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Instructional Coaching: A reflection

As we approach the end of the Academic year, it’s the inevitable time of looking back and reviewing the year whilst thinking of next steps. For myself, this involves intense reflection of our whole school Instructional coaching programme using Steplab which we launched in September 2022, pairing staff across school to complete a short lesson drop in and feedback session within fortnightly cycles. 9 months on, there is much to celebrate. Pairs of teachers regularly meeting to discuss teaching practice and give each other small incremental action steps which they then model and rehearse together is embedded as routine. Culture is changing and staff who would perhaps never have interacted before have built relationships where they are getting to the nitty gritty of how to make their teaching more effective. A staff survey earlier on in the year showed 90% of staff felt that Instructional Coaching was having a positive impact on their teaching, with myriads of examples of this in practice, something which has since been triangulated in book looks and lesson drop ins as well. Obviously though, there is still much work to be done. There have been lots of lessons learnt from our implementation of coaching what is needed to make it more successful next year as we build on the successes of this year. In this post I hope to share some of our decisions around implementation, what has worked well and changes we will make. If you’re contemplating, or in the process of this journey I hope this post will give you some pointers to think about and some potential pitfalls to avoid. This obviously comes with the caveat that all contexts are different and this is not a how-to guide! I’m also not going to go into detail here about why we have chosen to implement Instructional coaching or our decision making process – catch one of our Steplab hub days for more on this! 

  1. Our planning and piloting has been invaluable. I do believe much of the ease with which we moved to whole-school coaching has been because of the careful long-term planning we undertook over the last couple of years. This included ensuring we had a shared language of good teaching and using small groups of volunteer pilot coaches who could then help lead training of others and spot potential problems with the roll out. Attention to detail was paramount here, and with inspiration from Harry Fletcher Wood’s quote “Everyone has a plan until they are put on cover”, as well as using the EEF Implementation plan I wrote a risk register, considering which parts of my plan might go wrong and what contingencies I could put in place to ensure the roll-out still happened smoothly. In addition, we also spent 18 months normalising a culture of visiting each other’s lessons through positive drop ins, a key feature of Steplab which I wrote about previously here. We also spent time talking to staff frequently about the evidence around what works in professional development, using the EEF guide for example. I ensured by launch day, staff knew the “why” of coaching, the evidence which sat behind it and why we felt it was right for our school context. It was important to articulate to staff that this was a strategy with a long term thought process behind it, not an attempt to grab the latest shiny fad from Twitter. 
  2. The pairing of coach/coachee has been a real learning curve. We told staff from the outset that they would never be in a coaching pair with their line manager. This was a deliberate move away from any judgement-based lesson drop-in which staff may have experienced previously. We also felt this would help reinforce buy-in with staff as they built relationships with someone they may not have worked with before; teaching staff with no other motivation than to help each other become better teachers. The knock on effect of this has been that some coaching pairs are in different subjects, although I tried to ensure practical subjects were paired together for example. This has meant that some staff have felt the coaching has sometimes been hampered by lack of subject and curriculum knowledge. Meanwhile, other staff  were really positive about the way they get to see other subjects in action, resulting in some real benefits. There is no doubt that some aspects of teaching transcend subjects but I acknowledge that this is not always appropriate. Therefore, an attempt will be made to try and reverse the decisions made for next year, with staff coached out of subject this year coached within subject next year. Another important factor here has been timetables, and as we work on a fortnightly cycle (drop-in one week, feedback the next), where staff have been paired with only one potential slot to visit lessons, this has sometimes meant cycles have been missed. Illness, strike days and bank holidays have all had an impact and whilst I have offered to cover parts of lessons myself to make visits work, this has not always been possible. For September, I want staff to spend more time in their initial meeting considering whether their pairing works practically. If timetables don’t support effective coaching it’s best to discover and swap pairs at this point rather than half-way through the year. 
  3. The training of coaches is crucial. Our pilot coaches were trained on a weekly programme for half a term, with repetition of modelling, practising coaching conversations in front of each other and lots of discussion. This was not possible with a teaching staff of over 80 and precious little directed time. Hence our coaching in September was led through loom recorded sessions by myself, with opportunities to pause the video and reflect and answer questions, and directed time given in lieu of completing this. To ensure accountability I produced a google form knowledge check and held some drop-in sessions for staff who wanted more individual support. New staff who started after September could also still access this training so consequently induction has been fairly smooth. This amount of training however is far from ideal and whilst all staff did complete this, I do think much more ongoing training is still needed. Aspects of the coaching cycle such as deliberate practice are really tricky at first and I perhaps underestimated what a huge shift this would be for some staff used to more traditional CPD. We complemented training with Breakfast Bite sessions on good coaching conversations with videos of good practice, and made an effort to build our whole school CPD around deliberate practice whenever possible and this will continue next year. Moving forward, Steplab’s new Coaching Skills Builder will support ongoing training in this area. One important area of focus will be around the responsiveness of the coach to the discussion in the pairs and being adaptive to the needs of the coachee. At times the conversation may need to be quite directive, in others the conversation can be much more open and facilitative and this is something I’d like to explore in more detail with staff. 
  4. Contracting and time to meet initially before starting the coaching cycles was incredibly helpful. I owe the brilliant Sam Gibbs a huge debt of gratitude here as the first person to make me really think about a contract. Staff met in our next directed time slot in September to agree some goals and start to build their relationship. The first section lays some ground rules and expectations around the purpose of coaching, confidentiality and the non-judgemental aims of coaching. There is a reminder that there is no “secret spreadsheet” of judgements and that the process of coaching will feel new but coaches should both agree to commit 100% to the process. The second section covers preparations, with both sides agreeing where they will meet, how they will let each other know if they are not in school and other practical arrangements. Lastly, there is a section on the contract for staff to agree their big teaching goals. We felt it was important for staff to have a say about the areas they themselves felt they wanted support to improve in and that coaching was not something done to them, but guided by their improvement goals. Both members of staff are asked to sign this contract to show that these conversations have taken place, setting the scene for an effective coaching relationship. 
  5. Part of the planning involved really careful thought about how the coaching would be monitored, the use of directed time and the practical implementation of making coaching work with a busy timetable. Directed time for coaching feedback has been calendared for the whole academic year, always on a Thursday after school, with coaching drop-ins happening in staff PPA time. Briefings remind staff whether this is the drop-in or feedback week in the cycle and I am religious about accountability and ensuring the coaching is happening. Steplab has an excellent page for Leads to monitor coaching and enables “nudges” and “praise” messages to be sent to coaches. Obviously staff will inevitably be unable to complete cycles during the year for various reasons, but this feature enables me to have detailed oversight and make sure that there is continued momentum for staff staying up to date with coaching. Our Appraisal targets have been amended so that one target is focused solely around “engagement with Instructional coaching” as well as a commitment to CPD as a whole. Staff will articulate in the review process the impact coaching has had on their teaching, and line management leads will be able to view the engagement over the year.
  6. Gathering feedback from staff has been crucial. Our first review point was after the first term and we asked staff to give us detailed feedback on the practical arrangements, impact on their teaching, whether it was having more of a positive impact than previous CPD/QA systems and other practical questions for example around when pairs would be swapped. This was incredibly helpful to know whether we were on the right track and some of the responses were actually really moving! Staff articulated the habits they had broken through coaching; everything from having more thought out scaffolding, improving their use of cold-call to ensuring they scanned the room whilst being on the door as students enter the room. When we asked staff about the best things about Instructional Coaching they responded: “the constant support and time to practise improvements”, having ongoing development CPD with a colleague I didn’t know before and have learnt lots from” and comments like “having a coaching partner talking with me rather than a line-manager telling me what to do.” One member of staff responded “This year’s CPD has been the best I have ever received as a teacher.” Improvements related to the subject specific aspect of coaching from some staff, as well as the inevitable time to complete the lesson drop-ins, something I don’t know how to improve! What we have committed to as an SLT is a real concerted effort to remove things from a teacher’s to-do list to make coaching a priority and it’s clear our staff recognise this. 

Moving forward with our plans for next year, it’s clear that there has been much which has worked really well this year and can be built on as we restart in September. We’ve learnt important lessons from some early errors this year, and will be tweaking certain aspects of the implementation moving forward. We also look forward to increasing our use of Steplab’s video feature to improve coaching feedback conversations and building more training into our CPD calendar. We will continue to encourage Middle leaders to use the data available on Steplab to plan responsive CPD based on the action steps given to their staff, something which we have begun recently. We will also need to ensure smooth induction continues of new staff, as well as those staff finishing their ECT programmes as they transition to beginning to coach another member of staff. Pairings need to be really carefully thought through so if you see eating copious amounts of haribo, looking frazzled in July, this is why! Our coaching implementation has been far from perfect, but overall I believe it’s been the right move for our context, built upon the secure foundations of a long and careful planning process. As I have often repeated in my ResearchEd sessions, it is certainly no silver bullet but for us this is no new shiny fad either. It’s a deeply thought-through commitment to the best possible professional development for the staff who work here. 


If you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch with Steplab to come and visit us on one of our hub days.


The Purpose

You only have to scroll a few job adverts on TES to see multiple schools looking for teachers with “passion”. Indeed I have definitely described myself as a passionate leader in the past, determined to make a difference in my specific field of Teaching and Learning. The excellent book The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which I have recently finished, has made me think about this differently. Chip and Dan Heath highlight a study by Morten Hansen who surveyed 5000 employers and managers to understand what made their top performers tick. Hansen looked at the difference between passion and purpose. (Passion being the excitement and enthusiasm you have about your work, purpose being the sense that you are contributing to others and that your work is meaningful). Unsurprisingly, employees rated poorly for purpose and passion were ranked as low performers by their bosses, whilst people who had had high passion and purpose performed very highly. However, when the choice came down to purpose or passion, the results were incredibly interesting:

“Purpose trumps passion…..Passion is individualistic. It can energise us but also isolate us because my passion isn’t yours. By contrast, purpose is something people can share. It can knit groups together.”

I couldn’t help but apply this thinking to our job as school leaders. Whilst of course there is nothing inherently wrong with passion, are we focusing on this too much in our recruiting processes? Should we be looking for colleagues who are less concerned about obvious enthusiasm and saying the right things and seeking instead people who understand the purpose of their role? Should we be concentrating more on colleagues who understand how they fit into the giant puzzle of school leadership and how they can support our organisations in providing a great education for the students we teach? I fear sometimes the overtly enthusiastic and vocal candidates can overshadow those with a strong sense of purpose and thoughtful determination.

But what about the colleagues we already work with? Chip and Dan Heath go on to give a great example of how to cultivate this sense of purpose in our own organisations and help colleagues understand the greater meaning of their jobs. A piece of research was carried out in the US, where a group of lifeguards were split into two for some training. One group read four stories which described how other lifeguards had benefited from the skills required on the job. The second group read four stories about other lifeguards rescuing drowning swimmers. The result was fascinating: the second group voluntarily signed up for 43% more hours of work following the intervention. The stories had reminded them of their purpose and the greater impact of their daily work. The fact that these results came simply from a 30 minute session is even more striking.

It’s easy as teachers and leaders to get bogged down by the endless day to day routines, dealing with behaviour, paperwork or data tasks and to lose sight of our purpose. How often do we as leaders remind our colleagues of the greater purpose of their work? We might not be able to read stories about teachers rescuing students in the way the lifeguards did, but every school has thousands of stories about the life-changing impact we can have on the students we teach. In fact, I’m sure many of us have our own personal examples, but how often do we remind ourselves of the real reason we go into those classrooms each day? As leaders how often do we share the success stories and highlight the greater purpose for our staff?

And more than that, I believe there is a deeper question school leaders should be asking about purpose. Much has been written recently about the wealth of seeming silver bullets shared in educational leadership – from dual coding to Instructional Coaching. (Not that any of these things in themselves are bad obviously). As Claire Stoneman wrote so eloquently recently:

“I think we may have reached a tipping point. We’re falling in love with ideas with dangerous rapidity. Want a book on retrieval practice? Here you go, there’s loads more too. Fancy reading something on curriculum? Mais oui, knock yourself out on these bad boys. Want something on the edu-activity du jour, instructional coaching? Gorge yourself silly on these, or these, or these. There’s masses of stuff, tonnes. Our heads are turned by the next slickly packaged book/programme/thread that’s lobbed our way.

I wonder whether in some of these cases the purpose has become cloudy. I’m sure these leaders have the best of intentions, but has there been real caution and scrutiny involved in thinking about adopting a strategy? Have the specific circumstances of the individual school and the problems which may exist there been examined before the latest shiny fad is adopted? And even more that, has the impact on students been rigorously tested? If giving our students the best education possible is our purpose, then if a strategy which may take time and cost money doesn’t benefit them in a concrete way, then why are we pursuing it? I can think of several approaches now thankfully abandoned in most schools where the direct impact on students was unclear, but the workload and pressure on staff was immense; triple impact marking being the most obvious example. But have all these strategies disappeared? I think not. Chip and Dan Heath recommend a series of why questions such as the example with a hospital janitor below. If our “why” questions don’t lead back to a direct impact on students, perhaps there’s a problem with the proposed strategy:

‘Why do you clean hospital rooms? “Because that’s what my boss tells me to do”

Why? “Because it keeps the rooms from getting dirty.”

Why does that matter? “Because it makes the room more sanitary and pleasant.”

Why does that matter? “Because it keeps the patients healthy and happy.”‘

Additionally, there’s a sense that we still too often ask staff to perform tasks where the purpose is unclear. As an SLT or a Middle leadership team we might know a strategy so well that the purpose is abundantly clear in our minds. Whilst we can see the big picture however, it’s not necessarily true that is obvious to our colleagues. In such cases initiatives are less likely to be well implemented or may even lead to clashes between colleagues.

Reading this book has made me reflect on my own leadership and whether I do a good enough job sharing the purpose of our CPD programme. Thinking back to the January Inset session I did on building ratio, did I for example explain enough that issues about attention and ratio are hard to fix and extremely common in lesson drop-ins? In particular I think this also applies to our Instructional Coaching programme. Although after a number of years of research, reading and piloting I am very clear about the why, is this true of everyone else? I know what impact it has had even in the short time the programme has been up and running. But if I was to really challenge myself, I’m not sure that my colleagues could articulate much of this, and I wonder how many are engaged with the programme because they have been told they must, rather than genuinely understanding the why. Like any reflective leader, there are moments when your heart sinks with realisation, and mine did reflecting on this chapter. I need to do more to share the why – the why of this CPD session and how it fits into our overarching Great Teaching principles and school priorities. I need to reiterate the why of our Instructional Coaching programme and show people the concrete benefits for our students that I know are happening across the school. I might not be able to share stories of saving drowning swimmers, but I can show quotes from our own staff describing how their practice has been impacted meaningfully because of the coaching relationships and professional conversations which have taken place. I can share examples of lessons with deeper questioning, more consistent behaviour management and routines or more thoughtful activities because of the challenge brought about through coaching.

There’s no doubt this book has given me a lot to mull over. It’s definitely sharpened my reflections of the work I am involved in day-in day-out in improving Teaching and Learning, and challenged me, especially regarding this issue of purpose. As Chip and Dan Heath summarise:

“In many organisations, our daily obligations – the emails, the meetings, the to-do lists – can numb us to the meaning of our work. The sense of meaning can be the difference between a great performer and a mediocre one.”


Preparing the Ground

As I was flicking through the TV channels mindlessly one evening last week, I stopped for a few minutes on a gardening show (I know!) where the team were preparing a garden for turf to be laid down. It struck me again that in this privileged job of teacher development, that so much of managing change is about preparing the ground. Whether people are receptive to change or whether they view it as a threat can be completely changed by how much time has been given by the leadership to spotting the potential weeds or rocky ground, and ensuring the process is as smooth as possible. I emphasised in my recent ResearchEd talk that as school leaders, we need to think carefully about successful implementation of our plans and that includes ensuring that we have effectively gone ahead and prepared the environment to support effective change. We need to prepared that this could take some time, and may not be easy.

One example of how we have tried to implement this is through the use of positive drop- ins, a full year before we launched coaching for the whole school. We realised quickly that in order for coaching to be successful, staff needed to not feel threatened by staff visiting their lessons. Although we had already tried to shift the culture away from ticking a box or any kind of judgement, there is no doubt some staff still felt uneasy when leaders dropped into classrooms. In addition, our TDT audit of 2020 identified that peer to peer lesson visits were not common, therefore hampering some informal collaboration and sharing of good practice. We knew that should we wish to develop a whole school coaching programme (a distant pipe dream at that stage!), then we first needed to prepare the ground and tackle the culture around lesson visits. 

Steplab’s drop in function has been hugely significant for us in making this change. With a very simple 2 clicks, staff can search for a another member of staff and fill in a box about anything they have seen in a lesson, and they are even prompted by the sentence “It was effective when…”

When the system was launched with staff, we made it clear we only wanted positive comments in these drop-ins and that there was no other secret spreadsheet or other function. The drop-ins are about spotting good practice, praising staff implementing strategies which have been shared in CPD sessions, and generally recognising staff making efforts to have good routines, high expectations and well-planned lessons. Sometimes these drop-ins are recommended by others, for example an ECT mentor recommending a member of staff to visit who has effective routines, and being asked to look out for specific phrases used.  On other occasions, drop-ins are planned in advance by subject teams where they all decide to visit each other in a given week. Sometimes a staff member happens to be passing a lesson and decides to pause and sit in for 5 minutes or chooses to spend 20 minutes of their PPA visiting some lessons to see what great practice is going on. We made it clear from the beginning that any member of staff could go and see anyone, and this could and should often be outside of their own subjects, with no hierarchy attached. This was a really clear way of ensuring that as a school we have an “open door” policy. We have found that staff respond really positively to the feedback and this also often gives them the impetus to go and see another teacher. There’s no doubt it’s uplifting to receive a little email through Steplab after a hard day!

Each week I put the name of every teacher who has dropped in on someone else in a draw to win a bag of sweets or a bar of chocolate in Briefing. This may seem gimmicky but it ensures the drop-ins remain high profile, reinforces the message of the culture we are trying to create and again staff respond really positively! Additionally, many staff have caught me on the corridor to tell me about drop-ins and can articulate how seeing another member of staff has actually promoted them to make changes to their own teaching, having been inspired by a drop-in.

As the lead on Steplab in the school, I can see very quickly when each member of staff has received a drop-in. Through SLT drop-ins (we try and prioritise all getting out and completing a number each week and it’s a set item on our SLT agenda) we try and ensure that all teachers get some positive feedback regularly. Steplab also has a really nice “Shout out” feature where an element of a lesson or a teacher’s practice has been so positive that the drop-in becomes public, and anyone who logs in will be able to see the shout outs on their home screen. 

Of course, drop-ins can take place without Steplab. I know schools where they run successful postcard schemes, or even complete peer drop ins through google forms. What’s important is not really the method, but that this builds a sense of community, an environment of trust and narrates the positive practice going on within the school. Drop-ins have also directly fed into our CPD programme, where staff have been able to showcase particular strategies through our Breakfast Bite sessions. 

I can say categorically that we would not have been ready to move to coaching across the Academy were it not for us preparing the ground effectively with non-threatening lesson drop-ins. For staff to be receptive to the process of working with a coach, just having someone else regularly in their lessons had to become more normalised, hence our decision to do this for a full year (run alongside a coaching pilot). Staff needed to be assured that taking risks wasn’t going to be punished or that the sole purpose of someone visiting a lesson wasn’t to fill in a tick box of non-negotiables or make a judgement of you. Even though coaching has now started whole-school which inevitably means less time available, drop-ins still continue and there have been well over 800 since September, as well as almost 300 shout-outs. I think this is a good indicator that staff like them and find them useful. 

Of course in school leadership we inevitably want to improve rapidly and make a difference to the students we teach as quickly as we can. But In the same way that if you don’t remove any lumps or hollows in your soil before laying turf it can cause problems when mowing your lawn, if we don’t create the right environment for staff to flourish and adapt to change, our plans may quickly go awry. 

Rachel (not a gardener)

The unfinished article

Twitter, Blogs, Education books, webinars and conferences are all wonderful opportunities for CPD and like many others I gain a huge amount from them. I love being able to see how others have applied research in their contexts or listen to leaders sharing their good practice. However, after speaking to Michelle, my friend at the TDT, this week, I was reminded of the value there is in sometimes seeing the unfinished article. As is natural, as teachers and leaders we often share the end product; some brilliant results, a finished CPD plan or an essay that’s been written at the end of many weeks of teaching. But sometimes what we all need is the messiness. It’s the CPD plan that went awry and had to be scrapped, the first draft of the essay littered with errors or the years of slog before good results followed. We need to know that we are not alone in the long winter days when enacting the vision feels so hard. We need to see that success does not come overnight, and as I often say when giving talks about the work in my own Academy, that there is no silver bullet. Sometimes I wonder if we can be hoodwinked into thinking that the job we do is easy, when the reality is some days just feel like a battle. It’s normal as a school leader to wonder whether you are really making a difference, to make mistakes and to question your decisions. I can’t be the only one mulling a conversation over as I drive home, or repeatedly going over a presentation worrying it won’t land well. Leadership is messy, and failure is a normal part of the journey in making our schools great.

It was this thinking which led me to apply to speak at the ResearchEd National Conference about the journey of my own Academy and the building of our CPD culture. Although in the presentation, (which is linked at the end of this blogpost) I do share some advice from our journey over the last 3 years, what I hope people take from listening to or reading it, is that messiness. I have made many errors in my leadership and as I have written about before have had to pause plans, be prepared to listen to staff feedback and change direction when needed. I have failed many times over the last three years, and we still have a long journey ahead of us. So how many times do we hear the foundations of the story, the mistakes made in the first few months of a strategy or honesty about the feelings of helplessness when you first take on a new role and don’t know where to start? I know it’s not easy to share these things but I also know how much it helps me to see others questioning the same things I am, or being prepared to talk about the journey not just the end product. I hope that others can see value in the sharing of what we have achieved so far with the messiness included. We are an unfinished article and I’m learning to be proud and embrace that.


ResearchED presentation

‘Curriculums are not what we put in our plans but what resides in our pupils’ minds’ D. Hibbert (HA Conference 2022)

Some unrevolutionary suggestions for how I get kids to remember more stuff and grasp big ideas.

  1. Start with a bridging unit in Year 7 (courtesy of Mrs Ball). Give students the opportunity to share their experiences of primary history. Focus on what history is, the etymology of the word and how historians construct their accounts (my students love that the collective noun for a group of historians is an ‘argumentation’). A recent HMI inspector was particularly impressed when one of my year 8 students proudly exclaimed that ‘history is a construct, historians build claims about the past through asking questions of the evidence that is on offer’. Explicitly teaching big ideas like this help students to get to grips with difficult concepts … it gives them a sense of agency, so it sticks (Arthur Chapman’s work on this has been super helpful).

2. Go beyond standard retrieval. Obviously knowing ‘stuff’ is history is useful but getting students to go a step further by thinking about where this ‘stuff’ fits into the bigger picture. This seems to have far more lasting impact on their understanding. Each time I introduce a new enquiry question, I simply get students to write the word ‘LINK:’ in the margin and jot down a list of ways in which they think this new EQ connects with their previous work. I am usually amazed by the quality of these connections, and it really works a treat in building up their schema. I have also started to get them to think about how our current content links with other subjects, for example flagging up the connections between Al-Khwarizmi’s work on decimalisation and ICT. This draws upon the work of Deborah Ayres and the HPL approach, a current whole school focus for me.

3. Ask students to consider the why. Why are we doing this? What is this point? I like to share our departmental curricular intent with students and get them to think about its relevance to our most recent unit of work. I have also found using a quote from one of the brilliant chapters in ‘What is History Now?’ ed. Lipscombe and Carr, hugely useful in helping pupils to understand the justifications behind curricular content. Peter Frankopan’s chapter on global history provided students with a great rationale behind our first Year 7 enquiry ‘All the treasures in all the world’ – What was so special about Medieval Baghdad?. Giving students an introduction into the joy of studying global history and challenging their preconceptions about the Middle East. Equally Dan Hick’s chapter ‘Glorious memory’ allowed for some great discussions on curricular decolonisation when we explored ‘What to do with your loot?’ in relation to our local museum’s collection of Benin Bronzes

4. Have an overarching question for each year group (thanks to Tom Allen for this idea in the Curricularium sessions). I have found this encourages student to consider some of the big themes more carefully and introduces them to the concepts of change and continuity.

Year 7: How did monarchy and faith affect people 750- 1649 in Britain and the wider world?

Year 8: In what ways did war and protest ignite change 1649-1900?

Year 9: How have ideas and empire shaped the modern world 1900-1991?

I routinely ask students to mind map ideas in response to these big questions, this is not formalised or assessed but allows for some ‘light bulb’ moments and reflective discussions. It also helps them to appreciate the changing nature and nuance of these influences over time.

5. Timelines – where does this fit? Timelines are great for getting pupils to consider the links and connections between events and people and helping them to contextualise their current enquiry. Absolutely nothing revolutionary here, but holding off on the delivery of new content and taking time to review the content covered so far, really seems to have an impact.

6. End of year curriculum review exercises. I like to ask students why we study history and why they think their curriculum is designed in this way. Mentimeter has been as great tool for pooling together their thoughts. I am always impressed with how students perceive the wider purpose of studying history. I also ask them to create a time capsule review in the summer term, as a way of getting them to consider their ‘key takeaways’. I encourage them to include artefacts (connected to the curriculum), 2 historical interpretations and 2 pieces of written contemporary evidence. They present their justifications to the class, and we create mini ‘pop up’ class museum.

7. Get them involved. What is missing? What would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of? I try to engage students regularly in curricular discussions. This year in light of student feedback we have woven in some LGBTQ+ narratives, but we need to do better. One of our DIP plans is to work with the Pride Committee to help us develop a new enquiry based on inclusivity for Year 9 and to make visibility of minority groups routine in our curricular design.

8. Make it relevant to them. I loved reading Steve Adcock’s blog ‘Curriculum as a window and mirror’, that said we have aimed to weave in more stories that reflect our demographic. Student Y is from Ghana and took a lesson on her family history when we explored the ‘Gold Coast’, bringing in traditional costumes and photographs,  student X was beaming with pride when looking at Rani Velu Nachiyar in our lesson on female resistance in colonial India last week, she came up to me at the end and said ‘I am from here …my mum is named after her’. Student Z thanked me for highlighting the significance of Anne Lister in breaking conventional stereotypes and asked for some reading suggestions. Making things relevant and local (but I will save that for another blog!) are priceless in ensuring our curriculums have an impact and leave behind a legacy (a residue).

As I said at the start of the blog, a series of unrevolutionary suggestions but there is nothing more satisfying than students understanding ‘the why’ and leaving our classrooms being able to appreciate the big ideas behind the best subject in the world!

To RAG or not to RAG?

For many years, RAG rating would have been a regular part of my revision repertoire. A start to a lesson might involve a list of the main topics within a unit and space for the students to self-assess their confidence on their topics, much like the blank example below.

An activity like this would be followed by advice from me about how students should use this to inform their revision, starting with the topic, key word or concept they had identified as red. The results would also even have informed my own planning in terms of what topics I concentrated on in revision lessons or after school sessions.

Over the last few years in my journey to become evidence-informed, this is one of the main things I have moved away from in my approach to revision. (I wrote about some more here ). As I began to read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect I realised the evidence for this sort of activity being very beneficial to students was weak. The Dunning-Kruger effect, as David Didau sumarises in Intelligent Accountability “is the finding that almost everyone overestimates their own competence, and the poorest performers are the least aware of their own incompetence. This is because there is no way to account for what we don’t know we don’t know.

The research shows it is incredibly difficult for us to accurately assess our own skills or to recognise the quality of our work, and even to recognise these skills in others. In addition, a little bit of knowledge or familiarity with a topic can cause people to overestimate their abilities further.  As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” We might well be able to identify a scenario of this in our day to day life – the person at a dinner party who thinks they’re an expert on a particular subject because they have read one article, or the newspaper op-ed about schools from an ‘expert’ who has not been in a classroom for decades.

This phenomenon can then translate into over confidence in our students, particularly if we were to use a RAG exercise like this after a lesson where we have done some reading on a topic for example. This can in turn affect where and how deep students focus their revision. As Professor Daniel Willingham warns: “Students often think they understand a body of material and, believing that they know it, stop trying to learn more. But come test time, it turns out they really don’t know the material very well at all.”  On the brilliant Tips for Teachers podcast Dylan Wiliam uses a batch cooking analogy which has really stuck with me, describing how when we make food and place it in the freezer we often decide not to label it believing that we will definitely remember what the food is when we take it out. Alas, as my family have experienced repeatedly, this is rarely the case, and dinner is instead some sort of surprise. Despite my confidence at the time, I have completely forgotten what the food from the freezer is. Students may think they “know” a topic because they have covered it recently, when in fact it hasn’t been learnt at all.

But this doesn’t mean we should abandon the RAG process altogether. There are ways where self assessment can be beneficial if it is rooted in real evidence about what students know or don’t know. The second in English at my Academy recently led one of our popular Breakfast Bites and discussed how she does this superbly. A spreadsheet of concepts, terms, events as before is collated. Students then take part in active retrieval, such as using flashcards or quizzes, which have been previously prepared. At the end of the session the elements on the spreadsheet which were the focus are then given a RAG based on the knowledge shown. This then informs the topics which may be the focus for retrieval in future sessions, such as in the example below. 

This has been really effective in English, and students are using this format regularly in their own independent revision. 

Tom Pattison adds another excellent example here:

“As the evidence demonstrates, depending on student self-assessment to structure their revision is a recipe for disaster. Yet we risk a baby and bathwater scenario if we dismiss this practice out of hand. In many schools, particularly following lockdown, student engagement with their own learning is negligible. Encouraging self-assessment is to empower students and give them a sense of agency and responsibility over their progression. As teachers it is on us to control the conditions so the valuable practice of students estimating the depth of their understanding becomes part of a process of identifying weaknesses rather than a process in itself. For example, set an achievement that is required in order to be allowed to judge yourself as green. Many providers exist but I confess to being very fond of Seneca due to the ease with which as teacher I can evidence the recall of my students. In order to choose ‘got it’ (or any equivalent to green) on their checklist, my students must score 100% on that unit on Seneca on two occasions at least one week apart. This has tempered the overconfidence of some of my students and provided a tangible way to demonstrate their mastery. On top of this, teacher assessment based on exam practice, MCQ tests on Socrative, etc means that with little effort  data can be triangulated to establish the extent of competency on any single unit. To borrow Ronald Reagan’s favourite Russian proverb; ‘Trust, but verify.’”

As with most elements of pedagogy therefore, self assessment such as using RAG rating to focus revision can be ineffective, and needs careful thought and implementation. But the principle of self-assessment as a tool for encouraging responsibility in students remains a useful one. Like several ideas over the years that have been hailed as a ‘game changer’, RAG rating has not lived up to lofty expectation yet maybe we should think again before sending it to join ‘brain gym’ and ‘VAK’ in the fires of edu-gimmick hell. Quite simply, as with all learning strategies, positive outcomes are reliant upon careful implementation and perhaps RAG might still prove a useful tool within a wider strategy. 

Rachel and Tom 

Poor proxies for learning

Over the last few weeks my husband and I have been absolutely gripped by The Dropout on Disney Plus. It tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the American Biotech entrepreneur who fooled the world into believing her company, Theranos, had revolutionised blood-testing. Not only did she commit criminal fraud, she put thousands of patient lives at risk. Incredibly though, she was on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows and Time magazine named her one of America’s most influential people, becoming the youngest female self-made billionaire. Amanda Seyfried plays Elizabeth to perfection, showing how over several years she duped everyone from Joe Biden (who called her “inspiring”) to Rupert Murdoch (who lost all of the $120m he invested in Theranos). I found it fascinating to see how Holmes modelled herself on Steve Jobs, even copying his trademark black polo sweaters, and deliberately putting on a deeper voice, presumably to sound more authoritative. She was essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She looked like a great entrepreneur, she sounded like a Biotech expert and she had hundreds of people around her who sang her praises, and yet she was a fraud. Her company was built on lies, and rather than helping people, which Elizabeth always claimed she was doing, there was no real substance behind her claims.

This reminded me of Professor Robert Coe’s talk on the What makes Great Teaching Report 2014 and his “Poor proxies for learning” slide which has now been shared hundreds of times.

It is so easy for teachers, and leaders who are observing lessons, to fall into the trap of seeing busy students, a teacher working hard and correct answers being given and presume that learning is inevitably taking place. And yet all of these things are proxies. The process of learning itself is invisible. As David Didau writes; “Performance is what we can see and measure but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Learning takes place inside students’ heads and lurks beneath the visible surface of a lesson. Often what appears to be learning is really just mimicry.” I really like Adam Boxer’s analogy here about love – “Observing a large volume of work being completed is no more proof of learning than buying flowers is proof of being in love.” In much the same way, the Theranos labs were churning out tests results and yet methods were fraudulent and no real innovative approaches were really being used.

Just like the CMS inspectors who eventually inspected Theranos’ labs, we need to dig deeper and make sure we are looking for better evidence that learning is actually taking place. Coe goes on to say: “Learning happens when people have to think hard” or Louis Everett brilliantly phrases this as students being “cognitively active”. It’s our job as teachers to ensure we prioritise this in lessons – are students spending their time thinking hard, and about the right things? Some ways I encourage our staff to do this are to use cold call as default, allow time for independent practice, give adequate thinking time, rigorously check for understanding and to use retrieval consistently. Greg Thornton has developed an excellent run down of strategies here which summarise these and more, with a focus on ratio. In this vein Greg Ashman suggests: “A good proxy might be something like a deployed test. If students score well then we can infer that learning has taken place.” Didau writes; “Learning involves retaining new knowledge, whether it is procedural or declarative – over time and being able to transfer it to new contexts.”

As leaders we have a responsibility to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of looking for engagement or a “buzz in the room”. Even as an experienced observer I find myself making this mistake at times and have to force myself to move away from engagement to focusing instead on how much students are thinking. This is hard. It’s complicated. It’s much easier to visit classrooms looking for the aspects of performance listed above, perhaps in a tick list. Didau adds: “All this is messy and asks us to suspend judgement and embrace uncertainty. But uncertainty is deeply uncomfortable and so, the fact that Clipboards find it much easier to tick off Coe’s ‘poor proxies’ means their popularity is unlikely to wane.” This is one reason why I really like instructional coaching as a model for lesson visits. Instructional coaching forces me to look “at” the learning rather than “for” learning, something David Didau has written extensively about this in his book Intelligent Accountability If we truly do this, then we move away from the judging of lessons completely. Although thankfully most schools now no longer grade lessons, in many an evaluation culture still exists, with staff asking about how “good” the lesson was for example. Instructional coaching and language like “I noticed”, something I wrote about in a previous blog, mean there is a real shift away from ticking off poor proxies for learning, to challenging instead how “cognitively active” students are. Didau suggests one way to force this is to move away from observations focusing on the students (something I was trained to do) to the teacher; “The current vogue in education is for observations to focus on students’ learning. Well, the bad news is that doing this encourages teachers to prioritise short-term approaches because we are focused on current performance rather than long-term learning. It’s more productive, especially if we want to concentrate on improving instructional support, to observe what the teacher is doing.”

Just as the whistleblowers at Theranos took the risk to call out the trickery at the company, we need to be prepared to call out lesson observations which focus on engagement and busyness, which ultimately are poor proxies, and embrace instead the messiness which learning really is. Just like the polished, persuasive and charismatic Elizabeth Holmes was a fraud, we can be duped into believing great learning is taking place if we’re not careful to dig below the surface and focus instead on signs that students are thinking hard more of the time and are able to transfer and replicate knowledge.


A new class

I am a huge fan of Ben Newmark’s useful Twitter threads and blogs of advice about planning and teaching, and having recently taken on a new GCSE class mid way through the year, mid topic, I thought it was worth sharing some of the pointers I have found useful, hopefully in a similar vein. Even after twenty years in the classroom, I still get anxious about situations like this and want to always do the best by the students in front of me to ensure they get a good learning experience. Many of the suggestions here would also be useful for classes inherited in September, although I do feel establishing routines and high standards at these times is perhaps a little easier. A mid-year timetable change means a relationship needs to build pretty quickly and any lost trust needs tackled promptly. Indeed, it was an awareness of this which meant I kept going back to Peps McCrea’s brilliant book Motivated Teaching at this time, in particular his section on Trust. Peps’ 3 principles for building trust were very much the framework I had in mind whilst considering how I would respond to this situation. He outlines 3 Cs which are needed for trust to exist and I hope you can see my consideration of these aspects in the steps I took:

  • Credibility
  • Care
  • Consistency

I hope this post gives some helpful reminders. I do not claim to be a perfect teacher and my first few lessons have certainly not been perfect, but I hope to share some tips which I found valuable.

Before the lesson

There were some steps I took before the lesson to hopefully ensure a smoother start.

  • Try and secure a hand over if at all possible. A narrative around the students is really helpful, and I don’t just mean data. Who is overly eager to answer questions? Who is excellent with verbal questions but needs support with written structure? Who is inconsistent with homework? Who needs a firm reminder to start work once instructions have been given? Who really enjoys public praise and who prefers a quiet word? I could go on, but if at all possible, this kind of conversation is incredibly helpful. A handover like this is not always possible, but a conversation with the Head of Year or form teachers, may still be really valuable. A seating plan as an addition is also really useful. It can always be changed, but it gives a bit of consistency for you and the students in the situation.
  • Utilise their books if you have access to them. Books/folders/workbooks can give you a lot of information about completion of tasks and to some extent effort, as well as historical application of knowledge to exam questions if at GCSE. This can also be really useful background information.
  • Make sure your subject knowledge is strong, doing as much as you can to build up weaker areas (credibility). I really struggled with this, picking up a topic I don’t think I’ve taught for 10 year or so! However, the hours I have invested retrieving my own knowledge and reading up on areas I have not taught or forgotten about have already been worth their weight in gold! We cannot know everything in such a situation but we can make strides to show our expertise and build up our own confidence in such a situation.

During the first few lessons

  • Be visible at the door at the beginning of the lesson to greet students. Address as many as you can by name and say good morning! I was able to be in the room ahead of time (which I acknowledge is not always possible) and had set up resources, files and the Do Now activity so it was clear straight away what my routines and expectations were. Remind students of the seating plan and ensure they see the consistency from the previous teacher.
  • I then spent a few minutes introducing myself, my role and the handover situation in order to ensure no time was wasted with questions regarding future lessons. I shared how pleased I was to be teaching the group and how I was excited about the months ahead and then I set my stall out with high standards from the very beginning. There was no need for a long conversation, but I shared simple warm but strict expectations such as coming to lesson ready to learn, on time and always giving everything your best shot. I made it clear that I had read their books in preparation and knew how capable they were. This conversation goes alongside Peps’ second criteria of care. I wanted to communicate to these students that I already cared about their success and that we were starting out on a journey together where I was going to have high expectations and push them, but because I had belief in them about what they were capable of.
  • I use “We” throughout the lesson to frame my language. One of Peps’ key drivers of motivation is regarding building belonging: “The more we feel we belong to a group, the more we invest in its goals and conform to its norms.” I want to ensure that my students feel we are a team to drive motivation and belonging and framing my language with “us” and “we” goes some way to consolidating this. In addition to this, I made a concerted effort to use names and get to know the students as quickly as possible. This meant utilising the seating plan and being honest with the class that I was trying but it might take me some time! One positive step is that before I spoke to a student who had a question or whilst circulating, I always made sure I had used their name in conversation before speaking to them about the work and I think this really helped.
  • Be ultra specific with instructions (consistency). This may not be needed with a class who knows you well and you have built up good routines with, but don’t presume that a new class just knows how you like things done! Whether it is sticking in worksheets, tidying away at the end, drawing of diagrams etc you will have a specific way you want them completed, so tell them clearly, repeat and remind them until it becomes automatic.
  • Start with Retrieval. I deliberately planned a full retrieval lesson for the first lesson after the handover. This was partly as the lesson sat after the Christmas break, but was also a chance for the students to show off the knowledge they had gained and for me to assess any gaps in learning in a structured way. I made sure to communicate the routines and expectations around retrieval, it’s low stakes characteristics and why it was so important. I also made sure students understood this would be a feature of every lesson to strengthen their long term memory and be able to apply their knowledge. This lesson was incredibly valuable at giving me a foundation to move forward from and also allowed me to give lots of early praise out about what students knew and could do!

After the lesson

  • Get some feedback in early. It was important to me to make sure I started the feedback cycle fairly quickly with this group, reading their books and identifying key misconceptions to give whole class feedback on early on. Again this shows my care and high aspirations for the group and also reinforced their expectations that I would be looking at their books regularly.
  • Make an effort to acknowledge these students around school and say hello. These incidental moments build up to remind students that you care, that you are now part of the same team.

This was not the easiest of situations for me (a perfectionist!) or the students, but I hope by using these simple steps outlined that our relationship can build and strengthen over the coming weeks and months to ensure that each and everyone of them fulfils their potential. I am sincere when I say I believe in them and want to gain their trust and my aim is to communicate this as quickly and effectively as possible. As Peps says: “Trust takes time to earn and discipline to keep. But as any experienced hand will tell you: it’s worth it. The classroom is so much more efficient and enjoyable when pupils have confidence in their teacher.”


Look up, not down

Having just finished Jo Facer’s brilliant Culture Rules, I am reminded again about how integral culture is to a school’s success. Facer explores the key ingredients which make up an environment where staff feel fulfilled and able to teach, and students are successful, safe and cared for. The past 18 months have presented a myriad of challenges for schools, not least resetting norms and routines after periods of online learning. In our Academy therefore, it has become even more important to drive the ethos of high expectations, whole school routines and standards – from strong starts to lessons to expecting silence for independent work. Once standards are agreed and set though, it takes every single member of staff rowing in the same direction for it to work. We were lucky enough to have Tom Bennett visit us in September and I am reminded of the repeated phrase he uses: “What you permit you promote.” I also love the quote from Lieutenant General David Morrison, the retired senior officer from the Australian army: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Essentially, what we choose to ignore, we are saying is acceptable to us.

As busy staff moving across the school, trying to remember the things on our to do list we need to finish, or as teachers trying to get through lesson content, log data on time, set work for isolating students and keep up with admin, it is very easy to look down when we see something which does not meet these standards, or falls short of the expectations in our culture. When we are hurrying to lessons and see a student not where they should be, when we are on duty and see what might be the start of some trouble, or when we are on the corridor and spot a student in incorrect uniform, it’s so tempting to turn a blind eye. Perhaps it’s because of the time it may take up, perhaps it’s the fear of confrontation or the hope that someone else will deal with it, but looking down only serves to show students that that is a standard we will accept, and makes it harder for the next member of staff who will challenge them.

The fact is, that for high expectations in our students, we need to have high expectations of ourselves. This is not easy. There are times when we feel weary, or the temptation is there to ignore behaviour in favour of ticking off something on our list. There are times when we may get that sinking feeling as we see something we know we should tackle, but are worried about the response and think someone else will deal with it instead. There are times when it is simply easier to look away. But we mustn’t. To build the strong culture which makes a successful school, the little things matter. Your decisions matter. Culture needs to be kept alive .Culture is the living and breathing choices every individual makes every day. Every individual’s actions or inactions form the collective. So let’s all make an effort to look up, not down.


The right lighting

I was recently asked to contribute to a podcast about the brilliant book Quiet by Susan Cain which I read last year and this forced me to reflect again on what I had learnt. It would not be an underestimation to say that this book changed my life. Various memories from my teenage years and twenties came flooding back as I read, and pieces of a puzzle began to fit together. I realised I was not in fact antisocial or boring. I didn’t need to “come out of my shell” and shouldn’t have spent many evenings either feeling guilty that I had said no to a social event, or for leaving one early. Susan Cain gave me permission to be my full introverted self. I have spent so much of my life thinking that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to fit in more; Cain made me see that there were millions of people just like me, perhaps trying to fit into what she labels the “extrovert ideal.” While I have got more confident at being myself as I reached my thirties and forties, it wasn’t until I read her book that I finally felt relief and a full understanding of why I often feel the way I do.

Recent studies tell us that perhaps up to 50% of the population are introverts, and Cain gives a quick and easy test to help us identify whether we might be part of this group (as well as a full checklist further on in the book). Imagine you’re at a party with friends, you’ve been there for a couple of hours and you’ve had a good time. Is your internal battery charged by the social gathering, or is your battery drained? I am definitely the latter. If I’m able to persuade myself to attend (when let’s face it much of the time I’d rather be at home with a good book) I will often reach a point where I know I’ve had enough and can feel my battery becoming depleted, needing time on my own or with close loved ones to recharge, whereas an extrovert’s battery would be recharged by the party and depleted with time on their own. That’s not to say I hate all social occasions – I don’t! But if I had the choice I’d much rather spend time with close friends and family or have 1:1 conversations than be forced to network and make small talk with lots of people I don’t know. Cain also discusses the fact that many introverts can behave in an extrovert way, and for short periods of time can put on an act. This explains how I can lead CPD sessions, or even be an enthusiastic and confident teacher day to day, but quickly feel drained and unable to socialise on workday evenings. I believe the pandemic and the rise of online learning have also brought more introverted teachers, leaders and students to the forefront. Cain details how “the same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships to the real world.” Not only does this explain the presence of this blog itself, I think it also explains that whilst there are clearly benefits to in-person CPD, leaders like myself thrive on webinars where I can pause to process and other than the quite frankly terrifying “break out rooms” avoid the awkward small talk I struggle with so much.

Jamie Thom, in his superb book A Quiet Education does a fantastic job of translating Cain’s work for us as educators – the first half looking at Quiet for Students, the second concentrating on Quiet for Teachers and Leaders. Both books have made me think about how to use my new knowledge and confidence around introversion to be a better leader and classroom teacher and here I explain just a few of my key takeaways.

Personally, reading these books not only gave me more security as an individual, but as a leader as well. The “extrovert ideal” that is a prominent part of our culture has also at times transcended to school leadership, where job adverts call for leaders who are dynamic, have out-going personalities, show great enthusiasm and have high energy. As an introvert, it’s easy to feel you don’t fit the mould of these roles, and yet many many successful leaders and school leaders, would also describe themselves as introverts. Susan Cain gives many examples of successful introverts in the book, ranging from Gandhi to Steve Wozniak, and details “limelight-avoiding” leaders throughout history. In fact, as Cain quotes: “it’s easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent” and being a good listener, being humble and calm are all important leadership qualities which we would associate more with introverts. As Jamie says “…good leadership is not exclusive to extroverts – the innate qualities of introverts can make them wonderful leaders.” It might, for example, be easy to think my more naturally quiet demeanour showed a lack of enthusiasm or passion. Nothing could be further from the truth – as anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes discussing Teaching and Learning with me would attest to I’m sure! Although these books certainly made me feel I had more permission to be the kind of leader I naturally am, they also did make me consider how I could push myself into slightly more uncomfortable situations in order to grow and develop without causing anxiety, and there are some key pointers I have taken away to benefit both myself as a leader but also the colleagues and other leaders I work closely with who also could be introverts.

  • Allow myself and those I work with thinking time. Having line management questions in advance so both parties can prepare is important to me and I feel leads to more productive discussions. Forcing myself to spend time thinking through a problem before reaching the best rather than the quickest solution is essential. In A Quiet Education, Jamie discusses the sharing of agendas in advance for example, and allowing time to make notes, or even contributing in writing when you have a moment of clarity, even after a meeting has ended.
  • Avoiding group brainstorm situations. In Quiet, Cain outlines in detail how group brainstorming doesn’t actually often yield effective results and that it can be much better to allow colleagues to think individually first, before sharing ideas. This has an impact on groups I chair for example, where I will therefore rarely turn up with blank sheets of paper and a problem to solve!
  • Allowing myself time in an office or closed classroom to think is vital to me. Although this can be really difficult to do during the school day I try and carve out some time first thing in the morning to do some strategic thinking and get myself ready for the day. Having an open door and being available to others is important, but so is allowing myself time to reflect and plan on my own. As a side point here, the research on open plan offices and the associated health concerns which Cain explains are fascinating!

As a teacher I often think about the students who, like me, identify as introverts and wonder if I allow them to flourish, encourage them to see that they don’t need to fit the extrovert model to be successful in their studies and in their lives. There are some practical changes to consider introverts that I have made to my teaching that I think are really important. Much of these Jamie discusses in far more detail, with case studies and practical examples.

  • Using wait or thinking time. On average, teachers wait 1 second after posing a question before taking an answer, but especially when it comes to deeper, more probing questions, we need to allow time for students to process and not just respond with knee-jerk answers. Not only will we likely elicit more coherent and thoughtful answers, it means more introverted students who appreciate quiet thinking time are more likely to respond and engage in discussion. This doesn’t always feel natural, so I use phrases like; “This is a hard question, you need time to process your thoughts” or as Jamie suggests; “Take a few seconds and consider how you might phrase your answer.”
  • Check for understanding using cold call. Using a method like cold call might seem counter intuitive to the aim of considering introverted students, but I would argue that there are ways of using it which means even the most quiet students can feel confident in engaging. Using a warm and encouraging tone and not trying to catch students out or starting with questions students can easily feel successful with to build confidence are really important.
  • Build a culture of error – a phrase used by Doug Lemov in Teach like a Champion. I try and praise the effort and thought process rather than a correct answer, and try to create a culture where it’s ok to get an answer wrong because it leads to more learning. I know my own natural tendency might be to not try for fear of getting it wrong and I believe one of the most important things we can teach our students is that failure leads to success. Lemov encourages the use of phrases such as “I’m glad I saw that mistake. It teaches us something we have to fix before we’ve mastered this” and this encourages a classroom where “psychological safety” is a key feature and where mistakes are celebrated as a learning opportunity.
  • Use show me boards – I still believe show me boards are one of the most important tools we can use in the classroom – This blog by Joey Bagstock is worth a read and Jack Tavassoly-Marsh wrote an excellent blog recently which gives further guidance. Show me boards allow more introverted students to share answers without being put on the spot and allows me as a teacher to be able to check for understanding in a quick and convenient way.
  • Use silence. I was really interested in the recent Twitter debate about periods of silence in lessons. I stand by my belief that I want students in my classroom making full use of the time available, that they should be thinking hard, and that to concentrate well, students need to have that silence, especially if you are an introvert. If students are concentrating on a conversation with their friend about the football last night, or plans for the weekend, they cannot be fully concentrating on the essay I’ve asked them to write. I love the anecdote often shared around this about turning your car radio down when you are lost. Our brains find it difficult to share attention, and turning the radio down eliminates something on our brain’s to-list. Oh, and silence really means silence. Often it can be tempting to say you want silent work but let the noise level gradually rise. Silence is not the same as a quiet classroom. These conditions not only allow students to concentrate better, but caters for introverts, who often like to process things alone, and prefer quiet environments.
  • Use group work sparingly and in a structured way. Jamie details the traps of group work in chapter 5 of his book, explaining the lack of focus it can sometimes cause, the lack of real thinking that often goes on, as well as the way it can allow certain students to be overshadowed. Group work as a teenager was rarely something I enjoyed, causing anxiety about working with more dominant personalities and I would have much preferred silent individual work, at least before joining up to work with others. That is not to say group work is not without benefits, and sometimes it is good for all of us to be forced out of our comfort zone, but Jamie suggests some guidelines such as structuring the timing and giving responsibility which I think are really important.

Being an extrovert is not the ideal, but neither is being an introvert. Cain writes so eloquently about how both are needed in society and the amazing results that can be produced through partnerships between introverts and extroverts when they understand each other. In her conclusion to the book she writes: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others a lamplit desk.” The challenge for us is to not only do this personally, but to encourage this in the students we teach and the colleagues we work with.


If you’d like to know more about the power of introverts, I highly recommend this TED talk from Susan Cain as a starting point!