The unconscious curriculum at ResearchEd 2016


I had a lovely time at researchEd today, much needed chicken soup for my teaching soul.  It was nice to see old, new and current colleagues all under one roof.

Introduction – Alex Thomas told us a bit about the history of the school.  Built as a flagship New Labour ‘City Academy’ in 2004, it replaced the real Grange Hill to became the beautiful Norman Foster designed building it is today.  The building is an elegant curved-shape and although it is starting to show it’s years in places, it feels cathedral-esque.  This is what the academy programme was designed for beautifully designed schools in areas of most need and not what it has become in it’s convertor phase -a middle-class rush to abandon the yoke of LEAs.  It is clearly a product of it’s time and I felt a bit sad that we are unlikely to see such vision and investment in the next generation of new-builds.  All schools should be cathedrals of learning.  Tom Bennett reminded us of the prevalence of science denialism and the importance of evidence-based practice.

Session 1: Laura McInemy – Perfectionism: what the research says, & why it’s ruining teachers.

Laura’s perspective is that we need to examine the issues with teacher recruitment from a different perspective.  The census data suggests that 8 million children are taught each day – so there are clearly enough bodies in rooms. However, there is clearly more churn in our profession and supply agency profits are rising.  Why the churn?  People still want to be teachers but they are tired and not everyone wants want a full-time, permanent position.

Why do teachers leave?  It is probably not because of the government.  Teachers who leave in the first 5 years cite school effects and pupil behaviour as key drivers but after the first 5 years, home life becomes the key concern.

Are people who leave not suited to the profession?  Not true – people feel effective and ineffective at different points in their careers.  So, why are certain teachers more prone to leave the profession than others?

Is there something unique about being a teacher?  Are parental relationships experienced by teachers as they grew up a factor?  Teachers who experienced unequal power in early childhood with one dominant and one absent parent tend to seek approval of authority.  If they do not feel supported or approved they might become more likely to leave the profession?

Is there something strange about teaching as a job?  Teachers perform 6 hours a day for 5 hours a week.  They have over 120 teaching relationships each day.  No other profession has this many interactions with as many different ‘clients’.  This constant need to perform, you are only as good as your last class creates a dynamic that might lead to performance anxiety.  We do not talk about this as teachers.  Those who have more perfectionist tendencies may thrive on this constant challenge but for others the anxieties without the support and approval may cause them to spiral.

What can be done?  We need a greater understanding of the dynamics of perfectionism and performance anxiety.  Worse thing you can do for a perfectionist is show them ‘best practice’.  Not always a good thing to let NQTs see someone who is very experienced and amazing as the gap between them will be too much.

Laura helpfully tweeted some visuals here.

Session 2: My own anxieties about presenting were too overwhelming, so I went and sat in the speakers’ room and had a really good chat with Stuart Kime who is Director of Education at Evidence into Education who was also preparing for his session.

Session 3:  My session on the unconscious curriculum.

Would anyone turn up?  Would I get lost?  Would I make the computer work?  Would I make sense?  Was there ever better material to begin a session on the unconscious at work?  Thankfully, people did come and I managed to get over my nerves to tell my stories.  Presenting to colleagues is terrifying, give me 200 sixth formers any day.  Here are my slides from the day.


Further reading:

Salzberger-Wittenberg, I. (1999) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching. London: Karnac.

Youell, B. (2006) The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education. London: Karnac.

Bion, W. (1961) Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

Menzies Lyth, I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions. London: Free Association Books.

Session 4: Oliver Caviglioli – Visual knowledge for better explanation and recall.

A master class in how to categorise knowledge, improve teacher explanation and embed in long-term memory.

Excellent resources here.

Session 5: David Didau – Transfer.

The Stewart Lee of the education world returns with some wit and wisdom about transfer.  Why won’t young people apply the same skills in different contexts?  Why do they keep their knowledge in silos.  Part of the problem, argues Didau is that we habituate them to keep the learning separate.  By keeping the contextual and emotional cues constant we anchor the learning in time and place.

There was a lovely example of how we all use mimicry as a way of testing learning which may be part of the story but only at the shallow depths.

The solution – mix it up.  Tell them you are going to test them in different contexts.  Make transfer the skill.

For a more coherent synopsis see Chapter 6 of his recent book What if everything you knew about teaching was wrong or his own summary here.

Session 6: Mike Bell: The emerging consensus in education. How those who look at the evidence now broadly agree.

Mike gave us a neat summary of the emerging consensus.  Many years ago, Geoff Petty came and ran a series of workshops in my College.  The material and the thinking behind the session felt very familiar.

There are two main types of evidence used by EBTN:

  1. the results of classroom experiments which show us which methods work best
  2. cognitive science research which shows what’s happening in the brain when learning happens



EBTN’s  – 6 steps to outstanding learning
The emerging ‘big picture’ from the evidence



The following descriptions are taken from the EBTN website here – as I did not make great notes.  Lots of these ingredients feel very familiar.

Stage 0: Setting the scene

Improving behaviour has a high effect-size. Clear rules, applied without too much discussion and backed up by senior staff are almost always effective. Students who have a Growth Mindset achieve, on average, one grade higher than those with a Fixed Mindset. The work of Carol Dweck and others are widely available. ‘Not labelling students’ is a vital part of this as labels often reinforce a Fixed Mindset. Brain ‘plasticity’ shows that all students can improve with practice. Students need to know the value of the learning.

Stage 1: Prior knowledge

Since new learning and memories are built on what is already known, students of teachers who assess them, and intervene early, make significant progress. Prior knowledge for a topic can be assessed by ‘relevant recall questions’ to check and correct prior learning before the new learning.

Effective ways to deal with missing prior knowledge include: early intervention, phonics, small group, one-to-one or peer tuition. There are several interventions designed to help slow readers catch up: reciprocal teaching, repeated reading, vocabulary and phonics all apply here. The meanings of words needs to be secure in long-term memory.

Similes and analogies are links between the new material and what the student already knows.

Stage 2: Presenting new material

2.1: Not just words

Students can receive their first contact with new material either from your teaching, or by reading a book, watching a video or demonstration etc. This reflects the four main ways for students’ brains to receive input: 1) visual images and objects, 2) visual words, 3) verbal words and 4) by touch and action. Of the four, reading (visual words) is the most problematic. Consequently, most struggling students can be helped by using the other inputs. Use Graphical Methods and Tactile stimulation. A multi-sensory approach with good use of brain’s visual areas is most effective.

2.2: Big-picture and fine-detail

Students require both levels. Advance organisers give the big-picture at the start of a topic and Summarising enables students to pull a big-picture from the detailed learning they have done.

2.3 Limits of working memory

New material should be presented in short chunks and the process of forming long-term memory started before the next new material is presented.

Stage 3: Setting a challenging task

If the task is too easy, it will simply exercise prior knowledge. If it is too hard, the student will fail. In both cases, no learning can take place. A challenging task, focussed on the objectives, is one at which the student can achieve with a bit of struggle and feedback. ‘Acceleration’ is effective, the evidence suggests, as most tasks are not sufficiently challenging and increasing the challenge also increases the learning. Goals and learning objectives need to be clear so that students can focus on what matters.

Promoting thinking.  While a few students can ‘think things through’ for themselves, most need help or training. Hypothesis testing and problem solving (rather than factual recall) both offer this opportunity. The need for assistance in doing the task is the reason collaborative or cooperative methods can be so effective. In the process of discussion in a group, students have to articulate their thoughts and decide whether another opinion is better than their own.  Note-making and summarising are both tasks to promote thinking.

Stage 4: Providing feedback

Feedback is essential to check that the learning is not mistaken (that the brain is making the right links). It needs to happen during the process, not after it. It occurs near the top of all three lists and should be considered essential. Sometimes the term ‘Assessment for learning’ is used.

Feedback can be verbal or written. It can be given by the teacher or by peers or the student themselves using assessment criteria or mark-schemes. It should include what is correct (the medal) and what needs improving (the mission).

If the student does not act on the feedback, little new learning takes place. It is central to mastery learning: a technique where students keep repeating a piece of vital learning until they achieve 80% in an assessment. This is repetition combined with a recognition of the need for secure prior knowledge..

Stage 5: Repetition

Repetition is vital to secure long-term memories. Spaced practice, mastery learning, repetition and homework (not at primary level) all give opportunities for repetition. Once new knowledge is understood, it can be safely learnt by heart as it will secure the links to prior knowledge.

Session 6: Stanley Kutcher – Mental Health Literacy in Schools: A simple, sustainable and effective evidence based approach

Stan had the tricky shift at the end of the day but it was good to hear of some comparative practice and it seems as though Canada is a bit more forward-thinking than we are.  The main message is that we need to improve mental health literacy and that there is a difference between young people suffering mental disorders and mental distress.  We should not medicalise everyday life.  We need to build mental health literacy into our curricula and have Go To professionals in each school who can make appropriate referrals. More details and resources on this approach available at



Session 6: Ben Riley – The (Emerging) Science of Teacher Expertise

I did not attend this session but look at the beauty of Oliver Caviglioli’s notes, it felt like I did.csan51exgae5rz7-jpg-large

All that is left is for me to thank Helene Galdin-Oshea for letting me join this smorgasbord of educational delights.  Cannot wait for next year.