‘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!

The Culture Code and I noticed

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle has had a profound effect on my thinking over the last few months. Indeed, I used several sections from the book to frame my recent whole staff Inset. High expectations in everything is a key part of our ethos and so the first extract I used was about having high expectations of our students, using the study by the Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal from 1965, where teachers were told some of their students had high potential. These students thrived over the following year, despite the truth being that they had actually been chosen at random. What had changed was the teacher’s expectations. Coyle goes on to explain that these teachers showed more warmth, more input, more response opportunities (as in asked more questions to check understanding) and gave more feedback, presuming that when the students made a mistake it was because they just needed better feedback. These thousands of small behaviours over the following year contributed to huge student success. What a challenge for us as teachers! We should constantly be asking ourselves whether we really have these high expectations for the students that we teach. 

The second aspect of the Culture Code I shared with our staff was around giving the most effective feedback, again related to a key part of our school priorities as we continue to embed our no written feedback policy; using live feedback and whole class feedback. Coyle gives the example of the research carried out by a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia where middle school students were given feedback on an essay. The most effective, nicknamed “magical feedback,” consisted of one single phrase – “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” What this communicates links to high expectations, but it also shows that students are noticed, this feedback makes them feel valued and part of the group. It helps the students believe that their teacher believes in them and cares about them. This phrase is so powerful, and is one I am encouraging staff to use as part of their feedback process.

There are so many other aspects of the book which have really changed my thinking but the one I want to spend some time unpacking now is the section about avoiding typical sandwich feedback and what we can do instead to make our feedback more effective. Coyle outlines that the usual way leaders give feedback is by giving some positives, perhaps of a lesson observation, some areas which need an improvement and then end by going back to a positive. Coyle says: “This makes sense in theory, but in practice it often leads to confusion, as people tend to focus either entirely on the positive or entirely on the negative.” He advises that the best leaders he observed separated this feedback, and made them distinct.

Lesson observation feedback is high on my agenda anyway, as we move to an Instructional coaching model over the next year. I have been reflecting a great deal on the process of observations after reading David Didau’s section on this in his fantastic book Intelligent Accountability. He advocates avoiding a checklist or any form of guidance on “looking for” and instead promotes “looking at”. In the excellent training materials for Powerful Action Steps, the professional learning platform devised by Josh Goodrich, which we are using for our Instructional coaching, one of the key principles is around how we give feedback. We know that the sandwich approach mentioned above is not effective and we also know that feedback can be emotional. Despite a huge shift in culture away from graded, formalised lesson observations to short drop ins which show typicality, staff still to an extent crave that feeling of “knowing I’ve done ok”, or “Was it good enough?” Instructional coaching is a powerful tool in shifting feedback to a conversation about what was seen in the lesson and the setting of a granular action step followed by deliberate practice. But if the sandwich approach doesn’t work, how else can you open up a discussion with the teacher where what’s going on in the lesson can be discussed in the “looking at” sense, whilst still being meaningful?

This is where we have started using “I noticed”, also shared in the PAS coaching feedback process of praise, probe, agree action step, plan and practise. “I noticed….the three students at the front didn’t start writing anything immediately, why do you think that might have been? How can we ensure a more prompt start?” or “I noticed….the students were quite chaotic when they entered the room, one student threw something at another and none got their books out, how do you think the entrance to the room could be made less chaotic?” are good openers for a meaningful conversation to take place before the setting of an action step. “I noticed” takes the emotion out of the lesson feedback and gives the teacher concrete evidence of something that has been seen in a “looking at” manner. This simple phrase opens up a discussion, rather than teachers being told straight away what aspects of the lesson are “good” or “need improved”, and it makes it far less threatening.

We are early on our Instructional coaching journey, but this is certainly one element of how lesson drop ins are changing which has been received overwhelmingly positively by teachers and I’m really grateful both to the Culture Code and Powerful Action Steps for challenging my thinking.

Rachel Ball

Over the Net!

I feel that you don’t care about my workload…”

You’re not making this subject a priority

You’re only thinking about your own perspective..”

You have a poor attitude which is interfering with your performance…”

Phrases like this are not uncommon in everyday life and can even be heard in schools, whether it’s between colleagues or in interactions between staff and students. I’ll admit that in the heat of the moment I’ve used phrases like this myself. It’s easy to think that you’re giving feedback when you talk like this, but as David Bradford and Carol Robin point out in their recently published book ConnectBuilding Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends and Colleagues, this is falling into a trap of thinking we know someone else’s motives and intentions and the result can be very damaging.

Let’s take the example where a colleague, Sue, arrives late for an important meeting with me for the third time. It would be easy for me to launch into a conversation about how she isn’t prioritising this meeting and she doesn’t care. Bradford and Robin would describe this kind of talk as “over the net”. They explain that in fact there are three realities that exist:

  • The first is what Sue knows – her intentions, needs, motives and emotions. 
  • The second is what is known to both parties – these are the facts, the behaviours which both sides are aware of and are indisputable, such as Sue arriving late multiple times. In the book this is outlined as the net – the area both parties have common knowledge of. 
  • The third reality is that which is only known to me – my emotions, reactions and responses. 

By making statements like the ones above, I am not staying on my side of the net. If I stick with reality I can raise issues in a direct-non accusatory way that helps both of us. Perhaps: “Sue, this is the third time you’ve been late for our meeting. This makes me feel flustered and irritated.  Is there something going on which is making you late?” might be a better opener. I stay on my side of the net, describing the impact of Sue’s behaviour on me without Sue feeling misunderstood or attacked. 

Bradford and Robin explain that relationships often break down because people don’t stay on their side of the net, and we fall into the trap of thinking we know the other person’s intent or motives. This makes feedback accusatory and increases tensions, causing hurt and defensiveness. 

I found this really interesting to read, and couldn’t help but think of conversations with colleagues and students where I may have made this mistake, and unknowingly escalated a situation when I thought I was just giving feedback. Since then, I have tried to focus on staying on my side of the net in my interactions, and the results have been quite remarkable. I could tell student X that he has a poor attitude and that is causing him to fall behind in History. This would make him feel defensive, and also doesn’t tell him what exactly he’s done wrong or needs to work on. Instead I said to student X, “I noticed that you were chatting a lot in today’s lesson and when I asked you to stop you argued back or carried on talking. If we have a look at your book from today, you haven’t completed the work and I’m worried you will not be able to answer the exam question next week.” This had a completely different effect. Student X apologised, we agreed he would move seats and his attitude improved. 

One other point: This kind of feedback requires using vocabulary about how certain behaviour makes us feel. Bradford and Robin emphasise that we need to be careful with the language we use. “I feel that” or “I feel like” are thoughts, not feelings:

Think of the difference between “I feel irritated and dismissed” and “I feel that you don’t care.” The shift in language might be subtle, but the impact is profound. “I feel that you don’t really care about my opinion” contains no feeling words, although it is likely that there are some strong feelings unstated! (Note that you could drop the “I feel that” and the sentence would not change.) “I feel irritated and dismissed” is a statement about me whereas “I feel that you don’t care” is an accusation that is likely to cause defensiveness.”

There are many more interesting and relevant aspects of the book and some excellent case studies, but “Over the net” in particular has been so revelatory to me and has had a real impact in improving some difficult relationships.


This podcast is an excellent starter if you are interested in the book Connect.

40 things I feel guilty about

Maybe it’s because I’m a working mum, my religious background, my imposter syndrome, or maybe it’s just because of my age, but guilt is a frequently felt emotion in my life. Elizabeth Day’s column in You magazine this week hit me hard, and like her I wonder how much more productive my life would be if I let go of some of this guilt I carry around like a very heavy backpack. Certainly I know I’d sleep better, probably stop stress eating biscuits and maybe even live in the moment more. Elizabeth herself muses: “It makes me wonder: what could we achieve with all that energy wasted on unnecessary shame? The sock drawer might get organised. I might read War and Peace. Maybe – just maybe – I’d forgive myself. And then, perhaps, we could all allow ourselves to believe in our worth, just as we are.

Sometimes the guilty feelings are fleeting, gone before it’s really felt. Other times, it’s like a punch to the stomach, or a wave of nausea across my body. I know in my rational mind I work hard, try my best, and am doing a good job, but maintaining the balance in my life and always wanting to be better means guilt is a constant presence, and I often think teaching exacerbates this. We are in a profession of perfectionism, of moral duty, and therefore can always do more and be better. As Rachel Mallon writes here, the performance pressure that teachers are still under can add to that fear of inadequacy, as well as the constant worry that we are doing “enough” for the staff and students that we teach, and lead. Our job is never “done” and whereas to an extent my husband can pack away his desk for the night and leave his job behind, my mind is constantly seeking ways to be better, to improve results and to give our students even better chances in life. Even though I might not physically be working, my mind is always ticking away, pre-empting what will need done next and what we can do better. Teaching is a job like no other; at times I find it all consuming – then feel guilty that this is unsustainable and worry I will burn out. Over recent years, reading books like Stop talking about Wellbeing by Kat Howard and High Challenge, Low Threat by Mary Myatt have helped me to put things in perspective, and start to achieve more balance, not just for myself but those I lead and am an example for. Mary’s mantra of “Done, not perfect” in particular has resonated, but the gnawing feeling of guilt about my job remains.

I feel guilty:

  1. I’m not a more inspirational teacher.
  2. I don’t always leap out of bed, ready for another day at work.
  3. I have 10gb of podcasts I NEED to listen to on my phone but I keep adding more.
  4. I leave home before my kids are up in the mornings.
  5. I had to look up the date of the Vienna summit this morning in my Y10 lesson.
  6. I didn’t love that book which everyone said was brilliant.
  7. I take some poor behaviour personally.
  8. I have a shelf of unread books but keep buying more.
  9. I count down to the holidays in my head.
  10. I spend too much time worrying about what others think of me.
  11. I find most museums really boring…
  12. …and feel double guilt because I’m a History teacher.
  13. I once fell asleep in a museum on a school trip (in my defence I had taken an anti sickness tablet!).
  14. I find Teaching History magazine inspirational but hard to absorb.
  15. I sometimes have to look up education acronyms.
  16. When the Head calls me into his office I always wonder what I’ve done wrong first.
  17. I missed bedtime twice last week…
  18. …but I felt relieved not to have to have to do bathtime.
  19. I spent anytime at all teaching through information hunts and playdough.
  20. Sometimes I have to have difficult conversations with people I’d really rather not have.
  21. I never work on a Sunday evening…..
  22. ..but checked Twitter while pushing my daughter on the swing this weekend.
  23. Sometimes I forget to say “What questions do you have?” rather than “Any questions?”
  24. I often get tongue tied and wish I was more articulate.
  25. Sometimes I get so passionate, I forget to see other points of view.
  26. My husband says I’m a different person during the holidays.
  27. I desperately want school culture to change more quickly than it does.
  28. I missed bus duty.
  29. I don’t see my friends enough…
  30. ..but I hate talking on the phone.
  31. Sometimes I rush jobs and make mistakes I wouldn’t have made if I’d been more careful.
  32. I find holidays hard with no sense of purpose and still set myself jobs on a ticklist.
  33. I went back to work full-time when my babies were only 7 months old.
  34. The thought of speaking at some virtual conferences this month makes me feel a bit sick.
  35. Some of my Year 11 grades weren’t as good as they could have and should have been.
  36. I don’t make as many positive phone calls home as I know I should.
  37. I feel exhausted just thinking about another 25 years of teaching…
  38. ….but I don’t teach anywhere near a full timetable.
  39. If I call in sick I’m causing others more work.
  40. I’m not kinder to myself.

I could quite easily have added more to this list, and I know it’s something I need to work on, but perhaps by being more public about our guilt we can start to be kinder to ourselves. I wouldn’t dream of judging a friend so harshly and so my aim going forward is more compassion, recognising the impossible standards I’m holding myself up to and accepting that I try my best. And that’s all that any of us can do, right?


Systems not Goals

I recently finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a brilliant book, filled with the lessons from individual success stories and really clear structured advice about how to lose a bad habit, or create a good one. I found many sections in the book pertinent to schools and the habits we want to create in our students, but there was one key point in the book that really struck a nerve about school leadership.

In the first section of the book, Clear outlines some of the reasons why our good intentions with habits often fail. We are told as individuals or organisations to have a goal and focus on that goal. Clear instead instructs us to “forget about goals, focus on systems instead.” This advice seems so contrary to how we are usually taught to get what we want in life, be it getting fit, getting a promotion, or generally becoming happier. Yet Clear sets out 4 main reasons why goals don’t often get us very far, and actually it’s systems that are more beneficial.

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals – We assume that when we see successful people and their goals, that that explains their success, but: “Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change – “Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment….When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily.”
  3. Goals restrict your happiness – This is something which resonated personally. When I was losing weight I focused so much on my end goal and how I’d be happy once I’d lost the weight. In reality even when I hit an 8 stone weight loss, I still wanted more, dind’t know how to stop and felt I couldn’t enjoy the achievement I’d made. In fact, stopping dieting and moving to maintenance over the last couple of years has been far far harder mentally than losing weight ever was. Clear says: “The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.” Furthermore, goals set us up for failure – “Goals create an either-or conflict; either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and are a disappointment.”
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress – “Goals can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training.”

Clear therefore emphasises a focus on the system, rather than just having a goal: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system.”

So what lessons are here for us working and leading in schools? Well how many of us still focus on a goal of achieving a grading of X from Ofsted, or a P8 of Y, a certain % pass rate for our class or even a particular target grade for a student, rather than just focusing on building the very best systems and cultures in our schools or classes? What would happen if we had a goal-less culture in our schools, and instead built systems of continual refinement and improvement? Why don’t we focus on building school cultures where we create the systems that will bring success naturally, without the short-term goals we sometimes build in? I think this means being brave and stepping away with some of our measures of success. For example, I had a recent conversation with governors about why we have moved away in the last few years from a % measurement of good and better teaching when reporting to them. There are many reasons why this is meaningless and unhelpful, but it takes courage to move past the comfort of statistics like this. It’s also a reason why I rarely if ever use target grades with students, something Ben Newmark wrote a fantastic blog about here and Mary Myatt recently reinforced:

As Ben says in the blog: “…it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they have reached. Generic target grades are a distraction.” John Thomsett has also written an excellent blog on this theme, explaining the reasons why they do not publish target grades to parents or students at Huntington: “The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake! Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.”

In addition, there is a danger with goals in focusing too much on the actual measurement, a temptation in our data-driven world. Clear outlines this danger in his chapter on habit-trackers (something that can be really useful when used correctly): “The pitfall is evident in many areas of life. We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done. We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy…In short, we optimize for what we measure.” Instead of focusing on this measured target, it’s much more useful to be concerned about the larger context and see this measurement as only one piece of feedback. Clear adds a comment I think we should hold close in our work in schools: “Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

Clear’s final part of the book returns to this theme of goals and I think he presents a real challenge for us in schools: “Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine….The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.” Let’s instead work on building school systems with the highest expectations, a relentless drive and commitment to improvement and a focus on the highest quality curriculum. Accountability is of course important, but let’s move away from short term goals and targets and instead be brave enough to focus on goal-less improvement.


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