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.

Closing the Gap Marking – Twilight CPD

As part of our twilight INSET programme this year I am delivering a CPD session on marking. It’s a great opportunity to bring together lots of ideas from lots of superb bloggers, teachers and thinkers – it’s been quite difficult to condense everything down! Here is the Prezi I’m using in the session (click this link if you can’t see the embed):

I have also adapted this session for Pedagoo South West and a 45 minute version of the 90 minute session can be found by clicking this link, along with the video of the session on YouTube.

The aims of the session are to improve the effectiveness of marking without spending more time on it. This will be done by looking at:

  • Public Critique (via Tait Coles here)
  • Triple Impact Marking  (via David Didau here)
  • DIRT (via Alex Quigley here)

Why are we looking at marking? Because…well, I’ll let Phil Beadle take this one:


I chose that photo on purpose.

The key thing to first is identify the gap that we’re trying to close. Fortunately, Tom Sherrington already has this covered in his Making Feedback Count blog:


Graphic adapted from @headguruteacher

It’s the gap between students receiving the feedback and acting on it that we need to address. There is no better example of this process in action that Austin’s Butterfly, also blogged about by Tom here, and demonstrated by Ron Berger himself here:

Nowhere is the power of feedback on performance better demonstrated than in this example! Our feedback needs to be:

  • Specific
  • Hard on the content
  • Supportive of the person

And by “our”, of course I mean peer and teacher feedback, since Berger’s example is primarily focused on teacher-mediated peer feedback.

To demonstrate this, I ask colleagues to undertake a public critique exercise (inspired in part by the Alan Partridge clip used by Tait Coles at TeachMeet Clevedon). I ask staff to produce something to a set of criteria – a haiku, in the Prezi example – and submit it for public critique using Tait Coles’ critique sheets. I have adapted them so that there is space at the top measured for post-it notes to fit into – because I’m obsessive like that. You can download the Public Critique Sheet here.

Following reflection on public critique and applications in practice, we move on to Triple Impact Marking. This idea comes from David Didau and is captured in this presentation from his blog:

A key component of Triple Impact Marking is DIRT – Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time. Alex Quigley explains the concept in detail (with links) here, but essentially students need TIME to act on the feedback given. This is where the gap is closed. I have been as guilty as any teacher of handing back meticulously marked books, asked my class to read the comments, and then got on with the next bit of the course. What. A. Waste. Well no more – we’re getting DIRTy.

To conclude our look at feedback, who better than Dylan Wiliam (via Mark Miller here):

This emphasises the importance of creating a successful feedback culture to enable a growth mindset. No grades. No levels. Specific targeted feedback, hard on the content, soft on the person.

To conclude the session, an exercise looking at managing marking workload. Many of these ideas come from another excellent Mark Miller blog, found here. There are twelve strategies and staff note down the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy in terms of learning and performance gains and workload implications. The idea is to evaluate each strategy in terms of its overall cost benefit to the busy classroom professional.

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

Twelve Tips and Tricks for marking and feedback

As a takeaway I’ve also adapted the sheet that Tom Sherrington blogged from Saffron Walden High School – you can download the Student engagement with written feedback sheet which can be seen here:
Increase marking impact
What has become clear to me in planning this inset is how rich my personal learning network is. The blogosphere is teeming with great ideas about marking, feedback and critique – all I had to do was synthesise the great work of others and stitch it into a package that will fit into 90 minutes of a dark, January evening. I hope it will go well!

It’s not skills – it’s know-how

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until I stopped to think.

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


Knitting together the threads of knowledge creates a resilient network

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

This post has been added to #blogsync February 2015.

First Anniversary – a year of edublogging

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

Happy 1st Birthday to Teaching: Leading Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me with Maisie Williams in April 2013

Me with Maisie Williams in April 2013

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

#TLT13: Great Teaching – Your Way

This blog outlines my session at #TLT13, which in itself was a version of the CPD programme we ran at Chew Valley last year as detailed in my posts: Outstanding teaching and great teachers – a whole school CPD approach and Outstanding teaching and great teachers (part 2).

CVS Outstanding Lessons

What makes an outstanding lesson? And who decides?

Ofsted set out their criteria for evaluating the quality of teaching and learning in an institution as a whole. In their School Inspection Handbook, footnote 42, it says:

“These grade descriptors describe the quality of teaching in the school as a whole, taking account of evidence over time. While they include some characteristics of individual lessons, they are not designed to be used to judge individual lessons.”

We know that plenty of schools ignore this and adapt the criteria to apply them to individual lessons – for some very understandable reasons. We also know that this leads to teachers teaching “observation specials” to try and jump through the hoops of the taken-out-of-context criteria. You can read about the impact of this in @cazzypot’s blog: Is Michael Gove lying to us all? and in @BarryNSmith79’s Lesson Objectives, Good Practice, and What Really Matters along with far too many others.

Let’s start again.

A typical teacher’s directed time is 760 hours in a year. How many of those will be formally observed by someone else – three? Five? Ten? Whatever the number, there’s a lot of hours in a year when it’s just you and your learners in the room.

Forget outstanding. Think about a great lesson you’ve taught – not a lesson where someone else was watching, but one of those lessons where it all worked. Where you and the kids left the room bathed in the warm glow of achievement. Where teaching felt really, really good. What were the ingredients? What made it work? And which of those features can you replicate in your classroom on Monday?

If you were to start with a blank sheet of paper, how would you define a great lesson?

A blank sheet of paper

A blank sheet of paper

Think about:

  • Structure
  • Activities
  • Behaviour
  • Outcomes

And, if that’s a great lesson, what are the qualities of a great teacher? And how can we live them in the classroom for all 760 hours of the year?

An adapted version of this session was delivered at #TMNSL at Bristol Brunel Academy on Thursday 20th March 2014.

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.

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. 

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?

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.

Childness; or Why I Read Children’s Books


I was fascinated to read the report in the Guardian on the research project conducted by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis into the benefits of children’s literature. Focused on their primary PGCE cohort at Cardiff Metropolitan University, they found that reading children’s books helped their trainees in and out of the classroom. There is some great supplementary research cited in the article, including the NUT’s excellent Reading for Pleasure and the National Literacy Trust’s Reading for Pleasure research overview. They also cite the UKLA’s Teachers as Readers article which begins: “For primary teachers, knowledge of children’s literature…is essential in order to support the development of younger readers”.

The UKLA research emphasises the importance of reading children’s literature as professional development; the National Literacy Trust and the NUT the importance for well-being. Bowers and Davis found both benefits in their PGCE study. I found myself nodding along as my attitude to children’s books combines both of these. As a secondary English teacher, I feel it is my professional duty to read the latest books aimed at the age group I teach – the Carnegie list, the Guardian prize winners, and more locally the Centurion Award shortlist. I think it helps make me a better English teacher to be able to recommend books to the students I teach. I also love it when – as Jo Facer has described – they recommend them to me! (As an aside, you must read Jo’s excellent blog – she is Reading All the Books).

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Secondly, I really enjoy a good children’s book. I love them like I love teaching. Back when Harry Potter books were being published, I pre-ordered and waited up for the postman to deliver my Amazon packages on release day. I was in the beta for Pottermore and got sorted into Slytherin. I was so taken with His Dark Materials that I went straight back to Northern Lights as soon as I’d finished The Amber Spyglass. I read the Chaos Walking trilogy back to back. I loved Lauren Laverne’s rock’n’roll magic realism in Candypop. I did an MA in Children’s Literature. 

My love of children’s books and my love of teaching are, of course, inextricably intertwined. I spend my working life in the company of teenagers, and I find them a real pleasure to be around. It’s little wonder, then, that I also enjoy the world of teenage (or “young adult”) literature.


It’s more than that, however. It’s also about the concept of “childness” outlined by Peter Hollindale. Childness encompasses the characteristics attributed to childhood and children by the society and culture of the time. Hollindale says “childness is a changing, culturally determined concept, not a static one, and this is very important to our understanding of its influence. The childness prevalent in our age will permeate the images of it which we transmit to our children, in children’s literature and in other ways” (Hollindale, 1997: 48).

The concept of childness explains why we have a mid-twentieth century age of innocence where writers like Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, and CS Lewis showed plucky young children getting on perfectly well without adults, solving problems and behaving honourably without the awkward intervention of hormones (except for Susan Pevensie, denied entry into Aslan’s Kingdom in The Last Battle because she is “no longer a friend of Narnia…she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up”). It also explains how this conception of childness seems somehow inadequate nowadays. We don’t see children in the same way any more.

So how do we conceive childness today? Are our children capable of horrendous crimes as in Ann Cassidy’s Looking for JJ or Anne Fine’s The Tulip Touch? Are they sexually voracious as in Melvin Burgess’ Doing It or Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush? Are they possessed of the inviolable moral compass of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books? Of course, there are as many different answers as there are children’s books, or teachers, or Daily Mail columnists firing up another “youth of today” opinion piece, or indeed children.

One of the constant joys of teaching in 11-18 schools is helping young people navigate the minefield of their teenage years. They arrive as children; they leave as adults. Literature can help them vicariously try on different ways of being a teenager for size.  It helps me to empathise and explore different perceptions and conceptions of the fluid, shifting sands of the teenage experience through the filter (usually) of an adult author. Because this is what my job is about – trying to understand, empathise and sympathise with the experience of growing up from the position of having already done it. Reading the books helps me to see it better.


For anyone that is interested, I explored the notion of childness and the treatment of sexuality in children’s literature for my MA dissertation. You can read it here. I’d also love to hear recommendations of your favourite children’s literature, either current or from your youth – leave me a comment or tweet me recommendations @chrishildrew. Thank you!