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

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

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 everybody succeed?

When I listened to John Tomsett speak about his whole-school growth mindset approach at #TLT13, I felt genuinely inspired. John has helpfully summarised his talk here. Head of Year and science teacher Ashley Loynton, who was sat next to me, is currently running a pilot project at our school ahead of a wider roll-out of growth-mindset strategy, which you can read about here. One of the most interesting aspects of this development for me is testing my own thinking about growth mindset. Do I really buy into Dweck’s ideas? Harry Webb has sounded a note of caution, and I take the points he makes in his blog about the dangers of a growth mindset bandwagon being misunderstood and misused. However, the blog which really got me thinking about my own approach to growth mindset was Mark McCourt’s Every Single Child Can Pass Maths back in March. Mark is an ex-colleague of mine and I have complete faith in his assessment of things educational. His excellent blog argues that, given the right conditions and approach, every single child can pass Maths – i.e. become a functionally numerate mathematician at Level 2 standard. So the question I pose myself as a Deputy Head in charge of the curriculum is, do I believe it is possible for every single child to “pass” Maths and English at Key Stage 4?

It is very clear that some in the political sphere do not. Dominic Cummings, ex-special advisor to Michael Gove, argued in his paper Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities that genetics has a far greater influence on educational outcomes than teaching. This week, Boris Johnson has poured scorn on the 16% of “our species” with IQs below 85 with a clearly deterministic view linked to Cummings’ philosophy. I reject these approaches instinctively – they make my skin crawl – but I need to force myself to examine them rationally. Am I wasting my time? Are there some kids who, no matter how hard we try, are never going to pass Maths and English?

One barrier to overcome is comparable outcomes. A Level 2 pass – currently a grade C and GCSE – is no longer linked to a standard set of criteria. Although grade descriptors still exist in the appendices of English specifications, the assessment criteria provide only a numerical mark which is scaled to a uniform mark scale (UMS) in each exam season to award grades comparable with previous seasons. In other words, to make sure we don’t get more Cs, As or A*s this year than last year. This statistical determinism bears a striking resemblance to Cummings and Johnson’s arguments, in that it presupposes that better teaching will not increase the proportion of young people meeting the standard year-on-year. Which rather makes me wonder exactly how schools are supposed to deliver Sir Michael Wilshaw’s vision of continuous improvement in results when the results can only ever be comparable to the previous seasons…

The conclusion I’ve reached is that I think that Johnson, Cummings and comparable outcomes are wrong. Plain wrong. And that I do, as Mark McCourt does, genuinely believe that every child can pass Maths and English with the right conditions. I could not bring myself to stand in front of a class if I genuinely believed that some of them had been born incapable of succeeding. But of course they don’t all succeed currently, so what needs to change?

My thoughts on this are still being formed. I am writing this really to test out my own beliefs – will they stand up to public scrutiny? This is the true advantage of edublogging for me. If I find myself unable to defend my position on any of this over the coming weeks I’ll know I didn’t have it right in the first place. Where I find myself on firmer ground I’ll know I’ve found a true value. Here’s what I think we need to do if all children are to “pass” English and Maths:

  1. We need to all believe that all children can succeed – without this inherent belief failure and underachievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

    Getting the basics right ensures that learning is built on a firm foundation

  2. We need to get the early basics right – the building blocks of successful literacy and numeracy must be secure or the whole edifice will tumble. The accountability system at primary school encourages teachers to move children onwards and upwards to the next level when it should be encouraging complete security at the level below. As I argued here, I don’t blame Year 6 teachers for coaching children to the new Level 6 tests but I worry about the security of the level 5 work underpinning it.

    Graphic (via @headguruteacher)

  3. The role of the family is vital – this month’s #blogsync deals with this topic and Tom Sherrington has written with characteristic vigour about the benefits of the “pushy parents” and the cognitive gaps between rich and poor. One of my most popular posts dealt with the Matthew Effect which argues that those who are brought up in word-rich environments where families value education have an intellectual and cultural capital which allows them to progress more rapidly still, whilst those who are not have nothing to grip on to education with. Changing the culture of those families who do not value education is a lifetime’s work, but there is no more important work for a teacher than that.
  4. All abilities should work together – hiving off the most able into separate streams, sets or schools sets a cap on the aspirations of those left behind whatever numerical cap is dictated by budget or facilities. Kenny Pieper lays out the case for all ability education here, and I have argued about the social importance of mixing all abilities and social backgrounds here. If a student is in a class – or a school – where they never get to see what a C looks like, much less an A*, how can we hope that they will aspire to achieve one?
  5. The core should be run through the whole curriculum – literacy and numeracy are the keys which unlock other learning. Every teacher should be developing knowledge, understanding and skills in these areas every day by providing explicit teaching of the literacy and numeracy elements of their specialisms. Requiring deliberate practice of literacy and numeracy skills should be part of the repertoire of every teacher, not just in a box-ticking “literacy across the curriculum” add-on but in a fundamental, foundation stone way. 
  6. We should abandon Key Stages so phases can work together – some students arrive in Year 7 too far behind for secondary schools to close the gaps enough. Every week in #SLTchat somebody mentions the importance of EYFS. I find the divisions into key stages unhelpful as it implies a shift where there should be a continuum. Anything we can do to collaborate and work together cross-phase is a must if we as a system are to turn out literate and numerate adults.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.

What is the purpose of education?

This month’s #blogsync topic invites idealism. So, here are my ideals:



Firstly, I believe education should be about helping children discover their individual voice. My mantra is that I am helping young people to find the best means to express themselves, and ensuring that they have the education to know what it is they want to express. I still really believe this, and I strive to achieve it every day.


Secondly, I believe education is about creating a sense of social and community responsibility. Schools have the potential to be utopian, as the members of our mini-societies have boundless energy and the capacity for collaboration, empathy, sympathy and selflessness.



Thirdly, I believe education is about fostering a love of learning, not just as a means to an end, but as an indulgence of an innate curiosity that lies at the heart of human nature. We are a remarkable species with the ability to think beyond ourselves. Schools which are true learning communities are wonderful, vibrant and exciting places to be.

Rampant idealism aside, the topic deserves a more critical appraisal too. There are tensions at the heart of the education system which I have been wrestling with since a Twitter chat with @JamesTheo some months ago – so long ago, in fact, that I now can’t find it. Our discussion focused on the dissemination of values through teaching. The more I think about it, the more I think that our existing education system is about the transmission of a set of traditional middle-class English values into society. These values include a respect for authority, obedience, and the social prejudices which see “a degree from a good university” as more valuable than  a technical or vocational qualification.

I’ve seen this transmission of values in action throughout my career when following up fights where the antagonist’s defence is “my dad told me not to take it sir; he said if he called me names I was to smack him. So I did.” Without thinking, I use the well-practised lines: that violence is not the answer. That he should have walked away and told a teacher. That, no matter what the provocation, there is never any excuse for lashing out.  Or, to put it another way, the values his father has instilled in him are wrong, and that mine are right.

Twice in my career I have caught myself trying to persuade confident bright young women that they don’t really want to study hair and beauty at college and they’d be much better staying at school to do A-levels. Both of them had ambitions to manage their own salons; I wanted them to go to university instead and, presumably, to get a “better” career. On both occasions I failed and both of those young women are now running their own successful businesses. They were right and I couldn’t have been more wrong. But the system – including me – is prejudiced to think that a vocational route is inferior to an academic one, and every time I meet with a young person to talk about post-16 progression I have to balance this prejudice with what I am seeing and hearing in the interview.

The same thing goes for the structures of a school. I profess to foster and develop individuality in an institution where everyone wears a uniform and moves from one place to another at the same times every day to sit together and complete the same programme of study as every other child of their chronological age in the country. Is this really a system set up to allow young people to find their own voice?

It’s all very well to talk about keeping politics and education separate, but this is impossible: education is a political process. To an extent, it is about preserving the values of the dominant middle classes by imposing them on the nation as a whole, in the hope of building a society predicated on those values. I don’t express this to be negative; only to draw attention to the realisation that I have had about this “hidden purpose” in the classroom.

Of course, no system of national education is ever going to avoid this issue of values transmission. I think my job as a school leader is to think critically about which of them should be challenged, and which upheld. I take a long hard look in the mirror and think about what values I want to transmit myself.  Personally, I try to balance the value of vocational, technical and practical education with traditional academic routes against the prejudices that were inherent in my own schooling. But, no matter who says different, it’s never okay to use violence to solve your problems.

Above all, the most important thing for me is not to let the system be a barrier to the ideals. Schools can foster individuality, community and learning, even if this is sometimes despite, rather than because of, the structures within which we work.

This post is a response to the September #blogsync. Read the other contributions here.

What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?


I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.


I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it.

This is a response to the April #blogsync topic.

Progress in a lesson – knowledge

Many bloggers have written persuasively about how difficult it is to see progress over the course of a single lesson, and how it is a ridiculous demand for senior leaders to make when observing a single lesson that in order for it to be outstanding “progress is at least good for different groups and is exemplary for some.” I agree, but there are clear instances where I can see progress in a single lesson in my classroom, and these seem to be around the acquisition of knowledge. A student can come in to my classroom not knowing how to use colons and semi-colons to construct a complex list, and they can leave knowing it. Students can come in not knowing the difference in camera movement between a pan and a crab or a crane and a tilt, and leave not only knowing it but having filmed using them. They can come in to the classroom not knowing who the “Havisham” in Duffy’s poem is, and they can leave wanting to read more of Great Expectations. This learning can happen by discovery in a carefully planned inductive activity, it can happen by direct instruction, it can take the whole lesson or five minutes. I can check it in a mini-plenary, via whiteboards, thumbs up, traffic light cards, a homework, or if I’m feeling particularly Ofqual a twenty-question in-silence written test.

Knowledge matters. It is of critical importance that children leave my lessons knowing more than they did when they came in. Imparting knowledge is part of my core responsibility but, it seems to me, is the simplest bit of this most challenging job.

Progress over time – skills

More difficult to quantify, and with much less “stickability”, is the development of skills. This is a long game. As Tom Sherrington memorably put it, “it takes the time it takes”. You can develop skills through direct instruction, but this is more about modelling, trial and error, repetition, and what David Didau calls “deliberate practice“. In other words, the students themselves have to develop and strengthen the intellectual muscles used in that particular skill. The ability to construct an evidenced and persuasive argument is something that develops slowly, over time. I rehearse it in writing, applying the skill to Shakespeare or school uniform, smoking or Seneca; I repeat it in spoken debate with feminism, Marxism, media theory on in-role character defences. I will use the process to intervene, refining and developing the skill in written feedback or spoken interactions, and I will plan peer assessments so the students can benefit from each other’s expertise.

Progress in skills is rarely linear. Students will often produce a stunning assessment, then slip back in the next one. Slowly, incrementally, they get there. How do I know? Because I am a subject specialist – I know what I am talking about. I know what an evidenced and persuasive argument looks like, I know what a well-edited cross-cut film sequence looks like. I know the difference between a “sophisticated” piece of writing and one which is “assured”.

The hard thing with assessing skills is, that unlike with knowledge, there are so many ways to get them right, so many degrees of success. There are infinite shades of grey in each of my examples above, and in each case I have to apply my judgment. Sometimes, my judgment will not agree with AQA’s or OCR’s or Ofqual’s, in which case I will protest and make representations and appeal but, ultimately, refocus my attention on the students. I still know what a sophisticated piece of writing is, but it is essential for my students’ success that I also know what AQA think a sophisticated piece of writing is and that they get the benefit of both definitions.

Progress that really matters – development

The progress that matters to me most in my classroom, however, is not subject specific. One of the real privileges of teaching 11-18 is seeing students arrive as children and leave as adults. The influence that teachers can have over young people in this phase is a humbling and heavy responsibility. Schools should help to shape tomorrow’s adults with compassion, empathy, a sense of responsibility, an understanding of the world around them, and the confidence to make their own minds up. I strive to provide students with the skills to express those qualities in the best ways they can. Often, I won’t see this progress in my classroom. But, sometimes, a few years later, an ex-student will pop back to school, or I’ll see them in the street, or a shop, or on holiday, or they’ll contact me on Twitter, or, as has happened five times so far in my career, they apply for a teaching job at my school. Then I’ll see it. I’ll see what well-adjusted, astute and confident adults they turned out to be. I’ll remember them at 14, and know that I played my small part in that astonishing metamorphosis of growing-up. And there is no prouder moment for a teacher than that.

Wasted investment?

Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years?

This month’s #blogsync is a challenge for me. My pension statement reminded me that I’ve been teaching for 13 years and 151 days last week, and I have never in that time considered leaving the profession. I have had bad days: bleak Friday afternoon lessons with Year 9 where nothing I tried would make them listen; staff and students in dire personal circumstances; terrible micromanagement from over-zealous senior leaders; results dips; bureaucratic burdens too many to mention…but I love this job. I love the children I work with every day. It is a privilege to work alongside professionals as dedicated, selfless and sharp as my colleagues in school past and present. I have never wanted to leave.

Maybe I’m an exception. I’ve always known I wanted to teach. As a teenager I was helping out  on summer music and activity camps and doing work experience in local schools. My Grandpa, both parents, and an uncle are teachers. Okay, so that is quite unusual. But am I really that exceptional? I’ve thought back through my career, through the end-of-term gatherings to say goodbye to departing colleagues, and other than those retiring or going on maternity leave, I can’t think of a single one who wasn’t going on to another teaching job. I reckon I’ve appointed about thirty NQTs or new teachers in my career, and all of them are either still teaching or full-time parents now. I know there’s a problem – everyone keeps telling me there’s a problem with teacher retention. But it’s not a problem I have any personal experience of.

There are problems though with teachers in the profession who probably should be doing something else. I pledged to myself when enrolling on a PGCE that, if I didn’t like it and I wasn’t any good at it, I wouldn’t continue. I’d been on the receiving end of teachers who clearly didn’t enjoy what they were doing and didn’t want to be there, and it was a terrible, soul-destroying experience which made me drop French in Year 9. It must be terrible to be a teacher and not enjoy it. What a nightmare. How could you carry on? But they do – hating the children, blaming them for not listening and not behaving in their classrooms, moaning about how much they have to do, spending every lesson shouting and battling… Teaching is an all-consuming job. You can’t leave it behind at the school gates. Part of your brain is constantly planning, worrying, and making to-do-lists for school. It really is a vocation. This isn’t a problem if you love it, but if you don’t…grim.

Of course there are a million and one things that conspire to make the job unbearable. The national policy compass swings at an almost impossible pace. The accountability framework is punitive and threatening. Pay and pensions are being reformed unfavourably. Many media representations of the profession are negative and loaded with blame. Teachers have to cope with an ever-increasing burden of social problems which make the process of education more difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Yet there are solutions to all of these at school senior leadership level.


I have blogged before about how senior leaders should be like magic umbrellas, shielding their staff from the crap raining down from above. This is part of the essential function of senior leaders. We can’t make Ofsted, Gove, poverty, neglect or bad parenting go away, but in every case we can mitigate and mediate. The principal burden of Ofsted inspections lies with senior teams; the inspection essentially tests the accuracy of the SLT’s self-evaluation judgements. A good SLT wil not pass the pressure and stress of Ofsted on to their staff. SLT set the staff performance management and appraisal agenda within their own schools; a good SLT will ensure that these are fair, transparent and developmental. SLT puts the curriculum and support structures in place to provide the best opportunities for learning for all children, tailored to the intake and context of the school.  SLT have the incredible responsibility of interviewing and hiring the staff in the first place, exercising critical quality control and looking for the sparkle that comes from a love of teaching and an unabashed enthusiasm for the privilege of working with young people. SLT sets the ethos of the school – trusting and supportive, or punitive and controlling.

Of course, some teachers will join the profession and find it’s not what they thought or wanted. They will leave; they should leave the profession. It’s best for them and it’s best for the children they teach. If your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t be doing it. But when the spark of a great, dedicated and passionate teacher is there, it is the duty of school leaders to catch it, nurture it and provide the conditions in which it can thrive.

“Thinking aloud” and teaching the writing process

This month’s #blogsync is all about classroom practice – “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject” – and I have revisited some work I did with Nottingham University on cognitive approaches to writing some years ago.

The Theory – intended impact and reflection on effect

The cognitive theories of writing – Flower and Hayes (1981, revised 1996) and Bereiter and Scardamalia – focus on the processes in the brain of the “expert” writer as opposed to the “novice” or student writer. Essentially, the theory goes, the writing process consists of two bodies of knowledge – content knowledge (knowledge of what you are writing about) and discourse knowledge (knowledge of how you construct a piece of writing). At its simplest, this process is rendered as “Knowledge Telling”:


Critical to the understanding of this process is that it is only when pupils have a confident grasp of one body of knowledge can they focus intently on improving the other. The “expert” writer has highly developed discourse knowledge and is able to use processes such as planning, organising, translating and reviewing to interact with the writing problem in front of them (e.g. essay title, #blogsync theme…) to move into a model which is closer to “knowledge transforming”:


In the latter model, the dual problems of what to write and how to write it are constantly redeveloped and reassessed in the light of one another. This is cognitively complex, but it is the model towards which we should  be moving students in the teaching of the writing process.

I am enacting the knowledge transforming process now in this blog post, constantly deleting and rewriting sentences, changing the order, cutting and pasting a section from here to there, but what you, the reader, will see is the finished product, not the process. And, in teaching, the process is the most important thing. Providing students with examples of the finished product (“an A-grade essay looks like this…”) is not futile, but far more important is to provide students with example of how to write an A-grade essay…

The expert writer – the teacher or a student – needs to model the thinking that is going on as the text is constructed by thinking aloud and explaining what choices are being made and why, both in terms of content and discourse. This is not easy and I have on more than one occasion had teachers wonder what’s going on in my classroom as I rehearse writing a poem, an argument or a description whilst narrating aloud what is going on in my head! But, without practice, this can be muddled in the classroom, so I continue…

The think-aloud process should be followed by co-constructing the text with the students as a shared writing approach. The aim in both these processes is to expose the cognitive processes to enable students to see what happens “behind the scenes”. The Martin/DSP wheel outlines many of the elements of this approach:


In my classroom – description of classroom action and evaluation of impact

To explore the application of “think-aloud” and shared writing, I used the approach with two separate Year 8 groups when teaching analytical writing to explore “The Highwayman”. I wrote a paragraph whilst articulating my thoughts, composed another paragraph together, and finally moved into independent writing. Following the lessons I gave them questionnaires to evaluate the impact. From the questionnaires, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • 80% found the demonstration of discursive writing helpful
  • 94% found the shared writing experience helpful
  • 70% found the teacher’s “think-aloud” talk helpful

In pupil interviews, this was refined by the explanations that a barrage of “think-aloud” talk was too much to take in. Pupils found it difficult to extract useful information from the “think-aloud” although they understood the process better. The sheer number of decisions made in constructing sentences and paragraphs of writing became obvious but no less challenging. This evidence makes the rehearsal of the think-aloud even more imperative to distil and structure of the thinking and avoid the barrage effect.

Engaging staff in the explicit teaching of writing

When working with staff on this approach I ask for a Diamond 9 ranking which I reproduce here (Thinking Aloud 9) in the hope that readers of this blog can take these ideas into their own classrooms. The idea of the exercise is for teachers to evaluate what they see as most important about teaching the writing process:


  • “Thinking Aloud” and being totally explicit about the process
  • Encouraging pupils to contribute
  • Showing precisely how writing is constructed
  • After modelling , scaffolding the learning through shared or guided activities
  • Making visible and explicit the “structure” of the process, concept or knowledge
  • Building in time for pupils to reflect on the process
  • Breaking down the process into a series of manageable steps
  • Enabling pupils to do it independently
  • Encouraging pupils to think for themselves or to ask their own questions

I’d be interested to know the thoughts of readers of this blog – please let me know in the comments!  And finally, with staff as for readers of this post, I would urge you to:

  • Choose a genre or type of writing used in your subject and try demonstrating it for your pupils
  • Consider how you might use pupils as experts to model as an alternative to the teacher
  • Plan a range of activities which will help pupils to make a bridge from modelling to being able to use the process independently