Is my teaching practice rooted in ideology?

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist

– John Maynard Keynes (1936)

I wonder if it’s possible to be a teacher free from the influence of ideology; a pragmatist maybe

I was taught on my PGCE by a wonderful person, perhaps the kindest of anyone I’ve met. Blown away is how I would describe my experience of learning to teach. Seduced by the art of pedagogy as it was presented to me, I retain an enormous enthusiasm for teaching and learning ten years on.

How Children Fail by John Holt was not a part of the course, but somehow I came to get a copy and the compassion for children evident in that book augmented my views about Education. He had a precept for teaching that held sway with me:

Learning is not the product of teaching; learning is the product of the activity of learners

– John Holt (1984)

Recently I had some painful thoughts reading an interesting blog by Tim Taylor. He quotes the 1967 Plowden Report:

In a single class there may be children who are regularly and perhaps brutally thrashed at home

– quoted in this blog by Tim Taylor

That’s difficult to read isn’t it.

I am with everyone who stands for the rights of children. I am intensely opposed to corporal punishment, and to think it was outlawed only as recently as 1986 sends shivers down my spine.

I’m a teacher, and I have some influence in the way that my students are treated. I want it to be with dignity and respect. I want students to have the freedom to learn the best that has been thought and said, to go to school knowing they will be in a calm, safe environment, and to celebrate our shared cultural history. I want them to know the plays of Shakespeare, to know this history of our country and the world, and to know the details of our scientific progress. Our children have a wonderful intellectual inheritance.

I’m interested in the best way to achieve this, and surprisingly to me, I’ve come to the conclusion that the way that I was taught on my PGCE, the way that John Holt advocates, is wrong. For example, the idea that students learn best by realising things for themselves through an activity had been presented to me on my PGCE as self-evident. I have spent innumerable hours attempting to come up with clever Starter activities in which students would come to realise what I wanted them to learn by engaging in the activity. This was hard work, but much worse: I believe it was a worse way for students to learn a concept than I if I had told them clearly at the beginning of the lesson.

I have to come to realise that my introduction to teaching on my PGCE was firmly rooted in Progressive Ideology. I accept that and there is a huge body of work in Sociology to back up this Ideology. And there is a tradition, of which John Holt is an example, of teachers who believe it’s the best way to teach. The problem I have here is that I was unaware at the time that this way of teaching was part of an Ideology and I wasn’t introduced to any competing ideologies. It is perhaps a bit like being taught a course on political science by conservatives where only conservatism is studied.

And this is where my belief that ideologies in Education should be explicitly acknowledged and discussed comes from. It was unknown to me, but ideas and ideals that had been presented to me as self-evidently the best way to teach have actually been argued about for centuries. There is a historical debate in Education between Traditionalism and Progressivism.

So, I come back to my question about pragmatism, is it possible to just be a pragmatic teacher, free from ideology, who just does what works? 

I certainly believe it’s common to see oneself as such. I was one, and the reason I was was because I was simply unaware that I had been introduced to anything apart from the right way to teach. It is true that these ideologies are rarely talked about by teachers in the staffroom and this is because it is impossible to free oneself from a system of thought if there seems to be no alternative. This is why I think it is damaging to affect that these ideologies are unimportant.

Tim Taylor (who, let me be clear, is someone I have a lot of time for) argues here that ‘most people are somewhere in the middle, neither entirely traditionalist nor entirely progressive’ and I agree. The difference I have with his view is that teachers are not choosing different tenets from the two ideologies, for the most part teachers are unaware of the ideologies, so what they are doing is blindly going with what seems to work for the students. The problem with this is that what one thinks works is very much dependent on the ideology that one’s views are rooted in. This is made apparent in Ofsted inspections of the recent past. Daisy Christodoulou, in her book 7 Myths of Education, analyses Ofsted’s subject reports of good practice and finds that the overwhelming majority of lessons that are praised are ones that I will infer as rooted in Progressive Ideology, that is to say they follow Holt’s precept.

I have experienced this. A few years ago, when my Progressive teaching was at its apotheosis I had a lesson observation from a well regarded consultant who was working with our school for a year. I was warned by my colleagues that this person would do me no favours and was extremely tough. The feedback came through and I had got a 1 (Outstanding) on every aspect of the lesson with the comment that it was ‘a stunning learning experience’. Now, it would be extremely difficult for me to start to think that actually this wasn’t the right way to teach if I was not exposed to alternative analyses of teaching practices wouldn’t it? It is clear to me now that that lesson was not the best way to teach the students but I would not have reached that conclusion had I not been made aware of the differing ideologies.

I know that all teachers want to pass on knowledge, we also all want our students to be treated with dignity and to come out of school with healthy self-esteem. It is in our ideologies that we differ in how this is best achieved. Lets get the debate about traditionalism and progressivism in teaching out into the open so that every teacher can have the knowledge to choose what they think is the right way to teach. 



Forging good relationships

Students relationship with the school

Tweeted by @sirnewmalot on the 14th July 2017

You cannot make children respect or heed you or view your directions with value. But you can build it over time if you are reliable, resolute, obviously care about them academically and as people, but are stubborn enough to be consistent and retain high expectations wherever happens. Don’t try to curry favour with children. Don’t bribe them; don’t fawn or beg them to behave. Build a culture where they want to behave. Be the teacher.

Getting Behaviour Right from the Start by Tom Bennett

 It seems clear to me: either we expect students to listen to us instantly, to follow our instructions, and we back that expectation up, or we don’t expect it. Either we expect respect for teachers, or we allow students to talk back, challenge, lie to our faces, or follow instructions only after a sullen delay.

Respect by Hin-Tai

Good relationships with students are not a necessary precursor to good classroom management. And ‘good relationships’ is itself a nebulous term. Here, I try to unpick the sense from the nonsense, with implications for every teacher, not just ones at the start of their careers. 

One of my favourite former colleagues, Dan, was a brilliant mathematician. He’d gone to Cambridge to study maths, and was in his 30s when he worked with us, clearly he’d kept up his intellectual interests after university and I would often encounter interesting ideas for the first time through him. He came to the school on supply, having not managed to keep down a permanent job. (Please note that this was at a previous school to the one I am working in now.)

One of the things about Dan was that he dressed unusually. He also had an unusual manner. His looks lent themselves to him quickly gaining a pejorative nickname with the students, an unpleasant use of mockery that I have no time for. Incredibly to me, I heard some staff using the same name about him, how pathetic of those staff.

I learnt a lot of maths from him, he was knowledgeable and would think about my questions and then give me nice, clear explanations. He was a natural teacher. And at the end of the term? He wasn’t asked to come back.

Were his lessons terrible? No. He was diligent and hard working and he was always interested in improving his practice. He could have improved, as we all can, and he had the same problems as all staff do who join a new school, but the lessons were fine and his classes’ results were in line with the rest of the departments. So why didn’t we keep him?

I believe it’s because people thought he was weird. People thought how is he going to build strong relationships with the students? Our students were denied the expertise of a brilliant mathematician because of the idiotic view that teachers have to forge good relationships with their students prior to them learning. This is the wrong way round, as Tom Bennett says in the quote at the start, good relationships with students are the product of good teaching.

The quoted tweet at the start is key here. If the students expected to behave and do their best for every teacher, I have no doubt that Dan would have won them over. I have no doubt that he would have become extremely popular. Kids like teachers who teach them well; who know a lot and can communicate it well. Forging good relationships is about the relationship between the school culture and the student. If the culture is clearly: students must respect their teachers and do their best in lessons, then we don’t have to worry about supply teachers or teachers who initially look a bit different.

If the culture is not expressed like this clearly, then teachers can still use the culture of ‘school’ in general terms. We can connect students with the culture of needing to do their best, to learn our subjects well, to be knowledgeable, to form good habits and to respect our expertise.

Our expectations as teachers, as Hin-Tai says must be that they do what we want them to do. Students get a great deal out of the Education system, our relationships with them must be built on respect for the institution of school.

Clever, thoughtful, plausible ideas can be wrong

It is galling to think that someone who has given no thought to an issue can be right whilst another person who has spent years thinking about that same issue can be wrong, but this is the case.

Let me give you an example: on my PGCE I was told that rather than memorise large amounts of small chunks, students found it easier to attempt to understand big ideas that incorporated these small chunks. So, instead of breaking down new ideas into small chunks, I should teach the big idea holistically, thereby reducing the amount of seemingly arbitrary knowledge a students would have to remember and increasing their conceptual understanding. My PGCE tutors were good people, who had put a tremendous amount of thought into teaching: they were well read and had clear, sound arguments for making this case.

Cut to me working in a school on my placement, and teachers in my department telling me that the way I was going wrong in my teaching was that I wasn’t ‘breaking it down’ enough. When I asked way I should teach like that, I was told, with some exasperation, that it was obvious: kids need to learn things in small chunks and master those small chunks before moving on. The only argument they had for their way, beyond their own observations, was that this was the way everyone had always taught it. A line of argument that I came to despise.

Now, I think teaching in small chunks is definitely the right way for students to learn, and that my PGCE tutors were wrong. It’s taken well researched arguments and articles such as Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction to convince me, and I have changed my mind.

The people who had put a huge amount of reason and effort into determining what was right turned out to be wrong, and those who had just done thing because that was the way they’d always been done were right. I think that this is:

  1. Counter-intuitive and plays against the logic we all like to think lies behind the things we do; and
  2. Very uncomfortable to realise.

The line of argument that I despise? This is the way we’ve always done it has validity and I am wrong to despise it. If a method of teaching has always been used, then there are probably very good reasons for this, even if the person using the argument can’t explain what these are.

All this brings me to debates in Education. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it may be, people who have put a great deal of thought into their views on Education, and have come up with clever, plausible arguments can be completely wrong. Now, if I put myself in the shoes of one such person: a person with reason, thought, logic and evidence behind my ideas; ideas that have been championed and supported by colleagues. And then someone comes along and tells me that I’m wrong? I’m going to suggest that it will be very hard for me not to be affronted, even offended by this challenge.

And this is where Educational debates can become uncomfortable. My view is that the standard response to this challenge is for the person who is challenged to first seek to show that they’re right, and then if this fails, to show that they are at least partially right.

I think that when people want to show that they are at least partially right, they are using the fallacy of the golden mean. That is, when there are two distinct views, the fallacy is that the truth lies somewhere between them. This is very rarely, if ever, the case and the reality is that someone will be right and someone will be wrong. In my example, it cannot be partially right that students learn better by being taught a concept in a holistic way: either they learn better by being taught new information in small chunks or they don’t, there’s no middle compromise to assuage the feelings of everyone involved.

It’s not pleasant, I wish it wasn’t true, but sometimes even with a huge amount of intelligence, good intentions and reasoned arguments one can still be wrong.


A lot of talk about teaching is nonsense.

Is that harsh? Can I not say that?

I’ve had CPD in a past school that was pure, unadulterated nonsense. The educational consultant presented nothing based on evidence or research and mainly said the word engage quite loudly over and over. This caused a lot of fun to be had at the pub later, but clearly there are serious implications to it as well.

If some of my former colleagues had brought into the consultant’s ideas then I have no doubt they would be taking a backwards step in their practice.

Should this not be called out?

All opinions about teaching are not equally valid.

If there are 100 ideas about how to teach it does not follow that the best way is somewhere in the middle. The best ways to teach are those based on what has been proven to work.

Giving credence to outdated, unhelpful ideas only serves to make things worse for our students.

No one wants to make people feel bad for having an opinion, but far more importantly, no one wants the teaching profession to be suffused with nonsensical ideas just because they sound creative and ‘cool’.

Calling out bad ideas is not hating, it’s helping us all become a better profession.

Embedding Great Habits

To say it is hard work to embed new habits is a huge understatement.

Embedding great behaviour in classes is something that is completely bizarrely not frequently discussed. Some nonsense about getting the lessons right equating with good behaviour has become a prevalent belief. More nonsense about behaviour being simply all about ‘positive relationships’ has further muddied the water.

The result is that teachers don’t spend enough time thinking about and talking about straightforward methods to front-load behaviour expectations. Often, good behaviour is expected and behaviour is only discussed after things have gone wrong.

I have come up with a great, simple way to get all teachers to talk about behaviour with their classes. It is a challenge to commit to this for every day of the first half-term starting in September 2017. Visit the website and sign up! There will be more details in September.

Minimal effort; huge impact.

Behaviour Challenge

Learning in 2017

Some of the things I’ve learned/ realised this year about teaching. In no particular order:

  • Saying ‘just two more students to start working’ is more effective than naming those students.
  • Teach Like A Champion is a wonderfully helpful book, even though I think the name of it is terrible. For me this year, the section on routines has been hugely helpful.
  • Rote Learning, memorisation, and procedural learning are essential to the learning process.
  • Progressive ideology was at the heart of my PGCE.
  • Having an entrance routine for all students is beneficial.
  • SLANT is a useful summary of good student behaviours in class.
  • Teachers provide a wonderful service for society; we should demand respect.
  • Silence should be expected whenever a teacher wants it.
  • Modelling the hardest work is important.
  • I have 3 modes to my teaching: assertive authoritative/ too relaxed and jokey/ irate. Clearly assertive authoritative is the one to be in 100% of the time. I’m in it for about 70 to 80% of the time at the moment.
  • Warm and strict is a good way to think about the demeanor of strong teachers.
  • Having very high expectations of students results in some students (the ones who are not used to being called to account for poor behaviour) complaining.
  • The vast majority of kids and parents want strong discipline. I have been supported a lot by parents this year, and have had kids seek me out to apologise for their behaviour

Nailing Behaviour Management

Lets get to the point quickly. What should all classroom teachers do to nail behaviour management?

  • Be very clear about the rules in your classroom. Tell the story about why it is so important and how it reflects the sky-high expectations you have for all your students.
  • Simultaneously be strict on the rules and warm and relaxed. Never shout.
  • Embed routines such as SLANT, entering and exiting the classroom, and gaining 100% silence when you want it. Practice this until the students know these without having to think about it.
  • Follow through with consequences for those who break the fair rules. Be clear to everyone: the students, the parents and fellow teachers about how important your rules are for all students to succeed.

Easier said than done I know.

*All of this is far, far easier with strong, clear whole-school policies.

The Understanding Paradox

No one wants students who don’t understand the meaning of their subject; we don’t want our students to merely regurgitate facts devoid of context, or for them to know how to answer questions in an exam yet have no idea what these things mean outside of an exam hall. And yet, on the path to understanding it is unavoidable that our students will often have to learn things that perhaps they feel they don’t fully understand, and will have to memorise things devoid of context. This is what I call The Understanding Paradox.

My view is that teachers attempting to bypass the memorisation and rote learning part of teaching in order to ‘teach for understanding’ can have disastrous consequences for students.

I want to illustrate my point by discussing trigonometry. You might remember it from school, and if you do, you probably remember SOHCAHTOA, the mnemonic device used by pretty much everyone in the UK to learn it. If you didn’t take Maths beyond GCSE or O-level then you might wonder what on Earth it was all about and I know many people feel that they have zero understanding of it.

I have heard it argued, including on my PGCE, that the idea that people who learned SOHCAHTOA reporting this lack of understanding of trigonometry makes the convincing argument that we shouldn’t teach it. Indeed, in a recent conversation on Twitter, a maths teacher said to me that anyone teaching SOHCAHTOA ‘should retrain to be a PE teacher’. There was a certain amount of opprobrium aimed at me for suggesting that it was a good method, and I empathise with that view as I used to feel similarly, mainly under the influence of my PGCE.

This is a faulty line of thinking though, using erroneous logic. Just because people who learned the method feel they don’t understand the topic, it doesn’t follow that we not teaching the method and teaching it in a different way will lead to understanding. The mnemonic has been used historically to teach the topic because it is a good method for students to learn trigonometry. This is backed up by research (although this wasn’t relayed to me on my PGCE). Learning it doesn’t hinder people from having a good understanding of trigonometry, what stops people is that they learn this and nothing else about the topic. It’s clear to me that in Y9 every teacher in the UK should embed the knowledge of SOHCAHTOA in the minds of their students, so that in Y10 they can expand on this knowledge and teach them more about trigonometry. This would avoid the situation that I often hear described by maths teachers

I try to teach them trigonometry properly through similarity and the unit circle and then those students who don’t get it, well I teach them SOHCAHTOA in the Y11 Feb half-term.

Here, by denying students the chance to learn about trigonometry in a straightforward, simple way, teachers risk embedding misconceptions about the topic. When it is realised in Y11 they don’t actually know much about how to answer questions about the topic, they then have to rectify this by masking the misconceptions with the straightforward method they could have taught everyone in the first place.

What all this comes down to is the word understanding

My contention is that there is no objective measurement of whether someone understands something. People use the word as a subjective, post hoc judgement that arises once a critical mass of knowledge is accumulated about a topic. This critical mass will be different for different people. Hence, teachers can’t aim at getting students to understand a topic. What they can do is ensure students know as much as possible about each topic. This is a curriculum and sequencing issue. For example, in trigonometry, teachers should first ensure students are proficient with SOHCAHTOA and then teach them more about the topic, such as how it relates to similarity, and the wave functions.

This might not feel right, but it is the right way to teach. Lets not deny our students the best ways to learn just because it doesn’t seem to fit with our ideals of how we would like them to learn.

Why study maths?

If a child has a love of any arcane yet google-able subject they should, of course, pursue it – but for, say, the unmathematical, the sheer misery of compulsory maths GCSE is, in a world of calculators on smartphones, as crazy as compulsory sword fighting or barrelmaking.

– Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran is a brilliant writer; I have read a lot of her work and her words are thoughtful, wise and very funny. In this quote, she expresses a still widely held belief in the myth that knowledge isn’t needed in the smartphone world – a myth that has been comprehensively demolished by Daisy Cristodoulou. She also chooses to deride the compulsory study of maths, and that is want I want to explore in this blog: the social and cultural norm of asking ‘why study maths?’

There is a subjective-objective paradox to maths. Objectively, maths underpins much of the modern world:

  • mathematical models used in economics, finance and epidemiology
  • the maths of computer science driving most of the modern work place
  • the maths of engineering used in our transport and construction

Subjectively, unless you need it for your career, there is no necessity to know maths to be part of the modern world, we can make use of all the expertise of it without needing to understand the maths behind it, just as we all use electricity without having to think about the science behind it. I think this is what Moran is getting at. Take the utility of maths out of the argument and are you left studying an ‘arcane’ subject such as Ancient Greek? Moran would have it so, and I can see her point. Both Maths and Ancient Greek strike me as being wonderfully rich and stimulating subjects to study; I can see the equivalence. But perhaps where they diverge is in their scope.

Let me offer up some of the greatest thinkers of all time: Plato, the father of philosophy, who had inscribed above the entrance of his Academy ‘let no one ignorant of geometry enter here’, and for whom the Platonic solids are named; Descartes, the father of modern western philosophy, who developed analytic geometry and for whom Cartesian Geometry is named; Bertrand Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, and author of The Principles of Mathematics.

Mathematics has progressed by deeds of the most dazzling intellects in our history. It is a jewel in humankind’s cultural heritage. My case for learning maths rests on this argument for the intellect, undoubtedly it can help one’s career prospects, but lets appeal to its grander status.

So why the arguments against it? Perhaps we are not giving enough attention to the wonderful history of maths. Perhaps at KS3 we need to find time and space in the curriculum to teach its beauty and scope, to teach students the quality of their intellectual inheritance.





Learning by heart

This is an overlay of my previous post called Explicit Memorisation

A while ago I delivered a morning briefing to my colleagues, I spoke without notes and without a PowerPoint or similar. I had learned what I had to say by heart.

Today I want to talk about our students learning by heart, or memorising, or what is sometimes pejoratively called rote learning.

I’m going to start by reciting a poem I have learned by heart.

Now, there are two reasons I believe that learning by heart is important for our students:

  • the more you know, the easier it is to know more; and
  • increasing your knowledge base in your long-term memory can increase your IQ.

It was Hirsch who first made the argument that the more one knows, the easier it is to know more. He called this The Knowledge Deficit and the argument relevant to our secondary school goes something like this: students arrive at our school with different levels of knowledge, often a higher knowledge base is positively correlated with higher SES, and what happens is that the students who know more find it easier to learn even more, and conversely for the students who know less. Therefore, the gap between the knowledge of our students only grows whilst at our school. The gap that students arrive to our school with, with us giving all our students the same excellent education, inevitably grows larger by the time they leave.

I want to be clear here, I don’t want to close this gap by reducing the knowledge of our highest achievers, and I believe there’s a real danger of that happening with any strategy to reduce the gap. The important point is that we need to close any gaps by bringing the knowledge of those at the lower end up to those at the top, and we need to do it as quickly as possible on their arrival here.

I’ll bring in here the idea of IQ. IQ is positively correlated with a huge amount of success factors in life, and what is not widely known, is that it measures two types of intelligence: crystallised intelligence and fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence which is perhaps related to our working memory can be thought of as the ability to solve novel problems or ‘think on one’s feet’. It’s been said that Fluid intelligence is almost impossible to increase. Whereas Crystallised intelligence, which perhaps is linked to our long-term memory, can be increased. By increasing the crystallised intelligence of our students we can increase their IQ. So what is crystallised intelligence? In short it is the knowledge base of our long term memory. The more it is stocked, the better our crystallised intelligence; it will include our vocabulary, and for example, mine includes the poem I recited.

So we have the idea that a well stocked mind makes it easier to learn more, and can improve one’s IQ. James Colver has spoken here before about memory and cognitive science, from where we get a nice definition of what it means to learn something: learning is a change in the long-term memory and the implications for what we do in the classroom: memory is the residue of thought. I would argue that everything we do with our students is with the goal of changing their long-term memories i.e. learning. In class, we get our students to think about what we want them to learn, and it this thought which becomes memory.

What I’m talking about here is slightly different though, I’m talking about closing the knowledge gap by pinpointing knowledge that we want every single student to learn, and then getting all students to explicitly memorise it. This involves the whole school embarking on a four-step process:

  1. Identify and organise the knowledge we want every student to learn
  2. Give this to students along with clear, precise ways in which they can memorise it
  3. Make time for the students to memorise it
  4. Give students frequent low-stakes quizzes on the knowledge at strategically thought out intervals.

My argument is that by influencing every single one of our students to commit the most important knowledge of our subjects to heart, we can close the attainment gap and make all our students more intelligent. It is the right thing to do.