Sonny – the prequel

This is a precursor, or prequel if you like, to my blog about a teacher who never tries to motivate, engage or win over his students.

This is a fiction and is set 10 years or so before the original blog. Although it’s a fiction, and describes an unusual approach to teaching, I think it’s still plausible. 

Sonny had never met another teacher like himself, that it is to say a teacher who didn’t believe in rules and discipline.

A teacher who felt that students would be as justified in their disobedience as any adult forced to enter an institution not of their own volition. A teacher who thought that the only worthwhile learning was that which was willingly entered into by the students. Sonny had never met one.

It was hard to have these beliefs and not to be able to share them with people. He knew that he was right. You only had to read The way it spozed to be or or the gospel How Children Fail to see that traditional ways of teaching just don’t work. Aligning teaching to children’s natural proclivities was self-evidently the way to teach. Occasionally, when observing other teachers who had a ‘chalk and talk’ way of teaching, Sonny actually felt physically ill. How could this be what graduates thought teaching was about? How could intelligent people not have the wit to grasp that children needed to figure things out for themselves? It was the teachers job to make this happen.

Sonny was sure that the students in his classroom were learning. They were engaged in mathematical activities so they couldn’t not be learning. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what they were learning, but then learning wasn’t quantifiable. For Sonny, teaching was all about engagement, if the students were engaged with a mathematical task, then they were learning.

Engagement was also the most important aspect of his planning. It was a simple idea that was infinitely complex. What every lesson needed was a starter activity, this activity had to be designed so that all students could access it (I’ll come to Sonny’s beliefs about the notion of ‘ability’ imminently) and through doing the activity the students needed to arrive at a question about the work which Sonny could then answer. What was the point of telling students things unless they had first asked the question? Getting these starter activities together was just another seemingly impossible task that teaching seemed to be full of, but Sonny was sure it was the aspect of teaching to focus on.

An IQ test tests one’s ability to do an IQ test. It was as simple as that. Since it was impossible to determine the ability of students in his class, Sonny would ignore any attempts to try and differentiate work for students. If the starter activity was right, then all students would learn. All he had to do was get that starter activity right. It would engage the students, motivate them to be interested in what he had to say, and poor behaviour would become a canard in any school.

Sonny felt his approach to teaching was truly egalitarian. There was no discrimination on the basis of ‘ability’ or ‘behaviour’. It was an approach that met the students eye-to-eye and appreciated them exactly as they were. They didn’t need to change for him. If they were badly behaved then that was a message for Sonny to change his lesson for the better.

This all ended in tears and guilt and students not getting the education they deserved. Hopefully there is some redemption in Sonny’s current story.


Should one speak up?

Some years ago I took a coach tour in northern provinces of India. The fields of
green mustard leaves behind the trees sparsely lining the road between Agra and
Jaipur were radiant against the pale blue mountains in the distance.
“Look at the women in the fields,” prompted one of my fellow tourists, “aren’t
their saris beautiful.” And indeed they were. Though quite a distance away and
mainly bending down, working in the leaves, the women dazzled in purples and
blues and reds, each one different, jewels in Rajasthan’s own vast emerald silk sari.
The other passengers on the coach agreed and cooed and photographed and felt
happy in the warm sun and the mild intoxication of beer at lunchtime. As a
sociologist I felt obliged to speak.
“What about the men?” I asked.
“What do you mean, there aren’t any men; we haven’t seen any men?”
“Yes you have, you saw them in the villages that we’ve driven through. What
colours were they wearing?”
“Well, mainly drab khakis and greys.”
“So you probably wouldn’t notice them even if they were in the fields.”
“Tell me, in an agricultural environment in which people work spread out over a
large area that is pretty much monochrome, what do you think is the best way to
ensure that you can keep control of your women and still be free to get up to
whatever takes your fancy?” My colleagues were aghast.
“You’ve ruined our afternoon.” And so I had, and perhaps mine as well

– Paul Dowling, Sociology as Method, 2009

Did he really need to speak up?

Notes about Sonny: relationships with students.

This is in response to my last post, about a teacher who never attempts to engage, motivate or win over his students.

  • Sonny’s interactions with the students outside class are similar to those he has with any children, for example the children of colleagues. He is pleasant, kind, helpful and interested in their lives. He respects them and expects them to be able to have a pleasant, reasonable, thoughtful conversation with him about their lives. I think this is how most people would like to see their interactions with other people’s children. I want to draw a distinction here with what he doesn’t do: he doesn’t attempt to be friends with them; he doesn’t try to imagine what they might be interested in and talk about that; he doesn’t talk about himself very much; and he doesn’t ever feel the need to change who he is for the sake of the students.
  • Sonny’s interactions with the students in class are solely focused on learning his subject. Every aspect of his teaching serves this purpose. His planning is focused on the best way that his students will learn his subject. What he asks students to do in terms of listening to his explanations, asking and answering questions, and practising are all tailored to learning his subject in the best possible way. His belief is that becoming proficient in his subject is the best way that it can become relevant to his students’ lives. By doing their best, and learning the best that has been thought and said, students will be enjoying their wonderful intellectual inheritance. They’ll be able to join in with the great conversations of humankind that have played out over the centuries, and perhaps put themselves into a position to make positive contributions to those conversations. What he doesn’t do is: try to make his subject relevant to students by trying to match it to their current interests; make learning the subject anything other than the main priority in the lesson; avoid the reality that learning is difficult and requires effort and patience.

Both points here are made easier by the fact that Sonny works in a well-run school with an excellent behaviour policy. It is much harder to behave in this reasonable way when schools demand that teachers have the responsibility for ‘engaging’ their students before they start working hard. It is difficult for teachers to behave like Sonny if they are constantly facing a lack of courtesy and respect from students.

A story about a Teacher who never attempts to engage, motivate or win over his students.

This is a story about a teacher, it’s a fiction.

Sonny wants to teach well, he wants his students to have the best possible Education. As he casts his gaze around his classroom he thinks to himself “what could I be doing better?” He’s been teaching for ten years; never promoted.

The school he’s been working at for the past few years is a modern-day, typical secondary comprehensive boys school in London. That is to say it’s successful. Students, the majority of them on free school meals, make excellent progress and by all measures the school comfortably outperforms the national average.

As an intelligent adult, Sonny has reflected on his practice over the years, and read a fair few contemporary books on Education. He sees it as an exciting time to be a teacher: practices which he considered to be unhelpful and missing the point in Education, such as graded lesson observations have stopped, and intelligent, well-articulated views on how to teach well are being asserted. How he teaches has changed a lot over the years, and he thinks very much for the better.

His approach to teaching is fairly closely aligned to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, wonderfully augmented here by Oliver Caviglioli’s visuals:

Principles of Instruction

So here is Sonny, September 2017, teaching a new set of classes. It just so happens that there are very few students that he knows from previous years in his classes. This is how he teaches:

  1. He sets out his expectations for behaviour right from the start. “I’m a good teacher and a nice guy. You’ll learn a huge amount from me this year. I have certain expectations about how you will behave in this classroom, these are expectations that are for every single lesson. First, I like to greet you as you come through the door, this is me showing you that I have respect for you and I want you to have a great lesson. I want you to give me a nice greeting back, to show that you have respect for me, and that you are coming into the lesson prepared to try your best. Second, there will always be work on the board for you to do when you come into the classroom. You sit down first, then take your book, equipment and planner out, write down the title and date and start the work. This happens every single lesson. The work on the board will be testing things you have already been taught. This is a crucial part of learning. Practising recalling what you have studied previously will help to make sure you still know it in your exams at the end of the year, and that you still know it as an adult. My view is that the more you learn, the easier it is to learn more. Let’s make sure you learn a huge amount so that you’ll find it easier in the future to learn more, be that at a great university or a fantastic job. So, a pleasant greeting at the door, and starting the work which will help you to learn what you have studied previously: sounds good? It is good, it’s a pleasant experience. It’s also a difficult one. Learning is difficult. I recognise that and I want to do everything in my power to make it as straightforward as possible, but I’m not going to pretend it’s going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy to learn a huge amount, but I can promise you, with all my experience, and with all my heart, that it is worth it. Learning is valuable, getting an Education is wonderful. For me, the right of everyone in this class to learn is sacrosanct, that is to say I will not accept anyone behaving in a way that obstructs other people from learning. To be clear about this, I have some rules for the classroom: you must sit up straight, learning is difficult and you won’t be putting enough into it if you are slouched over your desk. You must listen to me, what I have to say is the most important part of the lesson, I am an expert in this subject, and you will learn a huge amount by listening to me. When I want you to listen I will also ask you to put your pens down, so the focus is completely on me and what I am saying. I want you to ask and answer questions, putting your hands up is the way to do this. I do not accept any calling out, it is disruptive to the learning of other students. The last point is, I want you to treat each other with respect. I call this behaviour STAR.”
  2. Sonny knows that this is too much information to have been received all at once, but he has visual reminders in the classroom of the key points, and he will revisit these messages regularly. He will also talk about how important it is for him to have silence when he asks for it. It is important in two ways: first, when students are listening to him, they need silence to concentrate on what he is saying, and second, when students are practising their work, they need silence to be able to think clearly about it.
  3. In fact, in every single lesson that Sonny teacher, after the questions on the board at the beginning of the lesson are marked, he will get the students to put their pens down, listen to him and remind them about STAR behaviour and the need for silence in lessons. He will remind them that learning is sacrosanct in his classroom. He will remind them that he believes learning to be wonderful and how he knows that it can be difficult but that he is sure that it is worth it. He will commend them on the great work they have already been doing and stress how good their habits have become. He will genuinely be excited about the progress they are making.
  4. In preparing his lessons, Sonny will think of Rosenshine’s principles and draw from his knowledge of how students learn each topic best. He has become aware of the value of knowing ever more about his subject and reads widely on it. He will never consider how to engage the students, he knows that they will listen and try their best. If they don’t, he speaks to them about it and reminds them of his expectations and how far they’ve already come. He reminds them that he knows that it is hard but it will all be worth it. Motivation is not a word that Sonny considers, he wants students to listen to him and try their best, it is as clear and as reasonable as that. Sometimes Sonny finds that the students want to know more about his subject than he is teaching them. This is always an enjoyable moment for Sonny, and when the time is right, and he knows that telling them more won’t confuse them about the main points of the lesson, he goes off-piste a little and adds some more colour to his teaching.
  5. Sonny is a nice guy doing an important job. He speaks nicely to kids and enjoys their company; he frequently stops to chat to them as he walks through the playground. On the occasions that students are rude to him he challenges it, and tell the students they are better than that, and that he expects them to be pleasant and kind.


Getting a great night’s sleep by @rufuswilliam

Starter for Five

Name: Rufus
Twitter name: @rufuswilliam
Sector: Secondary
Subject taught (if applicable): Maths
Position: Lead Coach
What is your advice about? Getting a great night’s sleep

  1. A school night? No alcohol, no caffeine after midday, and milk & honey before bed.
  2. Have a hot bath with Epsom salts.
  3. Read in the evenings, don’t work or go on Twitter or watch TV.
  4. Go to bed at 10 pm, don’t ever set the alarm for earlier than 6.
  5. No one ever finishes all their work to their desired standard every day. Set a time each day which you won’t ever work beyond and stick to it.

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Phrases to use in the classroom by @rufuswilliam

Starter for Five

Name: Rufus
Twitter name: @rufuswilliam
Sector: Secondary
Subject taught (if applicable): Maths
Position: Lead Coach
What is your advice about? Phrases to use in the classroom

  1. “Only 3/4/5 more students to start the work.”
  2. “100% of you working hard, well done”
  3. “Show me that you’re listening.”
  4. “I know that it’s not easy or natural for you to be sitting here concentrating and working hard but I still expect it. Working hard, learning lots, and getting into good habits will have huge benefits for you in your life.”
  5. This last one is for near the beginning of every single lesson. “A reminder about my expectations: when I ask for silence I expect exactly that and when I ask you to show me that you’re listening I expect you to have nothing in your hands and to be looking at me.”

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What Australian parents need to know about the maths wars

I agree with all of this.

Filling the pail

Following my piece on the reading wars, I thought it would be worth writing a brief for parents on the maths wars. These are not as high profile as the reading wars but they have had a similar impact, especially in the area of early numeracy.

1. What is ‘constructivism’ and why does it matter?

Constructivism is a theory about how we learn. It quite reasonably claims that children are not blank slates. Instead, they relate new knowledge to things that they already know. These are organised as ‘schema’ in the mind. It is the process of ‘constructing’ these schema that gives ‘constructivism’ its name.

As far as this goes, there is little to disagree with. Effective teachers will always try to tease out what students already know and give examples and analogies that they can relate to. Learning how to do this is part of learning the craft…

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The implications of cognitive science for teachers – an introduction

Today, I’m talking about teaching as seen through the lens of cognitive science.

Cognitive science in education is the study of how the mind learns.

I’m going to use as my main reference this book by Prof Dan Willingham.

Why by Dan Willingham

It’s called ‘Why don’t students like school?’

The answer to this question, from a cognitive science perspective is that we do not align our teaching enough with how students learn.

This book has been acclaimed by leading Educationalists such as Dylan Wiliam, as well as the Schools Minister Nick Gibb. It lies in that great space where government policy and the expertise of those involved in Education, overlap. A space that in my view, is getting larger and larger.

I’m nailing my colours to the mast and saying that this book is a must-read for every teacher and it should influence all our teaching practice. My view is that knowledge of cognitive science in Education is a necessary part of being a teacher.

I wouldn’t however go so far as to say it is a sufficient view of Education, clearly there are aspects of teaching that do not fall under its gaze. Also, I understand that some people disagree with some of the arguments in this book and I’m happy to listen to those disagreements. I’ll send round the text of my talk afterwards and anyone who wants to disagree with some, or all, of what I say here: I welcome those responses.

To the first point

There is a qualitative difference in how novices and experts learn.

In other words, the way that one thinks about a subject is substantially different when one is a novice to when one becomes an expert.

Students at school are novices. There may be the odd exception, perhaps a student who has achieved expertise on a musical instrument outside of school, but these students will be the exception and should be taught as exceptions. If we rounded it to the nearest percent, 100% of students are novices.

This is significant for us, especially as secondary school teachers, because we are experts in the subjects we teach. Studying a degree in our subjects has given us the mental representations, or schemas, that our students simply do not and cannot have.

This gap between our knowledge of our subjects and the students’ knowledge is sometimes called the curse of knowledge. The more we know about our subject the harder it can become for us to walk in the shoes of a student and view what we are teaching through the eyes of a novice.

Novices have less background knowledge than experts and they also approach problems differently. If I have a problem in maths, I can take an overview of the subject to help me see where I’ve gone wrong whereas novices can’t see the wood for the trees so to speak.

To overcome the curse of knowledge and try and see how our students are going to learn it is helpful to look at what we are teaching and then break that topic down into smaller and smaller parts to see all the components involved. Some people call this process atomisation.

For example, anyone who’s done a maths degree can solve any GCSE problem about Similarity in under a minute, but when I atomised the steps I needed to teach this topic to Y10s, I realised there were 22 components that I wanted to cover. Seven of these I would have expected to them to have learned in previous years and I wanted to recap, and this left me with 15 new components that I wanted to explicitly teach and model and give worked examples on for this topic in about 10 lessons.

The implication here for teaching is that a problem solving approach to teaching, or minimally guided teaching where students learn things for themselves, or derive things for themselves, or do research for themselves, is not helpful for novices. The implication is that students need explicit teaching on new concepts and topics, topics which have been broken down into the components that make up the whole, and these components need lots of good explanations, modelling and worked examples from the teacher.

The second point

People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers.

From a cognitive science perspective the human mind is designed to avoid thinking as much as possible. The brain devotes much more of its energy on seeing or moving, for example, than thinking. Compared to our ability to see and move, thinking is slow, uncertain and effortful.

So, if we’re not designed for thinking, how do we do so many complex things each day?

The answer is very simple: most of the things we do each day, we’ve done before and learned already. If we encounter a new situation, we just think about what we did in a similar situation before and do that.

From a cognitive science perspective we are using our long term memory. Our long term memory stores all the facts we know, but also our strategies to guide what we should do. For example, it holds the names of our friends, the names of famous historical people, how to drive a car (if we drive), how to handle minor disputes between Y7s, how to cook dinner, how to respond appropriately to those in authority, and so on. For almost all the time, we are operating on autopilot, using our accumulated knowledge of the world stored in our long term memory.

One of the best examples is driving. It is a complex, unnatural thing to do that takes a lot of effort, but once we have learned it, we can drive singing along to songs or daydreaming about the weekend, a complex skill just becomes automatic when we have learned it. And when we have learned something it becomes part of our long term memory.

So thinking is not natural, but we are naturally curious. I would think most of us here want to know the works of Shakespeare or to speak more than one language, or to be able to play a musical instrument, and I think that’s true of students too, they’re interested in thinking.

From a cognitive science perspective, curiosity can be capitalised on when learning is successful, so for example, when one successfully solves a problem, the brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine. The other side to this is that unsuccessful thinking, such as trying to work through a problem that results in one getting completely lost strangles curiosity, and thinking about work that is trivial results in no pleasurable reward. This is the Goldilocks principle: we need to pitch our work as just challenging enough for success. If students routinely find the work we set too easy or too difficult then their natural curiosity is likely to be dampened.

My contention is that we often, unwittingly, make thinking far too hard for students, and this is the result of a lack of understanding of cognitive science. Willingham has a very simple model of the mind that can help us, he calls it ‘just about the simplest model of the mind that is possible.

model of the mind Willingham

In terms of how our students learn, the environment is our classroom and in particular our teaching. The long-term memory is, as we’ve seen, everything we’ve learned. And the crucial third part of the picture? That’s the working memory. It’s my view that teaching is fundamentally about getting students to transfer what we are teaching from the working memory to the long term memory. The oft-repeated quote that is relevant here is ‘if nothing has changed in the long term memory, nothing has been learned‘.

I’ll say that again: teaching is about getting students to transfer what we are teaching from their working memory to their long term memory.

As teachers, first we have to put what we want to be learnt into students’ working memory, lets focus on this. The working memory is where we do our thinking, and as I’ve said, we are hardwired to avoid this if we can. For the vast majority of the time we rely on our long term memories. When we are introduced to new concepts, and this is what students experience every day, we take in the new information and combine it with what we know from our long term memories and try to make sense of it.

Our working memories are very limited in terms of what they can think about at one time.

Our long-term memory is effectively infinite in size, but our working memories can handle only about 5 – 9 things at one time.

The implications of this on our teaching are huge. The very limited size of our working memories means that new concepts should be taught in small chunks. Trying to take in too much new information at one time leads to what is often called cognitive overload. My view is that students very often experience cognitive overload due to the difficulty for us as teachers in seeing new concepts from a novice’s point of view, the curse of knowledge.

Not only should new information be taught in small chunks, it should be made as clear and as explicit as possible, so that students have the best chance of taking it on board. Any extraneous details such as unnecessarily flashing power points, or obscure jargon, or trying to get the students to discover the information for themselves only serve to reduce the chance that students will grasp what you are explaining to them. This is also why modelling and worked examples are so useful when students encounter new information. Thinking about new concepts is not natural, it’s difficult and it needs a lot of care when delivered by a teacher.

The last point I want to discuss today is how information in the working memory transfers to the long term memory and can then be said to have been learned. We have all had the experience where students have grasped well what we are teaching during the lesson and yet three weeks later can’t even remember being taught it in the first place.

There are two solutions to this that might sound obvious but I want to suggest often get overlooked.

  1. Practice. It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice. I’ll suggest that practice of what has been taught in a small chunk, in silence is of huge benefit to the students; and
  2. Retrieval practice. In other words, regular low stakes testing of what has already been taught. All subjects do revision before exams, but what I am talking about is testing students either verbally, or, for example, with questions on the board as they enter the classroom that test not just last lessons work, but last months, last terms and last years – any work that you know they will have been taught already.

Let me sum up what I have spoken about in terms of how it can affect how you teach your lessons.

The last thing I mentioned was retrieval practice, the low stakes questioning that assists in transferring new concepts from the working memory to the long term memory: this can be done at the start of every lesson. Students come in and do a recap quiz.

The fact that thinking is not easy and the working memory is very limited combined with the qualitative difference in how novices and experts learn has huge implications for how we introduce new concepts to our students. We need to be aware of the curse of knowledge and attempt to look at what we’re teaching through the eyes of a novice, breaking it down into small components which we teach clearly and explicitly, model and give worked examples on.

Transferring new concepts into the long term memory requires extensive practice. Long periods of silence with students practicing what you have just taught them is favourable in the extreme in terms of learning.

This manifests itself as an alternative 3 part lesson:

  1. Recap quiz
  2. Clear, explicit explanation, modelling and worked examples
  3. Practice