Is there something more important than our teaching style?

Knowing what they know (or think they know) before teaching them

There is a huge debate, and rightly so, about pedagogical approaches – traditional vs progressive etc.  We all want what is best for our young people, but why are the views so entrenched? Why is there so little consensus that there may be value in both sides of the argument?

In the ‘The Righteous Mind’ Jonathan Haidt argues that we are not reasonable rational people, instead we follow our emotions then look to justify our actions or thoughts. 

An extract from the NY Times review full article here 

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

I’m not going to jump into the pedagogical debate, other than to say that in science teaching I believe there is a place for direct instruction and a place for experimental learning leading to discovery. But fundamentally if we don’t take the student’s starting point into account, neither will lead to effective learning

Science, particularly physics, is a challenging subject to teach, not because the concepts are that difficult, but because students come into our lessons with a set of beliefs about how the world works, most of which, unfortunately, are wrong.

If Haidt’s arguments are correct, and there is as in all of these things considerable dispute, its not enough to change someones belief system simply with a rational argument. How often do we see peoples views changed in debates? 

“Thats a very good point I hadn’t thought of that, I was wrong” is not something we hear, if anything views become more entrenched when challenged.

This becomes a particular issue when when trying to teach concepts that seem to defy what we believe.

An example 

Monkey and the hunter

A hunter spies a monkey in a tree, takes aim, and fires. At the moment the bullet leaves the gun the monkey lets go of the tree branch and drops straight down. How should the hunter aim to hit the monkey?

1.Aim directly at the monkey

2.Aim high (over the monkey’s head)

3.Aim low (below the monkey)


With my students I get them to put their left hand up if they think 1, both

hands for 2 and right hand for 3. Then if there is a disagreement they find

someone with their hands in a different position to themselves and argue.

At this point I only listen

Most people choose the third choice – Aim below the monkey as this

seems to make sense “I’m shooting something that is falling so I need to

aim under it.

However the answer is 1 – Aim directly at the monkey 

The reason for this is that both are falling at the same rate due to gravity. It

doesn’t seem to make sense. A bullet fired horizontally and one

simultaneously dropped from the same height hit the ground at the same

time. This is counterintuitive so the only way to convince people is to

demonstrate it.

full explanation here

Another example

Touch the metal of a chair leg and the plastic of the chair. Are they different temperatures?

Again the vast majority of students will say yes. They feel different so they must be different.

A massive misconception that needs to be addressed before we teach heat transfer (Ideas on teaching heat transfer here ) so stick some thermometers on them and prove it

Then give this example

I’m putting some ice cubes on a metal and a plastic lid. Which will melt faster? The ‘metal is colder’ people will not be able to explain the result using their belief system.

We are looking at bringing our students into conscious competence, from wherever they may have been before. If we don’t know what they knew, we are in danger of simply adding to misconceptions.


All too often though we can simply bring them from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – Is this progress? Is it an inevitable part of learning? 

I have had some lessons like this where the students came in thinking they knew something and left knowing they didn’t get it. This isn’t a problem unless you dont follow it up thoroughly 

So how do we know what they know?

Without using technology give them a post it note and ask them to write what they think. Some students I taught in a  very high achieving school struggled with this asking me if they could look it up or ask someone else – ‘I don’t want the right answer I want to know what you think!’ 

In the example below I was teaching a one off lesson to a year 10 class and I wanted to know what they thought happened when you switched a light bulb on. 

The students wrote their ideas on the post it note then stuck it on one of the confidence windows labelled high med and low.

Most of the students were low to medium with a couple putting high. One of the high confidence ones had a vey poor understanding and this is the most dangerous combination.

For student A she had in her head that there were positive electrons (as opposed to positive electrodes) so she thought she heard me say positive electrons. The marks you see are from a buddy who did a pre flight checklist from Dylan Wiliam outlined  here. You can see that the buddy hasn’t tried to get her to change her mind and hands it in not corrected.

Student A

Id be interested if anyone has any other comments – please add to the blog post

For physics teachers 

The format of this lesson was find out what they know on a post it note. Use it to inform your lesson planning.

Show them the big circuit which has a two bulbs connected in parallel one has a very long loop and the other a very short loop . Will the bulbs light at the same time? 

Yes they do! How can that be?  the electrons move very slowly through the wires.

This leads into the rope model that explains how this can happen.

Discuss other concepts

Students get their post it notes and stick them into their books 

What do you know now? A great way of showing progress!

Teaching electricity an interesting Prezi from the great Jon Clarke here

with reference to the Institute of Physics  SPT materials here 

Is it different for boys?

There is much talk of a boy crisis and the redundant male,
A quick search on google  pulls out these statements.
Boys are underachieving
Boys need to understand the purpose of what they are doing
Boys have an anti-school attitude and a laddish culture
Boys like competition
There are not enough role model male teachers for boys
Boys don’t like reading
Teachers have lower expectations of boys work
Boys need more active learning styles
Boys overestimate their own ability
Boys are more disruptive than girls
Boys are more likely to have autistic spectrum disorders
Boys suffer from more mental health issues

Generalisations can lead to stereotyping at best unhelpful and often conceal more than they reveal. This is not a simplistic problem and there is a lot of evidence that the more gender considerations are applied , the worse things get.

The first thing that has to be said is that boys are not a homogeneous group with a single set of issues. What we really need to look for is which boys have the problem and ensure that by improving the performance of boys we don’t adversely affect the performance of girls or those boys who are already performing well.

As a parent with a daughter and three sons my feeling is that my boys show a far greater difference between each other than the gender differences they have with their sister. They act in certain ways because of who they are rather than because they are boys.

All of the statements have a degree of truth if we add some in front of the word boys. Many boys show none of these traits and are very successful. On leaving school the gender inequality in boardrooms is still massively weighted towards males. A mere 4.6% of the CEOs of the Fortune 1000 companies are female. here

Let’s look at these points one at a time

Boys are underachieving

IQs have been increasing at about 3 points every 10 years but whether our kids are any smarter is not so clear as outlined here 

The performance of boys and girls has improved on a yearly basis. However whether this is a real improvement or more to do with the way assessments are carried out again is not entirely clear. What is without doubt that on average boys are not improving at the same rate as girls. Certain groups of boys are faring far worse than the average boy.

Reports such as the ones below outline what researchers believe is happening. Though there seem to be few acknowledged truths.

Too Cool for School here

Raising Boys Achievement here

its a Global problem UNICEF report here

Boys need to understand the purpose of what they are doing

There is research that supports this West (2005) as a generalisation boys prefer to have writing tasks with a clear purpose rather than writing for the sake of it.
There is also sometimes a mismatch between the teachers perception and the boys, with teachers thinking boys taking notes are engaged, the boys thinking that they are wasting their time.

I have found that all students prefer to clearly understand the point of what they are doing. Girls often seem to have a greater motivation to please the teacher – Something I have found when talking to teachers of high achieving girls is that they can be desperate to get the right answer and do the right thing.


Boys have an anti-school attitude and a laddish culture

Many boys manage to be one if the lads and still be successful, but for others they need to conform to their peers. If the system is perceived to have little value to them many boys preserve their sense of self worth by fighting it. It is far easier to fit into an cultural norms than it is to fight it. I taught at a school with a very deeply embedded anti – learning culture that held most students back. The ones who came through it well have turned into some of the finest young men and women I know with massive resilience and the ability to make things happen.

There was some interesting research in the 70s by Paul Willis which still has some relevance today. He studied a group of 12 working-class boys during their last year and a half in school and their first few months at work. He conducted a series of interviews and observations within a school, with the aim of discovering why ‘working class kids get working class jobs’.

He identified two groups of pupils as the ‘lads’ and the ‘ear ‘oles’.

The ‘lads’ were working class boys who expressed a negative attitude to academic work and also showed strongly racist and sexist attitudes. They tried to drink and smoke to become part of a more adult world and thought that manual work, such as building, was far more important to mental work. Seeing as society is run by capitalism, the lads recognised that there was no such thing as an equal opportunity for them, as no matter how hard they tried, they would still remain far less successful than middle class students. This links to the Marxist idea that there is no meritocracy in a capitalist society.

One of the main motivations for the lad’s rejecting their education would be the ear’oles.

The ear’oles were seen as school conformists by the lads and were the complete opposite to them when it came to academic progress. Ear ‘oles were looked down on by the lads as they were the children who followed the school rules, respected their teachers, and commited to their education. Lads did not just dislike ear’oles, they felt they had superiority over them. This was because the lads believed that the ear’oles were wasting their time at school by not being able to have fun or be independent.

Willis found a number of similarities between the attitudes and behaviour developed by the lads in school and those on a shop floor at work. Having a laugh was important in both situations as a means of dealing with boredom, authority and repetitiveness.

The lads rejected school and mentally prepared themselves for a place in the workforce invariably at manual level. They learned to put up with boredom, had a laugh and to basically accepted the labour of low-skill and low-pay jobs.

Society has changed massively since the 70s but there are certainly elements I have taught within schools of boys looking for entertainment and seeing schools as an environment of hostile authority and meaningless work demands.
Boys like competition

In a study on running here  It was found that competition improved the performance of the boys, but made no real difference to girls

The study builds upon earlier work by the authors and Muriel Niederle of Stanford University, which also showed that competition improves the performance of males more than females, creating a gender gap which does not exist in non-competitive environments.

The earlier study tested responses to a mental rather than physical task. In a lab experiment, men and women were asked to solve simple maze problems on a computer, and were paid according to different criteria. The average age of the participants was twenty-three years old.

When subjects were paid for individual performance, there was no significant gender difference in the results. When subjects were paid on a competitive basis, and only the subject with the best outcome was paid, the performance of the male subjects increased significantly, while that of the female subjects remained constant.

Other studies have found clear losers in a competitive culture and a tendency to give up if success wasn’t instant. Competition should be used carefully.
There are not enough role model male teachers for boys

With a changing workforce that values traditional male strengths less and communication and literacy there are some boys who can’t see a future, nor the point of education.

Male role models are still mainly sports stars and few intellectual pursuits are seen as being cool. Male teachers can show that learning can be a masculine activity. However Male teachers can sometimes reinforce a macho or ‘laddish’ culture and the learning climate can often be characterised by confrontation.

We all know teachers with the traits shown by Brian Glover


There has  been a huge reduction in the number of male teachers from 40% in the 80s to around 25% today . Only 13% of primary teachers being male and a rapid decline in the number of male teachers in secondary school. Some research has found that boys prefer male teachers as they ‘get them’ but other research has found that the gender makes no difference, what matters is the pedagogical approaches and respectful relationships.
What is certain is that we don’t necessarily need more unthinking male teachers, we need more male teachers who model a caring, thoughtful masculinity.

Boys don’t like reading

There is a wealth of research on this that indicates that boys are less inclined to read than girls globally. That may be in part that the type of reading and the types of books are not what many boys find interesting.

The literacy trust report has some recommendations – full report here


Boys’ underachievement in reading is a significant concern for schools across the country. In a National Literacy Trust survey, 76% of UK schools said boys in their school did not do as well in reading as girls. 82% of schools have developed their own strategies to tackle this.
 The issue is deep-seated. Test results consistently show this is
a long-term and international trend. Boys’ attitudes towards reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading and their achievement in literacy are all poorer than those of girls.
 Boys’ underachievement in literacy is not inevitable. It is not simply a result of biological differences; the majority of boys achieve in literacy and are fluent readers.
 The Boys’ Reading Commission has found that boys’ underachievement in reading is associated with the interplay of three factors:
– The home and family environment, where girls are more likely to be bought books and taken to the library, and where mothers are more likely to support and role model reading;
– The school environment, where teachers may have a limited knowledge of contemporary and attractive texts for boys and where boys may not be given the opportunity to develop their identity as a reader through experiencing reading for enjoyment;

- Male gender identities which do not value learning and reading as a mark of success.

The Commission’s Recommendations
1. Schools should have access to an evidence framework to inform effective practice in supporting boys’ reading.
2. Every child should be supported by their school in developing as a reader. Crucially, schools must promote reading for enjoyment and involve parents (overtly fathers) in their reading strategies.
3. Every teacher should have an up-to-date knowledge of reading materials that will appeal to disengaged boys.
4. Parents need access to information on how successful schools are in supporting boys’ literacy.
5. Libraries should target children (particularly boys) who are least likely to be supported in their reading at home.
6. Social marketing and behavioural insight need to be deployed to encourage parents to support the literacy of their children – especially boys.
7. Every boy should have weekly support from a male reading role model.
8. Parenting initiatives must specifically support literacy and fathers.
9. A cross-Government approach to literacy needs to be developed and coordinated.

One of the key issues may well be how reading fits into their idea of masculinity, if reading is considered  feminine then any measure other than male role models is doomed to fail. . This is explored in depth here 

Pic of masculinity
Teachers have lower expectations of boys work

Some studies have found that teachers underestimate boys abilities due to the disorganised nature and poor presentation of work, compounded by weak literacy skills.
There are some great blogs on this by hunting English
Boys need more active learning styles

There was a push to give boys lots of kinaesthetic activities, but there is little, if any, evidence that it improved their performance. However it would be interesting to see if this reduced behavioural issues.
Making a generalisation that I warned about at the start as a science teacher I found that in a practical if boys didn’t know what to do many would just make it up themselves whereas most girls would ask (or do nothing)
Many boys would like to try a task without advice where girls would often prefer to know exactly what to do.


Boys overestimate their own ability

There is evidence for this particularly in maths.
Boys also have a tendency to put success down to luck and being clever, rather than effort.

However Westerners have a tendency to overestimate their ability (unlike eastern cultures ) with something called the superiority illusion full article here

Since psychological studies first began, people have given themselves top marks for most positive traits. While most people do well at assessing others, they are wildly positive about their own abilities, A researcher David Dunning said.

That’s because we realize the external traits and circumstances that guide other people’s actions, “but when it comes to us, we think it’s all about our intention, our effort, our desire, our agency — we think we sort of float above all these kinds of constraints,”

In studies, most people overestimate their IQ. For instance, in a classic 1977 study, 94 percent of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers. In another study, 32 percent of the employees of a software company said they performed better than 19 out of 20 of their colleagues. And Dunning has found that people overestimate how charitable they’ll be in future donation drives, but accurately guess their peers’ donations.

Why the dumb think they are smart

In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University, New York, tested whether people who lack the skills or abilities for something are also more likely to lack awareness of their lack of ability. At the start of their research paper they cite a Pittsburgh bank robber called McArthur Wheeler as an example, who was arrested in 1995 shortly after robbing two banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask or any other kind of disguise. When police showed him the security camera footage, he protested “But I wore the juice”. The hapless criminal believed that if you rubbed your face with lemon juice you would be invisible to security cameras.

Why the not funny think they are funny !

Kruger and Dunning were interested in testing another kind of laughing matter. They asked professional comedians to rate 30 jokes for funniness. Then, 65 undergraduates were asked to rate the jokes too, and then ranked according to how well their judgements matched those of the professionals. They were also asked how well they thought they had done compared to the average person.

As you might expect, most people thought their ability to tell what was funny was above average. The results were, however, most interesting when split according to how well participants performed. Those slightly above average in their ability to rate jokes were highly accurate in their self-assessment, while those who actually did the best tended to think they were only slightly above average. Participants who were least able to judge what was funny (at least according to the professional comics) were also least able to accurately assess their own ability.
Boys are more disruptive than girls

Whatever the truth of this and some argue that schools are set up as havens for girls and prisons for boys the statistics show that boys are nearly 4 times as likely to be excluded than girls according to 2012 findings. here

Extract below

Despite our claims of being an equal society that treats children on their merits, some groups of children are far more likely to be excluded from school than others. These are children who are vulnerable because of who they are, and because of the challenges already present in their lives. They are:
• boys rather than girls;
• children with some types of special needs;
children from some specific ethnic backgrounds, and
• the children of the poor.

To illustrate the impacts on individual children, it is useful to imagine two hypothetical young English people: Jack and Jill. They are the same age, and attend the same school. They have the same rights under the Human Rights Act, and the UNCRC.
• Jack has SEN, assessed at School Action Plus. He is of Black Caribbean background, and lives in a low-income household. He receives free school meals.

  • Jill does not have SEN, is from a White British background, and lives in a more affluent household.

The DfE’s analysis of the data shows Jack is 168 times more likely than Jill to be permanently excluded from school before the age of 16, and 41 times more likely than she is to be excluded for a fixed term. Truly frightening statistics.

Many teachers have a tendency to discipline boys publicly and girls privately and this can cause resentment and inflame tensions.

Boys are more likely to have autistic spectrum disorders

This is indeed true but with a proviso – taken from  here
Autism (including Asperger syndrome) appears to be more common among boys than girls. This could be because of genetic differences between the sexes, or that the criteria used to diagnose autism are based on the characteristics of male behaviour. However, our understanding is far from complete, and this will remain the case until we know more about the causes of autism.

Why are boys far more likely to develop autism than girls?
There is strong evidence to suggest that there are more boys with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) than girls. Brugha (2009) surveyed adults living in households throughout England, and found that 1.8% of males surveyed had an ASD, compared to 0.2% of females.

In epidemiological research Wing (1981) found that among people with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome there were as many as fifteen times as many males as females. On the other hand, when she looked at people with learning difficulties as well as autism the ratio of boys to girls was closer to 2:1. This would suggest that, while females are less likely to develop autism, when they do they are more severely impaired.

It is difficult to explain why the sexes should be affected differently by autism

Attwood (2000), Ehlers and Gillberg (1993) and Wing (1981) have all speculated that many girls with Asperger syndrome are never referred for diagnosis, and so are simply missing from statistics. This might be because the diagnostic criteria for Asperger syndrome are based on the behavioural characteristics of boys, who are often more noticeably “different” or disruptive than girls with the same underlying deficits. Girls with Asperger syndrome may be better at masking their difficulties in order to fit in with their peers, and in general have a more even profile of social skills. Gould and Ashton-Smith (2011) say that because females with ASDs may present differently from males, diagnostic questions should be altered to identify some females with ASDs who might otherwise be missed.

Another hypothesis (Wing 1981) is based on evidence that, in the general population, females have better verbal skills, while males excel in visuo-spatial tasks. There may be a neurological basis for this, so that autism can be interpreted as exaggeration of “normal” sex differences. But environmental and social factors may also play a part in sex differences in ability, which means that no direct analogy can be drawn between the poorer verbal skills of boys and the higher incidence of autism in males.

A couple of useful videos


And this truly amazing video


Boys suffer from more mental health issues

Aged 5-10 boys are almost twice as likely as girls to suffer from mental health problems (10.4% vs 5.9%) but in teenage years this gap narrows (12.8% vs 9.7%) the perception of boys can be that they are tougher than they appear.
Many boys lack the informal support networks that girls have.
Boy culture is often one where mocking is the main form of interaction and compliments rarely are given. If you have a problem you are on your own.

There is an alarming tendency of boys retreating into bedrooms and eschewing social contact. These are typified by the hikikomori in Japan here

Video games addiction is also massively more prevalent amongst boys than girls. The reasons are complex but should be seen as their solution to a problem, rather than the problem itself.
What is clear is that there are no simple solutions. High performing schools with little gender gap have not got in place ‘boy friendly’ curriculums or learning styles. What we need to do about some of our underachieving boys is still not clear, what is obvious is that stereotyping and quick fix solutions won’t make a positive difference.

An interesting read is the Gender and. Education Mythbusters here 

This is simply a draft and Id like to add any more information and blogs to it so please add links in the comments section


Behaviour – beyond compliance – A personal perspective


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.

These are some that I have found useful

The first person who ever seemed to give me stuff that worked was Bill Rogers the ever reliable Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher has a great summary blog here

Tom Bennett @tombennett71 at the TES. 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

Sue Cowley @Sue_Cowley talks a lot of sense and you will find her website here

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 these. But there are 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 subway carriages were covered in graffiti, a clear indication of lawlessness and this was the first priority to fix.


1980s Grafitti

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.

Another example 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. In terms of motivation this is an interesting video by Dan Pink

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.
This is a huge generalisation of a strategy I use for dealing with classes to manage them effectively without simply resorting to compliance.

Starting Lessons

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 – summary here . 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.

A great video that can help change lives is Amy Cuddy

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. We can then go beyond compliance towards a self – regulated class.






10 cool ideas for teaching reflection of light

Different approaches for teaching the reflection of light -Specular vs diffuse Reflection

These ideas are from the Institute of Physics 2014 PIPER conference check out the twitter conversations on #PIPER14. These ideas are stolen from a workshop that combined Institute of Physics TLCs (Teaching and Learning Coaches) and PNCs (Physics Network Coordinators)

When I was teaching I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this, but please do as it has some great ideas in it.


Easy to teach right?

The only diagrams you need are the ones below


However, can your students answer these questions?

If you shine a laser onto the ceiling everyone in the room can see it – why? (diffuse reflection)
If you shine the laser onto a mirror so it reflects onto the ceiling will you be able to see the beam on the mirror? (No!)
What about shining a laser onto a TV screen, tablet, phone, projector screen. Will the intensity you see the reflection vary depending on the angle?

If you shine a laser onto the image produced by a mirage creator or the horrendously misnamed science museums hologram creator, what would you see?




(This blew my mind! The spot of the laser illuminates the image of the pig! )


Prelude to the lesson

A fun and engaging activity not so much for improving their physics, but I like them to have something to take home that shows how physics is cool.

Print out or have students draw two stars, one inside the other – There is a worksheet here but please draw attention to the horrific laser eyes ray diagram !!

The setup is as shown below or simply have them hold the mirror up above their eyes



What else do we need to know before we teach this?

Light travels in straight lines – what’s the evidence?

Pinhole cameras – lots of fun but you must decide what learning takes place . These are great for ‘What happens if…? ‘ type questions.

What might happen if:

The pinhole becomes bigger/smaller/multiple …
The camera becomes shorter/longer/wider …
The image is nearer/further/bigger/smaller ……

Let them loose to come up with ideas and explore!

23 Pinhole cameras to build yourself here

Shadow puppets

A nice one to do with a cross curricular project with art where they can make shadow puppets or explore reflection of light with colours.

What might happen if …..

The puppet is moved closer to /further from the light source/the screen

alternatively learn some of these



Laws of reflection

A video to start with can be this kitten. What may it be noticing about the laws of reflection?



An interesting one is to look at the front facing camera of a phone which laterally inverts the image while you set it up. This enables you to turn the phone the same way you would a mirror. The image itself when taken is the right way round – hence it looks weird! get them to write selfie on a post-it note and stick it on their forehead. It will look laterally inverted when they look at the phone, but when they take the picture it is the right way round. Get them to discuss – why do they do that?
Reflections in a mirror

Give them a mirror and get them to work out the laws and what misconceptions people may have, then ask the question – why is the image laterally inverted, but not upside down?


Maths cross curricular ideas

Put two mirrors together with an object in front of them on a sheet with a protractor on it (or printed) as shown in the diagram. What is the relationship between the angle between the mirrors and the number of images seen?
There are some good examples here




Estimate the height of a tall tree.

There are several different ways to do this outlined here or here

Problem solving using similar triangles and a mirror
You are given a mirror and a metre rule. Calculate the height of a tall object


Real life problem – the Walkie Talkie building that melted a car!

Read the news articles here and here


What could you do?
What did they do?
Finally a crazy idea which I take credit but not responsibility for

Lighting a fire with a coke can. I ran this lesson a few times massively successfully but the risks are significant so please risk assess and check your school is happy for you to do it.
Students are given a coke can, cocktail sticks , tape, a kitkat bar, paper, coloured pens, a clamp etc and told to light a fire!

Full instructions here




Please feel free to add any more ideas in the comments section

Feedback Strategies and how to use them effectively

Feedback is outlined in Hattie’s Visible Learning as the single biggest factor in improving performance. here 

But what is feedback?

“Feedback is a process in which information about the past or the present influences the same phenomenon in the present or future. As part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop, the event is said to “feed back” into itself.”

So give our students feedback and lots of it and they will do better?

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that as feedback has to be appropriate and helpful.

Someone very close to me tried to teach me the piano. It was a nightmare, as soon as I hit a wrong note it was pointed out to me (although I was already aware of my mistake) the feedback was infuriating and I soon gave up.
Is feedback helpful when we know we have messed up? The captain of a football team I played for would give you instant feedback on everything you did, positive or negative until we as a team rebelled and told him to shut up . When you had the ball his shouting ‘don’t lose it’ and the feedback ‘I told you not to lose it, Neil’ was not helpful!’

Similarly I have a neighbour who is the epitome of Harry Enfield’s old character in the mid 90s Mr Dont want to do it like that. The most annoying man on earth dispensing his wisdom of how you should have done it after the event. Even if his views had some validity emotionally I would block him out.

So feedback can be massively annoying and lead to the completely opposite effect that you are trying to create.

David Didau’s blog @learningspy outlines some of  the potential negative impacts here

Whether learning has been improved as well as performance is not made clear from Hattie’s research

The difference between performance and learning has been outlined by the likes of Alfie Kohn and Robert Bjork

Alfie Kohn has this to say on assessment of learning and giving grades for the full art

A second rationale for grading — and indeed, one of the major motives behind assessment in general — is to motivate students to work harder so they will receive a favorable evaluation. Unfortunately, this rationale is just as problematic as sorting. Indeed, given the extent to which A’s and F’s function as rewards and punishments rather than as useful feedback, grades are counterproductive regardless of whether they are intentionally used for this purpose. The trouble lies with the implicit assumption that there exists a single entity called “motivation” that students have to a greater or lesser degree. In reality, a critical and qualitative difference exists between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — between an interest in what one is learning for its own sake, and a mindset in which learning is viewed as a means to an end, the end being to escape a punishment or snag a reward. Not only are these two orientations distinct, but they also often pull in opposite directions.

Scores of studies in social psychology and related fields have demonstrated that extrinsic motivators frequently undermine intrinsic motivation. This may not be particularly surprising in the case of sticks, but it is no less true of carrots. People who are promised rewards for doing something tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to obtain the reward. Studies also show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom in our society, people who have been led to think about what they will receive for engaging in a task (or for doing it well) are apt to do lower quality work than those who are not expecting to get anything at all.

Evidence suggests that when we mark and give grades as well as comments that our students only look at the grades. They become performance orientated rather than thinking about the learning.

Giving feedback too quickly can also have negative effects where we solve the problems for our students before they have time to think about them. Students learn to be dependent on us and we stop them thinking about problems by giving them the answers.

An interesting idea is the Ziegarnik effect  we continue to think about incomplete or interrupted tasks. Evidence suggests we remember things better when they are incomplete ( like the solutions to crosswords that pop up into our heads some time later) and can perform better on puzzles when we are not given time to complete them in practice compared to if we have finished them. This appears to be at odds with the ‘three part lesson’ and the idea we tell them what they will do, do it , then discuss what we  have done.


I have a massive issue with ‘failure avoidance’ in students many of whom fixed mind sets. Whatever you think of the work of Carol Dweck I think the principle of taking responsibility for your own successes or failures is sound


There is a terrific blogpost by @LeadingLearner on many aspects of feedback here

I particularly like the concept of F.A.I.L.  First Attempts In Learning that embeds the idea that work is a draft and can always be improved


In the above including reference to a post by @headguruteacher that everyone should see here

Planning for marking

We Spend hours marking and research suggests that only about 15% of our students read and act on what we suggest. If this is true about 5 of every 6 books are wasted time in terms of having the learner move on.

Stephen Lockyer has written a great blog on marking being broken and what we can do about it. He suggests we use marking as planning rather than the other way round


Before we start marking it totally makes sense to plan what we are looking for as opposed to just getting on with it. The 5 minute marking plan Devised by @teacher toolkit and @LeadingLearner that is a must for efficiency.


These ideas and some other great ones are also contained in @teachertoolkits book 100 ideas available here

Consider the above elements about making feedback appropriate before we look at applying any . Like food there is no such thing as inherently good or bad feedback it’s the way that it is used that is important. We are giving feedback to human beings who are regularly irrational  and may not take it in the way that it was intended.

Here are some ideas that you may want to use

(1) Get the students to think about what they are learning and why and to ask each other . What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How will it help you?

(2) Pose, pause, pounce, bounce. Outlined in a video by Dylan Wiliam below. This can transform your lessons into truly interactive ones

(3) Post-it notes – students come in and are given a post-it note. Write on it what you know about ….

(4) Post -it notes – have a question wall that they put unanswered questions on as they leave.

(5) Post – it notes – questions put on walls – differentiated into challenge, super challenge and hyper challenge. Students choose one answer the question on the back and initial. If someone else has answered and they agree they tick and initial. If they disagree , they have to find the other person and argue their case.

(6) If you have three options as in the example below then a nice option is to ask. If you think the last carton to fall over will be the one on your left put your left hand up, for the one on the right your right hand, the one in the middle both hands. Keep your hands up and find someone who disagrees with you and try to come up with an agreement over the right answer

(7) Traffic lighting with three cones can work well, the students put the red cone on top if they are struggling, amber if they are ok and green if they are happy. This gives a constant indication, though peer pressure can render this next to useless

(8) In group work assign a team rep and have them feedback to you and back to the group.

(9) For your oral feedback get them to write down what you say

(10) Find the common issues and feedback to them before they hand the or books in to mark

(11) Have a green and red box for students to hand their books into (thanks to @mrlockyer) so you can assess their confidence and target the red ones ( or the green but incompetent)

(12) Have a specific time at the start of the lesson when the students respond to your comments from marking. Can use them assessing in pairs

(12) this is a great PowerPoint with heaps of strate
Digital ways – these will be outlined in more detail in a blog soon to come

Online walls

Online shared walls like (@padlet ) or http://en.linoit.comare fabulous ways of getting and giving feedback to students. A photo, video, link or PDF can be uploaded to the wall and peer assessed. A further upcoming blog will explain it in more detail


A brilliant cross platform tool that allows either on the fly or pre planned assessment. This means you can instantly gather what your students know at the start and use this to inform your lesson planning.

More information at


This has to be the future of assessment. It allows a dialogue between the teacher and the learner in a text, video or audio format.

And finally having students feedback from thinking skills from a previous blog post

9 Practical Strategies for thinking

Get in the habit of asking “Is thinking visible here?” are thoughts being aired, justified, evaluated? Who is doing the thinking? Using no hands up and Pose Pause Pounce Bounce outlined by @teachertoolkit here is a good way of directing the thinking and adding your own contributions
Ask “Is the language of thinking being used here (A great overview is given by the ASCD here ) but key words are ; compare, analyse, predict, evaluate, speculate
Are your students asking questions? If not make them ideally use Socratic Questions R.W. Paul’s six types of Socratic questions are an interesting place to start:

1. Questions for clarification:

Why do you say that?
How does this relate to our discussion?
“Are you going to include diffusion in your mole balance equations?”

2. Questions that probe assumptions:

What could we assume instead?
How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
“Why are neglecting radial diffusion and including only axial diffusion?”

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

What would be an example?
What is….analogous to?
What do you think causes to happen…? Why:?
“Do you think that diffusion is responsible for the lower conversion?”

4. Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives:

What would be an alternative?
Is there another way to look at it?
Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
Why is ‘x’ the best?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
How are…and …similar?
What is a counterargument for…?
“With all the bends in the pipe, from an industrial/practical standpoint, do you think diffusion will affect the conversion?”

5. Questions that probe implications and consequences:

What generalisations can you make?
What are the consequences of that assumption?
What are you implying?
How does…affect…?
How does…tie in with what we learned before?
“How would our results be affected if neglected diffusion?”

6. Questions about the question:

What was the point of this question?
Why do you think I asked this question?
What does…mean?
How does…apply to everyday life?
“Why do you think diffusion is important?”
Use Thinking Routines. These are summarised from the Harvard Website on Visible Thinking here .

4. Think /Pair /Share – Individuals are given a situation and asked “What is going on here?” “What makes you say that?” Then they are asked to pair up and compare their views with their partner. They are then asked to agree and share with others their thoughts

5. Fairness routine – Given a situation or dilemma. “Who might be affected by this? Who might care? What might their viewpoint be ? (This can also be used in a historical context in taking the prevailing views of the time about slavery, witchcraft etc.)

6. Circle of Viewpoints – Students are asked to put across opposing viewpoints for a dilemma or a decision. The structure is I am thinking … topic … from the point of view of ……. . I think … (give view of that person with a justification) . A question that my view generates is ….. They then do the same for as many characters as appropriate to the task

7. Claim/support/question – A way of structuring ideas . What is your claim? What supports your claim? What may be questioned about your claim?

8. Reporters Notebook – A very powerful technique in this world of political spin this puts things in context for analysis

Identify the story/situation/dilemma
What are the facts? what are the events? ie what do we really know?
What are the thoughts/feelings of the parties?
What more information do you need?
What is your judgement and why?

9. Traffic Lighting – Ideal for analysing newspapers for bias. Using different coloured highlighters

Red – Highlight strong – Sweeping statements, beliefs, feelings, self interest, one sided arguments, uncorroborated claims
Amber – Highlight milder versions of the red claims
Green – Highlight the facts or strongly evidenced claims

What they probably won’t tell you at Teacher Training – opinions of a successful teacher.

There are some wonderful and fantastic bloggers who have much to add to educational debate that are far more intellectual and research orientated than me. Many talk a good talk, some sadly dismiss alternative views to their own as completely worthless. However they are not the ones I would choose to teach my own children. Many of the best teachers I have worked with have been racked with self doubt and constantly question themselves. I believe that teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach children, those wonderful frustrating beings that can seem scarcely human at times and at others astound with their insight and creativity. Teaching when it is going well is the best job in the world. When it is going badly it can be one of the worse and a wet and windy Friday last lesson with the challenging year 9 class can be an ordeal few outside teaching can imagine. You can have the oratory skills of Barak Obama and the prescience of Mike Tyson, but you will still suffer.

My students in a very challenging school won JP Morgan Bank’s ICT in the Community competition two years running. Rather than seeing this as the students achievement (I just let them loose) they mistakenly paid the school to release me as a consultant. I left school one afternoon having had a nightmare lesson that seemed to have lasted days, it ended with me physically holding two year 8 boys apart, who were determined to kick lumps out of each other. Several others were screaming at each other. I entered the banks marble halls with soft music playing. I pointed out to the lovely young lady who greeted me that our working conditions couldn’t be more different. “Oh no” she said “you should see it sometimes, it’s mad!”

I’m writing this from the point of view of a teacher who has been very successful on whatever criteria you want to judge me by. (Sorry to blow my own trumpet but I need some credibility to show I can teach) On my Advanced Skills Teacher Assessment I showed the highest performance at GCSE and A Level they had ever seen. Also some of the highest uptake at degree level . I had the best uptake at A level for my last GCSE class in a challenging school according to IOP data. 9 of my last 12 lessons were graded Outstanding by OFSTED and HMI and I have been described as ‘Inspirational’ in their reports. The ‘unsatisfactory’ lesson gave me many sleepless nights, but taught me more than any of the others. I never discovered my grade for an observed lesson for the Special School Inspection who brought their students to me for science, which ended with me imprisoning a lad with Down’s Syndrome in the toilet. I still maintain it was the best course of action.

This is what I think I have learned whilst not following conventional wisdom. I take risks, have failed often, but I know how far my students can go. I was usually the most disruptive influence in my own classroom, but It was a time of laughter and tears. It was with huge regret that I had to leave teaching due to a hearing loss (not helped by Motörhead concerts in my misspent youth).
I would like to be remembered for my humanity, not my intellect.

I am the son of two teachers (how many of us are!) My father gave me three pieces of advice before I started teaching:

Be either very good or very bad if you want to progress quickly. Looking at the SLT in many different schools this seems to be true.

Look after the support staff as they can have a huge impact on your working life and deserve to be treated with just as much respect as teaching staff, which is certainly true.

Learn from others, but be true to yourself and be the best you can be.

Interesting reading David Weston’s blog here about the progressive vs traditionalists. I’m a middle class ex grammar school boy who was firmly on the left. I read Physics at Manchester University in the early 80’s, a time defined by the Smiths, Joy Division and the incredible place that was the Hacienda. We also danced to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Stand down Margaret’ (the days when your music choices could reflect your beliefs).
In my final year I was all set to become an oil well logger and make heaps of money but then I read Colin Wilson ‘The Outsider’. I quickly decided I had no idea who or what I was, so headed off travelling instead, which I did for about 10 years.
I’ve been a potato picker, shepherd, financial consultant, tennis coach (Hong Kong), condom packer and Rubber Workers Union member (Sydney), prawn fisherman(Queensland), freelance photographer and taught in Zimbabwe and  a Buddhist Wat (Thailand).

During my travelling days I was arrested 4 times abroad (always innocent!), faced death many times at the hands of hippos, lions, Komodo dragons and armed angry border guards in Kashmir. Being an inept extreme sports enthusiast and adrenaline junkie caused countless self inflicted injuries at times. I feel I know who I am as I have learned from the adversity I have experienced. I have been in the best restaurants and hotels in the world and slept rough in parks and queued up with homeless people at soup kitchens.

I see the point of Education being to allow students to make choices in their life rather than others making choices for them. To equip them with the skills, knowledge and qualifications that reflect their ability and to know what they are good at. To know their own minds, be curious and questioning.

I went into teaching from a social services background: I was going to make a difference. I was pretty clueless! My first teaching practice was at Altrincham Grammar School; I nearly failed my first observation due to my appalling organisation. I used to cycle into school and get changed but that particular morning I realised I hadn’t brought a shirt. A quick run to lost property, I got the only one they had, it was tiny and only just about did up. I made my tie as fat as possible and put my jacket on. To my horror I found my tutor sitting at the back of the class. I was nervous and it was hot in the room so I started sweating profusely, but I couldn’t take my jacket off because I had a ridiculous shirt on. Worse as I turned around to write on the board I realised the shirt was too tight to lift my arm up. Fortunately it was a roller board, but still it was a bizarre performance. It was hard to fail in the Grammar School, the students were bright and compliant. I had no idea how far they could go though because I taught as I had been taught, neither interesting them nor stretching them; the students learning despite rather than because of me.

The next school was a very challenging school in the mid 80s set in the shadow of Strangeways Prison, to which many of our students graduated in a similar way to the Monopoly board. “Go straight to jail, do not enter society or earn any money”. This was where I realised I really was not a teacher yet. The nightmare class were 3 Yellow. A group of girls would wolf whistle me, I never worked out how to react. The room had massive old windows with curtains. Some of the boys used to hide behind them, one day they opened the window jumped out and ran away. The disturbed boy from Liberia would crawl around barking like a dog. I taught them nothing. The lessons took hours of thinking to prepare for no reward. No one watched me teach or supported me. I asked my tutor to teach a demo lesson with them and never saw him again. I exacted a horrible revenge on them in my last lesson, which was sexual reproduction. I had a huge cut away model penis that I showed, informing them ‘this is is about average size for an adult male …’ I still feel guilty.

My ideals had changed; the vision of myself leading these young minds to a love of science had gone. I had become harsh. It was their fault, senior leaders fault, I became fabulous at blaming. I then realised I had become the teacher I despised, moaning about my students and wanting someone else to fix them.
I became defensive, not wanting people to observe me or come into my room. I stopped taking risks, stopped doing practicals. Hated the fact that they wouldn’t let me teach them in interesting ways; we were in a Catch 22 -I couldn’t make it interesting as they wouldn’t behave or listen. They found my lessons boring so played up. I could just about control them but there wasn’t much learning happening.

The turning point came when I realised that I was the one who had to change. Dakota wisdom states ‘ when your horse is dead, dismount’ I realised that I had just been trying to whip the dead horse harder. I read lots of books and learned a bit. I watched other teachers, analysed what they did and learned a lot. The more I taught the more I learned but failure was always the best tutor and I continued to fail regularly as I took risks. There is a safe middle ground, but average was never going to be for me. I’m utterly convinced there is not a single best way of teaching. There may be a single best way of teaching a particular student at a particular moment in time, but that changes if they are hungry, tired, hormonal, aroused … the variables are huge for each individual student. Multiply these by the number in your class and a single strategy for teaching becomes a disastrous compromise. To me the best teachers tune into their classes and can take them on journeys using the most appropriate style at that time. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

The influence of arousal can be horrific. I once taught a class immediately following a fight between an unpopular boy who was very much a victim and a popular one. The unpopular one was in my class and the mood of his classmates was one I will never forget. They were like a hunting pack sensing a weakness in a quarry. Even the ‘nice’ students were involved. A friend who went through the Bosnia conflict as a Marine described situations in much the same way, although far more extreme. The veneer of civilisation is very thin.

See Dan Ariely

My observations (not backed by any reliable data)

We all think we have a growth mindset, but we probably haven’t. It is something I try to follow.


For behaviour management the single biggest thing I learned was that it is not personal, so don’t take it as such.

If you are a new teacher it is going to be very hard to win over the older students. You are on their territory, they know the score. I had a difficult relationship with many of my year 11 form group at my last school. After I left teaching I opened my Facebook to ex students. Most of them added me as a friend and then apologised profusely.

My Observations – make up your own mind to their validity.

There are some brilliant and compelling traditional and progressive teachers and there are some appalling ones, on both sides. The brilliant ones on both sides are equally wonderful. A poor progressive teacher sometimes allows students the freedom to learn despite them, a poor traditional teacher can stifle all.

Teachers will never be replaced by computers or online learning. Teachers who can use digital devices to enhance learning will replace those who cannot.

Digital devices are simply tools that have no intrinsic value in themselves. It is all about how they are deployed.

Try to stop emotional reactions to conflict situations, they are rarely the most appropriate responses. Go in deal with it and get out quickly leaving the dignity of both intact.

If you fall out with a boy it is usually gone the next day and you haven’t fallen out with his friends.
If you fall out with a girl she can hate you forever and her friends will hate you too.

Listen to everyone, watch as many teachers as you can, learn from them but don’t try to be them, be yourself.

The more certain someone is about something in education, the less I tend to trust them.

Smile, always smile! Education is too important to be taken seriously.

Being disappointed is the most powerful weapon of all. Anger tends to be reflected back, disappointment, if you value the relationship, can be crushing. If you have no relationship this will have no effect. (I still remember the deep sadness on Mr Woodward’s face when I told him I hadn’t done his biology homework!)

Always analyse your lessons to consider: if you had an outstanding student in the classroom, would they be able to show they are outstanding? If the answer is no then you are limiting what your students can achieve.

Link to OFSTED Outstanding stu

Teaching, like being a parent, seems very simple before you try it.

Complex behaviour problems rarely have simple solutions.

Some in education seem worryingly keen to punish kids.

There is a massive difference between compliance and engagement.

Having my own children changed my perception of teaching. I’m not sure that it made me better but it certainly changed me.

I really like Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, then to be understood”. Listen to them before you try to teach them or deal with their behaviour.

I treated all my interactions with students as if it were an emotional bank account. Make deposits whenever you can, you will never know the difference it may make.

Having a student walk out of our school and throw himself off the cliffs to his death changed forever my perception of what matters in education. Rest in peace Stephen.

Learn to identify the students who wield the power in your classroom and how to deal with them. Otherwise every lesson can be a battle.
I believe behaviour management is far more complex than simply rewarding the behaviour you want to see and punishing the behaviour you don’t. I want my students to be self regulating not simply compliant in my presence because of fear of repercussions. Model the behaviour you want to see.

Students misbehave because their needs are not being met. It is impossible to meet all their needs in the production line educational system that we have. We should never write a young life off, nor simply punish those who have been punished more than enough in life.

There are very many well qualified people who are not well educated. They are simply exam smart.

There are many clever people who are not wise. Those who are clever and wise are usually humble.
Think before you respond. Once the head boy of the school was very disruptive in my lesson. I held him back and was furious, something stopped me from having a real go and instead I just said “what was that about Tom?” He immediately burst into tears, said he was under enormous pressure and that he couldn’t exceed expectations in anything, just possibly fail and he hated the feeling. Our highest achievers sometimes have unbearable pressure.

Don’t make assumptions. After the Columbine shootings it was (wrongly) reported that the perpetrators were Marilyn Manson fans and that he was therefore partly responsible. When asked what he would say to them his response was “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did”.
The priority in lessons is learning, but I don’t feel fun and learning are mutually exclusive and have yet to see any evidence that they are. Physics is awesome because it allows us to do these sort of things


Students need teaching, it is extremely unlikely that they will understand complex ideas simply from doing stuff. Practical activities need to be carefully considered as to what value they have. This is a great document to see the issues

York stuff

Teaching students science without proper practicals is like teaching them to swim without water.

One of the biggest problems to overcome in teaching maths, is the students saying “I can’t do maths” which unfortunately can be a societal norm. I think it’s acceptable to slap their parents who say ‘I couldn’t do maths either” giving their offspring an external locus of control and not taking responsibility for their own learning.

Performance obsessed cultures can inhibit learning see Alfie Kohn

Twitter is amazing, as you enter an incredible global staff room with unbelievably talented people. Like all staff rooms beware the moaning corner!

Twitter can also be a hall of mirrors where we can simply confirm our bias and cliques can reflect each other’s views with great authority. It doesn’t mean they are right!

Some people use twitter and blogging to make the world a better place, others to make their own world better.

Beware those who love the data more than the kids.

People who are not teachers will never know that feeling of walking out of a room buzzing as you know you have inspired them. I had this feeling more often in challenging schools than high performing ones, but the same goes for despair.
My year group I had for four years gave me a standing ovation in our final assembly. That feeling will never leave me.

Kids have one shot at education they deserve the best. Strive to be better: not because you are not good enough, but because you can always be better.

Never, ever give up.

Please feel free to comment or add ideas

#Nurture1314 for what it’s worth :)

I’m not at all sure about writing this but I have a tendency when I feel doubt to do it anyway.
First, to give some context, here are some of the factors that have shaped me as a teacher and as a man.

A week after my 18th birthday I ended up in the back of an ambulance with a heart that you could hear beating from across the room. A goalkeeping accident had led to a bleeding heart. It was a pivotal moment in my life. Born in Trinidad I had come to England (Grimsby of all places) and had been bullied for looking different, talking different and unforgivably being seen to be ‘clever’. I put up a host of barriers and harboured huge fear of more grief from the bullies. Faced with the realistic potential of being dead in a few minutes I reviewed my life. It sounds corny but I decided I would face all my fears and take all opportunities, make mistakes and learn from them. We regret the things we haven’t done more than those we have. Above all I chose to live life as if it was not a rehearsal. I have been true to this: ten years of travelling, being rich, poor, cold, hungry, having the best food on the planet, despised, taunted, lauded, arrested, being close to being eaten by lions, fought off a hippo, seen the most beautiful places in the world and the most appalling squalor and death, become a husband (for the price of a plane ticket to Zimbabwe – no regrets!) a parent to four wonderful/maddening/frustrating children and taught throughout most of this.
One day a 16 year old student walked out of our school to the nearby cliffs and jumped to his death. This was 14 years ago and it still haunts me, I played REM ‘Everybody Hurts’ the next day in assembly and that song still brings tears to my eyes as I picture a desolate young man on top of the cliffs.
In my teaching I have been mindful of this, how a quiet word of concern can have a huge impact on a child’s life (and so many have such cruel starts to their journey). I have tried to treat all my students as if they were my own children. I want to be defined as a teacher not by my intellect, but by my humanity: this does not make me a soft touch. I hope no ex student can ever say I didn’t push them to be the best they could be, to teach them as well as I could and to never give up on them. The high point of my teaching career was when my year group, which I had taken through four years of emotional roller coasters, gave me a spontaneous standing ovation at their end of Year 11 leaving assembly. I was gone, I couldn’t even speak!

There are some fantastic blogs on the theory of education that I have learned a great deal from, even if I disagree with them. Some are very strident in their beliefs that there is one way to educate, and often that is traditional and knowledge based. I do not believe that is the case in science or maths. I firmly believe we need knowledge and that it must be taught and that learning is effortful (and often boring). I teach students science, maths and outdoor pursuits. Young people with hopes and dreams that I want to inspire to love learning. If I can make it fun and interesting I do so and will until someone shows me research that says it damages learning. On any measure you wish to judge success I have been very successful – OFSTED/HMI inspections 9/12 lessons judged to be Outstanding; AST assessor said I had the highest overachievement at GCSE and A Level she had ever seen. There was the highest uptake of A Level physics from my last GCSE class for similar schools in the country. I can learn much from the research based intellectuals, but I’m not certain I would want them teaching my own children and I find it sad that some feel they can learn nothing from people who can walk the walk. I have taught in very high performing schools with traditional teaching and a very high percentage of Oxbridge entry and students there are generally no better, and are often worse, at using their knowledge to solve problems. I won’t name the school where the students given the problem below answered it immediately, telling me it was an Oxbridge problem, but most were then incapable of telling me what would happen if I poured a bucket of water over the side rather than a rock. They had only learned how to answer the question.

13 things

Started blogging to get things clear in my head, learned a lot, still lots to learn. Blogs from people like Alex Quigley @huntingenglish, Steve Wheeler @timbuckteeth , Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher and John Tomsett @johntomsett to name but a few are awesome.
Started engaging with twitter entering a world of incredible people, self reflective, insightful, challenging. Greatest period of growth of knowledge after over 20 years of teaching. Thanks to people like A Ali @AST supportAAli for fostering the spirit of collaboration And to people like Cheryl -kd @cheryllkd for increasing my knowledge of SEN
Maintaining a balance between training teachers as well as still teaching regularly. I’m still making mistakes in both and learning from them. When I stop making mistakes I stop learning.
4 years ago left teaching due to a hearing loss and jumped into self employment. Never was one for the easy option. Was on benefit and struggling with a mortgage and 4 kids. Now financially secure.
Went to first teachmeet just over a year ago and met the wonderful Mr Stephen Lockyer @mrlockyer (he is the Lionel Messi of the teaching world – super talented and everyone loves him) who threw a kangaroo at me but he didn’t throw it hard! And the inimitable Ross McGill @teachertoolkit . Have learned so much, but still so much to learn. Presented at 5 teachmeets, and met lots of lovely people like Sarah Findlater @mrsfindlater my favourite audience being the one at the wonderful Keven Bartles @kevbartle school.
Proud of the physics of football project for the Institute of Physics with Arsenal that I devised with the ridiculously clever Lawrence Cattermole who unfortunately won’t blog or join twitter. We are presenting it at the ASE conference on Jan 9th would be great to see any of you there.
Running a session on the science of surfing at Camborne Science Festival for some of the top science students in the world was brilliant. It was also interesting to see how giving different contexts to physics principles could completely throw them and push them further than they have been before. Finding my element – couldn’t be any happier anywhere else doing anything else than teaching students on a beach.

Still managing to be a good father – I hope
Have retained my passion for teaching and belief that we need passion as well as knowledge
Having had the experience of teaching in the highest performing schools in the world. On stage with to present my mathematical modelling see the end here lesson to 250 year 9s in Karachi Grammar School was a highlight. Teaching sullen and switched off year 9s in a challenging school a week later a reminder that there are many ways to teach and that you can force them to be quiet, but not to learn.
Massively enjoying ‘Physics is Awesome’ shows I’m delivering for the IOP, walking out of them with a real buzz. Concerned that girls think cool stuff is for boys. Fantastic feedback from students, with about 20% saying their perception of physics and how useful it is has been improved.
Am loving some of the TED talks Amy Cuddy stands out.
Growth mindset had a powerful impact on my eldest son who went from underachieving in his Outdoor Education BTEC, failing his driving test four times and not being placed on Camp America to getting a Triple Distinction in his BTEC, passing his driving test and working as Camp Counsellor in New Jersey two month later.

14 things

Work on getting more girls into physics
Get a better work/life balance
Become a better blogger
Carry on learning
Continuing to champion that the best teachers are the ones who can work with what they have in front of them. To know what they do best, whether it’s traditional or progressive and then add more.
To further develop the use of mobile devices to really enhance learning
Organise a science teachmeet
To dive with great white sharks with one of my ex students doing a PhD in South Africa. Drive a big digger with another one and have a cage fight with another.
To start a PhD with Steve Wheeler, the inspiring @timbuckteeth at Plymouth University on mobile devices and their use in learning
To stop taking life so seriously and meditate more
To live love and laugh
Read more
To get better at surfing
To continue following Zen dog philosophy


Have a fabulous 2014 everyone :)