions I am likely to be asked, and think up analogies and metaphors that build student understanding and retention of the material.  For topics on which I know my own knowledge is still shaky, I will script out what I’m going to say after reading up.  I have a physical list of the areas in our curriculum on which I feel I’m weak and try to work on these whenever time allows.

All this means my planning looks very different to how it did when I first trained.  Whereas formerly, it was focused on the activities in the lessons, now most of my thinking goes on the substantive knowledge.  Put simply, I’ve moved away from how and towards what.

  1. Expect perfect behaviour from students

Of all the untruths in education, saying that children will always behave well if a lesson is well planned is perhaps the most damaging.  I’m determined not to make this mistake here; even the best planned didactic delivery will be derailed if students misbehave.  Early in my career there was a culture in which if you taught this way it was assumed you deserved bad behaviour from your classes.  Children became unaccustomed to paying close attention while a teacher talked, which made it harder to teach didactically than it would otherwise have been.  Poor learning behaviour is a serious threat to successful direct instruction because if students aren’t listening carefully, they won’t learn.  This makes it impossible for them to then complete tasks based on the teachers’ delivery, which makes further misbehaviour more likely.  Worse, poor behaviour while a teacher is speaking distracts the teacher themselves, affecting the clarity of their instruction and disrupting the learning of the entire group.  As the quality of the instruction goes down, so does the credibility of the teacher, which causes other students to switch off too.

If direct instruction is to be successful teachers and schools must insist on perfect learning behaviour; children must listen silently, not interrupt and save questions until an appropriate time.  Children not used to this may need to be taught how.  While this process can be exhausting to begin with it is necessary.  It means stopping and starting again if even one child is fidgeting, starting out of a window, daydreaming or tapping a pen.  It means following up these apparently minor misdemeanours with sanctions which are, at least to begin with, likely to make children angry if they’re unused to being picked up.  But it is necessary and, if the accompanying instruction is good, it will work in the end.  It might be helpful to remember, when deep in the fight, that all we’re really expecting is that children listen while their teacher is talking.


Raising Aspirations?


Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

— Mark, 4:3-9, KJV

In schools we assume a lot we probably shouldn’t.  One of the most damaging of these assumptions is that disadvantaged children want the sort of lives their teachers have but just don’t know how to get them.  When children make it clear, through bad behaviour or lack of work, they don’t want to get qualifications and have professional careers we attribute this to a sort of false consciousness; disadvantaged children, the thinking goes, would want the lives we lead if they knew more about them.

I am not wholly against this.  We do have a duty to show and help children access the widest possible range of opportunities.  We are generally only really curious about things we know a bit about and, if a child knows nothing of university or professional work, they won’t know enough to aspire to them.

Most schools serving disadvantaged communities work hard to try to familiarise poorer children with lives different to their own.  We take them to universities, get professors in to speak to them and assign them degree qualified academic mentors.  These strategies do some good.  I’m sure some children who would not otherwise have considered further education do so because of such schemes.

But not enough do.  Too often the seeds we sow are devoured by the fowls of the air.

I think this is because such strategies and schemes only work if they take place in the context of a meaningful academic ethos that helps children see that further education doesn’t have to look dramatically different to their own everyday experience.  The absence of this ethos can actually make such efforts counterproductive because the difference in culture presents children with an intimidating shock.

It is really very important to note that children who we may see as having low aspirations, quite rightly, don’t view themselves that way.  Few poorer children look to their teachers and think ‘my life is lower than theirs.  I want to work hard so I can be like them.’ Instead, they are more likely to feel their aspirations are different to those of the degree-qualified professionals they encounter.  Poorer children often live in close-knit, caring communities in which success is defined differently.  Being a loving, caring mother, a witty, fun-loving local character or a responsible, capable nursery assistant are seen, quite rightly and understandably, as positive and, crucially, realistic achievements. Of course, not all the lives children might choose to pursue are as positive as my first set of examples.  Some, feeling that success as it is defined by their schools is beyond them, are unfortunately seduced by darker lifestyles.  In isolation, no amount of mentoring schemes or trips to university campuses can stop this.  Children who don’t believe they are capable of achieving the grades necessary for a life they don’t really understand or want won’t ‘raise’ their aspirations; indeed such efforts are more likely to make them further disengage.  “This isn’t my life and it never will be,” they are likely to think, “and who’d want it anyway?  It’s boring.”

I actually have huge sympathy for this view. As an adult I’ve become very interested in dinosaurs but I’m also aware, that at thirty-six, it’s probably too late for me to pursue this interest as a career.  If I was selected to go on an elite “careers in palaeontology” course I probably wouldn’t see the point, knowing that it’d be unlikely I’d ever end up being able to make a living hunting for dinosaur fossils.

Even when aspiration raising programmes are effective. once children are removed from them any benefits will quickly fade if the aims are not embedded and normalised by the schools that run them.  If they aren’t nurtured these shoots will scorch and, lacking roots, will wither away.

If their aim is to raise student achievement such schemes put the cart before the horse.  If we want poorer children to see exam success and further education as realistic and desirable then schools need to make sure they are doing well academically first.  Thinking that underperforming children will improve because of such schemes is to miss the point because an underperforming child will see the goals as irrelevant.  If we really want children to have academic aspirations we need to immerse children in a rich, academic curriculum and ensure they are able to successfully access it.  Visits to universities shouldn’t cause culture shock; children should see them as natural extensions of their school lives, not a radical and fundamental change to them.  We if we want them to listen we must give them ears.


Plugged In

Anyone following my work over the last couple of years might have noticed my thinking on lots of things has shifted.  This has been, almost entirely, because of Twitter.  When I first signed up I was a secret traditionalist without really knowing I was one; for most of my career I’d believed, as I’d been taught to, that skills based student centred methodology was accepted by all and teaching any other way was both unprofessional and morally suspect.  But I knew that traditional methods (although I didn’t even know ‘traditional’ was a thing) worked better for me and my students.  So, of course and as thousands of teachers do, I paid lip service to student centred methodology and, when the door was closed and particularly with KS4, I taught didactically.  Not only was I a secret traditionalist, I was also a furtively guilty one because I felt that teaching this way showed I’d failed at ‘proper’ teaching; if I had to tell the students the right answers it was because I hadn’t been able to guide them there.  The students might know what I’d taught them, but in some vague but very important way, I’d cheated.

Twitter was a revelation.  It wasn’t long before I realised that there were successful teachers who not only taught like me but were proud to do so.  Of course not all the people I came to admire agreed with each other about everything but none seemed to share my ideological shame.  I read Hirsch (who I’d heard of but saw as some mysterious, childhood-devouring American ogre), Willingham, Didau and Christodoulou.  I was helped tremendously by people who disagreed with what I was reading but were able to articulate ideas and draw on a store of knowledge to defend their views I just didn’t have.  Put most simply, I’d been plugged in and found myself learning and thinking about pedagogy, and specifically the pedagogy of history teaching, in a way I’d never done before, because I’d realised that debate and disagreement existed and were allowed.

As I gradually lost my shame at being didactic my teaching improved; rather than trying to minimise my explanations I thought hard about how I could make them more memorable.  My board-work improved.  I read more history than I’d done before and became more knowledgeable, articulate and clearer.  I gave children lists of facts and tested them.  I answered questions directly instead of turning them back on students.  Children in my classes learned faster.  Grades went up.

While it’s clear which style of teaching I prefer and think most effective, this really isn’t a blog about whether traditional or progressive teaching is better.  It’s more about why not being aware of wider debates can really damage improving teaching.  Before I was plugged in I couldn’t improve at traditional teaching, which I know is most effective at least for me, because I was doing it secretly and shamefully.  I felt if I asked for help with explaining better, I’d be judged because it was an admission I wanted to speak to my class for longer.  I wouldn’t have dared ask about how to improve my students’ memories because this would be an admission I was focusing on knowledge and the ‘lower order’ skill of recall.  Of course, if I’d actually read Hirsch or Willingham, I’d have been more confident but because I thought there was no debate I didn’t, because I’d somehow, somewhere picked up the impression their work was discredited and that even reading it would make me some sort of outmoded, pedagogical anachronism.

Twitter is packed full of plugged in teachers, of varying philosophies and with differing motivations and I’ve definitely become better by watching and contributing to the sometimes fierce debate.  But, in the midst of the parry and riposte, I think we are sometimes at risk of missing what might be the most important point.  Most teachers aren’t on Twitter. A lot of teachers aren’t taking part in the debate, aren’t reading and aren’t aware that there is robust philosophical disagreement between different pedagogical schools of thought.  I know this because for a long time I was one of them.  If they’re anything like me this isn’t because they are lazy, or disengaged or that they don’t care about the best way to help their students.  It’s because, just as I didn’t, they don’t know that the methods they were trained, and continue to be trained in, have been challenged.  In a vacuum of ideas they’ve come to believe that there is inherent validity in the orthodoxy of their own experience.  Teachers who can’t teach in this way teach guiltily and some leave the profession, not because they lack the potential to be really good, but because they can’t teach in a style they believe is the only one that exists.

I have an issue with claims that there is ‘no best way’, not because I definitely believe that traditional styles are The Best in all circumstances, but because I feel it implies that the debates I’ve found so helpful are irrelevant and don’t need to be taken seriously.  I’m also concerned by claims that because many schools don’t engage in these debates, profound philosophical disagreements can be dismissed when I believe precisely the opposite; schools should be aware of wider pedagogical discourse and using the fact many aren’t as evidence of the debate’s irrelevance is to reach, in my view at least, the wrong conclusion.

I’d far rather a child I care about was taught by a teacher of a different pedagogical bent engaged in educational debate than by one who, for whatever reason, doesn’t know the debate exists at all.  I like the debate.  I think we’re better for it and certainly wouldn’t want to bleed teacher training of progressive influences in the way my own was bled of traditional ones.  I’d prefer to see our140 character disagreements, civilly of course, played out across our entire educational ecosystem.  My biggest worry is not whether progressive or traditional education is better but that many, if not most, teachers aren’t aware they have a choice at all.



Edna. The student of whom I’m proudest

Sometimes when I’m running and it gets hard, and I’m listening to heart-swelling epic classical music on my headphones, I allow myself some self-indulgence.  I think back to all the students of which I’m most proud and run them through my mind as a sort of highlights reel.  While, of course, re-living past glories is a bit silly and sentimental, it does help get me through the rain and up the hills.

Most of the children who come to mind succeeded in my subject; students who worked their arses off and were tearfully jubilant on results day.  Of course some of these children did better than others, but naturally I’m as proud of the Ds as much as I am of the A*s when they were genuine achievements.

But the child of which I’m most proud didn’t pass anything.  She didn’t sit any exams at all.  Given that I agree with John Tomsett that the best pastoral care a school can give a disadvantaged child is a great set of examination results, this runs against the grain for me.  But, Edna is the child of which I’m proudest and in this blog, I’d like to explain why.

Edna was part of the final year GCSE geography group I inherited when I began working at the British International School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  She sat at the back.  Wrote nothing.  Never said a word.  Doodled manga in her exercise books while the rest of the class made notes on ox-bow lakes or demographic transition models.  When challenged she said nothing.  Did detentions without complaining and doodled manga in them.

It wasn’t long before we called her parents in.  Her dad, a stern and successful Ethiopian businessman with a company in the US told us Edna couldn’t read or write.  “Her sister’s the clever one,” he said, “she studies psychology in Washington.  This one, she says nothing.  She won’t even try.”  Edna, of course, didn’t say anything and just stared out of the window.

Fortunately my school had just appointed a SENCO that year and so was one of the few in Ethiopia that had any provision at all for students like Edna.  It didn’t take long to work out that she was heavily dyslexic.  Given the developing world context it wouldn’t be fair to blame the very late recognition of Edna’s problem on anyone in particular but the lack of support had been devastating.  Edna had given up and shut down and was deeply depressed.  The manga images she drew were frightening; dark clouds, shrouded figures and wide-eyed girls hanging in nooses.

Our SENCO tried to help Edna but, because she’d failed at everything in school her whole life, she wouldn’t even try.  Sat in his office.  Said nothing.  Doodled manga.

I hated having Edna in my class.  While the rest made steady progress she sat like a black hole amongst them, sucking all my enjoyment because every time I saw her I felt so sad and guilty.

Eventually I snapped.  Edna couldn’t go on like she was and neither could I.  In a meeting the Headmaster and I agreed it would be pointless and cruel to enter her in any exams at all.  After all, we knew what she’d do in them.  But we also decided something had to be done.  Perhaps it was too late for Edna to pass exams but that didn’t mean we could give up on her altogether.

We decided we would timetable two hours for Edna each week with just me.  Edna had once showed me her portfolio of manga characters, which meant I had more of a relationship with her than anyone else in the school did.  Edna would do one, big, meaningful project; on history, because that was my subject and the one I felt I had the best chance of helping her with.  The idea was, although Edna would have no grades, she would leave with something she could show others; something that would demonstrate that her entire schooling hadn’t been wasted.

The first couple of our sessions didn’t go at all well.  When I asked Edna what she’d like to do her project on she just shrugged and wouldn’t even look me in the eye.  So she sat while I talked at her.  Once I realised this approach wasn’t working I changed tack.  Instead I suggested topics she might be interested in and give her some basic information about each.  There was no flicker of interest until I told her about the red terror, which was the name for the years in which Ethiopia was under a communist dictatorship led by The Derg (Committee).  During this time, in the 1980s, all political dissent was banned and the families of some of those shot for resisting were forced to pay for the bullet that killed them before the body was released before burial.

Edna’s eyes lit up.  “That’s interesting” she said, in a voice rusty and squeaky from years of lack of use, “I’m interested in people dying.”

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning but it was a beginning.  Edna and I, over weeks and then months, explored the Red Terror together.  Neither of us really knew much about dyslexia and I’m sure we made every mistake in the book but Edna didn’t seem to mind.  I read to her while she sketched manga style drawings of what I’d said.  Soon she wanted to label her drawings to explain what was in them so, slowly and deliberately, we did.  After that Edna wanted to learn more so she brought books to me and asked me to read them with her.  We did.  Slowly and steadily, in our two hours a week and the increasing amounts of time Edna was spending on her work at home, something quite impressive began to emerge.  Edna was proud of her project.  She carried it around and worked quietly on it while other students studied for their exams.  She began showing it to other students and teachers.  It was around then, for the first time, I saw Edna smile.

Midway through the year we had a review with Edna and her father, who was visibly impressed by what his daughter had done.  “This is good,” he said, gruffly, leafing through the pages, “I remember these bad times well.”  Edna looked at her dad.  “You were there?”  He nodded, and then began talking about his own memories, explaining this was why he’d moved his family to the US, then back when the Terror was over.  A museum had just opened in the town centre and, after Edna asked him to, he agreed to take her.

By the end of the year Edna’s project, spilling out of ring-binders and folders, really had turned into something special.  It charted a narrative through the causes, events and consequences.  It had manga style illustrations (of course) and photographs she’d taken while out on trips with her parents.

To celebrate we invited Edna in with her father to eat some cake, drink some tea and try to make a plan for what she should do when she got the US.  This felt like an exciting breakthrough as it was the first time in years Edna had expressed any interest in the future at all.

Slowly and steadily Edna’s dad began leafing through her project, turning each page carefully and reading everything on it, drinking in every illustration, tracing the lines his daughter had drawn with his thick finger.  He didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then his shoulders began to shake and I realised this big man, this captain of industry, this stern gruff figure with his scarred face and powerful shoulders was crying and couldn’t stop.  Edna and I looked at him and then each other.  I passed him a tissue.

“God bless this school,” he said.  “You have given our daughter back to us.  She has come home.”

Edna leaned over and gingerly patted his still shaking shoulder.  “Don’t cry, dad.” She said, in her funny, rusty little voice.  “I’m OK now.”


The Knowledge

To be licensed as a London black cab driver, applicants must complete an in-depth study of the cities street routes and places of interest.  To pass the rigorous examinations they must not use either satellite navigation or rely on a radio controller.  Acquiring The Knowledge and being granted a license takes the average driver nearly three years.  During training candidates, known as Knowledge boys or girls, follow routes around London on a scooter learning a set number of routes each day.  The process is painstakingly incremental but those that succeed have become experts in their domain.

But, of course, London black cab drivers are only experts in London.  Should the driver swap their black cab for a yellow one, expecting them to be able to apply their knowledge of London to New York would be a nonsense.  Gaining a firm knowledge of New York would require them to get back on their scooters and start all over again.

I think this analogy is a helpful one when considering the role of knowledge in the history curriculum and also helps to explain why the subject poses significant challenges to generic planning, teaching and assessment policies.  Before going any further I would like to acknowledge that much of my thinking here has been formed by Michael Fordham’s work and, especially, the talk he gave at the recent West London Free School conference.

History is the school subject in which the domain is largest.  While the amount of maths in a curriculum might be increased or decreased it remains a largely accepted body of content.  A simultaneous equation in France is a simultaneous equation in Lithuania, Ethiopia or England.  In physical geography, the processes that form rivers don’t vary according to where it is in the world.  Erosion and deposition are universal; a student that understands these processes in the Nile River can apply this understanding to a study of the Amazon or the Thames.  History is different and more akin to The Knowledge learned by black cab drivers in that it far less replicable or applicable in different contexts.  Although both subjects are concerned with religion, a child who knows reasons for the English Reformation would not be able use this knowledge to explain the development of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The History Of The World is, for all practical purposes, infinite and expecting a anyone to achieve mastery of it would be absurd.

History teachers, curriculum planners and the exam boards that create GCSE courses know this.  We don’t expect children to learn The History Of The World.  We choose from it to create domains in which we think it is beneficial, for different reasons, that children achieve some degree of mastery.

This is a considerable challenge for schools trying to use generic models to assess and track learning in history.  History curriculums are typically chronological at Key Stage 3 and most of the content studied in the lower years is not included in the domain taught and examined at GCSE.  This means that data tracking of KS3 groups can be extremely misleading, especially if this information is intended to generate a grade that equates to GCSE examination performance.  The only way to do this with any degree of accuracy would be to teach only KS4 content to KS3 using the chosen exam boards heuristics.  While this may make the data from assessments a more accurate indicator of eventual KS4 results it is, of course, unethical and arguably immoral.

Some schools have tried to resolve this by identifying what are often referred to as historical skills.  The thinking behind this, if I’ve got it right, seems to be that there are certain generic competencies, often thought to be hierarchical, which drive the acquisition of substantive knowledge.  For example, it is assumed that ‘description’ is a lower-order skill which students should acquire first.  Once students know how to ‘describe’ they can then move onto ‘explaining’, which is supposed to be trickier.  In these systems a child getting better at history is one who is mastering more and more difficult skills and it is assumed that once they have these skills they can confidently apply them to new content.  This model is understandably attractive to non-subject specialists and generic inspection regimes because it allows those without substantive or disciplinary knowledge to make a judgement on progress by looking at the acquisition of skills, which is a process they feel they understand.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is absolutely no value in this approach.  To return to my black cab analogy I would suggest that these ‘skills’ can be likened to the actual driving of the car.  The driver must know how to operate the clutch and accelerator.  They must also know how to indicate and they know how to switch on headlamps when it gets dark.  If a driver can’t do these things they, of course, must learn.  I’d liken these mechanical functions to knowing how to read and write in increasingly sophisticated and complex sentences.  Although these skills are necessary it is instructive to remember that a person can be taught to drive in an intensive course over a week, while learning The Knowledge takes years, that it is this cabbies spend most of their time doing, and it is on this their expertise is judged.  Overplaying the importance of generic skills is dangerous in that it results in an imbalanced focus; a non-subject specialist advising a disciplinary expert on how to improve based on a generic skills based approach is the equivalent of a driving instructor sitting next to an expert London black cab driver and suggesting things like “indicate earlier” or “remember Mirror Signal Manoeuvre.”  This might lead to some minor improvements but clearly completely misses the point and can create a very unhelpful conception over what real progress is.

So if ‘skills’ outside discrete domains are not good indicators of improvement in history what is?  Michael Fordham has argued very convincingly about the importance of substantive knowledge and I agree with him.  What generally makes one person better at history than another is that they know more about the subject they’re dealing with.    As history teachers, regardless of how we were trained, I think most of us know this instinctively.  This is why even departments that spend a great deal of time on ‘skills’ in KS3 teach more didactically and give out content led revision guides and knowledge organisers when Y11 exams loom.  This is not to say that disciplinary knowledge, which isn’t generic, is of any less significance but simply an acknowledgement that it sits within substantive knowledge and doesn’t exist if separated from it.

The primacy of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in improving learning in history lessons has unavoidable implications for the accurate assessment of teaching quality.  Accepting that generic ‘skills’ are an inappropriate measure of progress in history means accepting that those without relevant knowledge will struggle to form accurate judgements of the learning they observe.  For example, if a teacher is delivering a lesson on the role of the Reichstag Fire in Hitler’s rise to power, but the observer doesn’t know themselves, it is not possible for them to make a judgement on the degree to which the lesson has been successful.  The same issues arise in book scrutiny and other forms of quality assurance. This problem is far from being a hypothetical one and it worries me a great deal that many, if not most, history teachers in England are trying to improve their teaching of history based on generic success criteria developed by those who’ve only ever studied it as novices.

The importance of knowledge to student success is certainly borne out by my own experience.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, looking over the past exam scripts of my students proves that problems in student achievement were not down to, aside from the very high end, issues with understanding how to answer questions or the second order concepts that underpin them.  Typically, students who ended up with say, ‘Cs’ instead of ‘Bs’, did so because their answers in some areas were much stronger than in others; inconsistency in knowledge was the most limiting factor in their success, not a lack of any generic skill.

This all suggests to me that secondary history departments should be aiming, primarily, to build strong substantive and disciplinary knowledge right from Year 7 with the minimum of fuss and distraction.  Assessments should test the ability of students to remember what they’ve learned over a long period of time and that, as Fordham has more eloquently explained, the progression model should be the curriculum.  Trying to track improvement by assessing improvements to generic skills is a dangerous red herring, akin to trying to assess the expertise of a London cab driver by giving him or her a driving test.  It also implies to students that there are shortcuts that can be taken and fails to address the elephant in the room; you simply cannot answer a question on something you don’t know about.

I’d like to conclude by suggesting something I can’t prove.  I’d argue that should a certified London cab driver be required to gain the same level of expertise over another city they’d do so in less time than it took them to learn London’s streets, but this would not be because of generic driving competency or because anything they know is directly applicable.  It would be because by achieving mastery in one domain they’d have improved their ability to efficiently move information from short to long term memory, and the methods used to do this would be useful even in an unfamiliar city.  This is another important reason why teaching and assessing substantive knowledge, even that outside the domain assessed at Y11, is both useful and worthwhile; if students become good at remembering a lot in KS3, they will be better able to do the same at KS4.