Whose research is it anyway? – Words By David Didau The Learning Spy.



The TES reports today that Professor Hattie, the crown prince of education research, isn’t much keen on teachers conducting research in their classrooms. Apparently he thinks we should leave education research in the hands of academics. Because, I assume, they know best.

Now I’m certain TES journos have rubbed this particular story vigorously on the crotch of their cricket whites, the better to produce a savage topspin in the hope of enraging the new breed of research literate teachers, but Hattie is quoted as saying,

Researching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill. Asking teachers to be researchers? They are not… I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that. Whereas the whole research side, leave that to the academics… [Teachers] are more obsessed about how they ride a bike than whether they can ride a bike well… I don’t have any time for making teachers researchers. We have got no evidence that action researchers make any difference to the quality of teaching.

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? We should put away our pretensions to anything other than enacting whatever Hattie and his ilk tell us works.

Although I’m not sure why he’s set his face against action research, I’d be the first to agree that teachers conducting small scale inquiries on their classes tells us diddly squat about what might work in anyone else’s classroom. The idea that you can draw meaningful, measurable conclusions from trying out stuff yourself is of course ludicrous. But then, most classroom research conducted by academics is equally unlikely to find the Holy Grail. The idea that pouring a load of correlational confusion and bias into the meta-analytic blender and distilling magic fairy dust for teachers to sprinkle on their lessons is just as fatuous. All classroom research can tell us it what worked in one particular context – dressing this up as science is like a toddler parading round in mummy’s high heels pretending to be a grown-up: cute but ridiculous.

For my money, the most useful research is distilled from the clean, cold, controlled conditions of psychology laboratories. This at least has the advantage of being subject to double blinds and other rather important scientific principles which just aren’t possible to implement in the hurly-burly of the classroom.

If teachers are discouraged from testing out what works in their particular classroom with their children, everyone is the poorer. We end up the kind of uncritical consumption of research summaries that tell us giving feedback is ace and then teachers being forced to mark more and more despite it having very little in the way of positive impact on students. If instead teachers test stuff out and think hard about what students do in response, we’re massively more likely to spot that the Emperor Hattie is running round in the buff.

Read more excellent blogs from David Didau at www.learningspy.co.uk

Chicken or egg? Thoughts about thinking. – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy




Chicken or egg? Thoughts about thinking

Which comes first? The chicken of knowledge or the egg of thinking?

Over the past few years I have been advocating the view that thinking is a very shallow experience without knowledge. It seems self-evident that you can’t think about something you don’t yet know. Give it a go… tricky, isn’t it?

But not only that, the more you know the better you can think about it. If I ask you to think about, say quantum physics, unless you know something about it you’ll probably be reduced to “What’s quantum physics?” or repeating quantum physics, quantum physics over and over again. More likely though, you probably won’t bother to think at all. I knew almost nothing about quantum physics until reading Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed. I found it fascinating and am currently reading Brian Green’s marvellous, The Elegant Universe . The more I find out, the more interesting my thoughts become.

Typically incautious, I intervened in this Twitter conversation last night:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 13.07.57

I think I know what he means – that what we discover only has meaning as we apply our cognitive faculties to it – but it sounds an awful lot like simply thinking hard enough about, well, nothing, will produce some sort of insight a la Buddha. And it won’t. We have to have something to think about.

Ed then went on to say, “Human cognition is about thinking not remembering. If you like, remembering is the way human cognition brings time and space into being.” This is of course true, but it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that thought can precede knowledge. Cristina Milos suggests the following:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 13.14.40And she’s absolutely right, but no one is arguing that thinking is unimportant, are they? I’ve never come across anyone – ‘neo-traditionalist’ (whatever that means) or otherwise – who doesn’t agree that thinking is far more important than simply storing an inert stack of ingots in the repository of the mind. No one’s keen on students ‘merely‘ knowing. Remembering is never the point, but it is, as far as I can see, the only reliable means to improve thought.

Once someone knows a thing then they should be encouraged to question it. Of course cultural transmission shouldn’t be about inculcating students into believing what their teachers believe; students must consider and critique; they must weigh arguments and form judgements; in short, they must think. But you cannot think about what you don’t know. And this is just the beginning. Once you can think about something, you can then think with it; what we know lives inside us and touches every aspect of our lives.

Read more excellent blogs from David Didau at www.learningspy.co.uk


Is differentiation a zero-sum game? – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy



A zero-sum game is one in which there is a winner and a loser; if you haven’t won, you’ve lost. The term derives from game theory and economics and describes a situation in which one person’s gain utility (the ability to satisfy his or wants) is exactly balanced by another’s loss of utility.

In The Uses of Pessimism, Scruton points out that much wrong-heading thinking and behaviour derives from what he calls the ‘zero-sum fallacy’ where all gains are paid for by the losers.

Society therefore is a zero-sum game, in which costs and benefits balance out, and in which the winners’ winnings cause the losers’ losses. (p.81)

This kind of dichotomous thinking was the basis for Marx’s theories of economics, but is a bit unfashionable now. Most economists would agree that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Most transactions are mutually beneficial to some degree; although one participant might do better than the other, profit making is not necessarily rapacious. Scruton argues this is a potent cognitive trap whereby idealistic, utopian thinkers fail to acknowledge reality; it’s not there their schemes are unworkable, it’s that they’ve been thwarted by an enemy. He then goes on to argue that the move to replace grammar schools with comprehensive schools was because of a belief in this zero-sum fallacy:

But clearly a procedure that enables some pupils to succeed must cause others to fail: so the zero-sum fallacy maintains. Such a procedure generates a ‘two-tier’ education system, with the successful enjoying all the opportunities, and the failures left by the wayside to be ‘marked for life’. In other words, the success of some is paid for by the failure of others. And thus was born the movement for comprehensive education, together with the hostility to streaming and the downgrading of examinations, in order to prevent the state education system from producing and reproducing ‘inequalities’. (p.95)

Equality is easy to achieve, Scruton argues, all you have to do is put a lid of achievement and ensure no child gets ahead. This is the kind of silliness that results in a lot of the closing the gap narrative: if the gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged is too wide then a school is failing. This creates a perverse incentive; it’s easier to reduce some students’ performance than it is to increase others’, therefore the most effective way to narrow the gap is to limit the ‘winnings’ of those at the top end to ensure the losses incurred by Pupil Premium students are less severe.

Scruton’s point is this:

Zero-sum thinking, which sees the educational success of one child as paid for by the failure of another, forces education into a mould that is alien to it. The child who fails at Latin might succeed at music or metalwork; the one who fails to get to university might succeed as an army officer.

And to a degree he’s right – children have a diversity of ability and an education system which fails to acknowledge this diversity in one in which excellence cannot exist. But something seems not quite right with this picture. Here are some of the objections I have:

  1. It’s all very well for Scruton to equate metalwork with Latin, but that doesn’t really square with the perceptions of society; few middle-class parents are content for their children to fail academically but “find the skill, expertise or vocation that suits their abilities.” As long as ourchildren ‘win’, what happens to ‘kids like these’ is by the by.
  2. If a grammar school has a limited number of places, one child’s success at the 11+ exam really does result another child with perhaps one less mark being unable to attend.
  3. Whilst grammar schools might have existed to offer to “children from poor families an opportunity to advance by talent and industry alone” but in practice, children from wealthier backgrounds are routinely coached and tutored to pass the 11+.  The less socially advantaged your family background, the less likely you are to get in.
  4. Comprehensive education does not have to lead, ipso facto, to dumbing down. Excellence is surely possible without a two-tier school system, isn’t it?

Obviously the 11+ is a very extreme form of differentiation, but as Scruton says, we’ve become equally hostile to the concept of streaming and setting too is increasingly under attack. I not certain about this by instinct tells me that any attempt to differentiate be ability leads, inexorably, to students being treated differently – how could it not? It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – those that are perceived as less able remain less able.

If we divide children into ‘more able’ and ‘less able’ then it follows that we will treat them differently. Alex Quigley posted this morning about teacher expectations and the pygmalion effect. Our beliefs about pupils have a tremendous impact on their progress and attainment. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson ran a landmark experiment which demonstrated that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then their performance was indeed enhanced. Pupils were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) would likely be ‘spurters’ that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. At the end of the study, all pupils were retested and showed statistically significant gains favouring the experimental group.

Making these kinds of distinctions and them acting on them really does seem a zero-sum game and one subject to the Matthew Effect – the more able get more able, the less able get, comparatively, less able because they just don’t access to same resources, opportunities and support. They’re treated differently.My favourite way of thinking about differentiation is that everyone should struggle no matter their ability. This doesn’t mean everyone should be treated the same, but it does suggest we shouldn’t make school easy for anyone.

This is not to say that any form of differentiation is bad – expert teachers should be encouraged to act of their professional instincts and treat their students as they think befits their personalities. Challenge students to do things they’re not currently able to do and then, perhaps, differentiate by support. But differentiation by ability is, I think, pernicious.

I’ve written before about both my concerns with differentiation and also some of the critique of the growth mindset trope – these to me seem almost like competing, opposing forces in education – on the one hand, children should be treated differently depending on their ability and on the other, everyone can improve if they have the right set of beliefs. I’m not sure of the truth of these statements, but I do know that no one rises to low expectations.

Make sure to visit www.thelearningspy.co.uk for more superb guidance from David Didau.


What to do about literacy – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy




Over the last couple of years I’ve visited over 100 schools and practically none of them have got literacy right. Now obviously I only get asked to talk to schools who feel they can improve – maybe there are loads of schools out there who have got it right and they’re just keeping quiet, But I doubt it.

But if schools are struggling to implement literacy policies that actually have an impact on students it’s not for want of trying. We know that poor literacy blights life chances. We know being able to read, write and speak with confidence and accuracy opens doors otherwise barred and bolted. And we know that even though schools and teachers can do precious little, it’s a damn sight more than anyone else has the opportunity, inclination or ability to do. It’s increasingly widely accepted that everyone is responsible for improving students’ literacy but all too often teacher just aren’t sure how they might go about this. The day to day pressure of teaching means that teachers just don’t have time to reinvent wheels or waste valuable lessons on anything which seems gimmicky or irrelevant. Ultimately, they’re judged on how well they teach their subjects and anything else can seem a distracting luxury. Typically, schools will employ an incredibly hardworking, dedicated literacy coordinator who despite all their helpful suggestions, insights and resources they tend not to have the time or the clout to get anything done. So apart from keyword posters going up and a shared area being filled with resources no one will use, nothing gets done. Children continue to struggle.

The problems are endemic. Every school is concerned with the same issues: how do you get children reading; how can we make students better at writing; is there a way to make students more articulate?

The frustrating answer to all these questions is, yes, but it takes hard work. It requires teachers and school leaders to think differently about what their job is. Focussing on literacy objectives will not improve anything. Instead, what’s needed is for teachers to explicitly teach the language of their subject alongside their subject content. My slightly surprising insight is that if this is done well, the fact that children’s reading and writing improves is almost trivial. What really matters is that students get better at thinking.

How can I help? I can happily spend a day in your school explaining what I know about how to putting language at the heart of teaching and creating the conditions for disadvantaged students can access an academic curriculum. If students learn the language of academic success then they can be academically successful. But there are no magic beans. Although you’ll have a fantastic training session, it won’t make a lot of difference to what happens day in day out in classrooms.

Addressing teacher’s knowledge of how to explicitly teach their subject’s language will help, but what really makes a difference is sustained, focussed support. What I’ve found works particularly well is to work with a department other than the English department – a subject that’s not naturally considered a natural ally of literacy. Through working with DT, science or performing arts teams we’ve been able to show all teachers what the possibilities might be.

For an overview of basics of how to ‘do’ literacy well, read this post. If that whets your appetite, I’ve written a book on the subject. And if you’d like to discuss other ways I could help, email me or give me a call on 07966 355059.


Do you think your children’s behaviour in the dining hall isn’t as good as it is in the classroom? Has it become a corridor to play, where most of them eat as quickly as possible so they can spend more time outside? Does this lead to lost learning minutes in afternoon lessons because teachers are forced to discuss unresolved lunchtime incidents?

From September 2015, to support a new Ofsted judgment on personal development, behaviour and welfare, inspectors will “visit the canteen to see the atmosphere and culture in the dining space and the effect this has on pupilsbehaviour”. So it’s important you find solutions to any lunchtime issues. http://tinyurl.com/qgudlx4

For the last ten years Recipe for Change has been helping schools improve behaviour by creating restaurant style lunchtimes that motivate children to eat better, eat together and engage in good conversation. This evidence based approach has improved readiness to learning, reduced lunchtime incidents and given children the time and space to learn how to socialise properly.

Here are a few top tips on how to improve your school canteen and ensure your behaviour policy is consistently applied and implemented at lunchtime.

  1. Friendship groups
    Whenever I speak to school councillors they almost always say they want to sit next to their friends at lunchtime and feel stressed and uncomfortable if they can’t. This often leads to children wandering around the dining hall trying to find their friends. And when they do find a friend and someone else is sitting next to them they get even more upset. This increases congestion and noise and results in children sitting with people they don’t want to sit with. Like the classroom, a clear seating plan really helps reduce noise levels and creates a more social environment. This can be as simple as class or year group tables so children know they can sit anywhere on their designed year group or class tables. However, for schools which have behaviour issues and for those with high numbers of SEN children who thrive on routine, designated friendship group tables works extremely well. Seating for example three children from one class who have agreed to sit together with three from another on the same table for perhaps a term has a number of important advantages. Firstly, everyone knows where they will be sitting and who they will be sitting with every day. Secondly, Midday Supervisors, just like teachers, know where everyone is sitting and can quickly get to know who needs support and who needs careful monitoring. Thirdly, because children sit on the same table in the same place it’s easy for Midday Supervisors to set up a reward programme for good behaviour. Finally, mixing year group gives older children the chance to buddy and support younger children and to sit with siblings.
  2. Set sittings
    The dining hall is a multifunctional space and kitchen staff shift hours are very restricted. There is pressure therefore from both the school and the caterers to get children served as quickly as possible and to clear all dining furniture away as quickly as possible ready for the afternoon curriculum. As a result, a continuous service operates where children arrive at the hall when there is space and queue up for their dinner. Once everyone is served the caterers are keen to start clearing away dining furniture whilst many children are still eating. This is a system designed for adults, not children and creates a food on the go culture. It’s stressful and unsettling which is why, not surprisingly, children start to behave inappropriately. If, however, children are clear about exactly when they are going to eat, who they are going to eat with and for how long, they are much more likely to behave better. Having a timetable of sittings helps reassure children that they do have enough time to eat.

    So how long should these sittings be and how does this work for schools with very limited dining room space? Provided the speed of service in the kitchen is quick and efficient 20 minutes is the minimum time a large group of junior children can get served, eat and clear away. Reception children, particularly when they first start in September, need at least 25 minutes. For junior children you could run a three sitting service in one hour (3 x 20 minute sittings) However, it’s advisable so  children don’t feel rushed, to have a 5 minute transition between sittings which increases lunchtime to one hour and 10 minutes. This will increase to one hour and 15 minutes when you include both infants and juniors. For schools with a very small dining space or a very large number of children on roll different year groups will need to start and finish morning and afternoon lessons at different times. That means lunchtime might run for over one and half hours but each year group only gets one hour because of the different start and finish times. But what about the caterers? Won’t this increase their hours? In most cases it’s mainly about a change in working patterns rather than increasing shift time. Moving from a continuous service to sittings means food will have to be batch cooked so it’s fresh and hot for each sitting. This is something caterers are very proficient in doing and shouldn’t cause any problems.

  3. More time to eat
    It’s important to make provision for slow eaters. If children feel rushed they are more likely to not eat as much as they would like and/or opt for a packed lunch so they don’t have to queue up for a school dinner. Giving some slow eaters the opportunity to stay in the hall after their sitting has finished will avoid them going back into class hungry and make sure school meal uptake doesn’t decline. For infants, who are now offered free school meals, the government target is 87%.

    To provide space for slow eaters try and make the first sitting much larger than the second and third. If, for example, you can seat three classes in the first sitting followed by two classes in the second and third, then up to one class can remain in the hall during the second and third sittings.

  4. Waiting for friends
    In one school I visited recently there were 6 children all eating alone on 6 different tables. When I asked a few of them how they felt they all, unsurprisingly, said “a bit sad”. This creates a food on the go culture and is likely to mean children go back into class not ready for learning. Being asked to wait for friends at lunchtime just as you would in a restaurant will encourage children to socialise. But if you are a much faster eater than your friend, is it fair to wait for ages and ages? It’s important to compromise here and agree a minimum eating time before leaving. 15 minutes, if it’s a 20 minute sitting, is a reasonable length of time to wait. This avoids lots of slower eaters being left behind.
  5. Creating a better dining room infrastructure
    In many schools I visit dining tables are laid out end to end in long columns. Four or sometimes five junior children sit on benches designed for three and there is not enough space between tables to get in and out. Even if children would like a school meal it isn’t an attractive option because in many schools they have to queue up and get ticked off a register, then queue again to get their dinner. And for some of the infants the servery is too high so they can’t see the food or hear what the school cooks are saying to them. That’s why lots of children opt for a packed lunch and why school meal uptake is lower than it should be.

    Here are a few suggestions that will help improve the dining room environment and encourage better behaviour.

    i) Coloured bands – Issue children with coloured bands for meals choice e.g. red for main meal and green for vegetarian. This speeds up service. School cooks don’t have to ask each child what meal choice they want nor do they need to tick them off a register. If 100 school meals are ordered then the school cook piles up 100 plates on their servery.

    ii) Mobile servery – If the kitchen servery is too high consider introducing a mobile servery into the dining room.  This will make sure all children can easily see the food on offer and make it much easier to communicate with the kitchen staff.

    iii) Waste station – Make sure waste stations are sited close to the dining room exit and not close to the food. So many caterers place waste stations very close to the kitchen and therefore close to the food. Whilst this makes it easy for them it’s very unappetising for the children.

    iv)Table layout – Try and increase the number of sittings so you can reduce the number of tables.  Avoid tables being placed together and site them individually. If there is wall space that can be used push tables up to the wall. School halls are usually full of PE equipment. Remove as much as possible to create more space between tables.

  6. Lunchtime leaders
    If behaviour at lunchtime is a concern then it’s usually a small minority of challenging children that persistently misbehave. So how can it be improved? By giving these challenging children a chance to be lunchtime leaders. By trusting them to develop their own job specification. By getting them to communicate with the whole school. By focusing their energies on rewarding children for good behaviour. This is an approach I am currently piloting at a Kent school. It was clear from the very first meeting with the nominated lunchtime leaders, a group of Y5’s, that they felt valued and important. They engaged extremely well, came up with good and constructive ideas and are excited about their new role.
  7. Lunchtime charter
    Behaviour policies are often inconsistently applied at lunchtime. Children become confused and upset as soon as they think one Midday Supervisor is being too lenient and another is too strict. This is often due to Midday Supervisors not being clear themselves about what the consequences should be for bad behaviour and/or they just aren’t assertive enough.

    Getting lunchtime leaders to write their own lunchtime charter which includes rules/guidelines that they are prepared to follow and they feel are acceptable will help adults manage any bad behaviour. This often includes no play fighting and lining up quietly. If therefore children don’t line up quietly and play fight they should be more willing to accept the consequences. And the consequences need to be very clearly and prominently communicated. For Midday Supervisors that means carrying a series of laminated cards on their lanyards with the behaviour and consequences. For children a poster of the lunchtime charter that they have created and which is prominently displayed in the hall will act as a good reminder.

  8. Lunchtime learning
    Lunchtime is an integral part of the academic day and it offers real learning opportunities. One evidence based example of this is the introduction of Times Table plates with memorable and engaging animal characters printed on them to represent each of the 12 times tables. In one Yorkshire school the Times Table plates has improved instant recall and reduced ReFood waste from 80 kg to 45 kg. So the children were learning more and eating more.

    Another key learning opportunity, particularly for infants, is teaching them how to use a knife and fork. Learning how to socialise whilst eating is a skill and using a knife and fork properly is something a lot children need help with. Some schools have introduced a knife and fork licence, just like a pen licence.

    I am not suggesting that lunchtime becomes another class. What I am suggesting is classroom learning outcomes can be reinforced and embedded as part of children’s social time. In Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons children will learn about friendships, emotions and communication. Whilst these lessons are good opportunities for reflecting on and thinking about social relationships and behaviour, they are not, and can never be, replacements for the real thing. Surely lunchtime is an ideal opportunity to put what you have learnt into practice and make this part of the lesson plan.

If your school needs support with the new personal development, behaviour and welfare Ofsted judgment then making changes to lunchtimes could provide valuable evidence.For more information about how we can help you please visit www.recipeforchange.co.uk



Games to Help your Child’s memory – Words by Dunc Llew


You know that corny old cliché, Practice makes Perfect? Sadly there is a physiological explanation that shows it’s true. When actions are repeated, Myelin is produced in the brain which connects neurons; the more Myelin, the stronger the connection, the better performance.

So if you want to do something easy to help your child’s memory, find a game they like and play a lot. Some suggestions:

  1. Play card games that require visual memory. Pairs (matching pairs of cards) is particularly good as it uses Working Memory, but other games like Crazy Eights & Uno require players to mentally recall which cards have been played.
  2. Play Missing item (remember items on a tray and them remove one).
  3. Give them an item, cover and and ask to describe in as much detail as possible (eg Tell Me Ten Things About…).
  4. Copying pictures will encourage children to focus on different aspects of the image.
  5. Spot the Difference games

Words by Dunc Llew.

CEO and Founder of www.elephantwise.uk


Neuroscience and how Kids are Distracted when Revising – Words by Duncan Llew



View claims of multi-tasking prowess with suspicion – evidence suggests efficient multitasking isn’t possible. World famous neuroscientist and attention expert Earl Miller says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
Key driver is dopamine, the brain hormone associated with pleasure. The brain produces it in anticipation of a reward which is usually a learned behaviour thus addictive. For example, we see a favourite food and know that pleasure will come from eating it so dopamine is released. We get the dopamine pleasure hit before tasting and then the actual pleasure from eating it, like a Pavlov dog salivating on hearing the bell before feeding.

The area of the brain which manages behaviour (ie which task to to do next) is the prefrontal cortex. This has a novelty bias, so is constantly looking something new. No surprises that it makes us respond to a new email or text above more mundane issues. Our brain learns that there’s pleasure in responding to a new email or text, so dopamine is produced when we hear our mobile phone bleep to say a new one has arrived. The dopamine makes us feel good as we anticipate looking at the new message (and feel bad if we don’t). So while we may claim that we’re efficiently multi-tasking, the reality is we’re creating a dopamine-addiction feedback loop.

So if if it’s hard for adults to break the multi-tasking addiction, think of the dopamine hungry adolescents – what chance have they of doing some focussed revision?  So confess up that we’re all a bit susceptible to the lure of a little dopamine, and look at steps we can take to minimise distractions

For revision a key action is being very disciplined about where they put the mobile phone during study and how long is realistic to keep away from it without causing anxiety. Yes, people get anxious when separated from their mobile and there’s even a name for it – nomophobia. So maybe accept they’ll check it every 30 or 40 minutes and gear revision targets in those chunks of 40 minutes. The a fifteen minute break catching up with new messages is fine.

Generally most small chunks of revision, ie learning, self-testing, re-learning what was missed, can be fitted around 40 minutes. It’s extremely hard to focus effectively for much longer without a break. The key to success is ensuring children do enough of those 40 minute sessions to effectively learn the material – we can help kids revise, but we can’t teach them wisdom or hindsight.

Dunc Llew

The surplus model of school improvement – By David Didau

Cardboard textured world Europe oriented with a heap of packagesAs teachers we are sometimes guilty of assuming that all would be well if only children behaved better and worked harder. This is basically sound; everything would be better is kids did what was in their best interests. So why don’t they? Well, in some schools they do. In some schools there are strong social norms which ensure that misbehaviour and laziness are the exception. This isn’t because only children from more affluent postcodes are capable of doing the right thing, it’s because schools and teachers have worked hard to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. They have worked on the assumption that mucking around doesn’t have to be endemic, but kids are basically kids; they’ll default to whatever the prevailing expectations allow.Likewise, all too often schools leaders take the view that everything would be OK if only teachers were more motivated and worked harder. This is the deficit model; the idea that less than desirable outcomes are due to someone else swinging the lead. According to this way of thinking, problems will be solved if this deficit can in some way be addressed. And how should we address this lack in others? Why by supplying more information, stricter parameters, tighter deadlines and clear consequences. This is the logic behind the way our education system manages the accountability process: schools and teachers cannot be trusted to do the right thing and take responsibility for their own development so we will club them with the cudgel of accountability until they fall in to line. Sound familiar?

This edifice depends on the notion that ‘experts’ know best. DfE wallahs, Ofsted inspectors, education consultants, senior leaders are the experts and so it falls to them to ensure that deficits are made up and troublesome classroom teachers are brought into line. There is an inherent and usually unexamined assumption that if you’re an expert it’s because you are in some way better than ‘ordinary’ teachers. But what if we ran our schools on a surplus model? What if we assumed that teachers were basically trustworthy, hard-working, and knew what they were doing? What it were agreed that school leaders achieve their lofty positions not because they ‘know best’, but because their ambitions are different?

But consider this: Any policy predicated on the belief or expectation that teachers can or should work harder will fail. Why? Because, for the most part, teachers are at capacity. Their fingers are worked to bloody stumps and expecting them to pile something else on to their already teetering workloads is not just unreasonable, it’s stupid.

Great school needs great systems. And a system which fails to value the contribution of every member of its workforce is a long way from great. The deficit model recognises that some teachers ‘get it’. They comply, they’re able to juggle impossible demands and somehow perform the Monkey Dance on cue. They are rewarded. And everyone one else is under threat. But not because they’re not working hard, but because they’re not meeting the expectations of ‘experts’. This is formalised in the language we use to grade schools and (although hopefully this is on its way out) teachers: some are good or outstanding and everyone else requires improvement. But if schools are going to be truly great, everyone requires improvement. We all need to be better because we can be. And as Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain point out, left to our own devices our improvement seems to plateau after three years of teaching. We settle for competence instead of striving for mastery. So a decent appraisal system should require teachers to select and develop areas of practice that they wish to improve. To my mind, it doesn’t matter whether these efforts are successful in any measurable sense, it’s the fact that you’ve tried to do something different and difficult that counts.

Great school systems shouldn’t leave teachers to their own devices – we should be actively supported to continually improve. A starting point might be to ask teachers where they currently are and what they need to do. This tool can be a useful starting point:

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 21.20.24

Obviously few teachers will place them selves in the bottom left quadrant. I’m not daft enough to claim all teachers are entirely virtuous. I’ve met some who seemingly couldn’t give a shit about anything except dog breeding but they are thankfully rare. Few people stay long in the profession solely due to the generous salaries or long holidays. We teach because we care. And if we’re unsure, we can ask teachers if they want to improve. If they don’t then we can resort to capability procedures, but if they do then we should work with them. And just in case anyone is unclear, placing teaching on capability proceedings isnot working with them.

Lets deal with each group in turn:

Top right

These teachers need both to be recognised and challenged. It’s no good telling them they’re outstanding and leaving it at that. Some who are considered outstanding stop improving just because no one’s sure what to suggest. Just like children who exceed our expectations, these teachers will only improve if we work to increase their aspirations. But we must be so careful not to expect them to work harder. Yes, of course we want them to be involved in system improvement and to spread good practice but only to the extent that we don’t ask them to do more than they’re currently doing. Too often the only solution is promote highly effective teachers out of the classroom where their skills and knowledge are so badly needed. Maybe instead we need to consider how to keep them there as much as we can? They should be both offered challenging opportunities to develop and asked to embrace situations where they might struggle. Offer them secondments either within or outside the school; offer them sabbaticals to develop further; ask them to take on challenges outside their current area of expertise so that they know what it’s like to both to fail and to improve.

Top left

Teachers who already have the motivation to improve are a relatively simple nut to crack. Firstly, any school leader worth their salt already know who they are; there is nothing to be gained from making them even less effective by scrutinising them further. If we’re serious about helping them improve we should think about the following:

  • What are they best at? Most ‘support’ focuses on improving what a teacher is perceived to be bad at, and is consequently, pretty dispiriting. What if instead we started by focusing on and growing teachers’ individual ‘bright spots’ then we have a chance at getting them to believe they can be better.
  • Sort out the basics. If behaviour is a problem, take responsibility for the fact that children think it’s OK to misbehave in any lesson, no matter who the teacher is. In good school this doesn’t happen. Make sure groups are functional and that systems are in place to deal with problems; help teachers set up routines to ensure high expectations. Never ever tell a teacher that poor behaviour is their fault. While it’s true that a well-planned lesson can contribute to good behaviour, it is most certainly not true that good planning can solve behaviour problems.
  • We learn most by observing others and then having an opportunity to ask questions and discuss assumptions. If we want to help struggling teachers improve free them up to observe colleagues. Absolutely don’t expect them to do this in their PPA time – SLT should cover their lessons so that actual support is provided.
  • Use observations as an opportunity to explore mistakes. It’s right that we should have the highest expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should smash people when they fail to live up to them. We would never take this approach with children but it seems pretty standard with teachers. The message must be that it is OK to make mistakes. I’ve heard teaching described as being like air traffic control and that any mistake will cost lives. This is nonsense. We can all always try again and fail better next lesson. Supporting teachers with this message is more likely to lead to something sustainable rather than simply expecting them to get a ‘good’ at the end of a short term intention programme.

Bottom right

There are many teachers who are misunderstood and unappreciated. Maybe they’re not able to ‘turn it on’ for a one-off observation. Maybe their methods are out of step with what the school views as the ‘best’ way to teach. Maybe their face just doesn’t fit. Sadly, if you fit into this category it’s unlikely that any support will be useful if you’re seen as too quirky, too old-fashioned or just too long in the tooth. It is lamentably easy to destroy a good teacher through such ‘support’. Obviously though, we need someway to ensure that teachers really are effective, so what can we do? This is where we need robust performance management measures; not for the pupils’ benefit per se, but to ensure that we are right in our judgements. These measure might include the following:

  • Data – How well do pupils perform in internal and external tests? How well do pupils perform against other teachers’ classes? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve got a problem.
  • It’s absolutely reasonable that a school requires that certain standards are ‘non-negotiatiable’. Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations andwork scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but in a good school, leaders will know these things because they are constantly out and about. They will know what different areas of the school ‘feel’ like and they will know who is on message and who isn’t. If a member of SLT is present in corridors and classrooms every lesson then there should be no surprises.
  • How can we use pupils’ feedback to improve what we do? I’m suspicious of Student Voice. Just asking kids whether or not they like a teacher is a ridiculously blunt instrument. But a well-designed questionnaire or interview may be able to capture something useful about pupils’ experience of lessons. Just because this is hard to do well is not a reason for not trying to do it at all.

Bottom left

Some of these individuals are toxic and give us all a bad name. They don’t mark their books, they resort of videos at the slightest provocation and they give kids a thoroughly raw deal. Thankfully they’re relatively rare, but I’m sure every school has one or two. And as with the other categories of teachers, everyone will know who they are. How you decide to deal with them is up to you. Is it worth the effort of trying to save them, or should they be fired as soon as is expedient? That’s a judgement call. But I’d reiterate the point that we should work with everyone who’s willing to improve. Simply forcing them out and giving them a glowing reference is just shuffling the deck. For the whole system to improve we need these teachers to be better if they’re planning to stay in education.

There is a huge opportunity cost with the deficit model. Anything you ask teachers to do just for the sake of accountability is time that cannot be spent doing something more worthwhile. Although setting up a surplus model and trusting teachers to make the most of the support we provide and be the best they can be is scary, it’s the only way a school can be truly great.

If you’d like to discuss how to implement this sort of school improvement model in your school, please get in touch.

David Didau