Category Archives: Uncategorized

Drinking from the fire hydrant

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
Johann Wolfgang von Geothe

I have two great addictions in life, and I’ve come to realise that, as I approach 40, both are taking their toll.

The first is sugar. That’s an easy one to comprehend, a hard one to tackle but one I know how do deal with. I’ve just got to deal with it.

The second is knowledge. I love to know stuff. For example, I can tell you that the father of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I was called Henry The Fowler because when German nobles came to offer Henry the kingship of Germany he was looking after his game birds; I can tell you that the standard gauge of British railways has its roots in the wheelbases of Roman carts; I can tell you that the most prolific goalscorer in men’s football is Artur Friedenreich; I can tell you that one of the impacts of the Gutenberg press was an increase in demand for spectacles because up until mass publishing took hold no-one realised how short- and long-sighted they actually were.

Now, where has this knowledge taken me? Well in terms of direct value – not very far (I did once audition for ‘The Chase’ – but didn’t get through). Indirectly it has given me a sense of the world and develop a philosophical point of view that’s helped shape my leadership style. But now I face a problem. I feel like I’ve run out of room for more knowledge. Let me explain.

I’ve immersed myself in the evidence-based and research-based side of education. I’ve signed up for the Chartered College of Teaching, I read an inordinate amount of books and even have contributed to educational discourse in some ways. I can hold court and conversation with most about the pressing education matters of the day, convincingly (if I don’t say so myself). I’ve always felt like there was more to know and more to say, and up to now, I’ve been eating it all up and churning it back out relentlessly. But, I now find myself at an impasse.

See, when educational discourse is blogs, papers and discussions, it’s easy to digest and form your own sense of where you want to go. Then the blogs, papers and discussions turn into books, magazines and conferences, and because you’ve invested in the early conversations then you feel obliged to invested in these too (I’ve got a reading pile the size of a small tower block that I’ve still to tackle). Now there are podcasts and videocasts and webinars and whilst again, I invested in these, what I’m noticing is this: there is very little new to say.

It sounds terrible to actually put that on paper but I truly believe it. I feel like there aren’t new ideas and approaches being posited that will tackle the issues of our educational systems but actually just new means of positing the same ideas. Twitter doesn’t help – an educational debate can come and go or get blown out of all proportion in the blink of an eye; sometimes without you knowing where the whole discourse started from.

The other problem is that this has a negative impact on one’s attentional capacity. You see, like sugar, a little learning is OK. Part of a healthy mental diet, shall we say. But when you’re gorging on every blog, book, podcast, webinar, magazine and feed that’s out there, it’s a) knackering b) the precursor to a mental hangover and c) going to result in a lack of focus. Concentration? Pah! Ironically there’s a ton of research out there to back this up – but in the spirit of this post you’ll just have to trust me.

So, I’m taking a personal stand. I’m cutting off the knowledge drip, and focusing on what’s in front of me. I’m aware of the irony of posting more information into the world whilst proclaiming my information diet, but that’s where I’m headed.

I’ve took time off from social media before. But here I go again. No Twitter, no Feedly.

I’m going to stop reading multiple books and read one at a time, slowly.

Time to concentrate on applying, not knowing; doing, not saying.

The Healthy Teacher Project – Diet

Everything I put into my body I considered medicine.
David Blaine

Days completed – 7
Pounds lost – 6

So for the past week my diet has been low carb, not quite ketogenic (when your body goes into a process of ketosis and starts to burn ketones generates from a different metabolic process), but certainly lacking in bread, pasta, cakes, beer and all of that good stuff.

As you can tell by the number above, results have been pretty good so far. This in all honesty is probably more down to water weight loss, but I’ll take it. Next week will be the real test of how effective things are.

So what am I eating? Pretty much just meat, dairy, nuts, olives, non-starchy veg such as broccoli and cauliflower, salad leaves, eggs. Lots of oils and vinegars and spices to keep things interesting. I’ll be honest, I could smash into a meat feast pizza from the local takeaway, but then that’s the point of all of this – I’m trying to shift 25 years’ worth of meat feast pizzas… here’s a typical midday meal plate:

Yes that is my daughter’s Minnie Mouse plate.
I feel no shame.

I’ll also be a little more honest – I have had a couple of meals that don’t fit the template above. On Thursday we had a family meal at a local curry house. It took all of my willpower but I managed just to have the tandoori grill without rice, chips or naan bread side – a choice that whilst not exactly healthy, does keep in fitting with my overall plan. Similarly, we’ve had a trip to the seaside this past week, and the only meal I had all day was fish and chips with an ice cream – again, not exactly low carb but because this was the only thing I pretty much ate, it meant that I hit a calorie deficit for the day.

What I haven’t been doing is logging what I eat and therefore counting calories. That starts this week, it’s the next phase of the plan – first cope with the food changes, and then develop a manageable calorie deficit. I’m going to use MyFitnessPal to do this, as it’ll give me a suggested calorie measure and allow me to keep an eye on my carb intake. I’ll discuss this and the metrics I’m keeping an eye on next time.

Rules Are Rules

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. – JK Rowling, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

In his documentary The Century Of The Self, Adam Curtis lays out a history of how the developed world learned to reject the paternalistic modes of authority with the aim of developing a culture of self-actualisation. He argues that this was driven by economic interests; if individuals had greater control over the decisions that influence their lives, then they’d spend more money on products or services that represent their ‘identity’. By giving people more choice in how to enact their lives, then they are inclined to invest more in serving their own needs, as they continually make those choices to define what they want from life; be this ultimately in their own best interests or otherwise. Rather than self-actualising, modern society has locked itself into buying a personality through product ownership.

An example of this is when you go to the doctors. Rightly or wrongly, 100 years ago you would go to the doctor and they would diagnose what is wrong with you and then tell you what to do about it. These days this has evolved; a doctor will diagnose what is wrong with you and then suggest options for you to take to help you deal with it. Partially this is as a result of a litigious culture that has grown in the last 30 years, but primarily this is rooted in the belief that humans are rational beings and know what is best for themselves.

The COVID-19 epidemic has thrown this concept of the importance of personal choice into the spotlight for greater scrutiny. When the message to (hashtag) STAY AT HOME isn’t followed by a significant proportion of the populace, is this ignorance, misunderstanding or personal choice?

For me, it’s the latter. When you are raised in a culture that personal choice is a fundamental right, no matter the stakes, then people will take that choice, whether or not it is in the personal or national interest. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows is that it is not necessarily in one’s own interest to cooperate with your peers. Now, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a model of completely rational behaviour, an economic model – and here we are, with people making personal, economically rational choices like going to Skegness like it’s a Bank Holiday, because that’s the culture they’ve been raised in; in any situation, YOU are the person who knows what’s best for YOU.

Sadly, we are seeing this behaviour in supermarkets, schools, on the roads, in parks, everywhere. “I know what is best for me”. Yet ironically, it’s these very people undertaking this behaviour who will be the ones who lose out most severely – increasing their own exposure, and likely ending up ill. Worryingly though, it places the rest of us in an increasingly long tail of continued infection, illness and potentially worse.

I hear many stories of people saying “I’ll not let this virus hold me back”, like we are dodging V2 rockets whilst gripping a ration book. By fostering a culture of humans acting in their own self interest, we’ve increased their risk of exposing them to the ultimate example of a ruthlessly rational actor: a deadly virus.

So what’s the solution? That’s a great question. We live in a world where we’re told not to believe experts, to ‘Just Do It’ because ‘You’re Worth It’. The tide will turn when the underlying message is to serve the interest of many, rather than the few, across politics, economics and marketing.

I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that.

2017: a review

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.‘”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Here’s some of my favourite reading this year…

Tom Sherrington is always worth reading and rightly influential in the wider educational debate. His School Leadership in 12 Slides post summarised the important features of top level functions in schools wonderfully for me, and as I move into the higher echelons of senior leadership, a lot to learn from.

Apparently I was the first ‘Twitterati’ Jo Morgan met! Resourceaholic should be the first place you go to if you’re a Maths teacher looking for inspiration in your planning. Her more ‘activist’-style posts like this one are brilliant.

Craig Barton is working through interviewing the key players in current educational thinking at a rate of knots, and his podcasts continue to be informative. My particular favourite is the one with Dylan William, but they’re all pretty spectacular. I hold out hope to be an interviewee one day. I’ll have to do something important first…

Cal Newport has been an idol of mine for a while but 2017 was the year in which I started to intensely analyse and process his ideas. His blog is brilliant.

Finally, Aidan Severs makes relevant and useful blog writing look easy. If the outcome of events were slightly different I understand some collaboration might have been on the cards, but otherwise I can just sit and enjoy reading posts like this.

So yes, farewell 2017. You were stressful, but I’ve come through a stronger and fitter person (literally!) as a result. A new, more senior role (though much closer to home!) means I’ll need to dedicate my focus even more on ‘core business’ (more on that below) but I’m hoping to reignite The Lean Department (AGAIN) – you could say I’ve ‘pivoted’ from what I talked about at ResearchEd in the Autumn – thanks to Tom and the team for the invite by the way!

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned this year it’s to focus one’s attention on what really matters – my health, my family, and living a quality life – and I’ve already started that process off as the year began to turn. I’m really looking forward to continuing that as 2018 comes over the (ahem) horizon.

See you on the flipside.


Mathsconf #13 – Now That The Dust Is Settling…

Short post to say that if you missed my session and want the slides and handout, or you attended and would like electronic copies, you can click here for the slides, and here for the handout.

I will be reprising this talk at LIME Oldham on 17th November at The Radclyffe School in Oldham (well, of course), so if you want to see it live (and who could blame you), then come along. It’d be great to see you.


An At The Edge of Chaos Election Special


Reading all the conflab to do with the snap election, I have a few things that would get my vote. Here we go:

  1. Invest in the renewable energy sector and do it now. Stop being a slave to fuel exports and tariffs, and be self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2050. Why we are still reliant on 19th century sources of energy to fuel 21st century infrastructure is beyond me. You’d open up the job market, create a need for highly skilled individuals – and thus well paid and well taxed contributors to the state – to participate and cut carbon production. What’s wrong with that?
  2. Up the tax rate by 1p in the pound – across the board – and invest that directly into the NHS and Education system. You should not put a value on the health and education of a nation. The most stable and fastest growing economies in the world have the best health care and the best education. Scrap tuition fees whilst you’re at it.
  3. Cancel HS2. Invest in more capacity on the rail network, and re-open the Woodhead line between Sheffield and Manchester. It’s criminal that two of the biggest cities in the UK, and most economically important in Europe, are connected by a railway line that is like something from The Railway Children.
  4. Sugar tax. Just do it properly. The best way to stop people doing something is hitting them in the pocket. Why have people switched from cigarettes to vaping? It’s cheaper. None of that ‘health’ rubbish. People can get more nicotine for their money. You can improve the health of a nation simply by removing the incentive to eat crap. We eat high starch, high sugar, high salt foods because they are cheap.
  5. Provide every home with access to the internet. A state-funded minimum access that allows everyone to make use of the technological revolution. The freedom of knowledge and information deserves to be a right shared by all, and there are still people in the UK who for whatever reason don’t have access to it.
  6. Go cap in hand back to the EU and say ‘we’re sorry, we had a bit of a blip there’, and knock Brexit on the head. It never ceases to amaze me how many different areas and services we use in the UK that are reliant on EU funding. Just sit and watch CBeebies for an hour and see how many EU flags are in the credits of the programmes. Go to your local park and notice how the upkeep is subsidised by EU funding. It appears in some of the least expected places, yet we’re careering into a future that we neither know nor understand. Scary.

So, that’s it. I’d never stand for parliament because a) I wouldn’t want to do it and b) I’d not last two minutes – I’m too nice. But someone, somewhere, must agree with some if not all of these ideas, eh?


Hi all.

Since January, there have been a host of significant events in my family life that have placed a lot of things in perspective for me.

For the last 3-4 years I’ve been delighted to be part of a movement that has made real change in the way Mathematics is taught in schools. I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from some amazing individuals and groups, and I hope I’ve been able to pay some of that back in my own work.

However, for some time now, I’ve felt ready to move things forward with implementing my research and learning to a wider school leadership basis. I tried launching this with The Next Step theme on this site, but felt it was lacking something in terms of adding value to what is already a fertile environment.

So, instead, I’ve decided to focus the attention I have beyond family and my role at DTA to a new project. The perspective that the aforementioned events have given me has driven me to get fitter and healthier (nearly 2 stone lost since mid-January), appreciate family time more and go ahead with a project that I’ve had in mind for some time now.

It’s something I’m really excited about and I’m confident it’ll make a positive impact on a wider basis than on Mathematics teaching and leadership alone.

You can find out more at The Lean Department. You can follow me on Twitter @theleandept.

My blog, At The Edge Of Chaos, and the Twitter account @workedgechaos will continue to exist, but don’t expect much from there other than a few DMs and occasional updates from time to time.

Here’s to the future!


Thinking Aloud: Questions, so many questions 

Great intellects are skeptical.


So the Chartered College rolls into action with first meetings in London and Sheffield. I have no problem with a chartered college, and with the right principles and practice I am confident it could help rebuild the tottering structure that is our national education system. But I have many, many questions that I need to find answers for before I join the cause. Here are a few…

A voice for who?

The #collectivevoice hashtag is all over Twitter presently, but what exactly is the voice saying? Is it for teacher representation? Is it for pedagogical practice? Bridging the widening gap between policy makers and those at the coal face? It’s one thing to communicate evidence based practice, but what leverage does the CCT have in making this happen? There is a catch-22 here: an organisation can have an aim to only represent the interests of its members but what if members won’t sign up until the interests of the organisation are clear?

Independent but funded by…?

An organisation cannot be wholly independent of a body it is funded by. It’s akin to saying that Labour are independent of trade unions. Diluting this funding by member contributions doesn’t cancel the original funding, there will always be stakeholder interest from the initial source (see how venture capital works). If the ‘voice’ is there to challenge governmental influence on educational policy then there are questions of conflicting interests from the start.


There are already chartered qualifications in place for a variety of subjects. Also by becoming chartered, how does this warrant greater professionalism (more on this later)? What are the planned benefits of being chartered? Is it acknowledged specialism in your field? If so, isn’t that what SLE status is for? Is it a recognition of your experience and impact in your practice? In Engineering, Chartered status expects compiling detailed documentation and evidence of professional development. Fundamental to this is guidance from experienced professional mentors and accreditation from organisations such as the IMechE and IEE. Importantly, these are not open clubs for anyone with a subscription fee to join.

More qualifications?

Adding chartered routes creates more choice for teachers in a myriad of professional, vocational, leadership, subject specialist and academic development routes and roles. It’s as if we keep ignoring the fact that more choice in a system is counter productive. If I was the government, CCT or who ever gets to make the call I’d clear the decks of all present development roles and keep things simple. A small selection of progression routes recognised by all, starting from QTS right through to NPQs would be much more effective and hold more credence rather than adding to the mix.


Talking of qualifications and standards, my hackles do raise at the idea that the CCT is needed for professionalism reasons. To say that this implies there is a lack of professionalism in schools presently and that is simply not the case. It’s not as if teachers just throw a textbook in front of students and expect them to get on with it whilst they catch up with their instagram feed. The current ‘confusion of tongues’ about practice is a result of far too many different stakeholders having far too much leverage over accountability, with each often having conflicting interests. A school should serve the needs of its learners and community, not those of various governmental and quasi-governmental standard bearers.


Of course evidence based practice is the way to go. Of course teachers deserve to have recognition for their efforts. Of course teachers are intelligent, university educated individuals with a voice to be heard. But let me use this analogy: washing and polishing a car doesn’t make it run better if the tyres are flat and the engine is misfiring, particularly if we won’t properly acknowledge the real issues. Saying something along the lines of ‘Be Excellent To Each Other’ isn’t going to solve deep rooted problems in the current educational model.


This all sounds very cynical, I know. I don’t wish to denigrate those who are investing their time into making the Chartered College happen. I often tell people of my belief that systems are better than stuff: well, systems are also better than good intentions. Good intentions don’t solve problems. A Chartered College with proper structures, clear policy and leverage in the profession can only be A Good Thing. But if we’ve learned anything by recent political events, relying on popular opinion to determine policy isn’t necessarily the best strategy. This is not to underestimate the capabilities of people like Dame Alison Peacock, Sam Twisleton and Peter Mattock – these are excellent educational practitioners – but surely some sort of outline plan is needed before putting it out for the consideration of the masses?

Actual Maths: On Methods

The ability to have a choice in what you do is a privilege.

Anton Yelchin

I recently entered a Twitter debate with Mike Ollerton and Danny Brown about students choosing methods to solve problems in Maths.

You can read the thread here, but I felt that I needed to elaborate further on my standpoint.

Picture the scene.

We are looking at methods for multiplying two numbers – integer or decimal. Now I would expect students to use the grid method. My reasoning is that a) partition method with a grid ensures that everything that needs to multiplied *is* multiplied and b) it is a solid method for expanding binomials and connected concepts such as surds.

Now – I would drill that method to the nth degree. But then a student might ask if it’s OK to use a different method – e.g. the column (long) or ‘Chinese’/Napier’s bones methods. For me, as long as a student is successful with that method IN THE SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF SCENARIOS they try to apply it then that’s fine – they’re fully au fait with a technique to solve such problems.

For me, this discussion is a manifestation of the problem that teachers face. The pragmatic Mathematics department will do the things that enable students to get the best grades possible. This means minimal variation of teaching methods, making sure that coverage of the syllabus is of a depth reasonable enough for students to access as much of the exam as possible and limiting ambiguity.

The ideal Mathematics department will facilitate inquiry around techniques and decisions to be made when solving problems. But, this takes time, and with a finite amount of curriculum time and a huge number of concepts to cover in the syllabus then a balance needs to be struck.

There is no ‘best method’ for tackling problems in Mathematics – I think it’s important that the subject isn’t reduced to a series of algorithmic methods. But where procedures are employed I believe it’s less risky for students to pick one method, explore every possible application of it and limit any vagaries around an idea.

When choosing a method I will avoid tricks: the likes of ‘Keep, Change, Flip’ can take a running jump, for example – why can’t we just say ‘multiply by the reciprocal’. There are some that will choose the (or name a) method that students will find most memorable, but for me rigour always trumps novelty.

Choice is a paradox

Another reason why I think it’s important that we pick a single method is also to avoid the paradox of choice. As Barry Schwartz ably demonstrates in this TED talk – as choice increases, then people feel more anxious about making a decision, because they worry about what they may have lost out on in finally choosing.

I have seen this in Mathematics lessons – students not being 100% confident in any of a variety of methods, therefore not fully committing to a technique and not truly getting the hang of a concept as a result. Having to choose places a mental strain on students that isn’t necessary.

Case in point…


For the problem type above, I’d always expand the bracket first, because if the value outside the bracket doesn’t equally divide into value on the other side of the equation, then you’re entering into the realm of fractions, mixed numbers, etc, and if my experience is anything to go by, that risks more error than expanding the bracket and cancelling from there.

But then that’s just me. There are no ‘best methods’.

2016 and all that

Down with this sort of thing.

Father Ted Crilly

I sit here, looking at my little girl, only 2 years into her journey in this world, and wonder what the future holds for her. If 2016 is anything to go by, it could be a rather tricky situation. Female, mixed enthnicity, Northern, in a ‘squeezed middle’ family and soon to be disconnected from her closest international counterparts, nations and places that should be the most likely source of culture and experience beyond her own day to day environment. The ice caps are disappearing and everything’s going to cost more.

It just doesn’t seem to bode well for her, does it?

However, I can give her a fighting chance. I can help ensure that her gender shall empower her and show that her diversity means she has a rich heritage to be bloody proud of, remove the obstacles for her to gain the opportunities that I had to strive for and look beyond the petty squabbles of egotistical morons in power and make the best of her life no matter what. I can teach her that the way the world progresses is through tolerance and shared experience, not animosity and closed borders.

If she learns those lessons, I know she can make a great contribution to society, no matter if the populace comes to its senses or not.

If 2016 was the year of xenophobia and fascism writ large for the first time since the 1930s, then let 2017 be the start of the backlash. We owe it to our children (and theirs) to learn the lessons of the 20th century. To get out and vote. To take more care of our environment. To listen to each other. To stop accepting the dictums of people completely disconnected from what the public need. To simply be kind! 

Let’s do this. 

Merry Christmas everyone. Have a great holiday and I’ll catch you all in the new year.