#HeForShe Education Pledge: No Haters

A year ago I published my post #HeForShe, or I am a feminist to affirm my commitment to gender equality publicly. Since that time I have kept to the movement’s four core commitments, to:

  1. Express zero tolerance for discrimination and violence against women and girls
  2. Believe in equal access to social, political and economic opportunities
  3. Understand that taking a stand for women and girls is taking a stand for humanity
  4. Speak up when you see physical, emotional or sexual harassment

I’ve also been inspired over the past year by the growth of WomenEd and other movements such as the Leading Women’s Alliance, Token Man, This Girl Can, and others. It was a catch up on the WomenEd Yammer and StaffRm threads that led me back to the #HeForShe Education page and their suggestions for action that I can take to help further gender equality in my field. 

#HeForShe makes three suggestions under their Be The Change banner: 

  1. That’s not okay: What does it mean to act “like a girl” or “like a man”? Call out gender-biased language from students and teachers alike. Ask the speaker to think about how these comments reinforce gender stereotypes.
  2. No Haters: Online bullies want your silence. Enlist your friends and followers to send messages of support to victims of social media trolling. You’ll help turn the internet into a safe space for everyone.
  3. Teach a teacher: Empower educators to create equality in the classroom. Get the UNESCO Guide for Gender Equality in Teacher Education Policy and Practices, a step-by-step guide for including gender equality issues in teacher training.

These are all great commitments, and I am happy to enact them all. However, I was particularly struck by the No Haters commitment as a really positive step that I can do more to affirm. I see a lot of negative behaviour on Twitter and in other online spaces. There seems to be an increasing proportion of educators who spend their time scanning their timelines for ideas they can attack, criticise, take down, or belittle. They are always ready to say “that won’t work” or “you shouldn’t do that” or “you are wrong.” And these people fall on both sides of the traditional/progressive divide. If you teach at Michaela and share your practice online, it’s time to batten down the hatches for the “you’re damaging children” onslaught – when they quite clearly care very, very deeply about the children they teach. Similarly, if you dare to suggest that an open ended creative project might be a good idea, or that children should enjoy their learning, there are those who are only too ready to tell you that you’re wasting your time. I don’t get involved in these threads too often, as I swear by “don’t feed the trolls” in the online sphere, but I always feel that I’m not really honoring my “no bystanders” commitment to speak up when I see harassment occurring. 

What I do know, however, that it stops people from sharing their practice online. I know it, because it’s stopped me. I am a straight white cisgendered male Headteacher, educated at an all-boys independent school and Oxford, which pretty much fills my privilege and entitlement bingo card. Yet I know that there are tweets I’ve written and deleted, articles I’ve read and saved, but not shared, and blog posts I’ve thought about and shelved, because I was nervous about the reaction. Because I didn’t want the hassle. Because it affects me personally when people are horrible to me – online or IRL. If that is my experience, with my full house of privilege and entitlement, how stifling could the gladiatorial atmosphere of edu-Twitter be to others?

For me, Twitter and blogging should be about sharing practice and discussing ideas, without fear. In that way, it should be like my classroom. Everyone in my classroom should have the confidence to venture their tentative, half-formed idea, to think it through with the help of their supportive classmates who will add to, build on and develop that tiny seed, to see if it could grow into something stronger and more robust. The critique and advice my students receive from me and their peers helps them improve. I would not tolerate someone belittling and ridiculing their idea – and to belittle and ridicule the student themselves would be a really serious matter. On Twitter we are dealing with grown adults, professionals even, and I can’t send them out or put them in detention – I’m not the Twitter police. So instead I send messages of support to those I see being attacked. Not necessarily in the public sphere – I’m still not in the business of feeding the trolls, and I don’t want to add fuel to the flame war – but to make the Internet a safer space. To thank them for sharing their ideas. To let them know that there is positivity and humanity online, and to try and build a constructive web. 

Above all, it’s important to remember that nobody got into teaching to try to and damage the children, to make them less smart, to stop them learning. We’re all in this to do our best. So let’s help one another, not tear each other down. 

2014 in review: my second year of edublogging

2014 has been a busy year, and I’ve managed to document some of it on my blog – which has also been busy! So busy, in fact, that I didn’t manage to mark the blog’s second birthday with a post (as I did last year), but only with this  rather token tweet:

So here, belatedly, is my round-up of 2014 on Teaching: Leading Learning:

Most popular post: by far and away Becoming a Growth Mindset School. This post documents the start of the shift in ethos, aims and values that we have undertaken at school this year, as we adopt Dweck’s research in all aspects of our work. It’s been the most fulfilling and exciting mission in my career so far!

Best response: Proud Letters, where we asked families to write letters of support and encouragement to Year 11 as they began their revision, was met with huge warmth and enthusiasm, not least at #TMCotham. I was unable to attend this event in person, but the ever resourceful @MissKMcD persuaded me to put a video presentation together. I could tell when it was shown at the TeachMeet because my phone practically jumped out of my pocket with the Twitter notifications! I have since updated the post with some of the responses at the bottom. Needless to say, we’ll be doing it again this year.

Posts that best capture what I’m about: this year I reflected on my own experience at school and how it’s influenced my own beliefs in Points About Prizes and had a lovely response from Booker-prize nominated author A D Miller. I’ve also firmed up some of my core educational beliefs – including the reasons why I have a Problem With “Ability”.

When I got cross: I’ve been much calmer this year, but I did get cross about a poor Teach First advert and the disservice I believe it does to a valuable programme in Why I Think Teach First Is A Good Thing. I was also irked by the new GCSEs in Who are the new GCSEs for? Rant over!

What I’m proudest of: definitely Growth Mindset Launch, with the associated post about Teaching and Learning Leaders. These posts show how we’re enacting the growth mindset ethos with students and staff. My own teaching and learning team prompted me to try something new in the classroom – Colour-coded Self-Assessment – which worked really well!

Doors which have opened: there has been a lot of interest in our work on Implementing Assessment Without Levels which I have presented now at conferences for Capita and Optimus, as well as at the fantastic #TLT14. I outlined the differences between the Optimus Assessment conference and TLT in my post A Tale of Two Conferences. It was also my privilege to present my synthesis of Closing the Gap Marking and Feedback techniques at Pedagoo South West and the Excellence and Growth Conference in London. This has all been great experience and has led to several follow-up visits hosted at Chew Valley.

English bits: I’ve really enjoyed going back into Year 10 to have a last go at the existing GCSE English course, having been a 100% Media Studies teacher last year. I blogged about a Creative Writing Poetry Workshop and the Owen Sheers poem I used on Remembrance Day. I also had a fantastic Appointment At The Reading Spa with a Year 12 English Literature student.

Assemblies: I’ve really enjoyed my assemblies this year! My New Year’s resolution assembly was on staying Positive. After Easter I reflected on the meaning of Challenge, then thought carefully about lessons we can learn from fleas in an assembly called Limits. Finally for 2014 I gave an assembly on How To Make The Most Of Your Brain which was a squeeze for 15 minutes but well worth it! I’m on assemblies in the first week back after Christmas…so watch this space! All my assemblies are gathered in the Assembly category on this blog. Let me know if you use one!

Fanboy moments: sadly no Game of Thrones stars came to Chew Valley this year, but the return of Jack and Dean (and Poppy) for YouTube day was an excellent substitute. And, if that wasn’t enough, Gandalf popped in to celebrate our work as Stonewall Champions and offered the students some revision advice:

1.5 million views on YouTube and an outing on the Graham Norton Show later…clearly my most popular post of the year!

The future: In 2015 I’m going to focus on keeping the main thing the main thing, and ration my time out of school as much as possible. There is work to be done! Now that the excitement of launching a new ethos, CPD approach and assessment system is over, the hard work really begins. It’s up to us now to make it stick.

Happy New Year!

What I know now about how the brain works

Cognitive science – how the brain works – is quite important to teaching and learning. So why is it that it’s only been in the last three years of my career (which started in 1996) that I’ve learned anything about it?

I am certainly not an expert. My science qualifications go up to GCSE level. You would think that a postgraduate certificate in education would include something on the functioning of the organ that the job is primarily concerned with, but no. I learned about Piaget and Vygostsky, but having gone through the three lever-arch files of PGCE notes this is all I could find about the brain:

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

All I knew about the brain from initial teacher training

What’s even stranger is that I didn’t notice the lack. I taught, led departments and cross-curricular teams, developed curricula, mentored new trainees, and never once stopped to wonder whether I was missing something – until blogs opened my eyes.

Through blogs like David Fawcett’s excellent My Learning Journey and David Didau’s LearningSpy I was introduced to the works of Daniel Willingham and Robert Bjork, and going back further Hermann Ebbinghaus and others. More recently I read an excellent blog from David Bunker on using Willingham to help teach English – a subject close to my own heart – and self-confessed science geek Ashley Loynton pointed me in the direction of  The Human Memory site, my new go-to place for mind-boggling. I am still very much an amateur, and painfully aware that partial understanding can be dangerous. However, I am going to attempt to share my understanding with staff at my school in the next couple of weeks, so here’s what I know now about how the brain works. If I’ve got anything terribly wrong, or you can help clarify my lack of expertise, please let me know in  the comments before I make a fool of myself in front of the Psychology department…

Neurons, synapses and neural networks

Neurons are brain cells; synapses are the connections between neurons. When learning takes place, a new synapse is formed. At first, this connection is fragile and tentative, but every time it is used again it strengthens. Eventually, well-trodden pathways between neurons become networks which can be travelled rapidly, instinctively, and unconsciously. This is why I can drive my car without really thinking about it, but why I need to look up the year of Shakespeare’s birth every time I want to know it. It’s also why our brain can play tricks on us, looking to run through well-established neural networks even when the situation demands a road less travelled.

Neural plasticity

Neural or synaptic plasticity is the ability of a synaptic connection to develop in strength and efficiency. It is why, if we want students to learn things, we need to get them to repeat them, and why revision – seeing things again – is such an important process.

Revision - seeing things again - is essential for securing learning

Revision – seeing things again – is essential for securing learning

The formation of these neural networks in our brains means that we need to plan for learning which encourages repetition and channels students’ energies into building strong, resilient and efficient synaptic connections. Covering it once and moving on just won’t cut it.

Cognitive Science and the Growth Mindset

In my amateurish way, I think I can see why the growth mindset makes sense as an approach. It seems self-evident that the forming of new synaptic connections and the development of strong neural networks is “growth” in the genuine physical sense – the formation of a new or stronger connection in the biology of our brains. I felt slightly uncomfortable with Dweck’s “the brain is a muscle – it gets stronger the more you use it” idea, which seemed over-simplistic. But now I can see the roots of her metaphor in the growth of the brain’s synaptic connections.

Synaptic transmission (image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_synapse)

Every time I teach now, I think about what is happening in the brain. I can’t believe I never did before. But then, I didn’t know it before. Now I do, I think about it all the time. And that’s how learning works, isn’t it?

Post script: here are twelve mind-bending facts about the brain from Buzzfeed as a bonus assembly/tutor time/thunk activity!

It’s not skills – it’s know-how

I’ve never really engaged in the knowledge vs skills debate before. I thought I knew where I stood. I was certain that teaching required both knowledge and skills. But now I don’t think that’s true.

I blame my early career. I started my PGCE in 1996 and, in my first position of responsibility as second in English, I was in a pilot school for the National Literacy Strategy. I was completely convinced and even ended up in a training video demonstrating objective-led planning for the strategy. As a Head of Department I was at the forefront of developing APP and my department was recommended by literacy consultants in Derbyshire for an Ofsted Best Practice visit for what we’d achieved. The whole fabric of what I’d learned about teaching was based on the importance of transferable skills.

Of course, I knew that kids needed to know stuff. I was uneasy about decontextualised grammar, spelling and punctuation starters in the strategy – fifteen minutes of cardsorts and OHP transparencies, then on to the main lesson – as I felt it detracted from what we should be getting on with. But, when I was teaching Lord of the Flies or To His Coy Mistress I always thought I was using the text as a tool to teach the skills of literary analysis so the students could go away and apply them to other texts in the future. It never really occurred to me that I was supposed to be teaching the text just as the text.

I've got better at tuning out the noise on Twitter

I’ve got better at tuning out the noise on Twitter

I’ve watched the debate ripple back and forth across twitter, supported by blog after blog. At times it’s felt very combative, and at times personal. I don’t think this has helped me to engage with the issues; rather it’s put me off and irritated me. However, as I’ve got deeper into the community I’ve fine-tuned my filtering system and sifted through the vitriol to what I think are the salient points. A few posts have been instrumental in this – Joe Kirby‘s and David Didau‘s amongst them. Tom Bennett has just this weekend continued the discussion in the TES with “I know therefore I can“.

David Didau’s journey as described in “Why the knowledge/skills debate is still worth having” has a lot in common with mine, only he got to where I am quite a long way before me. In fact, I remember scoffing loudly when I read his response to Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) in “Some dichotomies are real: the and/or debate“. In this post, the Learning Spy lays out his beliefs:

  1. Knowledge is transformational. You can’t think about something you don’t know. Once you know a thing it becomes possible to think about it. The thinking, in whatever form it takes, is a ‘skill’.
  2. Not all knowledge is equal. Some propositional knowledge has more power than other propositional knowledge.
  3. Procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to do things, or ‘skills’) is also important but is meaningless without propositional knowledge to apply it to.
  4. Teaching procedural knowledge instead of, or separately from, propositional knowledge is of very limited use because most procedural knowledge only applies to specific domains. Whilst it may well be true that drama is great for developing resilience in drama, it not much use for developing resilience (or critical thinking) in, say, maths.
  5. There are grey areas. Learning is wonderfully complex and I certainly don’t know everything (or even all that much) but I do absolutely believe that knowledge must come before application. (from http://www.learningspy.co.uk/education/dichotomies-real-andor-debate/)

It was point 3 that got me. “That’s cheating!” I thought. “All you’ve done there is re-name skills as a different sort of knowledge to get round the fact that we need both skills and knowledge!” That was where the scoffing kicked in.

Until I stopped to think.

Since I read that post about a month ago, I have had a slow epiphany (if such a thing it possible). I have realised that skills are a type of knowledge – that in teaching skills we are teaching “know-how”. My students need to know how to analyse a poem – and this is knowledge. They need deliberate practice to improve by applying this know-how in different contexts, and as they do so they build up networks of knowledge by finding connections between what they already know and what they are learning now. And the more they learn – the more they know – the stronger and more resilient those networks become.


Knitting together the threads of knowledge creates a resilient network

I’m sure many bloggers and teachers who read this will be staggered that I’m only realising this now, but it has taken some doing to unpick years of cultural assimilation in the skills academy. For anyone that started teaching when I did, teaching transferable skills is all we’ve ever known. If it wasn’t for the fact that I read blogs and think – really think – about what they say, it’s all I’d still know. But one thing I do know is that it’s important to be open to a different point of view, and to consider your own position carefully. I know how to do that.

This post has been added to #blogsync February 2015.

First Anniversary – a year of edublogging

Happy 1st Birthday to Teaching: Leading Learning http://www.freeimageslive.co.uk/free_stock_image/party-candle-cake-jpg

Happy 1st Birthday to Teaching: Leading Learning

I published my first post on this blog exactly one year ago today! It was a tirade of fury against the apparently imminent English Baccalaureate Certificates – yes, that was a year ago! I was inspired by reading the great blogs of John Tomsett, Kev Bartle, Tom Sherrington and others to give it a go myself, and I’m so glad I did. It’s provided a think-space for me to test-drive my ideas and beliefs in front of an audience of critical friends. Doing so has made me more certain of my values but also pushed me to re-evaluate my thinking and look afresh at things I thought I knew. Blogging has led me to discover other blogs, and these have inspired, challenged, and excited me consistently throughout the year. There is no question in my mind that I am a better school leader and teacher now than I was a year ago, and the online teacher community has been massively influential in this process.

To celebrate my blog’s first birthday, here is a completely self-indulgent guide to some of my personal highlights from my first year in the blogosphere:

Most popular post: Assessment without levels. The vacuum left by the removal of levels from the National Curriculum continues to trouble teachers and school leaders, and to drive traffic to my blog! The follow-up, Assessment in the new National Curriculum – what we’re doing, is not far behind.

Best response: Letter to my NQT self – I was overwhelmed by the tweets I got back after publishing this whimsical bit of self-referential advice!

Posts that best capture what I’m about: The Past Feeds The Present laid out who I am and what I’m in teaching for; these ideas found full flow thanks to the excellent #blogsync when I attempted to come up with a universal panacea.

When I got cross: Why I Teach. A manifesto of self-expression. I should know better than to read comments below the line on Guardian articles.

What I’m proudest of: Outstanding Teaching and Great Teachers – a whole school CPD approach and A whole-curriculum approach to literacy. Practical, real things I’ve done in my school which I think have made a positive difference.

Doors which have opened: as a result  of writing this blog I’ve found myself with opportunities I never knew existed, including attending #SLTeachmeet, hosting #SLTchat, and presenting at #TLT13. And that’s just the start!

Englishy bits: I’m quite proud of the book that made me, and I’ve waxed lyrical about literature in Canon Fodder and Why I Read Children’s Books – amongst others.

Assemblies: my Grit and Flow assembly has struck a chord with many on Twitter, but I’m also really proud of Different. 

Game of Thrones fanboy moment: I still find it hard to believe that I met Arya Stark herself the day Maisie Williams came to school.

Me with Maisie Williams in April 2013

Me with Maisie Williams in April 2013

The future: I currently have six unfinished drafts and an Evernote page with a whole stack of blog ideas I haven’t had time to start writing. Plus there are so many new ideas buzzing round my head at the moment in relation to developing a teaching and learning culture that there will be plenty more to come! Thanks so much to everyone who has visited Teaching: Leading Learning so far – please comment or contact me if you have any feedback!

Can Twitter change education?

twitter-bird-blue-on-white (1)

As observed by Thomas Starkey in Stack of Marking, it’s obligatory for any blogger to include a “Twitter” post on their blog. Here is mine! I am writing in response to The Tweacher Revolution by Carol Davenport at Scientists have said…which is itself a response to Joe Kirby’s How Are Teachers Using Social Media and How Might Social Media Help Teachers Improve Education? Davenport sensibly resists the tide of “Twitter will change the world” posts with the conclusion:

Twitter and blogging is unlikely to cause system wide change.  The vast majority of teachers will be untouched by the ebb and flow of ideas on twitter.  They will continue to go to, and grump about, in-school CPD, they’ll teach, and they’ll be good at their job.  They’ll complain about the new changes, and implement them well (or badly).

The system is so large and ponderous that having a small proportion of teachers (and others involved in education) on twitter will not change the system.

I appreciate where this is coming from. Plenty of bloggers refer to the “fact” that only 5-10% of teachers are on twitter, although the statistical validity of this mainly seems to come from straw-polls at CPD events and guesswork. It’s slightly higher than 10% at my school (we have a page on our website showing our online presence), though we all feel in awe of  places like Huntingdon and Clevedon where it seems like every other teacher is a fully signed-up member of the edublogging twitterati.


Being on twitter helps my practice. Reading the ideas and discussions there helps me to sharpen my thinking and informs my own position on key issues and debates (apart from the perennial Paso Doble of @oldandrewuk and @heymisssmith which verges on public flirtation). It’s a mine of good ideas and a source of information and inspiration. However, there is a dangerous arrogance that assumes that “being on twitter” or “having a blog” somehow confers excellence or superiority. Reading the Ofsted reports of schools with Kev Bartle or Sapuran Gill on the SLT proves that some of the twitterati really do walk the walk. However, many of the finest teachers and school leaders are far too busy being fine teachers and school leaders to spend their time blogging about it or building a virtual PLN. I find it enriching, enlightening and helpful – but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.

My second point is that, just because only 10% of teachers are on twitter, doesn’t make it impotent. Twitter and blogging can reach beyond its users. I found out about @TeacherToolkit‘s Five Minute Plan on twitter, but I shared it with my colleagues and it’s now in frequent use across the school. We have a weekly “Blog of the Week” on our staff bulletin which many teachers read (an idea I poached from Shaun Allison on his Class Teaching blog). Our English Department is running a Poundland Pedagogy project though none of them are tweachers. Provided the ideas get into schools, they can spread – tweachers can be the vehicles for this but not all teachers need to tweet.

I wonder if the same is true for policy change? We know that Michael Gove read some education blogs, though he seems to be selective in his choices. The Headteachers’ Roundtable is a unit formed via twitter and blogging which has met with Stephen Twigg and recently with Tristram Hunt to outline what are, in my view, credible alternative qualifications/curriculum and accountability proposals. Twitter and edublogging pedagogy will spread beyond the reach of the platforms; will policy proposal and debate? I am definitely better informed as a result of my twitter and blogging habit, and this (I’d like to think) makes for better policy in my school. The fact that I have read some blogs therefore has a positive impact across the institution, not just on the individual reading the blog. In the same way as the attendees at #SLTeachMeet could influence over 40,000 students and over 2,800 teachers between them, a blog like Tom Sherrington’s Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy has the potential to influence students and teachers well beyond those who have actually read it. If only six secondary senior leaders read and act on that blog, it reaches nine thousand students; I suspect its reach is far greater than that.

If anyone were to ask me (and they sometimes do!), I would advise them to use twitter and blogging to inform their practice. You don’t have to be a tweacher to teach, and you don’t have to be a blogger to lead; but I think it helps.

Other twitter meta-blogs that I’ve enjoyed: