Seven questions Daisy’s got me asking

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It all started with Martin bloody Robinson and his brilliant book Trivium 21c. He illustrated a world which I never knew existed until reading his words. I’ve had two headteachers who have spent hours convincing me about the benefits of wider reading so when the challenge of Trivium 21c was offered, I was hungry for it and willing to listen to Martin’s take on this classical approach to schooling.

I felt as though I’d been in the caves for years and was finally standing in the sunlight absorbing its warmth. In Trivium 21c there was the possibility of thinking differently. After that followed Debra Kidd’s Teaching: notes from the front line and the possibility of an educational revolution, an invitation of a different approach to policy which many teachers don’t get to explore. Why? Because they simply don’t know it is there, so the opportunity is something which all school leaders should share with their staff. We all want students who are educated, free-thinkers and who make well-informed decisions. One way we can do this is by empowering our teachers to lead the way. This Much I Know about Love Over Fear by John Tomsett was the final piece in my own educational canon this year since John’s writing shows leadership can be done differently. Inspirational leadership. I know it exists, I’m lucky enough to have experienced it first hand but always thought my headteachers were mavericks and stood alone. John is proof (among many others I have since discovered through the wonder of EduTwitter) that brave leadership really does exist. There are many other great sources of information which have broadened my perspective this year and I’m quietly hoping that the wonderful Jill Berry one day publish her doctoral thesis as her model of leadership is one which we should aspire to. I thought my cup of knowledge for 2015 was overflowing as the year was drawing to a close…

Then along came Daisy…

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Daisy’s reputation speaks for itself. A brilliant scholar and a respected voice in her field, her ascension into the hierarchy of educational who’s who has happened at an alarming rate. My old history teacher might argue that she’s not even wet behind the ears which is why some cynics may choose to dismiss her thoughts. Her apparent lack of experience at the chalkface is also why I was somewhat skeptical about what she had to say (and the fact that we appeared to have completely opposite opinions on a many issues in education). Dismiss her cleverly-constructed, well-researched, empirically backed opinions at your peril! I humbly admit that, in my limited first hand experience of Daisy’s work, my skepticism was unfounded and, I tend to agree with her more than disagree. I have written about Daisy’s ability as an excellent orator at the Michaela debate previously here. However, this blog is about seven questions that Daisy’s challenging (and perhaps a little controversial) book Seven Myths about Education has got me asking. If you haven’t read it then I suggest you do (you can get it here). Agree or disagree, her compelling arguments will have you questioning your own “truths” which is why I just had to put my ideas onto paper. Here are seven questions the Seven Myths have caused me to ask:

1. Why seven myths and why these seven?

When you begin to question what you have considered to be true and see that your beliefs are flawed you are caused to question everything! I wonder are there other myths which didn’t make her list and why didn’t they?

2. Among the many who argue for a progressive education, how many of them have actually been in receipt of one themselves?

When we complain that students can’t work independently it’s perhaps because they dont know how to? Maybe we’ve always assumed they can and then taught them as if they were already independent? A progressive approach would advocate skills over knowledge which, according to supported theory, would never engage the long-term memory in cognitive thinking thus making independence difficult. Many who stand for this approach seem to have had the privilege of a knowledge-based education. Their well-practised long-term memory would deliver cognition akin to that of an expert and so they thrive in environments which require creative or independent thought. Upon reflection, denying our students the opportunity to become experts through knowledge and practice seems a little cruel, does it not?

3. Have Ofsted got it wrong in the message they are sending?

The perspective Daisy gives on Ofsted inspection reports is one which I have never considered before but the observations appear accurate nonetheless. As a head of department, I would trawl subject specific reports in an effort to find silver bullets, never looking at them through a knowledge versus skills approach. With retrospect and this different viewpoint, it’s understandable why schools adopted four-part lessons, progress checks every twenty minutes and engagement over knowledge when this was the message Ofsted were giving out.

4. What can we do to encourage teachers to be less Ofsted, more learning driven?

I know what some great headteachers do, I have my own belief of what I would hope to be one day brave enough to do. I guess my next question is what Daisy would do?

5. What would a Core Knowledge Curriculum look like in the UK and who would we entrust to develop it?

In the book it is stated that E. D. Hirsch developed a Core Knowledge Curriculum in the USA which has been adopted by 768 schools. Daisy expressed a desire for something similar in this country. Who would be the candidate (or candidates) to develop such a schema and why? Would bias be an issue? As David Didau argues in What if everything you knew about education was wrong?, “We depend on our own intuition and routinely disregard uncomfortable evidence.” This would suggest that whoever led the project would be thwarted by their own bias. How can we achieve a truly great knowledge based curriculum? What is the solution to achieving knowledge which gives equality and democracy without indoctrination of one form or another?

6. Is there any place for project-based learning in schools?

This is a question I’d like to ask Daisy Christodoulou herself. Is there a point where knowledge is secure and we introduce projects or would there be no place for it in Daisy’s approach to education and what would be her reasons for this choice?

7. Are traditional and progressive approaches mutually exclusive or can you be both?

Indecision may or may not be my problem but I’m prone to it! The older I get, the more I learn, the less I know and the more I question myself. If you’d have asked me two years ago, I’d have described myself as a progressive. At the beginning of this year I encouraged myself to take a more traditional approach to my teaching, which I feel I have achieved. However, I’m now inclined to believe that, from lesson to lesson, I swing from just left of centre to just right on the progressive/traditional continuum, taking what I consider the best of both and what’s fit for purpose. Many believe you’re one or the other but can you be both?

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Great writers challenge you, they make your head hurt by getting you to think. In writing Seven Myths of Education, Daisy Christodoulou achieved this with almost every page. She’s successfully encouraged me to entertain a different perspective whilst reassuring me that it is ok to feel the discomfort of uncertainty. More importantly, she has developed my understanding by offering an alternative. It seems fitting that Daisy has taken my education as we leap into 2016, in a new direction. I have recently started reading David Didau’s What if everything you knew about education was wrong? I’d previously avoided it because David provokes a reaction from me with every blog he writes, he really questions my “truths” and almost always makes me feel uncomfortable with his aphorisms on Twitter. Daisy has given me the confidence to be challenged and to push my boundaries. She has helped me accept that it’s ok to be wrong every now and them. After all, experience shapes and refines us; the more varied the experience, the better we become.

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A leap of faith

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According to an article published in last week’s TES, researchers at the University of Oxford have found that the UK is among the worst countries for teaching to the test. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a revelation to any of us in education. Alas, it will be yet another stick for certain organisations to regurgitate and beat us with.

Sadly, the key message of the story has been missed by the tabloids who have picked up The TES account of the research being done. Yes, teachers do teach to the tests. Even the most principled practitioners do so to a lesser or greater extent in an effort to support students on their journey to qualification.

However, the obvious question that is not being asked is why? Why do people with a love of their subject, a passion for education and a dedication to passing on the baton lose sight of their vision and spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching to examinations that will be over in a matter of hours? Why do schools whose very purpose is to encourage a holistic approach to education, buckle under the pressure and steal hours from creative subjects in an effort to feed the Best8 and EBacc monsters? Why are the number of child and adult stress-related issues associated with schools increasing at an alarming rate?

League tables and data have become the enemy of reason.

A disappointing Raise can lead to the removal of a whole leadership team or change a school’s ethos, a bad set of exam results can contribute to a teacher’s pay being withheld or competence procedures being implemented. So why wouldn’t teachers teach to the test? When the actions of the powers that be suggest that performance tables are the only thing which matters, teachers would be stupid not to play the game. But what has the game playing actually achieved? Has it developed happier, well-educated, adaptable young people who become lifelong learners? The universities and statistics beg to differ. Has it brought the sectors of education closer together? It could be argued that it has resulted in quite the contrary, universities blaming the FE colleges, they in turn blaming secondary schools who point their fingers at primary colleges in an effort to share the blame. Teaching to the test must have made the lives of teachers easier right? Sadly no. We have become complicit in our own unhappiness. Increasingly, teachers look at the data not the individual students and leaders look at the set of results not the combined effort that has brought about the end result. Then there’s the onset of the blame culture, whether it’s the level of the students you are getting or the achievement of those you have just lost, we find somebody else to blame.

The result? A culture where there are no winners, only losers.

League tables create an unfair competition where a win at all costs sentiment is promoted. Students never fully understand the lessons gained from success or failure because it’s never their effort. Schools don’t let them go it alone because we can’t take the risk. Character which is currently in vogue, is in danger of being compromised by our own actions in the dichotomy between a love of learning and serving the ego of our government.

What would happen if league tables were removed? I’m old enough to remember when my teachers didn’t care about the scores on the doors, only teaching me well and encouraging a love of their subject. They wanted students to do well but for their own self-worth, not for their teacher’s pay or the school’s next inspection. I honestly believe that this is still the case, teachers do want the best for their students and genuinely care. Students aren’t as incompetent as the media would have us believe. However, on results day whose thoughts haven’t touched on the implications of the data for the next Ofsted or how the department/school will look when compared with others?

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A source of inspiration from John Tomsett at our last INSET

Would teachers teach any differently if the results didn’t matter for schools? What if the criteria on which they were judged did not amount to a set of numbers on a page? Would schools take more risks in their curriculum if the students’ results belonged to the students and not their teachers? Would literacy and numeracy deteriorate if there wasn’t such an emphasis on their importance or would teachers labor the basics, getting it right for students’ long term learning if they knew there wasn’t the demand to move ’em on? Would students be more independent and resilient if they were told that their achievement was down to their effort right from day one? I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions but I do think they are worth considering.

My very first Head of Department was a kind and caring man. I learned a lot about person-centred leadership from him as a relatively young teacher new to the profession. When I started teaching some fifteen years ago, league tables were somewhat of an ephemeral concept to NQTs (perhaps they still are and it’s only as we get more experienced that we become more enslaved to the data). My first GCSE students did well, really well. I was ecstatic. My HOD was proud of their achievements, as he was of my efforts. He knew I’d done my best by them and they’d got what they had deserved. He also reminded me that it was a team effort, the group had been taught by other teachers before me and that the results were a product of everyone’s hard work, this always kept me grounded. The school’s results that year were 26% A*-C (I didn’t know this at the time or what it meant for the school) but my class, my kids, felt like winners and so did I. The year after, the group I had didn’t do so well. The students did ok but not great. They didn’t reach the bar I had set. When the results came in I felt as though I had let the students and my Head of Department down. Again, he reminded me that it was a team effort. None-the-less, I felt as though I’d let the side down. I couldn’t tell you the school’s percentages that year, they were better than the previous year but I didn’t care. I felt as though I hadn’t done my bit. Regardless of league tables I cared about my students and the colleagues I worked alongside. I don’t consider myself different from anyone else, arguably every teacher feels a duty of care to their students and their team, achievement measures only cloud this. They result in a lack of focus, moving away from achieving the best for all to a which students will make a difference mentality and for that we should be ashamed.

What it takes is a leap of faith.

For headteachers, to focus on great teaching for everyone not just exam classes, Key Stage 3 should no longer be the poor relation of 4 and 5. The best headteachers do this already but it does take faith in the team to lay the foundations lower down and know that it will be ok in the end. School CPD should be moving away from the latest craze and maintaining a relentless drive towards quality-first teaching which is personalised for the individual member of staff. Teachers being equipped, trusted and expected to do their job, not continually worrying about being caught out. There is a call to flip the system as the excellent book by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggests, which most of us are completely in favour of. Currently I’m not sure that this will happen. However, if the continual and ritual weighing of the pig was no longer a cliff edge for schools then there may just be a chance for this approach to gather momentum.

A leap of faith from Nicky Morgan et al. could result in a revelation. Schools could focus on the true purpose of education without the worry of the EBACC, Best8 or PISA. Perhaps we would see students taught beyond a test, ones who are filled with knowledge and who can transfer it expertly, students who see education for all its intrinsic beauty and not as a route to passing an exam. Teachers see all of these qualities in our brilliant young people every day but maybe with brave ministers who care about who we are not how we look, society can take a view through different eyes.

Always learning…

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As I mentioned in last week’s blog reflecting on my teaching this term, I have not only been looking at how I teach new topics but also those which I feel confident in delivering.

Coincidentally last week, I had the privilege of visiting another school which gave me the opportunity to observe an outstanding practitioner in action. For me, what made the hour so memorable was the commitment of everyone, teacher and students, as well as the other adults in the room. This commitment came in the form of expectations of excellence in behaviour, presentation, effort and execution of mathematics. Everyone was aware of the expectations placed upon them and were determined to meet them. The students showed perseverance when applying their mathematical solving skills to some really challenging problems. They were incredibly respectful in their behaviour towards everyone else in the class. This group was a set 6 of 6, students who entered the school on level 4cs or below, a high proportion of them would be described as disadvantaged. These were the students that popular opinion would suggest that we, as teachers have low expectations of and the ones whom schools sometimes fail. Yet, in this classroom they were all on course to achieve at least three levels of progress (many four), they were all expected to succeed. The prospect of failure was nowhere in sight and was certainly not in the vocabulary of either the students or the teacher – this was an example of growth mindset in practice.

Looking at this lesson selfishly for my own personal gain, I learned three approaches which I could quickly magpie and add to my toolkit. I’m sure most maths teachers will be familiar with them so apologies if I’m teaching grandma to suck eggs but I think it’s only fair to share good practice:

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Using Noddy’s hat when expanding brackets

Apparently, the teacher picked this technique up from her NQT mentor 12 years ago and decided to make it her own. The beauty of it is that it addresses the problem of the signs before the terms that students always struggle with. Just by circling the term and its sign makes a huge difference to student understanding. My notes on this are below:

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Using boxes to represent ratios

Again another method she developed by sharing, this time at a maths conference. Another approach which is best represented through my notes:

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Being able to visualise how the ratios are shared enabled students to more confidently manipulate the parts. The students also showed a real rigor when applying division, multiplication and checking, skills which only come from deliberate practise and clarity of explanation.

Using the exterior angles rule to solve interior angles in regular polygons problems

This is something which, when watching it, I realised was such a simple and clear approach. Rather than explicitly trying to force students to remember the interior rule to work out angles at each vertice in a regular polygon (which they find incredibly difficult to recall), students were encouraged to use e = 360/n and then combine it with e + i = 180 to solve complex problems such as this:

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Arguably, students need to know and recall key facts about properties of shapes (which they had been explicitly taught) and they were aware of the formula for interior angles, which they could apply when necessary. However, they were confident in their own abilities to choose the most efficient method of problem solving for each particular question. They structured and executed their responses concisely thus enabling them to attempt more demanding questions both elegantly and successfully.

Aside from taking away subject specific teaching points, there were also little gems in the practice that could be transfered into any classroom. Firstly was the routine, it was evident that these students had a set of procedures which they followed both throughout the lesson and in their working. This served them well in both settling down to work and approaching open ended problems. Another tool the students were given was annotation: using diagrams and their own observations to focus their thoughts. This was effective when structuring more responses to complex questions since they had provided their own scaffolding. Lastly and quite brilliantly, using an absent student’s book and the visualiser, the teacher modelled how questions should be approached. This meant that not only was there a clarity of explanation shared in a setting that the group could easily relate to (since the examples were in a book and not on the board) but also the absent student had a starting point from which to develop their notes on when they returned. Quite simply brilliant.

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I consider myself blessed to have had an afternoon with such an excellent practitioner. She was modest in her feedback, giving credit to others for the ideas mentioned above and to the students and staff for the great lesson I observed. I took away more ideas in a one hour lesson observation than I probably would have done in a whole day’s INSET. It’s understandable that some mathematicians among you may be questioning my ability as a teacher in the wake of revelations which may be nothing new to you. The truth is, I am and always have been a practitioner whose students are in receipt of a good deal where their mathematical education is concerned. I have never been arrogant enough to think that I know everything or have nothing left to learn as far as pedagogy is concerned. A much more useful observation would be that if an experienced teacher of fifteen years is continually learning new approaches then perhaps there is something you can share with or learn from others. Don’t be afraid to look outside your setting to do so. If you’re a classroom teacher, ask your SLT to use CPD money for cover so that you can spend the day observing colleagues or visiting another school, if you’re a Head of Department, talk to other HODs outside of your local network and if you’re SLT then encourage all of the above! Sharing practice is the most valuable CPD you can invest in. After all, we never stop learning and it’s our job as teachers to develop that continual reflection in one another.

The dangers of encouraging dominance in debate

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As a teacher, how do you react when one student (or a small minority) dominate discussion and class debate? Do you step in to include the rest of the group or just let the one-sided rhetoric run its natural course? If you intervene, what is the usual outcome and why do you interject? Similarly, if you choose to become another bystander within the arena, why the stance of passivity rather than the role of moderator? I am genuinely interested in a public response to these questions as I have my own opinion and modus operandi but am keen to see what teachers of more discussion based subjects do. How do we perceive as our role in this forum and to what end are the reasons for our choice?

Love or hate Jeremy Corbyn he has certainly brought a different attitude to political debate than we have been party to for decades. His approach is one of reason and discussion, of measure and discourse. He is clearly passionate about what he is arguing for (and against) but never once does it overflow into a lack of respect for fellow human or their opinion. This has been a very different floor show than the public are used to from parliament which, at times has been akin to opposing fans on football terraces.

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Yesterday, I spent my morning watching the excellent debates that were recently held at the Michaela School in Wembley. The one which I was most excited about was the one between Daisy Christodoulou and Guy Claxton as it was something I felt quite strongly about. Incidentally, I’m a huge fan of Guy and was keen to know more about Daisy as I avidly read her work but wanted to see her in action. The title of the debate was “Sir Ken is right” and was about creativity in schools. It is most definitely worth a watch and can be found here. Being more on the progressive side of the spectrum, Daisy had her work cut out to convince me otherwise, especially going up against a heavyweight such as Guy. However, listening to her speak, her reasoned and passionate case for a traditional education having a place in our society seemed more than worthwhile. Daisy’s manner and disposition was not how I had imagined it to be, I had a very ignorant preconception of an academic, well-spoken individual who would be somewhat aloof. She was clearly well-read and to that end well-respected, hence a glowing reputation at such a young age. In addition to those qualities, Daisy was charming and down-to-earth, spoke in a language that was engaging and which didn’t exclude any group through bias. She developed ethos with her audience quickly through reasoned argument, fact and passionate personal opinion backed up with evidence to support her claims. Guy was equally brilliant in stating his case, there were many points on which both opponents disagreed vehemently but they did so respectfully. As an observer, I could hear all the claims and their justifications and was able to form my own opinion based on the debate that had ensued. I did surprise myself, I found that I had moved further along the traditional route than I had bargained for. Daisy had won me over, she’d argued her case brilliantly and beautifully. Additionally, I’m even more interested in what she will have to say in the future, she has gained further respect with the way she conducted herself at Michaela. Equally Jonathan Porter’s expression of affection for Michael Gove surprised me even more so. Unfortunately he hasn’t convinced me yet but in an excellent execution of rhetoric, he managed to share a very different perspective that I had never considered before. You can watch him in action here.

I’m not a fan of football, well that’s not strictly true. I used to love playing it but I find myself increasingly dismayed when I watch the professional game on television. It’s not the game itself which bothers me as such, it’s the way in which teams behave towards one another and the officials when a decision does not go their way. Unfortunately, these attitudes are becoming more apparent at amateur and junior levels. They are replicating the behaviour they see and it has now become acceptable practice in football.

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Modelling is important, I’m acutely aware that, as a teacher I am always on duty. This is a fact. If I didn’t accept this I would not continue to teach. I know that I can be seen in the local area, in the wider region (I’ve even bumped into students whilst on a cruise) and in the widest global community of the internet. This doesn’t mean I have to hide everything about my personal life (I fundamentally disagree with any teacher having to hide aspects of who they are) but it does mean that I have a responsibility in the way I conduct myself both in school and outside of it. Students are naturally inquisitive (as are adults) about role models and will try to find out about their teachers. In my day it used to be finding out your teachers’ first names but now Google stalking is the sport of choice. So whilst a teacher’s personal life is their own, it’s always important to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves. Young people model what they see. I’d much rather them model Daisy and Guy than the behaviours of some over-riding Premiership footballers. I belive that it is my responsibility to encourage this through my own authenticity and actions.

The best part of my role is working with people, building mutually beneficial relationships through collegiate practice. Primarily, it’s my job to help others, however, I consider myself blessed. I’ve learned so many things which has developed my own teaching and leadership through listening to others. It is only through discussion, observation and being exposed to opposing perspectives and approaches that I’ve grown as a person. The position of SLT is a fortunate one which enables this insight, however this level of awareness is something which all teachers, whatever the stage in their career can benefit from. Something, which, as a school we are encouraging through our triad led personalised professional development model this year. More recently, I have also been fortunate enough to visit lots of schools in different settings, teachers from these schools offer another perspective which can sometimes not be considered because we’ve never had that level of insight as we may have never experienced their contexts. This opportunity is one of growth and gives balance. Different viewpoints might not change my opinion or approach but they quality assure a well-considered perspective rather than a single-minded one which is founded on I’m right you’re wrong mentality not dissimilar to that of Mr Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Conversation with colleagues always includes the use of social media as a means of sharing practice and opinion with a wider audience. It is saddening to hear that professionals who have a lot to share with the community choose to stand on the sidelines rather than contribute because they are worried about being made to feel inferior or that they are not intelligent enough to participate. Surely we should be encouraging their engagement rather than excluding a significant proportion of people who could help to affect change on a larger scale? A staggering amount of teachers use Twitter as platform of communication but there are only a small proportion of this number who actively contribute to the forum. Is this not a sea of opinion, practice and perspective that we might be missing out on? Their input can only serve to enhance the rich tapestry that is weaving its way into our educational landscape. Are the reasons which these professionals give for their lack of contribution any different than the way some students feel at a class level? Would we want just a handful of dominant voices to be heard or would we want the group to feel involved and engaged? I can pre-empt the response of those readers who will adopt the well if they can’t take the heat mentality. This isn’t surprising but it isn’t unwelcome as I would like to engage precisely those people in this type of discussion. If you find yourself always in the right and never questioning the reasonableness of your argument then perhaps it is time to stop and take stock.

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The crux of this blog is that in having a respectful debate, it encourages an audience to see all perspectives and form an opinion based on a holistic approach. I can accept the fact that students use a different approach to solving equations than I might prefer to use providing the fact that they have explored other ways than their own preference through dialogue and listening to others. In more serious matters, it is acceptable to choose the opposite end of the spectrum providing you can empathise with what it looks like from the other side. More importantly it is vital that we teach our children to do this respectfully and with tolerance. We are in a world where this may be paramount to our survival as a global society. It is our role as teachers to give students the opportunity to form a broad and balanced opinion, developed through fact, evidence and reason; to model the behaviour that we wish them to adopt in every form of communication we use. It is our responsibility to give them a different perspective, to encourage a view through different eyes.