Our Aims Have Changed: therefore, our Methodology and Practice Must Follow

A week ago, I found myself in a meeting discussing the best way to implement a new project at school to make it a success.  It quickly became clear that developing a successful and purposeful project required one thing: an aim.  It was vital that this project had a purpose; that the activities provided were both achievable and impactful; that the aim was being fulfilled.

Which made me think about this in relation to the classroom: What are our aims as teachers?

Is it to enable students to pass an exam? Is it to inspire them to further succeed in the subject beyond secondary education? Or, is it simply to get them to see the reasons why Shakespeare, for example, is still studied?

And, if ‘aim’ is the end product that determines the activities or methodologies you use, then the most interesting (and somewhat frightening) realisation is true: your answer to this question will drastically change the way you teach and what pedagogies are implemented in your classroom.

I want to demonstrate how our aims as teachers have changed with the introduction of the new curriculum and how this affects both our pedagogy and practice.

Our aims have changed…


GCSE Pre-2016

GCSE Pre-2016 was an interesting era.  Education felt on the breaking point for most State schools because the teacher’s aim was to simply get their pupils to pass their exam.  Teachers felt demotivated, pupils felt disengaged and the whole school structure seemed to transform into a dystopian exam factory as the year progressed. I certainly remember numerous nights where I was nearly locked in the school for working too hard.  Luckily, the grounds staff became quickly aware that they would have to check for me as I did not have a car to indicate that anyone was still in the building…

The irony is that working hard wasn’t the problem.  Of course, we can recite numerous conversations where we might have paraphrased that we ‘certainly didn’t go into education for the money’.  For me, the issue was the aim.  I had to abandon inspiration for results.  I was working hard – soullessly.

The GCSE Pre-2016 (coursework and open-book examination) thus moulded our aims to make knowledge two things: 1) Accessible, and 2) Applicable.

  1. ACCESSIBLE: Of course, this was by no means easy.  It involved the dedication to make all individuals in the classroom – despite learning difficulties or academic flair – to have access to the curriculum; that pupils had the right amount of challenge and were simultaneously understanding the content without feeling jaded by its (sometimes) restricting nature.  As we otherwise know it, accessibility is differentiation. A very difficult balancing act that often meant teachers were working overtime to ensure that all of their pupils were reaching their target grades and, controversially, that they were at times doing too much for them.
  2. APPLICABLE: The other main aim was to teach pupils how to apply content effectively.  This means we had to communicate to our students where AO1 was weighted more heavily; how ‘many points’ they should make when they are answering Question 2; what questions needed AO3; what questions were judged on AO4.  In short, teaching them the requirements (or tricks) of each question so they can effectively implement the content they have just accessed.

While these aims are still relevant to us today, it’s important to note 3 other key ‘aims’ that we should now have as practitioners, particularly with the new curriculum.


GCSE Post-2016

For GCSE Post-2016, most of us are still navigating blind.  Most of us have realised, however, that our methodologies have had to change. That is because our aims have changed.  With the introduction of closed-book examinations and removal of coursework we now must ensure knowledge is: 3) Memorable, 4) Adaptable, and 5) Transferable.

  1. MEMORABLE: A key aim to our pupils’ success now is to make content memorable.  We actually have to slow down the pace now and we must make classroom time for consolidation – effective pedagogies such as repetition, testing and interleaving.
  2. ADAPTABLE: With greater weight placed on Unseen texts, teaching pupils to adapt their skills to previously unknown content is crucial.  They must be able to see, particularly in English, how structure, language and form can genuinely alter the meaning/s and effect/s of a literary work.  They must be able to do this independently and have to truly THINK about it.  It cannot be regurgitating or superfluous.  Teaching independence and self-assurance is key to this.
  3. TRANSFERABLE: Finally, in order to entirely immerse pupils in achieving the other aims and be also able to confidently approach questions they may not expect (again, we are navigating somewhat blind presently!), we have to teach them to transfer their knowledge.  Spending class time tweaking questions and responses to fit a range of possibilities will encourage pupils to more confidently approach tasks.  Moreover, pupils must understand that their knowledge can come from other subjects (Religion, History, Philosophy) where appropriate.  Our aim here is to encourage pupils to utilise knowledge beyond the subject to be self-sustaining; it is to ensure students reflect and take creative risks.

How these new aims affect us…

It is not just in our pedagogies that this change in aim affects us.  It also changes the way we look at what it means to be an Outstanding Teacher, what makes a good lesson observation, and the ways in which Leadership approach quality teaching.

Don’t stand for ‘Outstanding’

The most obvious way this affects us is to ignore ‘Outstanding’.  We cannot worry if we are not being consistent in our approaches, or that every child at every minute is making progress, or that every child is actively engaged with their paddle-pop sticks.  The new curriculum highlights that the truth is actually this: if I want something to be memorable, my teaching methodologies will be totally different to when I want something to be accessible or transferable. 

Moreover, we must move away from trying to make every lesson ‘Outstanding’ because – let’s be honest – getting Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ is a formulaic approach to an hour’s lesson that cannot succeed in us meeting all of our aims.  If I want to make something memorable, I might have to get my pupils to repeat it over and over again.  Yes, that means they’re not visibly “making progress at everything minute” but it does mean that I’m meeting my aim; to get them to have retrievable knowledge

(This links closely with Observations being simply a ‘showcase’ and can be further evidenced by Bjork here)

Leadership Judgement

By accepting these aims there also must be a way in which Leadership approaches to lesson observations.  Lesson Observations should be judged by how well classroom pedagogy effectively matches the teacher’s aims –  rather than the knowledge that pupils will learned within that hour.

It now may not be the case that a teacher intends for the pupils to learn something new – but rather to make something memorable.  Or, that a teacher wants to spend some time challenging pupils to transfer their knowledge from another subject (for example: by having a debate about the human consciousness for half a lesson) into a new text so that pupils understand that ALL KNOWLEDGE IS USEFUL.  This makes lesson observations more exciting and free anyway.

Aim ahead…

Teaching our pupils is our aim but within that there are a plethora of smaller ‘aims’ we want to achieve.  What lies at the top of this list is that we make knowledge accessible, applicable, memorable, adaptable and transferable.  It is vital that both Pedagogies and Practice within the classroom and the school ethos reflect this.  That we now work as a school to aim ahead… and not behind.




Coaching in The Classroom: When is it Effective? When won’t it work?

Coaching methods are commonly seen in pastoral and wellbeing disciplines to encourage an individual – the coachee –  to come up with their own solution to a problem or issue they may be facing. It also enables that individual to develop resilience and grit and further push them towards becoming a self-sustaining individual who can more readily deal with adversity or challenge later in life.  But can we apply that to the classroom?

At Wellington, we are fortunate enough to have embedded coaching into the philosophy of pastoral life, however, whether this method is an effective tool within the classroom has not been entirely explored.

To test and consider how coaching can be an asset in the classroom, we implemented a lesson study.  In this, Kyle McDonald – Mathematics Teacher at Wellington College – introduced the Shakespeare side of the Literature Paper and used coaching to build the students’ confidence so that they could answer it (read Kyle’s article here)  – neither teacher nor pupil had ever seen the paper before. After the lesson, I asked my pupils to complete an anonymous survey on the lesson. Here is what I found…

Was it effective?

Usually when introducing an exam paper to pupils, their knowledge can seem to dissipate into a neediness.  This is not because they do not have the skillset to answer the question but rather that they do not think about how to apply their skills to an unseen question.  Then, seeing you as the expert in the room, their instant reaction is to ask questions; they spiral into needing support.

There have been many ways that teachers have been trained to defuse this.  My favourite is recognising this as ‘the pit of learning’ – ultimately, encouraging the student to recognise that challenge and struggle is a healthy part of the learning progress.

Here’s where coaching helped.

Stepping back from pupils so that they had a non-subject specialist meant that their mindset of ‘the teacher is the expert/has the answer’ was instantly defused.  The process of the students’ struggle continued but their complaining stopped.  Instead, they recognised that they had to use what they had been taught prior and, via a series of effective coaching questions led by their teacher, they ended up answering their own questions.  They formed a confident structure to answer to begin their approach to the paper.

Interestingly, in the survey, one student remarked that it was helpful because it “taught us exam technique.”  Strange. Especially considering there was really no teacher teaching within that lesson.  Rather, someone to just guide them – in addition to their own previous knowledge.

Overall, 89% of pupils believed it was helpful and would be happy to do a similar lesson again.

When won’t it work?

What about the 11% who did not enjoy it then? Of pupils who did not enjoy the task, the response is debatable as it can be interpreted in two ways: 1) that it was not challenging enough, or 2) that they are used to knowledge being told to them and have fallen into this routine.

Responses from pupils who would be unwilling to have a coaching class again claimed it was “basic revision” and they would “rather learn off the teacher who had exact knowledge.” Some others remarked that it was “not as difficult as other lessons.”   Finally, one remarked the lesson “could have been completed in 20 minutes.”

If 1): From the comments above, we can deduce that the level of challenge for some was not to the usual standard. Therefore, it could bring to question how coaching can be differentiated so that all pupils feel they are valuing from the task.  This is where teacher understanding (having a subject specialist in the room) and subject knowledge is key – coaching questions could move from ‘what is’ (basically retrieval questions) to ‘what could’ or ‘what if’ (evaluative and interdisciplinary questions).

If 2): We could also infer that perhaps this was simply students slipping into wanting to be told instead of wanting to think.  If this is the case, then surely implementing coaching methods on a regular cycle would be the most effective outcome.

As for the pupil who mentioned pace? I’m not convinced. Surely with the new GCSE, slowing pace down every now and then to consolidate is effective for all. At very least, it is clearly helpful for their interleaving.

Consequently, it may not work as effectively if the teacher cannot challenge the top end pupils by having strong subject knowledge.  Or if it is implemented at the wrong time and students misconstrue it as teacher laziness or that they’re ‘not being taught.’

So, to coach in the classroom?

An absolute yes provided it is implemented regularly and thoughtfully.

It is obvious that teachers are the expert throughout the course of every topic/module/scheme but if we want our students to achieve, it should make sense to see the following occur in the classroom:

Screenshot (3)

Coaching is essential as it will be a part of the classroom where student input is the greatest.

How often you apply this cycle is dependent on your subject. In our talk on the dialogic classroom at ResearchED, Carl Hendrick and I made mention that, in English, a healthy application could be every fortnight. For sciences, it could be after every module.  It will depend.  Also, coaching could occur throughout any lesson where necessary – this is just simply about implementing a coaching lesson.

Ultimately, if pupils have learned content throughout that time period then they should be able to apply it with minimal teacher input.  Coaching encourages them to solve their own concerns and provides a healthy learning conversation that does not spiral into neediness.  Spending time to coach in the classroom will also encourage all pupils to reconsolidate their knowledge as well as address any misconceptions through conversation, dialogue and debate.

Confidence as the Crux of Independence: How to facilitate the construction of an Independent Classroom

The term independent learning is currently used throughout classrooms all over the UK. In secondary education, it is associated with:

‘a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation’ (Creative Education UK).’

Similarly at University level, Independent Learning is encouraged and enforced to push for a student to be:

‘Working with someone else, encouraging each other and talking through difficulties may be the most effective way of working independently. If you have a problem, explaining it to someone else can help to clarify issues for you. Explaining a concept to someone without shared background knowledge is a very good way of making sure you understand the full implications of the concept’.

All of this is certainly the Holy Grail of the classroom and, indeed, of education.  Yet it is not an easy environment to achieve. So how can we as educators further facilitate this?

It is essential that we see independence as a process – something to be obtained.  In a very succinct blog sub-heading, David Didau accurately asserts: Independence is the end, not the means.  Not only is this whole-heartedly accurate, but reveals much more about independent learning than we assume.

Firstly, we must infer that to obtain independence and effective independent learning in the classroom, a pupil requires steps. Moreover, if independent learning is defined as a ‘philosophy’ (see above), it makes sense that it is an encompassing attitude that requires a range of applications. Therefore, it must also be true that to accurately achieve it in an educational environment, students will need to be masters of a range of skillsets which have been developed, applied and improved over an extended period of time.

Alex Quigley has also alluded to this notion in his blog Independent Learners for Teachwire. He explains that the transition between dependence to independence is ‘tricky’ and that we “need to focus on the stepping-stone of interdependence – whereby the teacher helps build good learning habits that are fundamental for independent learning.”


The current problem:

As mentioned by Quigley earlier, stepping stones must be provided that encourage the philosophy of Independence is successfully embedded.  Too many schools have simply thrown the term into their ethos without an understanding of how to teach or model the plethora of behaviours it requires first. Implementing the ends before the means will stagnate the process but the immediacy of many schools to apply Independent Learning to their classroom ethos has meant exactly that. The simple ‘showcase’ of this philosophy is its downfall.

Consequently, it has already been heavily established amongst the educational world that independent learning is not:

  • Work alone tasks.
    • Why? If a student is not struggling or asking questions and can complete a task in absolute silence, this could be seen as Independence but might be purely simplicity
  • Seeking answers from Help Boards or Posters.
    • Why? Pupils do not always retain the information. It becomes a reliance for a resource in the room.

Such activities may give the façade of independence in the classroom and yet, will not encourage independence because they do not lend themselves to establishing confidence –  rather may even exacerbate a learned helplessness.


Confidence as the crux of Independence.

If we break apart the demands of Independent Learning, we can clearly see that it’s asking the following:Diagram confidence and independence

Therefore, the skill sets required are much greater than simply ‘independence’. Under each heading these are just some requirements:

  • Ability to Seek Knowledge
    • skills: confidence, research skills, work ethic, study skills
  • Ability to Enquiry
    • skills: confidence, research skills, interpersonal skills, ability to formulate an argument, technological skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, imagination.
  • Ability to be a Critical Thinker
    • skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic, leadership skills, problem-solving skills, empathy
  • Formulate a Personal Argument
    • skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic

It asks our pupils to not only be evaluative and critical individuals but to also be able to seek answers and have a thirst for knowledge. A lot of adults would still find this challenging.  With this in mind, it becomes clear that enforcing independence requires the teaching of numerous skills; not just the ability to work alone or find an answer in the classroom.

So where to start?

In my previous blog, I made mention to the fact that confidence should not be pushed to the boundaries of a school’s priorities in favour of exam refinement and routine. That is also because confidence is one of the key skills needed in order to be an Independent Learner.

Why? To put it simply: confidence is the process of being ‘self-assured’ and independence is being ‘self-sufficient’.

It seems absurd to suggest an environment of self-sufficiency if you have not taught pupils to be self-assured. Self-sufficiency implies that the pupil is working in a system that can grow, alter, change, develop and evolve. Self-assured is the skill that encourages students to question, ask, seek, implement, and transfer and effectively apply knowledge from their current world into their work – all of which are the crux of a self-sustaining, independent classroom.

Preaching independence and its importance in the classroom is good. An educational system that does not do this fails in enabling pupils to become emergent, empathetic and holistically intelligent young people is just as crucial to their success as an A* or 9 (GCSE circa 2016-2017). But you must ensure that pupils have been encouraged to be confident in their assertions first.  Confidence and knowledge is the key, and then independence will lead to further, ongoing development.


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).

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 10.11.37

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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 10.21.41

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).

mc crop

  • 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.