Month: August 2014

PF1: The Launch Episode

In the first episode, we investigate why Roald Dahl has been banned in Australia, I talk about a blog post suite to help you get back to school, and Twitter reveals its top tips for the new year.


Here are some links that I talk about in the show:

Policy Exchange’s Road to 2015 conference videos.

That Roald Dahl story.

Learning Spy’s blog suite.

And special thanks to everyone on twitter who contributed to the one-tweet-tip request!


Why that primary school teacher post is unhelpful.

Ok I’ll bite.

Excuse the dramatic example that follows, but I think that it illustrates why lots of people have got cross about *that* primary school post, and why the post was so unhelpful (and potentially dangerous).

So, here is a tweet posted by a US DJ earlier in the year:Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 13.35.13I hope that made you angry. It should. What the author did was take a single experience, and then made huge generalisations based on that experience. Worse still, it played to negative prejudices that people may already have about that group, seeking to confirm their biases.

Andrew Old defended publishing the post on the basis that it was merely an opinion piece from a primary school teacher. But the post wasn’t simply an opinion piece. It made sweeping generalisations about a whole institution and the professionals that work within it.

The key problem with the post, then, is that it commits the overgeneralisation fallacy. It makes statements like ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘primary teachers believe’ and ‘children these days’.

This is very different to, ‘In my experience I’ve witnessed x, which I think is damaging’. Nobody could argue with that with the initial statement, although they may debate on what grounds you feel that it is damaging. The author of the post, however, made much stronger claims. And, just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, strong claims require strong evidence.

Consider, for example, the claim ‘All children like ice-cream.’ This is a strong claim because it makes a claim about all children. To refute it, you would have to find just one child who does not like ice-cream. In predicate logic, this is called a universal quantifier which states that all items within a domain conform to a given predicate.

Compare this to an existential quantifier, which merely states that there exists at least one item that conforms to the predicate. We can then debate about how many items conform to the predicate, which would require some evidence gathering. Boring, right? Boring, boring sound reasoning.

For my part, I’ve never seen play-based-learning used past year three in a primary school. This is based on the dozen or so schools that I have been placed in for observations, training and teaching, and the conversations I’ve had with the rest of my primary training cohort (several dozen teachers).

That’s not to say that it never happens. It would be foolish for me to say that because I experience something, this is commonplace. Perhaps there is a school, as the author suggests, where play is used throughout the curriculum and across all phases, and where behaviour management promotes a ‘lack of discipline’ and ‘no structure’.

I would question how this could happen, because to gain QTS you have to evidence that you meet Teaching Standard Seven, which states:

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 14.54.01

But perhaps there is such a school, and within it teachers who have been allowed to ignore the teaching standards. My question, then, is this: what are this school’s results like? All schools in England are regularly inspected by Ofsted, and their results are scrutinised annually.


a) this school turns out great results, in which case we have no grounds to criticise their methods; or

b) the school turns out terrible results, in which case Ofsted would judge the school to require improvement or worse.

Ofsted, in fact, make reference to behaviour 78 times in their new inspection handbook, and make clear that the behaviour of children make a key contribution to their judgment. If terrible behaviour is an orthodoxy in primary schools, why aren’t Ofsted failing primary schools on a huge scale?

To recap, the original post makes two claims:

1) That all (or most) primary schools deliver the curriculum through “play-based”, “child-led system”, and do not care for “structure”, and that children are allowed to “do what they like”; and

2) This is damaging to their education.

We had a look at how the first claim is unsubstantiated in its strongest form. Let’s examine the second claim, that such an orthodoxy, if it exists, is damaging children’s education and results in them entering secondary school with an “inability to read, write or add up”.

It is true (and shameful) that some children enter secondary school functionally illiterate and innumerate. But to make the claim that this is because of one particular teaching style, or pedagogic approach (for instance play-based learning) you would have to show a relationship between schools who employ that method and poor results. The author does no such thing.

I empathise with the author, who obviously feel that they are trapped in an environment that is harmful to children’s education. I can understand why that would make someone cross. They clearly care for children. But to take this and make sweeping generalisations about the whole primary sector is unhelpful, unreasonable and damaging.

I implore the author to either substantiate their claims, or make clear that they do not represent the entire (or even most of) the primary sector.


The noble lie: giving children a say in setting the rules.

In case you missed it, Tom Bennett recently passed the Dianetic testing and made all of the necessary sacrifices to join the Teach First fraternity. So, if you see him about and were wondering where his little fingers have gone, you don’t need to ask.

Apparently, neither the “this session is now full” message on the website, nor the fact that his room was at a capacity that had health and safety officers weeping into their Sippy Cups were sufficient obstacles to keep the masses from squeezing into every nook and cranny of the room.

By the time I arrived, there were more people standing than sitting, so I cotched on the floor because I’m a primary school teacher and that’s how we identify ourselves at edu-gatherings. The session was hilarious, candid and thought-provoking; a real highlight for most that I spoke to afterwards. For the 2013s, who have just finished their first year in the classroom, there was real comfort from, and resonance with, the recognition of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that we all felt until about Easter.

For the 2014s, it was an unpatronising dose of the realities that they are likely to face from September. A distinction was drawn between the formal and informal aspects of behaviour management, the latter relating to tone and persona developed over a career, and the former describing the systems and routines that can be taught quickly and implemented from day one. Some are lucky enough to get a headstart with the informal stuff, but without the formal side, all will suffer.

This post, however, isn’t about the bulk of the session. My blog is now widely read enough that a summary could seriously damage TB’s book sales (I received 12 views yesterday. Unique views.) I want to discuss here a brief exchange that I had with Tom in the Q&A session. It followed on from a comment that Tom made about setting class codes or rules. He argued that children shouldn’t be given an opportunity to ‘set the rules’ because we don’t really mean that they have a say. To illustrate his point, TB mentioned that he once asked a class what the rules should be.

Students (presumably old enough to smoke): “We want fag breaks every 15 minutes.”

TB: “Well, errr, no. No.”

S: “But I thought that you said that we agree on the rules together.”

TB: “Yes, I suppose what I meant is that you agree with my rules.”

In the classroom, just like in real life, there are rules. Non-negotiable rules. They are there for a reason: as a minimum to keep students safe, and hopefully to create some sort of optimal learning environment. Calm, ordered, stimulating. That kind of thing.

Although children might not necessarily agree with some of the rules, they have to follow them anyway because they are ultimately in their best interests and it wouldn’t be helpful to them to let them make their own rules, which would likely to be some variant of “Do what we want”. Furthermore, it removes part of your authority in the room, suggesting that the rules are subjective and changeable, and that your enforcement of them is only incidental.

When I was trained, and I think this is common, I was encouraged to give the children a say in setting the rules. The rationale was that children would then have some sort of a stake in them, or ‘an ownership’ of them. And this would make them less likely to break the rules and give your rhetoric more power when misdemeanours occur: you’ve broken your own rule. I know that you know it’s important because you actually suggested it. You’ve literally let yourself down.

I believed this, and duly allowed my children to come up with the class code. My school also has a set of 5 non-negotiable ‘Golden Rules’ that are displayed in every classroom. The class code supplements these rules and sets the specifics. So the Golden Rule ‘Do be kind and helpful’ leads to “listen to each other in class” or “hold doors open for each other”.

So when the time came, last week, to set the Class Code with my new class, I had a choice. Do I say to my kids:

(a) Listen, I really care about you, and I want you to be successful and I want you to learn the most that you can possibly learn in this class. To do that you’re going to have to follow these rules, and this isn’t a discussion…

(b) Ok, we’re going to be doing some learning together. What do you think our class rules should be? We’ll create these together because I think that it’s important that these rules come from you guys.

Although many of my newly developed principles pushed me towards (a), I actually ended up saying something along the lines of (b). My question to Tom explained the reasoning:

Me: You said that we shouldn’t let children have a say in setting the class code because we don’t really mean that. But isn’t it worth giving children the illusion of having set their own rules? You can still end up with the set of class rules that you wanted beforehand, but the children will believe that they have taken responsibility for their own behaviour and conduct.

Tom disagreed that this was a good or honest approach. I’m still swinging from one side to the other on this issue.

What do you think?

Teachers: Show your working. @learningspy at #TFSI2014

Usually at education conferences, I find that there are two sorts of sessions.

The first kind is the really practical sort of session; you leave with some new skills and/or knowledge which you can put in place in your classroom to help make you a better, or more efficient, teacher.

The second kind (and these are usually the sort that attract me) are the paradigm-busters. These sessions take a thing that we believe, grab it by the scruff of its neck and give it a Jack Bauer level of interrogation.

I’ve long been a fan of David Didau’s website because I found his writing does the latter. I was most pleasantly surprised, however, after attending his session at Teach First’s Impact Conference, that what Didau teaches also does LOADS of the former. I attended two different sessions run by Didau, the first on literacy and the second on grading lessons and Ofsted. This post is about the first session.

Enlightened Competence

We were treated to a tour de force of Didau’s accumulated wisdom on how we can best help children to use English in a manner that will ensure them the opportunity to be academically successful. Didau’s slogan, “making the implicit, explicit” challenged audience members to examine exactly what they do when they engage in the written word.

This reminded me of Maslow’s model of competence, which begins with unconscious incompetence, followed by conscious incompetence (the uncomfortable stage that I found myself in for most of my first year of teaching), then conscious competence, before we finally get to a stage of unconscious competence.

The model has since been expanded to include a fifth stage, which usually refers to a sort of reflective awareness of the unconscious competence, or a seemingly paradoxical ‘conscious competence of unconscious competence’. Lorgene A Mata calls this stage “enlightened competence”. If you will excuse the long quotation, he explains it thus:

In other words, he comprehends fully and accurately the what, when, how and why of his own skill and possibly those of others on the same skill he has. In addition to this, he is able to transcend and reflect on the physical skill itself and be able to improve on how it is acquired and learned at even greater efficiency with lower energy investment. Having fully understood all necessary steps and components of the skill to be learned and the manner how they are dynamically integrated to produce the desired level of overall competence, he is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient. (Mata, 2004. Emphasis added.)

As teachers, we are lucky enough to sit in the fourth stage when it comes to literacy. Didau’s session, however, was aimed at moving us all into the fifth stage, so that we were able to explicitly teach our children the specific mechanisms, tricks, steps and components of engaging with and producing high quality, academic texts. In short, revealing to our students the secrets of our literacy (the Secret of Literacy…geddit?)


A stark illustration of the implicit work that we do was provided when Didau flashed a piece of writing on the screen. It was only around 50 words long.

“Where is it from?” He asked after a few seconds.

Audience: “A newspaper”

“What kind?”

“A tabloid.”

“Which tabloid?”

“The Sun.”

“Correct…How did you know?”

This caused us to reflect. We started to move into that fifth cycle. The initial response of “Well, you know, you just sort of know. It’s that style,” wasn’t satisfactory. That isn’t going to help students. We started to discuss all of the clues. The age in brackets. The phrase ‘mum in a million’ (Didau correctly observed that there exists only two classification of mums in the Sun’s ontology: ‘mum-in-a-million’ or ‘evil-mum’). These are the tricks we use without thinking, those that give us the illusion of effortlessness. What we need to do is smash that illusion by explaining exactly what we do so instinctively.

We were then tested on our skimming and scanning skills. The audience of new teachers were, unsurprisingly,  remarkably good at extracting specific information from large pieces of text very quickly. The question that was being posed was “How did you do that?” Certainly we didn’t read he whole text. So what did we do?

As a primary school teacher, it is my job to teach my children these skills in a more explicit fashion than perhaps is expected of secondary school teachers. A good trick for skimming texts, I offered, is to read the first and final sentences. If the text is well written, these should summarise what the whole text is about.

Many, many children, however, are clearly making it to secondary school without these tricks, and this is another factor that leads to the ‘Matthew Effect’, the tendency of the word-rich becoming word-richer and word-poor becoming word-poorer (Didau explains further here).


Mature writing’s critical dependence on mature speech was presented with the following axiom: If you can’t say it, you can’t write it.*

A wonderful strategy provided by Didau to address this was to give children ‘talking frames’. Often, teachers (and especially English teachers) give children writing frames (or perhaps lists of connectives) to try and help develop maturity of writing. However, if children have not first used this language in conversation, it is unlikely that they will implement them easily/appropriately during writing. Furthermore, children can become dependent on these frames, and they are a scaffold that is difficult to remove.

So the solution is to turn the ‘writing frames’ into ‘talking frames’. Something like “Although the author says…there may be a hidden meaning:…” give children a chance to structure their responses to questions in class. This ingrains and normalises academic language which then bleeds into the children’s writing.

Since reading this post I have used talking frames in my classroom (I teach year 3) and they have proved to be incredibly successful. The children love using them, because the difference in quality of answer is so spectacular. They can hear themselves sounding clever, mature, like high school kids. Now, a student always begins speaking with some sort of variation on “I thought that you made a good point, but I’m afraid I disagree because…” or “I think that Godwin is correct, and I’d like to develop his answer…”

I have the luxury of teaching my children all day every day, and so can demand these standards of talk in whatever we are doing. However, Didau’s contention in his session at the conference was that “All teachers in English are teachers of English”.

I was sat next to a science teacher, who admitted part way through the session that a) she had never thought that she was really responsible for the children’s writing skills, and b) she had never thought that demanding higher levels of literacy would have an impact on their science.

By about halfway through the session, though, she had changed her mind. What was delightful, however, is that she did so with a huge sense of optimism.

Two Concluding Thoughts

Although this session was nominally concerning literacy, teachers of all subjects (and phases) found it incredibly useful. This can be attributed, I think, to the fact that we were forced to reflect on our unconscious competence, and as such were given a sort of meta-tool to add to our teaching arsenal.

Secondly, the session made me think a lot about the primary/secondary divide. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what Didau was pleading for teachers to do was what I considered to be the bread and butter of primary school teachers. Indeed, the APP Assessment Focuses 2 and 3 for reading state that students should “Understand, describe, select or retrieve information, events or ideas from texts and use quotation and reference to text,” and “deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts”, respectively.

Since most primary schools have some form of daily ‘guided reading’ session, we are able to work on these skills with children regularly and really dig in to what they mean. It struck me, however, that whilst the AFs describe what the children should do, they do not explain how. Didau’s techniques remind of the importance of the latter.

And finally, it is far easier to nail this in primary, I think. It may seem to some to be premature to demand such academic language of children at this stage, but it seems to me that if it is fixed at an early level, we can combat the Matthew Effect most effectively. We are afforded, too, a real enthusiasm from the students to do so. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Didau after the session, who asked me about how my kids have found using talking frames. He told me that he’d had a bit of a battle getting his students to use them. “Oh, no. My kids absolutely love it.” I replied.

Let’s not squander that enthusiasm.



*Certain speech disabilities, and so on, notwithstanding.