You can prove anything with facts

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I often find myself telling history students that the truth isn’t always what matters, and that often it’s the stories people believed which stoked the fires of history. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that many of the plans of revolutionary France to invade England were totally bonkers: what matters is that the English were very afraid. And it doesn’t matter if some Nazi slogans were actually communist: what matters is that Göbbels used them more effectively. I’m not (before you write in) at all telling children lies. What I’m trying to do is say, “Look, we know x and y but these people thought z, and that’s why this happened. We need to have both in our heads: to know what happened and yet why people didn’t think this.” Often I’m then asked something along the lines of, “But if the facts were available why didn’t people believe them?” To which I respond, “The thing is, you can prove anything with facts, but facts aren’t always comfortable: people don’t necessarily want to hear facts – they want to be comforted, especially if the facts say something either wildly unexpected or demoralising.”

Now, chew over the morals of that if you like, but both white lies and national security exist to comfort and cajole, whether rightly or wrongly. In 1970 the Marxist government of Salvador Allende took power – democratically – in Chile. A year later US President Richard Nixon publicly reassured South Americans that for the US to interfere in Chile would have dire consequences, and yet the CIA did just that: from financing opponents to an attempted coup, the US tried very hard to covertly destabilise Allende’s regime. When, in 1973, Allende died (apparently committing suicide with an AK-47, which seems to be a particularly violent way to go) as part of General Pinochet’s coup, both Nixon and Henry Kissinger openly welcomed the outcome. This, however, begged questions about the CIA’s role, especially once Pinochet began to strongly assert his authority. Historians still debate how much support the CIA gave to Pinochet, but the feeling is that previous destabilising actions must therefore mean that Pinochet was militarily and financially supported. The facts do not, and will not, matter: that the US had conspired in economic warfare against Chile in order to create the conditions for a coup is enough. And yeah, it seems likely that the CIA actions caused more problems, but to commentators of a particular world-view Pinochet’s coup speaks for itself: it is, for some, but one event in a long line of violent US imperialist actions.

Invasion1805

Apparent French plans to invade England in 1805. Note the original design of the Channel Tunnel.

Staying with the US, when Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union in 1960, President Eisenhower was told that given the altitude neither the plane nor pilot could have survived. Eisenhower thus insisted that a weather aircraft had simply wandered off course, before Soviet Premier Khrushchev delightedly showed off photos of not only the wreckage of the plane, but the photographs it had taken and Powers, alive and well. Eisenhower’s lie had serious consequences for US-Soviet relations but, actually, his own citizens were more than happy to be using advanced technology to spy on their mortal enemies. Again, the facts meant little because the narrative of American Cold War perspective argued for US superiority and moral righteousness. And when Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion failed a year later the President’s approval ratings went up, despite stating that US forces would not be used to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba. Facts – that the US was putting down a popular uprising, precisely as the USSR had done in Hungary five years earlier – mattered not given anti-Soviet sentiment and a fear of a Caribbean domino effect.

So when, this week, Kevin Roberts was put on leave as chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi it mattered little that what he said was probably more clumsy than outrageously misogynistic. The original interview is, of course, far more nuanced than the reporting suggests, although Roberts perhaps does himself few favours when he says “I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.” This sort of comment opens up all sorts of possible criticisms, many of which go too far, but – again – it’s clumsy rather than icy gender bias. But the facts, in this case what was actually said, don’t necessarily matter to those with a particular issue to push. “Yeah, he might have said that but by also saying ‘I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem’, he means that he doesn’t want any women to take his job, the dinosaur!” But that isn’t what he said, is it? A bit of a leap, I think, has to be made in order to take offence: by all means ask him to clarify, but let’s not train our ire using inferences and latent, jack-in-the-box anger alone.

Sexism and gender bias is still a huge problem for many women and stating, or implying, that we’ve made huge strides in terms of equality doesn’t negate that fact: too few women (apparently 30.5% if this is correct) are senior executives, though at Saatchi and Saatchi that number is 32%. This is still too small, but given that 65% of the company’s staff is female it’s not outrageous to suggest that the number of women in the top jobs will continue to rise. Let’s hope it does, but let’s also not misrepresent facts to argue a point which was never made in the first place. Okay, you’re annoyed: fine – why? Right, let’s look at that particular issue.

And this is, of course, what’s happened to Michaela Community School over the last few days. A letter, of which we know little, has been used to attack principles and teachers alike in a frenzied episode of #NAZIFREESCHOOL hatred. The facts are in reality a little obscure, and they should probably stay that way. But, then again, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you? The wonderful eduaction which these very lucky children have is of no importance to those with an axe to grind and my, there must be some dangerously sharp axes out there with the story unfortunately appearing at the same time as the genuinely awful news about Kings Science Academy. If you’re anti-academy/free school then no matter what happens facts just get in the way of a good old rant.


When I joined my previous school I was, probably, a little cocky. I’ve written elsewhere about how much I learned from both my own mistakes and the challenges I faced. When I left, a year ago, a colleague said to me, “Just be aware that you’ve not brought everyone with you. People still distrust you, and you know can come across as arrogant sometimes.” I laughed – she was right. And I think – I hope! – I have changed for the better in that respect. I’ve been far less radical this year, at least in terms of my conversations with colleagues. Because in any job you have to be aware of the environment, and breathe in the atmosphere a little first. And however frustrating it is, facts alone are often not enough.

Your Top Five

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I wanted to thank you for reading anything at all I’ve had to say this academic year. My glorious assistant, Samantha, has crunched all the numbers and aggregated the scores to come up with the top five blogs I’ve posted since September 2015.* If you’re at all interested in what my favourite blogs were (usually those which no-one reads) then I’ll upload them soon.

5. Questions are shit. This is the write-up from my talk at the 2016 Festival of Education. It’s a theme I’ve touched on a few times now and not one which necessarily goes down well. Having said that, we really must always be aware that saying something everyone agrees with might not necessarily be saying anything of worth at all.

4. How do we create meaningful conversations? Here’s another write-up, this time from Pedagoo Plymouth. It’s also, weirdly, about not using questions. Maybe being anti-question is my ‘thing’.

3. You don’t think it’s a good idea to talk to children? This is about a ridiculous classroom ‘technique’ that rests upon the absurd assumption that talking to the whole class is a bad idea.

2. Wasting time. Because teachers do this. All the time.

1. Whole-class marking. It isn’t really a surprise that this is the big-one, the main event. I sometimes think about putting ‘marking’ in to every blog title, just for the hits, y’know? Just for the lolz. Actually, I’m speaking about this at TLT16, but it’s too late to sign up now so tough luck. You’d better read this instead.

Other pre-September 2015 blogs are available.

Have we come to expect poor behaviour?

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I was going to end the academic year here, but have decided instead to finish with this post given a few discussions on social media over the last couple of days. 

I very much welcome the Developing behaviour management content for initial teacher training (ITT) report from Tom Bennett. As much as I share some of the reservations put forward by Alex Ford, it’s high-time that teacher training gave more than a passing glance at the great big elephant throwing gum around the room. I recall a fellow trainee asking, “Yeah, but what if they still won’t be quiet? What then?”, and receiving the most unsatisfactory response of “They’ll eventually listen.”

I wonder, though, if there’s a bigger problem here, a larger, more daunting elephant, squatting nonchalantly over the entirety of education, waving its trunk in ever more aggressive swings, only to be further ignored by the majority of people in education: have we come to expect poor behaviour?

I mean, has poor behaviour become that normalised? Because, frankly, it has for me. I’ve become so used to being told to fuck off over the years that I have no eyelids left to bat. I, and we, just expect it. And that is a massive problem, isn’t it? That we know that from certain classes and from certain children we will face verbal abuse and have any chances of learning totally ruined by the same few every week. And I get that this isn’t a new thing, but a history of poor behaviour does not make continuing poor behaviour okay. My issue is not that it happens (well, it is, but that’s not what I’m arguing here) but that poor behaviour is so commonplace that we think nothing of it, or at least aren’t completely taken aback when Carly Carrot refuses to sit in her seat because of x, y and z.

When we come to expect poor behaviour from certain children we totally and absolutely let those children down. When we’re happy that Yazmyn is quiet for once, even though her head is on the table, and even if she refuses to answer the exam question, then we’ve failed her. It’s no good to say, “Well, that’s great for her – she normally loudly accuses Keisha of being a slut, so I won’t write her up today.” This relativistic behaviour management approach is totally at odds with any amount of every child mattering: it’s a piecemeal, scorched-earth appeasement that helps no-one.

It’s no coincidence that successful schools have great behaviour. My current school has turned around hugely since a new head teacher refused to accept poor behaviour. So when we blame something elsewhere for poor behaviour then yeah, okay, that might be the cause, but that does not have to be our, and their, lot. What we do in schools can have a lasting effect if our attitude is firm and steadfast. Yes, some of us in certain areas perhaps have it harder, but that does not for one moment mean that we should accept less than the best. Because anything else, any concession to defeat or expectation of poor behaviour is unfair, cynical and elitist.

I’m not saying your standards are lower than mine, but …

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A letter which, had I the courage, could have been written during my first year of teaching. Events described below are real, though I’ve toned them down a little for fear of disbelief. 

Dear Mrs Wardoc,

I just wanted to write to thank you for all your hard work with the two students who have been disrupting my lessons recently. Caitlyn and Jamal’s behaviour choices have, of late, been particularly poor and, as you know, their actions have severely disrupted the learning of others in the class, as well as their own. You were absolutely right to point out that the situations at home – at least for Caitlyn – are really to blame for recent behavioural outbursts and that, as a result, we mustn’t be too harsh on them. I was not aware that Jamal has a younger brother with ADHD: this must be awful for him. I suppose it begs the question as to whether Jamal also suffers from the disorder. It would certainly explain some of his actions, especially his blanket refusal to sit in the seating plan. You were, again, right to suggest that allowing him this small victory might temper some of this poorer behaviour – at least at the start of the lesson! Oh well. What are we to do, eh?

Since returning from their restorative justice sessions, in which they were able to explain their frustrations with my teaching, I have tried ever so hard to accommodate their learning styles into my planning. Inevitably this has led to more work for me, but being an NQT I guess this is what to expect (they told me this would be a hard year!) and if it allows Caitlyn and Jamal to focus for just a few minutes more then I suppose the extra effort is worth it.

As an aside, isn’t it funny that Siana and I  – the two NQTs – have been roomed next to each other at the end of the school? We sometimes joke that it’s as if you’re all trying to ignore us!

I do have one question, however. Is the school certain that this approach, whereby I listen to poorly behaved children’s concerns in order to better teach them (and I assume these conversations are added to their IEPs?), the most effective? And is it fair? I only ask because my uncle – a teacher with many years in the profession – was quite scathing. He reckons that this is really just pandering to their poor behaviour and that it will only worsen their attitude towards authority in the long run. I’m not saying your standards are lower than his, but I do worry a little that we’re allowing poor behaviour to continue without any deference to authority figures. Like I said, I don’t think you’re wrong, but I just wonder why others might have different opinions.

Having said that, times change. My uncle retired recently and so I suppose he was stuck in his ways a little. Children these days are different, now that they have mobile ‘phones and tablets and access to the internet. I guess we have to accept that modern children will simply demand more respect given how connected they are with the world.

Whilst I’m writing this I need to make you aware that the incident with Chloe hasn’t yet been resolved, at least to my satisfaction. You remember I told you about how I caught her and some other Y9s smoking behind the bike sheds – so clichéd, I know! – and that, when I told her to stop she responded by telling me to “fucking jog on”? And you’ll recall, no doubt, the subsequent development? The one where she turned up with her “heavies”, as she put it – older students, I thought, because I didn’t recognise them and they weren’t in school uniform – to tell me that she wouldn’t be grassed on by a “newbie”? Well, rumour has it that these “heavies” were, in fact, local lads who’d walked into school. Their presence and use of language – industrial, is how I’d describe it! – really was quite frightening, especially for my Y7 tutor group who were helping to put up the new Behaviour4Learning display.

Now – again – I’m not saying your standards are lower than mine, but if I were I might suggest that reprimanding Chloe with an after school detention is not really enough. One might suggest – and I’m not, but one might – that this really doesn’t fix the problems, firstly of Chloe’s total defiance and subsequent threatening behaviour, and secondly of strangers walking on to the site.

Given that I was recently attacked as I, foolishly, stepped in to break up a fight between that Y10 boy and a local drug dealer who’d driven up to the Y7 exit, it does surprise me a little that this has been allowed to continue. As I said, I’m not for a moment suggesting that my standards are higher than the school’s, but if I were I’d probably point to this as a safeguarding issue, for both teachers and students. I’m sure the police – who I assume were called – had something to say about this, although the fact that the CCTV is still broken doesn’t help matters.

Anyway, whilst I really don’t want to impinge upon your busy day dealing with some of the terrible behaviour elsewhere in the school, I have been made aware by other union members that this could be a serious matter in the future. Not having a union representative in the school (and I do know why: the school might never open if the old guard had their way!) does mean that I feel a little vulnerable regarding my expectations of school protection from this kind of behaviour.

And finally, whilst I’m on the subject, I really do have to mention Dylan Dodson. For the second time this week Dylan pushed past me in the corridor as I tried to protect a Y8 girl from being hit by his flailing fists, and he did hit me – deliberately – twice in the chest. I completed a Behavioural Incident Form: Serious for this but was a little disappointed to have him arrive at my lesson the next day asking for work as he was internally excluded. Now, I’m not saying this was disrespectful towards me, or even thoughtless on your part, but if I were then I suppose I’d also enquire as to why he hasn’t yet been permanently excluded? After all, this is the second time he’s hit me this week, and I know that Tabatha, in science, was also pushed against the radiator. Again, though, he does have a tough home life and I suppose we have to expect this kind of behaviour. But, then again, if I was saying my standards were higher than the school’s then I’d point towards the argument that we’re the last bastions of civility in a town that’s lost its way; that by allowing this behaviour to continue we’re actually doing a disservice to both Dylan and our local community and that what we expect in this school becomes the future norm for people who tend to not move away as adults.

Again, though, I’m not making this argument. I’m not saying I have higher standards or anything like that, but it does sometimes help to write your ideas down. Do you find that? Every time I do I realise my mistakes, so I suppose this email has been really useful for me, even though it’s a long read for you!

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this. I really do admire the work you do, especially the way NQTs are left to “work out what works”, as you put it recently.

Regards,

Toby

The quick brown lynx chewed through the board wall / Horizons

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Well, you can’t have missed the big news this week. In spite of challenges from an education select committee, the Dallas police department, a mother who cares more about the future than you and, of course, JezWeCan, it’s Flaviu the lynx who’s been keeping children and the elderly awake in sleepy Devon. Yes, we’re under siege down south, and all your fancy London frappuccinos and multiculturalism can’t help us. Doomed, we are. Doomed.

In case you’re a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party and thus have had other things on your mind, the story goes like this. Dartmoor Zoo received a lynx this week, only for it to quickly chew through its enclosure and go AWOL on Thursday. The initial coverage was apocalyptic in its severity: “To what extent has the price of Chinese steel affected Flaviu’s escape plans?” “Is it true that a hoard of extremist literature was found in Flaviu’s enclosure?” “Can you confirm or deny reports that Flaviu may have taken a small child as a bargaining tool?” I jest, but not much. I was, given the grave reporting on BBC Spotlight, momentarily surprised to notice the journalist was not wearing a flak jacket. I mean, they closed the zoo and had a police helicopter out – this was Devon’s answer to The Fugitive.

The next day Spotlight reported that the lynx had been located. After retweeting this the Press Association got in touch with me to find out more. Unfortunately, in response to what I can only assume was the PA’s mistaken belief that I’d replied sarcastically, they’ve since deleted their question.


Now, many of us enjoy the parochialism of local news, the mock solemnity of the provincial grandiose. These small things do matter, but are often presented in a manner more befitting Frank Spencer than Frank Underwood: “Clare Balding visits North Devon”; ‘Park gets new bench”; “Lawn trimmed”. And so that age old question about the extent to which a media outlet reports, makes and influences the news and thus its readership’s opinions perhaps is of greater consequence in rural backwaters, where the time often passes slowly and pleasingly, but also frustratingly.

Ask teachers in these green and pleasant lands what holds their students back and many, if not all, will point to a lack of aspirations, low expectations and claustrophobic horizons. Ilfracombe, the coastal town in which I first taught, sits at the bottom of a huge hill which mirrors the attitudes of so many there: why work at Tesco (half-way up the hill) when you could work at Lidl (bottom of the hill) instead? It was literally as if the A361 hid some kind of aspirational forcefield, a kind of Planet Krikkit road on which only tourists and teachers could travel in both directions. Perhaps that’s why the school faired so poorly as well, sitting, as it does, next to Tesco: the castle on the hill was how the locals referred to us – a deflector shield seemed to be the reality.

And where would children go during half-term? If anywhere it was Barnstaple, all of 12 miles away. Specifically the shopping centre, Green Lanes. “Green Lanes!”, they’d all shout if I mentioned it. “I went there at Easter, Sir!” And in the summer? Exeter. Yup, still in Devon.

At Torquay Academy, where I now teach, there’s a constant focus on looking beyond the horizons, which are dominated by either the granite and heather of Dartmoor or, again, the sea. And it’s tough. It’s tough to persuade children who know no better that there’s something else and it’s out there, especially when they think that where I live – a twenty-minute drive every morning – is really far away. “What, you come from there? That’s well far! Why don’t you move to Torquay?”

And so we have information all over the school about various universities and professions and successful people from Torquay. We even have all Y7s photographed in caps and gowns, calling them the Class of 202x, the year of their graduation: we try to make abnormal normal, the alien an expectation. I noticed Michaela do a similar thing with their lunch-time discussions, focussing on a future which many would not have previously even been aware of. We can’t say if it’s successful yet, but the school certainly feels different to my first, as if children really do want to find that something else beyond those immediate horizons.

We often have to be, and are at Torquay, some of the last bastions of a world of culture and opportunity. That’s why it’s so important to high expectations and energy, because the small towns and villages our children grow up in might not have those. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing on its own – I grew up on the actual moor and have turned out alright – but if we aren’t constantly banging on about the rest of the world then it’s quite possible that many children just won’t know about it. Or maybe children in rural and coastal schools need to take a leaf out of Flaviu’s book?


I realise, of course, that there are inner-city children who have similarly small horizons, though theirs are blocked by concrete and steel. I’ve met children from London and Cardiff and Birmingham who’ve never seen the sea, never met an animal that isn’t a cat or dog and think that milk just “comes in cartons”. 

What I’m looking forward to from Amanda Spielman

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So, she was then she wasn’t, and now she is again: Amanda Spielman will become the next Ofsted chief inspector. If a runaway lynx on Dartmoor and North Korea’s determination to start a nuclear war wasn’t enough to raise your heartbeat today, then perhaps Nicky Morgan’s sucker-punch of a final sentence in this challenging response to Neil Carmichael was. Basically, Neil, you didn’t do your job properly.

Having had the pleasure of meeting her briefly a couple of weeks ago I can attest to the now well-trodden statement that Spielman is very different to Sir Michael Wilshaw. Whether a fan of Wilshaw or not, I reckon we can agree that he didn’t always endear himself to those people and institutions in whose interests he acted: although at times misquoted, he did attempt to change Ofsted for the better, succeeding in places and failing in others. Andrew Old, among others, critiques his reign much more elegantly than me here.

But back to Spielman. There are, of course, many things we might all hope for from a new chief inspector, and I suspect the most tantalising prospect is that of Ofsted’s potential influence on workload. Whilst Sean Harford et. al. have done much work to promote Ofsted’s new approach to inspections – specifically regarding marking and teaching styles – the very fact that a ‘myth busting‘ document has to exist testifies to the previous influence and fear that an Ofsted culture helped create in many schools. And so I happily read Spielman’s letter, dated 3rd July, to Neil Carmichael, the Chair of the Education Committee, in which she said this when defining her vision of the Ofsted model under her leadership:

I explained to you much of what I think that means in practice: […] building stronger feedback loops that make sure that Ofsted truly understands its effects on the systems it inspects, and reacts when necessary.

One problem that I’ve noticed with recent Ofsted communication is the failure to take responsibility when schools crank up the pressure as a result of either previous policies, miscommunication or misunderstandings. To be fair, Ofsted has made clear its intention to rid itself of ‘rogue inspectors’ and those who claim to sell Ofsted insider knowledge. This, however, has not been entirely successful, at least if my social media timelines and conversations with colleagues in other schools is anything to go by.

Ofsted has, on occasion, chosen to step back from these criticisms, proclaiming that it’s not their fault if workload has increased: “See the document!”, they say. Well, yes, and in my previous school I did, to no avail. At other times Harford has generously stepped in to state that Ofsted are not looking for x, y and z. What I took from Spielman’s letter, however, is that Ofsted must take greater responsibility for the effects that years of prescribed teaching methods have had on the profession. After all, many of those in leadership positions worked at the chalk-face during the years of fancy-footwork lessons, graded observations and mass-deception. I’m not blaming these people at all – those are the conditions under which they taught and were trained. I was, too.

Now’s the time, however, to really ditch the nonsense. Now’s the time for Ofsted to play a leading role in changing cultures, not just pointing to a handy PDF. Now’s the time for Ofsted to, as Spielman says, understand the effects its decisions have in schools and on teachers.

What knowledge does a school’s data manager need?

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It cannot have escaped your attention that the person most likely to be in charge of a school’s data is someone who likes spreadsheets. And with this being the case, you’ve probably also noticed that the other people who talk about data, dancing excitedly around the office with a new request (to which, of course, they already know the answer), also like spreadsheets. These are the Excel Warriors, hewn from hyperlinked formulas, conditional formatting and years spent trawling support.office.com. They’re also the first people who know how to create a SIMS letter containing every behavioural incident, level and change of hair colour for Rashida Radish in just 900 clicks. These people have incredibly useful skills, and they perform a job which many of us are at least not interested in, if at all capable of.

But: collating – and then homogenising and presenting – whole-school data for a particular audience does not denote comprehension. Even the most well-designed spreadsheet, resplendent in RAG and layered with various malleable formulae, only implies certain characteristics. These are then often dangerously misinterpreted by either said data managers or various other interested parties who can, and do, manipulate that which is presented before us for their own means, whether benign or otherwise.

Now, this is always going to happen to some extent. But what if those data managers were to actually understand something about the data’s origins? For example, it’s taken as read in most schools – I hope – that the data for MFL at KS3 will look much worse than other subjects because so few children studied French, or whatever, at anything other than a most basic, au revoir-bonjour level in primary schools. MFL teachers complain, understandably, but any sensible leadership types do not for a moment ask stupid questions like, “None of your Y7s are above L2, despite 85% of them having an end of year target of L5 or above, and yet in English 95% are at L5 – what’s going on?” Actually, I know these conversations do happen, but hey – WTF, yeah?

So that’s one thing. Humanities and PE teachers also complain that their targets are based on English and Maths and that means not-a-lot when you’re trying to teach Jamie to catch a ball. And what about the arts? Well, exactly. A panoply of misunderstood data within schools is bad enough. What if national data is also homogenised and presented poorly? Hello KS2 results! David Didau, Steve Adcock and Tom Sherrington have written here, herehere and here in the last few days about whole-school data, zero-sum games and the danger of throwing babies out with bathwater. And yeah, these are problems which we all encounter and are familiar with, so I’m not really saying anything new so far.

What I would like to see, then, is a better understanding of data at subject level, better communication between data managers and subject leaders and a recognition of the limits of comparing chalk and cheese. I, frankly, rejoiced at the end of levels, but the last thing I’d want would be someone with no understanding of how history works telling me that my data must be collected and presented in a catch-all-subjects spreadsheet, complete with a school-wide, parent friendly scale. Because that wouldn’t make sense: it’s one thing to look at GCSE assessment objectives – which in history are always the same, just with slightly different weightings – but it’s another to put all subjects on the same scale for ease of analysis and departmental comparison. Why? Because, just as subjects are different so it follows that assessments also differ, and thus comparing two might actually muddy the waters for comparison even further.

Take English and history: pretty similar, no? Both require knowledge, of history or texts; both require analysis and evaluation; both require good levels of extended written English. And yet it is the very knowledge required in each subject which will make the assessment requirements that much different: whilst an English teacher might well, and should, teach a little of dustbowl, depressed 1930s America in context before reading Of Mice and Men, a history teacher will instead look the causes and changes during the 1930s when considering the same period, perhaps pausing to nod at Steinbeck as an interpretation. And thus whilst the assessment objectives might appear similar for these examples what’s actually required of students is very different: one might be an analysis of the relationship between the principal characters placed in historical context with the weighting heavily tilted towards textual analysis; the other might require students to make inferences from a conversation between those characters about the period for a particular social class. These are not two sides of the same coin, but two different coins: the procedural knowledge – or skills, if you must – might appear similar, yes. But these skills originate from different domains and so are performed differently, using distinct knowledge and methods of application.

And so, to the crux of the matter: does your data manager understand these differences? At a surface level, probably. But enough to present the data in context of itself only? Because sitting the MFL data for the first term next to maths probably won’t look great, and that can lead to all sorts of gloating, sneering and gossip – and don’t tell me that doesn’t happen.

Now, if the answer to the above question is a fat No with a capital “N” then that probably isn’t that person’s fault. Not all data managers are, or were, teachers: some are the guy who does cover, whilst others are whoever’s around in admin at the time. One school I worked in didn’t replace their data guy, instead shoving the role onto the pastoral lead’s plate just because, and I’m quoting now, “Well, he’s good at Excel isn’t he? He’s an IT teacher. It’ll be easy.” So what am I arguing for? Better communication and a recognition that homogenising data for the ease of presentation can only lead to poor questions being asked, both in terms of accountability and of what we can do better for our students. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Testing isn’t evil, from Teach Meet Devon

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On Thursday night I gave a short talk at Teach Meet Devon, held at Tavistock College. Below is a short summary of my thoughts on testing. I owe a great deal of gratitude to Daisy Christodolou in particular for her superb blogs on assessment. 

Testing isn’t evil, but we like to think it is. Tests appear to be these monstrous, dehumanising, homogenising Borg-like Things From Planet Kinderhate!, their child-catching, freedom-sucking slimy, angular arms always looking for more ways to scratch tears into human children’s puppy-dog eyes. We have this weird, innate fear of tests, as if they’re some concrete-block, minimalist Soviet hangover, more Zemyatinian than Orwellian.

There’s the accusation that tests don’t tell us about the whole child, whatever that is, and that they’re artificial, that tests have no relevance in real life because you wouldn’t take a test in real life. Apart from the times when you might. But that’s not the point, is it? Tests don’t show what children can do in context, with real-world problems, like bringing down an international bank, winning an election or surviving a nuclear explosion.

Also, tests are just plain mean, aren’t they (and not just for the children)? I mean, you can’t love children properly if you test them, right? Tests are scary and make little Sufi and Barry cry until they’re sat, forlorn, in big ol’ pools of broken dreams. After all, we know what our children can do and how dare some test come along, with all its ink and questions-to-make-you-think, and dare to know the little unicorn-chasers better than us? Nonsense. Even Mary Bousted of the ATL said that tests disadvantage children from difficult homes, and she’s never said anything silly!

But! There’s an inconvenient truth: teacher assessment is biased, and you can read all about it here. If you can’t click the link because you’ve suddenly contracted leprosy then the essential problem is that knowing our pupils is the problem: rather than failing to see the wood for the trees, we’re consumed by the whole forest and can’t even see the bloody floor.

Also, and lots of people have written about this (so just go Google it, yeah?) apart from teachers being TIRED and looking for EASY ANSWERS (#5minutemarkingplan), how many of us have argued for hours over what’s a 14/20 opposed tgo a 13/20 in the controlled assessment? Because I have. I’ve had lead examiners tell me, in confidence of course, that a CA will probably get an A* when I don’t think it’s worth a D. I mean, what? Who’s right? (Well, I think I am but that’s the problem right there.)

The thing about tests – at least simple, short answer tests – is that they avoid these flaws inherent in teacher assessment. In fact (long sentence warning), a little birdie tells me that that many exams boards would quite happily abandon the hoopla-rubrics for multiple choice questions, or even comparative judgement, if it weren’t for the fact that teachers are so wedded to their own high opinions of their own often terrible ability to assess their own pupils.

One thing we’re introducing across the board at Torquay Academy next year are knowledge organisers. Again, lots has been written about these (see here and here), but one of the main benefits is that these can be used for frequent, low-stakes testing and self-quizzing. Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 21.42.46The general idea is that a KO will have the skeletal knowledge required for a particular topic. In history I can add timelines, key people, key words and even maps. Maybe in art there’d be a chronology of genres, whilst in PE we might have diagrams of movements.

Ok, fine – but what has this got to to with testing? Well, if each piece of information is numbered then that makes quick tests and self-quizzing very easy. I tend to start most lessons now with a key word test in the original KO order followed by a couple of jumbled versions to make sure those 100%s aren’t a result of knowing the order.

This is such a quick win: the knowledge goes in, children see immediate success and are able to pinpoint what it is they don’t know. I can also easily create MCQs from this KO. Joe Kirby has written a very thorough explanation here, so go read. 

But, some subjects need pupils to write, right? And writing, especially in my subject, creates lots of marking and, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, we raelly can’t be sure just how subjective we’re being. So what else can we do?

Having read a bit about comparative judgement recently, and visited Johnny Porter at Michaela School, I’d highly recommend suspending your disbelief and trying this out. 

Again, you can read about this here and here, but I’ll outline the basic principle below. Essentially, by comparing two essays side-by-side we, as humans who spend a hell of a lot of time making snap judgements like that bunny looks a safer bet to hang out with than the ravenous tiger, can make very quick and surprisingly accurate judgements about which of the two is better. By doing this a lot, and by getting colleagues involved as well, we end up with a less time-consuming, less-biased and more accurate idea of what our students can do and where they really sit.

This doesn’t alleviate the pain of actually having to write something, but it does make our lives much easier. And the best thing? There’s even a website which promises no more marking

So, who said testing has to be evil?

Questions are shit

This post follows from my presentation at the 2016 Festival of Education at Wellington College.

Toby, you can’t say that! Oh, but I can. The initial title (Questioning: bringing down the totem and laying new foundations) was pretentious and unnecessary, so – given the events of Thursday evening/Friday morning – I decided to go with Questions are shit. Yes, its deliberately provocative and yes, it got a laugh. I don’t mean all questions are shit, but I think many are and mainly because of this: too often we ask the wrong questions of the wrong people for the wrong questions. This, I contend, is shit, and shit questions lead to shit answers which lead to shit consequences.

In this post I’ll focus on three types of shit questions. I have written about some of this previously, so instead of repeating myself I’ll just send you on a little journey of my blog.

1. Questions we ask in lessons are shit.

In July 2015 I asked if questioning was yet another cult. To be clear: I don’t think all questions we ask of children are shit, but I do think that too often we do the work to show how great our questioning is (our QMDs, or Questions of Mass Destruction) whilst Billy Bottom picks his … nose.

Too many of us ask questions because:

  1. Ofsted like it (give it a ‘1’, inspector!) because it shows the school’s investment in CPD and clearly demonstrates evidence (hah!) of student knowledge.
  2. SLTs like it because it’s easy to tick off on the observation sheet: open-ended, interrogative, recall-based, etc.
  3. Students like it because we’re doing all the work.

And so:

  1. I think questioning might be overrated, probably by people who think they’re really ace at it. (I thought I was really ace at it. Actually, I still do, but that’s not the point).
  2. I think questions often waste time that could be better spent telling.
  3. I think questions often show the teacher’s skill off but allow the children to just sit back and watch said teacher perform. Round of applause!
  4. I think that many of us have honed this incredible skill of being able to hew a perfect answer that we want to hear out of even the most reluctant child (as a pony to a carrot) but that this is only a magic trick.
  5. I think that questioning could (and perhaps in some schools it has) become a stick with which to beat teachers.

I think there’s a better way. This post explores my contention that questioning might have become, for some a cult, whilst this post goes into much more detail about how we might create more meaningful conversations with and between children.

2. Student-voice is shit.

We like student-voice type activities because:

  1. Ofsted see that schools care for their students. Can you imagine the copy-and-paste Section 5 report? The school has taken into account pupil views of the canteen and lessons, and as such introduced ‘Monster’ breaks into all lessons in order to both more successfully engage pupils and give them that energy boost that only an unholy amount of taurine and sugar can. Pupils report they are now happier as the energy drinks are 30p cheaper than the local One Stop.
  2. SLTs look like they care. No, look, obviously they do, but I did work in one school which threw the responses in the bin on collection of the paperwork.
  3. Students like it because it appears that we are actually listening to their poorly formed, badly phrased, myopic ideas.

But there are, again, potential problems with these questions.

  1. We create dangerous cultural norms when we ask about certain practices. If we ask about marking then our students think that marking is paramount; if we ask about engagement, grades and levels, homework and targets – the same: we, essentially, shit on our own doorstep. The first and third parts of this post deal with this problem.
  2. If the questions aren’t valid then nor are the answers. Just because they’re easily quantifiable – and spreadsheetable – doesn’t mean they have validity. Heather Fearn has expertly covered the issue of validity and reliability in exams here.
  3. And if the questions aren’t valid, then we have to wonder whether they’ve been asked in order to control a staff by cultivating these cultural norms.

In my previous school we gave out a student survey to find out what they thought about the place. The results were pretty unremarkable: they liked PE and technology but didn’t like writing and homework and languages in Y9; boys wanted to study more wars and Y7s didn’t like strict teachers. When I subsequently asked my tutor group to reflect on their learning that year (not my phrase and not my chosen activity) a very bright young lady responded that her books were not marked regularly. The conversation went something like this:

When you say ‘not marked’, what exactly do you mean?
My teacher clearly hasn’t marked my book.
But I haven’t marked your book in ages and you’ve just written one of the best essays in the year group.
Yes, but you’ve clearly read my book and then given advice to help me improve.
So when you say ‘marking’ do you mean actual red pen or being given an opportunity to reflect and improve your work, often through conversations? Because there seems to be a difference.
Yes, reflecting. With some teachers we’re given a chance to improve and with others we just move on.
OK, and so what has it got to do with marking?
Um, well I’m not sure. But I’d like my work to be read.
Ah, so you want your work to be recognised so that you can improve. 
Yes, if I’ve done it I want to know what I need to do next.
So is that the same as your book not being marked?
No, but that’s the question that I was asked.

Ah! That’s the question she was asked. I didn’t see the survey until they’d completed it but I did wonder if ‘Are your books marked regularly?’ would come up. Students were also asked how well they felt they were progressing in each subject. In history 90% felt that they were making excellent progress. But those same students were saying that their books weren’t marked. See the problem?

So what can we do instead? I think we need to ask about what really matters: their subject knowledge (requiring a subject specialist’s questions); the behaviour; their pride; their desire to improve; about the thing itself, what they’re actually doing.

But, beware! These answers will not fit easily into a big spreadsheet. We can’t all be Johnson from Peep Show. If we want to know more about what students think then we need to accept that the resulting data will be messy. We also have to recognise that, as children, most will simply not know enough to be able to make informed decisions about their learning. They’ll be able to talk about behaviour and routines, but don’t ask them about levels and grades and progress – they don’t understand this and, perhaps, there’s an argument that they don’t need to.

3. Accountability questions are shit.

We like accountability questions because:

  1. Ofsted like them: they show that SLT and middle leaders and governing bodies are on top of the situation – it’s all under control, even if it doesn’t look like it!
  2. SLTs like them because they can pass the buck. Hey, Mr Sloth was told to do x and he didn’t – we’ve done all we can! And if you’re now, as an enlightened member of a great SLT, very offended then tough: there are too many stories and complaints of this kind of nonsense for me to ignore it. Just because it doesn’t happen in your school or mine doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there: the fight still has to be fought.
  3. Teachers tend to not like them, because PRESSURE.

Look, I don’t think that we all need to inhabit these utopian, free-for-all Steiner Schools with no consequences but I do think that we ask shit questions of people, thus making their lives, their teaching and their students suffer. We want, and need, to check what’s going on in our schools, and so ‘How do you know …’ type questions are understandable, but I also think they’re unimaginative and framed poorly due to time constraints, a lack of intelligence and a misunderstanding of evidence. I’ve about written evidence previously, but the general gist is worth repeating.

Here’s a real conversation that I once had about evidence:

‘The issue that we have, Toby, is that there’s no evidence of your marking in the books for the last six weeks. It’s not since the last essay that you’ve written anything at all.’

‘Well, no – there won’t be. I don’t understand what the issue is.’

‘We need to see that you’ve been marking their books so that there’s evidence that you’re helping them to progress. If we can’t see your comments then how do we know what’s going on in the lesson?’

‘Surely you know what’s going on in the lesson by the quality of what they’ve written? You’ve commented already on how neat their books are and how well they’ve been writing, so I still don’t understand what the issue is.’

‘But you’ve not evidenced that.’ 

‘Isn’t the evidence in the quality of their work? I mean, look at what Rory was writing at the start of the year and look at what he’s writing now – look at the difference. And this is across the board. The evidence is there. If they weren’t getting feedback then they wouldn’t be writing more fluently now than at the start of the year.’

‘But again, Toby, it isn’t clear. You’ve not made clear to me or an Ofsted inspector what you’ve done.’

‘Eh? So it happens by magic, does it? Look, I read their books both during lessons and …’

‘So you could use a verbal feedback stamp to evidence that?’

‘… hang on, that wouldn’t be evidence of the students thinking – that would just be evidence that I had a stamp, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I read their books during lessons and when I’m free. I must do because otherwise I wouldn’t know how to help them improve, which the vast majority have done. There’s your evidence.’

Remember: evidence is the answer to a particular question posed of a particular piece of information, often with a particular answer in mind. A stamp is evidence of a stamp; a comment of a comment, nothing more. Disagree with me? You’re wrong.

These are terrible questions to ask (answers in brackets):

  • How do you know your department individually plan? (My first school checked our planners!)
  • Will your mark sheet make sense to an inspector? (So what? It needs to make sense to me, no one else.)
  • How do you know your predictions are accurate? (I don’t.)
  • What can you do to ensure student x doesn’t behave like that again? (I can’t. I’m not the one who told me to fuck off, am I?)
  • What intervention are you putting in place for x, y, z? (I’m teaching lessons, doing my job.)
  • What evidence is there of x? (See the seventh circle of hell.)
  • How are your PP/FSM/etc students doing with x? (I’m not a saviour, superhero or sycophant.)
  • How effective has your promotion of British Values been? (This conversation is over.)

These are bad questions because they pressurise teachers to perform rather than teach. Now, you might say that all these things are part of good teaching anyway, and that these questions just attempt to break that good teaching down into its component parts. Again, you’re wrong. Good teaching cannot be box-ticked: it is neither a PiXL PLC, nor an IKEA instruction leaflet. There are important consistencies and routines we aim for in terms of behaviour and presentation, but the moment we try to isolate the teaching of children from poorer homes we do ourselves, our profession and our children a great disservice because we inadvertently seek to elevate a particular group, or technique, above the whole. Teach Like a Champion seeks to find out, and disseminate, what it is the most successful teachers do, but Doug Lemov is also very keen to point out that we can’t just adopt all these principles and expect success. On their own the answers to these questions, especially if they are used for performance management or – worse – performance related pay, are invalid or even irrelevant.

And thus, an accountability system which uses as a central piece of evidence an irrelevant or invalid data set potentially wastes time, money and resourcing on unnecessary CPD, pointless meetings and unhelpful bureaucracy.

So what can we do instead? Why not ask questions with responsibility in mind:

  • What can the school can do to free up time? How will teachers use this? What do teachers want to achieve in this time?
  • What will help teachers be better? Do they need CPD, or books, or coaching, or just to see some other great teachers, in this school or another?
  • What do teachers think about behaviour?
  • What subject-knowledge do teachers lack? What would they like to know more about?
  • Does the school’s assessment system work for each subject? Is that why predictions haven’t worked out? What would make it better?
  • How much work do teachers do in the evenings and weekends?

These questions might lead to greater responsibility and autonomy. They also might help create happier, and better, teachers.


So, I don’t think all questions are shit, but I do think we ask a lot of shit questions a lot of the time. I was asked after the presentation whether I’m just calling for better management, both in the class and from leaders. Of course I am, yes, but this is my particular battle. Luckily, it’s not one I currently have to fight, but I have done so in other schools. So, if you’re suffering from shit questions why not show your interrogator this?

You can find the slides for this presentation here.

Finally, I want to thank Oliver Caviglioli for his superb sketch of the presentation.

Happy Cool Fun Time

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A friend of mine sent me this today. It’s up in his staffroom as a thirty-day challenge for frustrated teachers who lack the time, or imagination, to get a hold of their desks, classes and lives. Although this isn’t the sort of thing I go in for, I get why others might. I don’t like it, but fine. Go with it. If it helps you then great, wicked. I really don’t think “Play some relaxing music while your students are working today” (day 19) is a great idea, but “Give a compliment to a student who often seems to get in trouble‘ (day 16) might well help to make everybody’s life a little easier that day.

The website from which it originates has this to say about the challenge:

Let’s face it; teaching can sometimes be a stressful gig. It is so easy to fall in the trap of focusing on the negative, but doing that only gives you more stress! There are so many little things that you can do to make your day a little bit happier.

The free 30 Day Happy Teacher Challenge is designed to help you connect with students, build staff rapport, organize your school life, keep yourself healthy, and help you focus on the positive!

But.

Then there’s this. Day 30.

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“Greet students at the door …” All good so far.

“… and give them high-fives as they enter.” Ummm, okay.

“If they are in high-school, they will roll their eyes …” Yes. Yes they will.

” … but they’ll secretly think you’re awesome.” Wait. Wait there. What? They’ll what?

They’ll secretly think you’re awesome? What school is this, Sweet Valley High? Jefferson High School? Grange Hill? And which decade are we in? “Yo, Mr F! Can I get some fries with that high-five? You gonna be down Al’s Drive-in tonight with your gal?”

I mean, come on. Our job really isn’t to be cool, and you really can’t fake it if you ain’t. That’s the whole point of cool: there isn’t a checklist. You’ve either got it or not.

By all means high-five da kidz on their way in, but don’t talk like Ali G because they haven’t heard of him, and don’t think that if you tell them what your favourite band is (because you recently bought your first NME for fifteen years, which no-one reads now anyway) they’ll want to “hang out” in your room at lunch and chat about whether Dark Side of the Moon really did have a greater impact than Selling England by The Pound. So stop trying to be awesome. Stop trying to be liked. Make your lame jokes, but know that they’re lame and grin like the fool you know you are, rather than the fool who genuinely thinks Y10 love you because you wear white sunnies inside.

Just teach. Teach well and they’ll be happy and successful. If they end up liking you then great. Well done: 12 year-olds like you, you Prince among Men, you Queen of Cool. But don’t make this an aim, because you’ll probably end up unhappy.

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