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 http://www.thebrilliantclub.org/  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 http://www.teacherstoolbox.co.uk/T_Dweck.html

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 http://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/education-and-povertyhttp://www.jrf.org.uk/topic/education-and-poverty

Living and Learning in Poverty   http://livinglearninginpoverty.blogspot.co.uk/

Centre for Research on Families and Relationships  http://crfrblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/routes-out-of-poverty-education-and.html

Teacher Toolkit  http://teachertoolkit.me/2014/02/08/raising-aspirations-and-equal-access-by-teachertoolkit/

How to improve the quality of teacher development?

Ten essays


Some ideas by Tom Sherrington here


Getting the kids to ask why?  from Sarah Findlater


Essential Resources for Physics Teachers – Please add ideas

This is an evolving resource so please add links to other resources/blogs/twitter feeds etc at the bottom in Comments

As anyone who reads my blogs knows I am committed to creating scientists rather than people who can pass science exams. There will be no rants here , just useful links and essential websites

Resources from the Institute of Physics

Comprehensive resources and thoroughly checked for quality. Including the at times contentious new way of looking at energy. I hated it at first but have now come round to it making much more sense than the old way of doing things – Want to know more ? Follow the link below and look at the Energy Sections and also the Events . These resources are supported by a team of dedicated Teaching and Learning Coaches (TLCs) to find if your school can benefit and see the program and impressive impact report click here

Supporting Physics Teachers – SPT Resources from aged 5 – 14 These are available to download as pdfs or to view as websites

You will ned to register to download the resources, but its free and gives you access to the Talkphysics forum that is a truly superb community able to answer any questions you may have. Click on the image to go to the site 

SPT Materials

SPT Materials

and a series of events – You can find the calendar by clicking on the image 

IOP Events

IOP Events

The IOP tweets educationally on @TakeOnPhysics To see my lists on twitter of great physics tweeters to follow use this link Please contact me with more suggestions and dont be shy of self promotion I tweet as @natkin 


Dr Muller aka Veritasium has the most amazing youtube channel as well as conducting some great research into physics teaching his Youtube link is here 

SlowMo Guys are awesome! link here


Teaching Advanced Physics – from the IOP some great resources here 

Teaching Advanced Physics

Teaching Advanced Physics

Nuffield Physics (Im a product of the Nuffield Physics course and I love it ) Great practicals to do 

Practical Physics

Practical Physics


This has been going ages but is still a great source of animations lots of these have now been updated to HTML5 so can be viewed on iPads.



Keith Gibbs

One of the people who inspired me as a student . If you ever get the opportunity go and see him present . He is awesome and a lovely man

His website has lots of free resources and I can recommend his book

Keith Gibbs

Keith Gibbs

Challenging questions

Isaacs Physics has a series of great questions that go beyond the standard ones

Isaacs Questions

Isaacs Questions

The British Physics Olympiad is a great for challenging your AS and A2 students and for Oxbridge preparation



Engineering Students – Great stuff here to help them prepare 



Scottish Physics Teacher Resources – You have to be a member 

Scottish Physics

Scottish Physics

Flipped Learning or Revision Videos

Physics and Maths Tutor

Screenshot 2014-11-23 07.58.05

My blogs on physics ideas may be useful 

Teaching reflection of light  http://neilatkin.com/2014/04/10/10-cool-ideas-for-teaching-reflection-of-light/

Waves and Sound http://neilatkin.com/2013/08/20/teaching-waves-and-sound/

Heat Transfer http://neilatkin.com/2013/12/30/science-teachers-10-ideas-for-heat-transfer-lessons/

Rant about the state of science teaching  http://neilatkin.com/2014/08/21/where-has-the-science-gone-from-our-classrooms-13-ideas-to-bring-it-back/

Link to Pinterest Physics teaching support – Please note this as well as this blog will be continually updated so please add resources and ideas


Where has the science gone from our classrooms? – 13 ideas to bring it back

Having observed many lessons in my various roles Im increasingly concerned about how little scientific thinking is happening in science lessons. Bizarrely it is possible to get great results in science exams without being great scientists. We can teach students to decode exam papers and pass tests so that is what many teachers do. We give them fish instead of teaching them to fish. In a high pressure performance orientated system you cannot blame the teachers for following this approach as it is safe and works.

Some schools are fabulous and encourage risk taking. We only know how far we, or our students can go when we fail. As an AST in challenging schools I used to fail regularly and you knew you’d failed as the students gave you instant (and often brutal ) feedback. As scientists we need to view failure as a learning experience.  A teacher who has tried a radical lesson that hasn’t worked will either be treated by management as a maverick who pushes the boundaries  or as a pariah who must be compressed and homogenised.

In a recent article in the TES  here looked at what fictional teachers were favourites – All of the top ones were rule breakers with number 1 going to .. Dumbledore. We love the rule breakers but most of these would be reined in by management.

So here are some ideas to try to improve the scientists coming out of our classrooms

1 – Let the students know explicitly what a good scientist is like

How can we expect our students to know what we want to see if we never discuss it with them?

Do our students know what a great scientist student looks like?

If you ask them they say things like;

  • A boff who knows all the answers
  • Watches geeky shows
  • Isn’t cool
  • Rubbish at sports
  • Male
  • Gets top marks in tests

One of the problems is that most of our students don’t aspire to be these things, nor feel that they are capable of being an outstanding scientist.

Maybe we need to make the implicit explicit and let them know exactly  what we are looking for

The OFSTED definition of an outstanding student seems a decent starting point

Pupils show exceptional independence; they are able to think for themselves and raise their own questions about science knowledge and understanding and of scientific enquiry. They show high attainment in a full range of practical work and take the initiative in, for example, planning and carrying out their own scientific investigations. They use their scientific knowledge and understanding very effectively to give clear written and verbal explanations, solve problems and report findings formally. They work constructively with others, demonstrating common understanding, in discrete well-focused roles, but with all playing a part in successful investigations. They show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their understanding and skills within the subject. Practical work is not confined to following instructions but uses a variety of contexts, including fieldwork, in which pupils are making decisions about investigations and ways of researching contemporary issues. They develop a sense of passion and commitment to science showing strong application and enthusiasm to learn more through scientific endeavour. The proportion of students choosing to study or work in science-related areas at the next phase is well above the national average.

What points can we take from this? One class I worked with reduced it to 5 key points – with some prompting as they struggled to drop their preconceived geek bias

  1. Someone who asks questions (this was alien to them!)
  2. Sees failure as a learning experience and is resilient
  3. Is curious
  4. Can think independently and scientifically
  5. Can solve problems creatively

Please list your own using the twitter hashtag #goodsciencestudents

I often come across teachers who say that they struggle to get everything done before the exams. If we had a class full of outstanding students how long would it take us to get through the syllabus? We dont have time not to develop them fully, but breaking out of the exam focussed , dependency cycle is hard.

How many science lessons are actually appropriate to and dont limit outstanding students? A useful way of checking your lesson plans are potentially outstanding is to see whether your outstanding students could show they are outstanding. If the answer is no then your lesson is limiting.

How much time do we spend on developing the students compared to simply increasing their knowledge. Maybe its time to shift the paradigm and put the pressure on the students to be better learners.

2- Do better practicals

Notice this doesn’t say do more practicals as this can be counterproductive.

A quote from  Professor Julia Buckingham, Chair of SCORE

Teaching science without practicals is like teaching swimming without a pool. It can be done but not as effectively. However we wouldn’t expect our students to be able to swim just by letting them splash happily around in the pool, we need to be systematic and very clear what they are learning and why.

But practical work itself does not mean scientific thinking. In fact the opposite can be the case with students merely following a set of instructions . Students often are entertained but not educated by doing practicals. They may be very engaged but we need to ask the question what learning has really taken place

Alom Shaha wrote this piece in the Guardian in 2011 here 

He challenges the widely held assumption that more science experiments will lead to a better scientists. I agree with the points raised and that we need to think about the learning , not simply the engagement. I’m not sure we need less practical work though I feel it needs to be done better.

There is a terrific checklist available from the ASE that really makes you think of what value your practical has

Practical Checklist

More research from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee here

Practical Lessons and field trips

3- Make it real

Challenge their belief system and introduce them to conformation bias

Scientists are just as prone to confirmation bias as everybody else…a tendency to look for evidence to support rather than test your own ideas. Climate change as a man made event sceptics and supporters both manage to interpret the same data to support their views. An interesting article outlining both viewpoints is here 

Students should be able to test ideas and look at concepts with open minds.

4 Strategies you could try are

1) 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

Arguing for/against wind farms as an environmentalist / local resident / birdwatcher

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

For example I believe in evolution/creationism you could use this resource here

3) Reporters Notebook – A very powerful technique, 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?

The Daily Mail and the Guardian are ideal for this as editorials of both can show bias and offer opposite viewpoints

4) 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

Veritasiums research is massive  and his videos are superb!

4- Consider Action Science

Having had a conversation with the truly inspirational Bill Robertson, Ph.D  also known as drsk8board  his website is here   it struck us how if you look at the terms of outstanding scientists what processes do skateboarders use in learning a new trick

Research either online and/or by observing others

Talk to others about the trick- pre planning

Planning what they are going to do

Risk assess it  and plan what to do to reduce the fallout of failure – they often do this very badly http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-Injury-on-a-Skateboard

Attempt the trick often in front of others

In all likelihood fail but not be defeated but to see it as a learning experience

Analyse what went right/wrong

Evaluate, improve and attempt again (resilient)

Practice it until it becomes second nature (deliberate practice )

Create new tricks from what they have learned (extended abstract within SOLO taxonomy)

If we could harness these skills within the classroom these pupils would have the potential to be outstanding students, however they rarely are.

Getting good grades and working out how to decode exam papers are not their drivers so although they may be very good at following the process of scientific enquiry these skills are not recognised or utilised by the teacher, nor valued by the students as they dont see the relevance.  Often these students disengage with education feeling they have few skills and dont see the ones they have as being transferable 

Bizarrely these skateboarders may be engaged in purer science outside the science classroom than they do inside it. These same students often show none of these positive traits inside the classroom showing little interest in what is happening, often because they are not sufficiently challenged and dont feel that they have these skills. Many have a passion for science but an apathy towards science lessons.

What can be done about this?

What we are currently doing is failing these students. Teaching about forces and motion without relating them to their world

A paradigm shift is to take the engaging activity and to teach and learn the science through this. Bill has done this with skateboarding here

I have one it with slack lining here

Surfing provides another here

Please get in contact if you are involved in anything similar or want to know more

5 – Make it fun !!


I’m very privileged in that I teach in many different schools. Sometimes I find that the students are far more engaged in lower achieving schools than they are in the highest performing ones where they are simply compliant.

The focus on performance can lead to losing the love of learning. Many students learn to give the teacher and the examiner exactly what they want and no more.

There is always room for fun

6 – Use Evidence as a starting point

There is a focus on evidence based research and the work of Hattie and others. I think its essential we know and understand what the research is saying but not see it as everything.

Going back to the swimming analogy we looked at earlier. The most efficient way to train swimmers is a no nonsense approach of constant drills and measurements of performance. This method will produce the fastest swimmers. There should always be time for splashing around and having fun or they will only go swimming when they need to, as opposed to swimming for pleasure. There are many in education who seem focussed purely on the most efficient method to teach forgetting that these are kids and if you make things tedious they will drop it as soon as they can.

My daughter got an A* in her physics GCSE but wouldn’t consider taking it further as it ‘bored her to death’ despite having a passion for science. She was taught efficiently but without any joy or passion. and she certainly cant use physics in unfamiliar situations.  According to most research the way of teaching her was successful. But I feel we need to look beyond simple results.

She also got top marks in French but proved incapable of buying a loaf of bread in a boulangerie.

7 – Know your Teaching Style and add tools

There has been much debate on twitter and in the press of traditional vs progressive teaching styles with little consensus. We are so subject to confirmation bias and we believe what we want to believe rather than why the evidence suggests.

Im not at all sure about research based approaches as I have yet to see anything that measures how good a scientist the student is. What I do see is how good at exams they are and that is often something completely  different.

If you are a compelling speaker then keep your students compelled. If you are not, then get them doing stuff.

If you are brilliant at getting students to challenge their own beliefs and work through from confusion to clarity, then do that. If all your students do  is play around with stuff in practical lessons then stop and reconsider.

I have been working in partnership with a teacher for the last three years who has just won an award  as the highest achieving teacher of physics in the country-compared to the overall performance of the school. Our teaching styles are vastly different but we have learned much from each other and what we’ve done is obviously successful as these students are great thinkers and many go on to study Physics at degree level.

To me the most important thing is meeting the needs of the learners in front of you and for this you may need to adapt your approach.

8 – Increase the numbers of Girls in Physics

The number of students doing higher level physics has increased dramatically , but the percentage of girls have remained stubbornly at around 20%. The Institute of Physics has commissioned f research into this

They found girls are more likely to continue with physics after the age of 16 if:

Physics is taught in a way that engages with the interests of young people

There is an expectation that anyone can do physics

Classrooms are managed to ensure active participation by students

The focus of learning is ideas rather than unconnected facts

Students feel supported in their learning

Young people understand the contribution that physics makes to society and can make to their lives

More information and an action pack available here http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/action/page_41602.html

9 – Use digital tools

Sadly there is a often a huge gap between students love of science and their dislike for science lessons . The curriculum often fails to inspire or seems relevant  to them. Some teachers say that they don’t have time to go off the curriculum. I feel it is essential if we are going to encourage and develop the joy and lifelong passion for science.

aristotle – mind and heart

Use multimedia

Youtube is in valuable with twitter being the best way of sharing useful links, Get the students themselves to find the resources then add them to Pinterest

http://www.iflscience.com/ truly stunning ideas – examples of the weirdest, most hideous, most fascinating

Use Twitter

Twitter has a bad name as a medium for giving self obsessed people a platform to spread news of how wonderful they are.

However there ia another side to twitter and that is of a brilliant way  of communicating with other educators. You can enter a global staffroom of teachers happy to share resources and advice – often the opposite of what is happening in your own staffroom.

How to get started?

There are some lists on my twitter profile which may be useful as a starting point. Go to my twitter profile @natkin scroll down until you see lists – in the lists are some of the science tweeters I have found particularly useful. Then see who those people who are following and before long you will have your own personal network. Once you have this set up you will not know how you managed without it. You dont need to search for information any more it will come to you through your feed.

Please message me to add more useful links and blog posts

useful Hash tags are 

#ASECHAT  - Monday nights 8-9 pm where some great science educators meet to chat


50 useful ways of using twitter in the classroom here

Attend Teachmeets

What are these?

Probably the future of CPD, these are free events hosted by schools where people sign up to deliver very short presentations. Try one – more information here 

Use Pinterest

Pinterest can be used as your own virtual resource centre. Effectively you can create your own or a departmental filing cabinet that you can add resources to at any point.

You can search within Pinterest for resources, upload them or add them from a website

Probably the most useful way though is by following people. Effectively this gives you access to their resources that are freely shared and you can plunder them to your hearts content.

If you want to plunder mine  here

Pinterest Tutorial below

10 -Give great feedback

Assessment for learning should provide the learner with useful feedback in order for them to improve. Its not simply telling them what they are doing wrong which is what many of your students may want you to do. Be less helpful – make them learn

A comprehensive blog on feedback is here but if you only do a few things these are my essentials

Dot and the round – As you go round the room mark students books, simply put a dot where they have made an error with no comment. It’s up to them to work out whats gone wrong.

Pre flight checklist – Students are given the marking criteria and then swap books so that their partner can check they have done everything and their are no errors. If the partner spots errors then

they are given back to be corrected. The partner then signs it off and hands it in.

A great idea is to plan before you teach what you are going to mark

5 minute marking – here

Feedback strategies stolen from others is http://neilatkin.com/2014/02/03/feedback-strategies/

11- Let them fail

Scientists should see failure as a learning experience.

Edison quote  I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison

All too often our student know what the results of experiments should be or they are told how to carry out the procedure. How often do they plan and carry out their own investigations?

As teachers we have a near compulsion to intervene when we see them ‘making mistakes’

We are too helpful

Give them the opportunity to try things out and to learn from mistakes. Give them questions they can’t answer.

If we always restrict them and usually that is the case will we ever know how far can they can go?

Note: In some schools this strategy will go down very badly !

12 – Make Thinking Visible

Most students never hear scientific thinking modelled for them hence they are very poor at it. Try to get them to justify their decisions. Plan their own investigations or question data

comic strip

Whats the evidence that this is a lie?

Whenever you can model good thinking , get them to justify their claims, argue with them. Never let them get away with

Get newspaper articles — Make them aware of confirmation bias  link

Bad science in films always provokes interest – Some good examples here 

A nice literacy example is to

13 – Improve your Subject Knowledge

We can all improve our subject knowledge not because it’s not good enough, but because it can be even better

For physics the the Institute of Physics have several resources

The SPT materials support the teaching of 11-16 year olds and has a comprehensive approach that considers common misconceptions as well as teaching approaches and useful practicals here

For A level physics there are the TAP  resources here

The IOP also host a superb forum http://www.talkphysics.org/ that has a great community. You can easily post asking for ideas on teaching topics or to clear up misconceptions

For ideas on Practicals there are


For Biologists

practical biology http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-biology

For Chemists

practical chenistry  http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/practical-chemistry

please send me other useful links and blogs

This blog is just some of my personal ideas of how to improve science teaching in order to produce the scientists we need for the future – educated ones, not simply qualified. We need curious and passionate people with a lifelong love of science. I worry the systems we have in place are not producing these.

Please contribute ideas and collaborate/argue/develop ideas

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 http://supportingphysicsteaching.net/El01TA.html#TA2 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 Autism.org  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 http://www.schoolphysics.co.uk/age16-19/Optics/Reflection/text/Reflection_/index.html




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