Saturday, 9 November 2013

Breadth, And Talking To Your Neighbour, Matters More Than IT.

There are occasions in every teacher’s career when a pupil say something in their lesson which takes them aback. The clearest such memory for me was the pupil who asked, 20 minutes into a lesson about what makes people successful, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, but how are you defining success?’ The answer to his question (and it was a ‘him’) made for a better lesson than the one I had planned, and the digression prompted by the intelligence and independence of that question was a fabulous one for learning – both mine and the pupils’.

I was put in mind of that when reading the excellent paper by James Heckman, Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, writing not about economics, but about education. (

What struck me about this paper was not that it break s new ground, but rather that it re-states what many boarding schools – state and private – and some other (private) providers have known for a long time. The provision of excellent non-intellectual skills in the formative years is as important as the development of intellectual – or cognitive – skills.

At the school at which I work, there is a complete consensus on this idea: it is not enough that we enable pupils to do well in exams, though we do do this, and well. In addition to this, it is essential that we provide young people with the capability to gain promotion, not just the qualifications that will gain them a job.

The breadth of educational provision at private schools in the UK, of course, is not part of the analysis of those schools by the OECD, and PISA does not value that part of the curriculum, except insofar as it enables pupils to do better cognitively (which it does). Non-cognitive – or character – development, makes a tremendous difference to the prospects of young people, and this development does not have to take place only in the home, as Prof Heckman’s paper hints. Rather it can be – should be – part of the core provision of schools.

One further thought on this: the last decade has witnessed an extraordinary investment in IT in schools. The idea that greater levels of IT investment would generate better learning was so widely assumed that it has rarely been questioned. However, one of the consequences of this investment is that young people are spending more and more time within the curriculum staring at a screen, and – of course – they are definitely doing this outside the curriculum too. What they are doing less of is talking, in groups, with a purpose. There is the world of difference between a conversational drift, and the sort of verbal exchange that demands a conclusion, particularly under time pressure.

I am a huge neophile: I love my tablet, and gadgets thrill me. IT has a strong role to play in education, and there are many things we should use it for. But Prof Heckman’s paper reminds us not only that schools have a strong responsibility to develop non-cognitive skills, but also to recognise the development of relational skills, and to see them practised in the classroom.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Downton Abbey versus Loaded Magazine: Give Me Downton!

A wide variety of things drop into the inbox – physical and digital – of a headteacher. In the last week, I have come across two things which, when placed next to each other, present such a dissonant combination that I can’t help commenting.

Last week, a parent kindly sent me a link to an article in the Daily Mail. Now, I don’t normally read the Mail, but this article ( was actually worth the attention. The former editor of Loaded magazine has examined the extent to which young people are victims of the porn industry, and he is horrified. The article also makes reference to neuroscience which seems to suggest that use of pornography is addictive, at least for some people, in the same way that some substances can be. According to the Channel 4 documentary, referred to by the article, young people are often bombarded by porn via social networking websites, so much so that it is hard for them to avoid tempting photographic links to porn on the internet.

And then, this week, I could hardly have missed the furore about the rape scene in Downton Abbey. This event, which with the exception of a very brief violent encounter involving a blow to the face, took place entirely behind closed doors, has attracted a sufficient number of complaints to be front page news. Remarkably the word rape hasn’t (yet) been used in the programme – the viewers were expected to infer it from bruising to the face, some ripped clothing (but no nudity at all) and evident emotional trauma.

How extraordinary a world it is that the routine exploitation of women in today’s pornography industry should attract so little comment, while a (fairly) serious examination of violence against women in history should be seen as such a bad thing (even when shown after 9pm). All exploitation and violence against women is profoundly wrong; pretending it didn’t happen in the past is as dangerous as pretending it isn’t happening now. It did, and it does. Talking about it, in families, and in school, is an essential part of giving young people a chance to develop healthy attitudes, including a moral disgust of exploitation.

I have no idea what the demographic profile is of the complainants to Ofcom. For my part, I have suggested that history lessons at our school make reference to this controversy as part of their  consideration of the way in which women have been poorly treated by cultures and ‘civilisations’ in the past, which should lead to a discussion of how women are dominated, or exploited, in today’s society. And I will expect pupils, male and female, to contribute honestly and forthrightly in these discussions.

I consider it remarkable that some should consider that hushing up wrongdoing in the past should be an appropriate way of educating young people, or pretending that 'bad things' didn't happen. How foolish it would be to say that films like Schindler’s List, and books like Charlotte Gray or The Boy in Striped Pyjamas should not make reference to the Holocaust, because it is distasteful. Of course they should: these are the mistakes of the past that we need to make sure our children do not repeat. That requires serious examination. The head-in-the-sand approach won’t work.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ten Vital Adjustments to Make in the Sixth Form

In the last eight years I have often found myself writing on pupils’ reports at the end of the first or second term of their sixth form about the extent by which they have made a transition to sixth form work practices and expectations.  At the same time, I have never heard of a school spelling out exactly what that means to members of Y12.  This seems unreasonable to me, so this morning, I sat our Y12 down, and told them, and then I emailed it to them.

In 24 months the vast majority of them will be going on to university this weekend, where it will basically be entirely up to them whether they buy in, or drop out, and follow up/pastoral care will be far less evident than it is at school. So the process of adjustment that takes place in the Sixth form is not just necessary to prosper at A level, but also to survive at university.

So here are the ten key things Sixth formers need to do:
  1. Offer opinions in class backed up with good reasoning.  At GCSE, pupils can merely recount facts, whereas at A Level students of most subjects are invited to add to these facts a judgement, and give reasons for this judgement.  Practising this in class is essential for doing it well in an exam. 
  2. Ask questions about areas of confusion.  The onus is on the sixth former to say when they don’t understand and to find help, rather than on the teacher to discover what it is the student doesn’t know and offer help uninvited.  In this way students are expected fully to be collaborators with their teachers.   
  3. Think about what they will be studying in lessons before they actually study it.  Sixth formers should be given some guidance as to what they are studying at various times of the year, and should be getting ahead with it.  For some that will mean reading works of literature during the holidays before studying them during lessons, and for others it will mean that looking at areas of study that are coming up and familiarizing themselves with them before encountering them in the classroom.
  4. Revise each teacher's work each week as if having a weekly test, whilst fully knowing that the teacher will not set such a test. Most pupils will have studied with a teacher who gave them a weekly test and may remember those for example in the area of language vocabulary. In the sixth form all students should be learning as if they had a weekly test but shouldn’t actually be using class time or prep time on a weekly test of that sort.
  5. Read things which help work in lessons, although the teacher hasn’t asked pupils to.  This might include reading the newspapers, websites, and magazines.  Doing this is a key way in which a student might be able to show a university Admissions Tutor that they are more worthy of a place than other applicants, and it will provide them with a lot to write about in their personal statement on the UCAS form.
  6. Plan what work to do and when.  Study periods should be being used to do homework no longer set according to a timetable. This organization of the working diary should be being done explicitly in writing, and regularly, to make sure the student is allocating appropriate amounts of time to each subject and to work as a whole.
  7. Talk to fellow students about areas of subjects outside lesson time.  I remember walking past two students walking from History to English arguing about some aspects of the Reformation which they had been studying in the lesson that they were coming from.  This kind of discussion sharpens understanding and ability to craft arguments and it develops ability to do all this under time pressure in an exam. 
  8. Show enthusiasm in lessons.  If a student is not speaking up very often and not working outside what teachers have set, how are they showing enthusiasm for their subjects?  After all these are subjects that they have chosen. If they are not showing enthusiasm, what are they expecting their tutor to write on their UCAS form about their work ethic? And actually, enthusiasm comes  from hard work because it is hard work which leads us to enjoy academic study.
  9. Invite a teacher to lunch occasionally to continue discussions started in lessons.  If a student is never interested enough in what has been studied in a lesson to want to talk to their teacher about it after the lesson I seriously question whether they have chosen the right A Levels. Students should get that lack of interest out into the open with their  tutor so that they can help the student to find enthusiasm for subjects, or find subjects for which they have enthusiasm.
  10. Take responsibility for their  own learning. In many respects this is a summary of all of this.  If a student is not regarding their work as being primarily their responsibility, secondarily the responsibility of their teachers and thirdly the responsibility of their tutor and year head, then they haven’t yet 'got it'.

Sixth form should be intellectually thrilling. If it isn't, one of these may need more work. It will be worth getting the method right!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Beginning of Year Assembly

At our Prizegiving last term, I drew the attention of parents to the fact that the most important thing that happens in a school is learning. At our first assembly of the year, I developed that a little further when I suggest to pupils that it was fundamental for them to be constantly asking themselves this question regularly: ‘What am I learning in this situation?’.

If this seems unnecessarily obvious to the reader, I recommend asking a teenager after an academic lesson, or a musical instrument lesson, or a drama rehearsal, or a sports practice: 'What is it that you were meant to be learning during that period of time?' Many often don’t know, or haven’t thought about it.

The Director of Music at Monkton (see helpfully draws a distinction between playing the piano and practising the piano. Similarly, there is a difference between doing practice papers for an exam, and seeking to learn how to do the questions on a paper which one currently isn’t able to do. There’s a difference between going down to run around with a rugby or hockey ball, and practising skills or planned moves for a team. There is a difference between completing a practical leadership test, or a Duke of Edinburgh Walk, and learning from it.

In each case, focusing on the intended learning points is a high value activity. When students do a practice exam paying special attention to the questions they can’t do, looking up the answers and the method, and practising lots of similar questions, their marks go up. If they simply complete lots of past papers without considering why, their marks might go up, but they won’t go up by much.

A teenager who turns up for a rugby practice simply to run around like a headless chicken, probably won’t get much better. One who simply plays their way through pieces of music repeatedly, won’t get much better either: practice is repeating small segments of a piece are found difficult, until they are played exactly as desired.

I am convinced a large number of school pupils see the learning activities of the school days as things to get through: lessons, courses, activities, experiments and practicals. Viewing such activities in this way deafens the participant to the learning that can take place. Instead, being alive to what teachers call the ‘intended learning outcome’, and responding to it is important. Every student can accept that the habit of asking ‘What am I learning in this situation?’ is one they can master, and which might help them to use their school experiences more productively.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Starting The Academic Year Well - How To Improve Student Performance

So ... the beginning of term, and indeed a new year, is looming. What can students do to make this year a more successful – and a more satisfying – one? Here are a few basic and very practical tips for students:

First, define success for yourself. It won’t help you if success is defined by your teachers, tutors, friends, parents or other relatives. People don’t, in general, work as hard for other people’s objectives as they do for their own. Consultation is sensible, and objectives are best set when there have been some good honest conversations before the setting takes place. Once success is defined, goals can be set, and targets agreed, or thought of. Too many people set the target first, and then define success and fulfilling the target. As far as possible, success should be defined in objective terms: a long-jumper should aim to jump the gold medal distance, not to win the gold medal, since the latter is dependent on the behaviour of others.

Secondly, remember that ‘this year is going to be different’ only if you make it so. The vast majority of students starting the new academic year in the next few weeks is saying ‘this time is going to be different’ to themselves. Most won’t manage it. Making this year different from last year is a completely different game from resolving to do so. The resolution doesn’t need a ‘how’, accomplishing it does. If you are tempted to resolve to make this year different, think hard about what is going to be different about it, and then make yourself accountable to someone for actually doing it.

Thirdly, think about what you have learned from the recent past. What is the lesson of your exam results about what works and what doesn’t? What did teachers write about you last year, in reports, or at the bottom of your work? What needs to change? What themes emerge from feedback you have received? What needs to change that you want to change? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a student? If you don’t know the answer to this question, make sure to start the academic year by having this conversation with a parent, teacher, tutor, or older sibling. Check your perception of yourself against that of others – and don’t forget that theirs is likely to be more accurate than yours. Most under-performance starts with poor self-awareness.

Fourthly, don’t do it next term, next week or tomorrow. Start it – whatever it is – today! A resolution delayed once is far less likely to be implemented at all. If you don’t do the first homework on time, you’re toast. Habits are most easily established with the first decision – subsequent ones get easier. Do all your prep on time for a month, and you may not even notice the effort it used to take at the start.

Fifth – and most important – persevere. It isn’t all going to be easy: it isn’t meant to be. Athletes don’t go to the gym to find lifting weights easy – they get stronger by lifting weights that are really hard. Similarly, our intellects don’t develop unless we test them by doing things that are really hard. It can be dangerous to try to lift a (physical) weight that is too strong for our bodies to bear, but there is no such danger with our intellectual exercise. Note that one of the best predictors of educational attainment found in academic studies in the USA was not the answers given to questions about study, but the number of questions attempted. (See for more details). Grit really changes things. Be encouraged: this means that people might actually get the outcomes they deserve in education: the trick is to make sure you deserve a good outcome.

Finally, if all this seems like common sense, that's because it is. Excellence is usually in simple things done well, and consistently. There's no magic wand.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Grade Deflation Is As Pointless As Grade Inflation

One of the functions of money, according to economists, is to act as a unit of measurement. Countless hours of economists’ time is wasted by constant adjustments to measurement to take account of the changing value of money – as a result of inflation or deflation. On the other hand, endless hours of family amusement have been caused over the years by reflections that ‘I used to be able to buy a Mars Bar for less than 10p’, and so on. On balance, most would agree that an absence of inflation, and the consistency of measurement would be a good thing.

Similarly, in the UK at least, the examination of school pupils and the grading of their efforts, has been subject to a form of inflation. Are grades in this year’s exams consistent with the same grades in the same exams in previous years? This kind of longitudinal consistency is vital if exams are going to be meaningful – for example as a guide to the probability of success in other academic courses, or as a means of comparison of the ability of those who take their exams in different years.

It’s clearly been a mistake that a larger and larger percentage of pupils have been gaining higher grades since GCSEs were first taken in 1988. The change in the proportion has been greater than the rise in ‘standards’ in schools and so a B grade in English Language GCSE 2011 means something different from a B grade in the same exam twenty years earlier. Of course this has to be balanced against a greater accountability in schools, an inspection regime which has teeth, increased scrutiny of what teachers do in the classroom. It is possible that more pupils deserve their B grade in English Language – just because more people have climbed Everest in the last twenty years does not mean that doing so has got easier, or that Everest has got shorter.

It is even possible that what is meant by proficiency in English Language has changed over a twenty year period – for cultural, technological and practical reasons. But this is not the point – a B grade (or any other) should mark a basic level of proficiency which is intelligible to those who will interpret it – in education, or in the workplace.

So, the solution to two decades of grade inflation is not to reverse the trend, and gently reduce the percentage of pupils gaining higher grades. To do this introduces a second layer of complexity in interpreting the results. Two decades from now, who will remember in which year grade inflation was reversed, or by how much. These changes make the nature of the signal given by the grade even less clear – the measurement is even more ‘noisy’. It would have been much more helpful to freeze the value of the GCSE at the 2011 value, and insist that any deviation from that point could only be because there had been a significant change in the capability of the educational infrastructure. This would be the examining equivalent of joining the Euro – or for historians of joining the Gold Standard.

If one does this, how does one discriminate at the top level? By introducing – once and for all – a new grade. Perhaps an ‘S’ level at GCSE, for the top 2-3% of candidates would accomplish this, although this is only worthwhile if the examinations themselves reward the most able pupils, but that is a whole new can of worms. The only tenable alternative is to shift to a whole new grading system, as Ofqual proposes, on a numerical scale. On this score, Ofqual is absolutely right. If it is to have longitudinal integrity, however, there will have to be clear regulatory protection of the standard required for each grade, so that grade inflation – or its more recent cousin, grade deflation – becomes a topic in history, rather than in politics.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book Review - The Pinch

Without a doubt the pick of my summer reading has to be The Pinch by David Willetts. Although I struggled to get enthused about it during the summer term, a good stretch of time spent on it proved extremely worthwhile, and my enthusiasm for the book increased the further I went through it.

The scope of the book is to look at the way that different generations have fared in the UK through the latter half of the 20th century, and the first few years of this. Counter-intuitively Willetts demonstrates that it is a great good fortune to be born in a ‘bulge’ – rather than creating extra competition for a static number of jobs, it creates extra wealth, much of which is shared, not least through taxation and public sector. Those born in lean years (for population growth) have particular problems if they follow a bulge – they end up paying for the retirement of more people, who live longer, and the cost of whose retirement is spread across fewer workers in the generation which follows them.

So far, so good – but we all knew the dependency ratio was heading in unfavourable direction, didn’t we? Well, yes, but the clever part of Willetts’ book is to trace so many different strands to the relative impoverishment of those born after the mid-1960s. Not only are they poorer in income terms, but in assets, and in quality of life.

Most fascinatingly, Willetts charts the changes in time spent by adults with their children. Despite working harder, and despite so many more two-earner households, the average primary age child now spends more time with their children than the boomers did. This is thanks, mainly, to the time gained from the use of technology in the home. Teenagers, on the other hand, spend less time with their parents than used to be the case, and they spend less time with adults compared to teenagers in other developed countries. Just as we trust other adults with our younger children too little, we also trust adult influence on teenagers insufficiently, with the result that they are more peer-influenced that the young people in other economically prosperous nations. It's all a result of a breakdown in trust between the generations - the old are suspicious of the young, and the young are suspicious of the old.

It’s not a tremendously encouraging book, but it is well worth reading – and it’s made me question how many of our problems with teenagers as a culture arise out of the suffocatingly intense adult contact very small children have, and the relative independence we afford teenagers. Perhaps received wisdom, or is it just evolved practice, on this front needs further consideration. So, it made me think, and I wholeheartedly endorse it to others.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Facts or Skills - Which is the Priority of Education?

I will always be grateful to Mr Denton. He taught me Maths in Year 6, and came with a reputation of being strict, demanding hard work, and having a fiery temper. I never saw any evidence, as far as I remember of the last of these, but we worked hard in his lessons. In particular, I remember his insistence that we take mental maths seriously, and so every lesson started with a quick fire test demanding that we work out increasingly complex numbers without even using our fingers: he would deliver half a dozen questions, pause, and then ask for all the answers after 30 seconds or so. How well I remember getting 9 cubed, calculated in my head, wrong. It still pains me.

The reason, we were told, that this was so important is that it allowed us to see when we had made a mistake in a question. Some simple mental maths, and some estimation, allowed me to see so many mistakes during the arithmetical part of exams for the rest of my time at school, and at university. This is obvious: part of the function of knowledge is that it forms the framework by which we analyse new information. When we receive a new piece of data, we evaluate its accuracy, its value and its use from other pieces of similar data.

Daniel Kahneman shows in Thinking, Fast and Slow, this results in poor decisions when we don’t realise that we are doing it. But it doesn’t result in decisions as poor as would be the case if we had no ‘anchoring’ information at all  - information which we can use to place the new piece of truth in the magnificently complex matrix we all build up during our lifetimes. It is this process of putting information into a framework of knowledge which we call 'learning'.

Teaching unions and Mr Gove are currently engaged in a fight over whether school curricula should include facts or skills. Of course the answer has to be both. Mr Gove is wrong to suggest that all teaching is based on learned information, that is what Google, and Wikipedia are for – and they are assuredly here to stay. The availability of information is increasing, and the cost of its digital storage is reducing, logarithmically, and Mr Gove appears to ignore this.

However, the teaching unions are also wrong, and where they are wrong is exactly where Mr Denton was right: we would be foolish to rely only on an external store of information. If we were to do so, how would we know whether Wikipedia were right? How would we ascribe value to any ‘fact’? How would we spot when we were being sold information which was actually fact-horsemeat purporting to be minced steak.

Preparation for life (rather than simply working out what can be taught and tested in schools) involves both the acquisition of skills of information (ie fact) collection, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and communication, and the means by which to relate this to what we already know. Facts – even Mr Gove’s facts – are mere noise without context, and of course, the context does need to be understood, and be memorised.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

If You Read One Book This Year...

Book Review: The Narcissism Epidemic

Why do young people post ever-increasingly risqué pictures of themselves on social networking sites? Why have New York law firms had to hire ‘Praise Consultants’? (Yes, really). Why are young people behaving as if success is their entitlement? Why do people expect an intellectual sugar-rush from education, rather than the solid meal it takes a long time to digest?

If you have ever wanted to know the answers to any of these questions – and even if you haven’t – The Narcissism Epidemic is the book for you. Written by two American Professors of Psychology, it is a forensic examination of the way in which American culture has taken a wrong turn, giving rise to entitlement, a chronic lack of fulfilment, breakdown in social capital and in communities, and relationship breakdown rates which are depressing.

However, the book, as a whole, is not depressing. Although the authors do not (despite trying) conclude that a natural cycle will restore a sense of balance, they do come up with some suggestions for limiting the spread of the epidemic. But note that before they do this, they do demonstrate that the epidemic really is turning into a pandemic, and they chart the rise of narcissism even in societies with best religious or cultural defences against it.

The book does give some helpful pointers in the closing chapters. Those in educational leadership should read it. Avoid any sense that children are special or unique specimens – it is our similarities which psychologically reduce conflict. Avoid self admiration at all costs – humility, and belonging to groups, is much healthier. Avoid celebrity culture – especially the sort of vacuous fame-for-fame’s-sake that typifies reality TV. Avoid using the internet for self-promotion, for example by blogging for attention (I’ll think about that one!). And avoid debt – which lends itself to a worldview in which we all deserve the luxuries we can’t afford (‘...yet...’ we tell ourselves), on a personal level, and on a national level.

Instead, give, save, push oneself, regard others as being equally capable, expect success only as the result of hard work.  If that sounds old-fashioned, it might just be because you heard it from your parents – the so-called Silent Generation – the biggest effect on whom was the Great Depression, with the consequent expectation that life would be hard. This, of course, is the very opposite of entitlement. We could be undergoing just the economic process most likely to help.

Oh, and finally – if you are reading this because you are a concerned parent: don’t make your child the centre of the family; don’t obsess about parenting; don’t spend your free time trying to give your child the very, very, very best start in life. Because all this, of course, makes children think they are entitled to that kind of attention, and advantage, for the rest of their lives. And that is narcissism...

The Narcissism Epidemic, by Twenge and Campbell, published by $15.99. Worth every cent.

On AmazonUK,  it’s £9.50:

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Developing Resilience

I vividly remember being given charge of a team to take around an assault course when I was in Y12 at school. The first challenge was a small lake over which ran a taut wire. The team had a pulley block, ropes and a log and we were to take the team over on it. Unfortunately in our hurry, my team ended up with all the equipment and all but two of us over the lake, and two team members left behind. Forty or so pupils were observing, laughing, and I was solely in charge. It was a painful lesson in leadership.

I took a moment. There seemed to be three alternatives: misery – weeping or feeling sorry for myself; walking out of the problem; or thinking and acting around the problem. Thankfully, I chose the last of these.
Each time we make a choice, we create a pathway through our brain – repeated pathways create habits. This was a clear, memorable choice: difficulty could have elicited self-pity, avoidance (giving up) or strategy and action. Almost every month since, I have faced another ‘assault-course’ moment in my life – some difficulty which has brought the same three choices, and each time I have chosen the last, it has become more of a habit. On many occasions, I have seen the fresh crisis as a repeat of the assault-course experience, and replayed the choices available on that occasion, looking for the equivalents in the present.

Of course, I haven’t always chosen the last of the choices above, but the occasions when I have given up, or ducked out of difficulties are not the sort of thing I plan to write about in public. I am nevertheless convinced that our reactions to these events become habits more quickly than we realise – and start to form an intrinsic part of what we take to be character.

I was recently told that there is no word in one European language for ‘challenge’, only ‘difficulty’. There are many cultural aspects to language, and perhaps the English word challenge encapsulates a cultural determination to use difficult events to sharpen our capabilities, to grow as people. But all people face the same three opportunities when they face challenges or difficulties.

And so, in an assembly today, I invited our pupils to consider whether they had faced difficulties, or challenges, during this term. Which of the three responses, I asked them, had they employed this term? Self-pity, avoidance, or thoughtful action? Which of these three responses was being ‘inked in’ as their habitual response this term?

As Disraeli is reputed to have said: “There is no teacher like adversity”. Challenge, and the right response, develops resilience.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

In Defence of Nick Clegg

So, Nick Clegg is a hypocrite, according to the British press (for one example, see Or, is he?

I think it is reasonable to assume that Mr and Mrs Clegg have different views on many things. For a start Mrs Clegg is a Catholic; Mr Clegg is the first mainstream political party leader to declare himself an atheist. I am guessing when England play Spain at football there is some good-natured marital rivalry about the result. (Mrs Clegg would not be well advised to change her allegiance on this particular matter). And so it seems to me quite possibly that the parents disagree on the appropriate direction of education for their children.

Of course, it might have been possible for the children’s father to demand that, as the children’s father, he has a patriarchal right to have the casting vote, and therefore he could have demanded that he had his own way. But we know that this didn’t happen. Is it reasonable to assume that it didn’t happen because Mr Clegg secretly wanted to send his children to the London Oratory. No. Assumptions about motives are not reasonable. And this news story is based entirely on assumptions about his motives.

And that, of course, is where this news story runs smack into another one, involving Lord Rennard. The LibDem media machine could have come out and said that the Cleggs disagreed, but Mr deferred to Mrs, because actually he doesn’t believe in a patriarchal society. The fact that they haven’t doesn’t make it less likely: it just suggests that some conversations between a husband and wife might actually be private.

My guess is that there was a protracted debate about the children’s schooling in the Clegg household, and Mr Clegg lost the debate. This doesn’t even suggest, given his wife’s profession, that he is a bad debater. It suggests that he knows that a family runs best when no member of it stands on their principles to the exclusion of everyone else’s view. I suspect he’s deeply uncomfortable about the school-destination of his child, and I suspect he is taking the hits for this because he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to be broadcasting private, familial discussions and decision-making. I suspect that Mr Clegg’s respect for women starts with respect for his wife’s views, and a willingness to defer to them sometimes.

And although I don’t normally come out on his side, I applaud him in this case.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Celebrating World Book Day

So, how to celebrate World Book Day? How about – for the simple fun of it – selecting one book published in each decade since 1880. (Why 1880? It got harder before that to know which decade a book was published in). The list below is not intended to be the best book in each decade – much too controversial – but just a spontaneous choice off my bookshelves. It’s necessarily eclectic, and I realise it could be contentious, but here goes anyway:

1880s: It’s tight, but The Woodlanders (1887) [Thomas Hardy] gets my vote. Actually I prefer it to Tess.

1890s: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) [Hardy again]

1900s: The Hound of the Baskervilles () [Conan Doyle] – Conan Doyle had to get in there somewhere.

1910s: Mr Standfast (1919) [John Buchan] is my favourite of the Richard Hannay series, and I have always thought these to be classics of the time.

1920s: A Passage to India (1924 [EM Forster])  – mysterious and charming: a beguiling book even when I read it as a 17 year old.

1930s: The General Theory (1936) [JM Keynes] – so good that as an undergraduate economist, I went out to buy it because I wanted to own it. Well written, revolutionary, brilliant.

1940s: 19 Stories (1947) [Graham Greene] The best set of short stories I have ever read – later published as 21 stories, but that would put it in competition with the next decade.

1950s: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950) [CS Lewis]. A rich decade for books – this choice prevented my choosing a John Wyndham, which was painful, but what a classic.

1960s: Dead Cert (1962) [Dick Francis]. Ok, so it’s not a classic, but picked for the contribution to railway journey reading that he made: clever plotting, gripping and interesting.

1970s: The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (1979) [Douglas Adams]. So different at the time that it was intoxicating – a marvellous book.

1980s: The Remains of The Day (1989) [Kazuo Ishiguro]. Marvellously evocative!

1990s: Possession (1990) [AS Byatt]. A huge work of fiction – the greatest suspension of disbelief: I simply couldn’t believe all that poetry was part of the fiction.

2000s: Bleachers (2004) [John Grisham]. A novella which is so much better than Grisham’s reputation.

2010s: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) [Kahneman]. Guaranteed to change the way you see the world – brilliantly light, wonderfully profound.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Book Review - Bad Education

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Is this the proverb that inspired Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian? (See and ). That column, the book and the blog of the same name inspired the writers of Bad Education (edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, published by McGraw-Hill) to provide a survey of what research studies actually say about education debates.

And the result is excellent. I hope other readers experience some blushing moments when they see that some of the myths debunked are theories that they have explained patiently to parents or colleagues (as I did, and have); myths which are exposed either as merely urban myths, or (no better?) as mistaken conclusions of too little evidence in the early evolution of the understanding of some areas of education.

The authors, mindful of their task, are careful to distinguish between the conclusions they can draw, and areas of mystery. There are some calls for more careful research, too. But the conclusions of Dylan Willam – the PISA studies suggest that teaching is slightly less good in independent schools on average than in state schools (p12), despite attainment being much higher in private schools – is an early indication that there are some surprises to come.

While the authors fall very occasionally victim to political correctness – the chapter on grouping by ability by Ed Baines suggests that, since it is disadvantageous for the least able it should be avoided, with no interest in any kind of Pareto optimality – the result as a book is hugely satisfying. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the debunking of some modern variations of phrenology evident in some educational theory – particularly appeals to left brain/right brain stereotyping.

The last chapter of all is on dyslexia, and although a balanced, evidence-based approach is sought, the conclusions are highly controversial. It is hard to believe that the reason for leaving this topic until the end is anything other than the fear that, were it first, the book would appear to be living up to its title in a more literal sense to that intended.

On balance, I urge educators – Headteachers, curriculum directors and others – to read the book. For those short of time, I would recommend starting with chapters 12-14, which I found most stimulating. The book is a worthy project, and if that sounds as if I think it was better in conception and in realisation, then I have not communicated as well as the book does.

It’s bold, thought-provoking, instructive and – thanks to the word limits on the chapters that some authors lightly chide the editor for – surprisingly readable. Although even the paperback is over £20, it is worth it. I advise against the Kindle edition – you’ll want to lend it to others when you’ve read it!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

What IS Half Term For?

Half term is a mysterious thing: all schools have one, yet I have never heard anyone explain what it is for. In such circumstances, it is more than likely that misconceptions have grown up, and even that half term is one of those accidents of history that we would use differently if we invented it now, if indeed we would do so at all.

There seem to me – and this is a personal view, after all – that there are three things that half term is definitely for, and three things which half term is sometimes seen to be, implicitly or explicitly, which it is not.

First, half term is a part of the rhythm of learning: activity followed by reflection. Schools embed into their routines the essential nature of improving cognition by term times and holidays. We could, after all, have 48 weeks of 4 days of school each year; it might even be easier for parents to organise childcare that way. The remaining weeks – two at Christmas and two in the summer, would, if such a pattern were adopted, be like the factory shutdown periods that provide the only holidays for many (still). The activity of term followed by the reflection of the holidays, however, builds in to the cycle of learning cognition, followed by metacognition. While this pair of activities is vital, and this is widely known, the structuring and highlighting of metacognitive opportunities (the reason why Oxford and Cambridge have such long holidays) is an opportunity most schools simply allow to pass by.

Secondly, half term is a chance the settling and sorting of memories and skills. It is a chance for mental pruning to take place, for a fresh start to come more often and for a student to lay down their failures and have a sense of perspective renewed as they return to school.

Thirdly, half term provides a brief interlude in the hurly-burly of term time busyness for students to extend or enrich studies with self directed work. Every child should make sure that, during a half term, they:
  •  read a book;
  • read a newspaper;
  • listen to a whole news bulletin;
  • spend half an hour thinking about one of their school topics – not doing anything, but thinking.

Half term is NOT, on the other hand, a period of time in which pupils can complete huge quantities of homework – it is not there primarily as a rest time for teachers, but for pupils. (It is the self-directed bit of self-directed work which is valuable). It is not appropriate, in my view, to set more than two evenings’ worth of homework during a week's half term. Nor is half term the right time for pupils to be doing coursework, or even preparatory reading – that makes it term time, and it isn’t. It's a rest.

Half term is not a chance for parents to whisk their children half a dozen time zones around the world, arriving back as their children return to school, with their minds still so jet-lagged they don’t know whether it’s time for breakfast or tea. When children return to school more tired than they left it, half term hasn’t fulfilled its role as rest.

Half term is not an interlude in which parents should feel bound to organise their own educational boot camp, with tutors, worthy visits to worthy museums, and a relentless programme of structured activity. Half term is a rest!

Society has some strange ideas – for some reason it is necessary to organise the Prime Minister’s job so that the incumbent has so little opportunity for rest, that (s)he ages about 5 years for every year they spend in the role. Some people seem to think that uninterrupted activity 24/7 is the best preparation for making the most important decisions. I beg to differ. 

Rest is undervalued in many quarters – yet it is a precious part of life, and it is time to reclaim it, starting in schools. Perhaps we would have a culture slightly less obsessed with the superficial if we started to teach young people the value both of activity, and of reflection, which requires time to rest from the activity.

And, in teaching it, we might learn something about it too.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Good Riddance EBC! But It Was Never the Real Issue.

The news that the EBacc is not, after all, going to replace GCSEs in 2015 has been greeted with, it seems, joy unconfined in schools. Nevertheless, its retreat does not mean that the EBacc, or ideas just as bad, will not re-emerge, because the essential misconceptions that underlie the reform of educational qualifications remain.

The obsession with qualifications is frustrating: good qualifications do not, per se, lead to good teaching. Poor, or mediocre, teachers can teach to the test however sophisticated the test is. At the same time inspirational teaching will usually lead to high performances in tests or exams, whether they are good tests or bad tests. The confusion over this in the UK public debate is unhelpful: the quality of exams and the quality of teaching are separate issues, and the Government, and the educational sector, need separate action plans to address them.

To take the issue of qualifications first: the crisis in the UK’s examining industry is not primarily to do with specifications (formerly known as syllabus), nor even to do with the timing and nature of the exams. The crisis is that the threat of litigation has made UK exams mechanical in the way marks are awarded, and mechanistic in the way that exams are marked, remarked, appealed and improved. An over-mechanistic structure simply doesn’t address the needs of students, who – in the end – are the customers of the exam boards.

The reform of qualifications needs to focus less therefore on which subjects are taken, when exams are taken and what the structure of the exams industry is, and more on the way in which the industry seeks to deliver ‘quality assurance’ to the customer. (It is a moot point whether the exams industry or the retail banking sector currently underdelivers most to its customers!).

In schools, the heart of the problem is not the qualifications pupils take – it is teaching. Many schools give reasons for changing qualifications which amount to the unsubstantiated assertion that the change will improve teaching, which is nonsense. What improves teaching is showing teachers how to teach better, not giving them a different set of subject content to bore pupils with, or a different test to obsess over in their lessons. Most teachers have a year of intensive  training at the beginning of their career, and then fractured and spasmodic development thereafter. Fifteen years into a forty year career, teachers have little idea how the educational research has moved on – what has been shown by highly effective studies to be worth pursuing and where, just as importantly, what seemed to be clever ideas have been demonstrated to be little more than headline grabbing fads.

That’s why, in the school in which I work, we have employed a professional teaching coach to work one to one with any teacher who wants to improve their practice. Our coach observes lessons, makes suggestions, having listened to what teachers want to improve, and seeks to help them develop. The overall cost to the salaries budget is modest, the extent to which it helps significant. It has also led to teachers sharing the improvements, and in some cases innovations, with their colleagues. A revolution is slowly taking place. Teachers’ ‘inset’ is actually delivering real benefits week by week in the classroom throughout the school year.

We are doing our bit; now it’s the turn of Mr Gove, and Ofqual, to do theirs. Reform of the qualifications industry is overdue. The EBC was not the answer; process reform is needed.

Monday, 21 January 2013

10 More Things to Keep a Snowbound Pupil Occupied...for the Sixth Former.

  1. Read a newspaper editorial (see for examples), and the newspaper coverage of the same story. To what extent does one relate fact without opinion, and the other give opinions without facts?
  2. Demonstrate (to yourself, for the intellectual pleasure of it) why Pascal’s triangle is composed of lines which are powers of 11. (The top line is 110, the next is 111, the third is 112 etc).
  3. Find 10 puns with which you could make light-hearted comment on a supermarket including horsemeat in their processed meat products. (“They are having a ‘mare with their burgers” etc).
    Alternatively, can you make a case FOR including horsemeat in processed meat products? (In general, arguing the case for something you disagree with is substantially more difficult than presenting your own views).
  4. Take an article from a respected publication (The Economist, The New Scientist etc), and highlight in different colours phrases or sentences which are historical narrative, those which are impartial analysis, and those which demonstrate (partial) evaluation and judgement. What do you learn about the intention of the writer? Now compare the balance of these contents with a piece of your own writing - what does this teach you?
  5. Work out which scientific equation is most worthy of inclusion in the National Curriculum – ie should be taught to all young people. Why that one?
  6. From your study of history, find a time when statesmen or other important decision makers have demonstrated that they have learned from history, and find five pieces of evidence to support that.
  7. Of all the books you have ever read, choose one that you would most highly recommend to your son/daughter when they are exactly the same age as you. Write the title and reasons on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and keep it in a safe place.
  8. Find a work of art (painting, music, performance art) which makes your spirits soar, and which you would be prepared to contemplate every day for a year. Write down why in a digital diary entry for yourself in 12 months time, so you can see how you have changed next year.
  9. Consider the attribute of a plant or animal which you consider to me most astonishing in its capability. Compare, in writing, this ‘achievement’ of the natural world with what you consider to be the most significant achievement of mankind. Which do you consider greater?
  10. Work out the most significant and inspiring lesson you have had at school so far this year which has had no relevance to any examined courses you are currently studying. Write to that teacher to thank them for that lesson, saying why it affected you so positively.
There is no guarantee that any of these will make you perform better in your exams, but they will contribute to increasing your intellectual capabilities.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Ten Things to do While Stuck at Home Because of Snow.

  1. Review notes from last term: memory is enhanced by repetition – going over notes and (even better) writing revision notes will refresh memory, and help to get material into long term memory.
  2. Take the file used for a subject, and order it, creating a contents page at the beginning of every section, listing all the handouts and pieces of work within the section, and syllabus headings and subheadings – knowing which part of a topic any question is referring to, and where it falls in the grand scheme of things, is a very valuable skill in an exam when under time pressure.
  3. Turn linear notes on a topic into a mind-map – using different colours, and if possible images printed off the internet, and cut and pasted onto the mind-map.
  4. Write down questions to address to teachers: so that one to one time can be used wisely when the opportunity arises. It is good to aim for five questions in each subject.
  5. Find 5 pieces (words or phrases) of technical vocabulary in each subject that are not perfectly understood. (Any term that cannot be instantly and fluently defined orally is not perfectly understood).
  6. Try to set a short test for peers on the theme: ‘...what is the difference between...?’ picking two very similar or related ideas for each question. (eg ‘What is the difference between an excuse and a reason?’ ‘what is the difference between velocity and speed?’ ‘What is the difference between fixed and variable costs?’)
  7. Trawl through all written feedback given by teachers in their marking (or school reports). Note themes of similar comments and allocating one action for the next week to assist in reducing or eliminating this weakness. If unsure, take all written feedback and turn it into a wordle and see what jumps out.
  8. Take a question recently attempted, and seek to write a mark-scheme for the examiner to use – what knowledge is necessary to get 40% of the marks, and 60% and 80%? What would the A* candidate include/attempt that others might not?
  9. Download the specification for a course studied from the exam board website. Note the skills examiners are rewarding in the exams, contained in the specification preamble: evaluate own skills against these, and consider which areas currently present the strongest challenge.
  10. Download a past paper from the exam board website, and complete it. Having done this, download the markscheme and attempt to mark the work completed.
And finally.... don’t ever say again that you didn’t do any work because you didn’t have any to do! 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Hole in Education - Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fabulous account of the life’s work of one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers, and it ought to be read by everyone with an interest in making decisions.

Kahneman’s central premise – that humans have two separate mechanisms for making decisions, the instinctive (which he calls ‘System 1’) and the rational (‘System 2’) – is persuasive, as is his contention that bad decisions are made when one mechanism overrides the other, without our realizing it. His forensic analysis of how and why humans substitute a question they do know the answer to when faced with one they don’t is immensely revealing. As a textbook on decision-making, it is an astonishing work. Kahneman even reveals that he wrote a school curriculum, in Israel, on decision making. I would love to see what’s in that.

Our educational system allows us to teach young people to gather information – in the different forms in which it comes. We teach children to order and master that information. Older children learn diverse methods of analyzing information – and we teach them to evaluate it, too. But how much of our curriculum is devoted to teaching children to make decisions? How does schooling actually help young people to make decisions?

In its most pernicious form, the curriculum teaches young people that they have to guess what answer the teacher/examiner has selected as the correct one, and they have to express it in terms which have been decided on as the best terms in which to express it. But these answers are chosen often (as, of course, are the questions) because they are convenient: they allow marks to be given with the highest degree of objectivity, and therefore the lowest risk of (legal) liability.

We teach pupils to communicate in words, numbers, pictures, musically, and dramatically, and to engage in debate or dialogue. We teach them to take part in teams, the value of a discipline of improvement or exploration, to think or contemplate. But decision-making? Is anything more than providing adult role models, giving some scope for trial and error (particularly in the exercise of pupil-leadership) and leading pupils into greater levels of independence helping our young people to become better at such a vital skill.

So, here is the question I am left grappling with, six months after finishing Kahneman’s book. How can I – how can educators – enhance and improve the way that the experience of school teaches young people to make decisions? Are some subjects more likely to teach this than others? What extra-curricular experiences are most likely to enhance this capability?

One obvious answer to this last question is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, and particularly the need during expeditions to modify plans, to consider new information (‘The footpath marked on the map has disappeared!’) and to learn from decisions made under stress.

But what would a course in decision making look like? What sort of students would thrive on it? These further questions will pre-occupy me for a while, and I would be delighted to have contributions as comments below…

In the meanwhile, I shall be writing to Kahneman’s publishers about the Israeli curriculum.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why Too Much Self-esteem Is Also Bad For You...

‘The greatest love of all’, sang Whitney Houston, ‘is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all’.
Reading The Narcissism Epidemic (by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell) during the holidays, written by two American professors of psychology, suggests that these words were extremely well-written to describe our era – and its zeitgeist. The authors of this book explore the current obsession that self-esteem , not least in education, is key to humans’ success and happiness.
It’s true that we are constantly told by our culture that the more self-esteem you have, the better your life will be. Super high self-esteem must lead, it is assumed, to higher levels of achievement and higher levels of happiness.
What Twenge and Campbell find is this: there is NO statistical link between super-high self-esteem and success, or happiness. In fact they cite evidence of links between super high self-esteem and lower levels of success and happiness.
Super-high self-esteem is associated with having an idea that one is special, that one is entitled to success, that success is guaranteed, that riches, luxury, good relationships are the natural consequence of the individual’s attributes.
Super-high self-esteem is the consequence of – the authors write – a culture of self admiration. Self-admiration – or narcissism – is not only prevalent, it is practised by many people who act as role models in our society. As an example, they cite a well known celebrity who has a huge picture of herself in pride of place in her home, and who was found to have pictures almost entirely of herself on her phone.
Narcissists – and psychiatrists – are diagnosing increasing numbers of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder: describing this as a condition of poor mental health. And narcissists are more likely to seek to attract attention to themselves with risqué profile pictures on social networking sites, they are more likely to spend a good deal of time in front of the mirror, and they are more likely to expect to be heard, rather than to listen. They don’t sound like nice people – but a great deal of education is now geared to make individuals feel ‘special’: praise is universal, and often unearned, academic grades are inflated (cited of American secondary education, but surely as true in England, if not the UK as a whole), and the appearance of success is the over-riding goal of education.
So, if we are to have (or to teach) healthy self esteem, without being (or teaching) self-admiring, or worse, self-adoring (behaviour), how are we to do this? Twenge and Campbell draw a critical distinction between self admiration, and self exploration, and here lies the beginning of potential solutions.
Self exploration is trying to find the limits of one’s capabilities by trying as hard as possible at different things. Self exploration is what happens if you practice your musical instrument for two hours a day for a year – you find out how good you could be; or if you work as hard as you could at a subject you find difficult – you find where your limits really lie. Or, again, if you get really fit for a sports season, you find out just what level of performance you are capable of.
I once skied with an international skier: he encouraged us to spend our time ‘exploring our envelope’ on skis. He had read that the role of a test pilot when a new airplane is made is to find the limits of what it can do, and he encouraged us to do the same with our capabilities on skis. This is self-exploration, I now realise.
So, at New Year’s resolution time, perhaps it is a good time to challenge students (as I will in assembly next week) as to whether 2013 will be a year of self-admiration, or self-exploration. Will it be a year when skills in the close reading of poetry, or the understanding of the algebra of irrational numbers, or the implications of post-modernism, attract the same – or even greater – levels of attention than the student’s Facebook profile picture, or the ‘brand’ they project in social media space? Will our students explore their capabilities, and thereby grow them, or merely admire themselves, and stagnate?