For many students, our status quo is killing their aspiration

What do you accept from students in your classroom?

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately and have come to the conclusion that, collectively, if we are not reflecting regularly on our own classroom status quo, and occasionally shift it, then students’ aspirations may slowly diminish, and their attainment will suffer.

You might think this is just a post about high expectations, but it’s not; it’s more than that. What we accept covers not only our expectations of students, but our entire pedagogical approach to lesson planning, delivery, questioning, feedback, the lot.

Tom Sherrington’s brilliant  abseiling anecdote about the instructor who accepts the learners’ thumbs up, and then lets them jump over the cliff without checking they have successfully secured their harnesses is slightly hyperbolic for the classroom, but has resonated for me in terms of the profound consequences of what we accept on a daily basis.

Here are a few examples –

  1. You’ve asked a question to your most apathetic group. Finally, a partial answer from a student comes in. How often do you accept it, breathe a sigh of relief and move on, conscious of time, full of gratitude? Could you probe that student’s answer next time via further questioning until it mentally hurts, or bounce the response around the room until a wider understanding is elicited?
  2. Using Hands up questioning. The message you are giving to the majority is 7 or 8 students will do most of the work each lesson, and the rest barely have to bother to think. Aspirations subsequently fall. It’s so much easier to accept that sometimes that’s the way to roll the lesson along – with the positive reinforcement of the keen few. Could you try a week with a No Hands Up rule?
  3. The classic ‘Are we all ok with this? Is this making sense?’ when our tone is virtually rhetorical/please don’t ask me as I need to move on with this. How often do we accept that their silence or a few nods is a signal to proceed, or worse, that bless him, little Jimmy in the corner he’s just not going to get it in a month of SundaysCould you take time to make them explain what you’ve been going on about to each other, then down on paper, then back to you. Check for proof regularly even if it yields desperately uncomfortable truths, even if it screws with your lesson / medium term plan. 
  4. The kid who’s always in on time, nervous, quiet, always tries hard, but never impresses enough in his work to get rewards. Do you take his/her engagement for granted, accepting their attitude as the norm for kids in your well managed classes, and reassure yourself that you gave 200 rewards out last term, albeit to the high flyers? Or could you take 5 minutes this week to phone home to praise that nervous student to their parents, to the two people who instilled in him/her that smile / politeness, and a responsible work ethic over hundreds of evenings?
  5. The formative target written on ten assessments- ‘Use more ambitious vocabulary‘. We accept that they need to reach further into their brains for better words, and ultimately it’s not our fault if they don’t read extensively. Could you take time to show them/the class 5 new words for the next 5 lessons and insist they are weaved into the improvement work that they are going to do for homework? 
  6. The vague self-assessment activity – I understand / I partially understand / I don’t understand – or (sorry -I’m not a fan), the traffic light or thumbs up/down/ exit plenary. You’ve accepted from the 20 thumbs up/greens that the lesson has been a success and that they’ve learned what you intended, when in reality, they just wanted to get to break to see their mate waving at them through the classroom door, and feared a thumbs down would lead to Miss being upset, friends thinking they were thick, or even worse – an extra explanation, holding up break time. Could you make them show you at the start of next lesson what they can recall or make them do a task that explicitly demonstrates their understanding to you of your last lesson’s success or otherwise? 
  7. You accept that your Head of Faculty expects you to get to the end of the module before half term, and there simply isn’t the opportunity for students to spend any more than 10 minutes responding with yes/no to your carefully considered feedback questions. Could you secretly knock a couple of less important lessons out of the scheme of learning, and make the students spend two whole lessons improving, refining and improving further based on the feedback, before reflecting and labelling up all the process steps taken for homework. Imagine a ratio of 1:16 where a teacher’s 10 minutes of feedback is engaged with for 2 lessons of 60 mins and 40 minutes homework. Why not? The Head of Faculty will never know!
  8. The high achievers in Year 9 who could sit an A-level exam tomorrow, you accept are challenged by the lesson’s diary entry/poster mash up activity, and that it’ll be ok, as they’ll do it in a subversive way, and originality is one of the top criteria for a Level 9. Could you next week set 2 starter tasks that are so challenging that half the class will flounder, but some of those high attainers will remember the incredible rush of solving an intensely difficult problem? 
  9. The student who often forgets his/her pen, but you’ve already given them a sanction for the previous lesson, and don’t want to now ruin the good relationship you’ve built up with them, plus it’s more admin work after the lesson to write it up… You accept they’re just a disorganised sort, and comfort yourself you’re a kind, caring teacher as you throw them a pen and they give you a nod – you’re cool. Could you spare 2 mins at the end of the lesson next time to challenge them strongly about the importance of good organisation habits for life  -otherwise the learning for him/her is that it’s ok to continue?
  10. The homework handed in from a mid attaining student who always gives you 5/10 effort. You accept ‘that’ll do for them’ and again, can’t be bothered with the aggro that will come if you challenge them over it, plus their parents are hard work, and the Head of House is on their case, so it’ll be alright in the end. Could you take the stance of handing the homework back to them and say quietly that you expect a marked improvement in the effort levels next time or their break times will be taken to achieve just that? 

All of these steps in bold are time consuming, all of them make us step out of our comfort zone, but vitally, force the students to as well. That one step may just be the one that gets that student to aim that little bit higher. If we all do one of these, imagine what that kid might achieve.

Thanks for reading.



Learning Points from @teacherhead Tom Sherrington’s Inset sessions at Backwell School

I just thought I’d share a quick summary of a few of the excellent points from

Tom Sherrington’s recent Inset sessions that I attended at Backwell School, North Somerset recently. It was a mostly reassuring day for me personally, as many of the ideas and strategies he discussed I was aware of, being a keen reader of edutwitter and the latest books on pedagogy. My department are definitely moving in the right direction I believe! However, many of these tips around embedding learning, a knowledge led curriculum, and strategic planning were delivered with humour, humility and fresh insights from Tom’s own personal experiences. They offered specific strategies for support, and Tom was happy to explore teachers’ questions. He was a really engaging speaker, and I would highly recommend him as a speaker who would offer a lot of thinking points for school CPD sessions. (A free book would be a lovely Xmas present, Tom -hint, hint!)

Learning Points from @teacherhead Tom Sherrington’s Inset sessions at Backwell School – Wed 29/11/17

  1. Major Focus on Task based Intervention work for under-performers rather than reflection work. What is the specific task to improve? Encouragement of a move away from self-reflection work: ‘I can do/know this’ to ‘here’s a task to SHOW me you can do/know this’ – Let’s test whether you know this. Tom offered the brilliant analogy here of an Abseiling instructor. They wouldn’t just say ‘All ok?’ with a group of beginners and let them go over the cliff! They’d double check key elements first until they are confident in the learners’ ability to go independent.

2. Questions were raised about the challenge and rigour of Yr 7-9. Are we leaving it too late if we only really push students in Yr 11? One school was cited as having 9-10 as the focus GCSE years, then going ‘beyond’ in Year 11.

Is our curriculum model coherent? Do years link together effectively?

  1. Embedding learning over time was also considered heavily.

Don’t mistake performing for learning. Information is only learned if students can do it in a week, a month, 6 months. Use strategies from the ‘Learning Scientists’ here. Elaboration, use in sentences, retrieval practice, etc.

Nothing wrong with rote learning at times. Higher ability problem solving is reliant on memory/ knowledge of an array of procedures and information to choose from. Plumber/Chess players analogies here. Both would not suddenly get all creative and try brand new ideas out. They would select the right course of action from their prior knowledge of many situations and experiences.


  1. Exam Practice is not necessarily the best way forward, although it was acknowledged that stamina for longer papers needs to be built as students get closer to the exams.

We looked at the ‘Learning Zone’ as opposed to the ‘Performance Zone’.

In the ‘Learning Zone’ students took their time over small components of exam skills; they would be set drills to practice; they were allowed to make mistakes, and learn from them, reflecting on improvement steps in a low stakes environment without grades.

This was preparation for the ‘Performance Zone’ where mistakes must be kept to a minimum, time management is crucial, and extended writing is encouraged.

The message was that LEARNING happened in the ‘Learning Zone’ not in the ‘Performance Zone’. Don’t over-play lots of broad, lengthy exam practices.

Some students in one school were told exactly what the Mock questions were, so they could prepare fully for them. They did well, earned confidence, and recognised that if they revise the main material, they’ll do well!

  1. Are we specific/explicit enough with our revision instructions on what to learn?

e.g. If this character comes up –what are the four main things you need to talk about?

  1. Major focus on increasing Challenge in classrooms

Are our expectations high enough of learners? Are we ‘lifting the lid’ on occasions and seeing what happens?

Are we all ‘hand on heart’ setting really tough work that our top attainers can struggle with from time to time?

Let’s challenge our top attainers through depth not speed.

Top end Modelling is vital.

Are we tolerating mono-syllabic answers out of gratitude or really probing students to extend the depth of their thinking?

We need to build strategies for ‘deep end survival’. Set super tough work, but make it clear that there is support there for them if they need it / they can use X resource if they need it. Don’t let them drown!

Eliminate soft filler activities – wordsearch / cover page / posters. There are students in our mixed ability classes who can sit A-levels now – what are we doing to stretch them?

Are we occasionally setting work that is ‘impossible to finish’? An example of a question set to a Yr 7 for homework was ‘What is the difference between Science and Philosophy?’

Are we the experts in the room? Do we take time in Faculty meetings and in our own time to build up deep subject knowledge?

There was an acknowledgement we differentiate for different people at different times, and can’t always focus on ‘lifting the lid’ for the top. But now and again it’s worth trying to see which students will surprise you by rising to the super-tough challenge level!

Thanks for reading, and well done to Tom for some excellent ideas.


Motivating Lower Attainers – Blog 3/3 -Via Secret Markers and other Audiences

My final post on Motivation was again inspired by Ron Berger and his inspirational book ‘An Ethic of Excellence’.

Berger examines the motivational factor of ensuring students’ work is shown to different audiences: other students, parents, local business people, and the community.

He asks the questions of students? Why should your work matter? Why should they care for your English lesson?


A student in Berger’s book says – ‘There is a reason to do the work well, and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way. People cared…I didn’t want to let them down.’

The reality is we often feel prouder of something when others are there to witness/share what we’ve done.

This idea of experimenting with different audiences intrigued me, and whilst I can’t hope to compete with some of the amazing project work Berger speaks of where kids’ research alters things like council decisions(!) I thought there were things I could do to harness this powerful motivational factor.

So, this year I devised the idea of secret markers. I’m sure it has been used before but I hadn’t heard of anyone doing it, so it seemed pretty exciting! Basically, my Year 11s were allocated a student’s book from my Lower set Year 10s, and have once a fortnight, provided encouragement, and tips.



The Year 10s have loved it! They keep urging me to tell them who their ‘secret marker’ is (I won’t until the end of the year -the 11s are sworn to secrecy!) and have had some really sweet exchanges, not in the books I photographed tonight but saying stuff like – ‘Thank you, I appreciate it!’

This has had a direct impact on motivation levels. Here are some quotes from a recent survey:

·     ‘It’s good that others comment on our work’

·      ‘It made me want to try a lot harder’

·      ‘Make me think I’m not rubbish at English’

·      ‘Makes me feel more confident if there are good points’

Here are some other audiences I’ve used / planning to use:

The Headteacher. I told them he would be popping in to see what they had learned recently. Again this was a new experience for them (not the SLT walk which are regular and great(!), but the time to discuss the work of each member of the class). My class  spent half a lesson refining, and reflecting on what they would show him that they were proud of.  Chris Hildrew kindly spent 15 mins with us, talking to each of my students in turn, discussing their progress with them. Their pride and motivation levels grew.

I have used the audience of parents. They were asked to listen to their son/daughter discuss their learning around a particular area, and comment on it. This was fairly successful, but didn’t have full take up. More work in getting this right is needed.

I want to use their teacher from last year once or twice if they’ll let me!

I want to get an author to pass comment on the stories they do later in the year, and a business friend of mine with their non-fiction letters. I keep reminding them of the 200 quid I got from a complaint letter once!

It all just broadens the sense that the work they’re doing is not just for me!

On a whole school level, I’m excited to take Berger’s audiences idea even further. I’ve asked every Faculty to share a project in a year group where there are 2 or 3 drafts of a piece of work, and select a handful of students where the progress is significant. I’m going to then get those students together to make a display of the draft stages, and invite parents in to an ‘Exhibition of Progress’ evening at the school. I hope to invite other students along too, and build motivation and pride via this avenue where they discuss their successful learning steps. My remit would be different to Berger’s though, as I want to see progress, but not necessarily ‘excellence’. I want to choose students from all attainment ranges to share work in this way.

More on this to follow later in the year.

Thanks for reading!






Motivating Lower Attainers -Blog 2/3 -Via Pride

I started the year with my Yr 10 group with a series of questions around the idea of pride.  I wanted students to reflect on something they had achieved highly in, and what had got them to that point.

I was fully aware that English work was not likely to be cited top of their list when asked!

It was interesting to hear tales of dance competitions, football matches, computer game achievements and more.

Those of you who read Blog 1 will share my amusement (inner turmoil?) when I read the Skateboarding one!

We then discussed the critical nature of practice over time, overcoming obstacles, and hard work in getting to these points, and how there had been a starting point for us all, before making the link to the two years ahead of us and the hundreds of lessons and homework occasions we had to practice. EVERY lesson mattered was my message.

Imagine how far we can go in 200/300 lessons with the right motivation!

We talked about how that pride would need to transfer to our every day work. I ask them almost every lesson -‘Are you proud of this?’ , encouraging maximum effort and focus in class and homework tasks, and challenging them when that sense of pride is seen to be lacking. It can so easily drop off, and the weekly, sometimes daily resetting of high expectations is essential in my view. I continually remind them of other less significant, but nonetheless symptomatic indicators of pride: presentation, maintenance of notes and handwriting.

‘I want a classroom full of craftsmen. I want students whose work is strong and accurate and beautiful. Students who are proud of what they do, proud of how they respect both themselves and others’    –Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence

A lower set student’s book might, as happens on occasions, unfortunately look like this:



But rather than ignore this, we spent time at break with this one, sellotaping it, and fixing it. It’s the little things – but they need to know that when the pride drops, motivation disappears, and progress stagnates.

I encourage students to craft analysis/writing pieces, and have allocated more time than normal for students to improve existing work until they’re proud. This has been really powerful. We now have more lessons in KS4 and I am advocating Jamie Thom’s ‘Slow learning’ – taking time to not rush through modules but make sure we understand the steps we’ve taken, and are proud of what we’ve done.

I’ve sought to instill pride via phone calls home for strong effort levels. I’ve looked at their books twice this year purely to try and evaluate effort levels, and given a mark out of 10. Those with 7 or more got a positive call home and were celebrated openly in class. Those with less than 5 got a private reminder via a call home that pride levels needed to rise.

I’ve given mini-team talks that reject their perception that others in other groups are just ‘smart’ and get it. I emphasise in response that the only difference between the higher attainers and our group currently is practice and automaticity. We need to zoom in on words -every time. We need to be thoughtful with meaning and effect of quotes -every time. The top set are.

‘If you repeat the same thought demanding task again and again, it will become automatic, your brain will change so you can complete this part of the task without thinking about it’ Daniel T Willingham – ‘Why don’t Students like school?’

Our embedding learning agenda in the English department involves regular recapping of prior knowledge in starters and homework and I have emphasised the importance of this work. The driving a car analogy always works well here.

Building the sense of team pride is vital too – students will always be encouraged to talk confidently and with advanced vocabulary. They’re asked to help each other in improving their work to an acceptable standard. Breaking the negativity/silliness/culture of raised eyebrows at intelligent points, Berger argues is fundamental –

‘Everyone does this many drafts, everyone works hard here… Once these children enter a culture with a powerful ethic, that ethic becomes the norm… ‘ Berger -‘An Ethic of Excellence’

That’s what I’m striving for.

I still have comedians at the moment who would rather be witty, than give a detailed answer. You have to sometimes humor them for an instant (their social standing is vital to motivation -so let them get the laugh now and again) but then insist they extend, and have a quiet word about allowing 1 joke for 6 thoughtfully considered points in future!

I’ve engaged with them via questionnaires to learn more about what leads to pride and further focus on what they feel they’re good at, this time within English. There’s nothing majorly unusual with the most popular answers here.

  • What do I find tough in English? (Analysis)
  • What have I found I’m good at in English? (Analysis!)
  • What motivates me? (Get good grades / good job / make parents proud)

But I liked this one:

  • What reduces my motivation? (When I feel like I can’t do it / don’t understand /feel stupid)

This definitely links into my reading of Willingham.

‘We quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much (or too little), we stop working on the problem’ 

– Disillusionment stemming from a sense of personal inadequacy returns, and misbehaviour inevitably results to offset this feeling of failure. We all see it regularly, don’t we?

Yes, we do have to set challenge, and teach to the top -of course we do, but we also have to be careful not to overload, and have to find regular opportunities, more than ever for lower attaining students, to succeed in the work which is a fundamental contributor to pride.

Success is covered in Blog 1!



Motivating lower attainers -Blog 1/3 -Via Success and the use of (sshh…) Grades

How do you motivate a lower set group?

My recent edu-reads have taken me on different journies towards possible solutions to this potentially game changing question. Since September I have been trialling some new strategies, and some old ones, and I’d like to share three if they can be of use to anyone over the course of these blogs.

What comes first? Motivation or Success?


For me, it’s motivation -just(!) but it must be quickly and frequently met with success in order to nurture future motivation. What are we doing to ensure students experience success on a regular basis, and why does it matter more for our lower attainers?

I once had a colleague who basically lied to his students about the grades he gave them. He fully admitted it -he would inflate grades by a half to 1 grade, and we all cursed him (in a nice way) when we had to moderate his coursework down at the end of the year.

His students though, were 100% motivated. They literally strutted round the school, speaking of the B+ grades they had got, above their performance in other subjects, brimming with pride because, and this is the crux, they had had a lifetime of failures otherwise in English lessons.

I don’t lie to my students, but I do find numerous opportunities to mention grades, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Let me try and explain why.

Dweck, in her book ‘Mindset’ steers mostly clear of the low attainers in my view and it frustrates me, as I subscribe otherwise to the principles behind GMS. We hear of a few kids like the boy ‘You mean I don’t have to be dumb any more?’ and he starts to try, but generally most of the stories are of people who were already high achievers, but via the fixed mindset developed little interest in effort / had a fear of failure, and wanted to preserve that status. The point is though, for most of them, they had the foundation of hundreds of successes and often the added bonus of some natural genetic aptitude on the way up. We are talking about people who have/ developed a fixed mindset in something they are already pretty damn good at.

What about those young people who have had the crippling sense of relative failure to their peers throughout primary school and secondary school -literally hundreds of situations when an English activity has not gone well, and their confidence has been steadily, relentlessly diminished?

Couple this with the fact teenagers have the most incredibly fragile self-esteem; they are seeking out who they are -what makes up their personal identity, and it is obvious this is going to be linked to where their successes come.

Success = motivation / enjoyment = further success

I’ve given Growth Mindset presentations on resilience, talked about Steve Jobs and James Dyson who both experienced hundreds of failures on their way to the top. BUT what we don’t share in those assemblies is the fact Jobs was an electronics whizz at school, and was inspired/guided by his uncle; Dyson showed remarkable aptitude for engineering extremely quickly at University. For them, yes they were resilient, but there had been enough successes in the discipline to act as a safety net, a counter-balance for the short period of failures that followed.

My lower set 10s haven’t had that. They don’t have that bank of successes to offset the times they get things wrong, the times they perceive themselves to have failed.


It therefore follows that they must experience the pleasurable mental rush of success quickly, regularly, and sense that there is an achievable outcome for them equated with a commonly accepted measure of success or why should they bother?

The try hard / it’s all about your effort message is pointless otherwise.

The ‘Well done on that good punctuation use!‘ is nice and all, but probably worth 1 gramme on the scales above. Achieving a standard accepted by most as a measure of success amongst peers, must be worth a kilogram!

It is difficult enough for adults to overcome the incompetent experiences / paranoia of failure and continue to apply themselves to something -(like DIY if you’re me!), but with children, all the assemblies and posters in the world are not going to get through without tangible, relative success.

What do I mean by relative, tangible success?

When I was 11, I got into skateboarding. I enjoyed it -the buzz of going downhill fast, the clothes, the exciting places to hang-out. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t do an ‘ollie’! For those not familiar with skateboarding jargon, it’s a kind of kick-flip jump. Most of my mates could do it; I couldn’t. I tried many times, practicing on my own, sometimes with others, but I didn’t manage to master it.

This was a problem because being able to do an ollie was the relative standard. It equated to being a successful skateboarder -it was the first major trick. Most could ride like me; but anyone half decent could ollie. After a lack of success in this,  despite considerable hours practicing (honestly, I did!), the motivation and enjoyment for me disappeared, and I pursued other hobbies.



Young people are particularly good at sniffing out that standard of success relative to peers and subscribing to it. Why do we ignore this?

Success = motivation / enjoyment = further success

At KS4, the relative standard of success is a ‘C’ grade or a Level 4. It’s the access level to college, to a job, our national agreed standard for being functionally literate. Students know, their parents know, and I know that if they don’t get the ‘4’ then, much as it pains me to say, in most cases (Some EAL/serious SEN excepted) they’ve not done enough. It’s simply not good enough.

I know I’m in the minority here. It is highly fashionable in teaching lately to avoid talking grades, and to celebrate progress with ‘good punctuation‘ or ‘excellent sentence variety‘. But ultimately, regardless of our growth mindset dreams, they are not going to go home singing and dancing about that. Just like budding footballers wouldn’t celebrate getting a corner kick into the area -that’s an expectation of anyone who plays football; they’ll look for what relative success is depending on their peers around them – making the school team for example. It’s these ‘relative successes’ that motivate the students to firstly enjoy the pursuit and garner the motivation to practise more for greater future success.

Every student in my group (in fact the vast majority of students in most schools) can either get/get extremely close to a ‘4’ if they apply themselves. I talk about that as the benchmark with them, and that we should all be aiming for that or higher. We look at higher Level 6 or 7 models, and I talk regularly to them in terms of ‘what you’ve said right there in exploring the writer’s intention – is Level 7 quality.’ I will return work with feedback on, and have learned to hold back the grade until after reflection work has been done, but often then I will unashamedly share what I believe their grade to be. The students who have earned ‘4’s have been over the moon. Those who are not far off are disappointed, but it may be they have to tweak a few things for next time. I will try hard to find sections of their work that I can recognise as level 4 or above quality on another piece of work.

The student who got a Level 6 in our recent end of unit assessment I celebrated as a model of success and what can be achieved by them all. I’m not sure why I would want to  keep this quiet. He was beside himself with excitement -his hard work and focus had been rewarded and he had been successful. His peers who found out gave him a moving round of applause, and I thought he might shed a tear.

Motivation levels were good for him previously, but are now through the roof, as he went home to tell his parents that evening.

‘Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. They’re never satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.’ -Berger -‘An Ethic of Excellence’

The lad predicted a ‘2’ at the end of Yr 10 with ‘slow processing skills’, earned a ‘4’ in a recent practice we did. I offered some scaffolding in previous lessons but then he did it – he was absolutely buzzing.

These experiences are a strong brick in the foundation for future resilience, for the kind of motivation levels needed to knuckle down on the Sunday night when his English homework is due, and his mates are playing X-box. Beforehand, I’m pretty certain it was a foregone conclusion which would win out.

Of course, I don’t give grades out all the time. I use many other tactics to motivate that are nothing to do with grades -some of which I’ll talk about in the other 2 blogs in this series,  some not – the quiet word, the parental call, the extra day’s deadline rather than a sanction, the tougher challenge than they’re used to, discussing the profound importance of being able to read and speak confidently, the engagement with their interests and them as people.

I use them all, but for me, ensuring they experience a tangible notion of ‘success’ quickly and regularly, often via grades, still has a major part to play in motivation.

Thanks for reading.


Embedding Learning over time – Our approach

There has been much written on this topic over the last year, and I am indebted to many members of Team English for their ideas. I’d also like to acknowledge Michaela School in shaping my thinking towards how we can simplify our delivery of core content. Below are some of the decisions we have taken as a team to get to where we are at present, just a couple of months in to the ‘new system’. It may be of use to Faculties who are considering moving into this area over the next year, and, as an aspiring Assistant Head, I’d like it to demonstrate evidence of a core Teaching and Learning approach that I believe in strongly and would look to work with middle leaders to implement across a school.

Following my reading of the following books,

I presented to my team the story of Student X (who happened to be an actual student (one of mine, in fact!)

Pic B

The overall message was she had got to 16 years old, about to sit her GCSE Language exam, without being able to write a story remotely competently. I felt, collectively, as a group of teachers, we had let her down in some way. How had she got to 16 years old without things like full stops and paragraphs being automatically embedded in long term memory? Of course, it is a simplistic picture -her attitude to learning (not bad), her attendance record (quite bad), and her SPLD will have contributed, but ultimately, I felt we could and should have done more. The full blog post is here

My message centred on how, for her, core English skills and knowledge had simply not become embedded and automatic, and we discussed as a team, how we might set about addressing this area. This is what led to the strategy for ‘Embedding Learning more effectively over time’.

After the team meeting, I met with my Key Stage Coordinators to discuss our guiding principles further, and the work involved in setting it up. Laura, Rachel  and Sue Strachan in particular have been absolutely amazing in helping turn the initially daunting plan into a reality, and have provided a huge amount of wisdom, ideas, caution, enthusiasm and time, all at important points along the road! Sue made two excellent points from the offset:

  1. Some of the methods people are using already so there is nothing for anyone to be worried about.
  2. Anything we implement should not lead to more work for the team

We all agreed that we were moving in the right direction with this, and that the sheer weight of research around how students learn best pointed to the fact we need to move more fully towards a ‘recap culture’.

The philosophy is sound:  Trim down and focus more on the essentials. Consistency of message. Practise it more. Make the core stuff automatic.

I knew in order to get ownership we needed to involve the team further in as much of the process as possible. We met in small groups before the summer in gained time to decide what might go into the first unit Knowledge Organizers, and to answer any initial queries.

Below is what we arrived at as key components for the new approach:

  1. Knowledge Organisers that identify the Core information that every student should know 

This is a large task, and the 3 coordinators and myself are constructing these every six weeks for the new unit. The rationale is simple: Establishing clarity of what constitutes the vital module knowledge/skills for students and teachers. It is a process being evaluated with the team before the KO is used, as they’re being used, and at the end of them being used. Decisions made so far:

  • No differentiation. The KO material should be challenging for most. High Attainers would be expected to go beyond the KO content.
  • KS3 and Yr 9 – 1 page.    KS4 – 2 pages.
  • We’ve not arrived at a ‘definitive’ set of categories yet. Terms and Defs, Vocab, Skills, Exam Requirements are recurring, but in our Anthology one we have a mini guide to the Romantics, and in our Yr 9 one -some punctuation reminders.
  • For each poem in the Anthology, we have identified an overview statement, 3 context points, and 4-5 quotes to be learned.
  • Definitions need to be useful to our subject and collectively agreed. e.g. we can probably refine the dictionary definition of ‘analysis’ for our ends. Some definitions are overly complex/unhelpful.
  • Quotes / Terms/Vocab must be explicitly taught in the lessons. If teachers do not see the use of something, a case is made and it comes out in the drafting stage. KOs must be the distilled knowledge of lessons, NOT a bolt-on with terms the teacher never uses in class.


    2. Identify a Quiz that can test KO learning easily, effectively and provide next steps for teachers/students 

Googleforms has been fantastic for us here. Sue researched this for us and has come up with a winner. Decisions made so far: We create a quiz that tests samples of different sections of the KO sheet.

  • Use Multiple choice questions. Don’t make them too easy.
  • We copy the quiz and send the link to each teacher for onward sending to their class.
  • The quiz takes 15 mins for students who do it in a computer room at the end for the module, following the main assessment.
  • The summary info gives the teacher an ‘at a glance’ guide to how each student did, the 2 worst score questions for the class, and a class percentage correct for each question.
  • TEACHER ACTION – The teacher can then use this info to re-teach any area where the majority of students didn’t get the right answers.
  • STUDENT ACTION -The teacher can also send the quiz results back to the student for them to re-learn areas as part of their next homework.
  • RE-QUIZ at later date in year as part of interleaved recap lesson (See Point 4)


3. Create a Quiz that uses a selection of information from KOs during the year to assess overall knowledge acquired.

We hope to use Googleforms again to get a sense of how successful we have been in helping students retain information over the course of the year. We plan to have one of these midway through Year 11. Action steps will be taken from these results -TBC.

4. Create Year Overviews that interleave recap lessons from older units and previous years.


You’ll see here that our first Yr 7 Unit -‘The Novel’ has the skills and knowledge revisited in a lesson in Yr 7 Module 2, Year 7 Module 4, and Year 8 Module 4 with increasing gaps. This is characteristic of our approach across all years. One lesson alone won’t ‘bring it all back’, but together with the other steps in place, it certainly helps refresh and remind.

5. KS4 Revision Weeks

Self explanatory. We have expanded here and built in a revision week before Xmas in Year 10, a revision fortnight in April of Year 10, a revision week just after Xmas in Year 11, and 5 weeks at the end of Year 11.

6. The use of starters to recap prior learning and accompanying activities based on knowledge of how students learn effectively -via low stakes quizzes, mcq, first letter recall, clues. 

I am convinced that the most effective plenary is the one that comes at the start of the next lesson, and we are using all starters in all years to recap core current module KO information in the form of a short quiz/activity. This starter may also be used to provide a short separate recap on a previous unit -particularly useful at KS4.

Here are some methods of challenging students in this way: MCQ, first letter recall prompts, quotes with missing words. Whilst open tasks such as a character mind-map can be useful, generally, closed questions on anything from exam timings to which characters link best to a key theme, will work best in the limited time you have for starters, to clarify for the students vital info you want to embed in their long term memories.

7. The use of homework to focus almost exclusively on KO learning and Target Work

Homework now increasingly offers students time/opportunities to learn sections of their KO. This is vital consolidation work to go alongside extended writing or reading practice. DIRT time can now be extended into homework usefully to further give students chance to reflect on and act on teacher feedback.

8. The use of fortnightly KO-Pause lessons to recap understanding of current unit, take time out to reflect, and make explicit links to other units. 

Every fortnight in KS4, we are recommending teachers take a lesson to ‘pause’ and go over key learning points from the last 8 lessons, checking students’ understanding of KO skills/knowledge, and offering chance for all to reflect on the steps they have taken so far. Current feedback is that half a lesson is probably enough for this, with all the other embedding learning steps going on, otherwise content will be squeezed too much.

Some teachers are starting to use this time to make the links between exam components explicit e.g. how the same skills are used in Unseen Poetry and Romeo and Juliet extract analysis. Sue has even gone as far as to use a Romeo and Juliet scene to test Language Fiction Reading skills via qns!

9. Modelling and Practice opportunities

The explicit use of  a variety of models has been an essential component in our department for years and  we are looking to up the emphasis on this even more with an increasing number of the team now trialling live modelling with their classes, and helping students understand the  steps towards success.  Being more unashamed about creating periods of silent time for students to produce extended writing and practising these steps on a regular basis is also part of how we hope to embed learning over time.

10. Metacognition work and extended DIRT/Target work time.

I have blogged on how highly I rate this in my post around targets work here, and Sue has also produced an excellent guide here.Metacognitive Activities Lesson Ideas & Approaches

11. Create consistency of teaching messages to students

We have moved away from PEA and teachers’ various sub-strands of this in recent years, and Sue and I have worked hard alongside the team to refine a system of 8 tiered prompts that fit our purposes better, and don’t tie down students to the old PEA approach that could prove limiting. The message for all is during the course of your analysis, red is always essential, while you should show off the orange and green skills now and again, where appropriate. Not everything, every time!  I am keen for succinctness, a move away from techniques waffling, and instead embracing ways to cover a sufficient quantity of quotes in the given time.

If we use the same messages over time, this will help embed them in students’ long term memories. IMG_8056

It’s only early days, and we may not see the full impact of these steps until Yr 7 and 8 reach Year 11, but the early signs are that the students are responding well, recalling things more quickly, and actually finding some of our recap activities ‘fun’ -Now there’s a dirty word to end on.

Thanks for reading.

Write a convincing story. 45 minutes. Go!

‘Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form’

– Jean Luc Godard, film director, screen writer, film critic


Can we help students perform more effectively in the Narrative Writing exam? I think we can.

Many people have identified different approaches, excellent model structures for students to use with narrative writing, and Jamie Thom has collated these helpfully here: Jamie Thom’s summary of narrative writing tips  When we teach the module in the first instance and recap it later, we will, of course, utilise many of these  principles to guide the construction of an effective story, but this year we’re going to approach the exam itself a bit differently.

Let me give you an anecdote from my top set this year. It took 3 drafts for two thirds of the class to achieve a clear, logical, effective narrative that abided by the conflict/development/peak/resolution basic structure. Many top set students were unable to construct (without support) anything resembling an effective narrative. This was after 6 weeks of lessons / many years of doing story writing. My learning? This is going to be a damn tough ask in timed conditions, and one they shouldn’t have a blank slate going into.

I know examiners have warned against pre-prepared narratives, but ultimately, if a student is able to adapt their story to the frankly, rather generic titles the exam board provide, for me, it makes sense to use a piece which students are already pretty familiar with.

It works too.

The title I gave my class to work their narrative around was ‘A tough decision‘ -one from this year’s paper. 3 drafts later, they were happy and I was happy with their stories. I set them 4 new titles, and asked them to take 5 minutes with each (exam conditions) to consider how they would adapt their story to ‘fit’ the title. The titles were ‘A victory‘ , ‘Start with the line ‘There’s no way you’re doing that’ said Mum/Dad’ , ‘A time where you forgot something’, and ‘A dream come true‘. I asked them to evaluate how convincingly they had managed to adapt to the titles each time. The results were interesting. For each choice, roughly half the class said ‘no problem -could do that’, and the other half admitted ‘it would not be convincing’. BUT when I asked if you had ALL FOUR of those options to pick one from (same as in the exam) could you use at least one to adapt your story towards? All said yes, they could.

Of course, we will need to continue to test this hypothesis, and lower attaining students may find the adapting a tougher challenge so will need practice, but one thing I’m sure of is that it would not be as tough as inventing a whole complete piece of narrative fiction in 45 minutes.

One might argue it isn’t ethical. I would argue writing a story in timed condition isn’t ethical – no writer does this. Narratives are drafted and refined, not rushed. Also – a pre-prepared narrative that the whole class uses is not what I’m advocating. I’m simply encouraging every student to construct their own imaginative, original, individual story that we know, works, and will not be subject to marks tumbling in the content/structure section.

The three tiered plan for our students this year going into this exam is as follows:

  1. Use your pre-planned narrative and adapt to one of the titles

  2. Failing that, use one of your 3 pre-prepared structure plans and adapt to one of the titles

  3. Failing 1 or 2 being an option, devise a brand new narrative to suit one of the titles.


The freeing up of working memory via a pre-prepared narrative also surely can’t be ignored. A student will know where the story’s going, what the different stages are and what needs to be mentioned when.They can then relax a little, not feel the pressure of inventing a story during one of the most pressured times of their lives (something no author would do, and few teachers, if pressed, would enjoy) – and focus on all the touches that will up the marks quota: punctuation, vocabulary choices, spelling, sentence variety, etc.

Unless the story they use is horribly different to the exam title, I really don’t think it matters and I think the informal agreement around the group of examiners I worked with is they might lose a few marks for ‘forcing it to fit’ but they’ll lose a lot more marks for being unable to produce any kind of narrative structure.

It contributes 20% of a student’s English Language grade. It matters a lot they get this right.

Let’s look at the mark scheme for Eduqas.

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For the middle band 3 (likely to lead to the all important level 4 or 5) , the narrative must have ‘shape and direction’. It must have ‘control’. ‘Cohesion’ is necessary. These elements all require conscious crafting, and tough editorial decisions being taken that many students going into this exam will struggle with, primarily due to their lack of exposure to an array of good narratives over their lifetime, but also due to the way that things like cohesive links, and threads are something added in after several drafts and not in the spur of the moment.

Of course, as teachers, we will show as many good narrative examples as we can to guide and inspire, and I may be throwing my hands up here, but the reality that I saw as an examiner reading 500 of them last year, was that many students retained zero awareness of how to structure a story, and many otherwise good writers rambled around the title with no plot direction whatsoever. I’m determined this won’t happen to a single one of our students this year.

Hand holding a pen over paper.

I previously shared general tips here -and alongside Jamie’s summary blog at the top, students have many skills to get right in their story BEFORE they take it into the exam:

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I know this may be controversial, but we’re going to trial it this year, and see whether it has a positive impact on results.

Thanks for reading and I would welcome feedback.

‘Why don’t students like school’ – 10 learning points



I know many people have spoken about the impact this book had on them, and I am convinced it is essential reading for all teachers. Here are 10 things I’ve learned from D.T.Willingham’s incredibly illuminating book and will be sharing with my Faculty.


1.      People are naturally curious but not naturally good thinkers. When faced with a problem, we quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem.

If it’s just right –the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought is addictive, highly motivating, and perhaps the essence of what we want students to experience on a daily basis.



This will lead to a fixed mindset towards our subject over time if we get this wrong.

Think carefully about the level of difficulty and students’ prior background knowledge –make tasks challenging –make them struggle, but respect different students’ cognitive limits.

Ask ourselves – how often do our students ‘struggle’? Is it enough?

Do we adapt effectively when we differentiate? Does it become too easy?

We need to make sure problems/questions are posed which stimulate curiosity. Perhaps remove objectives and consider as a Faculty instead what key questions might be asked during a module that strike the right balance of difficulty.

2.      Background knowledge is necessary to being a good thinker as it allows people to make links to a wider base of prior knowledge when considering new information.


3.      Background knowledge enables chunking, which is a way of cheating the limitation of working memory, freeing up space

Exemplify to students how automaticity via background knowledge frees up working memory to deal with new, tougher challenges –advancing thinking to the next level. e.g. tying shoelaces / driving. It’s the only difference between students who are achieving better results. More things have become automatic through successful, sustained practice.

For many students, it will take a long period of time to break old learned bad practice. We need to find opportunities to practice skills regularly – KS3 grammar booklet / grammar lessons / extended silent writing practice –all years.

With our Knowledge Organisers drive this year, we have started considering carefully which pieces of knowledge/processes need to become automatic for success. This is ongoing and the team are collaborating around these.

We have started making links between units/ideas/systems which is a broad method of chunking within our subject.

In lessons, we need to focus on a limited amount of the most important information, exploring it in greater depth.

4.      Students remember what they think about


5.      As humans, we are attuned to the power of narrative

We should create regular opportunities for students to silently pause and reflect and think for meaning

Structure lessons around stories – character, conflict, causality, complications – the hook is everything!

Avoid the relevance trap –school isn’t just about them and their lives!

6.      Rote learning / knowledge doesn’t always equate to understanding




It still falls to us to expertly question carefully around our core learning to ensure deeper understanding results, and new learning can be successfully applied.

Areas of information from the KO sheets should be explored and discussed regularly.

Provide different examples and ask students to compare how they fit with the concept/skill being taught. This is a proven way of checking understanding of a concept.

7.      Practice needs to occur even after something is ‘mastered’ – it protects against forgetting, and improves transfer We have spaced our practice out. We have interleaved lessons/homeworks/starters and quizzes so should be returning to skills/practice regularly.
8.      Best example yet of why Learning Styles are nonsense. ‘Should Auditory learners listen to the shape of countries described on a map? / Should Visual learners watch videos when learning piano?’ These are just great examples to use if students still cite they are a particular type of learner!
9.      Be wary of praising second rate work in lower attaining students –the message sent is ‘good job for someone like you’


10.   The gap is widening between students who are knowledge rich and those who aren’t. Having factual knowledge embedded in long term memory, makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.‘You have 10,000 facts in your memory. I have 9000. I might remember 10% of the new facts I hear due to my ability to make more links. You remember 9% as a result of being able to make less links.’ The gap widens. To catch up the weaker students must actually work ‘harder’ than the higher attainers.

We need to be vigilant here and challenge this, not settling for sub-standard work and questioning why it’s being submitted. Sanction if necessary. High standards for all and praise strongly when potential is seen.

This remains a challenging area to identify for staff, and one that needs Faculty meeting discussion around strategies.

Set high expectations of the quantity to be learned by lower attaining students. Provide practice booklets/tasks to get basics to automaticity quickly. Consider in intervention/support work in class the language we are using. Are we dumbing down, and nurturing ‘learned helplessness’?

We need to do more to help kids read at every opportunity and be exposed to new words/information via homework / worksheets / texts. Check understanding regularly.


Springhead – a magical place to inspire young writers

Just over ten years ago, a colleague invited me to my first Springhead creative writing trip with a small group of students, and it had a profound effect on me. When I moved schools in 2012, I ‘brought’ the trip with me, and have continued to take students of all ages since.

The aim of the weekend is simple – to gather inspiration from the surroundings, escape from the pressures of work for students and staff(!), and write.

That might be poetry, story openings, character portrayals -whatever takes your fancy.

Springhead is a old Grade 1 listed building nestled in the most beautiful grounds in the village of Fontmell Magna, Near Shaftesbury, Dorset

Many students have described it to me as a highlight of their school life, and having had a profound impact on them. The bonding experience of sharing poetry, and being in such a beautiful setting, having fun, is very powerful indeed.

I have in the past taken Yr 12/13 groups, and Yr 8/9 groups -usually no more than 20 students for the ‘small group’ vibe.

We go with a relatively simple agenda:

  • Two or three different writing activities on Friday afternoon, evening and Saturday morning -first impressions / character  / setting work -sharing early efforts in circle time
  • Visit the local village, church, graveyard -Saturday afternoon -continue to add to notes/poems.
  • Come together for the final time and everyone reads one piece to the group that has been polished for the final evening.

My role is to observe funny/moving little moments throughout the weekend from the students, and weave each of these into a poem about them, which always goes down very well!

We also tend to usually have a final night play performance in fancy dress, which they love, and have a bonfire with marshmallows -some students may bring along guitars to play whilst there’s also a piano in the main building.


It truly is a magical place, and it holds a special place in my heart, having visited 6 or 7 times at different key moments in my life – about to get married, pre-kids, post-kids, new job, etc.

Eddie who runs the place is a published tree photographer, and expert on the wildlife and area in general, and is always happy to take us on a guided walk, whilst Linda and Nicky who we have dealt with in the past in admin. and support are always happy to help.

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I hope I’ve inspired you to take a small group along yourself – it really is an amazing trip. Here’s the link:


I’ll end with a couple of dodgy verses from yours truly from different years…

Back to our sanctuary, our own quiet place

People start writing, leaving their trace

On a weekend of laughter and friendship and words

You’re writers like poets, the boundaries are blurred.

I hope you’ll all look back in the future to come

And think of your Springhead, and just what we’ve done.

For me, this trip helped form my vision of teaching
Of freedom, expression and continually reaching
For how to tap into our creative talents
and find somehow what is the right learning balance
Of craft and of effort, of being inspired
By nature and life and questioning why.

Thanks for reading.

Twitter, turning 40, and terrific hugs

I’m getting old. Early next year, I turn 40, and in grudging deference to the event, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking: Is this it? Am I doing the things in life I want to do? Am I making time for them, for my family?

Over the summer, one important step I took was a break from Twitter. Something I’ve realised is that, ultimately, it’s just work, and I need to keep that more firmly in mind.

Just over 18 months ago I joined Twitter properly, and started using it for educational purposes. I’ve absolutely loved it – the buzz after posting a blog, the new followers alerts, the mind blowing FREE(!) CPD, the sharing, the teacher camaraderie and support…

But it can also take over. Look at the poll results below.

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It suggests that more than half of us spend over 5 hours a week on Twitter, and a worrying number of us, 10% spend over 15 hours. I’m pretty certain that I was not far off that latter figure some weeks.

The site is utterly immersive. Whilst one can drop in to Facebook, check the latest updates from friends, throw a few likes and comments in and then get out, Twitter, I find, is different: conversations/debates quickly emerge, and you’re hooked! One blog post references links to others and before you know it, you’ve forgotten where you started! Hours can quickly disappear, or worse – during the day when you’re doing other things, your attention will never be exclusively on that time in the park with your family, or meal with your wife; it’ll be considering how to challenge someone’s ideas about differentiation, who you’ve never met.

635969385074624333-631703838_addiction twitter


I hope this doesn’t sound like a lecture. It’s meant to be the same kind of advice I give my  colleagues: find ways to maintain a life! Ultimately, for most of us who I presume use it for educational purposes -Twitter is still ultimately just work.

I have had the raised eyebrows from my wife when I’m not focusing on a film in the evening after I get home at 8pm from a Parents’ evening and turn on Twitter. I’ve moaned to colleagues about not doing enough exercise, then realised a Twitter chat has cost me the 45 mins I could have been swimming in the local pool. What a hypocrite I am when I lecture students about getting off social media, and reading instead, when I have been hugely guilty of losing track of story plots for this exact reason!


This summer I had a bedtime hug from my little boy that was bigger than ever before, and I am positive it was partly down to me devoting an entire day to him, and leaving my phone with its Tweets behind!

So, I have a plan to change my Twitter approach. I am going to dedicate an hour or two on separate occasions during the week to catch up on stuff and blog once a month, but that’s it. The phone will also be physically placed away from any other activity -just putting it out of the room is an effective step I’ve found. I want to stay informed; I’m ambitious, and know I will keep my profile high by utilising some of the amazing ideas/research I read; I love the professional contacts I’ve made on the site too, but life’s too short for the debates that drag on for hours, sometimes days (although Rebecca’s recent Windowsgate was genuinely amazing…) I want to do other stuff. Life’s too short.

This summer I’ve written a children’s book and planned several more -something I’ve been dreaming of doing for years;  I’ve created a 20 minute film documenting my little boy’s journey from birth to school that he starts tomorrow(!) complete with all kinds of iMovie wizardry which I had never used before; I’ve played piano to random passers by all over Bristol in the Play me I’m Yours initiative  , and just felt generally, with the Twitter self imposed ban, that I’m using my time more effectively to achieve stuff that I care about.

Anyone can do this stuff over the summer, but back in the work routine is where it matters. That’s my aim: I’ve allocated weekly time to do/achieve certain creative things that make me happy, and I hope in this crazy job of ours, and as a likely fellow Twitter user, you find time to as well!

The kids’ book I’ve written is called ‘Roscoe’s Sunrise’ and it looks at a little boy who gets ignored by all around him who are obsessed with technology.

Enjoy Twitter this year, but remember it’s still just work.