Confusion vs Clarity – Great teachers who beat themselves up and poor ones who think they are great

We like clarity – defined as clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity. So surely this is what we as educators should be aiming for. Brief succinct and to the point and our students are happy.

Confusion on the other hand is something unpleasant and to be avoided says conventional wisdom.  This may be true for superficial tasks such as rote memorising, but there is mounting evidence that confusion promotes learning at a deeper level of comprehension.

Science is different than most subjects in that most students enter our classrooms with a preconceived notion of scientific concepts . Their minds are not a blank slate (sadly as that would be easier) but a mass of beliefs, many of which are wrong.

If we use the classic teaching idea of showing a demonstration and then having a discussion about what they have seen, that must be effective. 


It would appear not, from research from Eric Mazur,the Harvard physics education researcher that we are better off not doing the demonstration at all unless you get them to predict an outcome first. If only the demo is viewed you tend to remember it in a way that confirms your belief rather than the reality. This is a common fallacy that we remember things as they really are. Making the prediction seems to force us to realise that we got it wrong and hence more likely to change our minds. The social discussion afterward seems to have no direct effect on their performance although longer term benefits were not evaluated. Nor was peer instruction used which would have been interesting.

Dr Derek Muller – with the youtube channel Veritasium exploits this improved performance with his videos that deliberately confuse  Great Youtube Channel

Students prefer not to be confused and far prefer teachers who give clear explanations,  .  Is this always a good thing?  Mazur tried an on-line test on several topics, where he asked students a couple of hard questions (novel situations, things they hadn’t faced previously), and then a meta-question, “Did you know what you were doing on those questions?”  Mazur and his colleagues then coded that last question for “confusion” or “no confusion,” and compared that to performance on the first two problems.


Again the results are counter intuitive. The confused students actually perform way better than the ones who are not. Which probably means that the students who are happiest with their teachers are the poorer performers – (this has huge ramifications for fee paying schools who want their teachers to be popular )

For teachers we may be faced with the choice of being popular and ineffective, or unpopular and effective!

Not only are students poor at judging how effective their teachers are they also according to Mazur are very poor at predicting their own performance.

This could be partly down to the Dunning-Kruger effect where people have a tendency to overrate their own ability. This is usually down to ignorance rather than arrogance. In virtually every survey done more than 50% of people judge themselves as being better than average attractiveness, intelligence and ability as a driver. Perversely the least competent are the ones most likely to overrate themselves and the highest performers underrate themselves.


Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance

An article here outlines Dunning – Kruger effect and there’s a detailed blog here 

Add all these things together and you can have very popular poor performing teachers who think they are great as they lack the analytical skills to see their failings and unpopular, but  high performing teachers who beat themselves up. It can be a cruel, unfair  world!


I will be launching a new YouTube Channel to support this so please watch this space

Humanity – Pedagogy – Technology

The world is changing in unprecedented ways. Mobile technology becomes ever more powerful, more wearable and we become more connected(or isolated from the real world and immersed in a virtual world – depending on your perspective)  As educators we need to be able to use this technology effectively. It’s easy to get carried away with the shinyness of the new and forget the core of education and forget what has to be in place first

To me it needs to be;

Humanity – Smile ! Build authentic relationships and quickly establish their identity by valuing them – Learn their names, find out about them, know what they are good at. If you have students who have high status outside your classroom, but are weak performers in it, then you can expect problems. Imagine that your headteacher has only seen you at your weakest, has never seen you perform well, how would you feel about them observing you ? We need to remove the fear of failure and we do that by making them feel secure so we can lead them on journeys into the unknown and push them to their limits. If they never fail, they will never know how far they can go.

Pedagogy – Teach them , or allow them to learn effectively. I passionately believe there isnt a right way to teach. We teach students, not a subject and we teach what is in front of us. The variables are so huge that to me much research doesnt inform us of very much. So reports like the Sutton Trust point out that

  • allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves – is not supported by evidence

As a scientist this is like saying; In the short term (passing exams )  if you give people fish they become fatter than if you teach them how to fish. Later when we then expect them to do something for themselves, some of these dependent ones will not know what a live fish looks like, let alone how to catch one. This may be my confirmation bias kicking in, but I want my students to be independent learners (and I do give them fish at times as some would starve without that extra support)


Technology – Add the things you cant do without the technology. Technology is neutral, neither good, nor bad. It can be used effectively or it can waste hours making pretty presentations with no effective learning. As teachers we dont need to be able to use all these technology tools. Our role as educators is to assess learning , however it is presented to us. preventing the students from using technology because we dont know how to use it is a sin ! We need to know what can be done and release the students from the bondage of our own limitations.


humanity - pedagogy - technology venn


I used this Video to support my presentation at #2015TMBETT. You need to decide in what  order the cartons fall over in.

The crowd had to make a decision as to the last one to fall over. Put your left hand up if you think it is the empty carton, both hands for the half full and right hand for the full one. Keep your hands up and find someone who disagrees with you, tell them why they are wrong and try to change their mind. How many changed their opinion ? 2 out of 450 ! When we have a belief we hang onto it – The work of Jonathan Haidt is interesting here

The answer to the cartons is here 

Ok so it isnt. We remain curious about things that are incomplete, that we dont know the answer to. Even more so when we have a stake in the outcome – hence getting people to argue. I did this in a class and a girl lost it when I was about to reveal, then said I’d do it tomorrow.

‘What! you are going to leave us in suspense?’

“Thats exactly what I’m going to do”

‘You are the most annoying teacher alive’ then in an aggressive manner ‘I’m going to do it at home!’

A total paradigm shift to most classrooms – a challenging student saying – stuff you,  I’m going to learn this ! Its thinking through the back door.

At the Teachmeet I started to show Infuse Learning, but ran out of time. I do think this could be a real game changer. I was going to get the crowd to draw their understanding of the cartons (I’m hopelessly optimistic as to what you can achieve in 7 minutes)

In Infuse Learning you can send a drawing to others to annotate and then can see all the results. It is rapid to set up, free and reliable. What’s not to like! Another feature is ordering results, so for example you can have 4 statements which are all correct but some are better than others. This is in terms of thinking a world away from the simple right and wrong that most quizzes produce.

And the answer to the cartons?

Do it yourself ! I dont give people fish when they can catch them themselves :)


Behaviour Management – beyond compliance – Humanising the Education System

Behaviour – beyond  compliance – a personal viewpoint / ramble

There are a lot of behaviour gurus out there, some offering genuinely good advice and others with very slick and entertaining stage shows that lack any real substance. This is a personal account of what I have found works for me. I feel immensely privileged that within my various roles I still teach regularly, observed by others, and can be in a failing inner city comprehensive one day and a top performing independent school the next. We have to take our students on a journey they may be reluctant to go on, armed with only the force of our personality! That is a serious challenge! I have taught in some of the toughest schools on the planet, sometimes successfully, at other times failing miserably. Failure is always a learning experience and my last nine years of teaching as an AST in challenging schools was filled with many of these. There were also those days where you walk out of the classroom buzzing, knowing why you are a teacher; a feeling you can’t explain to those who have never felt it – those who often decide educational policy!

Turning around failing schools is not rocket science, it’s very hard work. You need to change an embedded culture of anti learning. One model is to follow the way that the New York Subway System was reclaimed in the 1980s – identifying the ‘broken window syndrome; where if one window is broken and not fixed then all the windows would be subsequently broken. The carriages were covered in graffiti, a clear indication of lawlessness and this was the first priority to fix. The strategy was interesting: they found that the graffiti artists/vandals (use whichever fits your viewpoint) would take 3 days. The first day they would paint the carriages white then build up their artwork over the next 2 days. They were not prevented from doing this, instead as soon as they had finished the work it was painted over, thus demoralising them. They were not preventing them from wrongdoing, they were preventing them from benefitting from wrongdoing. No car covered in graffiti was allowed back into service.  Not letting miscreants benefit from their bad behaviour can be more effective than trying to prevent them doing it. Think the torture of the Grinch when he realised that stealing the presents hadn’t affected the happiness of the town

Another example in New York  was fare dodging which was endemic: when others were clearly getting away without paying the temptation was to do it yourself. A very visible system of punishment was created with fare dodgers daisy chained together on the platform and processed in a bus parked outside the station. No windows left broken; rules that are enforced clearly and consistently undeniably work and can lead to compliance and hence control is regained. Is it simply compliance we want in the classroom though?  It is possible to make a dog come towards you by offering a treat and move away from him by kicking it, what is much harder is to get the dog to obey you without these extrinsic drivers..Reward and threat can give us the behaviour we want to see, but is this enough? I want my students to behave because they understand that it is the right thing to do, not from a fear of the consequences or a rote response. Students misbehave because their needs are not being met. The behaviour may not be the problem, it may be their way of dealing with a problem. Should we be ignoring their needs and just deal with the symptoms rather than trying to find a cure?

I am sure I am not alone in admitting that I am often probably the most disruptive influence in my classroom. When they are all quietly getting on with work I get bored. I hated teaching in a school where the students worked in silence. I wanted to know their hopes, dreams and fears, what motivated them. I teach young people first and the subject second and find that showing a genuine interest in them pays dividends in their behaviour and performance. By building relationships, I could use the most powerful weapon of all – disappointment. We reflect anger but disappointment is crushing (I can still remember the sad look on my much loved Biology teacher Mr Woodward’s face when I hadn’t done my homework!) I hope I have been a good role model by showing those with challenging home lives how to build genuine caring relationships. The teachers who influenced me most and had a lasting impact on my life were not the most efficient ones, they were the ones with a passion who were not afraid to show their humanity.

We can create systems that force compliance. We can make students stand up as we enter the room to ‘show respect’. These systems of rules tend to have the opposite effect on me personally and bring out my subversive side, honed in my own traditional grammar school education that bored me to distraction. I was very successful at decoding exam papers and that was all that was required to be ‘successful’ with very little effort nor in depth thinking taking place (hence the shallow person I am today!) Reactance – What would you do when faced with this photo?


Why the compulsion to do what it tells us not to? We suffer from reactance which often compels us to break rules because we have lost the right to choose. an interesting study here suggests that raising the drinking age actually caused higher levels of underage drinking     Reactance often causes us to act irrationally, particularly in those ‘difficult’ teenage years where our reaction to the nagging of our parents rarely was the way they intended, nor what was best for us. Yet somehow we expect our young charges to take notice of us! Some interesting research on reactance is here.

Evidently we need to make our rules purposeful, but rather than set rules I negotiate inviolable rights The right to be safe – mentally and physically The right to learn The right to be treated with respect These are then protected with rules We have the right to be safe so I will not endanger others We have the right to learn so I will not interfere with the learning of others We have the right to be treated with respect so I will respect others This is pretty much a catch all – you will only fall out with me if you break any of these 3 rules, but you will always fall out with me if you do. This also allows us to deal with the students talking when we are by challenging them with “if you were talking to me and I started talking to someone else, would I be treating you with respect?” They can’t answer ‘yes’, so you point out they have broken the rules and hence have lost the right to …. sit there/leave the lesson on time/other benefit. As opposed to getting into the argument ‘ I was talking about the work ….’

I never talk about work in my lessons, always learning. I’m not impressed with pages of notes that have no meaning to the student or the copied and pasted stuff they seem to consider as good enough.

As the students come in I smile at them firing up their mirror neurones Using brain imaging, scientists have explored the areas of the brain that are activated when we see another person smile. Of course, you’d expect the visual areas of the brain to light up. But other areas of the brain light up too, including the premotor cortex, an area that helps activate our own smiling muscles and the somatosensory and insula cortices, areas that report what it feels like physically and emotionally to smile. Neurons that fire both when we observe and when we take part in an action are called mirror neurons. When we see someone smile, mirror neurons simulate our own smiling. Does this simulation or reenactment help us to understand what another person is feeling? Full article here  Similarly if you frown at your class you will get them mirroring unhappiness back at you – that doesn’t seem worth it to me!

I now attempt to analyse my class to identify and work with any threats, using a not very scientific version of Mclellands Theory of needs . This is a very imprecise technique but it seems to work for me. It is very easy to label students and then use confirmation bias to see what you expect to see, so please use with caution and forgive me for gross generalisations. We have three basic needs according to Mclelland. The need to achieve, affiliate with others and to have some power. I’m looking for the individuals who have a major need for power. I watch their body language as they enter the room: some will be making themselves small, these are unlikely to be threats. Others will have wide open stances and hold eye contact for a little longer than the rest, it is within this group that there is likely to be the possible threats.

Achievers have a key driver of being successful. I divide them into two broad categories: Quiet achievers : groups of girls who tend to sit near the front and never say anything. The ones I used to feel guilty about for never giving them enough attention or knowing anything about them when parents evening came (and their parents always came!) Individual boys who often would be sneered at by the others for the crime of trying hard. These types are not threats, but are often very needy and can dislike independent learning tasks.

Noisy achievers: spotted as soon as the first question is asked as they shout out or wave frantically at you. These can be the most annoying kids on the planet, often the offspring of the most annoying parents on the planet. These can destroy your lessons by dominating questioning. They are often deeply unpopular with their classmates but are completely unaware of this. Using ‘pose pause pounce bounce’ outlined by @teachertoolkit here and Dylan Wiliam below. I target them first and regularly come back to them.

Affiliates: By far the largest group, these may well be wearing the regulation Superdry/Hollister/Nike/Armani (delete as appropriate to the socioeconomic status of your school!) or the slight defiance to school uniform short fat tie etc. The haircut will also conform to the unofficial (hence far more likely to be adhered to) regulation norm. Being part of the group is far more important than being successful and if you have an embedded anti-learning, or that which I find worse, apathetic culture, then you have your work cut out. I remember as a clueless NQT admonishing the whole class with ‘if you carry on like this you will all fail!’ Thus bonding them together to fail as one with all the nonsensical rationale that only teenagers can muster.

Power People: This group hold status as the most important driver. These have the potential to be a threat, either in terms of behaviour or in turning the class against me or my teaching methods. If they are a personal power person they tend just to want to fight and have little influence on the others. Group power people have the potential to lead the affiliates and hence every lesson can turn into a battle over the allegiance of the affiliates. Male power people: tend to be alpha males and will enter your room noisily. Falling out with males rarely is a long term issue and tends not to extend to their friends who can be marvellously disloyal. Female power people: tend to be those that are the most extreme in dress – the brightest orange/shortest skirt/most makeup/biggest hair/other extreme feature! However, it is the number of social interactions which really hold the key to their power. Falling out with these can create an enemy for life and one with a hugely loyal army who also hate you unreservedly! Sometimes there is little you can do apart from damage limitation and wait for them to leave! How to deal effectively with these power people in the longer-term, I’ll leave for another blog. However if their status depends entirely on how well they perform in your classroom and they are not naturally gifted at your subject then you will tend to suffer. By being aware and dealing with these different drivers we can create a classroom climate where the needs of the individual students are being met. Seek to understand, then to be understood and you can create self regulating students better equipped to deal with the world .

These are some resources and blogs that I have found useful The first person who ever seemed to give me stuff that worked was Bill Roger,s the ever reliable Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher has a great summary blog here  Sarah Findlater  @Msfindlater has got some useful links on her excellent Pinterest account here  Ross McGill @teachertoolkit has some useful stuff as always including the 5 minute behaviour plan available here

Comments welcomed

Restorative Justice – Humanising Education

Restorative Justice – What is it and how can it make our education systems more human?

School discipline has for the most part based the criminal justice system. A compelling idea for many elements of society (and a great vote catcher)  we punish wrongdoers with the aim of enforcing behaviours that are safe and non-disruptive. One of the biggest flaws with this system is that it assumes that the perpetrators when punished have the will and capacity to change their behaviour.  This works very well for the majority of people, but not for those ‘now orientated’  ones incapable of delaying gratification. (ie the ones most likely to get into trouble)  The products of upbringings where actions were rarely questioned, with very poor role models. When punishment does not work, misbehaving students may be excluded through suspension or expulsion, with possibly serious long-term harmful consequences to them and society. There is little or no opportunity for any social and emotional learning. We cast these students adrift, they don’t feel part of our wider community and so feel no responsibility to it.  Instead they may find acceptance in a different and antisocial community.


I worked with young offenders before I became a teacher and what was very clear was how ineffective at changing behaviour punishment was for most of my charges.  Punishment was a way of life for these children.  Its easy to forget when you see them strutting around with their gang mates that they are children.  On their own, out of their gang, you would realise how emotionally vulnerable they were, kids who had needed to be hugged and to be told they were loved by parents.   Often they were simply amoral with no understanding of the impact of their actions.  The biggest sanction society could impose was removing their liberty, but for many their life conditions were massively improved when they were incarcerated, safer, better fed.  Some of my charges went into Borstal (it was a while ago) as daft petty offenders and came out as hardened well connected criminals.  The rise of the structure of ISIS may well have been massively facilitated by imprisoning large numbers of people with a similar mindset to create their own communities. There is an interesting article here

Restorative practices in schools are based on restorative justice principles instead of punishment. They aim first to build classroom communities that are supported by clear agreements, authentic communication, and specific tools to bring issues and conflicts forward in a helpful way. They provide specific pathways to repair harms by bringing together those who are affected by misbehaviour in a dialogue to address concerns, achieve understanding, and come to agreement about setting things right.In addition to serving the cause of fairness and justice, restorative approaches make safer schools and contribute to social and emotional learning

Restorative justice is not a ‘cup of tea and a hug’ approach to changing behaviour.  The first time I saw it used was with a couple of our students who had set fire to the local heath. The people who had been affected came and sat in a circle, a fireman, heath warden, dog walker, local resident whose house was next to the heath and a policeman.  The students were as uncomfortable as it was possible for them to be. They would have taken any punishment rather than sit through something that forced them to consider the consequences of their actions on others. Each in turn spoke about the effect the fire had had on them without blame or anger.  These were apparently ‘hard’ kids, they reflected anger with anger, its the only defence mechanism they had. But make them try and explain why they did it in front of others without emotion and it was clear how poorly equipped these children were to make good decisions.  We didn’t talk about punishment, we talked about how to put things right and they negotiated that they would work with the warden pulling up bracken – the bracken grows faster than the heather and can choke it if left unattended. The result of this was something that genuinely changed the behaviour of the students and built relationships with the community. A win-win compared to the possibility of alienation and further divisions.

On a smaller scale two of my students broke a school picnic table, so the restorative justice was to work with the site manager fixing it.  Not only did they build a good relationship with him, I also caught them berating another student they found jumping on ‘their’ picnic table. They had come from outside the system to feeling part of it.

rest 1

What shifts are needed – These are all about empowering the students and making them feel part of a community that they share responsible for.

The first shift acknowledges that troublesome behaviour is normal, and when students behave in troublesome ways they create opportunities to learn important social and emotional skills. What is important is not so much that they got into trouble in the first place, but what they learn along the way. Making things right is a powerful learning experience.

The second shift is a departure from the retributive model in which an authority, after taking testimony from the aggrieved party, decides guilt and assigns punishment. In restorative practices the authority figure acts more as a convener and facilitator. The initial investigation is concerned with identifying who was significantly affected by the incident. The facilitator invites them into a circle dialogue and, if they accept the invitation, helps prepare them. During the circle dialogue the problem and its impacts are explored and the group comes up with ideas on how to make things right. Usually this means the students who were the source of the trouble take specific actions that address the consequences of their choices. Consider the difference in outcomes between the authoritarian/punitive approach and the restorative approach: the first breeds resentment, alienation and shame and/or possibly an equally troublesome habit of fearing and submitting to authority; the second builds empathy, responsibility and helps restore relationships.

The third shift moves the locus of responsibility for well-being of the community from the shoulders of the experts to the community itself.  While counselling and similar strategies have their place and are often helpful by themselves, they are immeasurably strengthened when complemented by restorative practices that challenge those who are in the circle dialogue to share information with each other and to come to agreements as a group.

rest 3

Is Restorative justice the answer to all our problems?

rest 2 pros cons

Clearly not, it is simply another tool that is very effective in most cases but there will always be those that it has little impact on.

It is a step forward in humanising our education system though link

More information on Pinterest here 

Please add further resources and comments

Humanising the Education System

Why does our education system seem to be so poorly adapted for human needs?

Why are schools only judged on academic outcomes when this is a tiny part of what makes us human?

Can we really change the world?  How many teachers really believe in the current system?

What would we consider if we were to start again ?

buck fuller

Educational research appears to be showing us the most efficient ways of teaching, but are we in danger of missing the whole point of education?  Is this the equivalent of tinkering with the engine of a car when the tyres are completely inappropriate for the terrain ahead? 

Currently success is based on how well our young people manage to answer questions sitting alone with a pen, isolated from any technology (how relevant is that to the 21st century?!); for some we say “you are clever” and to others we say “you are not”. In so doing we condemn many to a lifetime of thinking that they are stupid: that’s pretty dehumanising.

In many schools we have lost sight of how lovely it is working with children . There is a great post by HeyMissSmith:

We have lost sight of integration of all types of people. Here is a beautifully written blog by Nancy Gedge” 

Good teachers impart knowledge effectively to their students, but their influence rarely extends beyond their classroom; good teachers have good relationships with most students.  Great teachers inspire for life and this always comes about through personal communication and relationships.  Every outstanding lesson I have seen has an undefinable buzz and feeling of a shared journey: there is a connection between teacher and ALL students that cannot be measured on any inspectors check sheet.

The system theoretically supports this drive for outstanding, but the reality is that it all too often it inhibits it.  Many schools suffer management by spreadsheet, a depersonalised, data driven process that does not take into account the complexities of teaching.  Systems are risk averse – we have no idea how far our students can really go, which is appalling, and surely a wasted opportunity.

“We start out with the intention of making the important measurable, and end up making the measurable important.”   Dylan Wiliam.

There are some amazing things happening in many primary schools, but when the students hit secondary suddenly it becomes serious: it is now all about performance.  The problem with a performance culture is that it tends to leads to only looking at the end result and not the learning.  The most important part becomes sidelined and our students learn little about learning, resilience or independence.  How many very ‘successful’ students have been coached purely to pass exams and only what gets tested gets taught.

A child comes back from a football game. What questions are the parents likely to ask them?

“Did you win?”

“Did you score?”

Suppose the match was lost and they haven’t scored, what value has the game had? With this outlook – nothing, the scenario is entirely negative and for the next game there is a pressure to score and win.

Alternative questions could be:

“did you play well/have fun?”

“what was the score?”

“did they deserve to win?”

“what would you do differently next time?”

These questions focus on the game rather than the result and builds a useful evaluative practice into the child’s life.

Robert Bjork on Learning vs Performance

We can impart knowledge efficiently to achieve an end result such as an exam, but a real success criteria is how much further the students choose to study the subject and how much effect it has on their life.

If we were to construct an education system that was designed for humanity what would we produce?

The starting point should be looking at what we need to be fulfilled: our basic human needs.

We can look at Maslow’s hierarchy (updated for the digital generation) and what this might look like broken down further. What might self-actualisation really mean?


Our fundamental needs can be put under three main headings:

Control – That we feel safe and confident with some sense of order and influence

Humans need to have a some sense of control in aspects of life in order to be happy.  Part of the supposed deterrent of prisons (research is mixed – but certain element of society do love punishment regardless of whether it is effective!) is the total removal of any control the prisoner has.  Sadly many schools have a very similar approach with students, unable to control any aspect of their education.  Then, without irony, we moan that they are not independent.  Some prisoners become habituated and struggle to leave their very ordered world, not surprisingly some students do too.  A teacher at a very high achieving girl’s school was telling me how high the drop out rate was at University – the girls struggled with freedom and self-motivation. 

We also need parts of our world to be certain.  We can’t control others behaviour and this can lead to all sorts of problems of jealousy and unhappiness.  Think how edgy, unpredictable and moody teacher/spouse/sibling can make you feel.  Any teacher who has a class out of control will know how long those few minutes to the end of the lesson can appear to be.  I remember observing a teacher who had ‘lost’ the class and as chaos erupted around her she tidied up the scissors and stationary – here’s something I can control.

In any classroom students need to know how they will be treated by the teacher and classmates.  As a teacher you need to have clear expectations and to apply the rules fairly and consistently (though this is so hard to do!).  One of the reason teachers with weak behavioural management skills are so unpopular is that their classrooms are filled with uncertainty, hence stress.

Routines are very important to give this sense of order, it is probably less important what the routines are than that they are always carried out.  School routines such as line up outside, coats off etc are better than individual teachers creating their own ones.  This depersonalises the rules so there should be no arguments like “Mr Linklater lets us listen to music, why don’t you?”. The ability to respond to the students with ‘the rules say ….’ is undermined massively if this happens.

Every failing school I have worked for has had massive inconsistencies in behaviour management strategies, which led to many unhappy students and behaviour that was out of control at times: every rule was open to negotiation.  Those who applied the rules firmly were seen by the students as ‘harsh’ and having a problem.  **The first step was always to ensure if there was a rule, that it was applied.**

The importance of consistent rules are supported by the broken window theory here.  This states that preventing small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.  Although debate is raging as to whether it is really effective and whether it has caused more harm than good in the US here, it seems to make sense that keeping the little things tight can prevent the big things from happening.  Just because it seems to make sense doesn’t mean its true.  We are not rational beings, although we delude ourselves in thinking that we are. If you are not convinced try this

Teachers with a high reliance on certainty can come across as rigid and control freaks.  Their classrooms may be very ordered, but sometimes their relationships with students can be shallow as they give very little of themselves.  Order is more important than variety which suits some students perfectly, but not others. The importance of autonomy, purpose and mastery are outlined by Dan Pink:

Stimulation – The need for variety, the unknown, change, new stimuli.

Variety is the spice of life, but if there are no elements of certainty present, also potentially a source of stress.  We all need variety in order not to get bored.  However many high achieving students, particularly those who have sussed the system and have no real interest in the learning, simply the exam performance, do not want variety – “can you just teach it to us”.  These are often the Type 1 Gifted and Talented outlined here  On the other hand those sparky and potential troublesome students need variety to keep them interested as they are not motivated purely by exam performance.

Variety people tend to be thrill seeking, now orientated beings not great at long term planning . 

Stimulation is also about growth and improvement.

Variety driven teachers tend to be more chaotic than the certainty driven ones; more likely to take risks and try new ideas.  They are usually the ones we remember from our own school days; they can be inspiring, shocking or a mixture of both.  The rise of spreadsheet management and the homogenising of the teaching profession into OFSTED pleasing performers has been disastrous for many of these impulsive teachers not bound by the rules.

Identity – A sense of self and a place in the community

We need to feel significant: that we have an identity and that we are valuable.  This can be either as an individual or as a  part of a group – proudly being a member of form 4C, or a goth, a gang member, one of a sports team.  Your status may be completely different depending on your environment and the group you are in at the time. Ali who is captain of the rugby team is a god outside your maths classroom and a mass of insecurities in it as he’s horrified he might appear dumb. Chloe the orange girl with the make up and short skirt is queen of her gang and when she is in her form group she is a terrifying. She is a terrorist in Mr Perkins’ science class, but a pussycat in Ms Anichebes’ who knows her very well.

It is important that any school promotes a strong sense of shared and inclusive community and values all students.  Otherwise competing group identities with a strong attraction – You can be one of the bad boys/girls with an expectation that you cause trouble. Gang culture can be very persuasive because you can be a ‘nothing’ in the classroom, but a big deal out of it.

In the classroom the quiet ones are sometimes the missed ones, the ones almost without an in class identity because the teacher doesn’t make any time for them.  In challenging classrooms these hidden students who keep their heads down to prevent being targeted, often feel they have no value and leave school with little sense of self-worth.  Our education system has failed these students but we often didn’t notice (I feel a sense of guilt looking back about some).

Introverts are often underestimated and extroverts overestimated.

Extra curricular trips and clubs are fantastic opportunities for building relationships and learning the identities of those students. These should be promoted as much as possible, but these are in decline within the state sector.

Research indicates that eating together has incredibly positive effects, so this clearly should be a priority; sadly in many schools lunchtimes have been reduced to a brief functional eating activity.

There is strong evidence that when people feel anonymous and not part of a community, that their behaviour deteriorates.  An interesting study on the Lucifer Effect is here with a summary below.

I believe that environmental, societal conditions contribute to making some members of society feel that they are anonymous, that no one in the dominant community knows who they are, that no one recognises their individuality and thus their humanity. When that happens, we contribute to their transformation into potential vandals and assassins–a danger to my person and my property — and to yours. This is particularly so for minority group members who are rendered as “invisible men and women” by the prejudiced attitudes of “in group” members.

Can we change it?

gandhi shake world

If we really want to we can

Comments welcome

Transforming PE teaching with Science and Digital Technology

I recently watched a PE lesson that was the final grading of students doing triple jump. There were 28 students standing around whilst 1 did the jump. The PE teacher stood next to the pit with a clipboard and a tick box assessment sheet that he rapidly ticked as the student jumped. As the student left the pit he gave them their sheet as well as the initial assessment sheet when they first from six weeks before so they could see their progress.

When I interviewed the students they really had little idea of what a good triple jump looked like and even less about what they needed to do to improve or how they had improved  This is not a criticism of the teacher, it is a problem inherent in an activity where without technology you can only give verbal feedback to a practical movement that is over in a matter of seconds and the student cant see for themselves what is happening. How can we transform PE and take it to new levels for improving and tracking performance as well as our understanding how the laws of physics can be applied to analyse everything we do.

Technology has had little impact on teaching PE in the past. Interactive whiteboards can do some clever things but how many teachers use them to their full potential?  In looking at the SAMR model very little reaches the redefinition level



Video cameras improved the ability to offer valuable feedback but were bulky, had limited battery life and finding relevant bits on the tape severely limited their practical use. I remember being so excited the first time I saw the original  Dartfish in operation. This was technology that could in theory revolutionise practice, but in reality was such a pain to set up, use, download and analyse –  A quick cost-benefit analysis showed the negatives outweighed the positives.

Smaller better video cameras in phones / tablets and GoPros are revolutionising feedback allowing instant playback, editing and exports, These allow us unparalleled opportunities to improve the performance of our students  free from the shackles of wifi. When I used a waterproof camera to help teach rolling in a kayak, allowing the students to see what they were doing and correct errors, it halved the time it took them to learn.

Technology can be used to improve performance, track progress and also to create Personal Learning Networks so you are no longer working alone but are part of a collaborative global team sharing ideas and resources

A very simple idea to transform learning

Delay apps (VideoDelay )  that simply play back a video at a set time (for example 10 seconds)  after the event allow students to see themselves performing activities and get instant feedback from the teacher.  A tripod stand can be purchased cheaply hence a tiny effort from the teacher can have a huge impact on the learning – technology that really adds to learning. One thing to consider though is that these apps do not record so there is no evidence of your feedback. 

A video delay app

Video editing

The next stage is to use a video editing app such as iMovie. Its important that students do not submit unedited videos to you otherwise you will spend hours trawling through tedious clips of them goofing about. iMovie allows editing, voiceovers, sound effects , slow motion, subtitling and more. It truly is a stunning app. It also allows very polished trailers to be produced with little effort. Ideal for sports tours or events. 

The latest IOS8 update also allows you to split screen or  embed a video within another one  a useful tutorial is here 


Many schools have set up their own YouTube accounts either public or private. Youtube now has online tools for editing , deleting parts of video, enhancements etc, but also annotations – students can add speech bubbles and also subtitles

The next level up is to compare and annotate performance

Comparison apps such as Coaches Eye, Ubersense and Coach My Video allow us to show a student instantly how they compare to their peers or an elite performer with sophisticated measuring tools and frame by frame playback. An iPhone 6 plus has superb slow video capabilities and may be the best compromise between size and power. I still find Apple devices have the edge for video production and iMovie is a killer app.  Possibly more importantly these work effectively and easily on most mobile devices. Students can now get instant feedback, can evaluate themselves and their peers.

Tracking Progress

It can be massively inefficient having to open lots of youtube links or open videos on your camera roll. Apps such as Showbie are ideal for creating a true Assessment for Learning system where the student can upload a video, you can comment and mark it and then they can respond to your marking. A true dialogue between you and your students and perfect for showing progression

Apps like iDoceo 3 allow you to take a register, mark students as late/medical notes/ non participants etc but also now allows you to add videos of them or you recording audio notes – Check out the link here


This is a must. Ideal for rapid communication with parents about fixtures  (and late changes) but more importantly joining the global community of PE teachers. The problem is finding useful people to follow. If you find @natkin on twitter and look at my lists there is a PE tweachers list who are the ones I’d recommend you follow. Not shown on the picture, but on the list is the fabulous Mr Robbo the PEgeek 

pe twitter


Create your own Digital filing cabinet of resources by capturing and storing what is already out there.

You can steal mine here

Adding Literacy to PE

Apps such as Wordfoto (tagxedo on a computer )  allow students to create images made up of words or Tag Cloud (Wordle on a computer ) which allows them to create word clouds . The larger  the word the more often it came up which allows you to analyse the vocabulary

wordfoto tennis

There is a great link here for more ideas

Adding Numeracy to PE

A nice app to do this is Dartfish Easy Tag . This allows you to set up panels that can be customised so that when you tap it it records an event such as a pass in rugby, a dropped pass, moving forward etc. This sends an email with all the data to be analysed – so matches can be compared . Individual players performance assessed etc.


Going back to the Triple Jump PE lesson at the start of this blog – How could we transform that lesson using technology?

The Science behind sport (This is different to sports science!)

Can you answer these questions?

How can you throw a ball further without throwing it harder?

Why when you kick a football does it go much further if its rolling slowly  towards you than if its static?

Why do surfers need to paddle to catch a wave?

What does a tablecloth pull have to do with tennis?

How can you bend a ball like Beckham?

Why do rugby players spin the ball when they throw it?

Why does an ice skater speed up when they put their arms in?

Having recently finished a project with Arsenal for the Institute of Physics which will be presented at the Association of Science Educators International Conference in January and having developed  the science of surfing  and slacklining its time to take these ideas into the mainstream.

All sports performers are scientists, they understand the nature of physics and how forces affect motion. What few of them can do is explain why what they do works in standardised form that others can understand.

Enter the physicist, but with a different approach. Instead of starting from first principles about forces I take what you know works and enable you to understand how it relates to the real world.

Learning a new skill such as a new skateboard trick follows a scientific method

Plan what you want to do

Research it

Risk assess possible injuries (normally done very badly)

Try it out

Evaluate what you have done with feedback from others

This is often the purest science that goes on in schools with science lessons being about how to pass exams rather than any real discovery.

Once students can understand scientific processes and how they relate to sport they can start applying them to all areas and hence improve performance. If you get centre of mass then in football you can tackle stronger, turn faster and jump higher and for longer.

If you understand that the longer a force is in contact with an object the greater the change in motion of that object (impulse) – hence why we follow through when hitting or kicking objects – then we can understand how to hit and kick more effectively.

If we also understand that 45 degrees is about the optimum angle to give maximum range then we can throw and kick further without hitting or kicking harder.

Combining impulse and understanding range we can then understand why when there is a back wind we kick above 45 degrees as this increases the time the ball is in the air, hence the force acts for longer so has a bigger change on the balls motion. If there is a headwind …. ?

When we can understand why we throw/ hit / kick and tackle the way we do, then we are on course for a lifetime of having the tools needed to constantly review and improve.

Science also has a part to play in looking at every aspect of sport.  Gymnastics is pure applied physics, understanding the principles and the moves start to make more sense. How many teachers really understand why a rotating ice skater speeds up when they pull their arms closer to their body

We can prepare our students to answer the questions – using terms like “they reduce their moment of inertia” – but what does that really mean? If they don’t know they have no chance of using the concepts to help them elsewhere.

I will be organising a series of conference workshops to deliver the Technology and the Science aspects if you are interested on being on the mailing list please contact me using the email link at the top of this page 

Please feel free to add more ideas/links etc using the comments below

A fair education system – Is it possible? Reducing the Poverty Gap

Where are we at in the UK now? Does this look equitable ?

brill stats

The Brilliant Club here  show these really stark statistics that highlight the extreme disadvantage of those on free school meals. 

In my teaching career I have taught in some of the most challenging schools on the planet. In my role as a consultant I still regularly teach across the board from outstanding to failing.  What I have found that in many of the highest achieving schools that the students are merely compliant , they do what you tell them, but often are not very engaged in the subject, simply just wanting the top exam grade as efficiently as possible. In some of these schools the students struggle to tell me what they are thinking – apparently fearful of getting the ‘wrong’ answer. (some high achieving girl’s schools are particularly bad) These students have a learned dependence and need the teacher to be their guide at all times. They can be ‘failure avoiders’, paralysed by fear when challenged but can still perform very well at exams as they have learned how to effectively decode exam papers. This is enough for many of them to get into top universities but is not a great preparation for life. Some of these high achieving schools do a magnificent job so this is not a pop at high achieving schools in general.

By contrast in some very challenging schools the students are only compliant when they are engaged (or entertained which is a completely different thing) .  Often they can be very sparky and intelligent students, but they have no concept of studying beyond the compulsory age. Evidence suggests that this is particularly prevalent in 11-16 schools where far less students carry on to higher level qualifications.  I grew up with teacher parents and an expectation of going to university, if school doesn’t trigger these possibilities for our students, no one else will.  Some schools have embedded a culture of talking about how what they are learning will help them at college to facilitate this and there is evidence that this can be effective.  These schools tend to be in areas of social deprivation and can have a deeply embedded anti-learning culture in the local communities. This lack of societal diversity in schools can lead to ‘sink’ schools. This was the case in one I taught in which was seen as the school that you wouldn’t choose to go to. House prices around the more popular schools were artificially inflated and so there was an intake primarily from the local estate.

The school was constantly in and out of failing status, there was poor behaviour in many lessons and a lack of attendance at parents evenings. You often hear that in these communities that the parents don’t care. That certainly wasn’t my experience, most parents I encountered cared deeply, but many lacked the expertise to deal with their offsprings challenging behaviour at home and were embarrassed to go to school to hear of more problems. Not going to school was a defence mechanism rather than a lack of concern.

Taken from a recent report from  Demos

“ Harnessing what works in eliminating educational disadvantage…”

The school mix

There is disproportionate clustering of students within schools in terms of their personal characteristics, such as family income and ethnic origin. Clustering students with similar backgrounds in schools tends to strengthen social reproduction over generations because students in segregated poorer schools can receive poorer instruction at school, less qualified teachers, substandard resources and facilities, and generally poorer local services. These disadvantages feed on each other and perpetuate problems.

Segregation by poverty tends to depress the scores of the already disadvantaged, and so increase the poverty gap in attainment. 

 I taught at a school that for generations had the reputation as the school you wouldn’t choose to send your kids to. Constant name changes and ‘fresh starts’  did nothing to change the culture of the school as the demographic remained the same. My first visit to the school the taxi driver told me “you dont want to go there mate, it’s well rough!” In morning briefing the 

This particular school had a fascinating culture, the toughest students and at one time the best staff I have ever worked with. It was a school where you could enter the staffroom at breaktime in a deep despair and emerge fifteen minutes later laughing.  Despair often followed, but also those moments of elation , where you walked out of the classroom knowing you had nailed it and that being a teacher was the best job in the world. The misplaced feeling that you had now got it sussed was often quickly dissipated.

As a newly qualified Mountainbike Leader I took my students on a ride out from the school. The bikes they turned up on were mostly  dodgy with no front brakes – “Front brakes are dangerous, they throw you over the handlebars” . An exception was  very new and shiny Cannondale that the owner almost certainly didnt have receipts for. Eventually I’d fixed the bikes up to a level that was just below death trap and we set off. I watched in horror when I said to go out of the school and turn left assuming they would use the cycle lane , but they all set off on the pavement, narrowly missing a frail little old lady. I took the front to take them through the estate and hence didnt see one of our year 11 students come out of a house  and punch Lee, knocking him off his bike and riding off on it. Lee then ran away so I had lost him and his bike within 10 minutes of setting off. I also hadnt included mugging as a potential hazard on my risk assessment. I phoned Lee’s parents in trepidation, but they seemed completely unfazed.  Eventually we got out and had a great time. On returning the students were saying ‘that was great, when can we go out again?’ What they didnt see was that they could go out any time they wanted. There was a self imposed barrier to them accessing what was on their doorstep. Interviewing the year 11 mugger later I asked him what was going on

“I sold him the bike for a tenner and he hadnt paid me so I was getting it back’

“Where did you get the bike from?

‘Well I nicked it, but he didnt pay me for it…’

Nothing I could do could convince him that he wasnt the owner of the bike. This warped moral compass was fairly widespread. One time some of our students had attacked a couple walking home, the man, a barrister, had fallen and banged his head and went into a coma. The overwhelming feeling in my form class was that the attackers were unlucky that the injury had been so severe .. deeply embedded cultural values.

These are the experiences of three very different ex-students of mine from this school.

The quiet one

(School name removed)  was a very difficult environment to learn in. Many of the teachers had little control over the pupils as a lot of my classmates just did not want to learn and were extremely disrespectful. I really think they had their work cut out for them! As a naturally shy child I found it easier to just ‘disappear’ and become invisible as a lot of the time in the classroom the other kids would bully anyone who actually wanted to learn. Often we were unable to have proper, structured lessons anyway.  Because I was so quiet and did not speak out in class (and was very rarely, if ever, encouraged to speak out) it made it hard for me later in life to voice my opinion in college and in work, as I had 4 years of being silent, so this is something I have really had to force myself to do.

I found that there a couple of teachers there who really stood out for me and if it wasn’t for those few who really were able to control the class and were passionate about their subject, it would have been an even bigger struggle. I was also very lucky that I made a good group of friends who also wanted to learn so they were a very good influence on me.

For me, the school was quite a traumatic and hostile place to be in and all I ever wanted was to escape from there. Maybe this is why I have travelled the world so much and wanted to better myself constantly since I have left so perhaps it’s been good for me in some ways. I think if I had been in an environment though where I was better able to learn, then I possibly could have got better GCSE and A level results and gone on to university. As this is something I did not do as I had no belief that I was clever enough to do this.

The transformed one

I used to muck about at school, in the lessons they used to keep changing the group of people I was with so there was always someone new to talk to. If they had kept us in the same groups I’d have got bored and maybe done some more work. My parents had split up and didn’t really do anything to make me feel that school was important. A turning point came for me when I went on a snowboard trip to Italy that I paid for from my paper round money. It made me realise that there were other ways of living your life other than on the estate. I wanted out so started working harder. Many of my teachers struggled to control the classes, but a few really took an interest and seemed to care. I did ok in my GCSEs then stayed on at school for 6th form.  A couple of teachers persuaded me to try to get to uni and now I have a degree. I think the school taught me that nothing comes to you unless you make it happen yourself.

A life transformed by one school trip, this is impossible to measure and sadly school trips are on the wane. A 2010 report from MPs, Transforming Education Outside the Classroom, found that there was a risk that school trips were becoming the preserve of private school children.

What can be done?

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is the national voice for learning outside the classroom. We believe that every young person (0-19yrs) should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances


The NCETM has ideas for learning maths outside the classroom here

The truant

School always seemed to me to be a place to have a laugh with your mates. A few lessons were interesting , but most were really boring and seemed to have no relevance to my life. My uncle gave me a job labouring for him when I was 14 so I stopped going to school and most teachers didn’t seem to care, but one didn’t give up on me and I got an A level. I got excluded a few times for fighting , but you had to stand up for yourself. 

My experience of the school is that those who came out of it well came out of it very well indeed,  with huge resilience and self – motivation. Sadly for most of the students they were failed by the education system that was a post code lottery.

So what can be done?

Can we change their mindset?

The work of Carole Dweck and her Growth Mindset is very persuasive


Geoff Petty has written an interesting article  here

I quote

Dweck divides students into two types, based on the student’s own theory about their own ability.

Fixed IQ theorists: These students believe that their ability is fixed, probably at birth, and there is very little if anything they can do to improve it. They believe ability comes from talent rather than from the slow development of skills through learning. “It’s all in the genes”. Either you can do it with little effort, or you will never be able to do it, so you might as well give up in the face of difficulty. E.g. “ I can’t do maths”.

Untapped Potential theorists : These students believe that ability and success are due to learning, and learning requires time and effort. In the case of difficulty one must try harder, try another approach, or seek help etc.

About 15% of students are in the middle, the rest are equally divided between the two theories. Surprisingly there is no correlation between success at school and the theory the student holds. Differences in performance only show when the student is challenged or is facing difficulty , for example when a student moves from school to college. Then research has shown that the ‘Untapped Potential Theorists’ do very much better, as one might expect.

It is possible to move students from the Fixed IQ theory to the Untapped Potential theory. However, the research which shows that this can be done, is not at all detailed about how exactly! It’s a matter of persuasion of course.

Many teachers, myself included, thought that “it’s obvious” that learning is worth the effort and can produce improvement. But almost half of our students at every level, do not share this view. The challenge to change their view will be well rewarded.

Why bother with Dweck? A recent review of research by Hattie, Biggs and Purdie into the effectiveness of Study Skills programmes found that the programmes that had the greatest effect focussed on the ‘attribution’ by students of what affected their learning – this is precisely Dweck’s focus. Whether students attribute their success to something they can change or to something they can’t is immensely influential, and this attribution can be changed. The effect sizes found by Hattie et al showed that work on attribution can improve a student’s performance by between two and three grades!

Dylan Wiliam says

“Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and that their personalities do not determine whether or not they are “good at math” or “good at writing.” Rather, ability is incremental. The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

As a counterpoint to some who are approaching the work of Dweck with a simplistic and near religious zeal Disappointed Idealist has an interesting blog.

Her Summary

The above (Dylan William ) quote is wrong, and so is the notion of “Talent = hard work + persistence”

Dweck’s careful research is metamorphosing in the hands of others into a vacuous slogan

Ability, or talent, is significantly constrained by factors external to the student

These disadvantages cannot always be overcome

An education system which refuses to recognise these disadvantages punishes children, teachers and schools unjustly

The “Talent = hard work + persistence” version of the growth mindset is very useful for sociopaths

“Growth Mindset” is potentially the next “learning styles” or “progress in each lesson” fad

I have a bucket of penguin-regurgitated fish dinners waiting for any teacher who tells my children they only failed because they didn’t try hard enough, and for any head who uses the growth mindset to avoid providing the additional assistance they need

Other factors affecting those living in Poverty

Research indicates that other factors also influence brain plasticity including rate of maturation, hormones, diet, disease, medication, drugs and stress. This is a view of learning from a psychological or scientific perspective.

Educational disadvantage thought of in this way is a lack of stimulation and experience, and this can, at least to some extent, be remediated or compensated for by intervening to provide these experiences as early as possible or, if necessary, by providing them for older children, while the brain is still able to respond. Educational disadvantage differs from the variation in an individual’s physiology, outlined above, in that we can at least attempt to intervene to level the playing field by providing early intervention and targeted support. From the point of view of brain development, the earlier the better.

A food tech teacher friend was saying that her poorer students cant afford all the ingredients and as some of the grades are for appearance they are disadvantaged. One of my ex students still feels the guilt at stealing dye from Woolworths for an art project as she had no money. There are so many unheard stories that contribute to educational disadvantage.

Should we make reducing the Poverty Gap a priority?

Successive governments have repeated the vote- catching mantra of “closing the poverty gap” , “Every Child Matters (though if you are on the C/D grade boundary you may matter more than others ) or “No child left behind”

The problem is the gap isn’t getting any smaller, in fact in Britain last year it widened. This is clearly a complex issue.

data gap

How about making all schools better?

You would think this would crack the problem , but it appears that the poverty gap remains stubbornly similar (or even greater ) despite how good the schools are. The free school meal students do better in good schools, than in poorer ones, but the gap remains the same or greater between them and their wealthier peers .

poor children gcse

Countries with more equitable societies and schools (eg Finland ) do not suffer as much from this phenomenon of less bright rich kids outperforming clever poor kids. Improving schools per se seems to have less effect than making schools more comprehensive. Reflecting the mix of our society rather than the inequalities. There seems to be no silver bullet of certain types of schools being better than others. Research cannot give us a simple set of measures that schools can put in place to reduce this poverty gap. Some schools have removed it completely, but there are no common patterns emerging.

What about making teachers better?

Performance related Pay aims to reward the highest performers, but how can we know what are the best teachers?  All too often simplistic measures are used with spreadsheet accounting. A totally different skill  set is needed to improve the results of a class with a critical mass of students with behaviour issues and anti learning culture than those who are desperate to succeed. In some schools you can only achieve success by inspiring the students

From Demos

However, actually identifying differentially effective teachers is not easy. Confounding factors include the background, prior experiences and initial talent of the students,the variability between alternative measures of attainment such as examining body, year, syllabus, region, mode of examination and subject, and the inconvenient fact that most students are taught by more than one teacher, perhaps including those outside the school system such as family, peers and tutors. When assessing the impact of teachers on student attainment, the propagation of initial error (as above) and the stratified nature of the confounding variables faced are such that no teacher ‘effect’ can be safely attributed.

Again no silver bullet here. The range of variables are so massive that we cant identify the best teachers to reduce the poverty gap on external markers alone. There seems to be no description of the best teachers, because of the complexity and variation of humanity.Tutors are a factor that cant be measured and will skew results making a lot of research meaningless.  One survey suggested that 31 per cent of children from better off families receive private tuition, compared with 15 per cent from poorer families. So a poor teacher can appear to do well if the students have good tutors.  

However the measured teacher effect is massive to the lower achievers.

A more promising avenue may be to focus on teachers. The performance of teachers is much more varied than that of schools, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately affected by the quality of teaching they receive. For pupils from poorer backgrounds, a very effective teacher enables them to make 1.5 years’ progress in one year; with a poorly performing teacher they make only half a year’s progress over the same time. By contrast, ‘average’ students make a year’s progress with poor teaching and 1.4 years’ progress with highly effective teaching.

We should place more emphasis on ensuring that highly effective teachers are teaching children from low income backgrounds.

Although clearly the best teachers have a huge impact, again like the schools there seems to be no clear description of what they do. We only know they are effective when we see their results. Although we cant identify the key features that make these teachers very effective when we find them we should use them. In my experience these are teachers who genuinely car, have a passion for their subject, understand where their students are coming from, but take no excuses for underperformance.

How about working on changing parental attitudes and expectations ?

Surely this will be effective

There is very little evidence that educational outcomes for disadvantaged families will be fundamentally affected by changing parenting styles, raising parental expectations, or

enhancing parental involvement.24 They are not important causes of low attainment, or of under-representation in post compulsory education. A fundamental problem lies in the fact

that parental involvement requires voluntary activity. Programmes to promote involvement do not seem to be effective for the most disadvantaged families; indeed such programmes may even widen the gap in attainment.

We seem to have a catch 22 here in that the parents we want to engage with the schemes are the ones who don’t engage. Schemes to improve adult literacy are notoriously hard to implement 

What about improving behaviour?

This is something that is essential in schools where the behaviour of some students impacts negatively on others. Streaming by ability can make these issues far worse. Behavioural problems are often associated with the lower set classes containing under performing students who see school as entertainment as opposed to an investment for the rest of their life. Perversely those students who most need good quality instruction and teaching are less likely to get it. This was the case of the ‘quiet one’ pupil who effectively disengaged with education to protect herself. I suspect the reason the classes with a poor teacher makes such little progress with the lower attainers comes mainly down to their inability to actually teach due to disruption. These same teachers may perform well in classes which are naturally compliant.

What do teachers feel the problems are with behaviour?


Disturbing other children (38%)

Calling out (35%)

Not getting on with work (31%)

Fidgeting or fiddling with equipment (23%)

Not having the correct equipment (19%)

Purposely making noise to gain attention (19%)

Answering back or questioning instructions (14%)

Using mobile devices (11%)

Swinging on chairs (11%).

Source: Poll conducted by YouGov for Ofsted

What works according to OFSTED?

OFSTED – Successful practice in spending Pupil Premium

1 Where schools spent the Pupil Premium funding successfully to improve achievement, they shared many of the following characteristics. They:

Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels

Thoroughly analysed which pupils were underachieving, particularly in English and mathematics, and why

Drew on research evidence (such as the Sutton Trust toolkit4) and evidence from their own and others’ experience to allocate the funding to the activities that were most likely to have an impact on improving achievement

Understood the importance of ensuring that all dayto-day teaching meets the needs of each learner, rather than relying on interventions to compensate for teaching that is less than good

Allocated their best teachers to teach intervention groups to improve mathematics and English, or

Employed new teachers who had a good track record in raising attainment in those subjects

Used achievement data frequently to check whether interventions or techniques were working and made adjustments accordingly, rather than just using the data retrospectively to see if something had worked

Made sure that support staff, particularly teaching assistants, were highly trained and understood their role in helping pupils to achieve

Systematically focused on giving pupils clear, useful feedback about their work, and ways that they could  improve it

Ensured that a designated senior leader had a clear overview of how the funding was being allocated and the difference it was making to the outcomes for pupils

Ensured that class and subject teachers knew which pupils were eligible for the Pupil Premium so that they could take responsibility for accelerating their progress

Had a clear policy on spending the Pupil Premium,agreed by governors and publicised on the school website

Provided well-targeted support to improve attendance,behaviour or links with families where these were barriers to a pupil’s learning

Had a clear and robust performance management system for all staff, and included discussions about pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium in performance management meetings

Thoroughly involved governors in the decision making and evaluation process

Were able, through careful monitoring and evaluation,to demonstrate the impact of each aspect of their spending on the outcomes for pupils.

Impact of Arts 

Some very encouraging statistics from the Cultural Learning Alliance


Learning through arts and culture improves attainment in all subjects

Taking part in drama and library activities improves attainment in literacy

Taking part in structured music activities improves attainment in maths, early language acquisition and early literacy

Schools that integrate arts across the curriculum in America have shown consistently higher average reading and mathematics scores compared to similar schools that do not

UK evidence shows that studying arts subjects increases confidence and motivation – things that equip pupils to learn. A systematic review of international evidence found that participating in structured arts activities led to increases in transferrable skills (including confidence and communication) of between 10-17%(1).  The Right to Read programme reported increases in social skills and self esteem(2). In the US, large cohort studies of 25,000 students done by James Catterall show that taking part in arts activities increases student attainment in maths and literacy, with particularly striking results for students from low income families(3).

“Our analysis of the NELS:88 survey established, for the first time in any comprehensive way, that students involved in the arts are demonstrably doing better in school than those who are not” Catterall, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, 2009

For example at age 16 41% of students from low income families who engage in the arts score in the top two quartiles of standard academic tests compared to 25% of students from the same backgrounds who do not(4). Other studies echo these results with Ruppert finding that students who take arts classes have higher math and verbal SAT scores than students who take no arts classes(5).

Research shows specific art forms have specific benefits, for example studies have shown that high levels of involvement in instrumental music result in significantly higher maths proficiency. Taking part in drama results in gains in reading proficiency, motivation and empathy for others. Young people using libraries read above the expected level for their age, young people who don’t read below the expected level(6).

In Summary 

The poverty gap is very real and a terrible indictment of our society.  Research seems to give us very little insight into how to close the poverty gap within the current school system. The key factor seems to be a more equitable society and a fairer education system but there is little sign of that happening. What is perhaps most worrying is that there is little consensus on what factors make for effective schools, or individual teachers.

In my experience the teachers who are most effective at teaching those in the poverty gap have the following features;

They have a passion for their subject

They genuinely care about the students and want to understand them

They dont take themselves too seriously and can laugh

They can engage their students rather than just make them compliant.

They are not afraid to give of themselves and can use their intuition

They build relationships based on respect

Useful Blogs

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Living and Learning in Poverty

Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

Teacher Toolkit

How to improve the quality of teacher development?

Ten essays,-cognition-and-creativity/education/teachers-and-teacher-education/licensed-to-create-ten-essays-on-improving-teacher-quality 

Some ideas by Tom Sherrington here

Getting the kids to ask why?  from Sarah Findlater