Colour coded self-assessment

This year every member of our teaching staff belongs to a Teaching and Learning team. These cross curricular groups are working together to improve pedagogy as described in my post Teaching and Learning Leaders. There are six teams: Research, Feedback, Independence, Engagement, Differentiation and Mindsets, and the work of each team is posted on our Echewcation teaching and learning blog.

I belong to the mindset team, and this term I have been working with colleagues from Maths and Languages on using self-assessment to improve redrafting. The concept is based on Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence, and the principles of improving work over time through specific feedback. This is best encapsulated by his famous “Austin’s Butterfly” example – mandatory viewing for all teachers! Just in case you haven’t seen it:

In Berger’s example, the work is improved through kind, specific and helpful peer feedback. I worked on this principle last year (see my post on Closing the Gap Marking and Feedback), and this year I have been looking for ways to encourage students to be more independently reflective on the quality of their initial drafts so that they can see how to improve. The principle we have been exploring in our teaching and learning triad uses colour codes for students to self assess their drafts.

Students use colours to identify successes

Students use colours to identify successes and drive progress

The idea came from our Head of RE and PSHE, Lou Pope (@philosophypope on Twitter), who had used the technique with her groups. When she explained it to the Teaching and Learning Team, I knew I had to give it a go! Here’s how it works:

  • Students complete a first draft of a task, with clear success criteria established
  • They go through their drafts, highlighting where they have met each criterion in a different colour
  • They then reflect on the pattern of colours – which criteria have they consistently met? Which have they met the least? Whereabouts in the work have they achieved the most success? And the least?
  • Redraft…and repeat until excellent.

Photo 11-06-2014 18 11 17

I liked this approach on several levels. Firstly, the act of colour coding the draft forces the student to evaluate every aspect. If they’re not highlighting part of their work, what is it doing there? How is it contributing to the success of the piece overall? Secondly, the visual nature of the finished product was very appealing. It would be easy to see the balance within students’ work of one element over another, and for students themselves to recognise what they needed to do more (or less) of.

I decided to run a trial with my Year 10 GCSE Media Studies group, who were working towards a controlled assessment in Advertising and Marketing based on perfume adverts. The students have never studied Media formally before, so they are still getting to grips with the conventions and demands of the subject, but they are making superb progress. As part of the assignment they need to analyse two existing adverts. I got them to complete this through marginal annotation, then unleashed the coloured pencils! Students had to choose four colours and highlight where they had:

  • used media terminology to identify technical features
  • explored the connotations of the technical features
  • commented on representation
  • commented on the impact of the advert on a specific audience

The gallery below shows a selection of the students’ drafts with their highlighting:

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After the highlighting process, the students evaluated which success criteria they had covered in detail, which only touched on, or which they had omitted completely. They then  began a second draft, some using the same adverts as in their first draft and others choosing to to apply what they had learned to new texts. The new drafts are barely recognisable – they are light years ahead of the first versions, and the students are really proud of the progress they have made. I will update this post with some of the improved work in the next week!

My next step is to apply this to my GCSE English class as they complete their next assignment, in a bid to help them to move towards becoming the reflective, self-improving learners that our Dweck and Berger-inspired approach is aiming for.

Colour coded self-assessment – highly recommended!

YouTube Day with Poppy, Jack and Dean

It’s one of the undeniable privileges of being a teacher to watch students you’ve taught go on to make successes of themselves. There’s pride of course, and also relief that you didn’t make a complete hash of it and ruin their lives. On Friday last, three ex-students of mine from Media A-Level past came back to school to work with current students on the course – I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I taught Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs when I worked in the East Midlands. During our A Level classes we often watched the latest funny sketch they’d made for their YouTube channel OMFGItsJackandDean – now re-branded Jack and Dean. Their channel now has nearly 400,000 subscribers and their sketches have had over 22 million views. They have over 200,000 Twitter followers between them, which puts even Tom Sherrington‘s follower count into perspective. They’re presenting a weekly show for Radio 1 on the BBC iPlayer, they’ve played a series of live dates including shows at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festivals – in short, they’re doing very well for themselves! Students I teach have actually heard of them. It’s very strange.

Poppy Dodgson was a more recent graduate of my A-Level group, and was in Year 13 the last time Jack and Dean visited. She’d already started to make videos on her poppylikesyou channel, and has since gone on to study Art at university, specialising in installations incorporating video.

We set the day up so that all students taking Media got a session with the YouTubers. For the GCSE students this was a chance to see one possible end point for the GCSE they had chosen, and also to learn some tricks of the trade. Jack carefully explained shot composition using their videos as examples, and took questions from the floor. For the A-Level students, it was a chance to get real examples of how the media works in the online age and how self-publication and dedication has led to a career. Also, for me, it was great to hear my determined insistence on meticulous planning of video shoots with storyboards, shot lists, schedules and risk assessments supported by the YouTubers, who gave the voice of experience to those just starting out!

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At lunchtime our guests agreed to a meet-and-greet with students not taking media, either as a result of being in the lower years of school or through some poor decision making around options time…the queue stretched all the way around the block – it was quite strange to see students I’d taught held in what can only be described as adulation!

The afternoon session was perhaps the most useful of all. Following a great discussion of music video (during which Poppy shared her A-level coursework video and expertise), the current students loaded up their work in progress and got feedback and critique from those who had been there, done that, and gone on to the next level.

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I’m very luck to have taught students such as these – past and present – but any teacher in any subject can benefit from staying in touch with ex-students. Whilst the magic dust of celebrity definitely helped the message to stick, there was huge benefit for the students to see that the work done in school genuinely leads somewhere, and to hear advice offered by their teachers endorsed by voices of recent graduates. Over the coming weeks we’ll be asking current Year 12 students to visit Year 11 classes to discuss approaches to revision and exam preparation, using the same principle – “we were you not so long ago, and look at us now! Here’s the advice we wish we’d had…”

Thank you so much to Poppy, Dean and Jack for their time and efforts. Here’s to the next YouTube day!

Flappy Bird and a Growth Mindset

The GCSE set topic for Media Studies this year – the promotion and marketing of video games – has been a steep learning curve for me. As ever with a subject like media, the students themselves have been a great source of case study material, and it was during our latest investigation into the marketing of Finnish gaming giant Rovio’s Angry Birds Go! that the students introduced me to Flappy Bird. 

Thanks to Kerri and Rhianna from 11D/Me1, this is what I do now...

Thanks to Kerri and Rhianna from 11D/Me1, this is what I do now…

For anyone that doesn’t know, Flappy Bird consists of the animated bird pictured above. You tap the screen to make it flap. You have to flap through the gaps in the pipes. That is it. It’s hellishly difficult. I currently have a high score of 7. Whenever I tell Year 11 this, they look at me with a mixture of contempt and pity. My Twitter timeline is haunted by tweets such as:

Fortunately, I have found a way to turn my frustration into productivity through the wonder of metaphor, because Flappy Bird is the embodiment of the growth mindset. No matter how many times that bird bangs into those damn pipes, it gets up and has another go. Failure is not definitive. My Year 11, with their high scores of 17, 28, 35, and a rumoured 62, have engaged in continuous, deliberate practice of exactly the same dull and repetitive cycle again and again and again, celebrating each tiny incremental step of progress and maintaining resilience where others might descend into mindless rage. I want them to approach their revision with the same dedication and attentiveness as they approach Flappy Bird. 

If only they can stop playing it long enough to actually revise.

Intriguingly, the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, seems to have gone fixed mindset about the game’s incredible success, announcing its removal in a tweet…

Clearly he can’t get past his current high score.

Using performance tables as a lever for change

League Tables - how far can they drive school policy?

League Tables – how far can they drive school policy?

One of the strategies used by the current education secretary to enact policy quickly is to use the performance tables as a lever for change. This has several advantages. Firstly, it does not require legislation or debate in parliament. This avoids any troublesome opposition – not that there has been much to speak of to date in any case. Secondly, it is fast, and the pace of change is really the hallmark of the current DfE’s policy drive. The secretary of state can make a decision about a change, leak it to the press to gauge the public’s reaction on a Sunday, then make an official announcement in the early afternoon of Monday tweaked to pick up on any of the major problems gathered from the Sunday tester. Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, changing the construction of the performance tables is the kind of soft compulsion that puts schools in a lose-lose situation. This was most evident in the changes to early entry GCSE announced on 30th September. The text of the official announcement reads:

If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans. Any pupil who does enter early from this point on will still be able to retake if they receive a disappointing result. That result will not count towards the performance tables for their school, even if it is an improvement on their earlier entry, but pupils will still be able to use their best result to support applications to further and higher education, or for employment.

This strategy forced many school leaders to confront their consciences. Which do we care more about – the school or the students who attend it? Of course, these are (or should be) one and the same. At #TLT13 Jamie Portman memorably said that when his school buildings burnt to the ground in an accidental fire he learnt that “a school” is a community of people that exists independently of location or environment. A school really is that – a community. When national policy drives a wedge between the school and the students in it, there is something wrong with that policy.

Further amendments to the performance tables have continued, including the 14th October announcement of full-scale reform to secondary school accountability. On the face of it, Progress 8 seems like a step in the right direction, in that it incentivises progress for students of all abilities rather than just at the C/D borderline. In a Progress 8 world, it makes a difference to the school whether a student gets a D rather than an E, or an A* rather than an A. Of course, it should already matter to the school. But does it? Here, the tables are being used to leverage change that I see as potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive, albeit with the massive flaw that progress is being measured from an average points score baseline in KS2 English and Maths to a GCSE grade in whatever eight individual subjects a student happens to take. And that their progress is measured as better or worse than the national average for their peers with similar prior attainment, meaning that half the schools in the country will automatically have negative progress and half positive. Which means that one school can only do well in the new accountability measures at the expense of another. Aside from that, as I say, potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive.

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)

This use of the tables as a policy lever has been evident from the early days of the new Department for Education. Back in December 2012, the policy on the table was the English Baccalaureate Certificates. I was so incensed by the proposals that it made me start this blog. A key component of this policy was that the EBCs were going to be offered by a single examination board. To get around the awkward problem of commissioning a multi-million pound contract to a monopoly, all the exam boards were to be invited to submit EBC specifications which would be openly offered to all schools. However, only one EBC specification per subject would be approved by the secretary of state for inclusion in the performance tables, thus effectively (though not actually) creating a single national specification. As it happens this particular monstrosity was the subject of a U-Turn on February 6th when parliament heard that the replacement of GCSEs was “a bridge too far.”

Were EBCs really a "bridge too far" or are they being ushered in under another name?

Were EBCs really a “bridge too far” or are they being ushered in under another name?

In actual fact, many of the elements of the original EBC proposal have still been enacted under different names. The proposals for new GCSEs sound very like the EBCs but under an old name – linear, single-tiered, exam-only terminal assessments graded numerically and only offered in the EBacc subjects. The latest rumours in the press include the removal of “soft” subjects (including, apparently, PE, drama and media studies) into another, as-yet-unnamed, form of qualification outside the GCSE stable. So, rather than promoting EBacc subjects to a new EBC qualification, non-EBacc subjects will be demoted. And, presumably, not included in the performance tables (which only include GCSEs).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

This year, we are running a core ICT qualification at KS4 which does not count towards the performance tables but is definitely the best fit for our students in that it will provide them with the skills and knowledge we feel they will need the most. We feel the course we have put together is in the best interest of the students whether or not it counts for the performance tables. We have maintained the November entry of all our English Language candidates in Year 11 because we believe it is in the best interests of our students even though it may impact on our performance table 5A*-CEM figure. Dance and Drama are discounted against one another at GCSE (meaning that if students achieve both they only count as one in the performance tables) – we offer both and will continue to do so because we believe that this is in the best interests of our students even though, if students take both, the school only gets the credit for one. The same goes for subjects not on the DfE post-Wolf-report approved list either now or in the future – if they are in the best interests of the students it is the school’s duty to include them in the curriculum offer.

In summer 2014, the school’s performance tables figures will not reflect the actual examination achievements of students at the school. John Tomsett has described how, in York, “all secondaries have agreed to publish “final result” figures…when the DfE performance tables are released.” We shall certainly do the same on our website, as will any school (I would imagine) which continued with November entry. We will also include achievement in non-performance-table qualifications and pack the site with the broader, deeper life of the school. Any parent who even looks at the performance tables will certainly also look at the school’s website, and I want them to find the beating heart of the school there. I wonder how many do actually go to the tables at all?

Raise Online will be an issue. The new floor standards will be based on Progress 8 and are described as follows:

Our intention is that schools will fall below the floor standard if pupils make an average of  half a grade less progress than expected across their 8 subjects. So, for example, a school is underperforming if its pupils were expected to gain 8 Cs (because that’s what their peers, with similar prior attainment, secure elsewhere in the country) but they actually achieve less than 4Cs and 4Ds.

Falling below the floor standards could result in special measures, constant scrutiny and forced academisation. Heads could roll. But surely – surely – offering a curriculum that is right for the students, rigorous, challenging, demanding and broad, is defensible. School must be more than just academic. It must be.

And, if the performance tables don’t show the results that students actually got at a school, how can they have any value at all?

Representations of teachers on TV

I know I am not the only one to have noticed the sheer number of school-based programmes on TV recently. Something in the air perhaps? David Walliams’ new sitcom Big School has joined the second series of Jack Whitehall’s vehicle Bad Education on the BBC, prompting this from @jofacer:

It also prompted the Guardian’s Secret Teacher to write the column headed “TV shows about teachers keep missing the mark“, bemoaning the lack of a “a programme that dares to take the real issues of the school day and dramatise them”. As a media teacher, I have to say that you can’t expect a sitcom to deliver a realistic representation of teaching or the school day. I’ve seen Fawlty Towers, but I don’t think it’s a realistic representation of hoteliers. I watched The Thin Blue Line but I knew that police stations probably weren’t like that. I know that market traders in real life don’t normally end up with a shipment of sex dolls accidentally filled with high-explosive gas.


I’ve watched Big School and Bad Education. Of course they deal in stereotypes; that’s how sitcoms work. They aren’t that original: Phillip Glenister’s Mr Gunn is indebted to Brian Glover’s Kes creation Mr Sugden, whilst the entire class in Bad Education seems to be based on the same stereotypes employed with knowing irony in the Andrew Lincoln series Teachers in 2001 (featuring a young Kara Tointon as “the slutty one” and a pre-History Boys James Corden as “the fat swotty one”). Neither of the current shows is brilliant, but I have chuckled at both; Catherine Tate’s repeated boasts about “my last school” in particular amuse me. However, in both cases the school serves as a situation in which to base the comedy, using the stereotypes to get a pretty cheap laugh. Of course it isn’t really like this.

Hardy perennial drama Waterloo Road is due to return for its ninth series this week. The trailer below gives a sense of where this series sits:

The Science teacher is called Miss Spark – see what they did there? The Secret Teacher bemoans the melodrama of the story lines in Waterloo Road, calling them “far-fetched to the point of disappearing over the horizon.” Of course. What did you expect? The school is the situation in which the melodrama takes place – this isn’t a social realist fly-on-the-wall documentary.


Advert for Educating Yorkshire designed by Saskia in Year 10

Talking of which, Channel 4 are offering Educating Yorkshire. If you’re looking for a fair representation of life in a school, then a documentary should surely be a better bet than a sitcom or a melodrama? There’s pedigree here as this show comes from the same stable as Educating Essex, which made stars of Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew. I am certainly looking forward to it, and when discussing it on twitter having seen the first trailer, I got this wonderful reply from Mr Drew himself:

If Educating Yorkshire doesn’t do it for you, Sky1 have Harrow: a very British school promising an insight into the public school which educated Churchill and Byron. Me? I’m looking forward to All Back To School in which Mr Drew tries to help children at risk of permanent exclusion by intervening with them and their families. In the summer holidays. Why bother with the fictional schools in the sitcoms and dramas when the stories in the real ones are so funny, heart-warming and life-affirming?

A tale of two photographs

I found two photographs of politicians in classrooms this week. I was struck by the similarities – and differences – between them.

Photo 19-05-2013 10 21 34

The Secretary of State for Education looks awkward as he leans forward on his chair, off balance, as though he could fall any moment. His hand is cupped around his ear in an exaggerated attempt to make out what the children are saying. He towers above the children, trying to bring himself down to their level but unable to do so. He wears his jacket as though his visit is only fleeting. His expression is clownish and self-conscious. The girl nearest to him is amused by this funny man in her classroom, knowing that he isn’t really listening but is putting on a show for the benefit of the cameras. The other children don’t know how to react; they want to do the right thing and look beyond the frame for help and guidance.

President Barack Obama visiting Moravia Park Elementary School in Baltimore

The President commands respect as he leans back in his chair, stable and relaxed. His hand is raised in the air in an exaggerated attempt to provide the right answer to a question. He towers above the children, but is acting as one of them. His jacket is off and shirtsleeves rolled up as though he is settled in to the lesson. His expression is earnest and intent. The boy nearest to him is amused at this funny man in his classroom, knowing that he has the answer but is putting on a show for the benefit of the cameras. The other children don’t know how to react; they want to do the right thing and look beyond the frame for help and guidance.

I don’t know whether this juxtaposition says more about the superiority of American politicians in manufacturing a photo-op, or more about the superiority of this particular American politician. What I do know is that Michael Gove looks ridiculous, and Barack Obama looks…great.

Canon Fodder

Michael Gove, in what has become known as his “Mr Men speech“, made reference to “a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works” as something which the curriculum should adhere to. He made this reference to summarise the arguments put forward by Joe Kirby in his blog Pragmatic Education to play Stephenie Meyer off against George Eliot for his rhetorical conclusion. His message is clear – Canon=good, trendy=bad.


Earlier in his speech, he derided the text choices of candidates (i.e. teachers) in English Literature GCSE, using the 16,929 candidates who “chose” An Inspector Calls as evidence of low expectations and seeming to hold up the single candidate who had studied She Stoops To Conquer as a beacon of rigour in a sea of mediocrity.

I have a problem with this. I would choose An Inspector Calls over She Stoops To Conquer any day. Not because I’m some trendy left-wing let’s-teach-computing-through-dance slave to engaging relevance – because, let’s face it, the dual context of composition and setting for An Inspector Calls is at least as distant from contemporary teenage experience as Goldsmith’s comedy – but because it’s a better play.

How do I know it’s a better play? I’m not going to justify it here. The fact is, I think it is. I have made a judgement that this play is better than this other play. I have done the same as F.R. Leavis did in the 1930s and the same as Michael Gove did on Thursday. I made a value judgement about the quality of literature that was not directly connected to when it was written.


Old does not equal good

This is a perennial bugbear of mine. I remember the fury and outrage at the list of the worthy published in the National Curriculum for English (2000) as the prescribed content for the “English Literary Heritage”.  The list persisted in the 2007 revision as follows:

Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, William Blake, Charlotte Brontë, Emily
Brontë, Robert Browning, John Bunyan, Lord Byron, Geoffrey Chaucer,
William Congreve, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins,
Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, John Donne, John
Dryden, George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliver Goldsmith,
Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Henry James, John Keats, Christopher Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, John
Milton, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, RB Sheridan,
Edmund Spenser, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Henry Vaughan, HG Wells, Oscar Wilde,
William Wordsworth and Sir Thomas Wyatt

I’m not denying the quality of the writing that the people “on the list” have produced. But as a qualified teacher of English with a degree in the subject I resent being told what is good. I hate Sheridan. I find Wilkie Collins formulaic and potboilery. Defoe wrote one half decent book. Sir Thomas Wyatt may have been an early adopter of the sonnet but he’s no Shakespeare. Six women on a list of forty-five?

Of course, Gove is all about removing the prescription and putting the power back in the hands of teachers. Which is why his draft National Curriculum proposals for English at KS4 only specify:

studying high-quality, challenging, whole texts in detail including:

  • two plays by Shakespeare 
  • representative Romantic poetry 
  • a nineteenth-century novel 
  • representative poetry of the First World War
  • British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War 
  • seminal world literature, written in English

Finally, I get to decide what “high quality, challenging” texts are. I can choose. In my mind, An Inspector Calls is better quality than She Stoops To Conquer. There is also no doubt, however, that my students would find She Stoops To Conquer much more difficult. So which should I go for? Which provides the rigour?

Engaging and relevant does not equal good either, does it? 

breaking dawn book

Of course it doesn’t. I really enjoyed Breaking Dawn when Bella finally became a character rather than a vapid pining excuse for inertia. I thought it was the best of the four Twilight books but it couldn’t hold a candle to His Dark Materials or even the Carnegie winning Chaos Walking trilogy I’ve just finished. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was “good”. But then, who am I to judge? What Twilight and Harry Potter are is engaging. This is a quality all of its own. Kids read them, lap them up, devour them. The writers have tapped into something that speaks directly to readers and grips them. This is a good thing. I suppose the adult equivalent is Dan Brown – sales by the bucketload, gripping legions of readers with writing that is at best formulaic and at worst…well…terrible.

David Didau (@learningspy) has written about Robert Swindells’ Stone Cold in the same light: 

“it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read it’s not particularly worthy of study…So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

I’m not sure I agree on this example. I think there is some merit in the twin-track narrative of Swindells’ novel and there is some good suspenseful writing in it. But I agree with David’s principle here – “we should encourage students to read anything and everything, [but] we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.”

Whose cultural capital?


The English curriculum, as I have blogged about before, must help young people understand their culture. The texts we study, and the contextual understanding they bring with them, help us to understand the roots and evolution of our society, as well as speaking timelessly of the human condition. They provide important cultural capital in a society which values this knowledge. However, a curriculum rooted too much in the past does the richness of contemporary culture a disservice. I proudly teach Media alongside English, and there is real cultural capital in knowledge of the media. It’s not capital valued by Michael Gove and his National Curriculum (in which media is completely excised from English), but it is capital which has real traction. And the humanising influence of a good, well-told story can be as powerful in modern TV drama as in seventeenth century poetry.

As with so many of these artificial debates, the solution is in the balance. Nobody – nobody sensible anyway – would deny the importance of knowing and studying canonical works. Nobody would deny the importance of reading widely; I would not seek to prescribe what anyone reads, provided they are reading. It seems as though nobody is talking about the importance of contemporary, multi-modal and media texts as worthy of study – but they are.

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.

Finding a real context in lessons

…or…the day Maisie Williams came to school.

I was really inspired by Summer Turner’s “Thinking Outside the Books” post on providing context for learning, as this is something I have always striven to incorporate into my own teaching. Part of my passion for media studies comes from the fact that it is so readily contextualised. Each year the AQA GCSE exam is a simulation of a “real” media brief and the students respond in role as if they were producers; the OCR A-Level course we follow incorporates an institutional case study as half the AS exam. This helps ground the subject in the world and give the students the kind of context that Summer was alluding to in her excellent blog. In this post I hope to outline one of the best examples of this it’s ever been my pleasure to be involved in – the day Maisie Williams came to school.


My GCSE media class were really buzzing after YouTubers Jack and Dean visited the school to talk to them about film making, scripting and editing back in November. In a chance conversation following this visit, we were discussing who I should try and get as our next special guest. One of my class mentioned that she had a contact with Maisie Williams, currently starring as Arya Stark in the HBO hit drama Game of Thrones. I had to sit down at this point. I love Game of Thrones. I’ve seen every episode, read all the books (so far), got the box set. Not only this, but Arya is, for me, the best character in it. And, on top of all this, Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Arya is mesmerising.

As the recent Guardian blog said of her performance in Season 3, “Maisie Williams continues to shine, perfectly capturing both Arya’s humiliation at being disarmed and her later desperation to escape before the Hound revealed all.” Needless to say, this was going to happen.

It was then that I realised this was an opportunity for some genuine context-based teaching. Rather than get Maisie in for a Q&A with the class about being on a film set, the TV industry, and production processes (interesting though this would doubtless be) I decided to take a different approach. The students have to create magazines as part of the practical production assignment in media studies, and usually dress each other up as pretend celebrities for one another. This requires an extra level of invention in creating a completely fictitious character but here, on my doorstep, was a genuinely talented actress in a hit TV show. I asked whether she’d be up for a “press junket” simulation, and she agreed. Unbelievable.

My students were split up into magazine production teams. Each team was set a different genre – high end fashion (Vogue, InStyle), women’s glossy (Elle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan), TV Guide (Radio Times, TV & Satellite Weekly), Film (Empire, Total Film) and teen (TOTP, Sugar) – with example magazines issued. They researched the genre and worked out what sort of photography would be required, and what sort of interview questions they would need to ask. For homework they worked as journalists to prepare for the interview, researching Maisie’s career to date and the various projects she’s been involved with. We borrowed the A-level Photography lighting rig and DSLR cameras, a drama studio from Performing Arts, dictaphones from English, and hired a photographic backdrop from our film-making Performing Arts technician. We were ready…


Let me just say, Maisie Williams is lovely. A charming, humble, but clearly hugely talented young woman. She could not have been more helpful. And my GCSE class, who are also lovely on a daily basis, excelled themselves – they were professional, well-prepared, and conscientious in their work. It was as close as we could get to a “real” experience; a live interview and photoshoot with a real actress to generate the material for their practical productions. I sat back, snapped a few photos, and let the day unfold. It was a privilege to be there. The students are now working with the photos and recordings from the day to construct their magazine features and front covers – the first of many if Maisie’s career continues on its current trajectory!

As if having one of the best days of my teaching career wasn’t enough, it was also Maisie’s 16th birthday. A House Stark cake was the least we could do to thank her for giving up her time so freely…

Maisie Birthday


UPDATE: here is a selection of the magazines the students produced. I’m really proud of them! If you can’t see the embed, click this link.

Why I teach

I’ve really enjoyed two unrelated articles this past week. The first, by Tom Bennett, was entitled “Why do you teach?“, and emotively and powerfully outlined the moral imperative for the occupation that I am so passionate about. The second, by Tim Lewis, gave a really insightful account of the rise of “YouTube superstars” as a viable alternative to TV (something I blogged about for my A-Level media students here a few months back following a similar feature on the cover of Wired).

Photo 06-01-2013 12 50 29

Tom Ridgwell, better known as TomSka, one of the young and talented film makers cited in the Tim Lewis piece, was rightly excited by the article:

But his good mood was soon punctured as he scrolled down to the comments section

I read the comments with a sinking heart. It was the normal Guardian comments fare: a tirade of negativity, of “look-how-clever-I-am” cocksure arrogance, of ignorance and bloody-mindedness and sneering cynicism. They are best summed up by this tweet:

The negativity in the comments stream really got my back up. Here was an article in the mainstream national media singing the praises of the creativity, innovation and talent of young people in Britain. Vlogging and online video of the type covered here isn’t aimed at “someone in their mid-OK-late 30s” like Tim Lewis or me, but good on the Guardian for covering it. There is some brilliant content out there and the knee-jerk rejection of it made me furious.

I know first hand what goes into those channels; in my last job I was privileged to teach Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs who now have nearly a quarter of a million subscribers to OMFGItsJackandDean. Jack and Dean kindly came down to my current school in November to speak to GCSE and A-Level Media students about film-making and online media; to say they were inspiring would be an understatement, since most of my GCSE class now have the duo’s autographs on their exercise books and the afternoon spawned the hashtag #ilovemedialessons on Twitter. There are some excellent vloggers in my current school whose videos are genuinely funny, engaging and interesting.

This brought me back to the Tom Bennett article and the subject of an assembly I prepared originally for my Deputy Headship interview but which I have revived recently – why I teach. The assembly uses audio clips of my own children’s language development to illustrate what is, for me, the point of education, which it to ensure that young people leave school:

      1. Having something to say
      2. Being able to say it well

The assembly uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to illustrate how education moves what a child has to say up the pyramid from the baby crying for milk to the teenager grappling with the concepts of morality – higher order thinking, if you will. As teachers we enable young people to understand the world better, giving them the knowledge required to have an opinion and the expertise to back it up. At the same time we provide them with the tools for self-expression which allow them to convey those thoughts in the way that suits them best. I use music, speech, writing, and dance as examples, but the online video being created and uploaded every day by talented young people with something to say and the confidence and skills to say is something to be celebrated, not denigrated.

As a teacher if I can help a young person make sense of the world and their place in it, and help build their skills so they can confidently and creatively express that knowledge, I consider my job well done. And I hope I teach them the value of positive reinforcement, understanding, tolerance and celebration so that the comment streams of the future look different to those of today.

Postscript: here are a few of my favourite YouTube sketches in a handy playlist!