The best of all worlds – #28daysofwriting

Last week I was accused of being a communist. I was quite surprised, firstly because this hasn’t happened to me for about 5 years (the last time was by a PGCE student of mine who now works for David Cameron, which probably explains it).    The other reason was that I am that most annoying of political animals – the moderate. My lawyer’s training means that I try to look for the merits in both sides of an argument, and the wannabe philosopher in me tries to help me see that life is an exercise in moving from holding weaker to stronger misconceptions.

So, as I age I try not to hold positions if they’re not working.  I shift.  I try to take on board evidence and argument. I am frequently wrong.  In fact I’m always wrong, I just try to be less wrong today than I was last week.  Life has taught me many lessons, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Catholicism, Socialism, Comprehensive Education, Mixed ability teaching, Constructivism, setting, vigorous exercise, formative feedback, Hattie, low-fat diets, high-fat diets, Behaviourism, Growth Mind-set, PGCE, CPD, ICT ,Post-Structuralism, Polly Toynbee, Historicism, Elton, Butterfield, Hobsbawm, Cannadine, Michael Gove, Owen Jones, Brian Simon, all of them curates’ eggs.

This leads me to seek out the good parts, and it makes it hard for me to explain what my position is when people ask me ‘what kind of teacher are you?’, or when I’m told I’m progressive or traditional.   I’m Pragmatic.  I try to find out what will work in the situation that I am in.  That doesn’t mean I’m a ‘what works’ teacher – I don’t think that you can say ‘what works’.   I tend to seek new ideas, but I like to know what they’re based on, and I think to myself ‘will that work, where were are now?’.

I went to a research Ed conference last year, and the one talk that really stuck out for me was Dylan Wiliam’s presentation on why Teaching will never be an evidence based profession.  I’m aware that in saying this, and yet being interested in Education Research (I got an MSc in Edu Research Methods) last year, I could be accused of wanting to have my cake and eat it.  Research findings and evidence have their role to play in Teaching, but to paraphrase Wiliam, education researchers need to abandon “physics envy”, and instead find ways of “Working with teachers to make their findings applicable in contexts other than the context of data collection”, whilst at the same time recognising that the job of collecting and interpreting evidence about education is never-ending and will never produce definitive guides to ‘what works’.

Teacher Dashboard and Google Classroom #28daysofwriting

I used to think that ICT would ‘transform’ education, and that it could also ‘transform’ society.  Well, perhaps it will, but it hasn’t yet.  As I get more experienced it seems to me that ICT, like any tool, has its benefits and its downsides.  It also seems to me that one of the big problems with the use of ICT in learning is that students quickly learn to game whatever system they have been asked to work with, and that this works in the directly opposite direction of my main aim as a teacher.  I want students to slow down, to get caught up, to be forced to think again. They want a high score, or to get to the end, or simply to be finished, on to the next thing.  Even if they get beyond this, often they want what they’re doing to be ‘good’ (or sometimes ‘good enough’). ICT can make all of this far too easy.

That’s why I tend to use less ICT directly in the classroom than I used to, and when I do I always try to ask myself ‘why am I taking the extra time to do this using ICT?’ or ‘why are we learning this in the ICT suite instead of our normal classroom’.  Sometimes I can’t find a decent answer to this question, and then we go back to the classroom and to books and pens and pencils.

In the past I have used classroom blogs a great deal, and know colleagues using them to great effect – Alan Kydd’s for instance.   However, sometimes I don’t want a public blog for my class, for instance.  I want to know who is reading it, and I don’t want to worry about the administration of usernames and privileges.  What I do want is a quick way of getting information, links and assignments to students.  Previous experience with various VLEs has taught me that this can be an enormous pain in the bum, and that the difficulties that these things represent can quickly sap the energy from efforts to use ICT to help teacher/student communication.

Recently I’ve been looking at Google Classroom, which does seem to offer me some quick and easier solutions for the problems I have run into whilst using classroom blogs.  Classroom isn’t transforming my practice, but I am finding it useful for the usual things like homework reminders and answering queries from students.   However, what I like it for best is for fleshing out those throwaway remarks, or passing conversations we have with students who are interested in topics not directly related to our syllabus.  Links to extra reading, radio or TV shows, catch up notes and historical novels that we have discussed.

Teacher dashboard is a set of apps with even more potential, which I’m still experimenting with.  This service from Hapara gives you the ability to create a folder in your students’ google drive (not their personal drive, but one connected to their institution), and to send them google documents and other resources.  Using the dashboard I can then tell which students have amended their documents, and when they did so. I can also give them feedback on their work as they progress.   I’ve been using this with some year 10 GCSE students. Their assessment in 2016 will be on paper, so I’m reluctant yet to spend a great deal of time asking them to type answers into google docs.  What I have been using it for is revision presentations.

I have been asking students to go home after each lesson and make two or three slides to record what they learned in each lesson.  In this way I’m hoping that I can encourage them to see that revision shouldn’t be something that happens at the end of a course, or just when you have an important assessed test coming up.   In trying to use something I learned from making it stick – that effort expended in trying to remember something will help later recall – I ask the students to first draft their slides without looking at their notes.  When the first draft is done, then they should make the notes.  We have a short formative assessment every month or 5 weeks, and they hand in a printed version of their revision presentation as the test starts.

I can’t honestly say that this has yet had a huge impact on grades. I have noticed that their retention and use of important information has improved.  What it is doing is setting up a routine and expectation that revision is ongoing.  I also get an example of what they do when they revise, and I’m going to use this to help them revise better as the course goes on.

So, Classroom and Teacher Dashboard is ICT that isn’t revolutionary, but is genuinely helping me in my task of enabling students to learn.

A Cup of Tea from the History Resource Cupboard #28daysofwriting

HistoryResourceCupboardSo, yesterday was the end of a long week (even for a part timer like me), and I was stuck for something to do with my year 9 class.  It was the end of the half term, they’d just done an assessment, and we’re planning on starting the First World War next term.  All in all I was stuck, with only a vague idea of what to do.  I fired up my onedrive and typed ’empire’ into the search engine, as I hoped to find a link between what we’d been studying and the coming war.

A brilliant lesson that I’d seen described at my first SHP conference flashed up. The files must have been sitting on my drive since then, and I punched the air as I realised that the wonderful people at History Resource Cupboard had saved my bacon.  I’d hit upon the first lesson in the great scheme of work about Britain, the Empire and the Industrial revolution, which you can find here.  I can’t recommend it enough, as it starts by asking students to consider the link between tea, coffee, cheap clothes, and other commodities, encourages them to make close but fun analysis of a piece of evidence and ends with some well supported writing.  If you’ve never taken a look at the site, please do – it’s great.

Reading about your teaching – why you must. #28daysofwriting

Bertrand BlierThere are some right wallies online.  They’ll tell you outright that students don’t need to remember anything, that they can look up anything they need online.  They’ll tell you that dates and events and chronology are just stuff, that students get clogged up with.  These people are daft.  But they’re quite few in number.

A very small number of other people have made reputations or careers out of pointing out the daft people, so that we can all laugh at them and feel better about ourselves.   This is called twitter.

The much more numerous group are those who half remember stuff they learned on PGCE, or some course or other, or when that consultant came in and did INSET.  They hear a VAK idea, or see someone using coloured hats in a lesson and they think ‘this is cool’ or ‘hey, that looks fun’, and they give it a go. Sometimes this seems to ‘work’, in that the students seem to enjoy it, or it makes the teacher feel good about themselves, sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes these people then post their ideas on twitter, which is fortunate for the people who made careers out of pointing out daft ideas on twitter.  Otherwise they would run out of people to point and laugh at.

Then there are people who read books and articles and blogs about teaching their subject and others. They are sometimes caught up in ‘good ideas’ that they’ve seen.  Hey – it’s nice to be enthusiastic sometimes.  Often however, they see something about learning styles, or grading, or writing comments only in one colour, or APP or other things, and they say ‘I won’t be doing that in my classroom’.  Instead of saying ‘yeah, I have a growth mindset ethos in my classroom’ they will read Dweck and find out what that really means.  Those people sometimes agonise over lesson plans, or they see something that they want to do, and think about it for weeks before trying it.  Then they’ll think carefully about if they really can be sure that it worked.  Sometimes they don’t get round to trying it until they’ve been able to talk about it with a likeminded person that they trust.   Sometimes they find themselves doubting areas of their practice they have used for years.  Often they find that this is only possible when they have found a group of supportive likeminded people.  Sometimes they meet these likeminded people that they trust on twitter, once they have unfollowed the people who continuously point out the daft people.

These people, the people who read things, sometimes argue with other people about what they’re doing, but they do it with grace, and with good learning behind them.  They can do this because they read lots about their teaching, and this reading helps them to recognise ideas which might be worth investigating, and helps them to maintain healthy scepticism in the face of ‘the silver bullet’ that other people are looking for.   When they’re wrong (as they inevitably are), they can handle that, and change.

Why I love: the Memory Tea Tray Game #28daysofwriting

Memory GameWhen I was little we would sometimes play this game on wet afternoons (there being no youtube).  It is much easier with pictures than objects, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use either.  I often use images as icons for particular concepts, events or historical actors, especially where there are several factors or issues that we’ll be exploring over a couple of weeks or half a term.   Sometimes I’ll give the students these images, sometimes I’ll ask them to associate images themselves.   If we’ve been studying a topic without using these images then this memory game is a good way of introducing them as a tool for revision.  This also works really well as a starter, as there’s an element of time which encourages them to settle and to raise their game very early in the lesson.

Before the lesson I will find images that allow students to discuss causes, consequences, or other second order concepts, or those that enable us to talk about substantive events, people, trends or other historical content.   I can then arrange them on a powerpoint slide with the instruction that students have say 10 or 15 seconds to memorise them.

In class I tell them to close all their books, and to have a pen ready at the side. They’re to look at the screen / board and memorise the pictures that appear.  After the allotted time I change the slide (you can set powerpoint up to do this automatically too) and tell them they have a minute to write down as many of the items as they can remember.

Here’s one I made earlier about the causes of poverty in Elizabethan England.  You’ll notice that there are several important causes I’ve missed off – a good way of extending this idea is to ask students ‘which causes are not represented?’.  To push this further I can ask them to remember the images at the end of the lesson too – which works well as a plenary if the images, or the ideas that they represent are then explored in the lesson itself.

#28daysofwriting Why am I still blogging?

Diamine Orange Creeping Crud? No! Harmless.What’s the point of blogging? Since 2006 when I started this version of the website, I’ve gone through long periods of not updating my blog properly, usually when time is in short supply, or when things are difficult at home or at work. I’m not a confident blogger, and when I’m feeling un-confident professionally, I tend not to blog at all.

I usually like to blog positively – perhaps when I’ve been to a conference or met someone who has inspired me to try something new, or when I have taught something that I feel proud of. I wish this wasn’t always the case however, as sometimes the best thing happen as result of blog posts that express some lack of confidence, or ask for help with something that hasn’t gone as I hoped it would.

A couple of years into my teaching I wrote a post about ‘imposter syndrome’ on my personal blog. This led to me being interviewed by the TES about the feeling that any-minute you’ll be caught out as the imposter you feel you are – that someone will spot that you’re just winging it. I had lots of great feedback and conversations with other teachers who, under the pressure of marking, reporting, planning and teaching (as well as keeping their own lives going) felt as I often do, that no area of my life was getting the attention it deserved. Confessing to my lack of confidence improved things.

There is some evidence that writing about things that make you unhappy or unsure can improve not only your mood, but also your general health (  When I was doing my masters last year I came across a brilliant chapter in Mark Murphy’s (@socialtheoryapp) book Social Theory and Education Research: Understanding Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu and Derrida (£) about  writing as an act of confession and/or reflective practice, by Andreas Fejes. Fejes relates Foucault’s study of ‘care of the self’ in the Roman and Greek tradition, in which writing was not a way of ‘knowing oneself’, but instead a way of ‘finding the truths one needs to turn life into an art of existence’. Fejes presents an attractive mode of thinking in which writing is not about weighing up our moral worth, or finding out our limits, but instead as away of monitoring our lives, and devising strategies for better living.    He contrasts this with the later Christian tradition of self examination which took on a more moral and judgemental character.    If we take these ideas seriously it seems that how you blog is important – self examination can be destructive or constructive.

Without getting too confessional here myself, I think I would like to try to blog about when things go wrong much more often.  Yesterday I posted about a lesson with a year 8 class that had not gone as I had hoped.  My blog updates my Facebook feed and a couple of colleagues who I used to work with, and whose opinions I value, posted their thoughts on what I could do next time:

My experience for year 8 feedback: 1) be more specific on improvements needed 2) give whole lesson to improve don’t try to do as a starter 3) still have an settling activity 4) group seating plan so students with similar improvements sit together, this then allows you to give extra teaching on s particular issue to several students at once


Totally agree with the second point. Maybe students could complete in less time as they get used to it, but it was always the best part of a woke lesson for my science classes. 

My autistic students really, really struggle with this by the way. The range of responses I get includes “if it’s no good just say so” followed by ripping up work; “actually I think you’ll find my way is better” and “I’ve already done it once, why should I do it again?”. 

Slowly but surely we’re getting there by doing tiny bits of improvement in tasks they’ve enjoyed, but they’re so desperately sensitive to anything they perceive as criticism it’s really tough. I wonder if mainstream students with autism struggle similarly, our if part of why ours do is because they come to us feeling like they’ve failed already in previous settings.

So, not only do I feel better because I’ve shared something that I found difficult, but I have gained sage advice from too friends. Perhaps that’s why I’m still blogging?

#28daysofwriting – Feedforward

Spring in the GlassGoing to be very brief this evening, but I did want to record how I got on with feedforward questions. This idea, which has been doing the rounds on twitter, involves teachers making comments on work and asking for improvements, or asking supplemental questions designed to move students’ understanding on.

I tried it with my year 9s, which worked well. I think that this was because my feedback was based on the work we had done on generalisations over several classes, and the work they had to do was improve a paragraph that they had written last lesson, and which I had marked in the meantime.

With my year 8 boys I tried writing questions that I hoped would enable them to extend their understanding, or improve their responses to questions they answered last lesson. This didn’t go as well – perhaps because I had much less concrete set of learning objectives for the work. This led me to give out a much more diverse set of feedback instructions, and didn’t allow the students to use their experiences in the previous lessons in the same way as my year 9s could in interpreting my advice. Also they were year 8 boys, it was the last lesson on Friday afternoon, and I was asking for independent thinking in response to written comments.

#28days of Writing – Institutions and Strength.

Hmm, bit worried that I’m going to resort to this so early in my #28daysofwriting, but this evening I’ve been looking back at things that I started to write and then, for some reason, didn’t.

Last summer I went to the Northern Rocks Conference, and it was great, and I started to type this:

#Nrocks – why you should meet your heroes and your demons

I spent saturday with some committed, engaged, intelligent and funny colleagues, listening to speakers who were also incisive, informative and thought-provoking. That’s right, I spent saturday at NorthernRocks 2014 in Leeds.

So, I met some heroes (missed some too, as there were at least three people I wanted to see in each block).  However, I found myself agreeing with Dominic Cummings (the author of the legendary typed rant that was leaked from within the DfE) about one important thing – that politics should play much less of a role in classroom pedagogy.  However, something has been bugging me about Cumming’s take on ‘handing power to ‘you guys” (meaning us teachers) over things like performance pay and QTS.

Cummings was very eloquent about the negative power of interest groups and the ineptitude of politicians (westminster is ‘broken’, according to him).  I believe that he is honest about his desire to see politicians out of the way of schools and children.  I am also increasingly convinced that unions should be campaigning about our working conditions and not our pedagogy  However, I think that he dismisses the power of institutions as a force for good, and has underestimated the effect of the free for all that is the logical extension of his philosophy.

I’ve been thinking more and more about the need we have for institutions in which we can place trust, and from which we can both learn and draw strength.  I went to a great school, and I still draw strength from the experiences I had there.  My time on the PGCE course at Oxford also remains a great source of wisdom for me, and I’m very proud of the work I did for 10 years at Little Heath School, an institution which I feel great affection for.  Many people like me gain from the investment they place in leisure clubs, and the heated debates at committee meetings of photographic societies and running clubs reflect the importance that such clubs have in our lives.

I think we need more institutions, not fewer.  Teachers should belong to a profession, and if they want to, to seek membership of a Royal College of Teaching.  Induction to this profession through professional education (rather than mere workplace training), will raise the profile and the esteem of Teaching.  Rather than contamination by the blob, HEI involvement in initial and ongoing teacher education helps further to raise this esteem, and provide institutions in which we can be proud.  Through subject institutions we can learn to listen to each other, rather than throw brickbats.  The Historical Association and SHP has taught me a great deal through their publications, websites and conferences.

It’s probably a rather 19th Century view, but as I walk through Leeds and admire the buildings that our local institutions made, and sense the pride and purpose behind them, I can’t help hoping that as a profession we don’t become too atomised, and that the chains of this, and training consortia of the other, develop into (or are replaced by) institutions and organisations in which we can place our hope, loyalties and our trust.



Why I love: Hotspot Taboo ( #28daysofwriting )

hot seatQuick one tonight, as I’m determined to keep up this #28daysofwriting effort.  I’ve been thinking a lot about playing games in lessons which seem to help learning.  One of my favourite types of games are hotspot games – such as ‘yes / no’, ‘guess who’ or ‘just a minute’ where someone comes to the front to play.  Recently I’ve been playing ‘hotspot taboo’ with my year 7 classes. Using Ian Dawson and Dale Banham’s book on King John, we’ve been coming up with lists of words and phrases that it would be really useful to be able to use if we want to explain the problem that medieval English kings had with the French, the Catholic Church and their own Barons.

We write those three lists (one for each problem) on the board.  Then we see if volunteers can accurately explain each problem without using any of the words on the board, like a whole class game of taboo.

If anyone hears the player use one of the taboo words they get to shout ‘TaboOooo!’ and then come up and have a go themselves.  It is great fun, but it also forces students to think of ways of explaining the importance or effect or causes of things.