Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

The Power of Collaborative Planning

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

Michael Jordan

There’s a been a lot of talk again recently about collaborative planning – or as John Hattie might call it, collective teacher efficacy. I’ve done some work in this area recently, and I’m going to share what I discovered.

The problem of individual planning

A main scale teacher – roughly – has to plan about 20 lessons a week, give or take. If a teacher takes 15 minutes per lesson to do so, that’s 5 hours of planning time needed. Now, 15 minutes is a short amount of time to plan the right questions, make any slides, choose retrieval and checking activities and select resources for practice. This 15 minutes can grow quickly if things aren’t quite right. Suddenly it’s not out of the question for planning a lesson to take half an hour or longer, and the total amount of time spent planning to go over 10 hours a week – a significant amount of time given time needed for marking, feedback, meetings, duties, etc.

Allied to this are the eternal problems a subject leader faces – are lessons being planned well enough? Are students being given opportunity to develop their knowledge? Does the member of staff have the subject knowledge and experience to plan the right questions? After 13-14 years of being in the Maths teaching game I know I’ve still got areas that I need to work on – one is forever learning – so just think about the needs of an NQT/RQT!

These two areas were at the forefront of my mind 12 months ago when Maths department was a team of extremely enthusiastic and hard working staff, but who I felt were exceeding what was a sustainable workload. With over half of the department being NQTs/RQTs and members of the department having roles beyond the classroom, the amount of time that staff could dedicate to developing subject knowledge, planning questions, putting lesson resources together and still have something of a life struck me as being problematic.

So, I resolved to do something about it. Our department meetings had always been subject focused – agreed ways of modelling, developing topic specific knowledge, formative assessment practice, etc – but something more structured needed to take place. Despite being after school, staff were always happy to go past the allotted hour, and as such, the stage was set. It was time to collaboratively plan lessons.

Objectives and rationale

The objective was simple. Reduce the amount of time planning by spending 90 minutes creating outline lesson plans and resources for each year group, for each week.

How would this objective be achieved?

  1. Staff would work in pairs, trying to mix experience and subject knowledge where possible.
  2. Each pair would focus on a particular year group. How it worked out was that I ended up planning Year 7 alone, but this was fine. I would try and match the pair to who they taught the most – thus they felt greater ownership of the planning.
  3. The pair would plan a series of ‘I do (teaching modelling), We do (formative assessment), You Do (independent practice)’ cycles for a particular learning intention – see Tom Sherrington’s Silver Arrows for the rationale of the cycle structure. How many cycles this was would depend on what the learning intention was. What was important that each cycle did not necessarily correspond to a lesson; instead, the cycle was specific to an elemental step in the development of the overall learning intention. For example if the learning intention is adding and subtracting fractions, one cycle would focus on finding equivalent fractions with common denominators.
  4. The Do Now activities were purely retrieval practice – questions taken from Mr Carter Maths, MathsBox or Corbett Maths that went over what had been covered in the previous scheme of work unit. This meant that staff didn’t have to come up with their own lesson starter, and thus time was saved.
  5. As with point 4, assessments were already selected by me for each learning intention, so staff didn’t have to come up them. This had a two fold outcome – more time saved for staff, but also staff had a sense of what they needed to work to in order for students to have some level of confidence in the summative assessment. This sounds like teaching to the test, but I think this is different in the sense that each learning intention was part of a wider unit of learning focusing on a particular theme, rather than prepping students for a final exam. By breaking down the unit of learning into a series of skills that can be assessed, one can get a picture of if the theme as a whole has been understood. Masking these skills in exam questions tells you nothing about if the skills themselves are understood – see Daisy Christodolou’s Making Good Progress for more on this.
  6. I tried to limit the sources of independent practice. CGP and Elmwood Press textbooks, the CIMT, Corbett Maths and Median websites were the main sources. If we were really struggling, Jo Morgan’s Resourceaholic or Ed Southall’s Solve My Maths worksheets were the next port of call. It was rare we had to make something ourselves.
  7. Exit tickets to check students had understood usually came in the form of a straightforward exam question – a classic AO1 type – or something from Diagnostic Questions – this goes back being able to identify if the skill had been understood in the first instance. I’ll go into more detail about how we checked learning, rather than teaching, at DTA at another point.
  8. Each learning cycle had a premise. This was all about linking the learning to the bigger picture, reminding students of why this element of learning was important, and identifying where in the syllabus this fitted. Saves a whole load of ‘whats the point’ questions from darling students.
  9. Each week’s set of plans for a year group were planned for the middle to higher end of the ability spectrum. We wanted to show high expectations for all classes, and if lower attaining students were making rapid progress through the content, then they weren’t being held back. Likewise if a higher attaining group had some gaps in assumed knowledge, we weren’t papering over the cracks. More on that below.

What this meant for individual teachers

The result for teachers wasn’t a set of complete lesson plans where all that member of staff had to do was blithely rattle through a set of slides, without ownership of the material or care in checking the resources before hand. I made it absolutely clear that whilst this would save a huge amount of time in planning, there was still a need for tailoring – which for a week’s of lessons for a class would only take between 30 minutes and an hour. This might involve adding in extra questions and checking for understanding for lower attaining groups, or adding in more challenging tasks and problem solving for higher attaining/rapidly progressing groups. But staff were guaranteed a core set of lesson plans that they could develop through the week to suit the needs of their learners, and a lot more time to do so.

What this meant for me

I knew that the Maths department were planning quality lessons, rapidly, and having more time to think about teaching and learning. There was less stress, more clarity and tighter integration as a team to achieve a shared mission. It did take a while at first, but by the 3rd or 4th week in, a pair could have a week’s learning planned in the space of 90 minutes, all the while having proper conversations about the syllabus, developing their subject knowledge and winding up the ‘opposition’ (as Usman and Saila would call the rest of us).

What this meant for students

I’ll keep this simple. In September, using the June 2017 grade boundaries, I could compare outcomes for the Class of 2019 (Y11 in 2017) with the Class of 2020 (Y10 in 2017). The Class of 2020 were already markedly above their peers in the year above by 5-8% at grades 4+, 5+ and 7+, and most notably, this was a term ahead of their peers too (I compared the Secure Mocks for purposes of standardisation, which was used for the first time in November of Y11 for the Class of 2019, if that makes sense!). In other words, Y10 were not only performing significantly better, this was a term ahead too.

Does this justify collaborative planning?

Of course, this is not a double-blind RCT with replication studies built in. You could claim that the quality of staff on Y10 might be better than those in Y11, but the same teachers taught both year groups. There’s an element of knowing the syllabus and assessment criteria better, but to be 5-8% better at key measures, and a term ahead of the previous year isn’t something I think can be purely attributable to this.

Even if you worked purely on the fact that all students were ensured a consistent diet of modelling, questioning, checking, practice and assessment, planned in a shorter space of time and delivered by a less stressed, more focused and confident teacher, collaborative planning can’t be argued against. Just look at Hattie’s effect size if you don’t believe me.

Thoughts and questions welcome via Twitter and the comments section, as always.

Thinking Aloud: Bowie

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through

‘Changes’, David Bowie

I don’t often shock when it comes to death of famous people. I don’t buy into personality cults and in these days of social media it grinds on me how people can slip into emotional torment at the news of the passing of the most minimal of stars.

But with David Bowie, it was some how different. If Mathematics and teaching are my first passions then music is a very close runner up. There was a point in my early 20’s where if I wasn’t solving engineering problems I was writing music reviews and letters to music magazines. Every artist or band that I’ve been truly into were somehow linked to David Bowie, either directly or through influence: The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Joy Division, New Order, Pulp, even Oasis and The Stone Roses to a certain extent. It all came back to the Thin White Duke.

Most pick Ziggy Stardust as their favourite Bowie album, or the Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger if they’re leftfield; Let’s Dance if they’re a pop fan. Me? Hunky Dory: brilliant songs (Changes, A Song for Bob Dylan), early glam classics (Oh, You Pretty Things, Queen Bitch) dotted with more artistic curios (The Bewlay Brothers). It’s everything that is great about Bowie, no flab and strangeness. That said, if I was about to choose one Bowie track, it’d have to be ‘Starman’ – perfect glam rock.

Don’t get me wrong, he did some awful work – the late 80s are a disaster, and let’s not even talk about ‘Dancing In The Street’. If you’re not really into that sort of thing, the Berlin years are challenging. His acting career was, well, interesting at best – Labyrinth is AWFUL and he only just managed to convince as Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.

But as real cultural influence, an inspiration in terms of constantly evolving and adapting to the times – I owe him a great deal.

Thinking Aloud: Feliz Ano Nuevo

Am I supposed to change? Are you supposed to change?

Aaliyah – “We Need A Resolution”

Right, I’m going to keep this short.

I was going to do a #Nurture1516 post today. I like the idea of such posts, setting out one’s hopes and dreams, and how you’re going to accomplish them – hell, I’ve done a couple of my own – but I have a growing unease about the timing of such matters.

Does it really matter if one sets out one’s resolutions at the end of a year? New Year is a rather arbitrary date (yes I know it’s roughly in line with the Babylonian calculations, but bear with me). Should the moon and the stars hold sway over our timing to do better in life, or is it the case that when we find life pretty difficult and want better for ourselves we should take the time AT ANY GIVEN POINT OF THE YEAR and create a fresh start?

Don’t just rely on a tokenistic effort fuelled by the hubris of a over-marketed night before a bank holiday. Do it when you think it’s right to do so.

I set out mine in this post, months ago – if you’re thinking TL;DR, then they’re simple:

  • Enjoy being a husband and a father
  • Focus on teaching and leading really well

Funny, that.

Happy 2016 everyone!

Thinking Aloud: Recruitment

This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you got a moment, it’s a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying ‘This Is a Large Crisis’. A large crisis requires a large plan. Get me two pencils and a pair of underpants.

Captain Blackadder, Blackadder Goes Forth

I’ve been doling out the cynicism on Twitter for the last few days re the teacher recruitment crisis and the government’s attempts to solve the problem/ignore the problem/paper over the cracks (depending on what you read). My issues are three fold:

1.It’s not about the salary. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.

As soon as you bring money into a career equation, it turns something that is at core a vocation, a calling, into a job. I’m not saying that teachers should not be well renumerated, in fact if anything I feel salaries in education should be greater. However when you frame an argument about why you should go into a profession based on salary – and whatever your own opinions are on the new DfE advert I’m afraid that’s how I see it – then it attracts people who place earnings over the reason that job exists in the first place, particularly where public service is concerned. I believe that teaching requires a particular set of values and type of character. If you become a teacher and you don’t have those, then you’ll be another person adding to the retention problem.

2. Retain staff in the first place.

Talking of retention, that’s the other side of the coin that is often ignored. You can throw as much money as you want at attracting teachers but if the conditions of working aren’t amenable to doing a good job then you’re going to struggle to hold on to them long term. The figures are quite startling.

How do you make the conditions amenable? Dan Pink’s book, Drive, talks about Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose as the three drivers of intrinsic motivation. Let’s look at them again:

Mastery (the urge to get better and better at something that matters)

The government rightly showed interest in teacher workload recently, and their response wasn’t rocket science. It all boils down to this – give teachers the room to develop their practice and deliver it effectively. You’ll get happier staff, results will go up accordingly, and shock of shocks, the retention figures will suddenly look at lot less frightening. Someone who just turns up the for the money will not be prepared to ride it out for as long as someone who wants the best for their students.

Autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives)

I do think things are improving in this regard, but the last 10 years have seen swathe after swathe of ‘good practice’ imposed on staff before any evidence of this practice has actually shown through.  Ultimately teachers need to be trusted to deliver. If they don’t, then of course questions need to be asked – and if that’s very early, then fine. We need to remember that we’re here for the benefit of students, and we can’t allow them encounter poor teaching. With this in mind though, we can only teach well if we’re given the structures and freedom to do so.

Purpose (the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves)

Teaching is not a job. It is a public service. We’re contributing to the academic, cultural and economic capital of our society. It’s time that this was acknowledged in the media. I’m tired of reading articles in the press that basically boil down to “teachers are (insert derogatory term here)”. I can’t think of any other public service that gets the same level of bile and invective thrown at it on a daily basis. You’ll switch more people on to teaching if the hard work and success that so many of us achieve on a daily basis is more widely promoted.

3. Where’s the reality?

We’ve all had ‘that’ lesson, where everything clicked: there were no behavioural issues, students ate up your every word and produced a standard of work that you yourself would be proud of. They happen more than we realise, but it takes a lot of graft, planning and thought to create quality lessons. The demand that this requires of teachers is often unacknowledged. We don’t just turn up with a set of textbooks, work through the given examples and just expect students to understand it – in fact if that is happening then sanctions should be taken, because that ain’t teaching.

Likewise learning the craft of the classroom and keeping around 30 students engaged for anything between 30-100 minutes is tricky too. Even if you think you’ve got this down pat, go to a new school and you’ll have to adapt accordingly – I know this too well.

I’m sure there are thousands of people who watched the new DfE advert and thought “teaching’s for me!” which is lovely. But did it paint a true picture of what a teacher actually has to do, day in, day out?

Here’s a thought.

I think if you want to recruit, and consequently retain, teachers, think about the following:

  1. Don’t be overly sparing with the truth in advertising and PR campaigns. The Armed Forces do a decent job of this. They’re not 100% accurate, of course I’m sure they don’t want to be too real with what can happen in conflict, but at the same time it makes it clear that hard work is expected when you’re in service for your country. Now, isn’t that what we expect of our teachers?
  2. Stop talking about salary. That information should come through direct discussion with training providers, who’ll be able to show the pathways into teaching, the career options once qualified and the possible renumeration at each stage. If people are really interested, they can have a look at things like the TES Salary Checker to get some idea anyway.
  3. Acknowledge the hard work and success of teachers on a wider scale. The odd annual award for teachers isn’t going to stick in people’s minds. It needs a wider national campaign on a daily basis, through all media outlets. I chose teaching because I was inspired by those who invested their time in children at the low end of the socio-economic scale. I’m sure there’s thousands of others who need the same inspiration.
  4. Retain through allowing teachers to be bloody good at what they do. The removal of the AST/ET structure was quite odd, and left a hole in the opportunities for those teachers who felt they had something to offer beyond entering school leadership. There’s a huge opportunity for professional development to be led by practicing teachers on a local, regional and national basis. Teachers respond better to those who are also working at the coalface, rather than consultancy.
  5. Retain through giving teachers space to breathe. Simply, OFSTED should be pulling schools up for not following the government’s response to the Teacher Workload Survey. If the government are saying these things should be happening, then they should be happening.

Now, some of these are more difficult than others, I understand that. But the teacher recruitment and retention problem is not going away. A fancy advert to attract teachers is like getting everyone to turn the heating down a degree to tackle global warming. It’s a token gesture that significantly ignores the scale of the problem.

A year and a bit of Teaching at the Edge of Chaos

It is a rough road that leads us to the heights of greatness.


I didn’t realise, but the day of #mathsconf5 was a year anniversary of Teaching at the Edge of Chaos. My first post ‘In the year of our Ford’ is pretty ropey, if I’m honest (I don’t even want to link to it, it’s that bad). But I like to think I’ve got better at my writing, and interspersed with the series on leadership and department building (on hold for capacity reasons at the moment) I’ve had my rants, had some half-baked ideas but put the focus on some bloody brilliant teachers.

If you are new to this blog and you want to get a flavour of the philosophy of what I’m trying to put on paper, you’ll do worse than starting with these posts from the past year:

Behind the Mathematician: Mel Muldowney

Mel has been a total inspiration and big help to me over the past year. I asked her to contribute to my Behind the Mathematician series and she gratefully obliged. This post equally tugs the heart strings and inspires.

The Art of Leading a Department: Be A Reflective Practitioner

This attitude informs pretty much my whole career trajectory.

On Statistics, and On Statistics, Again

My two most popular posts. I’m very proud of them.

Actual Maths: Setting My Stall Out

I regret writing this post because it implies my style of teaching is fixed – it isn’t, it has to constantly evolve to the different environments and classes I teach. But much of it still holds true.

Building a Department: Vision

The Building a Department series is currently on a hiatus, because I want to be able to dedicate the time to it – time which right now I don’t have. But if you’re starting out on that difficult journey, this is the best place to start.

Thinking Aloud: Structure Allows Creativity

This was actually rather unpopular. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, though.

Maths Counts: Start!

Maths Counts, and it counts to say so.

Final thoughts

Personally the last year has been a rollercoaster to rival the Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. So many significant events in a short space of time. I’ve changed jobs twice (for reasons that those close to me will appreciate), I’ve become part of the conference and Maths Twitter scene (some more followers would be nice). I’ve had my ability praised and questioned in equal measure. All through it I’ve realised that the values I hold dear in terms of my life and career chime with so many others – and I’ll continue to talk about them and their influence on my practice.

Importantly, my wife has come through serious illness (twice!), and our daughter grows into this beautiful little genius. They are the reason for everything I do, ultimately. I don’t know what the next year will bring, but hopefully the ride will be somewhat smoother. I’ve taken in a lot over the past year, and I think it’s now time to relax, enjoy being a husband and a father, either side of a focus on teaching and leading really well.

Thinking Aloud: Listening Material

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.”


There’s a semi-ironic tone to that quote above, because if there’s one thing I have been notorious for since I was very young, it’s my power in being rather verbose. Anyway, I digress.

Since starting my new job, my commute has increased from a 10-15 minute rural dart over the hill into Rotherham to a 40-45 minute motorway sojourn to the other side of Doncaster. Now, I like driving. There’s something about being in control of a moving object at a relative high-speed that keeps me engaged (that said, I’m not a particularly good driver – the only driver I know worse than me is my brother, and he’s attempted manoeuvres in the middle of towns and cities that should have been on ‘Police Camera Action’ shows – I digress again…). However when you’re plodding up and down motorways you aren’t really driving but controlling your speed on a veritable treadmill.

I did not want to waste around an hour and a half to two hours of my day just sitting in traffic, and as someone who considers themselves a lifelong learner and takes a general interest in the world then I wanted a way of utilising this time.

Enter podcasts.

Podcasts are brilliant. They’ve been around a long time but as a medium for learning and understanding what’s going on in the world I’ve been amazed by the breadth and scope for what I can listen to, all in pieces around an hour and easy to mentally process.

Here’s a list of my favourites and why – notice the lack of edu- stuff. I’ll come to the reason for that in a bit.

Freakonomics Radio

I read Freakonomics a long while ago. I was impressed by how the writers Steven J. Dubner and Stephen Levitt showed how received wisdom can be quite dangerous, a mindset that I’m totally on board with. In their podcasts, the Freakonomics team continue that approach and their findings can be quite hard to swallow, (the recent Perfect Crime one, for example) but they are excellently researched and feature people with credible experience in their field.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore Histories

I am a bit of a pop-history nerd. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore Histories are epic in scale and duration, looking at themes such as the fall of the Roman Republic, the Eastern Front in WW2, Alexander the Great, the Mongol Empire, all sorts. But the important point of the podcast is that Carlin focuses on the lessons we should learn from these events, and how we can still today should take note of what happened in the times of say the Assyrian Empire.

This American Life

I love this podcast. It’s probably in my top two with the next one I’m going to feature. Ira Glass and his team highlight the good and bad about American society, and throw up often startling questions about how we relate to each other and what the consequences of our actions are. I’ve written recently about the edition featuring a man who, despite being registered blind, could pretty much do everything a person with ‘normal’ sight could. Featured stories are connected by a central theme and often pose philosophical questions about the world. What’s not to love?

99% Invisible

I cannot emphasise the importance of good design in any situation. Poor design in whatever realm leads to problems, be they social, emotional, time, physical, mental or financial. Roman Mars short but informative shows tell wonderful stories about the impact of design on society, and what cues we should take in order to improve our own lives, or what we still have to learn about design and what it can be capable of. The recent show on barbed wire is a favourite.

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews

I don’t get to watch as many films as I used to these days – kids, eh – but I still like to know what’s good so when I get a couple of hours free I can catch up with the best movies out there. But this podcast is the Seinfeld of film shows. You know there’s some reviews going on in there and you know whether or not a film is good but it’s not the point of the show. The point is just simply to be entertained. I think.

The Guardian Football Weekly

I’m a football fan. Sorry.

So why the lack of edu- stuff? I spend a huge amount of my time immersed in the world of education, mathematics teaching and pedagogy. I do love that immersion, and it’s important to me. But for that window between being at home (family time) and being at work (job time) – it’s nice to separate oneself from one’s responsibilities and develop your mind beyond the day-to-day. Family and work are important (and in that order of priority too) but one should take time to expand one’s own understanding of the world.

Is it working for me? Absolutely. I’m always looking for the next tweak, the spark of creativity and fresh insight on problems. This is just another way of achieving that. Give it a try!

Thinking Aloud: Structure Allows Creativity

Art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.

Flannery O’Connor

I have been lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk at the next National Mathematics Teacher Conference in Manchester on 20th July. The workshop will be on The Art of Leading a Mathematics Department, of which I’ve elaborated before, in great detail. However, as you’d expect, I’ve had new and evolving thoughts about Leadership.

A number of my posts between now and the conference will be me floating ideas and notions. There are no spoilers in this method – you should still come!*

So, notion 1.

Can you be creative in a structured way?

Tom Sherrington’s blog is an eye opener for a number of reasons. I love his honesty and openness, his vision and his pragmatism. His 10 Silver Arrows is bookmarked prominently on my browser: I have his blog bookmarked, but that specific post is so fundamental to correct pedagogical thinking (in my eyes) that I constantly look back to it to reaffirm my own aims.

Particularly, I like this point:

5. Straight teaching: Objectives, explain, model, practice, check    

I find this a useful model; it helps to make sure you’ve taught something properly.

  • Objectives: You know exactly which ideas you want to explore.  The more precise the better.
  • Explain: You walk through the ideas and explain them using models, analogies and examples.
  • Model:  You show your students how to apply the learning to a question or problem, modelling the strategies.
  • Practice: Students now try a few problems themselves; they test out their understanding.
  • Check:  You use a range of feedback strategies to find out how they got on, adjusting the next cycle accordingly.  Importantly, you need to be ready to diverge; some student will get it and will want to move on; some will need more consolidation.

Objectives, Explain, Model, Practice, Check.  Each step is important.

This, my friends, is my lesson planning methodology boiled down to the fundamentals. It seems overly simple. It seems restrictive.

Let’s sort the idea of simple. People often confused simplicity with lack of thought. Simplicity for me is the ease in which something is understood and used. Simplicity of lesson planning does not correlate with uniformity or restriction. Simplicity in fact aids creativity.

Let’s look at this from a mathematical point of view. Say you have 3 means of executing each step in Tom Sherrington’s Straight Teaching Model. This means that you have 35 possible lessons – that’s 243 lessons! If you’re like me and have a ‘Do Now’ task, 3 different means of implementing that and you’ve got 729 possible lessons. 729 lessons.

Now let’s frame this in the context of the number of lessons a full-time teacher has to plan across a year. If they have 24 lessons to plan a week, over 40 weeks, then that’s 960 lessons. So by only having to think about 3 different methods of implementing each stage of the Straight Teaching Model then you’ll only have to repeat each lesson about 4 times over a year, even less if you include the Do Now stage.

Structure does not inhibit creativity. Akin to chaos theory, minor tweaks on a few initial conditions provides a wealth of variability.

Why is this important for leadership? If you lead a department you lead people who will at times spend a disproportionate amount of time planning lessons. They’ve been told they need to include x, y and z idea, and they’ve got to make it ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ and ‘demonstrate progress’. Well if you were in my team – as long as you followed the above model and did each stage well, then you’re on the right lines. I’ll bet, also, that you’ll lesson your planning time but equally it’ll be so much more effective.

If you’re reading this and you think “well, duh” then forgive my obviousness. Park that alongside my wearing my heart on my sleeve and my bad grammar. If it’s given you food for thought, well, good. Get on with it.

* – Please come. Even if there’s just you, me and 50 chairs in the room, it’ll have been worth it.

Thinking Aloud: Less is More

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Da Vinci

Beware the panacea, part 304

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be in attendance at a course called ‘Putting Mathematics On The Right Track’ at the National Railway Museum in York. It was one of those opportune times where people who actually understood the challenges of teaching, learning and (probably more importantly) engagement in Mathematics led some incredibly interesting sessions. You had the Kangaroo Maths team, Douglas Butler, Alan Catley, Craig Barton and Mark McCourt leading vibrant, interesting and instructive sessions on developing one’s practice, primarily through the use of ICT.

The course itself was great. I learned a lot, and the presenters all shared geniunely useful ideas that would make lessons much more effective and engaging, by using ICT in an appropriate and well-planned way. Finally, here was a course that showed ICT as a tool to enhance lessons rather than as an excuse for them.

Polite rage

Now, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but at the end of the day’s conference, Mark McCourt was asked to do a summary talk and then Q & A, reflecting on what had been learned. A bright spark from the audience asked a question, something along the lines of:

“So do we have to use ICT to have a lesson rated as outstanding?”

You could feel the environment change straightaway. There were members of the audience clearly thinking “yeah, what DO we have to do, McCourt?”. It was like Mutiny On The Bounty, only without the seawater and less scurvy. The whole sense of the course being part of an evolutionary change was now on the cusp of being lost simply for someone to find out how to get a ‘1’ on their observation form.

What Mark did as a response is one of the greatest defences of proper teaching I’ve ever heard.

As I recall, he told us of observing one of his favourite (i.e. truly outstanding) lessons of all time being taught by a teacher simply using a whiteboard, a pen, solid questioning to (forgive me if I get the anecdote wrong) pupils armed with nothing more than pen, paper and mini-whiteboards themselves.

No ICT. No whizz-bang pedagogy. No cut-and-stick, colouring in, VAK, emotional intelligence. None of it.

Just classically introducing something new, checking the students had understood it, offering a set of questions to be practiced, constantly reviewing the progress of the class, and where students were struggling, offering quick and responsive support.

I seem to remember a tone of ‘have that’ from Mark in his voice but I’m probably wrong. But the thing is, this was four years ago, when a whole range of ‘progressive’ methods were being thrown at Maths teachers in an air of ‘do this, or else’. So if Mark did feel that way, then hey, rightly so.

Occam’s Razor

The fact of the matter is that Mark’s anecdotal retort to the question of an outstanding lesson is one that still holds, has held for many years and will hold until well beyond the time I croak it.

For too long we’ve been told to look at the structure of lessons, as if they are the problem, but as Tom Sherrington tells us in his 10 Silver Arrows, the structure is not the problem. Stating your intention for the lesson (objectives), introducing new ideas (explaining), demonstrating their application (modelling), allowing students to make sense of them (practice) and reviewing whether sense and understanding has been achieved (review) is, and has been the best way for teachers (of Maths in particular) to teach something, and see if it’s been learned.

William of Occam’s belief was that the simplest explanation is often the right one. To put this in a teaching context, you don’t need to have a showpiece extravaganza every lesson to make sure students learn something every time.

It’s like those Vauxhall Corsas that you see scooting around and generally being a menace on the country’s roads – ‘pimped up’ with spoilers, chrome end pipes, huge exhausts and soundsystems that The Who would have considered ‘a bit too over doing it’. All the superficial stuff doesn’t make up for the fact that under the bonnet is an engine no more powerful than a hairdryer and behind the wheel is someone who probably shouldn’t be out on the road.

ICT doesn’t make a great lesson. Fun doesn’t make a great lesson. Colours and glue and ‘active learning’ and songs and music and interpreting the addition of fractions through the medium of dance don’t make great lessons.

Keeping things simple, focusing on what is meant to be learned, and making sure you allow every opportunity for students to learn it is important. If theatrical productions based on how to calculate the circumference of a circle allow you to do that, then fine.

But if not, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Or I’ll set Mr McCourt on you.

Thinking Aloud: There’s Nothing Like Common Sense

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

Tim Burton

Bip, Bop, Bip, Bop…

Time for another analogy. People complain – rightly – about moving goalposts, and how it’s harder to achieve standards when the expectations change seemingly month on month. There’s a two-pronged issue here. The DfE have one agenda, OFSTED another. With this in mind, it’s like the whole education system at the moment is one giant game of Pong; the paddles being the government and OFSTED, and the education system being the ball.

All that’s happening at the moment – be it a College of Teaching, Mr Wilshaw’s constant ‘stick deployment’, the Workload review, the recruitment crisis – they’re all symptoms of a lack of trust in teachers.

What amazes me is that qualified teachers must have been through some sort of education to university level. In other words – they’re not thick. So why is the governance of education so patronising?

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking. Does it really have to be so difficult? So I started to formulate a five point plan…

1. Teaching should be a profession, and stay as a profession

To quote Wikipedia, a profession is a vocation that requires specialised educational training. So this includes lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, engineers, etc. As soon as the government advocated the wave of unqualified teachers that are now presently in our midst, the concept of teaching as a profession was finally lost.

I say finally, because it has been a process that has been happening for years. I know one shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but it makes some good points about the elements of professionalism:

  • Regulation. Well, this is the one thing that seems to be determining the professional status of teaching. We have the DfE, OFSTED, OFQUAL, HMI… In fact teaching seems to be one of the most regulated bodies around.
  • Autonomy. Ah. Here’s the first problem. Teachers have very little autonomy. If anyone can tell me a subject that has the slightest hint of true autonomy and I’ll happily pay you £2000.
  • Status and prestige. Hahahahaha… sorry. The political football that is education, and the media spotlight that seems to blame teachers for everything, means that the status and prestige of teaching have never been lower. In other countries, they have Teachers’ Days (Teachers’ Days! Perish the thought!) that celebrate the contribution that educators make to society. I feel in the UK there is an anti-intellectual movement at the moment, where celebrity is promoted over real contributions to society, and the bashing of teachers is central to that.
  • Power. Our power as teachers stems from the trust of those who we serve. As I said previously, there is very little trust from who we serve, so therefore we have no power.

All of the other points in this manifesto stem from these principles.

2. Lead us from the front

In conversation with a very experienced colleague yesterday, he likened the decision makers in education to the Russian military generals in WW2. Their methods were thus:

  • Tell the soldiers what to do.
  • Watch the soldiers do it from afar.
  • If they got it wrong or were unlucky, they died.
  • If they refused or ran away, they were shot.

He said something had changed in recent years, and this template could be applied to leaders today. I don’t necessarily agree, because I think this scenario is not a fault of leaders but of the constraints they are in. I think that, again, this is a symptom of the lack of trust in teachers. Compare this with Henry V sort of ‘band of brothers’, ‘we happy few’, ‘once more unto the breach’ leadership, where the leader stands with their teachers and shares the burden. Whilst there has to be accountability in any profession, at the same time those who make the decisions have to take responsibility for them, in a collective sense, so teachers need to be worked with, rather than against.

This is the same with OFSTED and HMI. I wonder if at times the inspectorate have a sense of the influence their judgements have over the future of the careers of so many people. I don’t think they do. This is increasingly worrying considering the subjective nature of an inspection, despite obvious attempts from the top of these bodies to rectify the situation.

When I mean lead from the front I don’t mean for leaders and regulators to be soft. I mean that by through their decisions they value the contribution that teachers make, rather than question and judge, and ‘remove’ on a constant basis. Give teachers autonomy, and watch them thrive.

3. Realise that educators are not childminders or surrogate parents

It’s a brutal truth that many families have both parents working. Childcare is therefore an issue. However the increasing cost of childcare has resulted in an expectation for teachers to take up the slack, somehow. The classic example of this is the ‘snow day’. When a headteacher deems it unsafe for school to open, it is for safety and well-being of everyone on the site. Yet this fact is ignored, and they’re lambasted for closing a school because parents subsequently have to go out of their way organise childcare. Well forgive me, but if you have a child, they are your responsibility first: schooling should come secondary to parenting. Also what would happen if a child suffered an injury when a school stayed open? Exactly.

Likewise I lose count of the amount of ‘issues’ that teachers are expected to deal with in schools – citizenship, nutrition, extremism, racism, entrepreneurship, grit, resilience… I’m 100% behind the idea that schooling should be about developing character as well as academic skills, but it is not a solution for all of society’s ills, especially when the tools and resources to deal with such problems are taken away from us (like closing the Connexions service: what a travesty). There has to be some part on the parent and other organisations to support teachers in this regard. I’m not saying teachers should not play a role in improving society – I’m saying they should not be the only ones responsible.

4. Get the incentives to teach right

There’s a belief that to get people into teaching, you’ve got to lure them with financial incentives. Presently you can get paid more to train as a teacher than to be a first year teacher. Insane. All this does is create a scenario where people train because of the money, and then are put off by the workload, negative status and sheer grind of the job.

As Dan Pink, Dan Airely and many other behavioural economists and researchers have found, there is a point where financial incentives do not work. I’d go as far as to say that most successful teachers don’t go into it for the money. In fact, they’d be mad to, because there’s a wealth of other jobs that are better paid, less regulated and less bureaucratic.

Most teachers join the profession because they want to make a difference to students’ lives. A noble ideal yes, but the truth, ultimately. There are other perks – the holidays for one, apparently, although tell me of a teacher who doesn’t do some sort of work through them. Likewise the ‘hours’, but as we’ve seen from the teacher workload survey you’ll be hard pressed to find a teacher that does under 50 hours of work a week, a large part of that at weekend. Oh, and there’s the pension,but that seems to be getting chipped away at every year as well!

So the incentives have to be different. So what about external incentives like free or subsidised healthcare, childcare, and so on? Internal incentives, like reduced teaching hours in school to allow time for proper CPD to take place; reduced paperwork (much of what we do is duplication of other stuff); and daft as it might sound, I’d bet my bottom dollar that a free school dinner, tea and coffee (and some nice biscuits) would make life just that little bit easier for staff. I’m just hypothesising, but I hope you can see where I’m coming from. I’m not saying teaching should be easy, as any fulfilling job has to be challenging. What I’m saying is that everything possible should be done to allow teachers to focus on the challenge of improving students lives, rather than dealing with the daily drudge.

5. Education policy should be determined by academics, rather than politicians

Michael Gove’s great failing was not his decision-making methods. Michael Gove failed because his ideology was (is?) outdated and attempted to place a template of ‘old school’ education on present society. The irony of this is that the ‘old school’ was very much the ‘secret garden’ that James Callaghan spoke of and Margaret Thatcher knocked down the walls of.

I liked some of his ideas. An attempt to create a national exam board for each subject was a principle of pure genius. The GCSE reforms were absolutely right and fair (I’m not sure about the idea of changing the grading system, but that’s another discussion).

The problem was that it was all a case of ‘I know better than you do’, and this was the problem. He didn’t. There was a lot of doublespeak in terms of ‘Finnish models’ but not actually employing any of their concepts. The Shanghai project clearly has merit but it seems to be done out of spite – “British education is failing so it must be the fault of our teachers – let’s go ask the opinions of a people whose culture is completely different from our own”.

Much of what politicians are swept up in when it comes to education is anecdote and hearsay, thought experiments and hubris. Policies should be based on sound academic research that take into account actually what happens on the ground in schools every day.

I’ve mentioned my fears of an anti-intellectual agenda from government and it appears to be coming into reality. There is a short fall of engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects in the UK. Why aren’t they coming through? Our education system does not allow for it to happen. We value personal ‘wants’ over the national ‘need’, and curriculum choices reflect that. Another one of Gove’s master strokes was to knock the BTEC ‘worth 4 GCSEs’ phenomenon on the head. For me he didn’t go further enough but at least there was an acknowledgement that academic rigour was being lost in the system.

To address the anti-intellectual agenda, and to take education from being a political football to a centrepiece of modern Britain, we need to give policy over to the academics. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Education policy at the moment changes so frequently that we’ve got a generation of students who might have similar grades but know completely different things, at varying levels of difficulty. For example, and I’m only talking from personal experience, the GCSE was meant to be standardised. It is no longer the case. Policy needs to be longer term, so that teachers’ and leaders’ stress is reduced because they what will be coming up in 1, 2, 3 years time rather than the monthly whims of a policy wonk in Whitehall.
  2. It creates a scenario where education policy is based on evidence rather than ‘stuff’. I’ve seen all sorts of ‘revolutionary’ ideas. BrainGym, PLTs, Learning Styles, Emotional Intelligences all have come and gone because in most cases the science is either a) non-existent or b) needs more work. ResearchED are trying to make moves in this regard, but processes like this need backing from the decision makers. Something like a ‘National Education Research Board’, perhaps?

My ideal scenario would for policy to be decided by proper academic research, and then driven by – and I know some people will not be happy about this – a ‘bulldog’ like Michael Gove. I think sometimes when policy is brought in teachers are too often treated with a softly softly approach, but what happens is that the impact of the message is lost by treating us with kid gloves. If the policy is shown to be working, and it’s proven with proper evidence and not blind belief, then it needs to be implemented. We cannot let our beliefs cloud our capabilities to improve.

So, in essence…

Teachers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The competing agendas of government, policy makers, OFSTED, the media and industry are creating a debased and unstable education system in the UK. Part of this is the slow destruction of the professional status of teachers – the removal of autonomy, status and prestige in tandem with increased and tighter regulation. Leadership of teachers needs to be through positive example and use of the ‘carrot’ as much as the stick. Don’t treat struggling teachers like deserting soldiers. Treat teachers as educators, not childminders or factory staff, and they’ll feel worthwhile, and turn the corner.

Likewise, the incentives for teaching need to be beyond the pay, ensuring that teachers can concentrate on the job of improving students’ lives rather than ticking boxes and producing reports. Finally, policy should be grounded in proper, relevant scientific research, and implemented swiftly to maximise impact.

Will the College of Teaching solve this? I’m not so sure. I’m worried that it’ll become a glorified GTC. A College of Teaching could be my ‘National Education Research Board’ if allowed, but if it becomes a political football, well, it’s going to go the same way as the GTC did.

Presently, the efforts to improve standards in education can be boiled down to “if it isn’t working, use a bigger stick”. The time will come soon where those in charge won’t be able to wield the stick! Also, choose the right ‘carrots’. Throwing money at the problem usually attracts the wrong people. Teaching should be a lifelong vocation, not a job, and government needs to facilitate this.

Thinking Aloud: Textbooks, etc

To be better equipped for the tests that the year will bring — read a textbook. To prepare for the tests that life will bring — read a book.

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

This is a kind of follow-up to @srcav’s recent blog post on textbooks, but it’s also a consideration of other things.

Automatic obsolescence

Since I started teaching around 10 years ago, there has been at least 1 change to the GCSE curriculum or examinations every year. Compare this to say, computing, where average processing speed of CPUs has roughly doubled year on year (Moore’s Law), or in cars, where new innovations and technology is introduced yearly.

This means that as soon as a computer or car is built and purchased, it’s obsolete. Likewise, because of the frequency of changes to curricula in schools, this means there’s a belief that a textbook is obsolete as soon as it is bought.

There is a shift towards ‘e-books’, but in the majority of cases these are simply print books in electronic form, with some bolt-on interactivity to make it look a bit more swish. Rarely have I seen adaptive materials, because they’re so hard and time-consuming to create that their cost would be prohibitive. There are moves to address this – Complete Mathematics for one – but this is an emerging situation in a market that tends to stick to what it knows.

The trouble with textbooks today

Even in my relatively short life as a teacher, I’ve come across a vast variety of textbooks, even though we have relatively few core publishers on the scene. The thing is, the idea of a textbook isn’t a problem. I actually use textbooks in lessons, just not all the time, as a) I don’t think many of them are any good and b) I like flexibility in my resources. My major bugbears with textbooks are:

  • Poor design
  • Lack of opportunity for consolidation
  • Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems
  • Price
  • Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

Let’s go into more detail for these points:

Poor design

As someone versed in the principles of design, many textbooks make my blood boil. First of all, font choice. The readability of a piece of text is a function of the typeface used to display it. Serif typefaces (funnily enough, like the one this very blog uses) are a nightmare in books for students. Type-setting is also a problem. I cannot emphasise the importance for good use of whitespace and line-spacing to simplify readability.

OUP Framework Maths is a notoriously poorly set out textbook series.

Colour choice is also one to be aware of. Why textbooks for children, sorry, young people are coloured in a way that makes one think of a print-version LSD trip is beyond me. Often the choice of colour is distracting, clashing and ultimately pointless.

Formula One Maths – a colour explosion

There’s a philosophy that colour is important in textbooks. I wholeheartedly disagree. When it comes to colour in any printwork, it is almost always the case that less is more, unless it is art or graphic design book itself.

Lack of opportunity for consolidation

The name of this textbook shall name anonymous. But seriously, look at it...

The name of this textbook shall be anonymous. But seriously, look at it…

How do you get better at Mathematics? By doing lots of it. It’s remarkably simple. So why do we have so many textbooks that avoid consolidation exercises and emphasise the visuals? By consolidation I don’t necessarily mean just lots of repetitive sums. I mean lots of opportunity for practice, application and extension.

This also fits in with the present trends for mastery and fluency. Many textbooks avoid extensive practice tasks because they don’t look visually appetising. But what are we trying to do here, entertain or educate? Plus I’d bet my house on the idea that to many students it doesn’t really matter what textbook they have in front of them.

Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems


Please guys – leave the real-life context to us. As Dan Meyer is always quick to point out, you almost always get it so very wrong.


Want some real-life context? Lay your hands on the Maths4Real videos. They’re a bit dated but the contexts used are timeless.


Many textbooks are the best part of £20 a piece. Before you’ve even got into the ‘exciting’ things like e-books, test builders, homework generators and the like – all of which apart from the e-books you can get similar systems that are much cheaper, simpler and more flexible to use – you’ve looking at upwards of £4000 for a decent set of GCSE books, and probably the same for lower school.

What is it you’re actually paying for though? Many, many publishers don’t actually re-write the whole textbook if a specification changes. So you’re not paying for a brand-new book. What you’re doing is subsidising the electronic bolt-ons that are sold at a cut down price, but are actually the most time-consuming to make. That’s why publishers push the electronic resources: they’ve got to justify the investment in creating them.

Where’s my evidence? Look at the price of Elmwood Press and CGP textbooks. They cover the whole GCSE syllabus, just like the fancy Collins, Pearson or OUP books, but are nearly £10 cheaper. They’re not as colourful, or linked to whizz-bang electronic stuff, but they do the job. Which is what a textbook should do. It’s not an entertainment piece, it’s a source of mathematical practice.

The Elmwood Press books are particularly of note because they’re not constantly republished. They cover the GCSE specifications and more. Which leads me to…

Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

This is particularly a concern of mine at the moment. Textbooks are often sold on being ‘ready for the new GCSE specifications’ or ‘includes more functionality’ or whatever. Lies, lies and lies. As I say before, most textbooks are simply tweaked reprints, either reordered or with a few extra bits in. So when they’re ‘ready for the new GCSE specification’ what’s happened is that the publisher has taken all the chapters, put them in line with whatever modules or specifications are now in place, and maybe placed or taken away some calculator signs next to questions.

Why waste time on this? Get the textbook right in the first place. The basic concepts in Secondary Mathematics don’t change that much – if anything what changes is the difficulty – as we’ve seen with 2015 spec. What CGP have done is make sure there’s an overlap with A-Level to support this extension and the introduction of the Level 2 Further Maths Certificate. I know they’re relatively new to the textbook game, but they’ve been doing revision resources for so long they know the curriculum well enough.

It is worrying that new specifications are used as an excuse to invest £1000s in new textbooks. The only time that textbooks should be bought is either because they’re physically falling apart or they’re over 10 years old.

One area that nearly all publishers fall into is the idea of different textbooks for different specifications. This needs to be knocked on the head. There is one GCSE programme of study, and all examination boards follow this. But no – there’s an ‘Edexcel version’, and ‘AQA version’, etc. Why? Money. As Lester Freamon constantly says in The Wire – follow the money.

And yet, and yet…

I actually quite like a good textbook. A good textbook. I’m still gutted about giving away an original GCSE textbook that covered sets and matrices. It was comprehensive to say the least. You’ve probably seen by now that I rate Elmwood Press and CGP books, but I’m not on a commission: they’re good textbooks, plain and simple. They’re cheap, well written, have plenty of practice and are simple and clear in design. The Elmwood Press books have plenty of problem solving opportunities too. I also rate the SMP Interact series, although they’re a little more pricey.

Much of what is out there textbook wise is simply practice packaged in a way to mask the Mathematics in ‘fun’ and pretty pictures. It distracts from what’s important. Stop the distractions. Focus on what matters – the exercises. That’s what my recommended publishers do.

And breathe!

Textbooks are useful, but as part of a repertoire of resources. They don’t make great teaching. Great teachers use them effectively. The best textbooks are simply designed, clear to read, cheap (by this I mean good value, rather than their quality) and focused on practicing concepts rather than looking ‘fun’. They also avoid tacked-on ‘real life’ problems and focus on the connections between concepts rather than treating Mathematics as a ticklist of topics to cover. Often, they don’t need to be ‘updated’ for new specifications because they’re so comprehensive in the first place.

The government agenda of placing textbooks as a central part of learning is not necessarily a bad one, but it does need caveats. One is that they’re not a panacea, and the other is that the bigger publishers drive form over function, which is counter to the whole principle those in charge want to work towards in the first place.

It’s once again a case where those in the know – teachers – need to have their voices heard. Will that happen? Who knows???