6 ideas for elaborative interrogation


I have been attempting to review how successful I have been at implementing the Learning Scientists Six Strategies for Effective Learning in my lessons.  The strategies provide a sound evidence-based structure for learning around three main themes; the organisation of learning (spaced and interleaved practice), how to develop understanding (elaboration, concrete examples and dual coding) as well as the importance of retrieval practice.  As well as reviewing my own practice, I have tried to be much more explicit in explaining why I use these strategies with my students.  It is not only about modelling these strategies but also explaining why they are more successful than others.

I must admit I think I have become a bit of a cognitive science bore and I am sure my students are becoming tired of hearing me talk about the importance of retrieval practice as I pull out the mini-whiteboards for another mid class test.

One of the more challenging strategies to consider has been the use of elaboration in developing student understanding and memory.  Rob Coe (2013) suggests that “Learning happens when people have to think hard.”  Do my lessons get students thinking hard enough about the material?  Or as Daniel Kahneman might put it, do my lessons get students into ‘system 2’ type thinking – hard, slow and effortful, demanding more logic and calculation?

Do my lessons devote enough time and support the important task of elaborative integration?  As the shadow of exams begins to loom over the year, I thought it was a good chance to pull some ideas together and think about how I am explicitly using elaboration to strengthen learning and deepen understanding.

Here is the learning scientists info graphic on the strategy.

Smith & Weinstein (2016) define elaboration as

The term elaboration can be used to mean a lot of different things. However, when we are talking about studying using elaboration, it involves explaining and describing ideas with many details. Elaboration also involves making connections among ideas you are trying to learn and connecting the material to your own experiences, memories, and day-to-day life.

Elaborative interrogation is a specific method of elaboration. The word interrogation means to question. So, when you use elaborative interrogation, you ask yourself questions about how and why things work, and then produce the answers to these questions (1). The specific questions that you ask yourself will depend, in part, on the topics you are studying (e.g., how does x work? Why does x happen? When did x happen? What caused x? What is the result of x? and so on).

Students need to be able to describe the ideas in depth and detail.  They must tirelessly question the material, make connections between different ideas, consider how concepts are similar and different.

  1. Knowledge Organisers.

Yeah, I know nothing wholly original with these tools of the trade.  I really enjoyed using knowledge organisers this year with my own elaboration sections.  A well-designed KO can include lots of elaborative sections, questions and tasks to help students build their understanding.  That is until we ran out of photocopy budget in February … so we have had to stop using these.

2.  Mind Maps – Making synoptic connections with the specification.

Again, I am hardly redesigning the wheel here.  However, at this time of the year I like to hand the students a copy of the specification and get them to create their own Underground Map to display the subject.  They should reflect on which concepts will be the major stations and what links (tube lines) will run between them.  For example, in psychology the issues and debates could be the main stations and the approaches the tube lines with topics as either commuter towns or sub-stations.  This activity normally ends up looking like Mr Messy but it is really about the discussion and less about the product.


3.  Venn Diagrams.

I probably have not used these enough due to my own anxieties from my undergraduate statistics modules but what better way to help students consider the similarities and differences between two concepts, approaches or research methods.


4.  Only Connect.

Inspiration is taken from Victoria Coren’s insanely difficult BBC Four quiz show, Only Connect.  In the connecting wall part of the quiz, each team receives a wall of 16 clues and must figure out a perfect solution, consisting of four groups of four connected items. The puzzles are designed to suggest more connections than actually exist, and some clues appear to fit into more than one category.


Here is one that someone has created for Sociology of the Family and here are the tools to create your own or perhaps this could be a plenary task.



5. Elaborative dice.

Naomi Hennah’s blog explores how she is using them in science lessons and here is her one below.


Below is my version for my A-level students.  The specification is numbered and students roll an ordinary dice to select a topic, then they must roll the elaboration dice and answer the question as best they can.


6. Taboo

I am sure we all do different versions of this one.  I quite like having big pictures of Richard and Judy on the screen for my own You Say We Pay activity.  However you want to play it – the ability to describe a topic using alternative words to the ‘taboo’ ones will surely help deepen student descriptions of key concepts.


The unconscious curriculum at Loftus and Friends Conference. Emmanuel Centre. Tuesday 28th March 2017


Today a colleague and I accompanied our Year 13 students to an A-level Psychology conference today and I wanted to snapshot and share the experience.  We have been bringing students to these interest days organised by Cara Flanagan for a number of years.  We were gutted to have missed Zimbardo last year as it clashed with a school review day but I think we have more than made up for it with today’s Loftus and Friends.  These notes are my own and I apologise for any errors or omissions.

Firstly, the venue – the Emmanuel Centre, WC1.  Surprisingly easy to get to and rather magnificent inside with glass roofs, high ceilings and a large circular auditorium.

Session 1: Dr Phil Banyard – Nottingham Trent University.  

Blooming, Buzzing, Confusion.

First up was Phil, exploring the psychology of perception.  I must admit I have always avoided teaching the perception options at A-level, this is my own fear or bias I guess.  I enjoy the experiments but found the theory a bit dry at university but Phil usefully reminded me how fun and essential these ideas are.

We constantly invent our visual world as our brain makes sense of the visual information, where possible creating patterns and shapes where they may or may not exist.  We are hard-wired to join up the gaps and use our imagination to create narratives that make sense of what we see.  Our experiences and existing schemas may help shape what we think we see.

How did medieval society come up with the hideousness of gargoyles.  One possible explanation is that they are versions of what we have seen in our peripheral vision.  We created these visions of awfulness as products of our imagination which draws on what we have already seen.  See the Flashed Face Distortion Effect.



In science lessons, we are taught that our senses are separate and distinct.  However, the findings of psychology may suggest that they overlap to create the blooming, buzzing confusion that is human experience.

Session 2: Cara Flanagan – The Psychology of Revision.

A run-down of useful psychological research and concepts that help us understand the process of revision with a practical experiment to illustrate the concepts.

Step 1. Neuroplasticity.  Our brains have the capacity to make new connections and learn new stuff.

Step 2. Lump of clay problem – use retrieval cues to reduce overload.

Step 3. Levels of processing aid memory.  Processing means you have to do something, highlighting is not enough.  The more you have to think about the material the better the recall.

Step 4. Revision – recall is not the same as recognition.  The testing effect as demonstrated by Roediger (2006) – recall is improved by testing.

Step 5. Anxiety – too much stress can interfere with thinking.  One way to deal with the stress of exams is to practice the questions under timed-conditions.

Step 6.  Self-control.  The marshmallow test teaches us that those who can defer gratification are more likely to be academically successful.

Step 7.  Stereotype threat.

Research suggests that if we think we will be labelled or stereotyped before a test we tend to perform worse.  Action: Think Positive.

Step 8.  Less is more.  There is a difference between knowing it and effective use of the knowledge in exams.  Rather than regurgitate lots of knowledge, try to use it more to gain more marks.  In last years AS exam there was 5 marks between each grade.  Every mark counts and you are sometimes wise to do more with less.

Step 9. Mindset.

Key factor in success is learning from our failures and adopting a growth mindset.

Session 3. Professor David Wilson.  Why do we punish?

David Wilson is a professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, A former prison governor who is known for his work as a criminologist specialising in serial killers.  David introduced us to these issues via a range of clips from his recent media work.

To be classified as a serial killer, you need to have killed at least three people within a period of  30 days. In 1873, Mary Ann Colter killed at least 16 people (probably three of her four husbands to claim the insurance) and was hung.  Peter Moore killed 4 people in 1995 and is serving a whole life tariff and will never be released.  There are currently 52 people in England  and Wales serving this type of sentence. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 71 people and is serving 21 years in a Norwegian prison.  These three cases represent the polarised views that surround punishment.

The philosophical justifications for punishment are:

  • Deterrence
  • Retribution
  • Rehabilitation

As criminologists, we need to ask questions about whether our punishments meet these aims.

Should our punishments be private or public, physical punishments or punishments of the soul.  Should we punish everyone alike or should it vary depending on circumstances?

Deterrence.  Will the punishment deter the individual from committing a crime or is it about general deterrence for the whole of society.  This makes the assumption that crime is a rational act, where the criminal is carefully weighing up the cost.

In 2016, there were 550 murders in England and Wales, the police clear-up rate was around 90%.  Why?  Because most murder victims are known to the offender (e.g. husband / wife, boyfriend / girlfriend, parent / child).  Two women die each week at the hands of a partner or ex-partner, one child dies every day at the hands of a parent.  Often the person who reports the murder is the one who committed it e.g. Mick Philpott murders.  The act of murder often involves a state of heightened emotions which will impact on ones ability to think rationally – so the idea that murders are calculating the cost-benefit analysis seems unlikely and therefore the punishment is not a strong deterrent for individuals.

Is it a general deterrent?  The use of execution in the USA tends to have a polarising effect.  Rather than act as a deterrence, the general public may have sympathy towards the offender and/or harden their views against the state who carrying out the sentence.

Retribution.  Is this not the lowest common denominator – similar to vengeance.  Should we curb these emotions?  Does the desire for retribution tell us something about our own culture? What do concentration camps, gulags, and super maximum prisons tell us about the societies that created them?  How do we re-integrate people back into society who have been punitively punished?

Rehabilitation?  We live in an era of mass incarceration.  The UK locks up more people than any other European country even though our crime rates are similar.  In 2016, we locked up about 85,000 people.  We have more people serving life imprisonment that the whole of western Europe put together.  Does this deliver rehabilitation?

Bromley Briefings suggest that 58% of adult men reoffend and 36% return to prison.  72% of young offenders reoffend and 47% end up returning to prison.  The cost of incarceration is estimated at around £11 billion per year.  Is this money well spent?  Is prison the most effective form of punishment?


Some people need to be punished and society needs to be protected but we should use prison sparingly and not for the numbers of currently locked up.  Punishment/ Imprisonment does not necessarily have a significant impact on individuals or society in general.

How we punish and in what form tells us something about our society and the values we have.

It is sometimes said that you can judge a society on how it treats its prisoners.  On this criteria we are clearly failing.

Session 4: Richard Wiseman Mind Magic.

A whistle-stop tour of a range of biases and how the influence our minds.  We often do not see what is in front of our eyes.  Richard is a former magician who skilfully worked the audience through a range of practical experiments to prove how important psychology is.  We all enjoyed his engaging presentation and I am still trying to learnt the French Drop Trick as we speak.

There was some nice overlap with Phil’s session as Richard talked us through a range of biases and the mystery of perception.  His quirkology channel is well worth a visit for a wide range of excellent demonstrations of this type of analysis.

Richard’s point is that we do not always see what is in front of our eyes.  We think we understand the mind but we don’t.  Our expectations influence our perception.

Human beings are creatures of habit and the challenge for psychology is to use its concepts to help us all improve.  Small changes can make a big difference, however these changes need to be based on evidence.  The self-help industry offers people quick fixes that have no evidence.  Psychologists should use the wealth of evidence to help people make meaningful positive changes in their lives.  For example …

Where you sit in a meeting may influence what people think about your contributions.  We are conditioned to think people in the middle are more charismatic than others.

We habituate to our emotional surroundings as well.  We get used to the things that make us happy, which makes us not very good and knowing whether we are happy or not. By keeping a happiness diary we can clearly see and reflect on the good things.

66% of people are sleep deprived, the blue light from smart phones disrupts the melatonin production and our sleep patterns.  Put the phone and tablet away well before bedtime.


Session 5: Professor Elizabeth Loftus  – The Fiction of Memory.




I must admit this was the session I was most looking forward to.  It is not everyday that you get to meet an icon, hero and arguably one of the most important psychologists of all time.  She has made significant contributions to science, law and academic freedom.  For four decades, Professor Loftus has been studying human memory and it’s the malleable nature.  Indeed her name is synonymous for many psychology students with the concepts of leading questions, schema theory and the implications for the legal system and the rest of society.   Just because people tell us something, in great detail and with confidence it does not necessarily mean it is true nor are they deliberately lying.

Could I make you remember:

  1. As a child that a cat got stuck up a tree.
  2. You were attacked by an animal.
  3. As a teenager you were arrested.
  4. Last week, you cheated in a game.

Memory and legal cases.

The Innocence Project helps exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes often based on eyewitness testimony but who are later proven innocent due to later DNA testimony.

Members of the jury feel that our memories are like photocopies but decades of research suggests our memories are more reconstructive.

Case Study: Picking Cotton.

In July 1984, an assailant broke into Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s apartment and sexually assaulted her; later that night, the assailant broke into another apartment and sexually assaulted a second woman. Thompson-Cannino, then a 22-year-old college student, made every effort to study the perpetrator’s face while he was assaulting her. As she says on 60 Minutes, “I was just trying to pay attention to a detail, so that if I survived…I’d be able to help the police catch him.”

Ronald Cotton was imprisoned for the rape of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.  Ronald was jailed and only later released when DNA testing was able to prove his innocence and found the real perpetrator Bobby Pool.  Ronald had spent 10 years in prison.  Ronald and Jennifer have met and now campaign about wrongful convictions and eyewitness procedures.

Memory paradigms.

Loftus is most famous for creating a method of studying the impact of false memories by providing leading questions or misinformation.  The paradigm involves an event, post-event activity and then a recall test.   The early Loftus studies were criticised for lacking ecological validity due to their artificial environment but similar findings are present in field studies of soldiers on stressful survival training.


The misinformation effect.

Perhaps the most controversial example in the lecture was the one about implanted memories of cult ritual child abuse.  There was a surge of reported cases of satanic ritual abuse in the 1990s but very little collaborative evidence.  Loftus suggests that one explanation for these memories might be that they have been planted or created by the leading questions and techniques of psychotherapy.  Some psychotherapists involved may have used some suggestive techniques such as guided imagery, sexualised dream analysis, hypnosis and exposure to false information, all of which had the same effect as Loftus’ post-event activity and helped to embed a false memory about an experience of childhood satanic abuse.  Loftus is not questioning the existence of the dark side of family life or indeed the significant experiences of victims of childhood abuse but she is merely interested in explaining this specific case study and phenomenon.  When the police and social services investigated these cases, they could find no evidence of the cult or abuse.  So where did the idea come from?

Loftus set about designing a range of experiments on children to prove how a traumatic life event could be falsely implanted into their memories.  She used the same techniques that might be used in psychotherapy.  Once she had overcome the ethics committee, she managed to prove this type of memory could be successfully implanted in a range of scenarios.

A)  25% children convinced they were lost in a supermarket and had to be rescued.

B) 33% convinced they nearly drowned.

C) 50% they were attacked by an animal.

D) 30% they had witnessed a demonic possession.

E) 30% they had committed a crime.

Consequences of false memory.

Loftus leaves us to ponder the moral and ethical implications of this new mind technology.  If planting false memories is so easy – could, should it be used for good.  Could we plant memories that certain foods make you sick or that other foods make you feel warm and fuzzy.

This section made me think of the film eternal sunshine of the spotless mind that imagines a future where one can have painful memories replaced.

As psychologists, we cannot distinguish between true and false memories, participants display the same emotions and have similar brain scans.  Memory distortion seems just as likely in people with superior memories than those with normal memory ability.  Sleep deprivation makes us more susceptible to false memories.  We also suffer from memory blindness, whereby once we have a false memory implanted we do not remember the previous memory.

Memory like liberty is a fragile thing.




Loftus autobiography AnnualReview2017









The problem with revision



Mid 16th century word meaning to ‘look again or repeatedly (at)’): from French réviser ‘look at’, or Latin revisere ‘look at again’, from re- ‘again’ + visere (intensive form of videre ‘to see’). OED.

I think I have spent many years getting revision wrong.   My own ham-fisted attempts at school were neither based on evidence nor were they very successful.  I enjoyed my subjects at school, I was motivated and engaged and I kept up with my homework (mostly) but revision was like kryptonite.  I have never had a brilliant memory for details, I could recall the broad brush of an argument, concept or approach but none of the fine strokes of facts, writers or quotes.  My school teachers never really talked about revision apart from ‘finding a method that works for you’.  I think we had a generic session on different methods including using colour or recording your voice (learning styles – anyone?) but no explicit personalised coaching or explanation of how or why it works?  By the time I got to Sixth Form the assumption was that you had made it this far so you were obviously doing something right, why don’t you do more of that.

Whilst my memory is poor, my notes and studies have always been meticulously organised.  I remember painstakingly reading and re-reading them, highlighting and underlining them and howling at the moon because my memory was so poor.  My degree offered no further support for improving my revision techniques but I must have improved  somehow as I started to do quite well in exams.  I wondered what I was doing differently as I picked up the highlighters and carried on colouring the key quotes and passages in my core textbooks.

The first time you encounter a topic, you fumble around trying to make sense of the concepts and make it fit into your existing schemas. The new words and concepts feel strange and alien and take a while to get used to. Revision is the chance to look at the same topic anew; with a fresh pair of eyes, make new links and examples, consider how it is similar and different to what you already know, see with your eyes wide open. Many of the revision strategies that students (and teachers) use do not produce much learning – instead they trick us into thinking we have learned more than we have.

I am left wondering whether the word revision is not very helpful as it has too much baggage.  It is a thing that is done at the end, the after thought and not something which is woven into the way we learn how to study.  Do we need to rebrand revision?  Perhaps relearning or reviewing might be more useful terms in explaining what needs to be done.

During my PGCE, the science of learning and revision was curiously absent from the myriad of lectures about Bloom and Vygotsky.  When it came to revision, we were offered the learning pyramid or cone of learning as a model.2882821_orig.png

I was training to be a teacher at the time and this made perfect sense, intuitively if you have to teach someone something it will stick better than just reading about it.  I remember feeling uneasy about the statistics cited but the overall model confirmed my pedagogical biases and confirmed the superiority of progressive rather than traditional teaching methods.  Daniel Willingham argues this should be called a cone of shame; the model is not based on reliable evidence.  There are so many factors which influence memory retrieval that it is a nonsense to present them in this order of priorities and attribute these statistics to them.

Thankfully, we are in a different place now.  There is a coherent canon of strategies emerging from cognitive science that provide a more evidence-based approach to revision.    It is clearly the case that not all methods are equal.  Some are far superior to others and some may be time-consuming and ineffective.  One of the key influences on my thinking has been the work of John Dunlosky.


Dunlosky et al (2013) What Works, What Doesn’t


Dunlosky et al suggest a range of effective and less effective strategies to use in revision.

What Works

  1. Self Testing (Quizzing yourself gets high marks)
  2. Distributed Practice (Spread your study over time)
  3. Elaborative Interrogation (Channel your inner four-year-old)
  4. Self-Explanation (How do you know)
  5. Interleaved Practice (Mixing apples and oranges)

What Doesn’t

  1. Highlighting
  2. Rereading

Dunlovsky’ do’s and don’t are nicely abridged in Alex Quigly’s Throw Away Your Highlighters.

For me, highlighters can represent how our habits of teaching and learning can go unexamined and how we can too easily waste time and money each year by not being truly critical about our practice in the classroom.

Let me first be clear. I have spent years with students using them with some guidance that I thought was enough. As a subject leader I have commissioned the purchase of hundreds of packs of highlighters. I have likely inadvertently funded a Stabilo Christmas party drinks tab once or twice. Only in the last couple of years I have been more critical of every facet of my own teaching practice and it leads you to ask broader questions about the efficacy of each teaching method, each tool you employ and each passing fad that attracts your eye (especially if it costs money, however seemingly small the budgetary hit).

Alex is not wrong.  For too long, too many of our revision tactics have been at best ineffective and at worst a waste of time and effort.  We can do better than this.  Revision and relearning are too important to leave to chance.


Yana Weinstein & Megan Smith (The Learning Scientists) have reduced the cognitive research into 6 key strategies that can make a difference.  Oliver Cavigliolo has turned them into fantastic info-graphics that should be the basis of all future discussions about revision.  Each strategy is clearly explained with key research evidence provided.


How to plan your studies

1.Spaced out learning

Research shows that spacing out your learning over time rather than cramming at the last minute is the key to success.  This means you need to plan you learning, five hours spread over two weeks is far superior to the same five hours spread out all at once.  Create small spaces of time for study and do a little bit at a time so it all adds up.


2. Interleaving

Switch between ideas while you study.  Don’t study one idea for too little or too long.  Go back over ideas to make sure you understand them.

How to develop your understanding.


3. Elaborative interrogation

As you study ask yourself questions which get you to explain and describe ideas with as many details as possible.  Make connections between different ideas, think how concepts are similar and different.  Try to apply the ideas and concepts to your own experiences and memories to make stronger connections.

4. Concrete examples

Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas.  Collect examples from your textbook, class notes or that your teacher has used in class to demonstrate a concept.  Create your own relevant examples for the learning.

5. Dual Coding

Combining words with visuals.  Develop different ways to represent the information visually for example an info graphic, timeline, diagram or cartoon.  Put the text away and try and describe the concepts from the visuals.  Eventually, attempt to draw what you know from memory.

How to consolidate your knowledge.

6. Retrieval practice

Practice bringing information to mind.  Use frequent, low-stakes testing and quizzing to improve your learning.  Use flashcards, key words, draw a diagram from memory or multiple choice quizzes.  Don’t only recall words and definitions, try to recall main ideas and how things are related or different from one another and new examples.

The Sandringham Memory Clock

The teaching and learning team at Sandringham School have developed a rather neat way to embed all of these ideas.  The Sandringham Memory Clock usefully portrays revision as a process that involves all the ingredients of evidence-based cognitive science.  Revision is not just made up of isolated activities like flashcards but needs to be built into a cycle of review, practice, checking, retest, relearn, repeat.


What have I learned about revision?

By leaving revision to the end of the course and allowing students to do ‘whatever works for them’ we are doing them a disservice.  If we are to maximise their memory potential we need to arm them with the techniques of cognitive science and consider rethinking how we structure linear learning.  The science of learning teaches us that we should perhaps build in more explicit repetition along the way.  The revisiting of topics and concepts should not be left until the end of the course, end of units, end of term.   We need to provide lots of opportunities for revision and relearning along the way.


For the love of blogging


It has been a year or so since I started blogging about professional issues and I wanted to reflect on what I have learnt and how I felt about the journey.  Whilst I am neither consistent, coherent or very good, I have enjoyed giving myself time to reflect on my own personal and professional development.  Like many others, I started blogging as a means of capturing my own thoughts about my practice and to engage in some sort of discussion about the direction of travel and the nuances that surround the decisions that we make.  My ramblings may not be read by many but that is not the point, committing them to paper has been a mixture of bravery, foolishness, narcissism and cathartic release.

In some sense blogging has been a liberation, of sorts. A space to express my views on the issues that surround teaching and learning; to make sense of my own journey and ways forward,  It has given me the chance to define and explore my own agendas in a way that structured INSET never has.  But it is much more than this.  Reading other peoples blogs has been some of the best CPD I have ever had and all from the comfort of my own laptop.  Even as a dipper in and out of the blogging sphere, one is overwhelmed for the creativity and desire for change in our profession and the sense that we are wrestling (to borrow the zeitgeist) some sort of control back.  Azumah Dennis (2017) suggests that

“These spaces matter.  They are fun, anarchic, dissenting, punk spaces that help shape what is means to be a … professional.”

Whilst government policy and the pace of curriculum change can at best be described as shambolic, the bloggers and tweeters maintain a healthy discourse about the purpose and role of education.  The subjects that are considered worthwhile are not driven by an external government agendas, we are defining the debates ourselves.   Blogging is so much more than venting and storytelling.  The debates and discussions may get a bit messy and we do not follow Oxford-style rules but on the whole the content is coming from a good place.  In blogging and social media, we get the chance to dream big and talk of how the future might be.  In committing these thoughts to the blog-o-sphere we are creating alternative professional spaces that are shaping an alternative vision of pedagogy and practice.  We are questioning the very foundations of our professional practice and seeking the evidence for doing it better.  Is direct instruction always bad?  Does group work improve learning?  How should we assess progress?  We are answering Dylan Wiliam’s call to arms and discovering on how we can improve, not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better.

Dear reader, it may not come as a surprise to hear that I have been struggling in recent months.  It has sometimes been difficult to hold on to the good stuff; curriculum change coupled with institutional issues have left me questioning myself more than usual. In these moments, I have been left wondering whether it is time to hang up the chalk as I feel somewhat defeated and then I stumble across lovely blogs that remind me of the importance of our task and the joy of the classroom.  I hope I find the space to keep reading and occasionally writing.  To my blogging colleagues who make the tough times easier, I salute you and thank you for the light in the moments of darkness.


C. Asumah Dennis (2017) Blogging – a chance for teachers to create a public pedagogy – InTuition Research. Spring.

Minding the gap between research and practice – Saturday 12th November 2016


I attended the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance conference on Saturday 12th November 2016 and here are my reflections on the day.

The Hive.

I must admit I have only dropped my son off here to for children’s parties and I have never been through the doors.  It is a large space, well suited to this type of conference.  It could be anywhere as it looks like most hotels and conference centres do with the light wood doors, swirly carpets and Molton Brown soaps.  However, you get a surprise every now and then as you turn a corner or look out a window to be confronted with the stands of Barnet FC.  Come on you …. bees?


A warm welcome from Kev where he reminds us of our task; to mind the gaps between research and evidence, to question our current practices, to work out what evidence is there and what is missing and be more comfortable with ‘not’ knowing.

The ingenious Oliver Caviglioli has made some of his summary notes which I will use as an aide memoir in my reflection.  Massive thank you to Oliver for these scribbles of beauty (if I could have one super power it would be to make notes like this!)

Keynote 1. James Richardson (EEF) Embedding research in 24000 schools – limits to the EEF’s endowment and the role of teachers.cxdtqwlxgaay_sx

As we approach the 5th anniversary of the establishment of the EEF, James walks us through the Foundations top achievements and how its work and focus has changed.  I had not realised it was established with such a large endowment of £136 million to boldly go where few researchers had gone before. They have produced 66 reports, carried out 130 project evaluations and 1 in 5 schools have become involved in RCTs.  An significant beginning.

Historically, schools have been the passive recipients of university research, but this paradigm is changing with schools taking the role in leading trials.  The EEF has three clear roles including summarising the existing body of research (meta- meta analysis), finding gaps and making grants for those areas to be researched and sharing the results.  It is sharing the results which has proven to be the most challenging.  Whether teachers believe the research depends on many factors including trusting the advocate, the practicable applications and how much effort the change would take.  Schools tend to listen to other schools (which could be a great way of sharing the good practice but it has also been a sure fire way of sharing some questionable activities – look how quickly triple marking spread as a solution-  to a non-existent problem).  The task of research schools will be to carry out this research and help disseminate and communicate the agenda.  I think this is a tough challenge as we are asking teachers to change their habits, and most of us are creatures of habit and routine. Information alone does not change peoples behaviour, we need to engage the profession with a space and capacity for reflection.

What seems clear is that the EEF evidence does not always speak to the emerging canon of work in cognitive psychology.  The cognitivists have a wide range of lab-based studies but the challenge ahead is for the EEF to use research schools to see if this evidence can be replicated in real-life settings. Current gaps in the research include: marking & feedback, leadership and culture.

One interesting debate was about whether it is important for all teachers to read all the research?  Not all are willing to engage with research for a variety of reasons.  More must be done at ITT stage, to establish evidence-based practice as a core professional quality.  However, I wonder if we are not all engaging with evidence-based practice then how are we meeting our annual 30 hour CPD commitment?  Surely, the lions share of this time should be given as time and space to find out about and reflect on current research and evidence?

Best practice would suggest all schools need to have a research advocate who can help bridge the gap and help embed these national debates into everyday practice.

One of the messages I was left with, is just how long it takes to embed research.  The EEF would like to become the educational version of NICE, but people at NICE suggest that it can take 15 years from the publication of their research and guidance for this to filter down into day-to-day medical practice, 15 years … I am not sure I have another 15 years in the profession?

Keynote 2: Phillipa Cordingley CUREE


Phillipa introduced me to the work of Viviane Robinson and used a really rich case study to get me to think about the tools we use and how we can evaluate them.  Leadership is important here as well as the bravery to use or peer support to deal with the difficult stuff rather than just reinforcing our existing beliefs.

Session 1: David Weston, Phillipa Cordingley, Helene Galdin-Oshea.

The CPD Standards and Professional Learning.


The panel gave us an overview of the work of the CPD Expert Group and the 5 standards of effective CPD.  The guidance was music to my ears and I hope signals the end of poor quality professional development.   For too long, CPD has been something which is done to  teachers rather than a genuine opportunity for personalised, evidence-based enquiry that improves the outcomes in our classrooms.  Professional development should not be a ‘done to’ process, teachers need to be engaged with evidence, given time for collaboration and a process which is deeply embedded into the school culture.

Session 2: Candida Gould – Empowering Teachers.

Candida led a thoughtful session reminding us of the why we must engage in research and the benefits to our classrooms and our morale as teachers.  She spoke about how the journey into the world of evidence-based practice is full of many stumbles and falls, but it is this not knowing or being uncertain which drives us on.  Engaging with research should take us out of our comfort zone.  We need to disturb the educational equipoise.

Is it good to do what we have always done?  What is the opportunity cost of changing our practice?  On balance, what is the evidence for our current practice?

There is much uncertainty in our practices, but we should embrace this and be curious about what we don’t know.

Candida talked about how her school had started to become more evidence-based with the following ingredients:

  • A culture of asking why
  • A common language to talk about pedagogy and evaluating research.
  • Continuous exposure to research, sharing blogs, research bulletin.
  • Recommendations for reading linked to performance goals and development projects.

I liked lots of her ideas and began to wonder how evidence-based the schools I have taught in have been.  One of the intriguing ideas Candida has left me with is this idea of a T shape learner, where the top represents the skills and the vertical the knowledge.  The idea is you cannot deepen the knowledge without developing the skills.  I need to find out more as it seems like a sensible way forward in the skills versus content debate.

Session 3. Richard Found – The Sandringham Learning Journal.



A very thought-provoking example of how to change a school culture from Richard Found. The experience of writing and publishing articles for a learning journal has transformed how staff (and students) at Sandringham approach research and professional development.  Richard described how the journal had evolved from a rather make shift in-house production to a more professionally produced journal and how the opportunity to have an article published had inspired all sorts of action research and teacher reflections.  The journals are a thing of beauty and something Sandringham should be rightly proud.  Not all the articles are as ‘evidence-based’ as one would perhaps like but they are a clear statement of intent and a culture of enquiry.   We read a few in the session and you cannot help but be impressed with the range and depth of the articles.  All staff contribute to this journal, not just teachers so articles from governors and support staff add to the diversity of voices.  This has been developed alongside a teaching and learning website  www.sandology.co.uk and spin-off versions for the students.  However, to work this needs advocates and senior staff commitment.  I like it.

Plenary: Dr Gary Jones.  Effective Leadership of evidence-based practice.

Admittedly, I had to leave half way through this one as I had a lift organised.  However, it seems clear that we need a genuine culture shift in our leadership teams rather than pseudo-enquiry which plays lip-service to this agenda.



Another thoughtful day.  My thanks to Keven and Helene for organising.  Much needed chicken soup for the teaching soul.


Post-Trump teaching


27 years ago today the Berlin wall fell.  It remains one of the very few lessons I remember from school, our teacher got very excited and passionate about the significance of the day.  The date bears a historical burden as it was also the day in 1938 of the anti-Jewish pogrom ‘Kristallnacht’, a harbinger of later inhumanity. He confidently proclaimed that it was probably the most important historical moment of our lives, the end of the cold war and a new era of peace and prosperity.  A wall which symbolised so much fear and division fell in a peaceful, popular uprising.  We were witnessing a triumph of the human spirit, a victory of freedom over bondage.

Today, as we contemplate the consequences of a Trump Presidency and I cannot help but feel the same feelings as I felt in that Year 9 history classroom all those years ago.  In 2016, we have witnessed seismic shifts in our political and social landscape.    Brexit and Trump represent a generational challenge to progressive politics and liberal ideas.  These values represent the moral compass of my classroom and it feels as though they are being eroded from within.  I do not know if  I truly believe that politics is the answer as much as I used too.   My rallying cry to my students has always been a version of Marx’s famous quote …

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”  (Theses On Feuerbach, 1888)

… I just don’t know whether I believe the change is possible any longer.  What faith can one have in political processes that seem broken.

I am also left wondering about the usefulness of polling and political science as it has proven itself to be fairly useless in the last couple of years.  The social scientist in me wonders whether there is a flaw in the sampling frame, the question design or some issue with social desirability as they are consistently unable to make the right call.  Or does the presence have a more pervasive influence on the electoral outcomes.   wondered whether the publishing of the polls may have some unintended response and influence on the wider population.  Perhaps it is more of an art than a science?

Anyway, I digress.  The question is how do we as educators pick ourselves up and carry on when it feels like the fabric of our outlook, the certainties of our beliefs are being unpicked one by one.

Professor Albus Dumbedore gets it right when he tells Harry Potter “Dark and difficult times lie ahead.”  Our political systems seem broken, our leaders have lose their heads, racism, misogyny and locker room banter is on the rise.  The world has become more inward looking, nationalism triumphs over rational economic self interest, populism triumphed over experts, paranoia and fear triumphed over trust.  It seems as though we do have “dark and difficult times” ahead; the future seems more uncertain than ever before.

The campaigns we have witnessed in the American elections and the Brexit referendum were dreadful and offer no models to young people about how to engage in political debate.  These campaigns were an embarrassment and the behaviour on show would have led to a serious reprimand if it was how a young person behaved in class.  Whatever happened to good old-fashioned winning the argument?  As any teacher knows, success will require all sides to work together and find the common ground.  Is this possible after the deep wounds of these recent campaigns?

However, once we have got over the shock and a period of mourning, we need to recover and regroup, ‘keep on – keeping on’ as Alan Bennett might say.   There is hope sat in front of us everyday.   Everyday we are surrounded by possibility and potential.  By hope.  Potential floods the room like Lynx deodorant after PE.   Dumbledore’s quotation ends: “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”  I know the young people that I work with will make better choices than their predecessors.  Now is not the time for giving into political apathy.  Teaching has never mattered more as they will be the ones who will really make a difference in the challenges ahead.










The problem with growth mindset.


I think I might be a little late to this party but I want to reflect on my thinking about growth mindset and resilience.  Views about the usefulness of growth mindset seem to be polarised as it is seen as either a magic wand or a passing fad.  It is probably neither and it’s usefulness may be weakened by an inconclusive evidence base.  It may remain an important piece of the puzzle of learning but as with all puzzles, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. I wondered whether it was time to evaluate my use of this concept and approach.

My Dweckian conversion.

By the 2010s, I had become a Dweckian convert, and I attributed much of the academic success of my classes to my awareness and sensitivity to the growth mindset agenda.  I had developed a range of assemblies,  interventions and feedback strategies that used the language of resilience.  Student voice feedback on these interventions was positive and my value-added was good.  Therefore it works, right? Well, maybe and maybe not.

My gosh, it seemed like a silver bullet, the purpose-built panacea to the challenges of the education system. Carol Dweck had given us a language to explain motivation, the importance of effort and a psychology of success.




The idea of a growth mindset is a simple idea that was guaranteed to make all the difference.  People with a fixed mindset attribute their success as a product of their innate talent – without effort.  Whilst those with a more growth mindset believe success is down to hard work dedication and responding to failure and feedback.  This approach suggests that a growth mindset can be taught and that failure should be seen as an opportunity to improve.  We should praise effort and perseverance rather than innate qualities or talents.  Seems a positive thing, isn’t it?

Many years ago, I had a poster in my classroom that had the tagline ‘attitude determines altitude’. I have never really believed that students who are struggling look up at the poster with the inspirational quote and decide in that moment to turn their lives around. Real life is not a Robin Williams movie. Moreover, the poster was there for my benefit as well as making the room more aesthetically pleasing. Whilst I was not an early adopter of her research, it gradually began to seep into my consciousness, my teaching and my own psyche. All of a sudden, we had a language that seemed to tie up all the loose ends left over from the debates surrounding labelling, self-fulfilling prophecy and cultural deprivation or what contemporary sociologists might call ‘habitus’.

To be fair, I was not the only one who had become super excited about the concept of growth mindset. It appeared on CPD brochures, regular slots in the education press as well as an essential criterion in job descriptions and school mission statements.  I began to use Dweck’s words in my feedback to students, carefully praising the effort. Focusing on the dialogic feedback about how to improve. I planned assemblies to look at these ideas along with the case studies from Matt Syed in Bounce, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the inspiration from Erikson’s 10,000 hour rule.

So there I was, a card-carrying member of the growth mindset club, on a mission to use the psychology of success to improve my practice.  Yet, and yet a strange knot began to grow in the pit of my stomach, where was the evidence to support this new-found belief.

 Evidence that growth mindset approach works?

Results from the largest UK trial of resilience training in schools (the UK Resilience Project) continue to be disappointing and largely ignored.  Despite my desire to find evidence to support my ideas, it has not been easy to prove.  Without evidence, should we abandon this on the educational scrap heap along with brain gym and learning styles?  I am not sure I am ready to do that yet but what value is left?

 What is good about a growth mindset approach?

 A renewed focus on attitudes and learning behaviours can be helpful. We have a common language to use with students and with each other. The message that application and effort are the keys to success can only be helpful particularly against the backdrop of labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy.  There seems to be a connection between mindset, a coaching approach to teaching and learning and the growth of independent study methods.  But my cynical side suggests this is all too neat. We know that many problems of the education sector are both structural and institutional. How significant is this piece of the puzzle?  Are we all talking about the same thing?

Variations on a theme: Whose concept is it anyway?

 Angela Duckworth (2012) – Grit.

Resilience seems to be narrowly defined as the ability to cope with adversity or disappointment. Perseverance tends to be about the ability to keep going, to complete a task and be committed to learning. Whereas grit, is defined by Angela Duckworth as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long-term goals.

Marc Smith (2016) – Academic Buoyancy

Smith points out that much of the research and discussion about resilience investigates cases of extreme adversity rather than the everyday problems that students face. This ability to cope with daily hassles, setbacks and minor adversities can be reconceptualised as ‘academic buoyancy’ in order to distinguish the term from the traditional view of resilience.

Academic buoyancy contains the so-called 5Cs: Confidence (self-efficacy), Coordination (planning), Control (low uncertain control), Composure (low anxiety) and Commitment (persistence). Smith (2016) suggests we should use the 5Cs as the starting point of planning any interventions.

The problems of growth mindset.

I am anxious about the conflict between our use of ALPS target grades and the concept of a growth mindset. It seems to me that the process of setting target grades is antithetical and even undermines the growth mindset approach. I have attempted to fudge this paradox by quietly making students aware of their target grades but their feedback in class has been developmental and dialogic.

The use of praise.

As a social scientist, I have been long aware of the concepts of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and the often forgotten vicarious reinforcement. We see these in action in schools all the time. The growth mindset approach has reminded me to praise the effort rather than the person, or some innate abilities. However, the usefulness of praise is contested. From a psychological perspective, the praisers status, age, gender, ethnicity and the students own experience of attachment and praise in early childhood may have an impact on whether the praise will have any impact at all.  Again, are we looking at part of the puzzle and if so, what part does this represent for each individual learner?

Problem 1: The problem of definition and understanding.

The age-old problem of definition means that there can be a blurred understanding of what Dweck means by growth mindset. People often confuse it with being flexible or open-minded as well as assuming they already have one.   It is perhaps better to consider that everyone is a mixture of both fixed and growth mindsets and that we oscillate with experience. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ growth mindset or a fortunate individual who achieves this nirvana in all walks of life.

Dweck is worried that some educators misunderstand or misapply the concepts. Praising effort alone is useless when the student is getting everything wrong and making no progress. Praise must be tied to a student’s process and strategies and tied to an outcome. Hollow praise convey our low expectations and praising effort without the coaching and critical feedback.

Problem 2: The problem of the poster and going through the motions.

You cannot just skip the process. A poster or assembly alone without the changes to everyday practice will not work. It is not enough for us to mouth the platitudes of growth mindset. Effort alone will not make students successful, out teaching practice needs to embed critical AFL and strategies for improvement.  Furthermore, these concepts are open to expropriation by other agendas. Look at Nicky Morgan’s emphasise on ‘character education’ and how that is absorbed much of the language of resilience and grit.

Problem 3: The problem of measurement.

 A concept that is complex to define will be even more difficult to measure. I have noted that a range of private companies are developing questionnaires and self-report measures that are being targeted at schools to provide evidence (for Ofsted) of how resilient students are. The idea is that you measure them before, during and after to prove how fantastic your interventions are.

Whilst I approve of the increased use of evidence in education, I cannot see how this type of enterprise could add any benefit. In the complex story of school-life, how can you isolate a notion of mindset over metacognition.

Problem 4: The infrastructure of education is in conflict with these concepts.

The use of target grades and ALPS data seems antithetical to a growth mindset approach. Clearly, you can approach target grades with caution with a ‘this is a minimum-grade’ expectation but once you have opened that Pandora’s box there is no going back. This thinking has led me to wonder how useful target grades are to the students? I understand how they are useful as a stick to beat me and measure class and department performance with but how depressing is it to be told your target grade is a D. Perhaps more useful to be told the average grade at AS in the UK is a D?  Furthermore, in an accountability culture that encourages us all to play educational triage, what space is there for growth mindset work?

Problem 5: Correlation does not imply causation.

David Didau usefully reminds us that the relationship between mindset and academic performance is not a straightforward one. It is intuitive to believe that changing a person’s beliefs will alter their behavior but the evidence is much more complex.

He cites a range of studies where mindset interventions have backfired due to the confounding effects of variables such as direct experience vs the indirect experience, social norms and cultural traditions. He concludes that,

“Mindset interventions don’t work by trying to browbeat pupils into believing in the merits of hard work or that their ‘brain can grow’. Direct appeals and information alone don’t change behaviour very effectively at all. In fact, effective psychological interventions involve a subtle, well-aimed nudge, which initiates a more complex social process.”

Problem 6: Does growth mindset individualise failure?

 David James, professor of social sciences at Cardiff argues that the limitations of mindset outweigh its uses. When students fail it can be explained away by the fact they did not have enough of the right mindset, they failed to adapt the way they think about life, they do not have the right character to be successful.

British psychologist Tim O’Brien says Professor Dweck’s theories could be “used against certain groups of learners as a tool for labelling, blame and exclusion”.

“The adolescent learner with emotional difficulties who used to get criticised in the staffroom for ‘having a chip on her shoulder’ now has a far more respectable research-based label to use against her – she’s got a fixed mindset,” Dr O’Brien writes.

We must resist the myth of cultural deprivation when explaining the attainment gap. The patterns of inequality in our society are mirrored and exacerbated by our education system.   Rather than question our systems and structures we are able to explain educational failure away as the result of poor attitude. This unconscious bias is insidious, pervasive and a shame on our profession.


It seems healthy to maintain a critical approach to the use of growth mindset. Although there are many problems with its implementation, not least how it might clash with institutional culture, it does seem to give us a language about learning, application and motivation. It clearly cannot be the only tool in the toolkit. Perhaps its real value, despite its poor operationalisation is the adoption of a shared language of learning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but as with most things the complex phenomenon of learning is more than the mere sum of its parts.   As long as we do not use it as a stick to beat underperformance but rather as a aide-memoir to the type of feedback and the journey we are all on together.





David Didau




Critiques of mindset.







The problem with staff meetings (Vol. 1)


Oh dear, we really have some shocking practice in the education sector.  I have sat through too many meetings which have been either dull and irrelevant or difficult and poorly managed.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  You get a group of teaching professionals together but we are not always able to make a meeting productive or meaningful?  Why?  In this first blog, I want to get some practical issues out of the way but I think it is also valuable to think about why groups are not always able to perform as a work group.  What secret and not so secret scripts are being played out amongst a staff group?

I guess it is the word ‘meeting’ which is most problematic, perhaps we should switch to the word lecture or briefing to be a more accurate description of some of this activity.  If some middle leaders meetings had been around in the middle-ages even Dante would have thought it a strange and unusual punishment.  Why is it sometimes such a difficult forum for staff to use to share ideas and support the functioning of a school or department.  What anxieties are at work which might taint the experience?

Whose agenda is it anyway?

I guess staff meetings are called for a variety of purposes including; improved communication, problem-solving, airing of anxieties, review of practice, introduction of new policies, standardisation and pastoral issues.  However,there is an opportunity cost to having all these people in this room every week (often twice or three times) and we need to have clear outcomes for everyone involved.  Everyone needs to feel they are getting something out of it and /or that they can contribute something to it.  This is time that cannot be spent lesson planning and marking.  This is time that cannot be spent working with students, so we must think it a very important activity to distract from our core purpose.  I do understand that with a limited amount of time you are not going to please everyone in the room but there are a few things that meetings should not be:

Extended briefings.  Being talked at for an hour by the same person or same small group of people.  Does the same person need to chair each meeting?  Can this be rotated to broaden the agenda widen the voices?

Notices. Reading of emails that have already been sent.  This is my pet hate.  Thank you, I have read your email but it seems as though I am going to lose that part of my life again as you tell me exactly the same information.

Patronising responses.  Disagreement is okay we do not need to be belittled because we have a different view of an issue.  Rank does not make your voice the most important or your opinion the most worthy.

Materials. Make enough handouts and preferably distribute before meeting if you want people to have read and be able to comment on with a degree of reflection.  Another pet hate is getting loads of data at a meeting and being asked for a definitive opinion there and then otherwise the discussion will be closed.  Have the courtesy to share this stuff beforehand.

Have enough seats.  Preferably in a room that is big enough.  Yes, if you have called the meeting this is your responsibility.

Contributions. Making no time or space for questions.  With a 15 item agenda you are not leaving anytime for questions, comments or observations.  This tells me enough already.  My opinion is neither sought nor valued.  I have mentally gone home.

Discussion that goes nowhere.  Splitting into smaller groups to discuss an issue is useful but not so much if you feel the contributions are not going to have an impact or be considered as the ideas seem to drift into the ether.

How could we do things differently?

Whose chair is it anyway? Rotating chair amongst the members would get different voices heard, we are after all, all leaders of learning?

Flip the meeting.  Send out a briefing sheet before to allow more time for discussion in the meeting.

Meaningful Impact.  Ask teachers what they need.  Evaluate the impact of the meeting on the teaching and learning.  How much of what happens in a staff meeting has an impact in the classroom? It may not be true that all meetings are useless, they’re good to keep the gears of the school twisting but rarely do they meaningfully impact the learning and lives of students.

Genius, Not Endurance.  Too many meetings are to be endured and we are not able to engage the genius rather than the resilience of staff. Too many meetings focus on minutiae and housekeeping.  Could these ideas be put into a briefing sheet and can we prioritise the ideas that will have the most meaningful impact?

Having everyone in one room does make it easier to check off the housekeeping issues – policies, events, priorities, scheduling issues, operational feedback but there is also an opportunity cost of not using this group of people to develop more collegiate approaches to teaching and learning.  The internet and social media could be used to carry out the housekeeping stuff and helping us to keep the main thing, the main thing.  We need to clear the decks to focus on the primary task and mission critical goals like pedagogy, assessment and curriculum planning.

Colleagues, we owe it to ourselves to get out of this rut.  In my next post, I want to explore some of the unconscious dynamics of the team meeting and why change may be harder than we think.



The problem with INSET: the great training robbery


Good heavens, I have sat through some real rubbish over the past 16 years.  I have been obliged to attend some of the most irrelevant content, poorly applied concepts with the dullest delivery ever in the name of professional development.  Colleagues, this has to stop.  We have got to stop being so tolerant of poor quality inset.  I know it is a day off teaching with a free lunch and we might welcome the respite in a busy term but we need to stop this abuse of our professional development.  There is an opportunity cost to not spending the precious time we have set aside for training on real professional development.  As Shaun Allison describes in his class teaching blog, effective CPD should be subject specific, regular, collaborative and within the context of what is being taught.  The main purpose should be to support the quality and consistency of teaching and learning within teams rather than a tick box exercise for some corporate action plan.  We need to put CPD back into the context of subject areas, it needs to be teacher-led and based around the needs of the curriculum.  Subject teams need the time and space to plan high quality teaching and reflect on current practice.

What it should not be:

One-size fits all.  You know the type, all teaching staff in the hall for a session on AfL or behaviour management from some outside consultancy.  To be honest, general pedagogy sessions have probably had their day, they might spark a thought but where does it go?  How is it implemented?  Where is the time and space in the schedule to make this happen before we get dragged into the next big thing?

One-off inspirational speaker.  I actually quite like an engaging speaker but our task is not an after-dinner speech. It is to have the mental space to use the best evidence to evaluate our practice.  What is left behind after the raconteur leaves the building?  If we are to engage with a new evidenced-based practice it needs time to sow the seeds amongst the chaos of curriculum change.

Pretend accreditation.  I am a 40 year old man, I have little need or desire for your made up certificate, thank you.

Team-building activities.  This has to stop.  It is not right or fair to spend precious development time on building a raft or making a tower out of newspaper.  This madness has to stop.

Coloured sugar paper.  See above my comment about being a 40 year old man.

What it should be:


We are in such a period of curriculum change that our development needs must be focused on these new specifications, how to deliver the knowledge and skills and how to accurately assess the learning and use new mark schemes.  How do we embed the ideas of cognitive psychology about retrieval practice and spaced-learning?  My most valuable development activity of late has been our departmental attempts at joint planning.  This has been a real joy and a privilege to talk through ideas and build them together.


Does it all need to happen in the same place at the same time.  I have an active and supportive PLN on my twitter-feed, there are regular subject specific live chats that I participate in.  Tutor2U have been offering a range of webinars in the early evening that are preferable to a podcast as they allow questions and group support.  Does all development need to take place on the school premises in the same time slot?  I have rather enjoyed my recent sojourns to ResearchEd and teach-meets in London.  How I long for a more independent approach that allows me to be responsible for my 30 hours of professional development each year.  CPD should be a buffet not a set menu.


I can count on my hand the number of meaningful insets in the last 16 years.  Am I cynical and bitter?  I hope not, I would consider myself humble about my practice and open to new ideas I am just a bit tired of the same-old, same-old.  Actually, not tired but frustrated, angry, disappointed?  I want more from the valuable time set aside for this. I want to have the mental space to reflect and respond to new approaches.  I think both my students and I deserve more from the current diet on offer.

We need to return to a more streamlined and purest form of CPD, one which is teacher-led and where teachers can engage regularly to discuss ideas about how best to teach their subject.  The opportunity cost of poor professional development is too great.  Whose agenda is it anyway?  Colleagues, we have nothing to lose but our own professional development.  Let’s put away that sugar paper.


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 www.teenmentalhealth.org



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.