Tag Archives: Explanation

Michaela: well behaved pupils being taught well


So much has already been written about Michaela that it leaves one in quandary about what exactly to add. Most people reading this will be well aware of their marking and feedback policies; the family lunches; their approaches to teaching, homework, and curriculum; the no excuses behaviour policy and silent corridors; and all the other ideas and innovations that have captured people’s attention. Therefore, I shan’t investigate any of these things directly, since, as far as possible, I have tried not to repeat things that others have said before. If I have failed, I apologise.


For a while now, I have thought that were I to run my own school, its motto would be ‘Well-behaved pupils being taught well’. It’s simple, straightforward, and seems to capture the essence of a good school. So, when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, it is with that approach to schooling in mind. Because, for all the extraordinary things I saw at Michaela, and I saw many extraordinary things, what they added up to was a school in which well-behaved pupils were being taught well.

Perhaps it was because of the noise around the school—the detractors on Twitter, the lunch-money controversies, the newspaper headlines anointing Katharine Birbalsingh as ‘Britain’s strictest Headteacher’—that, with retrospect, a small part of my subconscious was expecting to be confronted by something utterly strange, entirely abnormal. Thus, it was not the sense of fellowship imparted by communal poetry recitals at lunch, or the pupils’ enthusiasm to answer questions in class, that I found most striking. Nor was it the abundance of warmth between pupils and teachers, or the two Y9 girls who confidently told me they had “left the pyramid behind”, as evidence of their having fully embodied its message.

No, what struck me most was the downright normality of seeing pupils, in a school, gasp, working hard. That and the dissonant feeling I had when contrasting the perfectly uncontroversial sight of teachers teaching and pupils learning, and the positive relationships fostered therein, with some of the histrionic criticism I had seen online. I felt as though my eyes were broken. I watched and wondered what some people, even if they favour a different approach to educating children, could find so offensive?

The reason I draw attention to this is because, even for someone who consider’s himself in accord with Michaela’s approach, as I do, it can sometimes feel as though the school is a far-off quirk, a remote outpost existing somewhere on the periphery of our education system. But it isn’t. Far from it. True, the staff at Michaela have been in many ways trailblazers, prepared to think differently, originally, daringly, but the school isn’t doing anything that another school couldn’t do, should it wish to. And since that it has, for some time, been unusual for schools to expect that pupils will listen silently and attentively while their teacher explains things, for pupils to complete individual work without chatting to their neighbour, and for teachers to be respected simply because they are teachers, that’s an important point, I think. These things need normalising; people need to say these things are normal.

Now, I teach in a school in a very different situation to Michaela. As such, my classroom will often look quite different to a Michaela classroom. But when I close my classroom door, the goal is exactly the same: to have the pupils behave properly, so I can teach them what they need to know. And when you stand and see Michaela’s approach for yourself, or at least when I stood and saw it for myself, consistently implemented across the school, it just seems mind-bogglingly sane. A simple, common sense approach to teaching, free from soul-destroying box-ticking and time-wasting flimflam. Ultimately, what was remarkable about the school was not any particular policy, procedure, or idea, but what, together, they added up to: Well-behaved pupils being taught well, unanimously. By implementing everything with painstaking zeal, the staff have created classrooms that are extraordinary precisely because of their apparent simplicity.

Understand, in no way am I diminishing or downplaying what Katharine Birbalsingh and her team have achieved. Quite the opposite. I can only speculate, but I’d guess that to develop the school into what it is today, the amount of forethought required was astonishing. Simplicity is deceptively difficult to achieve; the minutiae of numerous complex issues must be considered, allowing for clear and candid systems to be developed and implemented. As I have said before on this blog, a great writer is not one who can make a simple idea seem complex, but one who can make a complex idea seem simple. Having read Tiger Teachers, I presume something similar is occurring at Michaela. They are taking complex problems, grappling with them deeply, and then implementing their solutions so efficiently, consistently, and relentlessly that it feels like they just happen.

But things don’t ‘just happen’. People make things happen. So when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, or that things appear ‘simple’, I don’t mean to suggest there is a lack of complexity, or that here it is your average, identikit comprehensive, no different from any other. No, I mean it as a great compliment. Because to go against the grain, to take old ideas and combine them with new ideas, to add in some original ideas of your own, and then, on top of all that, to implement them so seamlessly that the whole thing seems entirely normal, that, it seems to me, is a remarkable achievement indeed.


I’d like to end by extending my thanks to Katharine for finding time for me to visit and the rest of the staff for being so welcoming. In particular, Joe Kirby, Barry Smith, Jo Facer, Jonathon Porter, and Katharine herself all gave up their time to chat with me and answer my questions.

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, 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.

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’.

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.”