Useful bits and pieces

Awesome summary and links for pretty much everything of interest to a teacher from Adam Boxer

A Chemical Orthodoxy

Below is a list of things I have read and found interesting and have helped me develop as a teacher. I’ve been collecting them over the last year or so and tried desperately to keep them in order. This is a work in progress and I’m going to try and update it when I can. I’ve marked everything that I think is super important with a * so you can ctrl+f for it. I’ve tried to keep my summaries as short as possible – the individual pieces will speak for themselves. You will note that I have avoided books too. This is because I don’t really find the time to sit and dedicate time to full books, I prefer to read stuff on the go, in the little snippets of time I find for myself here and there.

This is mainly a list for my own benefit. If anyone else…

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Necessary & Sufficient

What does a good education at school look like?

I think it’s essential to look at this question through the paradigm of what is necessary to a good education and what is sufficient.

Briefly, a necessary condition must be met for a good education, and sufficient conditions guarantee that a good education has been had. My argument here is that Education has been too focused on sufficient conditions, and as a result of this many necessary conditions to a good education are not being met. A good education cannot be had without the foundation of necessary conditions.

My view is that we must look to the necessary conditions and only once these are in place should we layer the sufficient conditions on top of these foundations.

So, what are the necessary conditions of a good education and what are the barriers to them being met? My subject is secondary maths, and this is the lens through which I will be answering the question.

1. Behaviour should be respectful and conducive to learning. The responsibility for behaviour lies with the students and the school as a whole. It is not the responsibility of the classroom teacher.

1b. (added 20-2-16) Homework should be easy to set and mark, ideally with a computer system that automatically marks the work and records the areas of strength and weakness of the students. Ideally, a whole school policy that picks up those students who don’t do their homework would be in place. 

2. Explanations. Teachers should carefully and clearly explain the curriculum to the students. The use of a good set of textbooks would help with this.

3. Hard work and practise. There is no royal road to geometry, and there is no easy way to learn. The responsibility for doing well ultimately rests on the shoulders of the students.

4. Teaching should be responsive. I think that all teachers engage in responsive teaching (a phrase coined by Dylan Wiliam) by which I mean they respond to whether students are learning what is being taught or not and change what they’re doing accordingly. It may be possible to find teachers that don’t but I think they’d be extremely rare. Clearly this can be done to variable levels of success but I think that teachers simply being allowed to exercise their professional judgement in their classes is a necessary condition of a good education.

5. Exam preparation. By this I mean the awareness that students are working towards a high stakes GCSE and referencing this in teaching. The use of past papers and mock exams is, I think, necessary to a good education.

There it is, 5 perhaps obvious necessities to a good education. What are the barriers to this happening?

1. The responsibility for good behaviour is often left with the classroom teacher. Teachers are told to plan ‘engaging’ lessons and to try to have good relationships with students who exhibit bad behaviour. This results in teachers planning for ‘engagement’ and pandering to the troublemakers as opposed to planning for learning and teaching to the top.
2. Teachers have been inculcated into the erroneous belief that they should minimise teacher talk and students should learn by doing and realising things for themselves . Teaching by telling has got a bad reputation even though it is probably the best way for students to learn at school.

3. The responsibility for students doing well is not often enough put on the students themselves. Too often, teachers are blamed for what is simply students not being prepared to graft to do well.

4. Teachers are put off making their own judgements about how to respond to their classes by tick box exercises such as confused whole-school AfL diktats that act as a proxy for teacher judgements.

5. ‘Teaching to the test’ is maligned as being a last resort when other teaching hasn’t worked as opposed to being an integral teaching process. Tests are disparaged as being damaging to students as opposed to a useful learning tool.

So there we go. Let’s start with the necessary conditions for a good education.

Starting with Why

I saw this Ted talk yesterday and I think it has illuminating resonance for me as a teacher.

In the talk, Simon Sinek identifies 3 stages of all communication: what, how and why. 

For example, as a teacher who wants my students to do the best they possibly can, what I want to happen is excellent behaviour, concentration and hard work in class and the completion of 100% of homework to the best of their ability. Typically I will start with this what

If not all students get on board with this, and I always find at least one of them in each class, then I move to the how. I will talk about how they should SLANT when I am talking, how they should do their homework as soon as it is set, how the harder they work the more they’ll learn, how much easier it is to concentrate on their work in a silent classroom.

What I rarely articulate is why I want students to do this. And why do I? Well, it could be that my job is on the line and I need them to ‘make 4 levels of progress in a year’. It could be that I construct all children as needing to do their best. It could be that it’s convenient for me to have obedient, hard-working students. I’ve been thinking about the why.

The reason I want students to work hard and have good behaviour is because I care about them doing their best. I’ve thought about it, read about it and argued about it and I’ve come to the conclusion that students will have the best chance of learning in a calm, focused environment where academic excellence and hard work are prized virtues.

That is my why. Sinek observes that the most successful, effective communicators start with the why. If I were to start with the why then my communication with my classes would run something like this:

  • I want you to do your best. More than that, I want all of you to achieve excellence in maths. At the end of the year I want you to be thinking you’ve never worked so hard in your life, that you know more about maths than you ever thought possible. You will be confident going into that end of year exam. You will have developed an excellent work ethic that will stay with you and make it easier for you to work hard in the future. You will know so much more than you do now, and that will make it easier for you to learn more in the future, as the more you know, the easier it is to know more.
  • This is not going to be easy. It is going to be worth it but it will not be easy, it will require hard work and discipline from you. We are going to minimise wasted time as much as possible. And when we’ve minimised it, we are going to get a stopwatch out and try to minimise it even more. You’re going to SLANT every time I ask for it, at the first time of asking. When I ask for silent working you are going to work in complete silence so that everyone in the class and can think clearly without distractions. You are going to do every piece of homework I set on the day I set it, to the best of your ability.
  • What people are going to see when they look in on this class is every single student doing their absolute best.

Of the many great ideas that I have read about from Joe Kirby, the boot camp has always struck me as being one of the most interesting. I think that is him starting with the why, and I think it might well be a good idea for every school and teacher to try this approach at the beginning of the year.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I took a couple of Philosophy modules in my first year of university. I was frustrated that I couldn’t write essays just based on my opinions. It’s taken me some time to realise that any decent idea I’ve ever had has been thought before, and with more clarity and better arguments.

After being on Twitter and working in an excellent department for some time now, I’ve gleaned enough good ideas to put forward some thoughts for teaching maths from KS3 to KS5.

1. Keep it simple. I think a good set of textbooks, traditional teaching, regular testing and preparing well for exams will lead to good outcomes for any school.

2. The biggest impact on results is out of control of a maths department, it is a strong whole-school behaviour policy.

I am fortunate in that the school I work in is exemplarary in this respect. The school’s systems including behavioural, homework, pastoral, and with interventions probably has a bigger effect than any of us maths teachers on the students’ improvement in maths.

3. Students enjoying maths is predicated on them learning maths. Prior to my Twitter journey, I thought that if I could get the students interested in the subject then they would learn it. I think I was completely wrong.

I like the analogy of learning an instrument, no one would expect to just jump into playing piano concertos, find it exciting and then learn how to play the piano from there. One has to start with practice and hard work on learning scales, it is as a result of this hard work that the joy of the music becomes apparent to the player.

4. Test the students a lot. It helps them learn.

5. Drilling is good. The more parts of maths students are fluent with the easier they will find it to learn more.

6. The more a student knows the easier they find it to learn more. Identify those who have a knowledge deficit as early as possible and intervene to close the gap.

7. Teachers are always pushed for time. Reduce marking to the essential. There is no evidence that a huge amount of time spent marking benefits the students in any way. This is not to say ‘don’t mark’, it is to say ‘consider the way time is used knowing how valuable time is to teachers’. Consider how feedback is different to assessment.

8. A huge amount of secondary school maths is built on the necessity of knowing Number well. Prioritise Number in Years 7 and 8, and use the excellent Times Tables Rockstars and Numeracy Ninjas to help with this.

9. Practise exam papers and past papers are hugely useful for students especially in the years running up to the GCSE and A-Level exams. Worth spending the money on photocopying.

10. Homework is hugely important at all Key Stages. Back to the learning an instrument analogy, no one would dream of turning up to music lessons expecting to learn their instrument only through those lessons, effective practising is key to learning anything.

11. Knowledge Organisers are a great idea.

12. If you want to learn how to be a better teacher, read David Didau and Daisy Cristodoulou for a start.

13. Targeted interventions can be very helpful. Kids seem more alert to listening in these.

14. Knowing your subject well is crucial. This is particularly apparent at KS5. The better I know A-Level maths the better I teach it. I think this is true at every Key Stage.

Department meetings would be usefully spent discussing the actual maths to be taught so all teachers end up knowing all topics inside out.

15. Teachers who are well rested and have a reasonable workload will be better in the classroom than those who are otherwise.

That’s enough for now. Thank you for all the wisdom. Apologies for not referencing and acknowledging.

Marking is not the same as feedback

Great post on the difference between marking and feedback by Toby French

Marking and feedback.Marking is feedback?Marking isn’t feedback.

A little while ago I wrote thisabout marking policies:

It’s the evidencing of new ways to do more of something we’re doing too much of anyway to please someone else which annoys me.

I’d read about a school which outsourced its marking. This annoyed me. The thought behind this plan was well-meaning: take away the pressure of marking so that teachers could focus on planning. But marking is planning, isn’t it? How would I get to know a student’s writing without reading it? How would I plan to help students without knowing how they wrote? It’s all very well the marker giving me feedback but that money could be better spent elsewhere, I thought.
There were lots of questions: Could the marker give feedback to students without knowing them? Was this necessarily a problem, or perhaps even a benefit? How would I…

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The role of the Teacher

This is the basis of a talk I am going to give my colleagues.


I’m talking today about the role of the teacher.

I’ll send round the notes from this talk later, and if there are any questions I’m happy to take them at the end.

The role of the teacher.

I’ll explain what I mean by this by discussing the role of the teacher as either ‘the sage on the stage’ or ‘the guide on the side’. In short, the ‘sage on the stage’ represents the Traditional teacher who stands at the front of the classroom, tells the students the facts of their subject, and then tests them to see if they’ve learned what they’ve been told.

The ‘guide on the side’ represents the Progressive teacher who facilitates the learning of the students, this teacher is a reaction to and rejection of the Traditional teacher, and views the idea of the ‘sage on the stage’ as being one who masks the joy of learning, and reduces the learning process to mindless memorisation of facts and then the regurgitation of these for exams.

I think these two roles are distinct, and I think that it is important for teacher to give consideration to them both, and to choose which one they prioritise in their role.

My argument today is teacher-led instruction, or the teacher’s role as the ‘sage on the stage’ is the far better role for a teacher to take. The Traditional approach is far better than the Progressive one. I could be wrong, but I think I’m right.

I’ll use analysis by Daisy Christodoulou to support my argument.

Daisy Christodoulou is the head of research at the Ark Academies, and is the author of the 2013 book ‘7 Myths About Education’. I am swayed by Christodoulou’s arguments, and I will point out that I’m not the only one. Dylan Wiliam, doyen of Educationalists, was so convinced by them that he ended up writing the forward to later editions of the book.

One of the myths Christodoulou identifies is the idea that ‘teacher-led instruction is passive’. Here is a summary of her argument about why pejorative or negative attitudes to teacher-led instruction has become an accepted view in Education, why it is a myth, and why teacher-led instruction is the better way to teach if you want students to become independent thinkers.

Chrostodoulou identifies Jean-Jaques Rousseau, the 18th Century philosopher; John Dewey, the early 20th Century Education reformer; and Paoulo Freire, the late 20th Century Educator as antecedents of the ‘guide on the side’ approach to the teacher’s role.

For example, Dewey stated that:

Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students

It is undeniable that this philosophical base has influenced how we teach right now. Not least because in the recent past Ofsted have encouraged this. Christodoulou makes the argument that in the years preceding the publication of her book in 2013, Ofsted  praised lessons in which the teacher’s role was as ‘the guide on the side.’

For example, in an Ofsted publication highlighting lessons exemplified as good practice: this is a description of  Y3 R.E. lesson about Angels (so kids who are 7 or 8 years old):

The teacher focused the enquiry by explaining to the pupils that they were on a quest for angels and asking them what thoughts and questions came to their minds when they heard the word ‘angels’. They were then given a number of questions to discuss in groups including: ‘What might/do angels look like?’; ‘What is their job?’; ‘Are they real or imaginary?’; ‘Are they like fairies?’ ‘What would you do if you met an angel?’; ‘What difference could an angel make?’ The outcomes were shared and recorded.

Here we can see that the students take control of the learning, the lesson is based on them thinking for themselves about Angels. There is no mention of transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the students. The students discuss what they already know about Angels, and the teacher’s role is to focus these thoughts into a discussion between the students.

Chistodoulou identifies that the perfectly reasonable reason that educators want to teach like this is that

they argue, correctly, that the aim of schooling should be for pupils to be able to work, learn, and solve problems independently. . they then assume… that the best method for achieving such independence is always to learn independently.

So there’s a plausible line of argument that has a philosophical base and a contemporary professional impetus for teachers to be the ‘guide on the side’.

If we agree that the purpose of schools is to produce students who can think critically for themselves, what is the argument against the role of the teacher as ‘guide on the side’?

Christodoulou argues that, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you want students to become good independent learners, then lots of teacher instruction is needed. So, for me as a maths teacher, if I want my students to become good problem solvers, then rather than giving them lots of problems to solve in the lessons with them actively thinking for themselves, my lessons should have a large proportion of them sitting quietly and listening attentively to me.

Christodoulou gives 3 main reasons for this: historical, theoretical and empirical.

Historical. Learning is neither natural nor easy. Language acquisition in terms of our mother tongue is natural, but almost everything else is not. For example the alphabet is a highly complex and abstract invention of civilisation. It is certainly not inevitable that children will pick up the written word, indeed there needs to be lots of formal, explicit instruction and practise. It is true that much of what we teach at school has been discovered. For example, Newton came up with ideas about gravity through observations of apples falling from a tree, but that does not mean that students will come up with the same insights if you take them to an orchid in Autumn. Newton was a genius, as teachers we can pass on his what he gave to the world through explanations, this seems to be clearly a better way than expecting students to realise what he realised through clever activities.

Theoretical: in recent years, cognitive science has given us many answers to the question of how one learns. One clear message is that the working memory can only hold a very limited amount of information at one time, so when students are learning a new concept if there is only minimal guidance given, students will struggle to filter out what they should be concentrating on, and become lost and frustrated. The argument from cognitive science is that


when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.

see this paper by Kirschner et al

Empirical. Christodoulou references Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement, where the researcher John Hattie found direct teacher instruction to be the third most powerful factor in teaching. This was only surpassed by feedback and instructional quality, both of which not in conflict with the sage on the stage role. In short, research backs up the historical and theoretical arguments made in favour of teacher-led instruction.

I would like to point out that subsequent to Christodoulou’s book, and probably partly as a result of it, there has been a clear move in the last few years for Ofsted to move away from exclusively praising lessons with minimal teacher talk. Ofsted’s new Inspection Booklet written in 2014 states that

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style… inspectors should not expect to see periods of pupils working on their own, or in groups in all lessons, and should not make the assumption that this is always necessary, desirable or even effective, which would clearly depend on the quality and challenge of the work set. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly expected to sit and listen to teachers, which of itself is an ‘active’ method through which knowledge and understanding can be acquired effectively.

see this blog by David Didau

Based on this it seems clear to me that Ofsted are saying that teachers and schools are free to choose how to teach based on what works in terms of students learning.

I’ll finish by saying that I think there can be problems with the role of the teacher as the sage on the stage. For example, if there is no effort from the teacher to work out whether the students are learning what has been explained, or if the explanations given are overly complex. However, this does not make an argument for doing away with teacher-led instruction. It makes an argument for good and improved teacher-led instruction.

To summarise, I have used arguments from Daisy Christodoulou to exemplify the tension in the position of the teacher as either the guide on the side or the sage on the stage. They are in close physical proximity, however I am asserting there is a profound pedagogical chasm between them and that a teacher must decide which role they are to take. My position is clear: the sage on the stage is the far better choice.

Thank you

Has anyone got any questions?



Seven Myths about Education by Daisy Christodoulou (2013, Routledge)