Taking Special Measures in English

After just two months of taking over as Head of Department at my new school, OFSTED visited. We were judged to be, ‘Inadequate.’ This isn’t a blog post about OFSTED. This is a blog post about what I’m doing to raise standards in a school whose socio-economic profile is inconsistent with all surrounding areas. My school is situated in a borough, which is essentially a very large housing estate, in which the number of children living in poverty is higher than all 205 other boroughs in Surrey. We have the third highest number of children Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEETs), and the local area ranks 12, of 206 boroughs, on a list of percentage of people in unemployment. I won’t euphemise, because I have more respect for the students, parents, and staff at my school, but the simple fact is this: I work in a deprived area.
I’m proud of the fact that the otherwise damning OFSTED report, made specific reference to the ‘scholarly atmosphere’ in English lessons. I’m proud because scholarly is exactly what me and my department were going for. Changes to the curriculum were made right from the get-go. Out went ‘Holes’ and in came ‘Oliver Twist’; Out went AFOREST and in came Aristotelian Rhetoric; Out went Autobiography and in came 19th century Gothic Fiction. And this is Just KS3.

But, the vision I have for the English Department- a vision of a knowledge-focused curriculum founded upon classic literary and educational values- doesn’t end here. No, this is where it begins. What follows is a list of things the English Department will be doing next year, to raise the standards, expectations, and enjoyment of English Lessons at my school.

1. Knowledge Centred Curriculum

The phasing out of old schemes of work, with a focus on generic skills and no clear knowledge focus, must continue. Take the now defunct ‘Autobiography’ Unit for example: Nobody knew what it was. A reading unit? A writing unit? What were we actually teaching? Why were we teaching it? In came 19th Century Gothic Fiction- a reading unit with a focus on the literary and linguistic techniques of Pathetic Fallacy and Adjectives, aimed at acquainting students with the syntactical structures of 19th Century Literature, but also a contextual understanding of Victorian Society.

Still, there are changes to be made.

Still languishing on my curriculum is a unit entitled, ‘Poetry from Other Cultures.’ I’m not happy with it. As part of an on-going review process, my department and I need to ask the following questions:

• What are our aims here?

• Why poetry from ‘other cultures’?

• What is an ‘other culture’?

• Are the poems chosen because they imbue students with a sense of cultural capital or just because they’re ‘foreign’?

• What specific literary terms and devices do we want them to take away from this unit?

• Do these build upon what’s been taught previously?

• What vocabulary can we teach in relation to this unit?

The questions go on, but they are questions that, once answered, will result in more focused schemes of work that will provide better outcomes for students.

 

2. Greek Myths and Legends Unit

As part of our on-going quest to raise standards, I have recently received funding to allow me to work with a renowned expert in the field of Classics. In conjunction with Dr Arlene Holmes- Henderson, based at the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, I will be designing a new scheme of work on Greek Myths and Legends for our Year 7 students. The Unit aims to provide students with the thrill of good story-telling, but also foundation knowledge of myths that are alluded to in other literary works, such as the plays of Shakespeare. I believe that an awareness of classical allusions, quite literally, makes students more literate when it comes to interpreting Shakespeare. A simile that likens a Shakespearean heroine to ‘Diana’ is meaningless if students don’t know who Diana is and what she represents. . The unit also aims to provide students with a wider vocabulary. The word ‘protean’ is better understood with knowledge of Proteus’ story. A focus on Greek and Latin root words should improve students’ ability to decode words for meaning. This is not a Sisyphean task by any means.

3. Multiple Choice Quizzing

Building on the research surrounding the Testing Effect, I want to develop a bank of carefully considered Multiple Choice Quizzes (MPQs) that teachers can use to assess kids’ understanding of key knowledge. MPQs, are ‘top-heavy’. That is, they take some time and careful thought to design, but once done, can be used repeatedly and often, and also take just seconds to mark. MPQs will also enable English Teachers to see what areas of knowledge students are deficient in. This could lead to meaningful specific targets (‘re-read Act 4 scene 3 of Macbeth and list three adjectives Malcolm uses to describe himself’) rather than vague targets based on summative descriptors (‘write a perceptive point in your next paragraph’).

 

4. Live Shakespeare

Somehow, some way, somewhere, I’ve got to get kids seeing some live Shakespeare. Some of the students I teach rarely leave the estate, let alone the town. Somehow, I need to get them into a theatre, bums on seats, watching Shakespeare. This is a must for next year.

5. Getting stuff remembered.

My aim, next year, is to have all quotations needed for GCSE exams, to be remembered by the end of Year 10. I’ve done a few sums, and this means I’m aiming for a minimum of 100 quotations to be learned, off by heart, in just one GCSE year. This is going to be a challenge, but going some way to achieving this will mean that I can spend Year 11 focusing on analysing language. Remember quotations, although valuable when it comes to analysis, are also ‘signposts’ for a text or poem, offering hints or directions as to how the narrative is progressing. Remember quotations, remember plot.

As a teacher, this means increasing my repertoire of memory techniques. I need to be exploiting the forgetting curve, and strategies of spacing and interleaving. I also need to aid students in developing a knowledge of basic memory techniques such as chunking and mnemonics. This, I truly believe, is synonymous with me developing and improving as a practitioner.

I also need to do more at KS3 in the way of getting students to actively practice getting things committed to their long term memory. I’m planning Poetry by Heart Unit somewhere in KS3, ending in an evening in which students recite ‘proper poems’ from the canon in front of peers, teachers, and parents. Can’t wait for this.

6. Isolated and directly instructed Grammar Lessons

A recent talk by Katie Ashford, from Michaela, has left me absolutely convinced that grammar needs to be taught in isolation via the direct instruction method. I can’t wait to get this going next term and working with my department to develop clear, concise, and effective explanations of difficult grammatical concepts. Again, my excitement is partly selfish; yes, this is great for kids, but it’ll make me feel smarter too. I like feeling smart.

7. Booklets

I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the effectiveness of Department made Text Books. Text books, such as those created by RobNQT and The Michaela lot, ease teacher workload whilst also providing clear explanation and anchor points to aid teacher explanations and student understanding. Next year, I want to create a Text Book on Aristotelian Rhetoric. A big job, but a satisfying one no doubt.

My school is in an area of social deprivation. But so what? Our greatest PP strategy is providing students with excellent GCSE outcomes and widespread cultural capital. I only mention it in case anyone reads with the cynical, excuse that ‘this couldn’t be done in my school’. If a school in Special measures can do it, we all can.

 

Hear the one about the dead Queen?

The death of Lady Macbeth used to trouble me.  

Undoubtedly one of his greatest creations, it always struck me as strange that Shakespeare not only denies Lady Macbeth a death that takes place on stage, but also that he goes a step further and denies both Macbeth-and the audience- the time and opportunity to process, confront, and react to the news of the mysterious death. Macbeth simply states that his wife ‘should have died hereafter’ and then launches into a soliloquy deliberating on the futility of life, rather than the grief he feels for his wife. In doing so, Macbeth directs the audience to consider his existentialist crisis also, rather than the death of Lady Macbeth.

In fact, in the ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ soliloquy, Shakespeare actively encourages the audience to distance themselves from any emotion they might have surrounding Lady Macbeth’s death.

Shakespeare does this through the use of meta-theatre. That is, he makes considered reference to the fact that what the audience are witnessing is in fact, just a play, and not real life.

Eh?

Consider this. In Act 5 scene 3 of the play, the audience bears witness to Macbeth (or the actor playing Macbeth) strutting and fretting round the stage as he realises that the witches’ prophecy is being fulfilled. His raging use of imperatives (‘give me my armour’; ‘Take thy face hence!’; ‘Bring me no more reports’), directed at the last hangers-on of his dwindling army, reveal him to be a man who, actually, in spite of his insistence to the contrary, does indeed, ‘taint with fear’ at the fact that his head is soon to be little more than stopper for the end of Macduff’s sword.

When, in Act 5 scene 5, of the play, Macbeth says that life is little more than a ‘poor player’ (rubbish actor) that ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, Shakespeare, or rather, the actor playing Macbeth, is referencing himself. It’s a joke! The audience has just found out that one of his greatest ever female characters has died and Shakespeare is trying to make the audience laugh. It’s a joke that says, ‘life is like a shite actor that struts and frets across the stage and that’s what I was just doing in that scene earlier remember? Remember? This is a play. And I’m an actor. None of this is real.’

Of course, this is not terrible writing; Shakespeare wants the audience to feel exactly the same as Macbeth does upon hearing of his wife’s death: nothing. After all, killing Duncan cemented the end of their relationship. Other things, like power and greed and the golden round got in the way.

 

 

Learning Objectives: a waste of time.

Recently, I posted the following tweet:


A few people have been asking the reasoning behind my scorn for learning objectives, and I felt it prudent to outline my thinking here, in a blog. So here’s why I think learning objectives are ridiculous:

1. They’re Clunky

Learning is complicated. Really, really complicated. Take metaphor for example. A full and proper grasp on the complexities of metaphor takes years to achieve. It requires  understanding-and retention- of a wide range of abstract concepts and domain knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Look Here).

The idea that learning can be reduced to a single lesson target perpetuates the myth that learning is something that can be visible within the arbitrary units of time we call lessons. 

Take this learning objective for example: 

To understand what a metaphor is.

That’s your aim is it? To have all students in the class ‘understand’ metaphor? Okay, so…

  • What do you mean by ‘understand’?
  • Do they all need to ‘understand’ it today? 
  • What if they don’t?
  • You’ll need to revisit this concept again and again in upcoming lessons- will this be the target then, too? What about other targets? 
  • Do you have enough space on the board to keep writing this learning objective-and new ones- up?

The fact is, the accumulation of knowledge in the Long Term Memory takes repetition, testing, interleaving and spaced practice. These are solid principles based on cognitive theory and the single lesson learning objective does not take these into consideration. 

2.They’re limiting 

As a trainee, I became obsessed with the learning objective. Once I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time coming up with an objective (Does ‘To understand how Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter for effect’ actually mean anything?), I’d then fly into a blind panic whenever a discussion or activity went in a direction that diverted from the learning objective.

What’s rhythm? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What other words feature the prefix ‘pent’? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What does ‘effect’ actually mean and how can you write about it? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

3. They facilitate the abomination that is differentiated learning objectives 

‘Must, should, could’; ‘Tricky, Trickier, Trickiest’, ‘Green, Amber, Red’. 

Differentiated learning Objectives are an abomination. They suggest that what is good enough for some pupils, is not good enough for others. They encourage low expectations. Johnny, I want you to do the trickiest objective, but Joe- you probably won’t be able to do it so you stick with the tricky one yeah? Good, stupid boy. 

They also encourage students to take the easy way out. After all, why would you do the trickiest option, when you could do the tricky one and still have time to piss about?

The fact is, you should have the highest expectations of all your students. You just need to accept that whilst Sarah may have a grasp of the root causes of the Wall Street Crash within 10 minutes, for Matthew it may take a while longer. Like, six weeks longer. Learning Objectives- particularly differentiated learning Objectives- by definition, are contrary to this understanding of how learning actually works.

4. They’re a waste of time.

Time spent coming up with a learning objective for your lesson is time you could’ve spent reading something clever.

Time spent writing a learning objective on the board is time that could be spent writing something interesting on the board.

Time spent writing learning Objectives in books is time that could be spent doing punctuation drills. 

5. They’re a stick to be beaten with

You’re being observed and your learning objective states that all students must understand how to use dynamic verbs to create pace in their writing.

Your observer is someone that doesn’t know what a verb (verbs are doing words) is, let alone a dynamic verb and yet, you see them frowning as it quickly becomes apparent that a number of other students don’t know either. But the learning objective says all students must understand. And clearly, they don’t. Not yet, anyway.

Thing is, your observer is only here for twenty minutes and they want to see progress against the learning objective. You’ve set yourself up for failure. Go easier on yourself- abandon the objective. 

Okay, so what?

Hattie said that targeted lessons have a positive impact on student attainment. This does not mean Learning Objectives. What this means is, teachers knowing what they want students to understand within a given time frame (lessons, incidentally, are not a suitable timeframe with which to measure understanding). 

In other words, don’t just rock up and teach anything. Lessons that have been designed with a bigger picture in mind, that have a purpose and a place within a wider scheme of work, are more effective than those that aren’t. So know why you’re teaching metaphor.

Yes, it helps students if they know why they’re learning iambic pentameter. Or the causes of the Wall Street Crash. Or quotations from Genesis. But, rather than wasting time with Learning Objectives, just tell ’em. 

“We’re learning about X today because it’s going to help you with Y next week and one day you’ll be able/need to use it for Z.”

That takes 20 seconds. 

University: Probably the Worst Time of My Life. 

Lying naked, face down and crying onto the scuffed linoleum of the room I refused to call home, I knew then that University was never going to be a positive experience for me. 

I knew then that this thing-something I now take to be a ‘nervous breakdown’- was never going to be the beginning of the end; it was never going to be the lowest point on a road to personal epiphany or glory or intellectual triumph; it was always going to be just that: an eighteen year old boy lying naked, face down and crying tears and snot onto a scuffed linoleum floor.

University was probably the worst time of my life. In the three years I spent there I had a nervous breakdown, ballooned from 14 to 17 stone (in just 8 weeks), and found myself in trouble with the law.

I think that my schooling prior to University was largely responsible for the inadequacy I felt during my time there. In a (yes-cathartic) effort to ensure that other students don’t experience what I did, I’m going to to outline the reasons (as I perceive them) for my time at University being so stupendously shite, before going on to offer a few suggestions as what teachers and schools can do to better prepare students for the kind of University Life that doesn’t make its way onto Facebook statuses and Snapchat Stories.

So firstly, why was it so crap?

  1. The Class Issue

Whether I’m actually working class or not, I identify as such, and my experience at University played no small part in the class sensitivity I feel everyday, in my occupation as a teacher. 

In the four hour car journey from home to University, I went from a world of Tesco Value Basics and Bailiffs to a world of Jack Wills and Gilets. University was a distinctly upper middle class environment and it was entirely new. If 90% of the world’s red trousers are worn by the 10% wealthiest people in the world, then that 10% went to University with me. 

Signs of the enormous chasm of wealth between me and my fellow students were found everywhere: in the brand new sports cars they drove around campus; in the invites to birthday parties held at Scottish castles; in the countless sports society trips to far flung destinations. Even in the lighting. How much money did people have to spend on fucking fairy lights?  

Everyone, everywhere seemed to be richer than I was.

(Of course, this wasn’t true;  I’ve since found out that actually, 68% of my University cohort were from state schools just like me; the rest were from independent schools. However, it should be noted that this is still an unacceptably low percentage, in comparison to national data.)

My own feeling of socio-economic inferiority reveals itself most clearly in my recollection of how my manner of speaking instantly set me apart from everyone else.  Growing up in the suburbs of London, when Guy Ritchie gangster movies and Geezer culture was at its peak, me and my friends all spoke in the Mockney accent that made us feel like the geezers and gangsters we saw in the films we watched and the pubs we frequented. We couldn’t afford the 13 quid it’d take to get us to Waterloo, but we spoke like we’d been born ringing those Bow Bells. At home, calling a fiver a ‘lady’ and a suit a ‘whistle’ like made me feel like Ronnie Kray. At University, it made me feel like Ronnie Corbett. My manner of speaking made me into a caricature: a figure of fun (the working class clown) to be patronised and called upon to invoke raucous laughter by a simple greeting of “Alwight mate?”

I’m not saying that everybody from privileged backgrounds at University actively sought to make me feel worthless. But, what comes with wealth, is a arrogance of a kind that isn’t intentioned. I couldn’t stand the fact that I worked in McDonalds to pay my way, whilst they spent Daddy’s money. I couldn’t stand the pitying looks when I told them I went to Devon during the summer break, and not the Dordogne. I couldn’t stand the way they wore Ralph Lauren shirts as Pyjamas. I hated the way I turned up to every single lecture, and every seminar, regardless, for three years straight, whilst the rich kids mocked me for doing so, proudly boating about the fact they got a first on their latest essay without even reading the book. And still, in spite of their bragging apathy, they seemed to embody a kind of success I could only dream about. 

It was all too much, and my Secondary Education had simply not prepared me to face this level of class difference head on.

2. I Knew Nothing


When I got to University, I had no idea what Socialism was. Nor did I know what Communism was. Or Capitalism. I didn’t know why Right or Left Wing meant. I’d no idea who George Orwell was. I didn’t understand a word of Latin and Homer had all but passed me by. University is both an academic and a political experience. My own Secondary education, or my upbringing, had left me deficient in both these areas. During seminars, I was frightened into silence as fellow students and professors talked to each other using words I could not fathom and allusions I could not access. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else knew, and I remained throughly on the outside. My GCSEs and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with. 
I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly earlier, this had a hugely negative impact on my mental health. I became depressed and my refusal to seek help eventually ended up in me taking off all my clothes and laying on the floor of my bedroom for six hours crying into myself. I put on lots of weight and I started fighting. Lots of fighting. I was a mess. 
People say that anger is a weakness, but that’s not true. It was anger with my lot, that got me off that linoleum floor and into the gym. It was anger that got me through those three years. I’m still angry now.
I’m angry that my school didn’t given me the cultural capital I needed to compete intellectually with those students from independent schools who seemed to breeze through University life. Even my vocabulary was deficient. At the most basic level, I didn’t even have the words to engage with people on their level. 
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength to just give up. I was too proud. I didn’t want to let my family down. I didn’t want to admit to all my mates that never went to University, that I’d made a go of it and failed. 
I’m angry that nobody-not a single person, myself included- took it upon themselves to ‘google it’ and read the litany of internet blog posts and articles that routinely condemn the University for the Sloane Square Play Pen it’s notorious for being. Surely someone must’ve known what it would be like.
As teachers in state schools, it’s important that we give students the vocabulary and the knowledge that allows them to compete with their more privilege peers. It’s important that we don’t peddle this poisonous idea that your University years are the ‘best years of your life’, because the truth is, they ain’t , always. Not really.
Personally, my own time at University is still something I look back at with loathing. There’s no sense of ‘being glad I endured it and got through it’. I’m still ashamed of how rubbish it was. As a person, I didn’t cut it there and that’s my failure. 
But, as I teach, one thought drives me. The thought that the kids I teach- the kids in the tracksuits; the kids for whom football is the sport of choice; the kids with the Formica work tops- willwalk into University with a swagger-an arrogance even- that allows them to compete with the ‘best’ of those gilet-wearing, ski resort visiting, gorgeous people who wear the (red) trousers at University. 

A Simple Timeline for English Teachers

The Essential Timeline for English Teachers.

Above, is a hastily drawn Timeline that all students of English Literature could do with knowing. I’ve found that giving my students a basic understanding of the literary periods- and the rough (okay-very rough- a discussion regarding dates etc can be found by accessing this Twitter thread) times during which they occurred has proved valuable, particularly when it comes to context questions such as the Eduqas poetry anthology exam, in which candidates are expected to know the contextual information of 18 different poems, spanning 3 centuries.

Here’s an explanation of each of the movements:

The Industrial Revolution

It’s important that students know that in the mid 1700s, Britain began to become industrialised. The invention of the steam engine, and mechanised textile units, meant that Britain saw a surge in factory buildings and of course, factory workers. Whereas Britain had previously largely been an agrarian society, the Industrial Revolution saw a surge in people moving to cities which is where factories were being built. This, of course, led to a more rigid class system: after all, you needed someone to own the factories (Upper Class); someone to run the factories (Middle Class), and someone to work/be mutilated in the factories (Lower Class). 

The industrial revolution, with all its technological advancements also saw improvements in science and medicine. This was known as ‘The Enlightenment’ and saw a move away from religion and beliefs previously considered outdated towards scientific reasoning and though.  The world was becoming more transparent…

The Romantic Poets

…which really pissed off a group of chaps we now refer to as The Romantics. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Blake really hated all this technological stuff. John Keats believed that technological advancement and the scientification (I literally just made that word up) would ‘clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ (Keats, Lamia). That is, in getting to know how everything works, we are ruining the beauty of it. Kind of like students who used to love books until you made them take part in endless ‘Quotation Explosion’ sessions. In reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic Poets wrote lots of poems about feelings and nature. They believed in the awesome sense of inferiority one gets when faced with the brutal power of nature. They called this the ‘Sublime’. They believed that getting in touch with nature was the only way people could get back in touch with themselves.

Notable Writers: William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats.

The Regency/ Victorian Period
The Victorians thought the Romantics were a soppy bunch. In fact, in reaction to the sensibility of the Romantics, the Victorian Period came just after what I’ll call the Regency Period. This literary epoch saw the introduction of what is known as ‘The Novel of Manners’. The Novel of Manners, rather than being a literary construct focused on the magical and supernatural (such as might be found in the works of the Romantics) was a realistic novel focusing on the social codes of the Victorian period. High on the agenda was social restraint; feelings were a no-no; etiquette and refinement were in. Think anything by Jane Austen. 

Shortly afterwards, came the The Victorian Period proper. This, of course, also saw Charles Dickens’ rise to superstardom. His novels were an angry reaction to the, now all too evident- impact of the Industrial Revolution: poverty, injustice, and crime. 

Notable Writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens

The Modernist Period

Victorian literature was all about structures: education, law, government. Those things which make the world run as they should (or shouldn’t be). Then, in 1914, a war started that messed all those structures up a bit. All of a sudden, your government would lead you into war. Your education couldn’t protect you from being shot through the head. And what good was the law, when the crime of war was perfectly legal? The world was turned on its head. Everything people believed was turned on its head. This is reflected in the literature of the Period. Reliable narrators? What good were they before. Get rid. Punctuation? What good was that before? Get rid. Society? What good was that before? Get rid.

Modernist literature saw writers experimenting with weird and wonderful forms. Stories told in reverse. Stream of consciousness. Strange mixtures of prose and poetry. 

And most striking of all? The cynicism. Love was no longer wonderful; it was dangerous. Family was no longer reliable. They f*ck you up your Mum and Dad. The law would no longer protect you; it would kill you.

Notable Writers: James Joyce, F.Scott Fitzgerald, T.S.Elliot
Conclusion

Once kids know all this, ask them to place some unseen poems, or extracts from texts, within a Timeline. May I suggest:

Love is Not All, Edna St Villay. (MODERNIST)

Ode to Autumn, John Keats. (ROMANTIC)

Chapter 1 of Bleak House, (VICTORIAN)

Hope this helps.

The Value in the Big Read

It took 7 months, but I’ve just finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

When my daughter was born, 9 months ago, I was often left wide awake, in the middle of the night, having just completed a feed. This is where the Kindle Paperwhite came into its own; I could read (for free), great works of literature, without turning on the bedside lamp and waking my partner.

I went with Middlemarch for myriad reasons:

  1. It was long (I anticipated a lot of sleepless nights)
  2. It was free
  3. I’d often heard it cited as one of the greatest novels ever written
  4. It was a ‘classic’; as I’ve said before, I try and avoid pop fiction where possible, instead preferring to put myself on a level playing field with the cultural elite.
  5. It was written by a woman. I want to read more books by women.

If you’d asked me, at any point, over the past 7 months, how I was enjoying Middlemarch, I would have replied with an unenthusiastic, “It’s alright, yeah. Not bad.”

I mean, I wouldn’t say it thrilled me, or blew my mind. In fact, if I’m honest, the only thing that kept me going, was, among the multitudinous plots contained within the novel,  a plot concerning unrequited love which is not resolved until the penultimate chapter of the novel. I love a love story, me. 

However, as I wrote ‘Middlemarch’ on the ‘Reading Wall’ in my classroom the other day, I surprised myself by scrawling, alongside it, 4 stars. That’s out of 5. That’s an enjoyment rating of 80%. That’s a “You should definitely read this book” rating. 

All for a book that is largely about legal disputes and discussions about border estates and medical practice. 4 stars. 

The 4 star rating isn’t all down to the love story. It’s down to something else.

Daniel Kahnemann makes a distinction between two types of happiness, which I will call (because I can’t be arsed to Google Kahnemann’s nomenclature) ‘Experience Happiness’ and ‘Post-experience Happiness’. The first type is the happiness we are privy to as we experience an event. For example, the thrill that one might experience as one completes a sky-dive. Post-Experience happiness, on the other hand, is the happiness one experiences after the fact. For example, you might absolutely hate sky-diving, and the actual experience may have been a horrendous mess of defecation and despair, and yet, the fact that you completed it, without dying, and the fact that you can brag about how brave you were (lying), brings you happiness.

Kahnemann says thinking of happiness this way should influence the way we prioritise our spending. He says that it could change the way we book holidays: I, for example, would never enjoy a skiing holiday. It would not bring me ‘Experience Happiness’. And yet, as my more senior colleagues rattle off the names of French ski resorts the way pubescents rattle off expletives, I realise that in years time, when I’m parking in the space closest to the school building, and teaching 6 lessons a week instead of 600, I could well revel in the ‘Post-Experience Happiness’ of that holiday. My memory of that skiing holiday has enabled me to bore people to death with tales of black runs and reflective glasses which has facilitated my dizzying chair-lift ride to the top of the educational piste.

Reading is just the same. Middlemarch-or, more specifically, the act of reading Middlemarch, whilst tedious to read at times, has actually given me ‘Post-experience Happiness.’

 I can now:

  • Enjoy the satisfaction one gets from being faced with a monumental task and getting through it.
  • Brag about having read it to colleagues I know haven’t.
  • Make witty references to it at dinner parties in order to make my superiors feel inferior to me.

So, the next time you’re sloggig your way through a lengthy tome that you’re really not enjoying,  think: 

Will finishing this book benefit me in a way that will make me feel happy long after it’s been consigned to the dusty depths of the charity shop’s book bucket? If the answer is yes, plough on my friend! Plough on! 

Teachers: We Should Read More.

In a recent Twitter poll, I asked whether it is ‘unreasonable for school leaders to expect staff to read edu-books/research outside of school hours.’ Luckily, the majority (53%) of the 477 respondents said no.

Let’s talk about the 47%.

At the very least, in this country right now, there are 224 teachers in this country who consider it unreasonable for school leaders to expect their fellow professionals to better themselves as practitioners, by reading around the profession that they have chosen to pursue. Even without thinking of the 33,600 students under the care of the professionals who hold this view, this is inexcusable.

In a thread that followed the poll, @adamboxer1 explained that his father is a doctor of 40 years who still reads the British Medical Journal, as well as others, in his spare time. Adam went on to make the point that practitioners of jobs such as ours-jobs that play a vital role in the proper function of society- should make a concerted effort to be the very best they can be. And I agree with him.

The fact is, the school day, doesn’t give us time to read research and peruse pedagogical texts. Not with all that data to input. What’s more, often those in charge of schools prefer to spend what CPD time is available, discussing data, behaviour management, and resilience. The fervent determination and effort in getting the kids to read, is rarely, if ever, applied to staff.  And so, if we want to be better, we have to accept that reading about pedagogy, reading about our subjects, reading about how the brain works, is something that must be done in our own time. It just must.

What concerns me is that I don’t think I’d be stretching it to say that many of the teachers who think that reading is an unnecessary encumbrance on one’s leisure time, see no problem spending hours on end marking books during evenings and weekends. This is despite the fact that a recent report by the EEF has shown that ‘the quality of evidence focused specifically on written marking is low’ and that ‘few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking’. Furthermore,  of those studies that have focused on marking, ‘very few have identified evidence on long-term outcomes.’ I’d argue, that the endless hours spent marking, would be better spent reading. And here’s why.

The Sutton Trust’s report, What Makes Great Teaching outlines 6 components of great teaching. Number one on the list is Pedagogical (Content) Knowledge:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

In fact, despite the seemingly obvious  opening sentence the wider research picture is a little more complex. Actually, research by Baumer et al has shown that the effect of basic Content Knowledge-that is, teachers’ knowledge of the subject they are trained to teach-has close to zero effect on the quality of teaching. (Of course, from an English teachers’ perspective this cannot be the case. Knowledge of the content of the books you teach is essential to effective teaching of those books). However, as the second half of the above statement from the Sutton Trust states, Baumer has shown that 30% of variation in teacher quality is attributable to variation in teachers’ levels of pedagogical content knowledge. In other words, teachers who know more about how kids learn, how the brain retains information, and how best to avoid-and rectify- subject misconceptions, are better than those who don’t. So, teachers need to make a decision: do they want to rely on the two days of pedagogy based CPD they get a year and hope that’s enough for the kids under their care? Or do they want to actively seek out books that, like rich garners, can provide them with the full-ripened grain of pedagogical content knowledge which is available, right now, for them to access whenever they want.

We also need to consider the move towards a linear system of assessment centred around terminal exams. Currently, all students of English Literature and will be examined on the following:

  • 1 x 19th Century novel
  • Any two of 18 poems from the 18th-21st Century
  • 1 x post-1945 text
  • 1 x Shakespeare play

Students will be expected to know all of these texts-and memorise quotations from them-because unlike in previous years (WJEC aside), the exams will be closed-book. That is, students will not have the texts in the exams with them. This means, that to achieve the top grades, students will need to commit to memory a wide array of quotations from twenty one different literary works spanning three hundred years. And this is just one subject among many. A Twitter poll that is ongoing, 81% of respondents who have recently trained as teachers have not been trained on cognition and how the memory works. This is appalling. There are adults sending students into exams where they will be expected to remember lots of information off the top of their heads, without even a basic understanding of working and long-term memory; with no idea about the spacing effect and the testing effect; with no idea about chunking and retrieval practice. If you are someone who does not know what these terms refer to, are you willing to pass it off as SLT’s responsibility? ‘It’s their job to give me some CPD on this stuff.’ Because, right now, there are teachers all over the land, who aren’t being given CPD on this stuff, but they know it because they’ve sought it out, in their own time and of their own accord. They’ve bought books and they’ve read them.

Reading books builds empathy. Studies such as the this one have shown that reading improves ‘a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.’ In his excellent blog on teacher-student relationships, Carl Hendrick cites research that suggests that teachers who share common ground with students could potentially get better results than teachers who don’t. In his excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Doug Lemov makes note of the fact that the brain doesn’t discriminate between actual lived experiences and read experiences. That is, reading about an experience or subject, in terms of how the brain processes the ‘memory’ of that experience or subject, is no different from having actually experienced it yourself. So, unless you want to spend your evenings playing Minecraft, trampolining, or bottle-flipping, reading about these things (although flippin’ dull) could help you to better understand those students you teach who are doing these things (not necessarily at the same time) day-in, day-out. And teachers who understand their pupils- and reading is a gateway to better understanding, remember-could get better results than those who don’t.

Of course, school leaders have a responsibility to make things easier for us. As I’ve said before, SLT should abolish onerous marking policies. I even think theirs a case for making flawed Marking practices- such as spending inordinate amounts of time ticking and flicking through books- something to looked at- and dealt with-quite seriously.

 And yet, we have a responsibility too.

Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. So why not us? Without us- and forgive me for blowing our collectively owned, albeit metaphorical, brass instrument here- there’d be no doctors and there’d be no lawyers. It is our duty to better ourselves and it is our duty to do so because if we ain’t getting time (and we’re not by the way), we need to make time. We need to make time for the students who will one day become the doctors that cure cancer and the lawyers who fight for the needy.