Coherent curriculum

Creating a coherent curriculum is all the rage now. I mean, everyone's doing it: youngsters are jiving coherently in the music halls, German monks are writing coherently in the vernacular, and I hear in Rome there's a coherent coronation of a new emperor. Facetiousness aside, I can understand why, for some, the new clothes do indeed bear a striking resemblance to the emperor's birthday suit. But I do also see, whether in schools or through the social meedz, a heck of a lot of noise and incoherence, at least in my own, battered subject.

In ever more ridiculous attempts to make subjects more relevant, engaging, fun or, seemingly, bearable, coherent curriculums are thrown overboard, with the tiger remaining hidden beneath the tarpaulin. Little do the captains of these now rudderless ships realise how unnavigable their seas become: the North Star is lost and to Bermuda they unwittingly drift. Episodic incoherence is like an austerity of common sense and direction.

There are a number of sometimes striking, sometimes subtle, reasons for this incoherence. My own bête noir is the frankly imbecilic notion of lesson planning and detailed schemes of work. I've written about this previously, but I'll make it clear once more: the idea that we should plan an hour's work is literally based on the temporal structure of our day, not on what is the best way of approaching a topic, and thus any single lesson plan, or series of lessons with specific structures to follow, demonstrates as little regard for one's own domain as it does the ignorance of the author.

A curriculum is an unfolding story, not some topics which might be interesting or previously resourced. It's simply not good enough to teach a text because somebody likes it – if it doesn't fit into a greater whole then it's at best a divergence, a tourist route that reaches a dead end. Any history curriculum, for example, which does not at it's heart have central questions, themes and interleaving spirals of rich meaning has no heart, let alone coherence. In fact, without coherence there's no curriculum, just scattergun skills-based something-or-other or, as critics are so keen to point out, 'stuffing them with knowledge'.

Neither of these approaches has any strategy, unless by strategy you mean 'zero strategy'. The curriculum is the fundamental thing in itself of schooling, but few schools have a curriculum lead, and few schools actually question what they teach and why they teach it. But these sorts of decisions are privileges to make, they are what make us professionals. That so few of us have these discussions is a damning indictment of an education system that has, perhaps understandably though also bemusingly, prioritised outcomes over the input, strangely believing that an intervention culture in Y11 would do the job of five years of an intelligently designed curriculum.

We need to be better. We need to read more; we need to get rid of the noise; we need to focus on the richness of our own subjects and all their idiosyncrasies, thus building trust in the dignity of education for the sake of itself.

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Correspondence between a panda and a textbook author

Dear Humanity,

I am a 225lb panda living in Gansu, China. I’d like to draw your attention to the rapidly decreasing habitat in which I and my fellow black-and-whities reside. My main concern is the increasing scarcity of bamboo, which constitutes the vast majority of my diet. As a result of this, there are now very few of us left. Seriously, it’s pandamonium!

Now, I would not wish to place the blame upon you, Humanity, but it is true that pandamic industrial farming methods, deforestation and the encroaching rumble of human infrastructure has played a rather destabilising role in the dwindling number of my fellow panda-folk.

Thus, perhaps we might come to some sort of compromise? We, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, will continue to appear cutesy and cuddly, occasionally sneezing for your cameras, if you, Humanity, will make our endangerment part of the education of your youngsters: where we teach our few cubs to eat only the most succulent bamboo, you will educate yours in the fragility of the panda.

I suppose what I’m really asking is for a bit of empathy, y’know? I really want children to think about this. It goes without saying, I hope, that roleplay or scripted scenarios, or any of that nonsense, would be wholly inappropriate, but I mention this because we do hear tell of these kind of bamboozling things going on. I mean, we don’t dare to assume what Humanity talks about behind your doors and walls – that would be self-evidently absurd as we lack the capacity to do so! (Don’t ‘panda’ to us!)

Anyway, I do hope you can help us out. It would be much appreciated.

Yours,

Ling Ling, China.


Dear Ling Ling,

Thanks for your letter. On behalf of Humanity, we’ve taken what you said on board and have decided to include your plight in our latest edition of Geography Rocks! After much thought we’ve come up with what we believe to be a generous section on your plight. I’ve attached a screenshot. Please do let me know what you think.

Kind regards,

Marvin Mushroom

Tosser Publishing, Bristol


Dear Marvin,

I mean … what?

Ling Ling.

Behaviour is shit: classrooms

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At this year’s Education Festival at Wellington, I spoke to rather hot and sweaty room about why behaviour is so difficult to talk about, why we overcomplicate matters, and what we can do about it. Thanks to everyone who packed themselves in – not sure H&S would have been keen.

What follows is the third and final part of the talk, on classrooms. You can find part one, on ideology, here, and part two, on policies, here.

You can find the slides here.


A final recap.

  1. I believe a calm environment is the best in which to learn. I am fully aware that different subjects will require chatter and collaboration, but this can be calm: we really shouldn’t be worried that little Vernon Victim will again be locked in the sports cupboard, or that any food-tech session is really an exercise in ‘dodge-toast’.
  2. We’ve misunderstood the notion of relationships. These should be built on respect, not pandering to the whims of a child. We’re the experts. We’re the adults. We’re not circus animals, or second-rate nannies. The curriculum should be what engages, not the method of delivery. Let’s wow children with our acumen and build relationships around a respect for learning so that, for genuine want of a better phrase, it’s cool to be a nerd.
  3. I don’t have a problem with the word ‘obedient‘. Complaining of some Zamyatin-esque ‘We’ army of child-bots, obeying.commands.in.mechanical.synchronicity. is as lazy as it is wilfully dismissive of a loving teacher or parent’s aim: to help their child be the best they can in a safe environment. I want and need children to do what I say, because I happen to have a clue what I’m doing.

With all this in mind, what can we do in classrooms to minimise behavioural problems? Because there are things we can do to help ourselves. Teachers are not responsible for the behaviour of their pupils (that would be down to the children and the HT), but they can, of course, make things better or worse. Whilst it would be lovely to assume all pupils will behave wonderfully, we know that just isn’t the case: children make mistakes because they are children. Some will make many fewer mistakes than others, and vice versa, but this is part of growing up. Instead of accepting this as a norm, however, it’s much better to help pupils not make these mistakes.

There are, I think, at least three key problems with behaviour in classrooms.

  1. Too much focus on ‘how’.

Discovering Doug Lemov’s work in 2012 was a bit of a game-changer for me. Reading Teach Like A Champion (which Jo Facer discusses here) made me realise what I did well, but also gave me a whole host of other tools to try. What was important, I felt, was to work deliberately on things which would make my history teaching clearer. Sure, there was loads of stuff that could be used across various subjects (many of which are outlined below), but my main concern was to improve my exposition of history. Thus, if a technique seemed to me to be either superfluous or noisy I ignored it.

The problem with any thing like TLAC (as I’ve noticed with some of the reaction to my blogs on knowledge organisers) is that schools use this kind of stuff as a bible rather than a suite, an emperor’s new wardrobe, as it were. As far as I can tell, a fundamental misunderstanding of something like TLAC is to try to use everything. Instead, know your subject. Focus on the ‘what‘, rather than the ‘how‘; wow them with your acumen, as Stuart Lock makes brilliantly clear here.

The other issue with this myopic focus on the ‘how’ is that schools believe the answer to behavioural issues is often in the delivery, rather than the policy or the actual bloody content. This leads us down the progressive path of engagement, activities and tired, early-greying teachers, obsessing over fun rather than thinking about the subject. It also places behavioural responsibility firmly at the feet of individual teachers, which is why we ended up with Ofsted judgements on T&L, idiotic five-minute lesson plans, and soul-destroying (and plain wrong) learning-style’d, multi-activity’d, differentiated by task’d ten-part lessons. That’s not to say there aren’t some effective, and generic, ways in which to suppress the most bouncy of teens, but that making these a focus, rather than a basic foundation, is mistaken.

There is one, very simple (though perhaps, unfortunately, brave) and very important thing to consider: don’t plan lessons, plan learning.

2. Too much noise.

By this I have two things in mind. Firstly, schools are so loud. I don’t think we realise how loud they are until September, when our peaceful days are torn apart by a thousand unbroken voices. But too often we say “be quiet” when we mean “be silent”. Frankly, you get what you ask for. Thirty quiet children, however little they whisper, are still louder than thirty silent children. In fact, the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was to speak more quietly myself, as I was driving the noise up. And there are ways to modulate how we do this in various subjects, sometimes employing our inner silliness, but the important thing is to be in charge of the noise. If we want silence, then we must insist on it, both in our classrooms and around the school.

And the thing is, when one teacher asks for quiet and another asks for silence, we end up with noisy expectations.  I absolutely love the attitude of Luke Sparkes, principal at Dixons Trinity Academy: the pupils there are given one warning at the start of the year, and that’s it. There’s clarity and focus. All staff, pupils and leaders know the rules, and as such there’s a lack of noise.

3. Too much bureaucracy.

In one school in which I taught, a new principal introduced a paper system for dealing with behaviour. He was not a fan of technology and instead wanted to create a paper trail. The resulting behavioural incident form included something like twenty-five different options of behavioural misdemeanours, and the form itself had to be countersigned by at least four different people. In another school, we had Behavioural Incident Forms and Serious Behavioural Incident Forms. Each was on triplicate copy paper, which meant by the time it reached all relevant persons the incident itself was forgotten. Teachers were expected to keep their own records of these which would then be checked by the department head if behaviour was reported in official parental conversation – checked as evidence we weren’t making it up.

This kind of nonsense has no place in school, and should be well away from a streamlined classroom. Learning can often be messy, but the reporting of behaviour should not be.

At my current school we use Class Charts, a superb browser-based piece of behavioural software, though I’m sure there is other effective technology out there. In my previous post I wrote this about it:

Linked to SIMS, the software gives teachers a way to create online seating plans (accessible by all staff for cover purposes) which are then used to praise or sanction behaviour, creating all sorts of immediate and importantly, live datasets and updates for year heads, etc. You can find out more here. The point is that this is so much less paperwork for more gain. I’m not usually a tech advocate, but in terms of consistently managing behaviour this is something to look in to.

Letting bureaucracy get in the way of effective behavioural reporting, that which can be done immediately, in real time and with public consequences, is as unimaginative as it is unsupportive and downright professionally malevolent.

So what can we do in classrooms, even if all this stuff gets in the way?

But they just never shut up. Every time I turn my back they start talking again!

I’m always tempted to wryly, though facetiously, observe, “Then don’t turn your back” when I hear this. Watch them like hawks! Send them out if they breathe! Refuse to teach any children who have mouths!

Well, no. There is no silver bullet to ensure silence, bar perhaps the new boy who calls you a racist within four seconds of his first lesson with you (yes, I’ve had this). The road to silence is long and winding, the night is full of terrors and there is no Lord of Light to smite the low-level noise. There are clear systems, a culture of work, the head’s acceptance that she is ultimately responsible and, of course, the pupils’ choices. Good behaviour, and silent classrooms, are possible when any of these four are not present, but they are the exception.

It is possible to create oases of paradise in a desert of chaos, but these will always occur in spite of a school’s poor behavioural policies: an ill-thought out focus on generic pedagogy, the noise created by others and even excessive bureaucracy can be counteracted to some extent. What follows are five examples of things which we do have control over. It is not a guarantee of silence with 9X7 on Friday afternoon, but over time, with patience, persistence and a host of other ‘how to‘ ideas which I’ve written about recently, these might pay off. What’s important to remember is that consistency and clarity are key.

1. The threshold

Some of us have space to line up our classes. Some don’t. Either way, if we’re stood outside the room as pupils enter then there’s a chance that, unsupervised, they might talk. Similarly, if we’re stood inside then we don’t have control over how they enter. Whether we can line our classes up or not, we must do everything we can to ensure pupils enter silently, and there’s one way to ensure we at least know what’s happening both inside and outside of our classrooms.

Matthew Hood, at the Institute for Teaching, recently spoke about the power of standing in between the door frame, at the threshold. This allows us to see both the class and the corridor. We can then allow one or two in at a time, ensuring they are silent when entering. If they aren’t, we can pull them out, safe in the knowledge that the rest won’t be rioting around.

Saying, and getting a friendly response to, “Good morning”, is also essential. I do not allow pupils into my classroom unless they have returned the greeting. It’s manners, it shows you care, and it demonstrates the expectations we have. Ben Newmark has written about this here

2. Immediacy

At Torquay Academy every lesson begins with a ‘do now’. It’s not a starter, as such, but one might call it ‘bell work’. It’s what happens on entry. This might be a quiz, or a piece of text to annotate, or some reflection on a previous piece of work – whatever – but the purpose is to immediately settle the pupils into work. Our site is huge, so pupils might have walked for a while if they’ve arrived from PE. We cannot, therefore, ensure silent corridors, but we can insist that pupils begin the lesson with something to do on entry.

The task should be one which does not need questions. It should be one which does not need explaining. It should be one which can be accessed by any pupil in that class.

Having said that, it might be that a particularly noisy class needs time to settle even before this. With certain groups I insist on three other things: “Pens out, bags on the floor, standing behind your desks.” This doesn’t mean they can’t be reading a question on the board, or looking at a quiz in front of them, but with some groups it’s necessary. Don’t worry if you feel like it’s taking a lot of time, but instead insist upon what you expect, and rigorously uphold those requirements.

3. Positioning

After many years of coaching football teams, I learned a huge amount about positioning in the classroom. When you’re outside on a football pitch you need to think about where you’re standing: is the sun behind you? In which direction is the wind blowing? In which direction is the rain falling (usually down, I’ve found)?

Thus, when I give instructions in my room I stand in the very centre and DO. NOT. MOVE. Well, apart from my head. I move my head a lot, owl-like and with intensity. I am looking for all eyes, all attention, all focus. I can’t do that without rows, and I can’t gain that singular focus if I’m moving around. Stand still.

If I’m speaking to a pupil on the front right of my classroom, I move to the far left. In this way I can see all of my class, scanning as I listen. If ll my focus is right underneath me then I simply can’t give the rest of the class that attention.

In this way I’m in control.

4. 100%

I wrote about this a while back, but it’s worth reiterating.

Instead of saying, “Kamila, put your pen down”, try, “I’m waiting for one pen and two pairs of eyes.” The lack of public attention means there can’t be an argument or any talking back.

5. Non-verbal gestures

Her tie is around her waist? Mime doing a tie up. You want him to start writing? Mime him writing. His head is on the desk? When everyone else is working, walk up and tap the table so he can hear but the correction is private. Her shirt is hanging out? Mime tucking it in.

The thing is, it’s quite difficult to argue with a non-verbal gesture because, well, no-one has said anything. And the implied privacy of not making a big deal about a minor misdemeanour tends to mean children don’t resent the correction.

Finally, what about motivation? Even if they’re doing what we want, does this really mean they’re trying? Some make this the difference between merely behaving and behaving for learning. I’m not that interested in the semantics here, but I am interested in using small gains and achievements to increase motivation.

I’ve written a huge amount on how low-stakes testing (using knowledge organisers) can have a really positive effect on even the most disengaged pupils. Sarah Donarski makes similar claims here regarding positivity bias among lower performing pupils. This illusory superiority seems to be significantly more motivating for pupils who might normally achieve less well. Imagine your weakest pupils beginning every lesson with a well-answered quiz, or even having the chance to achieve 100% on the test at the start of the lesson. What effect might this have?


Whatever you choose to do in your classroom, ensure you deliberately practice it. Work on it solely for a week or so, building opportunities in to each lesson so that you feel confident with it. Don’t give up, even when classes are tough, your HOD is rubbish and the school policies suck – keep going.

But, more importantly, remember why you’re there – to teach pupils about your subject. Know that, and know it well. Be proud of your knowledge and show them just how cool it is to be so fabulously interesting, how you can make links between various subjects, and why your domain is so flipping important. Because you have to have something to talk to children about – all the tricks in the world won’t make them interested.

Behaviour is shit: policies

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At this year’s Education Festival at Wellington, I spoke to rather hot and sweaty room about why behaviour is so difficult to talk about, why we overcomplicate matters, and what we can do about it. Thanks to everyone who packed themselves in – not sure H&S would have been keen.

What follows is the second part of the talk, on school policies. The first part, on ideology, is here, whilst the third is here.

You can find the slides here.


Let’s recap.

  1. I believe a calm environment is the best in which to learn. I am fully aware that different subjects will require chatter and collaboration, but this can be calm: we really shouldn’t be worried that little Vernon Victim will again be locked in the sports cupboard, or that any food-tech session is really an exercise in ‘dodge-toast’.
  2. We’ve misunderstood the notion of relationships. These should be built on respect, not pandering to the whims of a child. We’re the experts. We’re the adults. We’re not circus animals, or second-rate nannies. The curriculum should be what engages, not the method of delivery. Let’s wow children with our acumen and build relationships around a respect for learning so that, for genuine want of a better phrase, it’s cool to be a nerd.
  3. I don’t have a problem with the word ‘obedient‘. Complaining of some Zamyatin-esque ‘We’ army of child-bots, obeying.commands.in.mechanical.synchronicity. is as lazy as it is wilfully dismissive of a loving teacher or parent’s aim: to help their child be the best they can in a safe environment. I want and need children to do what I say, because I happen to have a clue what I’m doing.

With all this in mind, I wonder how many of us have come across any of the following thoughts on behaviour in schools?

  • Behaviour is the responsibility of the individual teacher.
  • Behaviour can be improved through more engaging activities.
  • Behaviour management is largely an exercise in bureaucracy.
  • In loco parentis.
  • Teachers are to blame.

There are more, I’m sure: having invisible leaders, or inconsistent approaches, whether by masochistic design or incompetence, for example. Too many teachers report, whether anecdotally or in the press, of labyrinthine, obtuse or negligent policies and enactment.

Behaviour policies are often nightmarish because of our love to overcomplicate things. Simplicity and elegance, however, are surely the twin lights at the tunnel’s end. At Torquay Academy we look to refine policies all the time so that the ship might sail more smoothly.

I’ve tried here to come up with the fewest things which pupils, teachers and parents might want from a school in terms of behaviour. There might be a couple more, of course. My particular two interests in this post are on the parents and leaders, who are, of course, those who enforce and write the rules.

What we want should be elementary: a system which works for all and fosters the most appropriate environment in which pupils can be successful (for successful, I mean emotionally as well as academically, though I believe these follow each other). Recognising, for example, that pupils need to acquire lots of knowledge in order to think more deeply about subjects should lead us down a particular path. Call this path Traditional St. if you will, but the ideology follows the practicality. In order to acquire this knowledge pupils require an environment and culture which allows them to do so with the least fuss possible.

But pupils also need to know why certain behaviours are expected, even if they don’t always agree: we enter the room silently so we can get right on with learning; we don’t run in the corridors because we might hurt either ourselves or someone else; we say ‘thank you’ because it is polite to do so and we want to live in a polite society. As such, it is the duty of all staff to ensure pupils are treated consistently. It’s no good explaining reasons if a few teachers decide to be classroom vigilantes.

Andy Buck, for example, often talks about what he calls ‘sinners’ in a school. These are the people who refuse to toe the line and yet help their pupils get great results. They’re the most tricky to deal with as a leader because it’s hard to argue that they’re doing their pupils a disservice. For what it’s worth, I don’t think these are necessarily too much of a problem in most cases. However, a behavioural sinner who refuses to treat children consistently in line with a school policy is, frankly, trouble. It is absolutely not okay when a three-strikes and out policy is undermined by that one teacher who gives three unofficial warnings first.

What about tech? Is there a place for this to reduce bureaucracy? My school uses Class Charts (I’m sure there are others available) and it really is a clever piece of kit. Linked to SIMS, the software gives teachers a way to create online seating plans (accessible by all staff for cover purposes) which are then used to praise or sanction behaviour, creating all sorts of immediate and importantly, live datasets and updates for year heads, etc. You can find out more here. The point is that this is so much less paperwork for more gain. I’m not usually a tech advocate, but in terms of consistently managing behaviour this is something to look in to.

One criticism of schools with very strict behaviour policies is that these become self-selecting, and that parents will be forced to choose other schools. To this I respond as such: if parents refuse to follow a school’s behaviour policy which has been created to protect pupils as well as giving them the best opportunity to be successful, and if they are then able to place their children in another nearby school which has rules they agree with, then neither the parents nor those other schools are fulfilling their roles. Schools need parents to be on side, but that does not mean schools should kowtow to parents who won’t abide by a home-school agreement, for example.

I do wonder how many schools genuinely require parents to follow these agreements. Most, I’m sure, say they do. But for every little thing? Just as with the school following its responsibility, if a parent has signed a contract they must adhere to it. This is not self-selection but it is holding very high expectations. If every school had such expectations then parents wouldn’t have a choice (and Facebook would be a much less colourful place) but to insist on behaviour. Self-selection is a weedy, excuse of a phrase designed to appeal to a confused section of the left who want to appease an imagined working-class, one that apparently won’t feed or sanction its children. Whatever the truth of the matter, schools and parents must work together. There may well be genuine concerns over a rule (blazers in hot weather, or an inordinate amount of home work, for example), but this is rarer than the annual post-summer Daily Mail articles suggest.

If at the heart of all we do is helping children learn, then trust and high expectations must be the pump.

Want manners? Expect them. Insist on them. If you can, arrange family lunches. If you can’t, expect pupils to at least sit when they eat. Pleases and thank yous must be the norm – make polite discourse an expectation, not an aspiration. Train them. They’re children, they need to learn. They might hate it to start with, but they’ll get better. Most of us learned to eat our greens, didn’t we? Show pupils what do to and insist, insist, insist.

Whatever a school chooses, however, has to be absolutely supported from above. There may well be grey areas, but these are black and white in public. The point is, whatever a school chooses to do should be simple to enforce, easily and consistently explained to pupils and parents, and supported at all times from above.


The next post is on classroom practice.

Behaviour is shit: ideology

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At this year’s Education Festival at Wellington, I spoke to rather hot and sweaty room about why behaviour is so difficult to talk about, why we overcomplicate matters, and what we can do about it. Thanks to everyone who packed themselves in – not sure H&S would have been keen.

What follows is the first part of the talk, on ideology. The second and third parts, on policy and classrooms, will follow in the coming days are now online.

You can find the slides here.


Behaviour is shit. It’s shit to talk about, because we disagree with each other all the time, even about single words (I’m looking at you, ‘O’ word), and because someone always feels like a failure – “Oh, 9Y3? They’re always lovely with me.” Behaviour is shit because it’s hard to implement policies which are successful. We put in lots of rules, and children don’t follow them, some teachers choose to not follow them, and parents kick off, even when they’ve signed up to follow them. We can’t win. And behaviour is often shit in classrooms, but we don’t like to admit it. In fact, we’re so used to having to deal with behaviour in our classrooms (and where was that on the PGCE?) that we believe there must be some magic bullet. “What can I do to stop Carly Carrot smacking Jaydeen Jam-Jar in the face every lesson?” I mean, really: if we’ve got to that situation, where we have to ask those questions, then we’re in trouble.

None of the above needs to be the case, however. We don’t need to disagree on the ideology if we can agree on what we want. We don’t need to have a quadruple-form, Brazil-style bureaucracy to make sense of overcomplicated behaviour policies. And there are some things we can do to help minimise the chances of poor behaviour appearing in our classrooms.

So, before going any further, let me set out my stall. Hopefully this will make it clear where I’m coming from.

  1. I believe a calm environment is the best in which to learn. I am fully aware that different subjects will require chatter and collaboration, but this can be calm: we really shouldn’t be worried that little Vernon Victim will again be locked in the sports cupboard, or that any food-tech session is really an exercise in ‘dodge-toast’.
  2. We’ve misunderstood the notion of relationships. These should be built on respect, not pandering to the whims of a child. We’re the experts. We’re the adults. We’re not circus animals, or second-rate nannies. The curriculum should be what engages, not the method of delivery. Let’s wow children with our acumen and build relationships around a respect for learning so that, for genuine want of a better phrase, it’s cool to be a nerd.
  3. I don’t have a problem with the word ‘obedient‘. Complaining of some Zamyatin-esque ‘We’ army of child-bots, obeying.commands.in.mechanical.synchronicity. is as lazy as it is wilfully dismissive of a loving teacher or parent’s aim: to help their child be the best they can in a safe environment. I want and need children to do what I say, because I happen to have a clue what I’m doing.

Behaviour is the cornerstone of the culture we create and respond to, and that culture either infects or cures, depending on how we tend to it.

The vast majority, I’m certain, agree that great behaviour is vital for success, however we describe it. There are, of course, a few wacky outliers who think behaving well is tantamount to bending over for The Man, but on the whole we want children to behave well.

But why? Why is behaviour important? Is it so children will grow into people who can excel in society? Is it, on the other hand, so they challenge society? And in that case, what is society, what do we want it to be, and how far are we from that utopia? And whose utopia – Thomas More’s? These views wish to create a better society, but have fundamental differences. Is behaviour intended to create an alt-right, neo-con, neo-lib, Daily Mail, lizard-king, evil-Tory future? Some people, if you believe Facebook comments, actually believe this. This kind of Wonderland-philosophy leads us down rabbit-holes to anger over all sorts of things which, really, are distracting from just getting on with teaching children. It creates allusions and illusions: “I don’t want my children to be obedient! What if there’s a paedophile?”, etcetera. Even the word ‘compliant’ becomes a challenging word.

Now I get – really I do – the reasons for reductio ad adsurduming every point. It is important to question our stances and beliefs. But the kind of stance where strict teachers and schools and ideologies are straightforwardly assumed to be doing children a disservice is intellectual posturing, and more often than not has the faint whiff of reductio ad Hitleruming.

Even if we can agree on what we want, how do we achieve this? Should we let children decide for themselves? Are we involving the community? Should we give children democratic accountability? Or should we tell them how to behave? Does this boil down to a list of rules and consequences, a do-this do-that, ethos? And if so, how many rules? Interestingly, even Summerhill has rules and consequences, though these are set by the children. But are they ready to make that decision? We’re back to the first point again.

Finally, what is great behaviour – what does it actually look like? Who makes the decisions about great behaviour? Again, is this a school decision or is the community involved? Do we want a ‘nanny state’, or lots of mini-nanny states, an economy of nanny states from which the consumer may choose? Is it a quiet class or a silent class? Do we want silence just in the classroom? How much do we expect from ‘these kids’?

Again, these questions might have some validity but they cloud the real issue: children come to school to learn, and so we need to give them the best environment in which to do so. We want them to be happy, but I see no reason why – and have no evidence of – children being unhappy in a strict environment in which they have greater opportunities to be successful.

At my school, Torquay Academy, the behaviour was, before a whole host of changes were put in place by a new principal three-years ago, bad. Bad by, I would hope, anyone’s standards. And so, one of the first things that changed was the school’s approach to behaviour.

The Ofsted report from June 2016, in which Torquay Academy was deemed ‘Good’ in all areas, is very clear:

Senior leaders have placed great emphasis on improving pupils’ behaviour since the previous inspection. The successful strategy has meant that pupils start the day entering the building in a calm manner. They conduct themselves around the buildings politely, showing respect towards others. Pupils arrive at lessons ready to learn. This good behaviour demonstrates pupils’ pride in being part of a caring community.

Indeed, Steve Margetts, principal, on the school’s Ofsted page goes further:

Ofsted has visited us three times since I joined in January 2014.  Their most recent visit was in June 2016.  You can read the report in full by following the link below, however I feel the first two paragraphs sum up the essence of the report and the key messages for me:

  • Pupils, staff and governors take pride in being part of Torquay Academy. Pupils view the school as a ‘real community’.
  • Inspired by the leadership of the principal, senior leaders have brought about rapid improvements to pupils’ behaviour, the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievement.

The inspection before that was in March 2015, it was a one day no-notice inspection that focused upon behaviour. I was very pleased that the inspector concluded that “Leaders and managers have taken effective action to improve behaviour and secure consistently positive attitudes to learning”.

I am a firm believer that strong discipline underpins the effective running of a school enabling all students to learn in a positive atmosphere. Ofsted wrote “Academy leaders, under the direction of the Principal, successfully implement ‘zero tolerance’ in managing students’ behaviour. This includes insisting that students wear the correct uniform, arrive to lessons on time and do not chew gum, wear headphones or use bad language. Leaders have a high profile. They chat to students, inspire everyone to keep the campus free from litter and encourage students quickly into lessons. Students appreciate that the Principal knows them all by name and shows an interest in how they are getting on in their work and behaviour. Staff report how they welcome academy leaders’ immediate support in underpinning the academy behaviour policy”.

What’s really important here, and why I point this out, is that there was not, and is not, an ideological drive behind the new approaches. We don’t sit in a lair in Kent’s Cavern belching out phrases like “zero tolerance”. The school simply decided that behaviour was poor and needed to rapidly improve, and thus implemented simple policies in which to ensure that happened. And it has, even in the short two years I’ve been at school. The school has become very traditionalist, but this is the reaction to previous problems.

Children do not always know how to behave because they are children.

Even the most lovely, polite children make mistakes. That’s part of growing up. Whilst making mistakes can be useful (although I question this here), this is only the case when there is guidance. Allowing children to fail and telling them that failure is important often leads to mediocrity – let’s, right from the off, make the culture one of success and calm and obedience. Of course children will push boundaries, but this does not mean that we allow them to. We’re the adults, and in many places our schools are, to borrow a phrase from a past principal of mine, the last bastions of society. And so we have to tell children how to behave, to show them and model this for them. This means training them in pleases and thank yous and you’re welcomes. No, they might not mean it when we force them to initially, but nor do all children like to eat their greens or brush their teeth – we don’t allow them to get away with this. Eventually the majority, that critical mass, will want to follow the rules because they see how successful they are in their lessons. The rest, that final 10% or so who still kick back, will follow suit because it’ll be uncool to not. But here’s the really important thing: let’s not allow that 10% to dictate what we want and value.

So, here’s the ideology: progressive ideas seek to break down social constructs which humans have built for hundreds of thousands of years. They do so because they reject leaders, hierarchy and heroes whilst simultaneously, and hypocritically, promoting the cause of the individual. But a society made up of individuals working against each other lacks cohesion without a constitution: it’s freedom to rather than freedom from, which for children is confusing and often contradictory. There’s safety in community. There’s also the issue of peer influence. If we want successful, happy children then we need to accept the influence of their environment. We need to accept that approaches which prioritise learning are at the heart of what we do.


The next post is on school policies.

Thanks to Sarah Donarski for the photo.

You’re wrong!

You and I may agree about one thing yet disagree about another. That, in itself, should be uncontroversial enough. That, for some, it isn’t demonstrates to me the weakness of their arguments. My frustration at another’s inability to at least agree on our disagreements without tumbling into verbal scrummage lends energy to both oppositional elements and cheering, jeering onlookers, popping cheerleader popcorn from the safety of the armchair. Debate is often healthy, but sadly pointless if one side is not willing, or able, to listen: I’ve changed my mind on many things at which a 19 year-old me might now grimace. But I’ve done so in the face of reason. And I am still, at bleeding-heart, a liberal lefty, whatever that actually means.

Undoubtedly it is hard to change one’s beliefs in the face of what appears to be another’s subjective reality: Tories are #dicks, Corbynistas are demented and fans of Farron have as much piquancy as a leaf of cress in a Vindaloo. Let’s not get started on the deluded Greens or the UKIPs, eh? A younger me absolutely recognised that one person might have ideas with which I agreed wholeheartedly in spite of their otherwise obvious evil, but that same younger me jumped to melodramatic assertions. I knew it was silly, but militaristic zeal is common in those to whom politics is the lusty spring after winter’s pale misfeature.

The order we inhabit, though, is imagined and malleable, at least to an extent. Our mediaeval forbears did not recognise privacy as we do, for example: single-room, single-storey dwellings offered seclusion only by the perish’d light of the stove. Whatever import we place upon the rise of the Privy Chamber and the water-closet, we now divide and surrender our common ground without a thought. And thus, the material world which we create also reinforces our imagined reality: we value privacy at this point in time. If, at some point, we collectively decide to forgo privacy for communal housing it will be both a result of, and perpetuated by, the architecture itself, among other things. To deny or discredit change is not Luddism, but certainly demonstrates a sociological, historical and philosophical illiteracy. In essence, shit happens, where ‘shit’ is stuff, in modern parlance.

Freeing oneself from the imagined order we inhabit, and therefore moving beyond the echo-chamber, is really bloody hard. To effect change whereby others might agree with us is harder still, as we find ourselves battling against both the subjective reality of our sparring partner and that partner’s social web, something Yuval Noah Harari calls the ‘inter-subjective’:

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. […] Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.¹

Political tribalism, in whatever form it takes or, indeed, regarding whatever it chooses to parade or attack, is an inter-subjective derivative. Most of us believe, whether consciously or otherwise, of certain values with which we’d like to be associated, partly due to imagined orders and myths, the prevalence of which we both perpetuate and are party to: we’re Morpheus, Kevin Flynn or Polystom, but some way short of deus ex machina.

This is why some teachers can support a Tory education manifesto despite its school breakfast numbers being several miles wide of the mark, and why Labour’s promise to scrap tuition fees is praised by progressives in spite of evidence suggesting applications from poorer students have actually risen. We are so often blind to that which we hold dear. Moreover, the language we use, inherited from the inter-subjective, binds us to a dialogue from which we struggle to break free. This is why, perversely, debate is so important: we need to be able to discuss openly and frankly without fear of recourse from those who instinctively rail against the apparently obtuse, whether by claiming insult or adding injury.

More important, perhaps, is to accept questions from those with whom we disagree, and accept these with good grace, even when our initial reaction is astonishment: ridicule begets ridicule, and so on. Likewise, the questions we ask of one another would benefit from a focus on the subject at hand, without scornful ornamentation. Think, ‘How does your previous opposition to grammar schools square with your support for the Conservatives?’, as opposed to ‘You’re banned from my school, you far-right scum.’ Such questions as the former are more likely to result in meaningful discussion.

Of course, those who proclaim the latter, whether coming from the self-proclaimed left or right, and whether to that outrageous degree or in somewhat less inflammatory terms, might not be ready or willing to discuss facts, whether yours or theirs. For these I have no magic bullet, less so a Roswell on which they can gorge. Patience, I suppose, might offer some hope. Maybe even education. Maybe not. Some people are just dicks.


1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p.132.

Teachers: don’t write for the T*S

You write a blog. It’s maybe controversial, perhaps funny, certainly topical. It attracts a few more hits than normal, probably because you’ve put ‘marking’, ‘Ofsted’, ‘learning styles’ or ‘Tory’ in the title. It’s deliberate clickbait, and you know it – or you do now – but it’s your clickbait. Hit bait. Count ’em up.

And then comes the message: Hi, can we DM you about something?

Oooh, it’s the T*S! Look, the international education magazine wants to ask little old you about whatever. Could it be the blog? The DM follows. It is about the blog! They want to repost it on their site! World fame, a book deal and a rocketing of Twitter followers awaits.

Your piece is published. There it is, your name, on the site. Take a screenshot and put it on Facebook so mum and dad can see how you’ve now made it. Can you now put ‘T*S columnist’ in your Twitter bio? You’ll probably be offered Deputy Head jobs! Goodbye, classroom teaching; hello, swanky dinners and glitzy presentations. Never mind the cost, this is edu-glamour.


I wrote a piece which was published on T*S a couple of years ago. It was a joke piece, and I should have known better. After a week or so, I found myself telling impressed colleagues that it wasn’t a great blog, that it was a joke, and that I’d have rather they’d publish one of my half-decent pieces about actual important stuff. Alas.

They, our pearly resource’d, Monopoly emperors, who monetise our thoughts under contentious, red-top headlines, are not out to share great ideas. Do not be fooled. If your piece is clickable beware their razzle-dazzle, inky jaws.

Now, I am not of the opinion that just because the vast majority of what is published on the T*S is total crap, they therefore must have no interest in what actually happens in classrooms and are only in the game for the hits, baby. But if I were to be of this opinion I might point to the huge number of poorly written, outrageously headlined and frankly stupid articles which appear just as furore over the last suspiciously oppositional toilet-read has died down.

There are of course great pieces on there, but given the amount published one would expect this due to the sheer weight of numbers. A recent piece from Nick Rose, is fantastic, as is the output of the wonderful Michael Tidd. However, the amount of articles citing nothing but the title’s neon straw-man as evidence is so widespread that I simply do not have the time to parody them any more. (By the way, in order to save you some time from commenting on this, yes, that final point was, of course, facetious).

Yeah, more people might read your piece, and yeah, your gran is going to frame it having accidentally signed up to a year’s subscription. But ask yourself this: why do they want you to write for them? There are plenty of decent publications out there which, whilst having to gain attention because, y’know, readers, manage to do so with a degree of honesty. Every publisher has to make money, but not all do this with such apparent click-mongering. Teachers and bloggers: don’t write for the T*S.

I am aware this blog is also click-bait. Hopefully The Guardian will pick it up.

Can you guess what’s in my head?

An English lesson. 

An extract from a novel sits in front of the pupils. Words, perhaps unfamiliar, are highlighted. The teacher asks, ‘What other words can you think of that mean the same thing?’ The pupils either respond reluctantly, and with poor examples, or not at all. They don’t know many synonyms, if any. Or, they’re not aware of similarities between words which they do know and the new vocabulary.

A history lesson.

A piece of art, showing two men standing with lots of alien goods, is projected. The teacher asks, ‘What do you think the artist was trying to say about the early C16 based on what you can see?’ The pupils’ responses? ‘Everyone had weird guitars.’ ‘They had invented globes.’ ‘There were giant, slanty-skulls in the C16.’

A science lesson.

A Bunsen burner, aflame, stands atop the teacher’s desk. Using tongs, the teacher places a test tube containing a substance, unknown to the pupils, into the flame. ‘What might happen to this substance when heated?’, the teacher asks. ‘Burn!’, they all say.

A music lesson.

‘Here’s a piano’, says the teacher. ‘How do you think you play Cantaloupe Island?’ ‘What’s a “cantaloupe”?’, the pupils ask.

A French lesson.

‘How do you think you say “I would like a burger on Saturday with my friends” in Portuguese?’, asks the teacher. ‘Miss, this is a French lesson’, a bewildered pupil replies. ‘I know, but guess what’s in my head!’

£2 for your integrity

Tags

Wow. Only £2 for a Final Solution word search. Could it be true? Yes. After a quick, soul-destroying word search search I found these bad boys.

At last, a Bin Laden word search!

Who wouldn’t want to start their Topical Tuesdays tutorial activity with a Syrian Civil War word search?

What I particularly like about this one is the image of the Klan member at the top. In my best Homer Simpson drool-voice: Mmmm, appropriate.

Clearly this is the Bin Laden extension activity.

This is, as the author states, ‘designed for the new AQA A level’. A level. FFS.

“Oh look, there’s Anne Frank, from that film we watched with the girl from Game of Thrones in it. And the guy from Taken!’

Why read Miller when you can take this mighty test?

Seriously. It’s not okay to sell resources. And it’s certainly not okay to sell these.

Stand still

Being light on my feet has its advantages: tigers, trucks and tyrannosauruses alike tend to trip awkwardly when trying to trap me in their teeth, tyres and tiny talons. I simply skip away. Being light on my feet in the classroom, however, is perhaps a disadvantage.

Like many, I pace when I talk. I get excited, and I just can’t hide it. But there’s little worse, I think, than watching an orator pace unnecessarily. It’s distracting, and implies a lack of confidence, a confidence to just stand still and address one’s audience squarely. Just as when we talk with purpose, so too we should move with purpose.

I’ve worked really hard to stand definitely: if a pupil front right is talking, I move front-left so I can see the whole class; if I’m explaining I stand front and centre as the focus; if we’re discussing an idea on the board I stay to my right, meaning I can point to something with my left hand, and gesture and write with my right. This ain’t no rocket-science, but it’s not something we’re told about when training. I’ve certainly never seen this sort of thing on an observation form. Perhaps it should be?

Standing still is authoritative. It demands attention. It exudes confidence. The gestures we use, whether by choice or accident of habit, tell our pupils something about our ability to explain and direct. These little things are important.

Anyway, today I observed a PGCE science teacher and gave him one piece of advice: stand still. He admitted that he moves a lot, but unlike at the AA, the first step in changing your practice is to change your practice. Deliberately changing an aspect of what we do, especially when this contradicts a seemingly embedded behaviour such as being light of foot, is hard. It takes discipline and focus. That discipline is worth the effort, however, if only because other traits then become easier to control.

Give it a go. Stand still