Where does Teacher Self-Worth remain in ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’?

The new EEE document released by the Government (March, 2016) is interestingly titled.  It claims to assert the promotion of “educational excellence everywhere” and aims to provide “world class education” to all pupils in the country.

If you haven’t yet read the document put forward, you can do so here. However, the key objectives I want to focus on are its aims to do the following:

  • Where great schools, great leaders and great teachers exist – we will let them do what they do best – help every child achieve their full potential
  • Where they do not, step in to build capacity, raise standards and provide confidence for parents and children.
  • Set high expectations for every child, ensuring that there are no forgotten groups or areas.
  • Ensure the system can recruit, train, develop, and retain the best possible teachers.

The focus the document has in Chapter 2 on teacher retention is overwhelming. Again, the necessity to keep professionals in the career is one consistently discussed, argued and questioned. So, the question that clearly remains is whether or not this new Educational Excellence Everywhere will actually promote or encourage “teacher retention” and “put the power back into its schools.”

When completing my PGCE equivalent in Australia (Graduate Diploma, 2012), I clearly remember knowing that securing myself a position in the career would be difficult. Teachers tended to stay in their jobs almost indefinitely. They were comfortable; the students actually welcomed ‘newcomers’ due to the rarity of it. Naïve me at this time would sit looking at TES wondering how it was possible that so many positions were available across the UK. Until I moved here, of course.

Unfortunately, as the Australian education system moves ever closer to the British system, teacher retention is now becoming a pressing issue. Australia is starting to see the beginning of a ‘trend’ to move out of teaching after studying.  Consequently, research is being poured into assessing the gap between University Teacher Training and the School Teaching Profession.  This makes sense as prior to teaching full-time in Australia, I had spent a maximum 11 weeks in schools on a minimal timetable and it’s obvious to see why the transition would be hard for most.  Interestingly, however, Buchanan et al. writing for the Australian Journal of Education claimed that teacher retention was less about the disparity between research and practice, and more about self-worth:

“Perceptions of success and sense of worth are consistently noted in the literature as being associated with the retention of beginning teachers.” p.114.

That is, if teachers felt they were to remain in the profession they must feel they have sustained value within that system.

If this is the case, it makes sense as to why so many of this country’s best teachers are opting out of the career. It is no secret that British teachers are not in control of their self-worth and have been made to judge their self-worth off 3 things: 1) their ability to conform to teaching methods the school implements to perform ‘outstanding’ teaching, 2) the amount of hours they will write (or rewrite) coursework to minimise academic regression, and 3) their ability to exhibit the ‘quantifiable’ progress their pupils make. The new EEE proposal does not seem to amend this.

Unfortunately, self-worth is not one of the priorities in Chapter 2: Great Teachers, everywhere they’re needed! Unsurprisingly, it is about embracing evidence-based practice, strengthening training to a more rigorous and challenging system, and encouraging good teachers to work ‘where they are needed’ (perhaps in areas or environments where they may no longer thrive).

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In point (h), EEE also claims it wants to establish a “world-leading teaching profession” yet there is no mention of teacher self-worth. Self-worth and world leading education are inextricably linked. To know this, one simply has to look at the world-leading education system: Finland.

In an article by Webb et al. (2004) on the comparative analysis of teacher professionalism in England and Finland, they claim:

“In England they are shaped by agendas associated with the drive to raise standards and ‘commercialized professionalism‘ whilst in Finland they are influenced by notions of ‘teacher empowerment’” (p.83).

The article goes on to assert that the professionalisation of teachers – their self-worth, prestige and respect – is derived from their responsibility to control and develop their own knowledge and actions for the benefit of their client. Furthermore, building the alliances between teachers, pupils and parents promotes the highest levels of success for the child and the system. It argues that the under-representation of teachers and their ‘voice’ in the British education debate has led to the “deprofessionalisation” or “technicisation” of a teacher’s work, moving the British system perpetually away from being ‘world-leading’.

Again, the EEE document looks to make the same mistake by claiming that it will put “Children and Parents first” – further enhancing the dichotomy between teachers, parents and pupils while simultaneously minimising teacher self-worth.

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It also identifies to set up a portal that provides a complaint platform against teachers and schools across the country.

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It seems that such objectives and protocols will be at the expense of the teacher’s empowerment, confidence and independence.

It is clear that teacher self-worth has been missed in the Educational Excellence Everywhere document. The EEEs consolidation of quantifiable, progress-based teacher assessment, ‘safe’ teacher methods (to minimise school/staff complaints) and teacher-parent opposition will not encourage a world-leading education system. Furthermore, its inability to address teacher self-worth, empower teacher voice or encourage individuals to take control of their professionalism – creatively and inspirationally – will only result in further intelligent and talented individuals leaving the career for more sustainable paths. In my 3 years here, I have already seen the loss and disheartenment of many brilliant teachers because their self-worth was perpetually carved away by a bureaucratic checklist that cared more about exhibiting its success on paper… and forgot about developing a young individual who was convinced about the power and importance of education.

Of course, as these changes are taking place, only time will tell. I will not be surprised if the EEE is not the answer.


A New Classroom Era: Encouraging Confidence and Intellectualism

There is no doubt that the teaching profession in the UK needs a new classroom era. When I first moved from Australia to begin teaching in England, I was astounded by the formulaic ‘exam-led teaching’ within the classroom. As a consequence of this, I was also astounded by the lack of confidence that pupils had – it was clear that most of them had been given knowledge rather than given the tools to form knowledge. An easy mistake, with significant consequences.

Not only does this style of teaching disempower a student’s ability to develop personal, intellectual and critical thinking skills, it means teachers are stressed; working overtime to ensure they have given everything – thus becoming disempowered and disengaged themselves (articles: here, here, here, here and here).

In fact, a brilliant article by David Western ‘How Do We release Greatness in Teachers’ reminds us that “working with students is a joy” but is unsustainable as “schools often compound the stress and exhaustion” onto their staff. And further to this, Carl Hendrick’s recent post ‘The Role of a Teacher Should be privileged over any Leadership Role,’ Hendrick puts forward the argument that “teachers are leaders” but “even the kids are leaders” because a great school system should work to impart the “wonder of knowledge” to their students. So, while we are leaders for encouraging our students to achieve their ‘target grade’ or ‘whatever-letter-they-want’, we should be leading them to the importance of being a seeker of knowledge; a lover of reading; an enthusiast for intellectualism; a confident and critical thinker. We should not be teaching to the exam but beyond it.

The usual system crop

Pictured above is a diagrammatical representation of the system we have been used to. It is one whereby confidence (both from students and staff) is pushed aside in favour of refining exam skills; ensuring that students can accurately get the details and knowledge they need for the exam. In this system, key quotes are handed to students, essays have a template, topic sentences are written and students fill in the blanks. It’s no wonder that when these safety nets are taken away, students fall apart.


The New Classroom Era:

What I would like to see, is something closer to this:

the new classroom era crop

In this system, learning is facilitated by the teacher in a way that students develop their confidence to make more assertions about the content they are learning. Most of the learning in the classroom is focused around embedding and developing the knowledge; encouraging students to debate; to put forward different critical perspectives; to consider different cultural perspectives; to read beyond the text; to apply it to real-world situations; to consider the social importance of content; to consider the political messages; to consider the philosophical or ethical challenges; to just immerse themselves in learning. Then, only then, should a small part be towards refining to the exam (which will come far more easily if you get number 2 right).

So, How?

From here, I’m going to talk through a range of strategies that have worked for me in both the state, academy and independent sectors of education that will hopefully give suggestions that can move your classroom into the second model of teaching. I have taught in a mostly EAL school, the state system (UK and Australia) and I have used these on a range of students. Almost without failure, they have successfully encouraged them to become critical thinkers who are not afraid to put forward their ideas, opinions or thoughts – doing so in a confident and intellectual way.

The New Classroom Era: 1. Confidence

As a teacher passionate about education, I strongly believe it is my job to build the confidence of my students. When I say confidence, however, I do not mean arrogance (one cannot be both intelligent and arrogant), it is rather about ensuring that my classroom environment is one that enables intellectualism to flourish and students do not fear ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘taking an educated risk’. Ultimately, my classroom is my space; each space is a microcosm; your classroom does not have to have the same belief systems as the corridor if you do not want it to. You can achieve this by:

  • Asserting that your classroom space is ‘basically your room’ – You spent just as much time (if not more) there than your bedroom so you have a good foundation to have it the way you like. Therefore, I like it to be nerdy, thank you.
  • Praising personalised responses – A* is personal. Give verbal praise for behaviours that you want to encourage. “Wow, a very thoughtful and unique perspective, thank you” or “Yes, I like that you thought differently about that but put it forward in an objective and intelligent way”. Even the students labelled to be ‘of lower ability’ will step up to this. They’re clever too.
  • Give tasks that encourage personal responses – I always give students time to write an answer in their books before sharing it on my board. A start could be “What do you think ‘To Autumn’ is about?” Help them with a stem that is “To Autumn is about…” and then let them write their personal opinion. From there, you can discuss the strongest ideas (get them to evaluate and circle the ‘better ones’) but it means you’re not just always listening to the student who is willing to blurt out the answer and you’re empowering them all to realise that their ideas are valid and presentable.

to autumn

The New Classroom Era: 2. Knowledge and Development

This is the fun bit – the reason we all went into education. Once you have built the strategies that encourage all students to understand their value in the classroom, lead them. You have to lead them 1) to knowledge, and then 2) to good, disputational and critical thinking. In my talk with Carl Hendrick at Swindon ResearchED, we emphasise that this ‘stage’ can only occur once students have a solid knowledge of information. Do not skip that step, it is key. Once you have that, spend most of your class time further empowering your students to love learning and think critically:

  • Literary Fireworks – To get students thinking evaluative and personally about the controversial characters and topics in their exams, get them to debate them. You only need to give 2 adjectives to ‘fire’ at students. For example: Raleigh: Romantic or Repressed? Stanhope: Demanding or Depressed? This is enough to get them to consider different themes, plot and context while evaluating character effectively.
  • Questions to Statements – Another way to do this effectively is to turn your questions into statements. Change the question ‘How is guilt shown in Claudius here?’ to ‘Claudius does not show guilt. Discuss’. Or, better still, have a statement from a literary critic that you could put up and get them to agree or disagree. Again, students will need to draw from a solid understanding of the text as well as the nuances of language to effectively debate this. Even your supposed ‘weaker’ students will get involved because they like challenges.
  • Harkness – Harkness is a fantastic student-led method that moves this learning into an evolving discussion. Again, we all know the importance of setting up an environment to promote learning and with Harkness, it truly encourages discussion, debate and evaluation as it physically provides a platform to do this. Teacher input should be minimal; student output should be maximum. Also, it an effective way to evaluate whether students haven’t studied or do not know content – you cannot have a conversation without knowledge.

harkness crop

The New Classroom Era: 3. Refinement

So obviously we cannot steer away from the fact that students will have to refine their knowledge to ‘fit’ the exam but the teaching of this should be minimal because simply fitting a text into an exam box will not ignite a student’s love for learning. A few strategies I have implemented to ensure I teach to the exam without limiting pupils are the following:

  • Use multiple choice as debate ‘refinement’ tools – Most of you by now are probably working to implement regular multiple choice exams into your lessons. Use these as tools to teach students that there is not only a right answer, but there is a ‘more right’ answer. This will encourage good debate but will steer students away from their bad habits as well. (The student below now knows I never want to see the word ‘creepy’ in his essays – ever).

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  • Avoid PEE – Seriously. Leave it at the door. Teach them content, not structure. We all know the best paragraphs are not simply PEE but PEEXEEEXXEXEXEEXEEEXP (X – unknown) so by teaching them PEE you are limiting them from ‘delving into’ the text to the level they might want. So just ensure them they have to 1) embed quotes, 2) developed and evaluative analysis, 3) sophisticated language and phrasing 4) effect etc – but these things are often best implemented when the pupil has creative control of structure.

We must not give up on having a new classroom era. It is possible to achieve an environment where students love learning – I am sure you have, or do see, this occur throughout your school at particular times. As educators, we must inspire and facilitate the learning of our students so that they are sent into the world as young people who are able to make change and take creative risks, not just as adolescent adults who are incompetent without ‘a structure,’ ‘a help sheet’ or a ‘prewritten topic sentence’. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Teaching Effective Classroom Talk: Intellectual Discourse through Phrasing, not Words.

Encouraging a student’s lexical competence and sophisticated use of vocabulary in the classroom seems to be one continual challenge for colleagues and educators around the country.

Articles such as this published in the Guardian suggest that there is national push to further enhance our vocabulary as a nation – whether students or adults. While this is certainly accurate, I think it’s important to differentiate between sophisticated vocabulary and sophisticated phrases to truly move classroom talk into intellectual discourse. Throughout this blog, therefore, I aim to show why teaching intelligent words is not enough and put forward some strategies to encourage intelligent phrasing that hopefully others can use to build the confidence of students and consequently, their success.


Why using a thesaurus isn’t enough.

We have all read the example in an English paper where a student has gone ‘synonym crazy’. It would read something like “Dickens operates adjectives to reveal the difference from the upper class to the lower class. This shows the metamorphosis and makes you feel apologetic for the inferior class.” Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m sure you can empathise with this. It is clear a student knows, roughly, what Dickens was trying to do by using adjectives to describe the ruthless and glutinous Victorian upper-class, however, in attempting to put it into intellectual phrasing, they have come to associate ‘longer’ words with a ‘sophisticated response’.

So what has gone wrong here? It is that we have told students to change their words rather than encouraging them to seek a sophisticated response. We can all be guilty for seemingly encouraging this. I remember often asserting to my GCSE class to find a ‘better word’ to describe Curley’s Wife and even I have told students early in my career to look to a thesaurus to ‘up-level’ their vocabulary. Admittedly, this response from me as an educator was usually in accordance with attempting to ‘up-level’ their work from a 4a to a 5c using the old levelling system. However, I have come to realise that the answer does not lie in simply teaching students intelligent words but rather in teaching them intelligent phrasing.

In an interesting article ‘the Dimensions of Lexical Competence’ by Maera, 1996, it is argued that understanding vocabulary is a dimensional process rather than the replaceable process we use in the classroom. Surely it is clear to us that altering a word even to its closes synonym can alter the argument/conversation/sentence to entirely new connotations. Even the simplest words are examples of this – and we certainly teach this in poetry. Let’s take the following sentence:

I had a bad day.

Synonyms on Microsoft Word for bad: evil, wicked, corrupt, immoral, terrible.

Changing such a sentence to: I had an evil day, or even still, I had a terrible day, still changes the tone of the day entirely. Bad usually implies that things went wrong, or the day was not particularly exciting. In using evil, it seems to imply that the day conspired against the individual and implies greater levels of despair (yes, you can tell I’m an English teacher).

Furthermore, Maera asserts the pointlessness of simply teaching students to use words. The average adult should be familiar and competent with using around 40, 000 words. So teaching your students even 2,000 words is only 1/20th of the language you use (Maera, 1996) – often not even accurately.

To truly know a word, one must not only know its literal definition but its association with symbols and emotions; its implications and connotations. The diagram below is an example diagram for knowledge of the word ‘butterfly’:

butterfly crop

From Figure 1, Maera highlights how language has a ‘breadth’ and cannot be consolidated by using interchangeable, linear terminology. Connections such as these are what really determine a student’s understanding of the word and, therefore, cannot be taught by simply guiding students to a Thesaurus. This is not too dissimilar to Wittgenstein’s language games (see: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations) whereby language and the meanings associated with word choice are contextual constructed rather than applied absolutes.

Once we are away of the fluid meaning of language, it becomes clear that we have to move away from encouraging students to make limited assertions about texts with sophisticated words and encourage them to make sophisticated evaluations of texts with statements. So, I want to focus now on encouraging intellectual phrasing as I believe this is essential for developing academic discourse in the classroom. – and, better still, present some strategies that have worked for me in a range of classroom contexts.


The ‘dreaded’ blue curtains.

Every time I have begun teaching symbolism for the first time, particularly with GCSE classes, I always hear one student at some point say “Have you seen the blue curtains picture?” to another.  I’m certain that every English teacher is familiar with, or has heard of, the blue curtains example. If not:

blue crop

The fact is: the students don’t want to be the ‘Blue Curtains’ kid who thinks like the teacher.

So, every time I have heard that student remark to their friend at the beginning of the year, my response is this: “I get it, however, if you’re the ‘Blue Curtains’ kid, you’ll be one step closer to an A*”.  Sometimes, I even go on a ramble about how cool the Blue Curtains kid is: “If a kid wrote that, they’d be ace! They’re deepening their interpretation and know exactly what to do – they put their pretentious hat on and just went for it. I’d like that kid!” Which rapidly and interestingly turned into a class phrase I use often: “put your pretentious hats on” And has solidified itself in my classroom in the following ways:

  1. Having a tiny Oscar Wilde Action Figure that was stolen by my Year 11s at my last, quite challenging school. They stole him to make him a tiny pretentious hat.
  2. Pretentious Crown – My current Year 10s wanted a pretentious crown for the most intellectual phrase said in the lesson. I have just received it from eBay.

And finally,

3. The regular featuring of this guy (pretentious man) on my white board. Commonly followed by me claiming “You have to be THIS GUY” if a student’s phrasing is not strong enough.

pretentious man crop

(Pretentious man: Encouraging Intellectual Discourse since 2014)

Now, I’m not the type of teacher that will dress up or use gimmicks often but I have been using this because it has worked for me in a range of different classrooms. When students say something intelligent they are commended as the ‘pretentious king’ or use the ‘I just put my hat on’ as a fall back so they are ‘not judged’ by their friends. I have seen the confidence of pupils to assert things intellectually rise significantly and it’s clear in the classroom environment that, if they do not assert something with their “hats on” then they will not be rewarded. In fact, it has simply evolved into: Nerdiness is cool. Fin.


Connectives and Discussions

It is clear, however, that intelligent and effective classroom talk is not simply asserting intellectual phrases, but also the ways they are implemented in discussions. The biggest misconception in the English classroom is that there is an absolute right. That is, students are hesitant to assert anything in case it is wrong, or they are overconfident in their assertion so they do not listen, develop or evaluate the ideas of others. We know, as English teachers, that A* and high-level responses must evaluate and be discriminatory about their analysis. Students, however, don’t usually know what this means.

Because of this, I have also developed a key phrasing and connective table that I use in classroom discussion and when students are doing small tasks. It is pictured here:

dialogic crop

At the top of the table are the four key skills needed to ensure responses to questions are strong. It is that the argument students implement into their essays is assimilative, evaluative, personal and adaptive – again, all key terms are used in markers’ comments and mark schemes. Beneath these are the ways that students can ensure their work is demonstrating that skill.

  1. Assimilate – This box can be varied for topic. It should include the key vocabulary from the module. It could also include key themes (romanticism, dystopian, brevity of time, relationships, fear) as well as key devices (semantic fields, symbolism, metaphor, allusion, and anaphora).
  2. Evaluate – Pupils need to be evaluating alternate perspectives that could be interpreted from a particular image. Get them to consider: what would 1920’s man think about this? What about 1920’s woman? Also, ensure you ask in the classroom “What else could this represent?” or throw the question back to them with the clause “On the other hand…” and wait for them to respond. It encourages good disputational talk and addresses the fact that delving into numerous potential meanings is important for an effective essay and a key to comprehensive knowledge.
  3. Personal – We know the best essays are those that read the student believes what they are writing. For that reason, I also tell my students that I cannot teach them A* – they need to have a personal opinion for that. So, get them to use phrases that signify to their marker that they are interested. Such things include: interestingly, cleverly, it is clear the author intentionally.
  4. Adaptive – Again, this goes back to the initial point. Any good essay must be well-developed and saying the ‘absolute right’ is not always the key to English success. Encourage students to write at least 2 sentences on each device using the connectives above or in classroom discussion, when a student makes a fantastic point, award it and ‘throw it back’ to the class to develop: “Also…?” “Furthermore…?”

As you can see, the first box encourages the intelligent words that we strive to be used in our lessons but, as mentioned earlier, this is not effective without encouraging the intelligent phrases to embed an effective understanding of the word.



Of course, the answer does not only lie in the strategies I have given above, however, it is a place to start. As mentioned earlier, I strongly believe to encourage lexical competence we must steer our students through intellectual phrasing and encouragement, and only fleetingly towards the thesaurus. The strategies listed above have both made a significant impact on my classroom environment and have allowed me to see significant progress in my students’ progress and confidence. Finally, it is essential as educators that we continue to try things that will assist and encourage the intellectual growth of the next generation.

The ‘Effort Ribbon’ Generation: A Strategy to Battle Parenting that Discourages Growth Mindset

A recent quote in this Independent Article tweeted by @GeneratingGenius certainly got a lot of us thinking today.  It simply read: ‘If a mother tells daughter she could never do maths either, daughter’s performance in maths immediately decreases’ .

Now, this obviously serves as an interesting perspective on resilience and ‘grit’ in Growth Mindset Education.  Suddenly, and almost certainly, it seemed to feel amongst educators that this battle extends beyond the conversations you have with your students and into the realm of family attitudes to learning and parental education on cognitive dissonance.  Which sparks the question: How can we encourage resilience and ‘grit’ in the classroom if it is discouraged at home?

We have all heard parents make a passing comment about their child that sometimes seems to eliminate our year’s work: “X will never be good at English,” “X has never been good at English,” “X doesn’t enjoy English” and so on.  When we hear these, we attempt to politely backtrack around the statement to respond along the lines of “Well, X did a wonderful piece of creative writing and is sometimes engaged but could really achieve in English if X ensured they took on challenges, reflected on their targets and allowed themselves to ‘jump’ into the pit of learning!” – the parent remaining oblivious to your attempt, as an educator, to highlight the idea that Growth Mindset, perseverance and challenge were the steps to achieving a good result.  The most frightening thing, of course, is perhaps the realisation that this way of speaking about X continues beyond the school bell, into the late hours of the evening; it becomes increasingly apparent that the challenge to encourage X in English is harder than you thought.

When this Independent Article was published, I did tweet the question: How do we then overcome self-narrative that is developed (and repeated) beyond the classroom?  A few responses that came through said the only answer was to educate the parents, however, I’m going to explain why I think that’s not the case.

Certainly, educating the parents would be a dream.  Imagine holding a school assembly: every parent gleaming to see their child achieve to the best of their ability; every parent interested in the latest research and educational theory so that they understand cognitive approaches to effectively encourage their child’s learning; every parent leaving with a sound and developed understanding on ways to apply growth mindset beyond the classroom.  Lovely idea, but certainly a Utopia.  The three concerns I have with this are as followed:

  1. The parents that we want to hear such theories will be the hardest to draw in.
  2. We cannot ensure that these strategies of growth mindset are effectively carried into the home life of pupils.
  3. We cannot learn everything we need to know about growth mindset in one ‘Information Evening.’

So, while this idea seems lovely, I want to focus on something that we can do instantly and almost effortlessly that I believe would have a good impact. The strategy? Target the Generation of ‘Effort Ribbons’

I was fortunate enough to speak to a few pupils today about the roots of their self-narrative.  They claimed the only reason they listen to their parents is because they see them as “role-models” and, consequently, there is an expectation that what their parents say is accurate and truthful.  Interestingly, as they develop into their teenage years their notion of a ‘role-model’ shifts – usually to their friendship circle or social group.  In fact, there was actually a level of defiance towards their parents that discouraged him to believe the parental challenges to self narrative: if they thought their child was good, the pupils questioned their honesty.  If they thought their child was bad, the pupils wanted to prove them wrong. Therefore, if the student sees their friends as role-models and will regularly believe that their friends have a strong understanding of who they are (at times, this understanding is believed to be stronger than their parents), encouraging growth mindset amongst their peers seems to be the most effective way to combat or challenge parenting that discourages growth mindset.

And this may not be as difficult as we think. Upon my discussion, one student proudly asserted: “But miss, we are from the generation of ‘Effort Ribbons.'”  Which sparked something extremely interesting to be aware of. The truth is, the modern generation of pupils have been consistently rewarded for ‘effort’ rather than winning.  It is not uncommon to see students receive certificates for an attempt and many admit that this motivates them to try again; the need to ‘win’ not always being the absolute motivation in their attempt at an activity or a competition. Adding to that the fact that a teenage pupil considers their friends and peers to “know them the best” is a bonus for us, because they will be from the same ‘Effort Ribbon’ generation.

Consequently, perhaps the answer to all this lies not in endless meetings with parents attempting to effectively teach cognitive dissonance and strategies to effectively promote growth mindset beyond the classroom but simply ensuring we continue to engage a pupil’s intellectual and social circles.  If everyone around them understands that effort is the key to success and there are no self-narrative absolutes, this would certainly further encourage and motivate an individual to try.  And if we teach this well enough, we can raise this embedded understanding of growth mindset in a generation of future parents.

Twitter: @S_Donarski
More about the Self-Narrative here.

Growth in the Classroom: The Importance of Differentiating ‘Suffering’ and ‘Challenging’

As an avid reader of humanist philosophy and literature, I have always had quite an affinity towards the notions of suffering and how it enables the individual to grow. We have seen great writers comment on this notion, in particular Nietzsche and Kundera who wrote often about the positive growth achieved from experiencing tragedy in some way.

In his first book, Nietzsche put forwards assertions to claim:

“Creating – that is the great salvation from suffering, and life’s alleviation. But for the creator to appear, suffering itself is needed, and much transformation.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

And also Kundera claims:

“I am not worthy of my suffering. A great sentence. IT suggests not only that suffering is the basis of the self, its sole indubitable ontological proof, but also that it is the one feeling most worthy of respect; the value of all values.” – Immortality

Both clearly arguing the importance of suffering in recognising the values that one should pursue and, indeed, pinning ‘suffering’ as the catalyst for self-transformation and growth.

Which brought me to question: If suffering is essential for one’s development, are educators then justified in facilitating suffering in the classroom? If so, how does that affect promoting a positive classroom climate?

While there will obviously be a divide in the way educators respond to this, I do believe that the ‘yes’ answer to the initial question constructs pedagogies that are tyrannical and fear-driven. Over the years, I have witnessed numerous teachers (both in my own student experience and as a colleague) who took to the role of a tyrant in their classrooms and used the excuse of suffering to justify their actions. Yes, the kids behaved. Yes, they received Ofsted ‘Outstanding’. But it was not through a genuine desire to learn that these students accomplished their work but rather from the threat/s of failing. These teachers even applauding themselves for their class’ results at the end of the year and yet did not recognise the confidence shattering effect that this style of education will have on their pupil thereafter. It includes some of the following actions which many of us can be aware of:

  • Instant detentions without discussion when not following rules.
  • Negative comments or threats if a pupil is off task.
  • Yelling or ‘telling off’ students not working without conversations.
  • Sending pupils out without attempting to develop a relationship.

All of these are examples of attempting to justify suffering in the education system for “the pupil’s best needs.” It is what we know, in simple terms as using a ‘well, the world’s a cruel place’ excuse; it is a short-term solution to good grades and league table ‘success’.

Interestingly, using suffering to justify being overworked by fear seems to also be present in the mind-set of teachers who use the same advice to cope with the overarching watchful eye of SLT or Ofsted. Some have seemed to use the philosophy of ‘suffering enables growth’ as their own attempt to survive with the tyrannical oppression of the state education system; one drowning in fear of failure, criticism and dystopian standardisation (more about that here). Essentially, we have developed a habit where we use suffering to justify fear-driven challenges rather than differentiating the notion of ‘challenging’ and ‘suffering’ entirely.

If we return to Nietzsche momentarily, I want to pick apart exactly what he’s saying. Despite the most common reading of him that usually recites he’s a “nihilist” who claimed “God is Dead!” without truly understanding the context of the quote, Nietzsche is actually quite romantic about the world could be. Nietzsche asserts this:

“It is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life. It is not only pleasant and agreeable images that he experiences with such universal understanding: the serious, the gloomy, the sad and the profound, the sudden restraints, the mockeries of chance, fearful expectations, in short the whole ‘divine comedy’ of life, the Inferno included, passes before him, not only as a shadow play – for he too lives and suffers through these scenes – and yet also not without that fleeting sense of illusion.” – The Birth of Tragedy

We see here that Nietzsche highlights that life is, at once, a blend of suffering and happiness. Or, rather, that the ‘light and dark’ of life coexist; symbiotically representing the most honest exertion of life. Moreover, on Neitzsche, Sefler recognises this to mean:

“Pain has no meaning ‘in itself,’ it is meaningful only in reference to suffering. If suffering were to disappear from the world, happiness would likewise disappear; that is, the happiness-suffering dimensions of life”.

Therefore, we can see that these philosophers believe suffering is necessary for self-transformation, however, this is achieved as suffering is essential in order to highlight the beauty in the world. It is a mechanism used to counterbalance goodness, to highlight happiness so we can recognise and appreciate the aspects of our lives that are consistent and beautiful. Suffering is the darkness that exacerbates the light. But that is not simply the ‘good grade’ after hours of work threats.

So let’s think about how we can apply that to the classroom. Even though the notion of suffering is certainly contextual and can range from extreme emotional pain to adolescent heartbreak, every teenager will believe they are suffering at some point, in some way. There are a list of things that could account as ‘suffering’ to them and could be as trivial as a boyfriend, friendship drama or home conflict. It should not matter how extreme this suffering is for the moment just simply that it serves its purpose to provide the chaos and calamity that one needs in order to grow.

When we justify tyrannical teaching approaches in the classroom, we are extending suffering beyond a child’s social life and into their intellectual life. Instead, we should be using their ‘outside’ suffering to highlight the light of something consistent, inspiring and beautiful – a positive and passionate classroom environment that will, therefore, build a symbiotic association between learning, safety and comfort. In doing so, students will hopefully also develop a self-motivated desire for learning.

That does not say that we remove ‘challenge’ from our classroom, but I am saying that ‘challenge’ should be driven by inspiration, passion and thirst – not fear. Of course, it is not always that students will desire to learn the Shakespearean Sonnets, but they should not feel threatened to accomplish it. This is not the way to develop young people into individuals passionate about education.

So, if suffering is essential for one’s development, are educators then justified in facilitating suffering in the classroom? No. Suffering is essential for life but as educators we need to use that suffering to provide a positive and thriving classroom that becomes the calm in the storm; the light in the darkness.

The Importance of (minor) Rule-Breaking in the Classroom

The Importance of Rule-Breaking in the Classroom

“Men have always shown a dim knowledge of their better potentialities by paying homage to those purest leaders who taught the simplest and most inclusive rules for an undivided mankind.” – Erik Erikson

‘Rules’ have always been something that both join and divide a society. For any society to progress into a new wave of thought, there also must be a shift in thinking – a consensus to break a rule. Therefore, we can only say that rule-breaking (or stretching) is a necessity for social progression and has been key to moving groups of individuals towards equality and freedom, and away from close-minded discrimination. It is with this thought that I preface the importance of rule-breaking in the classroom.

Over my time teaching, it has become more apparent to me how important breaking the rules are. In fact, my most exciting and ground-breaking moments as a teacher occurred when I actively took a risk to veer away from structures and used my own intuition to resolve a problem that I was faced both within the classroom and the school environment. These decisions thus led to me developing some of my strongest and greatest relationships with pupils and I believe it is necessary to share them in order to show the ways that ‘rule-breaking’ can provide the foundation for effective student-teacher relationships.

What I want to highlight in this is not necessarily the amount of rules I would have broken as a teacher but the ways they relate directly to effective social and psychological behaviour management strategies. Consequently, it becomes clear that, as teachers, we need to be subjectively thinking about the ways that behaviour management structures can limit our freedom to implement behaviour management strategies most effectively.

Rule #1: Run in the Corridors – or Verbal Contracts and Agreements

About a year ago, I was walking to my classroom and noticed a student had been sent out of his classroom for bad behaviour. Instead of ignoring him or glaring in disgust, I stopped and asked why he had been sent out. He very quickly began a monologue explaining how he had been unable to “calm down” or “relax.” His agitation continued as he discussed this with me and he would tap on the corridor post, kick his feet or fiddle with his hands. Without thinking, I decided to break the rules and I challenged him to race me to the end of the corridor and back – we had a verbal contract with the obvious outcome that the student return to class.

After sprinting past the rest of the teachers in the corridor and being beaten quite significantly by the pupil, I returned him to his lesson where he worked incredibly hard until the hour was over. This, to me, was a few seconds that I forgot about under my pile of marking by the end of the day. Two months later, I covered a class with some of the pupil’s friends to which I was surprised with: “You’re the Miss who ran down the corridor!” It meant instant admiration from a group of students I had never met before because it was clear, to this pupil, the most exciting thing that had happened to him that month.

Rule #2: March away from SLT – or ‘Mirroring’ Strategies

Another boy once, refusing to go to lesson because of troubles at home, was marching around school with SLT obviously running sheepishly behind him. Instead of attempting to stop the student – I maintained the belief that if he wasn’t going to stop for SLT, then he definitely wasn’t going to stop for me – I turned it into a game. I made him march like an army officer, as straight and stern as he could. I marched alongside with him. To the onlooker, I was sure this would have been viewed as quite a strange occurrence but in the 10 minutes we spent marching around the room, the pupil had calmed down and we marched straight back into his lesson – or, rather, I used psychological ‘mirroring’ to develop a rapport and physically show levels of empathy.

Rule #3: Eat in Class – or Implementing Effective Rewards Systems

In my teaching experience, I have been given a range pupils with varying behavioural difficulties. One of which was the (what was known as) “bottom set GCSE class.” I remember the day we were first handing the books over. My soon-to-be GCSE’s books were noticeably largely vandalised with most work incomplete, torn out or poorly looked after – so much so that the name did not have to be read to be placed into my pile.

I very quickly established routines with the group and one of which was that, provided the work throughout the week was completed with greatest amount of effort, every Thursday we would have a rewards day. This involved the following:

  1. Students were allowed to eat in class
  2. If a film or documentary was relevant, it would be possible to watch it.

And they were amazing. In fact, I grew extremely fond of all the students in this class and our Thursday rewards day became something we kept as our ‘secret.’ It was noticeably envied by other pupils which built a sense of community and pride within our class – a rewards system that was in place in order to encourage and build effective learning behaviours.

Rule #4: Graffiti the Walls – or Kinaesthetic Learning

Finally, today, I challenged my students to write a brief as a ‘traveller’ to work on their creative writing skills. They were competing in teams for the ultimate classroom prize. You’re probably thinking: sweets? Chocolate? A chance to make me do a ridiculous dance? Music? Phone lessons? No. They were competing to graffiti my classroom wall with their work – a blend of kinaesthetic learning and reward giving. The winners wrote an incredible passage (as pictured below):


While the obvious flaw in this could be that, as educators, we are supposed to model behaviour and ‘breaking the rules’ isn’t necessarily Utopian role modelling. You may think: surely this establishes a paradox that encourages the students, themselves, to break the rules? I do not think so. Not only does it enable students to be confident in the idea that education is not always a restrictive prison that supresses them but it informs them that, like the world, rules can be broken provided they are done so appropriately. Also, it encourages them to see the fluidity and inconsistency of such rules and hopefully opens their mind to conceiving society beyond its current structures (which, one day, will also be outdated and archaic). Most importantly, it provided them with a personal example that teachers and school systems do listen – something that, even though we know is true, students don’t necessarily see examples of all the time.

As educators we have to show the students that it’s okay to break the rules sometimes. Surely that is how we develop our students into analytical thinkers, into evaluative thinkers and into young people who are going to make a significant difference to the problems of their world or challenge poor leadership or law. Moreover, the ‘risks’ I took in breaking these rules could always relate to social and psychological strategies that simply just veered away from the concrete behaviour management model imprinted on every classroom door.

The message: do not let your behaviour management systems take away the importance of your professional role in the classroom. Sometimes, we need to break the rules and sometimes the ‘rule-breaking’ itself is the strategy.

When Pupils Talk in Absolutes: Understanding Mindset though Self-Narrative

With the hype around growth mindset, it’s no wonder there is more attention being drawn to the ways that students understand their strengths, capabilities and passions. I, myself, am extremely guilty of asking a child to ‘tell me about themselves’, to which I accept vague, absolute statements such as “I am shy” or “I don’t like talking in front of people.”   Even in my adult life, a lot of discourse is reliant on an individual being able to assert these statements and they are actually praised for doing so.  Think of the plus points achieved for saying things like “you’re a hard worker” and you “feel confident” in an interview – you probably nailed it.

What we rarely bring ourselves back to is how malleable and environmentally influenced these personalities are.  In fact, there is no doubt you could take an extremely shy person and, given the right environmental factors (friends, family, relatives, passions), they could instantly become the most confident.  Similarly, the most confident could turn to dust if they are thrown into something completely out of their depth.  So actually when we assert these so adamantly, we are lying to ourselves.

Which brings me to the classroom.  We have all heard these absolute statements “But Miss, I hate reading” or “I’m so bad at mathematics” or “I’m just not arty”.  Current approaches to teaching have (rightly so!) started to address this as a ‘fixed mindset’ and the most accepted solution to attempt to coerce the student away from this thinking is Growth Mindset (see: http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/).

Many of us by now have been trained in Growth Mindset as an effective pedagogy to encourage students to believe in their ability. However, I am worried that too many training sessions do not successfully communicate the underlying philosophies related to a child’s (or adult’s) cognition but instead, simplify it by pinning its effectiveness to the word ‘yet’ – which I believe is just as damaging.

While I do not condone the use of the word ‘yet’ in the Growth Mindset phenomenon, I do wonder its effectiveness in motivating the pupil who hears the word ‘yet’ in every lesson.  Let’s imagine, as a child, hearing your teacher assert the statement “You just can’t do it yet!” in your fifth lesson that day.  No matter how cheerful, or enthusiastically that is expressed, it is bound to be disheartening.  For me, hearing it for the 5th time would only reiterate three things: 1) I can’t do it 2) I can’t do anything and 3) It’s going to be a long, hard struggle to be able to do something.  Not only this, I also believe there will certainly be a point to which that person will become ‘numb’ to the idea of the word ‘yet’ as a self-motivating philosophy; certainly we, as adults, can see straight through it.  What we need is to properly understand is the underlying philosophies – the way we construct our self-narrative – to assist young people in their cognitive dissonance and to train their self-narration into adult life.

So what is the underlying theory? It is the idea of self-constructivism.

To put it simply, it is the theory that we, as people, have a constructed image of ourselves.  This self-fabrication is the assumptions we make of ‘who we are’ and is generally based from previous experience, however, sometimes it can be constructed from nothing at all.  To make matters worse, however, we also construct the narrative that what we think about ourselves is accurate. In doing so, we constantly set ourselves up to be our strongest deceivers.

Teaching pupils to understand that self-narration – or absolute statements about themselves – is a fallacy is essential for building their confidence both academically, socially and physically.  We have to teach them that their self-narrative is not only incorrect, but a fictional, malleable construction influenced constantly by a plethora of factors.  I do not want to be trained in persistently telling students “You don’t like English.. YET!” as though I am some teacher-guru-magician that will enable them, at some point, to reach a liking in English (a final destination in some journey they undertake by being in my classroom).  Because that is not the case.  The truth is, they have simply formed a narrative bias that makes them think they do not enjoy English based on previous and current environmental factors.  And there could be many: perhaps their previous teacher had no longer been inspired by the asceticism of Wilde? Perhaps they had never tried to actually read a book? Perhaps cognitive factors? Either way, it is not that they do not like English, or Science, or Maths.  It is that they currently do not have the right environment that enables them to delve into that passion and enjoy it.

So what could be a useful tool in ensuring students are aware of this?

  1. Challenge any student back when they say “I hate _____” or “I’m bad at______”.  Simply ask them: when have you loved English? What book do you love? What famous quote? Coach them into searching for a time where they may have loved that subject or achieved something creative and inspirational in that subject.  Allow them to delve into a memory of that subject that really captured their imaginations and watch the way they light up talking about it.  There is bound to be one.
  2. Consider that child in your planning for a lesson.  You don’t have to go overboard, but delve into their passions and interests.  Enable them to lead.  Most importantly, in order to address the self-narrative, you must talk to the student after.  Ask them whether they enjoyed your lesson and, if so, make them aware of their own fallacy: their ‘absolute statement’ of “I don’t like English” – encourage them to consider why this statement is no longer valid.

Growth mindset is a wonderful way to enable us to see the ways we can change, stretch and grow.  But it does not build a child’s confidence in challenging their own self-deception because it still relies on a lot of telling.  If you can get a student to discover their own narrative, it acts as a counter to the story they have constructed.  It provides another preposition that makes their original statement a fallacy.  They can, in fact, love all subjects.  They just need to change their mindset and potentially one or two factors to achieve this more consistently.  Of course, this is not new to us as educators. It’s simply another way to look at it. ​