Tag Archives: Expectations

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 knowledge. No teacher talk. No challenging texts. 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, 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 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, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I returned. “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  of sat here.”

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

He smiled.

From time-to-time, I still think of Raymond. I think of how he couldn’t string a sentence together and yet occasionally said something so insightful it would altogether halt me. But I try not to think of these things. They make me angry. I’m angry because if things had been different for Raymond, if he were from the other side of the tracks and 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 by comparison to those born in relative prosperity, children who grow up in poverty generally have a vastly reduced vocabulary. 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. Considered in light of these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage. 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, then we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address.  We cannot simply bemoan 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 saying that, as things stand, we  each have but one poxy vote with which to change them. And though wealth and vocabulary are correlated, income does not determine the breadth of a person’s vocabulary.

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. And 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 restating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.

To illustrate, we’ll compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Let’s say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children roam around the classroom finding 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, let’s consider all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk: a clear explanation employing rich language, complex words defined and then clarified with examples, and 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 then 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 advocate this because they worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I sympathise with the concern and have 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 any 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 illuminating the words and ideas 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 from poverty and prosperity.

(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature. However, 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 the warp and woof of their surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation. And, like it or not, in every region of our planet there is a dominant culture that prevails. People need access to the culture of the place that they inhabit in order to 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’m not, so it isn’t. 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 knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be recognised and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, that Theresa May is 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. They 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  also 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 supposed to be 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 the peer 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 this up, it’s not enough to simply know what irony is. No, the reader must understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes.

Last but not least, they need to take all this information 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. Incidentally, this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, 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 particular 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, then take a look in the mirror, because 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. Until fairly recently, I knew basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans, actually nothing about art or art history, and felt entirely like a philistine if I got dragged into an art gallery. So I’d walk around gibbering about how boring and rubbish I thought it all was, as a cover for my ignorance (and 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). And all this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge is 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 can be tricky. It’s far better to taught it by an expert teacher at school.

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.