Understanding what you don’t know: dual-coding, cognitive load, and using diagrams in explanations

So, full disclosure, I’m no expert in either dual-coding or Cognitive Load Theory. Actually, I am really not an expert in many of the issues I will be covering in this blog post. But that’s ok. In fact, in many ways, it’s desirable because, as teachers, we have to interact with so much information on a daily basis that it is simply not possibly to become an expert across so many different domains. When interacting with research, advice, or theories, we must attempt to take the ‘headline’ principles and apply them to our classroom practice. Some stuff we’ll get wrong; other stuff we might get right. The great thing about blogs, and also about platforms like Twitter, is that they allow the flow of ideas to be shared, refined, discussed, and critiqued.

For Cognitive-Load-Theory I’m going to take this from Dan Williams as my ‘headline’:

“Working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximise learning (Sweller, 1988).”

For my dual-coding ‘headline’, I’ll make us of what Oliver Caviglioli describes as Sweller’s “hack”:

“The amount of information that can be processed using both auditory and visual channels should exceed the processing capacity of a single channel.”

Given these explanations, it seems dual-coding is technique that allows the brain to complete additional processing, sort of like a processor upgrade in a computer, to partially overcome the limitations of working memory. No doubt this is true, but when I reflect on how I use visuals in my teaching of English, it occurs to me that I use them for the opposite reason: to decrease cognitive load, rather than produce increase in overall cognitive capacity.

For example, when teaching ‘Bayonet Charge’ recently, I felt would be useful for my pupils to have an understanding of what ‘no man’s land’ is. Were I to have stood in front of the class and explained the concept to them, I might have said something like this:

“In World War One, armies generally fought in long trenches. Imagine a field with two trenches dug parallel to one another; one army is in one trench trying to advance east while the other army is in the other trench trying to advance west. There is a gap of land between them that no one owns. This is called ‘no man’s land’ because it belongs to ‘no man’.

While some pupils may grasp the concept, many will not. This is not because they are incapable of understanding the concept but because there are many bits of information they must remember: WWI, trenches, a field, parallel lines, east and west advances, a ‘gap’ of land. Another problem is that I am trying to explain something visual, but since I am attempting to explain where certain things are located in relation to one another, the explanation comes across as quite technical. I can hardly be said to have “painted a picture” in their minds. Further, I’m asking them to apply mathematical and historical knowledge to a poetry lesson in an English classroom. So, clearly, there is a number of potential pitfalls here, and I am expecting them to simultaneously hold and manipulate multiple pieces of information.

And yet, by simply drawing a crude diagram, I can negate most of these pitfalls:

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For me, the beauty of the diagram isn’t so much that it allows extra information to be processed, as advanced by the definition of dual-coding above (although it may do that), but rather that it releases pressure from the pupils’ working memories. I would begin with a blank white board and add to the diagram piece by piece as I explain the concepts, thus freeing the pupils’ to fix their attention on the upcoming piece of information rather than using it to hold onto the last piece of information; in effect, the diagram performs the role of long-term memory and, in the process, frees up working memory. Hopefully, when the explanation is complete, the diagram will also allow the information to be processed and stored as a single concept, rather than as a number of disparate pieces of information that must be pulled together.

Let’s look at one another example. This time capitalism. When studying texts such as ‘An Inspector Calls’ or ‘Blood Brothers’, I might consider it useful for pupils to have some understanding of capitalism. While I could tell them something like: “capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals own companies and employ workers to make a profit,” this alone doesn’t cut the mustard; there are problems with this explanation. Do the pupils know what “capital” is? How many will know what is meant by “economic system”? What about “private individuals” or “profit”? Et cetera. But actually, even before we get to the point of defining capitalism or the constituent parts of knowledge that are required to understand the definition, I think it is useful for pupils to first have an understanding of how capitalism works.

Again, to illustrate this, I can use a combination of explanation and diagram:

“Mrs Builder has £1,000,0000 from a job she has just completed. For save keeping, she gives it to Mr bank. Now Mrs Builder still has £1,000,000 but Mr Bank also “has” £1,000,000.”

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“Along comes Mr cake, who wants to open a cupcake shop. He asks Mr Bank if he can borrow a £1,000,000 to set up his business. Mr Bank agrees, but says Mr Cake must pay back £1,100,0000. Mr Cake now has the £1,000,000 and the bank “has” £100,000 (owed in interest).”

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“Next up, Mr Cake employs Mrs Builder to build his cupcake shop. Mrs Builder charges him £1,000,000. Mr Cake now has £1,000,000 of assets. Mrs Builder, who now has £2,000,000, places the £1,000,000 Mr Cake has paid her in the bank. The bank now has £1,000,000 of deposits and £100,000 of interest owed.”

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“Unfortunately for Mr Cake, halfway through the job Mrs Builder realises she has severely underestimated the cost of building the cupcake shop, as builders are likely to. She charges Mr Cake an extra £1,000,000 to complete the job. Mr Cake is not happy but he can hardly stop now, so he goes to the bank, who again approve his request and again charge £100,000 in interest. Mr Cake now has £2,000,000 worth of assets, the bank £200,000 of interest owed, and Mrs Builder £3,000,000.”

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“Finally, Mrs Builder also puts this additional  £1,000,000 into the bank.”

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Now, clearly this is a gross oversimplification of how a modern capitalist economy actually functions, and the pupils may ask a series of follow-up questions (“what if Mrs Builder wants all her money back at once?”), so if you’re going to explain this you must anticipate those questions and know the answers. However, it does give a nice example of how capitalism uses credit, and the idea of future earnings, to turn money into more money (useful for ‘Blood Brothers’). In this case, £1,000,000 has been “turned into” £6,200,000. Mrs Builder has £3,000,000, Mr Baker has £2,000,000 of assets, and Mr Bank has £200,000 owed in interest from Mr Baker and £1,000,000 of Mrs Builder’s money, which it can invest elsewhere. In the future, assuming Mr Cake pays his debts, Mr Bank will also be able to re-invent this £2,000,000 in other ventures, turning it into yet more money. From here, it will be easier to have conversations about things such as “capital” “investment” or “bosses v workers” (useful for ‘An Inspector Calls’) as pupils have an idea, albeit very basic, of how a capitalist economy works. If you use Mr Cake or Mrs Builder as illustrations of bosses, then a discussion of bosses v workers feels more concrete than simply saying they are a part of “an economic system in which private individuals own companies and employ workers in order to make profit.” The pupils may well never use the precise knowledge gained  in an essay on BB or AIC, but they may well become more confident and coherent when discussing capitalism and its surrounding issues in the texts.

However, my point here is not really about the discussions this knowledge may lead to. Again, it is about how the diagrams facilitate understanding. If I had explained the process without the aid of diagrams, it is highly unlikely that any pupils would have grasped what I had said, because the volume of information is simply too large. Again, the diagrams stand in place of long-term memory, freeing-up working memory to understand and follow the explanation.

(Just in case you’re wondering, banks operate on the premise that not all of their depositors [people or organisations who deposit money] will want to withdraw their money at the same time. It was, in part, this assumption that caused Northern Rock to fail, as, all at once, its depositors lost confidence in the banks’ ability to pay them their money. Thus they simultaneously withdrew their funds, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is also what happens during the bank scene in Mary Poppins.)

Lastly, I want to touch on how I explain Browning’s use of irony in ‘My Last Duchess. I have previously blogged about this, so I won’t give another blow-by-blow account. (You can download the resources here, should you wish.) In short, what I do is talk the pupils to a point whereby they understand that there is a gap between what The Duke says in his monologue and what it is that the reader is supposed to understand from his words. The Duke says one thing and the reader understands this. But the reader also understands that Browning, the poet, is using The Duke’s words to tell us something opposite. We end up with this diagram:

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I recently read an extremely enlightening blog by Clare Sealy, in which she investigated knowing and understanding and pointed out that they are more interlinked than people often assume. Traditionally, the debate has focussed upon whether knowing is enough and whether memorising information alone can be said to produce understanding. The implication is that knowing (or memorising) is the grubby second-cousin of true understanding, and this model of thought naturally assumes that knowing/memorising comes before understanding.

But what I touched on in my previous post about ‘My Last Duchess’, and what Cognitive Load Theory and dual coding make clear, is that it is possible to understand something without ‘knowing’ it. That is, without having committed it to long-term memory. This flies in the face of much of what is said about memorisation — which is often claimed to be superficial. But sometimes, if we take the time to give pupils clear and cogent explanations, with diagrams standing in for long-term memory, they can understand much more than we think. This has important implications for what we teach our pupils, as it allows us to raise the threshold of our expectations.

It might also change the nature of our instructional sequences. Were I to solely consider pupils’ prior knowledge, I might think it a bad idea to teach irony in relation to ‘My Last Duchess’. Irony can be a slippery concept at the best of times, and this might put me off teaching it in relation to ‘My Last Duchess’, a difficult poem itself, especially when pupils do not know nor understand the concept. But irony isn’t like alliteration. You can’t just explain it and then confidently expect pupils to begin identifying it — it is far too complex. To avoid confusion and misconceptions, pupils need to have irony demonstrated for them before it is defined for them, before they know the definition, and the use of diagrams allows for this; by standing in for long-term memory, diagrams allow us to reverse the knowing/understanding relationship.

Here, it is important to note that this in no way means we can do away with committing things to memory. Quite the opposite, in fact. How can I be so sure? Well, I have taught the lesson on irony in ‘My Last Duchess’ to two different bottom set Y10s in two different schools and I’d say 90% of the pupils I explained it to understood it. You might be sceptical, but, trust me, these are not the kind of shy kids who will meekly agree that they understand if they don’t. If they are confused, they will make sure you know about it! But what was interesting was as soon as I used the blank screen function on the interactive whiteboard to take away the diagram (i.e., to remove the crutch that functions as “long-term memory”), the pupils could not parrot back to me what I had just explained, what they had just understood, and what they could parrot back when the diagram was displayed.

Unsurprisingly, the pupils found this highly frustrating. But they were frustrated because they understood, not because the didn’t. They were frustrated because they understood the concepts but the mental architecture that would allow to explain what they understood had not been constructed in their long-term memories.

The clear inference is that, in a well-designed instructional sequence, not only is memorisation vital to enable pupils to demonstrate what they understand, but memorisation, far from being a grubby, secondary learning-goal, can sometimes be the harder and more advanced learning process; it is not shallow, dry, surface, or disembodied, but effortful, useful, and the ultimate goal of education, because it is memorisation, the ability to recall information at will, that allows that information to be used at the moment it is required. Memorisation allows performance, is a pre-condition for long-term performance, and, without it, understanding cannot be made visible.

No teacher talk. No challenging texts. No knowledge. It’s as if we’ve designed our schools to keep the poor in poverty…

So I once had a child in my form who was a real pain in the ass. A real pain in the ass. Everyday: Raymond, put your food away; Where’s your tie? Your lanyard?; Raymond, I’ve just asked you to tuck your shirt in; Watch your language; Raymond, can you put your phone away please; Raymond, can you put your phone away; Raymond. I won’t tell you again. Put it away; et cetera, et cetera.

But for all that, we got on well. We fell out a lot, but we got on. For example, he’s was internally excluded multiple times for swearing at me, but when I accidentally left my classroom door wide open and my phone on the table nearest, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I came back. “Sir,” he said. “You’re such a beg. You left the door right open. Any crack-head could have come in and nicked your phone if I didn’t sat here. I had to sit here. I’ve been sat here for you so no crack-head steals it.”

I paused and smiled at him. “Thank you, Raymond,” I said. “Now put your own phone away.”

He smiled.

When I think about Raymond, about how he couldn’t string a sentence together, about how he occasionally said something so insightful that it altogether halted me, I get angry. I’m angry because if things were different, if he were from the other side of the tracks, if he had gone to a prep school, then he could have gone to Eton. And if he had gone to Eton then he could have gone to Oxbridge. I’m angry because, while there are complex social issues at play, I don’t believe that social issues or the divide between private and state schools explains how a gap so large, between hardly being able to construct a sentence and going to Oxford, can form.

It’s well established that children who grow up in poverty have a vastly reduced vocabulary by comparison to those born in relative prosperity. By some measures, at age twenty-four months they are already six months behind in terms of vocabulary and language understanding, and have heard thirty-million(!) fewer words by age three.

Considering these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage, and it damages children like Raymond. If we are to improve the vocabulary and language skills of our most disadvantaged pupils, if we truly want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address, rather than simply bemoaning issues that are outside our sphere of influence, such as government policy, structural power in society, or lack of parental enthusiasm for education. I’m not denying these things exist, I’m just saying that as things stand, we each have just one poxy vote with which to change them.

To broaden the vocabulary of our pupils, we must teach vocabulary, ambitious vocabulary, explicitly. But we must also allow our pupils to hear us talking, to hear the extent of our own vocabularies. Since most teachers possess a relatively broad vocabulary, it is madness — madness — to deny children access to our personal word banks, as though they are as personal and precious as our piggy banks. I have written before about the remarkable stickability of vocabulary when compared to other knowledge, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth repeating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.

To illustrate, let’s compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children find the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, think of all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk. A clear explanation, using rich language, with complex vocabulary defined and clarifying examples provided, all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.

To compound matters, once we have denied them access to our own vocabularies, we deny them access to the vocabularies of our great writers, by studying texts that pupils can “relate” to. Some worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I have some sympathy with the concern and no problem with the principle, but you have to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you fostering, and what, exactly, are you getting paid for, if all you are doing is providing pupils with a book that they will love regardless? Because anyone can do that. Literally anyone. Any old mug with a library card can say to a child: “Pick whatever you want, mate.” The challenge is to foster a love of great literature in children, by buffing-up those words and with flair burnishing the abundance of ideas and vocabulary that our greatest writers have left behind. That’s where, as English teachers, we earn our money. And it is with these texts that a child’s vocabulary really develops. It is here they are exposed to a plethora so-called Tier-2 words; words, such as “plethora”, that are found in print but mostly absent from oral language, and where the majority of discrepancy exists between children of prosperity and poverty.

(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature, but in other subjects too, surely pupils should be reading quality material in every lesson, and familiarising themselves with the nomenclature?)

Of course, more ideal would be to prevent the gap opening in the first place. This is why I think it would make more sense to direct the majority of Pupil Premium funds towards EYFS and infants. But that is perhaps a whole other blog, by someone more knowledge in EYFS and primary education than I. (And yes, I think that is the march of secondary Headteachers and their Business Managers I hear, as they line up to stone me for suggesting yet more money is taken from their budgets.)

More controversial still, are ideas around cultural literacy. (For expedience, let’s put asside the knowledge vs skills debate.) As soon as one accepts that our first responsibility as teachers is to teach “stuff” to the charges in our care, a culture war erupts centering upon who gets to decide curriculum content. During his excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) presentation at yesterday’s #REdRugby, Chris Peirce commented (words to the effect of): “I think it’s useful for children first to have an understanding of the culture they’re part of.” This prompted a couple of responses from other members of the audience, with one even commenting that she would be sending her own child to his school in September, and as such would be able to keep an eye on things herself, which I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic.

As it happens, I agree with Chris’s position. I contend that, if a person doesn’t have access to a rather large and complex web of metaphors, symbols, and references from their own culture the culture in which they live (please note the critical difference there), they are excluded from opportunities within that culture. Ultimately, being unable to navigate warp and woof of the surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation, and, like it or not, in every region of our plant there is a dominant culture that prevails, and people need access to the culture the region they inhabit in order to fully participate in society. I, for example, have fairly decent knowledge of communist cinema during 1960s Hungary. While this is quite nice, it serves me little to no purpose on a day-to-day basis. Were I a film scholar, it would be useful. But I am not, so it is not. Better, say, that I have a decent understanding of the Mary Celeste. Why the Mary Celeste? Well let’s have a look at a headline from today’s Sunday Times:


Without an understanding the Mary Celeste, a reader of this text misses most of the meaning in the headline. But knowledge of the Mary Celeste is not the only “home” knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be known and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, the current British prime minister, that in Britain political mandate is granted by a general election, what a general election is, the result of the recent general election, and what Brexit is.

Let’s investigate another:


Here, readers need to be aware of the different cultural stereotypes that are associated with people of old and new money. They need to be au fait with ideas about the corrupting influence of money, and how, in Britain, these are overtly connected with a person’s class. The need to know what a hereditary peer is, and to understand that they will require a fairly well-developed understanding of how the Palace of Westminster operates. They will need to understand the stereotypes associated with hereditary peers, in order to understand the reference to his being “157”, as well as stereotypes around how they behave in parliament, if they are to infer what Liddle is implying when he says: “I’m not sure he knew who he was, or what he was doing?”

They will need to know all this and have a developed sense of irony, if they are to understand that Liddle is not, in fact, saying he was a nice chap when he says, “seemed a nice enough chap” but, rather, is affecting the assuredly nonchalant language of those from “old money”. However, to pick up that irony is at play, they also need to understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes. Lastly, they need to take all this and connect it to the reference to “old money” in the headline. So, as we can see, quite a lot is going on, and if one is to understand it, one must understand the minutiae of the surrounding culture.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think our children should be able to read the newspaper when they leave school. Many, perhaps even most, wouldn’t be able to extrapolate all the meaning from the examples above. If pupils are leaving school unable to understand the references in two very short extracts, which I found in less than a minute or so’s searching through today’s paper, then we have a problem. It is for this reason that a country’s schools should foreground it’s “home” cultural knowledge; it grants access and cultural capital to those who wouldn’t otherwise would possess it. And this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, and who have a triple-lock to overcome: they have comparatively limited understanding of the language; their parents’ cultural  literacy in the new country is likely to be highly limited, so they are not exposed to it at home; and they often find themselves in inner-city schools, where ingrained attitudes suggesting that certain knowledge, or culture, is (not) for certain people often still prevail.

Some people believe it is elitist to foreground the teaching of certain knowledge and culture, but, in a wonderfully succinct tweet, Rebecca Foster exposed the fallacy of this position. She said: “I think it’s elitist NOT to teach challenging texts to certain groups of students.” I’ve already addressed the issue of challenging texts, but there is a broader truth implied by Rebecca’s words, and it comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought”. While no one culture is objectively better than another, all people in society ought to have access to the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be socially mobile, should they wish to be; elitism is not about the content of but access to that culture. The snob is not the man who asserts we should teach Latin, but the man contends Latin is not for those he considers socially inferior. If you’re arguing that certain knowledge isn’t “for” certain children, you are the snob.

At KS3 especially, I believe we need to conceive of ourselves as teachers of culture, as well as teachers of our subject. Even today, I have basically no scientific knowledge. I’m embarassed to admit it, but I could not tell you for sure what Galileo (something to do with telescopes?) or Newton (electricity?) did, just that they are important. I know basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans. I know actually nothing about art or art history and feel entirely like a philistine if I get dragged into an art gallery, so what I’ll do is walk around talking about how boring and rubbish it all is, as a cover for my ignorance. I’m sure most who are reading this can easilly bring to mind a raft of pupils who blanket their ignorance with similar behaviour in the classroom. All this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge would be useful to me as an English teacher, for, in an English classroom, any subject can become relevant at a moment’s notice (I think it was David Didau who said at #REdRugby yesterday that knowledge is “Velcro”, ie it sticks to other knowledge). But as an adult, knowing where to look and what to read is tricky. It would have been far more useful had I been taught some of it by an expert teacher when I was at school.

On the response to my article about teaching boys

It’s been eye opening, having something published in the national media. My article, which appeared in the ‘i’, has been all over Twitter and Facebook. People have been arguing about it on Reddit. I’ve been told that men’s groups in America have been discussing it. It’s been re-blogged on countless websites, and no doubt there are countless other places it has popped up that I don’t know about.

Overwhelmingly, the responses were positive. I’d guess 95% of the feedback I’ve seen or heard has praised the article, generally for its honesty, bravery, or accuracy. Of course, given what I was writing about, and the brazen style in which I choose to write, I can’t complain when people with different opinions challenge what I’ve written. In fact, I welcome it. I’m still learning, will always be learning, and can learn from being challenged.

However, for the above to hold true, the criticism must engage with the issues I raised in the article. Challenge me on the fact I have chosen to step in a ring and fight other men. Challenge me on the fact I hold my pupils to account. Challenge me on the fact I expect compliance.

Please don’t make baseless accusations or take words to mean something that they don’t. As teachers and educators, even when we disagree, I don’t see any reason why we can’t at least credit the ‘opposition’ with having the pupils’ best interest at heart. We disagree because we are passionate about the future of our children. It’s worthwhile remembering that.

With that in mind, I’ll try to respond with good grace to what I feel was some particularly unfair criticism. If I fail, I apologise in advance.

Below is a series of tweets that upset me.


Let’s start at the start.

1. “He says he manages his classroom like a (manly) boxing gym”

I didn’t say that. I used boxing as analogy throughout because I am a boxing fan, I have boxed, and lots of the boys I teach like to talk boxing with me. I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, or you just don’t like it, but there’s really nothing you can do. Boxing is part of our culture.

2. “When men see violence as natural to manhood it’s very likely they also conflate ‘gaining respect’ with dominance over others”

Right. I didn’t say violence is natural to manhood. Some may argue it is. I might even be inclined to myself, given a certain set of parameters, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m 100% confident I’m correct about that.

Let’s put gender aside for a moment. Don’t you think many parents would resort to violence to protect their children?

But is violence natural to manhood? Perhaps. But do I make any claims to this in my article? No. 

As for gaining respect with dominance? You’ve chosen a deliberately pejorative word there (one I don’t even use in the article). The closest I come to talking about “domination” is when I talk about “compliance” and “assertiveness”, and I make it clear that I want compliance only so the boys I teach will have a calm environment in which to learn, especially those quieter, less confident boys who need it most. Perhaps you think I should allow them to be teased and bullied? Of course, I don’t really believe you think that, but if I didn’t insist pupils comply with the rules, this is what would happen. I’m not prepared to allow any of my boys to experience that, and frankly it angers me that I have to defend my right to protect the boys I teach from bullying. I’ve had more than one these boys approach me this year and say things like: “Sir, if I do well on this test, I won’t get moved up a set will I?” Won’t get moved up! It’s both lovely and heartbreaking to have a pupil say that, but, putting that aside, the reason this pupil is desperate to remain in my class is because he feels safe there. He feels he can express himself. When he was being bullied in a different class, it was me he came to. It’s hardly likely he would have done or said any of these things had he felt I was ‘dominating’ him.

I also explicitly state there is a ‘fine line’ between ‘assertion’ and ‘aggression’ and that it is “incumbent” on teachers to ensure we remain on the correct side of that line. So really, am I looking to dominate, or do I just want to provide my pupils with a safe environment?

3. “Violence may not be described as the ideal here but it is implied that ‘real men’ like violence”

You contradict yourself. Anyway, it is not implied that “real men” like violence. It is explicitly stated that I myself enjoy certain forms of violence. You might not like that. I don’t care. But just because I am prepared to say I enjoy boxing, it doesn’t mean I think “real men” like violence. Indeed, I never use the phrase “real men”. And I wouldn’t do so; it’s crass, and, frankly, unhelpful.

4. “(They also just learn to suppress emotions)”

You’re just making stuff up now. I never even go close to mentioning anyone should suppress their emotions.

5. “They are clearly linking respect with a performance of masculinity”

Not entirely sure what you mean here. Are you suggesting that people should not show respect to one another? I don’t know what you understand by respect, but I mean tolerance, manners, civility, politeness, and that is the classroom environment I have created. Is there a problem with that?

6. “The implication of this theory is that only ‘real men’ can teach ‘tough inner-city boys’ which is untrue, harmful, and demeaning.”

Theory? I think you’ve mistaken me for an academic. I’m just a man trying to do my best for the boys I teach, and I’m explaining how I’ve had some success.

As an aside, generally you’re very loose with your language, but I must admit I like you’re tricolon in that comment. And your use of the Oxford comma even more so. Thumbs up! It’s just a shame your assertion is another one based on nothing. Yet again let me remind you that I never mentioned ‘real men’. Further, both my mentor and HoD are women and, Jesus, both are hard, hard women, as they and I have to be to teach in the school that we do. Incidentally, I hope you are as offended by them being ‘hard’ women as you are by my being a ‘real’ man. Whatever that is.

7. “It’s hard not to notice the words ‘love’ and ’empathy’ don’t appear in this theory at all, not even as an end goal”

Is it? Is it really? This is a risible argument. I think it’s clear from beginning to end of the article that I care deeply about my pupils. I don’t ‘love’ them though. I’m not weird like that. But throughout I talk about ‘respect’ and ‘loyalty’ and ‘trust’ and ‘being the first to advocate for them’ and ‘having their best interest at heart’ and ‘valuing their education on their behalf’ and ‘calling them out on sexist and homophobic language’ and ’embody[img] something more than teacher’ etc. To make the comment above, you must ignore so much of the article in which I touch on the relationship I have with my pupils with my pupils that it can only be seen as a quite deliberate attempt to twist my words to fit some prior agenda you’ve brought with you. At least have the decency to be honest about that. Say that you don’t agree with my approach because of your principles, whatever they may be, but don’t twist my words into something they’re not, don’t make me out to be something I’m not. If all the things you say are true, why were my pupils so angry when they discovered I would be gone for three weeks?

Oh, and I’ll just say again. I have no theory.

8. “So what’s most frightening about this is that some white men who teach might see a classroom as a place to prove their manhood.”

This is getting more and more outlandish now. Well done for looking at my picture. Congratulations for noticing I am white. But what the hell does that have to do for anything? You’ve succeeded only in revealing your own prejudices. Presumably, you don’t care, but if you haven’t got any better arguments than ‘you’re white’ then that’s a good indicator that you arguments rest on shaky foundations.

As for the classroom being a place to prove my manhood? Mate, I’ve boxed for Christs’ sake. I’ve stood across a ring from other guys who have been trained to fight, but yeh, actually you are right, I need to prove my manhood by teaching kids about stories. Please, stop and think before writing such rubbish. It’s embarrassing.

Before I get accused of anything else, allow me to clarify: I do not think I’m a man because I’ve boxed, nor do I think someone has to have boxed to be a ‘real man’. In fact, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘real man’. In truth, I have better things to spend my time worrying about. As I said, boxing and other forms of violence (sport, films etc.) are a part of my experience as a man. Mine. No one else’s. Mine. Let’s not extrapolate anything about ‘real men’ from that. K?

9. “And as the end of this piece exemplifies, the only way to prove your masculinity is through dominance. That’s the ultimate ‘lesson'”

Firstly, as someone who enjoys good writing I admire the way you’ve ended this. Nice work. Total rubbish, of course, but a strong ending.

Actually, the ending was a small bit of banter between me and some pupils with whom I have a good relationship, based on adult-child respect that has been hard won. Of course the real lesson, as explicitly made clear in the article, is that the boys wouldn’t accept me until I began to behave in a certain way and had proved certain things (mainly that I would be sticking around, not that I am a ‘real man’). That may well not fit in with your ‘theory’ of education but unfortunately I’m working in a real school, with real kids, and I’m trying my utmost to help them achieve the grades that will open doors when they leave school. I’m comfortable with that. What are you doing?

10. “‘no excuses’ language coded throughout, too. most hated part of the whole school reform movement. confusing respect w compliance.”

Ok. At least this begins to engage in some debate. First sentence is pure echo chamber though. I don’t actually confuse respect with compliance. They are not synonymous, I am well aware of that. However, in this case, the compliance follows on from the respect, and that’s made pretty clear in the article.

11. “This article was thoroughly frightening to read. His value systems are inherently patriarchal and capitalist. Jesus.”

Meh. Whatevs. Can you imagine any situation where this isn’t the answer?

12. “Can’t wait. As a former educator and one who grapples especially with systemic treatment of black boys as likely offenders, it rankled.”

I’ve thought over this a lot, and the only reason at all I can think of for your bringing up of ‘black boys’ is because you’re confusing ‘disadvantaged’ with ‘black’. I hope I’m wrong about that, because they most certainly are not one and the same, but I can see no other reason why you would bring race into it like that? Allow me to re-iterate, I don’t mention race once during the article, so I’m not sure why you would bring it up? It perhaps reveals some of your own prejudices about kids in tough schools? The school I work in is extremely diverse (over 60 language spoken) but only a small percentage of the children are black or of African descent. This is not, and never was, an article about race.

Right. That’s it folks. Well done if you’ve made it to the end. I’ll end with this “manly” quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Some stuff I think I know… after one year of teaching

Here’s a collection of nine random thoughts  with no particular connection, logic, or order, as I come to the end of my first year’s teaching…

1. It seems like no one cares about explanations…

This I have found rather confusing: the idea that we shouldn’t really tell the kids anything. In fact, I think it’s insane. Insane. I mean, come on, whether you’re “prog” or “trad”, prefer direct instruction or discovery, at some point you have to explain stuff. Ultimately, there’s information in my head that I must get into the kids’. That’s the essence of teaching, surely? I know, for example, how Shelley’s manipulation of the sonnet form works to create meaning in Ozymandias. It’s a chunk of knowledge that exists amongst a whopping swamp of litter and junk in my brain. The challenge is to remove it from my murky mind-swamp then deposit it into the kids’, preferably while leaving all the other crap behind.

Whether I write out information and hide it in envelopes around the room, or I stand at the front of a class and explain it, I’m using words to explain concepts. Not once this year have I encountered any CPD or training that focussed on the quality of explanations or the different approaches to explaining. But there are so many questions we should ask: What is the ideal method to communicate this information? When should I use analogies? Might this analogy confuse matters? How should I harness the power of stories? When are stories appropriate? What is the best definition of this concept? In which situations is it best to provide a definition prior to a clarifying example? In which situations post? Which potential misconceptions should I address during the course of this explanation? And so on and so on.

I reckon explanation might be the most important part of the craft. A clear explanation provides knowledge and understanding, but an unclear explanation doesn’t simply prevent this, it actively creates a barrier against it occurring in the future, by embedding confusion that must be unpicked at a later date. I don’t know about anyone else but I spend a whole heap of time honing my explanations. If there’s one Edu-book I wish I owned, it is this: “How to Explain Concepts in English”. Actually, I’ll write that book in future. So don’t pinch my idea. My lawyers are at the ready.

2. The whole prog v trad thing is so cringe…
Given my approach to teaching, other people might say I’m a bit “trad”. But I would never label myself as such. Mainly because I’m not a seven year old geek, so I don’t behave like one.

There are genuine debates. Important debates. But childish labels cheapen them. They also make it much easier for people to dismiss your views. Better to stick with evidence, I’d say.

3. ‘Literacy’ should replace English Language in Bucket 1…
The English Language qualification is not fit for purpose. I’d replace it with a literacy qualification that is more along the lines of literacy skills test that teachers have to take. There are problems with that test, but, in the main, I think they can be overcome. Most importantly, some extended writing must be included. I would also have writing assessed at the sentence-level; in the final analysis, a great writer has the ability to construct and combine great sentences.

If this were to work, garnering more agreement on the rules of punctuation and grammar would be essential. Remember, written communication is a human invention, and it is, therefore, within our power to agree on a set of rules. In this way, grammar and punctuation are similar to money and laws. Money only works because we assign agreed values to random bits of paper, so long as they are marked with the correct squiggles. Similarly, laws only work because we agree to follow them and accept that we must be punished if we don’t. Grammar and punctuation are the currency and laws of language.

We would also need to think carefully about how we test reading and comprehension. Background knowledge is hugely important to reading, scientists have demonstrated. Currently, the reading sections of the English Language qualification is, to a large extent, a general knowledge test. Broad general knowledge is an admirable goal of education. But it should be tested in a General Knowledge exam, not a reading exam. And it gives a huge bias to pupils with more cultural capital. Or, put another way, it disadvantages the disadvantaged. In a literacy exam, we could instead test decoding. If this sounds too basic, take look at the number of pupils who leave secondary school illiterate.

If we want to test comprehension/inference/implicit/explicit etc. then a specified body of knowledge from which the comprehension extract is selected would improve matters. It wouldn’t eradicate the problem of cultural capital, but if all children have the same opportunity to swot up on the body of knowledge in advance it at least begins to flatten the field.

4. History should also be in Bucket 1…
Since you can’t understand the present without knowing the past, History should be included in Bucket 1. And if the goal of education is “broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation” (Amanda Spielman), and if “there are some things that all pupils are entitled to know when they leave school,” (Stuart Lock) then historical knowledge is essential.

Why? Because it is perhaps unlikely that the knowledge and discoveries that will lead us to these lofty goals is being thought, invented, or said right here, right now, in this very classroom, for the first time ever, while simultaneously being discovered in many other classrooms all over the country. And since an unforeseen orgy of enlightenment, led by led by the nation’s teenagers, hasn’t erupted out of the blue and overtaken our schools, every subject is, in essence, history. We’re studying books that have already been written, influenced by previous books and influencing subsequent books. That’s history. We’re learning mathematical stuff that some dudes and dudettes discovered in the past. That’s history. We’re looking at scientific ideas that have already been proven. That’s history.

And a broad knowledge of what is traditionally considered “History” (wars, kings, revolutions et cetera) gives a good background to all the various subject-specific histories, making them more understandable and accessible, because it allows a skeleton narrative to form in a person’s mind, off which other information can hang.

Ideally, all pupils should read Andrew Matt’s History of the World. Is it academic? No. Is it authoritative? No. Is it accessible? Yes. Does it give a broad and accessible explanation of how humanity went from spears in Africa to 21st Century “global village”? Yes. Children should absolutely leave school understanding that, right?

5. We waste most of our time on irrelevant flim-flam…
I think they’re are really only about six questions teachers should ask themselves prior to a lesson:

  1. What information do the pupils need to know?
  2. What is the best way to present this information to ensure they understand it
  3. Which methods will best help them retain this information?
  4. What is the best way assess whether they’ve retained this information?
  5. In what ways will they need to use or apply this information?
  6. Is there anything I need to teach so they are able to use or apply this information?

Currently, I think teachers spent more time thinking:

  1. If SLT come in, what will they think of this activity?
  2. Will X pupils behave today?
  3. By next Tuesday, I have to have seating plans with SEN, PP, prior attainment, target grade, current grade, EAL, and most-able completed and colour-coded. If I change my seating plan. I’ll have to do all all over again. I won’t change my seating plan. Ever.
  4. Also by next Tuesday, I must have a 4-sided context sheet completed, with a narrative for the class and a narrative for every pupil, which must broken down by SEN group and racial background. Why do I have to do this anew each half-term? If any set changes occur in the meantime, then I’ll have to do this again. Again-again.
  5. I must complete triple-lock marking for all my groups but I have a meeting every evening this week. In fact, I have 2 meetings and parents’ evening on Wednesday evening.

You get the idea.

6. Everyone knows the research shows PP pupils lack cultural capital and vocabulary…
So why do we not spend our time improving their cultural capital and vocabulary? Hel-lo? Anyone?

7. Marking and feedback are not synonyms…
They’re not.

8. And neither are marking and assessment…
They’re not either.

9. And while I’m at it…
Neither are assessment and feedback.

Just sayin’.

On teaching boys… and violence and aggression and masculinity and assertiveness

During a last minute revision lesson before the English Language examinations, one of my Year 11 pupils approached me. “Sir,” he said. “Do you know what mistake you made with us lot?”

Yes, I thought. I was too nice to you at the beginning of the year.

“You were too nice to us at the beginning of the year,” he said.

I sat back in my chair. The other boys in the room looked up from their work in anticipation. Clearly, I knew why the pupil had said this — because it was true — but I asked him to explain himself anyway.

“My brothers say you’re well strict, Sir.”

Recently, I have read a number of Edu-blogs focusing on masculinity, aggression, and violence, in particular from Tom Bennet and @positivteacha, and since I work in a challenging boys’ school, I reckon I have something to add. Further, I like violence. I’ll just repeat that once more for effect: I like violence. I like violence in films, violence in books. I’m most engaged in a sporting event when the aggression is simmering and it threatens to boil over. Boxing is my favourite sport of all, and, until an injury forced me to quit, I boxed a little myself. Of course, I’m not some violent sociopath. Outside of a ring, I haven’t been in any kind of scuffle since my teenage years — a long time ago — but it would be disingenuous of me to deny that I enjoy some forms of violence, and it would be disingenuous of me to claim that this is not a part of my experience as a man, as a male, or as an XY, depending on the extent to which you believe in biological determinism, or nature vs nurture.

But what does this have to do with schools? What role does masculinity play in the context of the classroom? In particular, what does it have to do with teaching and learning? Let us think back to the pupil above. In preparation for next year, the faculty I work in have recently initiated the set changes that would usually occur after the summer, and as a result of these, I’ve ended up teaching both younger brothers of pupil in question, one of whom is in Y7 and the other Y9. When I came to teach their classes, if there was one thing I was damn sure about, it was that I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as I had earlier in the year. As such, when the classes arrived at my door, I was going to treat them as children who were likely to misbehave, not as young adults who I could inspire and charm wondrously by force of my engaging personality. Ahem. The upshot of this is that to his brothers, but not to him, I am a strict teacher.

I know, I know: all this will make some people uncomfortable. It sounds heartless. It sounds like I don’t care. It sounds like I think kids are all bad. None of these things is true. I’ve worked with young people in a variety of settings over a number of years, including PRU, NEET, LACES, and mainstream, and I can honestly say that, out of the thousands of children I have worked with, I can count on one hand the number I think are in way “bad”. Kids often do bad things but rarely does that mean they’re bad people. And yet the comment from the elder sibling is revealing, is it not? He wished I had treated his class like I subsequently treated the classes of his brothers, and whipped them into shape from minute one, rather than trying, generally unsuccessfully, to claw back the behaviour of his class after a terrible beginning. In essence, he wished I had treated them as children who were likely to misbehave — which, with hindsight, they most certainly were and most certainly did.

Now, the school I work in is tough — inner-city, all-boys — as tough as a mainstream school gets. You must be tough to work there, and the boys are only interested in being taught by someone who is tough-enough; someone who is tough-enough to stand up to their challenges, and someone they have tested and proved they can stick around. Someone who won’t up sticks and abandon them when times get tough. So when I stand in front of the class and insist, insist, on compliance I do so not only because those pupils who want to work and learn deserve adults who will provide them with an environment in which they can do so, but also because those boys who present the most challenging behaviour want this too. In fact, they want it the most. They want teachers who are tougher than they are themselves. As their teacher, they want me to be a man who can earn and command their respect, who won’t back down, whose will is stronger than their own. There has been so much this year that has been tough, but it is this battle of will that has been always the sharp point. It is this that has so drained me, emotionally. It is this that has led to me tell those closest to me, in my darkest moments, that this job has “taken something” from me.

But for all that, why, exactly, would a class of disadvantaged boys want some weak-willed teacher? Why would they want to learn from someone who couldn’t last day in the world as they know it? This doesn’t mean they want some knife wielding maniac. It does mean they want someone who can roll with the punches, who is in their corner, who can be trusted to pull them up from the canvas and yet disqualify them if they hit below the belt.

Instinctively, men understand that respect is the foundation of masculinity. When a man enters a new social group, he doesn’t expect equality but understands he must earn respect from his peers before being treated as an equal or a leader. (Incidentally, I believe it is this that is at the root of a lot of destructive male behaviour — a desire to win respect too quickly, or at any cost, can lead men to violence and aggression.) Whether we are a male or female teacher, the important role that respect plays in terms of both boys and masculinity has implications for the ways we treat the boys in our schools. Principally, we might want to consider a few points:

  • We damn well better have high expectations. What pupil in their right mind respects a teacher who expects nothing of them? The teacher is failing in in their first and most obvious duty — to improve the child. Of course, children may well say they like a teacher who allows them to behave as though they are a wild animal, but this is based not on respect but on a superficial and present-tense predilection for laziness.
  • We better know our subjects. Boys won’t respect someone who they feel has nothing to tell them.
  • We better follow through with anything we say we will do. If we don’t have the strength of character to follow through on our words, we’re nothing. We must be also be clear about what we expect: say what we mean and mean what we say. Teenage boys rarely speak in riddles.
  • We better demonstrate that we respect ourselves. If a class doesn’t enter my room correctly? “Get back outside. Line up against that wall and don’t say a single word. Each and every one of you knows what I expect. How dare you enter my classroom like that?” Phrased like this, the words have nothing to do with my disappointment with the pupils. The pupils are outside and standing in silence because it’s my room and I’ve set the rules, and I’m demonstrating I have enough self-respect to insist that they’re met. However, when the pupils (silently) return, I’ll frame the resulting (and necessary) conversation in terms of the respect they must show not to me (I’ve already demonstrated the respect I believe I deserve), but to one another — respect for the learning time and environment of themselves and their peers. And, of course, this is the reason why I insist on their following the rules; I value their education, and sometimes often I must value it on their behalf.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the classroom needs to be a place of respect. But respect looks different to different people in different places and contexts. Sometimes, in a tough, inner-city boys school, there is a need for teachers, again regardless of whether they are male or female, to be… not aggressive, but hyper-assertive. In recent years, many of the traits and traditional ideals associated with manliness have been ridiculed and eroded away, and men are often portrayed as violent monsters, feckless slackers, or useless, half-arsed, domestic pests. But one manly trait that has survived the cull is assertiveness. Assertiveness is, generally, still considered a desirable trait for a man (and increasingly for a woman too). But there is a fine line between assertion and aggression, often finer than we will admit, and when working with children, and in an environment that requires, nay demands, constant assertiveness, while simultaneously testing that assertiveness, it really is incumbent upon us as professionals to reflect on how we are assertive. I’m sure many teachers have ended up on the wrong side of that line once or twice, having been wound up in the wrong way at the wrong moment. If not, most will have witnessed a colleague who has allowed anger to get the best of them. This is understandable, but it is not the way we should aim to assert ourselves. I believe the more supportive SLT are of teachers who are firm and assertive, the less teachers will lose control. Since they know they are working within a framework that backs them, teachers are more likely to remain calm when presented with a challenging situation.

In my department (English), I am the only man, and so during the course of this year, I have collected a number of boys in my classes who it is said “respond better” to a man (sometimes these pupils are known, more simply, as “naughty”). I also have boys who hang around after lessons and ask me to demonstrate how to throw a jab. I have boys who search me out on a Monday morning because they want to talk about the boxing that was on TV at the weekend, and who find me on a Friday to ask who I think will win and why (they’ll often challenge my opinion, but I’m usually correct #JustSayinLads). Whether it’s about books or boxing, the boys will listen because they respect me, and because they think I might say something worth hearing, and yet I know no more about either of these things now than I did at Christmas, when many of the same pupils wouldn’t have listened to me talk on either subject or followed any instruction I gave. All that’s happened in the intervening months is that they’ve come to respect me. The way I’ve earned their respect is simply by demonstrating that I myself believe I deserve it, and I’ve done that by fulfilling the role of a responsible adult, above all, by asserting myself. To fulfil the role of responsible adult, I’ve often had to, for example, tell the pupils “straight”; bellow orders, instructions, and expectations at them; call them out in the frankest of terms (short of swearing) about their casual use of sexist and homophobic language; tell them their work/behaviour/attitude isn’t good enough; and that their excuses don’t interest or bother me. The paradox is that the blunter and more candid I’ve become, the more positively the boys have responded; it seems counter-intuitive, especially in a society that conceives of individual freedom as a mythical thing bestowed on us as though by divinity, rather than a liberty that is fragile and requires careful nurturing if our young people are to turn into truly free adults. Of course, the paradox isn’t really a paradox. We’re social animals and a large part of growing up is learning how to behave in groups. To this end, rules and boundaries are extremely important, and we’re damaging many of our boys when we pussyfoot around their behaviour. For instance, if I called them out on their sexist and homophobic language while coming across like some effete milksop, it would mean nothing. Indeed, when I was a teenager myself, there were few things that irked me more than when some apparently caring do-gooder claimed they “understood” me or asked, “and how does that make you feel?” in a creepily hushed tone. It’s only because I’ve fulfilled an assertive, responsible role that the boys are prepared to listen to what I have to say on these issues. If I can say these things and remain a man, so can they.

All this reached a nadir recently, when my Year 10s, who were so poorly behaved at the beginning of the year that it took several members of staff to even get them in the classroom, were in uproar for the first time in months. What had angered them so? I told them I would be away for three weeks on a placement. The room erupted with accusations: “You’re leaving!” “You won’t come back!” “You’ve got another job!” “You’re lying!” etc etc. As I said earlier, the boys need to know above all that, as their teacher, I won’t abandon them. For me to have left now, after they have accepted me and subordinated to my rules, would have been the ultimate betrayal.

Of course, I understand their anger is really loyalty. But what has changed so profoundly over the course of a few months, so that a class who wouldn’t even enter the classroom, who would systematically throw pencils and pens at me, now can’t countenance the prospect of 15 English lessons with a different teacher? Trust. By demanding their respect, by sticking to my word for months on end, by holding them to account and refusing to excuse their poor behaviour, I’ve eventually created an environment in which they can trust the parameters, and in which they feel like they have someone to look up to. Don’t get me wrong, my classroom is hardly some Utopian paradise, where hitherto difficult and aggressive boys miraculously metamorphose into chivalrous and polite young gentlemen. And there are teachers in my school who are much better at behaviour management than I. But my classroom is a place where work happens and where progress is made. Undoubtedly, for some of the boys in my Y10 class, I embody something more than a teacher, something that is missing in the rest of their life (and while I’ve been away, I know a number of them have checked with other members of staff to see if I’m really coming back). But more than that, they know that while I’ll chide, rebuke, and reproach them when they’re out of line, I’ll also be at front of the queue to advocate for them. They understand that everything I do, I do with their interests in mind. In some sense, I’ve taken the attitude of the boxing gym and applied it to the classroom. I’ve had to break them down so I can build them up.

Shortly before I went on the placement, one of pupils piped up during a piece of silent writing. “Sir,” he said. “Could you beat Raymond in a boxing match?”

Raymond, often a challenging pupil, is a little bit taller and a whole lot heavier than I.

“Yes,” I said.

Up looked Raymond. “How do you know that sir?”

“Imagine you’re playing badminton, Raymond,” I said. “If you’ve never played before and your opponent has played for five years, do you think you’d beat him?”


“Well then.”

And that is the answer the pupils wanted. They got back to work.


Anyone can make something simple seem complex… On clarity, explanations, irony, and ‘My Last Duchess’

For those who don’t know, I am currently on a three-week placement with the school who will accredit my QTS via the Assessment-Only route. Amongst other things, this has involved a small amount of teaching and observing A-Level classes — a first for me. Reading through some pupils NEA’s (quaintly known as “coursework” to anyone above a certain age), I was transported back a number of years, to writing my own A-Level essays. Specifically, I remembered feeling pressured to write intelligently. No doubt this pressure was wholly self-inflicted. I had a truly wonderful English teacher for both GCSE and A-Level, Mrs Griggs (also my form teacher), who pretty much singlehandedly kept me in mainstream education, and I have no memory of her saying: “Tom, for the love of God, would you whip out that thesaurus over there and add some needless words to your writing!” But alas, whip out that thesaurus over there I did, and add some (many) needless words l did. William Strunk’s “Omit needless words” is perhaps one of literature’s truest maxims on the art of writing. A virtuoso sentence, unimprovable insofar as it follows the advice it offers (try to re-phrase it more concisely).

Rather less articulately, I found myself offering similar advice to an A-Level pupil. Now, this was a clever lad. Probably an A* candidate. His essay dealt with a number complex ideas on the application of Marxist theory to Larkin’s poetry. However, his writing was riddled with words. Needless words. They were everywhere. A plethora of infinitive verbs. A deluge of abstract nouns. A superfluity of phrases and clauses. And all resulting in a potentially brilliant essay descending into empty vagaries. He took a little convincing, but in time I persuaded him that, while many a writer can take a simple idea and make it seem complex, only a great writer can take a complex idea and make it simple. Back to his computer he went, and hopefully to the most wonderful key of all: delete.

All this had me thinking about the extent to which Strunk’s maxim “Omit needless words” can, or should, be applied to teaching, and in particular teacher explanations. Now, full disclosure, I am not someone who believes a the teacher should shut up and allow a class teach itself. I mean, I’ve read Lord of Flies and I’ve seen Battle Royale, y’know? You won’t ever hear me saying to a colleague who is wittering on endlessly, “Hey maaan, are you the sage on stage or the guide at the side?” I might, however, recommend they improve their explanations.

Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as a Business Development Manager. If there’s one thing you learn quickly when you’re selling things to disinterested people, it is this: what you say is irrelevant, rather it is what they hear that is important. A good general rule is this: people like to get the information they need clearly and quickly. They don’t want to know what they don’t (think they) need to know. Please note, I’m not advocating teaching to the exam here. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t overload pupils with flim-flam and waffle. I might love irony, for example, but still, prior to teaching ‘My Last Duchess’, there is no need for me to indulge that love by giving my bottom set Year 10 a thirty-minute introduction to the concept. This would leave many confused and most bored. Better off I give them a simple and straightforward explanation, one which will allow them to access and understand how irony works in this poem. So I’ll weave my explanation of irony into my teaching of the poem more generally.

So how do I explain it? Well, first of all, here’s some things I don’t do. I don’t explain it in terms of sarcasm, as I have seen done before (“it’s a bit like sarcasm but it doesn’t rely on tone of voice”). Why don’t I do that? Two reasons. One: confusion between irony and sarcasm is something I am trying to avoid, so comparing them is obviously counter-productive. Two: this definition doesn’t actually explain what irony is, only what it isn’t. Similarly, I won’t offer a vague definition, such as: “It’s when someone says one thing but means another”. Here pupils will reasonably respond: “Oh I get it. You mean lying, Sir?” No. No I don’t. The explanation I’ve used has confused them. And I most certainly will not give them a definition of irony up front, lest those pesky children spent their time attempting to sniff out the irony themselves and thus develop an array of misconceptions, which I must then unpick.

Instead, what I will attempt to do is provide a simple explanation, ideally within a clarifying example. Again, note that my explanation/definition comes within the clarifying example, not before it. So for ‘My Last Duchess’ I will explain the following, writing key information on the board as I go (see the end of post for an example) to prevent overloading the pupils.

  1. I tell the pupils that it is necessary to understand irony in order to understand the poem fully. I tell them I’ll demonstrate an example first then explain what irony is.
  2. I make them aware it is Browning who is being ironic, not the Duke. (The pupils need to understand this first, otherwise they are likely to confuse irony with a lack of truthfulness on the part of the Duke.)
  3. I explain that Browning is using the Duke’s words to mean one thing (the Duke does believe what he is saying) but he is also expecting the reader (“that’s you lads”) to pick up on another meaning.
  4. Note that while, as a teacher, you can see how I am beginning to introduce the concept of irony, the pupils are still in the dark. Because of this, I’ll recap points 2 and 3 a number of times, until I am happy that everyone has listened/grasped them.
  5. Now, as I explain the differences between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, I will draw a diagram on the board that illustrates some of the differences:FullSizeRender
  6. I will then explain to the pupils that it is in this gap, between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, that the irony lives. The Duke is saying one thing, but Browning is telling us something else. (“And remember lads, it is Browning who is being ironic, and it is Browning who wrote the words of the Duke.”) Generally, at this point, a noise of satisfaction will come over the room as the penny begins to drop. With this, I will add to the diagram like so:IMG_1256
  7. Finally, once pupils have some understanding of what irony is, I will provide a definition, which I will expect them to write in their books. Something along the lines of: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite. (Clearly, this is an oversimplification of the complexities of irony. But at this point the pupils have an understanding of how irony works, and a simple definition to go with it. Anything more will confuse them. Once the knowledge is embedded it can be expanded on later, should the teacher believe it beneficial or desirable.)
  8. At this point I might add something like: “In the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning was using the Duke as an example of how some people in Victorian Britain thought about women. Some would have thought the Duke’s behaviour was fine. Can you believe that? However, he used the irony to show that the Duke was actually a madman, even though he seemed kind of normal. He wanted to show people they should not think the same way as the Duke; he wanted them to think the opposite way to the Duke, so he used the Duke’s own words against himself. Browning is saying that if you think the same way as the Duke you are also a madman.” The pupils get this. They think: “Yes, he is a madman. He had her killed for smiling.”

Before I move on with the lesson, I will have the pupils parrot back the definition of irony I provided for them. I will also have them talk me through how irony works in ‘My Last Duchess’. Here pupils will struggle. But it is particularly important to be rigorous with this step. The pupils will get frustrated, but it is good frustration; they are frustrated because they understand and yet are struggling to explain. It’s worthwhile talking them through this. I re-assure them that they have already accomplished the hard part (understanding irony) and now they just need to do the easy bit — committing it to memory.

This is at odds with how the relationship between working memory, long-term memory, and “true understanding” is typically conceived. Usually, memorisation is thought to a) come first, b) be in some sense “easier”, and c) be less worthwhile (“surface learning”). As we can see from this example, none of those things is necessarily true. When I explain irony to my pupils, they frequently understand the concept. When I ask my pupils to explain irony to me, they frequently seem not to understand the concept. But it is vital that as teachers we do not mistake a pupil’s inability to explain a concept as evidence that they have not understood it. It simply means that they have not memorised the various constituent pieces of information that are required for independent explanation. In this example, it is memorisation that is both trickier and more effortful than understanding, and it is memorisation that will enable pupils to become independent users of the concept of irony.

When I explain the concept to them, I am standing in for their long-term memory, and I am simply asking them to manipulate small pieces of information that I present and explain in a logical sequence. It is for this reason that I will often list the key points of an explanation on the whiteboard in a series of steps, an example of which is provided at the end of the post (1,2,3 etc.). It allows the information to be sequenced into small chunks, making the information easier to understand before it has been memorised and easier to memorise after it has been understood.

All this takes 15-20 minutes, depending on the group, and at no point do I get bogged down trying to explain what irony is. Like Strunk’s masterful “Omit needless words”, the irony mostly demonstrates itself. I simply stand on stage and guide the pupils’ eyes toward it…

Please, if you have something to add regarding my definition of irony, my approach to explaining, the steps, the inversion of the understanding/memorisation process, or indeed anything else, then leave a comment below. I’m keen to learn as much as I can from my fellow EduTwits, and I’ll reply when I can.


Whiteboard steps

  1. It is Browning is being ironic, not the Duke.
  2. The Duke genuinely believes what he is saying, but the reader understands something different.
  3. Diagram. (Illustrates examples of difference between what the Duke says and the audience thinks, and includes an explanation of how irony works in My Last Duchess.)
  4. Definition: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite.


Should you wish to read Strunk and White’s excellent, if slightly outdated, The Elements of Style, you can do so here.

My explanation of irony, particularly in relation to My Last Duchess, has been partly influenced by The Art of Poetry vol. 6. I recommend every English teacher buys it. It is the best poetry resource around, and by some distance.

On EAL, vocab, memory, and trust

For teachers, one of the more dispiriting hallmarks of life at the chalkface is pupils’ inability to retain information. The joy of yesterday, when pupils successfully articulated how Shelley used structure in Ozymandias to reflect the shifting and precarious nature of power, is obliterated when a day later those same pupils have forgotten what a stanza is.

However, one area where this observation doesn’t hold is in retention of vocabulary, particularly by EAL learners. During a meeting with my (wonderful) mentor last week, she praised a dictionary task I had done with a low-ability set while we studied ‘Storm on the Island’. After reflecting for a moment I said: “It’s incredible, EAL kids remember all the vocab I teach them. They don’t remember anything else I teach,” I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “but they can recall words defined for them six-months ago. It’s actually insane.” She nodded sagely, my mentor, and we went on with the meeting.

This got me to thinking about the nature of language acquisition and what vocabulary  we should be teaching our EAL pupils. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that, when it comes subject-specific language, we should teach them the exact same vocabulary that we teach our non-EAL pupils. There should be no reduction in vocabularic ambition. (Yes, I just made that word up.)

Anyway, prior to life in my current school, I have seen classrooms where the teachers teach classes of solely EAL pupils using card-sorts and only the most basic language. Note, these were pupils who had a basic grasp of the language, not brand new arrivals with little or no English. I understand the rationale for this approach, and I have no doubt that the teachers were teaching this way out of a sincere belief that they are doing best by their pupils. And, frankly, they might be right. I have no evidence to suggest my approach is any more effective. However, my experience so far has taught me that EAL pupils will pick up the basic vocabulary, so long as they are exposed to it, which the vast majority are, if only through the volume of English they hear in their classrooms. Humans are evolved to acquire language and, while there is a difference between first and second language acquisition, as teachers we should exploit this, and in English the new specifications reward teaching EAL pupils higher-level vocab.

Whilst I have some reservations about the new specifications, in general I think the changes have been positive. In literature particularly, pupils are rewarded for their knowledge of the texts. This is why I don’t dumb-down the vocabulary I teach my EAL pupils. For example, when I come to teach Armitage’s ‘Remains’ I will define the word “dehumanise”, explain how it relates to the poem, illustrate quotes it links to, and model ways in which I might use the word to write about the poem. Of course, when the pupils produce their own paragraphs, they will contain all the mistakes familiar to those who teach a high volume of EAL pupils: confusion between singular nouns and plural verbs, and vice-versa; over use of conjunctions; incorrect use of definite and indefinite article; wordiness; merging of first and second language grammatical constructions etc etc. However, the pupils will make these mistakes while using vocabulary that allows them to access, and deal with, ideas of conceptual complexity; under the current specification, the mark scheme allows me to reward them for this.

This brings to mind another problem of teaching classes that have high numbers of EAL pupils: identifying those who are high-ability and low-ability, since EAL pupils’ linguistic competence often obscures their ability to think conceptually. So often they have the ability but they don’t have the words. However, the approach outlined above (define, explain, illustrate, model) allows all the pupils to have access to the material because they are both learning new vocabulary and understanding how it relates to the text at hand. Another pleasing consequence of this approach is that it also benefits the boys in the class whose first language is English but who lack natural aptitude for the subject. Further, it is excellent for the boys who have fallen behind their peers and ended up in a low set due to years of poor behaviour. For these boys in particular, it provides tangible nuggets of knowledge they can learn and consolidate, allowing them to feel a sense of success. An underdeveloped vocabulary is common to all these groups, and a methodical approach to broadening their ‘word-base’ benefits these pupils greatly. (NB. I teach in an all-boys school.)

The question all this naturally begs is why do pupils seem to remember vocabulary better than other information? Again, I have nothing to back up any of the assertions I am about to make — besides my own experience, observations, and, truthfully, guess-work. But two ideas immediately present themselves to me. Firstly, humans probably have a natural inclination to remember and recall language. Secondly, and more importantly for those of us who teach, we probably teach vocabulary better than other knowledge. As I pointed out above, I often use a rigorous approach when introducing pupils to new vocabulary. The ‘define, explain, illustrate, model’ process means that, after pupils are introduced to a word (and concept), they then see me work with that word, while also having the chance to interact with it themselves through my questioning and/or any tasks I ask them to complete. This contrasts with the way pupils are usually introduced to new information. Perhaps it is just me, but I know that, outside of vocabulary, it is rare that I have the opportunity to work with such small chunks of information and teach them so rigorously and explicitly. Furthermore, once I have taught a word it slips into the minutiae of the classroom culture. Once I am confident the pupils are secure with a word and concept, I am free to use it in my daily teachings. This produces a sort of de-facto retrieval practise, whereby pupils are forced to recall the word and what it means each time I use it, and if they are to fully understand what I am saying they are also required to think flexibility about the word, applying its meaning to various contexts. It is most satisfying when, a number of months later, we will be looking at a completely different text (say, Inspector Calls) and a hand will shoot up in desperate excitement, as though it must urgently touch the ceiling. A pupil will say: “Sir! Sir! He’s dehumanising her Sir!” in reference to Birling and Eva Smith. The sense of satisfaction pupils have when they can relate old concepts to new contexts is one of the most satisfying elements of the job, and one of the most visible reminders of how we make a difference.

Reflecting upon this has had implications for the ways in which I teach other knowledge to the pupils. Where possible, I try to reference old concepts in new contexts and I frequently use ‘Do it now…’ tasks to recap prior knowledge, as I know many other teachers do. But crucially, when necessary I will also stop lessons completely and return to a previous topic we have learned. This is particularly effective with a class who are becoming restless. I’m sure every teacher recognises the shiver that begins to twitch and quiver through a class when pupils collectively struggle with a difficult concept. Often, I’ll stop the lesson and ask some quick-fire retrieval questions about previous (often entirely unrelated) knowledge the pupils have been taught. There’s two reasons I do this. Most obviously, it allows me to recap and consolidate prior learning. Less obviously, it allows me to shift the dynamic of the room from one of struggle to success. I am not averse to struggle and many have pointed out that it is often necessary for learning. But we must also be aware that struggle is not pleasant and a class cannot spend all their time in a state of strain and confusion. By returning to something already learned, I am relieving some of the stress to which my pupils are exposed. But more than this, once I have shifted the dynamic, I can narrate my pupils through the process of learning, through the struggle. I remind them that there was a time when they had to struggle through the concepts in the questions that they have just found easy, and I reassure that there will be a time in the future when they breeze through questions on the ideas they are struggling with now. “But you must trust me,” I tell them. “You must let me guide you, and you must stick with me; we’ll get there, but we’ll only get there if we stay together.”