Collaborate your way to more great lessons

What’s the first thing you would do if I gave everyone at your school a list of all classes and their value-added?

I suspect that most of you, with a slightly tight feeling in your stomach, would scan down the list to review your own classes. “Please don’t let it be bad”, you’d think. If you’re anything like me you’d go straight to the class that you think is going to be the worst.

If it confirms your suspicions then you’ll get that sinking feeling. All the nagging doubts will come out. You’ll reflect on whether you’re a decent teacher, you’ll bring back all the other times that you’ve doubted yourself, and you’ll feel terrible.

Next comes the thought that the managers and all of your colleagues will see the same thing. Maybe you’ll feel scared, maybe you’ll feel angry. Perhaps you’ll start finding those reasons why it isn’t fair. You’ll probably feel angry at the kids, angry at the school, and angry at yourself.

The thing is, most of us will go straight for the negatives. Whether its exam results, value-added scores, internal tracking data, pupil satisfaction surveys or anything else, we beat ourselves up, and label ourselves a ‘bad teacher’.

The fact is, the huge majority of teachers also have really great classes. Every year they deliver inspirational lessons, beautiful lessons, and I-wish-someone-had-observed-that lessons.

For any teacher to have stayed in teaching for more than a year they must have had a few of those amazing moments where the students’ eyes lit up, and ‘Aha!’ moments were occurring all around the classroom. Teaching is just too hard for anyone to survive without them.

The data cannot tell you if these wonderful things are going on in a classroom. No one piece of data tells the whole story, but it can reflect some of the realities in the classroom and can be useful when the class teacher uses it to constructively reflect. But if the process stops there, you’re wasting an opportunity.

In the classroom where things aren’t working perfectly you may just need a nudge in the right direction. A little bit of inspiration, and maybe some support, and things could really turn around. Maybe one of your colleagues has the answer, but in the ordinary school culture you’d never know, and you’d be scared to ask for fear of looking weak.

If we could create environments where teachers could proudly share their best ideas, and could confidently ask for help, we could all have more great lessons.  We must foster a supportive culture that eliminates the fear of sharing ideas and data. If teachers can collaborate then they can grow.

Data by itself is not enough. Replace fear with sharing, and keep thinking review, reflect, and collaborate.

What do we really want from education?

I had a fascinating conversation this evening with Professor Philip Woods, chair in educational policy, leadership and democracy at the University of Hertfordshire, and Charles Weston, Director of Equity Research at Numis Securities. Philip is an expert in educational entrepreneurialism (amongst other things), and Charles is an analyst in private healthcare. Between us we analysed the emerging trend for private healthcare to move in to areas in which the NHS had a monopoly, and considered the implications for education.

Charles told us how a relatively small healthcare firm, Circle, beat the giant Serco to win the contract to run a poorly-performing NHS trust. Apparently they have already achieved amazing things, with improved throughput of patients, improved patient satisfaction, and improved staff satisfaction. The key? They gave the doctors control over decision-making, gave them 49% of the shares in the trust, and encouraged them to innovate.

In healthcare it is standard practice to measure success using short- and long-term outcomes, as well as intangibles like patient and staff satisfaction. Charles wondered whether such a system could be imported in to education.

Philip then explained the extra complexities in defining outcomes in education. The key difficulty is getting people to agree on a definition of “what is good education?” There are so many conflicting ideas of what a great school looks like. You have everything from selective grammar schools producing students with lots of exam success through to Steiner schools who produce extremely rounded individuals. He then gave us some details about Steiner education (having studied it in some depth), and we agreed that it would be difficult to produce measures of success within that system that could also be used with the grammar school.

This thought-provoking conversation (which moved through a large number of similarly interesting topics) really made me think about what it is that makes some parents choose a Steiner education for their children. Is it because they are taking the long view? Do they essentially trust the school to manage the process so long as their children emerge as rounded, happy, confident and competent adults who can be successful in their lives?

I suspect, in many ways, that is what we are all asking for from education. The trouble is, we have become bogged down with the current measures. Exams were supposed to tell us how successful schools and students were at moving from unformed child to this ideal adult. Somehow, along the way, we now see the exam itself as the outcome, as the measure of success.

So what if we started measuring long-term outcomes? What do you think the results would be if we could devise a measure of happiness and success in adults (and how would we do it)? I think it would be revolutionary.

If the government could produce this measure, and scrap all others, then you could set schools and teachers free to produce the adults that we are all after. Tweaking measures of exams will make barely any difference at all. What we want are long-term measures, like the NHS. Where is education’s version of the 10-year survival rate?

Have faith in schools – don’t prescribe the curriculum

I’m going to risk being controversial but the avalanche of commentary in the last few days has really made me think. Since Michael Gove announced the new slimmed-down curriculum there has been a huge clamour:

Yet in the past few years and we were hearing “the national curriculum is too prescriptive” and “2/3rds of teachers think it has too much content“.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know some of the current complaints are about an enormous increase of prescription in History and English, and I can entirely sympathise with that. However, possibly controversially, I’m afraid I don’t sympathise with all those people seeking to have their subjects made mandatory. In fact, I’d quite like to have just English and Maths in the core curriculum (and this comes from a Science teacher).

Choice is great! Schools should be entirely free to set their own projects, do their own assessments, and let kids follow their interests. I’d love to do project-based science, create portfolios of interesting research and experiments, and really get kids following their noses and exploring areas of interest to them. Put it in the curriculum and we’re back to standardised testing for all, set ‘must-learn’ topics, and a big lid on the fun.

Of course a great school will get kids to be creative and follow their artistic ideas. They’ll inspire them with incredible ideas about using technology, and they’ll engage in fascinating comparisons and debates about religion, ethics and philosophy. A great school will create informed, engaged citizens with an interest in language, literature, and music.

Try and write a one-size fits all approach on paper and you’ll stifle innovation. Just because an expert couldn’t have got to where they were today without learning about Electromagnetic induction at age 15 really doesn’t mean its the right thing for every 15 year old to do. Just look at the amazing things going on a places like Big Picture learning and the way they create personalised curricula for their students. Just think how inspired kids can be when they follow music because they love it, and take exams when they’re ready. Nobody would argue we’d create more musicians and a better country by making everyone learn the same music, on the same instrument, at the same age.

Have faith in the schools, trust the teachers, and let the kids follow their interests. Don’t prescribe.

Am I right? All disagreements and comments very welcome – I love to learn.

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New ways of learning, same people.

I have enthusiastically embraced new technology this term. So far I have tried

  • Jing videos to explain algebra to my year 9 Maths class
  • Blogs and Wikis for my A-level Physics (year 12)
  • A good practice blog for staff

I just finished preparing an online unit for GCSE Physics for students to learn about sources of energy/power stations and help prepare them for a debate on the future of energy. It’s all exciting.

Sometimes though, despite being a great advocate of there not being any miracle answers in education I still get carried away with these things. So I guess I was just a little crestfallen when:

  • Half of my year 9s failed to log on to see the videos or had difficulties with Flash.
  • 5 staff put some entries on the good practice blog and the rest haven’t seen it as enough of a priority to do anything yet.
  • Some of my sixth formers found the wiki inspired them to write crazy things, but not a great deal of content.

So, amazingly, I discovered that:

  • Not everyone is enthusiastic about the same things,
  • That some students can be lazy,
  • And that sometimes computers don’t work.

In this brave new world of technology, which I still find ridiculously exciting, despite this, it’s rather reassuring to know that just as many things can go wrong with new ways of doing things as with old. I suspect, just like any good teaching, that perseverance, enthusiasm and patience will get my students and colleagues there in the end.

If you have encountered some of the above problems and have suggestions, I would very much welcome your comments below. Come on trusty Twitter and Blog – you won’t let me down now, will you?

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New initiatives

After my inspiring training day on Tuesday I have been trying to put some of my new ideas in to practice. The three main aims were

  • Start getting my students to produce their own learning materials
  • Produce some flipped-learning resources for the kids to study before the next lesson
  • Encourage some sharing of good practice at my school

So far, a very inspiring week. I’ve made some examples of rearranging formulae for my Maths class using Jing:

I’ve got my A-level Physics class to produce some simulations of wave superposition in Excel which they are putting on to our school Moodle, and I’ve set up a Sharing Good Practice blog in school, where we’ve already got some ideas on:

  • Giving students questionnaires to get their feedback on the teaching and learning, with some previously-used examples.
  • Setting A-level Maths questions in chunks before lessons, doing targeted help during the lesson, and setting a mini-assessment in the next. This helps improve independent learning and reduces homework-marking load.
  • A huge set of innovative ideas for getting all year-groups to reflect more deeply on History.

Everyone I’ve asked to contribute has been genuinely thrilled to hear somebody thinks their practice is worth sharing. It is a pleasure to ask them, and it is a pleasure to see their ideas. I can’t wait to see more ideas and share them with you – hopefully I’ll get everyone’s permission to share the link to the school blog.
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The perfect training day at school

The first day back at work after the Christmas break is not traditionally a time to look forward to. It’s dark, it’s cold, and the next holiday is weeks out of sight. But today, for me, was no ordinary first day back. In fact, having just finished, I’ve just driven back home down the motorway to my home in London in a fairly dreamy state. I don’t think it’s good for road safety, but I also don’t think my teaching will ever be quite the same again.

So what exactly made this day so special? Well, here’s how it went – you be the judge.


The reason I bounced out of bed this morning was that my head is full of inspiration. I joined Twitter on 22nd December 2010, and I feel more enthused in the past 2 weeks than any time I can remember before. I have read about teachers using technology in exciting ways, I have heard from teachers who value independent learning as much as I do, and I have heard the results of experiments in many other classrooms around the world. I am in touch with educators I could never have heard about before, and my professional network already spans the globe.

I have already told several members of staff at school. I intend to try and persuade key members of senior management to join, and the head of Maths has promised to have a dabble. For a school that is struggling (although currently succeeding) in maintaining its staff training budget in the face of harsh cuts (particularly in sixth form funding), this could well be just the way of improving teacher-learning we’ve been looking for.

Learning and sharing

This year my school has set sixth form (that’s 16-18 year-olds) learning as it’s professional development priority. We had an interesting survey and talk from Villiers Park last year on ways to improve our lessons. Today all staff sat in cross-discipline breakout groups. When we first arrived, in the typical British cynical way all talk was about “Oh what a waste of time”, and “How quickly can we finish this?”. However, even just a few minutes later I discovered my colleagues have some amazing ideas under their belts as fevered discussion and sharing ensued:

  • One occasionally sets chapters from the Maths textbook as a homework in advance of teaching it, and asks students to collaborate and teach each other. In the next lesson he sets a quiz between the four class teams to assess what they have learned, and to correct any misconceptions.
  • Another teacher sets passages from English texts as homework, and asks students to come in with 10 questions for their peers, or 10 subtle true/false statements, or 10 plot points in the wrong order to be sorted. They swap, mark, and then she assesses both the questions and the answers.
  • A Chemistry teacher rewrites the specification and, over time, gives one to three students a section to prepare for the next lesson, with handouts. They present at the start of the next lesson, and must go through a Q&A with the rest of the class.

There were so many more brilliant ideas, from students self-assessing their effort, through regular “how is my teaching” questionnaires, to students blogging/saving outstanding work on Moodle, our VLE/LMS/CMS (take your pick of acronym!). This was just one of 7 groups that included someone from most departments and a couple of learning support and special needs assistants. I can’t wait to hear what the rest of them came up with!

In our subsequent science department meeting we decided to focus on expanding blogging during and after lessons, moving to some ‘flipped teaching’ for topics that suited it, and expanding our online resources. For a department with reputation for cynicism, this is wonderful and inspiring, and I can’t wait to get started.


My final excitement today was from a discovery that I read about, of course, on Twitter. Jing is an insanely easy to use way of recording a video of a portion of the screen, with sound from an attached microphone. I borrowed a microphone from our language department, plugged it in, installed Jing, fired up our interactive whiteboard, and away I went. I recorded 10 worked Maths examples for my year 9 class on using formulae this afternoon, and intend to try them out as a homework for my set tomorrow, with questions from the textbook to follow. It is so easy! I can’t wait to share it with my colleagues – this could absolutely revolutionise our teaching.

Education can be so creative, so rewarding, and so exciting. Now I’m looking forward to putting it in to practice, then carefully assessing its effect on student understanding and engagement, and finally discussing, improving, and sharing the ideas with others.
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What it takes to be a great employer

Harvard business review has a superb article by Tony Schwartz on how any company can be a great employer. Education officials, school leaders and teachers can all learn from these four principles which he talks about.

1. Sustainability (physical)

The most basic need he talks about is that our physical needs our met. Are we getting good food, is the working environment safe, and are we comfortable? How many schools ask teachers and students to work in unpleasant buildings, on uncomfortable seats, and eating sub-standard food? The article’s author, Tony Schwartz says this:

How crazy is it that companies are willing to invest in preventative maintenance on fixed assets such as their machinery, but typically won’t make a comparable investment to enhance and sustain the health and well-being of their employees?

2. Security (emotional)

The second need is that employees are valued, recognised, and appreciated. If your schools are appreciated only for their test scores, employee’s perform less well. If you never give any recognition for achievements of your teachers, they will feel less motivated to achieve. If you concentrate your efforts on students’ mistakes and under-performance then they won’t feel intrinsically motivated to push themselves. As Schwartz says:

The vast majority of employers fail to recognize a simple and immutable truth: how people feel at any given moment profoundly influences how they perform.

Everyone knows the sure-fire way for a teacher to demotivate a class is to spend your time shouting at them and criticising them, and yet government and media seem remarkably enthusiastic to concentrate solely on the negatives of schools and teaching.

3. Self-expression (mental)

The third need is to innovate, be independent, and set your own path. Think about the time you enjoyed learning something most. Perhaps it was a game where you found your own way through a puzzle. Perhaps it was a book where you chose when and where to start reading. Perhaps it was a mathematics problem where you struggled and found your own way through.

This is a widely recognised truth, with such eminent psychologists such as Ryan and Deci, and Carol Dweck, who have conclusively shown that being cajoled and forced into work is less successful and sustainable than being inspired to do it. We enthuse our students with great literature, fascinating experiments, with trips and visits, and we know that extra curricular activities chosen by the student will be some of their most inspirational learning experiences.

Somehow legislators feel that the way to improve teachers and schools, on the other hand, is to hand down dictats about “three part lessons“, effective grading, and so on. Just as bad, sometimes, our own enthusiastic colleagues’ blind insistence that their solution is the only way. (e.g. “data is king! fire the bottom 10% of teachers on this basis” or “all data, all tests are terrible, remove them all completely”). Give people choice! As Schwartz says:

Treated like children, many employees unconsciously adopt the role to which they’ve been consigned. Feeling disempowered, they lose the confidence and the will to take real initiative or to think independently.

4. Significance (spiritual)

The final need is for significance of purpose. Schwartz again:

Once our survival needs are met, most of us long to feel that what we’re doing truly matters.

We are incredibly lucky that nobody in education ever really needs a “mission statement”. Any teacher who has ever guided their students to “A-ha!” moments knows forever more what their mission is. It isn’t for them to get some test scores, it is to inspire them, to enable them to lead fuller lives, and to enthuse them for lifelong learning.

Learning is more popular than teaching!

And the results are in! For every 10 mentions of “learning” in current writings, there are only 6 mentions of teaching. This wonderful result is brought to you by the Google NGram Viewer:

This graph shows learning (in red) overtaking teaching (in blue) by 1960, although from 1880 to 1960 it was teaching in the lead. Click the graph for the full details.

However, the politically correct may be disappointed that “teaching and learning” is far more popular than the newer “learning and teaching”…

Now who said that data couldn’t be fun?

How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better

In November, McKinsey produced a new report analysing the most improved school systems in the world. This fascinating document goes through some of the key markers on the journey from fair, through good, then great, and finally reaching outstanding. What were their key points about data?

Firstly, they noted that there were six common themes in all improving systems:

“The cross-stage interventions comprise a group of six actions that occur with equal frequency across all performance stages, but manifest differently in each one. These six interventions are: revising the curriculum and standards, ensuring an appropriate reward and remunerations structure for teachers and principals, building the technical skills of teachers and principals, assessing students, establishing data systems, and facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws.”

Systems moving from “poor” to “fair” used data in a very driven way:

“The system sets minimum proficiency targets for schools/students, frequent student learning assessments (linked to lesson objectives, every 3-4 weeks), and data processes to monitor progress”

Those moving from “fair” to “good” focused more on holding schools to account for each student, and for cohorts.

“The system establishes student assessments and school inspections to create reliable data on performance and to hold schools accountable for improvement. The system uses this data to identify and tackle specific areas (e.g., subjects, grades, gender) with lagging performance”

When moving from “good” to “great” schools were encouraged to let data filter down to practitioners, and ensure every teacher was fully involved in tracking and evaluating progress.

“Instructional coaches work with teachers to strengthen their skills in areas such as lesson planning, student data analysis, and in-class pedagogy. The systems cultivates ownership in schools for improvement through introducing self-evaluation for schools and making performance data more available”

And finally, from “great” to “outstanding”…

“The system sponsors and identifies examples of innovative practices in schools (teaching and learning practice, parent/community involvement practices, etc.) and then
develops mechanisms to shares these innovations across all school”

Clearly the Labour government concerned itself mainly with perceived pockets of “poor” teaching, and acted centrally to raise these to “fair”. Sadly, this process also served as a drag on those already good schools. In some senses the new government is now focussing on these schools and freeing them up with the academies program. However, good LEAs have always been good at identifying and sharing good practice, and it doesn’t yet seem entirely clear what is going to replace this. In addition, the current government is still wedded very firmly to centralised prescriptive testing regimes, whereas the top school systems have allowed professionals leeway to judge their own standards.
So as a school leader what is the message here?

  • Ensure regular collective tracking and monitoring of students, with regular moderation of these processes.
  • Set suitably challenging individual and cohort targets (e.g. with FFT, RAISEonline, etc)
  • Conduct regular, in-depth analysis of internal tracking, including breaking down by characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, deprivation, cognitive ability, etc. as well as a thorough ‘post-mortem’ after exam results.
  • Leaders and senior teachers should sit with middle managers and class teachers to discuss their understanding and use of internal school tracking. This should be an opportunity to identify areas of strength and innovation.
  • A culture of openness and sharing needs to be fostered. Every teacher should be encouraged to visit other lessons, both within the school and in other schools, and to discuss ideas with their colleagues. Share good practice, and foster a culture of innovation.

This sounds likely truly informed education.