Limits Assembly

A Flea - as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

A Flea – as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

Fleas are remarkable creatures. They are usually between 1.5 and 3mm long, but they can jump 33cm horizontally and 18cm straight up into the air. If a flea was a person, this would be the equivalent of jumping straight up to the clock face on Big Ben, or clean from one end of Wembley Stadium to the other.

Apparently the key is jumping off with your toes, rather than your knees, as this video shows. Worth noting for sports day, perhaps?

What is even more remarkable about the flea, though, is that this quite extraordinary physical ability can be limited by one really simple intervention.

If you put fleas into a jar with a lid on for three days, they will only jump half the height they are capable of. In that time, they will learn that this is how high they can jump and then – even if you take the lid off – they will only every jump the height of the jar until the day they die, even though they are physically capable of jumping at least twice as high. And what is even more remarkable is that the offspring of those fleas, even if they aren’t kept in a jar, will still only jump to the height of the jar lid.


What invisible jar are you working within?

We, as humans, are just as capable of limitation. Think about the things that you don’t think you can do because somebody has told you you can’t. As small children, we believe we’re capable of anything, but usually we begin to limit ourselves. When will my daughter, currently five years old, stop believing that it is possible to become an astronaut? I hope, never; but I expect, soon. Not because I will do anything to limit her ambition but because, in the world in which we live, there are so many influences slamming that glass lid down and telling us “that’s not possible” or “you can’t do that.”

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister demonstrating what can happen when we challenge the naysayers. For decades it was believed to be beyond human capacity to run a mile in less than four minutes, but on 6th May 1954 Bannister did exactly that. To achieve this great feat he had to run at a speed of 15 miles per hour, covering each of the sixteen 100m distances in 14.91 seconds, showing incredible endurance. And what happened afterwards was really interesting, because his great competitor, the Australian John Landy, beat Bannister’s time 54 days later. It was almost as if Bannister was one of the fleas in the jar who had turned to a flea next to him and said, “what lid?” Since Bannister the record time for the mile has come down to 3 minutes 43 seconds. Bannister had proved what was possible; others followed.

Changes in the record for the mile over time

Changes in the record for the mile over time

So of course, the best weapon to combat those invisible limitations is ourselves. But the truth is, we often impose our own limitations on ourselves. As we grow up, we learn to protect our fragile egos from the embarrassment and pain of failure by stopping trying. We create little invisible prisons for ourselves within which we operate without even realising. We won’t put our hands up in class because…well…that’s not something we do. I won’t volunteer for that Change & Create Team because…well…I haven’t done anything like that before. Should I take up a musical instrument? Audition for the school play? It’s just not me. Should I go for an A in History? My challenge grade is only a B…it’ll be really hard. Try telling that to Roger Bannister.

The jar has no lid

I’m here today to tell you that your jar has no lid. You might not succeed, but as the Chinese philosopher Confucius said:

Confucius with pic

Disclaimer: this may not be an exact translation of the original Chinese.

This is the attitude that got people to the moon 45 years ago this month. When announcing the intention to go to the moon seven years previously, in 1962, President Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. 

This is called moonshot thinking:

Don’t be a flea. Remember, your jar has no lid. Jump as high as you can.

If you can’t see the Prezi embed, click this link.


As a few people have pointed out, the flea-jump-limitation thing is not scientifically corroborated anywhere. The idea that the limitation could be inherited seems beyond improbable. So, if you’re using this assembly, it may be worth adding a few caveats to the delivery!

Assembly – Challenge

My assembly for this first week back after Easter is based around the concept of Challenge. I’ve used the good old Chambers dictionary to help me. The Prezi is below; if you can’t see the embed, please click this link.

Challenge: 1. verb: to summon someone to settle a matter in a contest

In the first meaning of the word, we are encouraged to pit ourselves against others. These contests can be evenly matched, as in sprint races which are sometimes decided in hundredths of a second; sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. The difficulty in measuring yourself against the success of someone else is that you can never account for their level of preparation, skill or ability; your opponent is outside your control. Instead, I would like that “someone” to be yourself. Set yourself a challenge and test your own preparation, skill or ability against the standard you set yourself. What are you capable of?

Challenge: 2. verb: to subject to stress, examination or test

Challenge: to subject to stress, examination or test

Seriously, this was the definition in the dictionary. To challenge something is to test it, try it out, see where its weaknesses are. In the end, this is how your education is assessed in this country – your learning is put under examination. Whilst it is possible to shore up your work with last minute revision, quick fixes and sticky tape, the only way to guarantee that what you have learnt stands up to the test is to make sure that it is securely, properly learnt in the first place. This has the added benefit of taking the stress out of revision as you are going over things you already know again, rather than trying to learn them for the first time. To use the old cliché, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Talking of which…

Challenge: 3. noun: a task, undertaking etc. to test one’s powers or capabilities to the full

This Easter holiday I enjoyed three great sporting events which saw competitors testing their powers of endurance and stamina to the full – and beyond. Firstly, the London Marathon; the water-based endurance test of the Boat Race; and the equestrian challenge of the Grand National. I was sat on my sofa for all three of course, but I haven’t been idle, pushing myself in my own challenges. I am continuing to keep up with my New Year’s resolution of accentuating the positive, and I made a concerted effort to get back on track with my reading pledge challenge, finishing Mick Waters’ Thinking Allowed: On Schooling  and reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy cover to cover – both highly recommended.

Challenge: 4. noun: a difficulty which stimulates interest or effort

This is the kind of challenge that I’m really inspired by, and I’ve recently come across the story of NFL full back Derrick Coleman, celebrated in this advert for Duracell, which illustrates this idea perfectly.

Coleman was declared deaf at the age of three. Despite playing American Football through  High School and college at UCLA, he wasn’t picked in the NFL draft and was dropped by the Minnesota Vikings when signed as a free agent. However, the Seattle Seahawks gave him a chance, and he scored his first touchdown for them in December 2013 against the New Orleans Saints. Coleman is now a Super Bowl champion following the Seahawks 43-8 demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Coleman is a true example of resilience in the face of difficulty. Not all of us face the challenges that he faced, but we all have difficulties to overcome, be they physical, emotional, social, or other. How we respond to those challenges is everything; we can let them overwhelm us, or we can use them to stimulate us to try harder, seeking help where we need it and resolving never to give up.

And finally, a word about challenging behaviour…

Challenging behaviour in the classroom – East High style

In the books I was reading for my challenge over the holidays, Tris, the main character in Divergent impressed me with her “never give up” attitude, but it is Mick Waters I want to return to. Mick Waters talks about challenging behaviour, what he calls “giving your teacher a hard time.” He says that most students, when asked what they would do to give their teacher a hard time, would try:

  • Talk over your teacher
  • Rock on your chair
  • Leave your coat on
  • Forget to do your homework
  • Pretend you haven’t done your homework

However, what Waters goes on to say is that there are other ways to demonstrate really challenging behaviour. He recommends you try:

  • Asking for a more detailed explanation
  • Asking searching questions
  • Asking the teacher to help you understand the subject in more depth
  • Asking for detailed feedback on your work to help you improve
  • Asking for books and websites you could study on your own to help you understand more about the subject
  • Asking for places to visit where you could see the ideas and topics you are learning about in action

Try and challenge yourself to challenge your teacher this week. Push yourself to push them. You’ll both see the benefit.

Fiyero and the Scarecrow: defying gravity

In describing the visit of selected edubloggers to Ofsted, Tom Sherrington drew parallels with the visit of Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard.

Image via @headguruteacher

“Scarecrow has a brain!” concluded Tom, and it certainly seems that the bloggers have done good work in pulling back the curtain to reveal the mere mortal presence behind the intimidating smoke and mirrors of the spectral inspectorate.

For me, the stories of Oz have a resonance in my classroom, and in particular with the presence of Fiyeros in the student body. For the uninitiated, Fiyero is a character in the Geoffery Maguire novel Wicked, adapted into a wonderful Broadway and West End musical by Stephen Schwartz, telling a revisionist story of the origins of the witches of Oz. In the musical, Fiyero is a handsome prince whose introductory number is Dancing Through Life, where he lays out his simple philosophy:

The trouble with schools is
they always try to teach the wrong lesson
Believe me, I’ve been kicked out
of enough of them to know
They want you to become less callow
less shallow
But I say: “why invite stress in?”
stop studying strife
and learn to life “the unexamined life”

Dancing through life
skimming the surface
gliding where turf is smooth
life’s more painless
for the brainless
why think too hard?
when it’s so soothing
dancing through life
no need to tough it
when you can slough it off as I do
nothing matters
but knowing nothing matters
it’s just life
so keep dancing through…

How many Fiyeros have I taught? These are the students who will take the path of least resistance – “why think too hard?” It’s so soothing to ignore the challenge of the difficult path, shrug it of and not bother. The Fiyeros I teach will in fact expend huge amounts of energy and effort in attempts to avoid engagement with the academic challenge of the classroom, some of them to the point of being kicked out.

In the musical, Fiyero ends up (spoilers) being transformed into the brainless scarecrow we recognise from Baum’s original Oz stories, his lifetime of sliding away from challenges rewarded by an adulthood of ignorance. As we know from the 1939 MGM film, however, this destiny is far from the satisfying “ignorance is bliss” existence imagined by Fiyero:

Many young people will look at the challenges of the lessons we teach and sigh “if I only had a brain…” before giving up. How can we make them see the frustrations that adults feel at wasted time and effort in the classroom? How do we persuade the teenager intent on avoiding trying that, one day, their attitude will be a source of regret?

It comes down to the culture of the classroom and, by logical extension, the culture of the school. Opting out of challenge cannot be a viable route. Effort and engagement with learning should be so ingrained into the fabric of the building, the expectations of students, teachers, parents, leaders and governors, that the consideration of swerving it should be at least unattractive and at best impossible. All need to understand that difficulty is normal, that being daunted by a challenge is healthy, and that perseverance, resilience and determination are the essential ingredients to a healthy growth mindset.

With this culture in place, it’s my hope that I can help young people to have an attitude more like Elphaba: “unlimited – my future is unlimited” – and defy the gravitational pull of inactivity.

They’re never going to bring me down!

Learning is uncomfortable


This week at Year 11 parents’ evening I found myself giving the same advice to a series of conscientious, hard-working and keen students and their families. The advice went something like this:

There are two ways to mess up revision. One is not to do enough – then you will definitely underachieve. The second is to do too much. Then you will panic, get over-tired, and possibly make yourself ill. Then you may also underachieve. You need to find the “sweet spot” with revision where you are working just hard enough to achieve your best, but not so hard that you make yourself ill. 

Too much revision is as bad as too little

Too much revision is as bad as too little

It struck me on the drive home that this piece of advice encapsulates a really important dynamic tension in what good schools should do for students. I want my school to be an environment which does everything it can to ensure that young people are happy, and successful. Or, alternatively, successful and happy. But which way round should it be?

I’ve worked in and visited many different schools. Some of them have prioritised pastoral care, building relationships, and providing positive experiences for young people, sometimes at the expense of academic results. Others of them have had a relentless focus on academic progress and achievement, and have consequently been rather joyless places for young people to attend. I am fortunate in that my current school has the balancing act right, but it’s like finding the biting point on the clutch when you first learn to drive – it requires constant monitoring, feedback and minute adjustments of pressure to get it right. Sometimes you have to ease off a bit, sometimes give it a bit more gas. And the only way you get better at this tricky balancing act is through deliberate, thoughtful practice – and experience.

Getting the balancing act right

This tension is demonstrated in classrooms every time that good learning is taking place. For learning to be effective, students have to be confronted with something they don’t know, or can’t do…yet. This is, naturally, an uncomfortable experience. Some students find it very difficult and will look for ways to avoid the discomfort of a demonstrable lack of understanding or ability. This may manifest itself in misbehaviour or attention seeking to distract from the perceived failure. It may also appear in work avoidance and apparent distraction as the student’s mind slides away from the uncomfortable experience into the warm embrace of inactivity.

The best teachers make their classrooms safe havens, where students do feel comfortable getting it wrong. Where it is okay to admit that you don’t know, where it is fine to have a go and fail, and where there is no shame in making mistakes. This is only possible where there is trust that it is a non-judgemental environment where all learners expect to be challenged beyond their current capability. Pitching the lesson in what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, just beyond what they can currently do, is one of the key elements of effective differentiation and is essential if effective learning is going to take place. But it needs more than accurate assessment of performance and carefully planned and pitched activities; it needs the culture to be right. And whilst a teacher alone can create a magical culture in their own classroom, that task is simplified a thousandfold if it is a manifestation of the culture of the school as a whole.

Laura McInerney has proposed this area – Productive Emotions –  as the second of the Touchpaper Problems being explored through research: “How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?” The question was explored by a team led by Eleanor Bernades and Katharine Vincent at the recent Touchpaper Problems Party and I’m fascinated by it. The best teachers can invoke this emotional state, providing challenge and the security that allows learners to feel uncomfortable, safely. How do they do it?

From my observations, it seems that they have:

  1. An passion and enthusiasm for, and an excellent command of the subject matter
  2. Crystal clear expectations of both behaviour and attitude to learning
  3. The emotional intelligence to perform the minute recalibration of delivery required for the individuals, groups, moods, day, time, season and wind direction of the moment
  4. The confidence of the learners that the first three are consistently present day in, day out, in every lesson

Lessons have to provide the challenge of the climb and the security of the safety harness at the same time. Schools should do the same. 

How do you think teachers in the classroom, and leaders on a whole school level, can best balance academic challenge with personal well being? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Bullying, Blame and Behaviour Management: what Educating Yorkshire can teach us

As I hoped I would in an earlier post on this blog, I am really enjoying Educating Yorkshire. The most recent episode caused a bit of debate on twitter, showing as it did the varying fortunes of Georgia and Jac-Henry after they were involved in a fight at the start of the episode. In case you haven’t seen it – which, of course, you should do! – here’s a brief summary.

Georgia accused Jac-Henry of calling her names. He alleged she said “if I’m a slag then what’s your mum?” which provoked him into attacking her. She may or may not have stamped on his head. In the subsequent investigation she denied the comment about his mother, so she was returned to lessons and he was excluded and referred for a course of anger management. Outside the head’s office, but on camera, she admitted that she had made the provoking comment. Outrage ensued. Poor Jac-Henry. Excluded again later in the year following another provoked fight, he responded to his friend Brandon’s sense of righteous injustice with the heart-rending comment: “I’m not being bullied; I’ve got an anger management problem.”

Jac-Henry and his friend and champion, Brandon (via Channel 4)

Jac-Henry and his friend and champion, Brandon (via Channel 4)

Many tweets were quick to condemn Jonny Mitchell for getting it wrong. The victim of bullying was excluded and blamed. The bully lied, was believed, and went straight back to lessons. But I don’t think it’s that simple. We’ve only seen an edited version of what the cameras were able to catch of the incident. The producers have spun a narrative out of it, casting the two youngsters in roles and stitching the fabric of the footage to fit. We don’t know much of their history, their background, or their circumstances, beyond what the producers shared to flesh out the representations they’ve chosen to construct.

My tweet on #educatingyorkshire featured in the 4Seven broadcast

My tweet on #educatingyorkshire featured in the 4Seven broadcast on 13th September

I applaud the bravery of Mr Mitchell and his staff for letting this episode be broadcast and showing just how complex and difficult the process of managing behaviour in a school can be. In any incident of this type, no matter what the TV producers want to construct, there is very rarely a clear-cut right and wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever known one student assault another for no reason whatsoever. It comes down to whether or not you can ever tolerate the use of violence to solve a problem in your establishment. In my book, that’s a non-negotiable. If you throw a punch, no matter what the provocation, you are going to be in trouble.  The “anger management” offered to Jac-Henry in the episode was, I thought, a helpful intervention to support that young man in managing his emotions without physical aggression. It was dreadful to hear him label himself in the later incident, and to see himself as guilty in a scenario where he was more victim than villain, but his humility and willingness to accept his sanction was laudable. 

Georgia: victim or villain? (photo via Radio Times)

Georgia: victim or villain? (photo via Radio Times)

As for Georgia, she too was excluded for her refusal to comply with the school’s rules, and her repeated transgressions resulted in the use of the “nuclear warhead” sanction of banning her from the prom (HT @Andyphillipday). Her confrontational attitude saw her branded “proper mental” by her admiring classmates, and “difficult, but charismatic” by Headteacher Jonny Mitchell. Her provocation certainly caused the fight and her behaviour towards her tutor was horrendous. But only one of her three siblings had made it to the end of secondary education successfully, and it struck me that Georgia was as much in need of support to control and change her behaviour as Jac-Henry.

Image via Channel 4

Image via Channel 4

In the first fight with Jac-Henry, Mr Mitchell believed Georgia’s story; the cameras proved he was wrong to do so. Whenever a senior member of staff is investigating and deciding on a serious behaviour incident such as a fight or an assault, in the absence of concrete evidence it’s going to come down to a balance of probabilities and who, in your experience, you believe to be telling the truth. This episode illustrated that all too well. It also showed that, when children misbehave, the school’s responsibility is not just to punish but to support and teach them how to behave better. This is not a simple, linear process. There isn’t a pack of photocopiable worksheets or one day course in a hotel that will achieve it, no matter what the marketing flyers in your in-tray tell you. It’s chipping away, modelling, providing constructive outlets, and constant, consistent reinforcement of the boundaries; it’s slow, frustrating, fraught with failure and setback; but it’s amongst the most important things that schools and teachers do. 

Assembly – Grit and Flow

My assembly this week is hugely indebted to Alex Quigley‘s excellent blog post Winning Ugly: The Secrets of ‘Gritty’ Teaching and Learning, and to David Didau‘s Grand Unified Theory of Mastery. If you haven’t read either of these, I can’t recommend them highly enough. My aim is to talk to the students about the need for “grit” if they are to achieve the “flow” that they aspire to.

@LearningSpy's Grit/Flow Cycle

@LearningSpy and @TheRealMrRoo’s Grit/Flow Cycle, designed by @Pekabalo

As the students come into the hall I will be playing this video, showing Itzhak Perlman performing Antonio Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins: 

This astonishing performance establishes the concept of “flow” at pretty much its zenith! Flow, then, is being able to do something well. So well, it seems almost effortless. Perlman manages to make this most fiendish of pieces in the classical violin repertoire seem like a breeze, remaining seated, flourishing his bow, enjoying the performance.

My second illustration of "flow"

An illustration of “flow”

How, then, should we go about achieving this state of flow? Counter-intuitively, to achieve this apparently frictionless and smooth process, we first need to apply “grit” to give us traction.

“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.” (From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson via HuntingEnglish)

“Grit” is perseverance; hard work and effort sustained over time. This grit will give the learner purchase on the slippery surface of the learning in just the same way as we grit an icy road to allow traffic to flow freely.

Grit means putting the hours in. Putting in the time. Putting in the effort. Repeating something until you know you can do it well. Itzhak Perlman says (here) that repetition is the key to successful practice – again and again and again. Slowly. He does give a warning though – there is such a thing as too much practice. I’m sure the students will breathe a sigh of relief, until they hear that his idea of “too much” is anything more than five hours of the same thing in one sitting. Now that is grit.

My challenge to the students is to aspire to “flow” in all their learning by applying “grit” in their lessons and at home. I will speak to them about the importance of deliberate practice – not just “doing work” but thinking about the knowledge and skills they are applying to the task and how they will use the process to improve.

I started the assembly with Perlman playing La Ronde des Lutins – the dance of the goblins. I will finish with another example of La Ronde, this time from the masters of “flow” FC Barcelona:

This training ground exercise is the perfect mesh of grit and flow – deliberate practice demonstrated by those who demonstrate mastery. And enjoy it.

You can view my assembly Prezi here.

The Tika Taka clip is from another excellent HuntingEnglish post: Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill’


In delivery of the assembly I thought I would demonstrate “lack of flow” by attempting to play La Ronde des Lutins on the violin myself. I can’t play the violin. “How,” I asked Year 9, “am I going to get from sounding like this” – scratch, screech, squeal – “to sounding like Itzhak Perlman?” And we’re off…

In the dinner queue, lunchtime. Year 9 boy: “your violin playing was pretty good actually, sir.”


The importance of enjoyment

I know that it is a fool’s errand to try and argue with anything that Old Andrew says, for fear of being called a phonics denialist, Gorilla, or enemy of promise reinforcing low expectations in the face of “all the evidence”. Well, here goes…


In making “The Case against Michael Gove” our anonymous blogger makes the following argument about what is currently wrong with the teaching profession:

Nobody is going to rise up the ranks in teaching for saying that the highest priority is the recall of knowledge and that teachers should explicitly teach knowledge without regard to whether it is enjoyable. 

There is nuance to this argument, so let me make something plain – I am not against teaching knowledge. I am all for explicitly teaching knowledge. But teaching anything without regard to whether it is enjoyable? Yikes. In my book, that is bad teaching. Anyone who plans a lesson without regard to whether it is enjoyable should, in my view, think again.


Don’t misunderstand me, please. I accept that there are some parts of our curriculum, no matter what subject you teach, which are really hard to make “fun” but are nonetheless critically important. Sometimes, in front of class, we have to say: “you know what, you just have to learn this, so let’s get on with it as painlessly as possible.” I know this. I accept this. I teach like this. But that is very different to teaching without regard to whether it is enjoyable. That is the result of a planning process where I have decided, after careful thought, that the most effective way of getting this learning across is through simple direct instruction and cyclical reinforcement. You just need to know this.

It’s also important to state that I’m not a “progressive” in that I’m all for direct instruction. I believe direct instruction is a vital part of the teacher’s repertoire. But direct instruction is not incompatible with enjoyment, surely? Some of the best teachers I have worked with can hold a class rapt as they talk, from the front, for half an hour on a key learning point, enthusing and carrying the learners with them as they probe and develop their understanding. Students can walk away from lessons like that with their heads spinning with new ideas, and have really enjoyed the experience.


My point is this – children should enjoy learning. Instinctively, they do; everybody does. But this enjoyment needs to be nurtured or it will flicker and fail. Not at the expense of high expectations, but in conjunction with them. One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Rachel Jones‘ newly-revamped CreateInnovateExplore, which is full of posts where she looks to try and engage students in their learning by finding a way to make the content memorable and – yes – fun. I was first hooked as she hand-made a parachute so that her students could bounce revision questions around to one another. Of course, it would have been easier and more time-efficient to sit them in rows and just ask them the questions, but classrooms should be about more than that. The same is true of Lisa Jane Ashes’ Thought-Bombing, or Isabella Wallace’s Poundland Pedagogy, or so many other examples of teachers planning with enjoyment in mind. 


I do not think that fun should be the point of the lesson. “Can we just have a fun lesson today?” is student-speak for “can I opt out of actually learning anything?” My stock response is always “every lesson with me is packed full of fun, so turn to page 394.” No, learning should always be the point of the lesson, and if the learning gets lost then the lesson is unsuccessful. But if I can find a way to make the learning engaging, “stickable“, pleasant and, yes, enjoyable then I’m going to use it.

Of course, I am a Deputy Head. I do agree with Old Andrew on much of his argument beyond the enjoyment point: “while good leadership is so important to schools, bad leadership will only become more toxic as the power of SMT is increased” does ring true to me. But good leadership to me includes valuing, praising and encouraging teachers who can engage, motivate and inspire young people not just with the knowledge and skills they need, but with the enjoyment and pleasure that taking on the challenge of learning brings.

Limited public image

The public trusts teachers. Honestly – they do. Look, here’s the proof, from the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll in February 2013:


The public place more trust in teachers than in TV newsreaders and judges. 86% of British adults trust teachers to tell the truth, whereas only 18% would trust a politician to do so. On the balance of probabilities, then, it’s clearly quite likely that Michael Gove is spinning a line when he describes us as “Enemies of Promise” or “The Blob”, or when he argues that we should work for longer each day and with less holiday, or when Sir Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Yet the damage done to the morale of the profession by these attacks – what Polly Toynbee calls “teacher bashing” – is immense.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the profession itself contributes to the erosion of our public image with utterly impractical union conference motions passed – teaching should be capped at 20 hours a week, for example. Little wonder that even within the NUT a group has sprung up to decry the hard-left headline grabbers. Ian Grayson, a member of the NUT national executive, said:

“The vast majority of NUT members are well-educated, reasonable people who just don’t feel the same way as the extreme left who take the podium. Industrial action has a place, but we oppose calls for perpetual industrial action. We would tend towards a programme of constructive dialogue instead.”

Unsurprisingly, Grayson’s stance didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Instead, Gove went on the offensive with his attack on The Blob and implication that we’re workshy chancers who should work for longer, despite the international evidence that more contact time does not improve educational outcomes.  He is pressing on with the introduction of a performance related pay system which all the evidence is against to tackle the problem of a failing education system which isn’t, if you look at the evidence, actually failing.

So how can we tackle this erosion of our wonderful profession?  What can we possibly do? Go on strike? A strike will surely play into the hands of an education secretary spoiling for a fight. It makes it easy for him to brand teachers “enemies of promise” and accuse them of not caring about the kids and their hard working families. Taking him on anywhere but at the ballot box is not going to help.

Instead we need to build on the “programme of constructive dialogue” that has begun. Groups like the Heads Roundtable have shown that it is far more productive to offer a rational, evidenced alternative solution to what is offered than to stand shouting “No! We don’t like it! Stop! We have no confidence in you!”. Debra Kidd, whose brilliant performance on Channel 4 news represented the profession so well, has written a persuasive call to get behind Mick Waters’ education spring. And Michael Gove himself has given schools and teachers the freedom to set our own pay and conditions, to design and implement our own curricula, and to run schools the way we think they should be run. This is how our profession can succeed. We have more power than perhaps we realise.

If we teach well and set the agenda in our own schools, our great profession can be impervious to the attacks and accusations that are thrown at us. The trust that is placed in us to cherish, nurture and teach the most precious asset that any person will ever have – their children – will only be repaid if we continue to do that job brilliantly and with the kind of dedication that is the daily norm for the vast majority of teachers. It isn’t easy, and it’s likely to get tougher and tougher as economic, social and political conditions challenge us. But teachers are equal to it if we keep our attention firmly on what matters – the young people entrusted to us. Because if we do what we do, and do it well, we will be unassailable.

Positive Language

I read a post by whenisitdueinsir  yesterday, which has inspired me to conduct an experiment. The blogger noticed that a “mufti day” or “home clothes day” at primary school becomes a “non-school uniform day” at secondary. The shift from positive to negative language on transition from KS2 to 3 slides past almost unnoticed until foregrounded.

I thought back through my week at school and wondered how many children I had told to “stop” doing something, or “don’t” do that, or who I had given a flat “no” to. Bill Rogers clearly outlines the benefits of using positive language in the classroom, so I know I shouldn’t (there I go again). In fact, Tom Sherrington’s post about Rogers reminded me of it only a month or so ago.

So I am making a personal pledge in my own teaching to refocus myself on positive language. “Stop talking please” will become “Could you please listen carefully?”. “Don’t log on yet” will  become “please wait until I have given you all the instructions”. “Don’t push” will become “could you please wait your turn.” And not just in the classroom either – in conversations with staff and parents I am going to make every effort to use positive language. Gone is “that option combination won’t work”; in its place: “have you considered Media Studies?” I will try to avoid “don’t let students out before the bell” and go for “please wait until the bell before dismissing your group”. And “that won’t work” will be completely off limits unless I can offer a positive alternative.

This isn’t just a gimmick. When something is prohibited or forbidden, it sets up an oppositional relationship and breeds negativity. When, instead, I say what I do want to happen, offer the path that I would like the students to take, give a solution rather than just identify a problem, I hope to avoid that trap and create a culture that has positivity and collaboration in its very fabric. Truth be told, I think this should be a whole school cultural bottom line – and maybe that’s something we could look at!

So if you work with me, follow me on Twitter, read this blog, or if you’re in one of my classes – please try to catch me out! I’ll thank you for it.

We shouldn’t be pushing our brightest students

Brightest pupils failed by state schools, chief inspector warns

So blared the headline in the Sunday Telegraph article published today, in which Sir Michael Wilshaw ordered a “rapid response survey” into provision for the most able in state schools. I very nearly sent a reactionary tweet having seen the headline, full of the usual ire and frustration at another teacher bashing article in the press, but then I read it. And, in amongst the misrepresentation and misconception, I was forced to concede that some of what he was saying made sense.

That is not to ignore some of the problems, however:

“The report was disclosed after league tables showed that hundreds of secondary schools did not produce a single pupil with high enough grades in tough academic subjects to win a place at elite universities.”

The “facilitating subjects” measure introduced in this year’s performance tables seems to have been swallowed whole and without question by much of the media. Let me just say here, though, that this is a nonsense. At my school, 7% of students qualified for the facilitating subjects criteria in the performance tables, yet almost 25% of them secured places at Russell Group universities. The measure is profoundly flawed and runs the risk of forcing bright students into a curriculum straitjacket which will stifle their enthusiasm and damage their chances of success.

However, it is a travesty that Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, St Paul’s Girls and Hills Road send more students to Oxbridge between them than 2000 state schools combined, no matter how much statistical jiggery-pokery was involved in creating that comparison. And Wilshaw himself, despite the Telegraph’s gloss, is at pains to point out the inequities that league tables create:

“I would like to see GCSE league tables reformed,” he said. “The anxiety to get as many through those C boundaries have sometimes meant that schools haven’t pushed children beyond that. We need sophisticated league tables which show progress. Youngsters leaving primary school with level 5 should be getting A*, A or B at GCSE.”

He’s right. Although, of course, progress measures for English and Maths are included in the performance tables already and are at the centre of Ofsted’s own RAISE Online analysis. Inspectors are already far more concerned with progress and value added than they are with headline attainment, floor targets notwithstanding, and it is these performance measures by which schools are judged in the current inspection regime. But that doesn’t undermine the central point that progress should be the headline figure in performance analysis, not attainment.

What truly prevented my from composing the reactionary tweet was reading words from Sir Michael Wilshaw which could have sprung from my own mouth.

He said that as state schools were improving, middle-class families were beginning to trust the system, highlighting his own experience in east London. “It is a chicken and egg situation. Parents in Hackney were moving their children wholesale out of the borough, particularly middle class parents, 10 years ago. They are not now. If schools get better, aspirational parents will remain in the state system.”

This is exactly the point I was making in my post “The Past Feeds the Present“. We need our state schools to be so good, so irresistible, that parents who are currently choosing independent schools will look at the options and put their children into the state sector. Not because it is cheaper, but because it is better: better academically, better socially, and better for the whole child.

Finally, then, the crux of the matter:

Inspectors will investigate concerns that bright pupils who are taught in mixed ability classes are failing to be stretched and…pushed to the full extent of their abilities.

Kenny Pieper has written a great post explaining and justifying exactly why the attack on mixed ability teaching is without foundation, and of course Tom Sherrington has it right when he says “every class is a mixed ability class” no matter how selective your intake or rigorous your setting. These great bloggers tackle the first part of that paragraph far better than I could, so I would urge you to follow those links and see what I mean.

“Are schools pushing them in the way they should be pushed and are pushed in the independent sector and in the selective system?”

What I really take issue with is the idea that teachers should be “pushing” children at all. I don’t see the job of teaching to be “pushing” anyone. I don’t want to be standing behind my class, shoving them up to their potential; such an image has connotations of coercion and reminds me of the metaphorical donkey-driver with a stick but no carrot. If anything, teachers should be pulling the students up by challenging them to reach their potential – or beyond. I see the job of the teacher to raise students’ aspirations, to set sky-high expectations of every child and to refuse to give up on believing that the the child is capable of reaching them. The job of the teacher is to provide the skills, knowledge, resources, climate and environment for each child to thrive. In my lessons I want to create a space above where my students are currently achieving, into which they pulled as if I had opened an airlock door onto a vacuum. I don’t want to push them out of the door – I want them to be pulled through because they know what is expected of them and they want to achieve it. This is perhaps what Tom Sherrington means by “A Total Philosophy” for gifted and talented; and as he says in his excellent post comparing the experiences of comprehensive and selective education:

“The idea of learning without limits has to be the goal. It is not about pushing; it is more a question of removing barriers or taking off the lid; of getting out of the way.”

We need to provide this culture of learning without limits for all our students, not just the brightest, and raise their aspirations to the point that they are pulled towards their potential – no pushing required.