What does it mean to teach?

When my friend Lia told me to read Some kids I taught and what they taught me, my response was to judge a book by its cover – why would I, who lived the world of teaching each day, read what appeared to be a teaching memoir?

I’m so glad I did, because this book is so much more than a memoir. It is a love letter to teaching. Even more than that, though, it provides impressive insights on several areas of education. Below are just a few of my many favourite parts.

Early in the book, Clanchy identifies the driving need of children to fit in. It is a need that goes far beyond the school gates, and will drive their social mobility and overall chances of improving their own lives: “Not to be left behind, never to be the one dressed differently, acting differently, feathered differently, never, never to be excluded: for children, that is a primary drive. It is connected to the inbuilt Darwinian drive to walk with your tribe, stay with your kind, and it is stronger in a seven-year-old than the fear of death.”

Through the story of one student who leaves school and becomes a teenage mother, Clanchy allows us to see this girl as conforming to her tribe’s expectations, in words which ring familiar and true: “Aged only sixteen, she will join the adults of her family, with an income as good as her sisters’. She will meet all her family expectations as firmly as a surgeon’s son getting his place at medical school; most of us do not want more than that. And if she is conscious, as of course she is, that those expectations are different from those of the society around her, what of it? That will only make her feel more inadequate in the world, only turn her further in on her tribe.”

Clanchy tells us stories of the ways children from disadvantaged backgrounds cope with the boundaries of school – my favourite anecdote was the boy who turned up at the school gates each day with a small uniform infraction (shirt untucked, baseball cap on, no tie…): “‘He never gets any better,’ she says, ‘so we have to conclude that he likes a telling-off.’… He comes from a cruel, chaotic home where most attention comes as abuse. He has chosen this engagement with Miss P. Each morning, she and the uniform tell Connor that he is in a boundaried place now, where people care what he wears, and care if he keeps the rules.”

This book is the most insightful I have come across in unpacking modern poverty, as Clanchy tells the tale of two homes – her own, and that of a council-house dwelling ex-student: “Cheyenne’s boast about Christmas presents is not a tragic fantasy, and she is not lying about her BlackBerry or her Burberry shirt, for this is poverty in the twenty-first century, and it’s complicated… Cheyenne almost certainly does have more consumer goods than my children, in the same way that she has more calories and less nutrition; more cash and less financial security.” In this observation, Clanchy prompts the reader to consider the very real challenge schools face: “How do we, as a school or as a nation, educate Cheyenne, get her to adopt middle-class habits such as reading, homework, and long-term ambition, without alienating her from her family? How do you induce her to go through the difficulties and deferred gratifications of studying when everyone around her would say that did not work for them?”

On school choice, Clanchy is unflinching in recounting her own anxieties as a middle class mother trying to balance the need to do the best for her children with her political and moral compass. Ultimately, she chooses to send her eldest to the nearest school, even though it is one of the worst in the area, commenting nobly: “Maybe I should be thinking of what my son could bring to the school, as well as what he could take, about his patrimony as well as his entitlement.” The pain and anguish in this section was palpable, but Clanchy soon moves on to explain the very many positives her son experienced through this route, which should give comfort to parents everywhere choosing secondary schools.

As an English teacher, I found Clanchy’s insights on teaching English fascinating. Her mode is to teach poetry through writing poetry, something I myself did in school but have not invested significant time in my own teaching. Her arguments are lengthy and her explanations inspiring; rather than hatchet them here, I would simply tell English teachers – read, then action.

Ultimately, this book assured me that, as an English teacher who often finds myself surrounded by those with more scientific and research-minded colleagues, that there is a great power in literature, and, specifically, story-telling to provide insight. Clanchy delivers her message not through statistics, facts and figures, but through human emotions, lived realities, and incisive observations.

Top reads of 2019

Fiction:

Maggie O’Farrell This Must be the Place: this was the first book I read in 2019. What a way to begin. Absolutely epic family tale which bounces around, so the story sort of comes into focus rather than progressing linearly.

Madeline Miller Circe: This retelling of the Odyssey from Circe’s perspective is like Wicked for people who love literature.

Curtis Sittenfeld American Wife: The balance between reality and fiction is delightfully blurred in the story of the president’s wife. Probably the book I most enjoyed reading this year.

Sally Rooney Normal People: I didn’t think anything could be better than Rooney’s debut novel, but I was wrong. This look at an un-relationship is like One Day but literary.

Tayari Jones An American Marriage: The blurb to this makes the premise sound absurd, but every page feels real and true.

Joshua Ferris Then We Came to the End: My overall favourite fiction read of 2019. I especially enjoyed the character Lynn’s fragility and strength. This is an incredible evocation of the mundanity of office life.

Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities: An incredible tear through 1980s America’s racism, privilege, and finance. Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

Non-fiction:

David Didau Making Kids Cleverer: Definitely Didau’s best, in my view; great ranging over the research with a crystal clear aim.

Becky Allen and Sam Sims The Teacher Gap: This is so engagingly written, and tackles the important issue of teacher recruitment and retention. I think I’ve quoted this book more than any other this year (hopefully accurately).

Eric Kalenze What the Academy Taught Us: Kalenze takes us through a specific project where his school created a “school within a school” for those most at risk of dropping out. He then explores the lessons learned and applies his experiences and research to wider school improvement. I adored it. Funny, smart and full of feeling.

Robert Pondiscio How the Other Half Learns: A fascinating insight into the Success Academies, full of helpful advice and thorny moral issues.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff The Coddling of the American Mind: This book is the most influential on the character curriculum I’m developing for Ark Soane Academy, and is a fabulous take-down of “the three great untruths”: “what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” (not true; we are anti-fragile and challenge makes us stronger), “always trust your feelings” (never trust your feelings – our minds deceive us) and “there are good and evil people in the world” (not really; we all have good and evil within us. Better to view others with a charitable mindset, no matter how different our views).

Ann Patchett This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: the most personally influential book I read this year, Patchett came along at exactly the right time to help me through grief and spur me to action. One of many great pieces of advice? If you want to be a writer, write. So I’m writing… This collection ranges over love, failure, joy and dogs – all the big issues.

Elizabeth Day How to Fail: This book is an absolute balm to the wounds of disappointment. Brutally relatable in places, it is full of warmth and wisdom.

Ben Newmark: Why Teach: this little book is great, and the final chapter moving beyond belief. It reminded me, importantly, of why teaching is the best job in the world.

Kim Scott Radical Candour: This great book is about so much more than candour. Its superb advice is genuinely useful. It is not about doing more, but rather about changing the interactions we have with others to forge improvements in our organisations.

 

I was surprised looking through the list of books I read this year (thanks to my year 9 English teacher I’ve kept a list since I was 13 years old) at how few were strong contenders for this list – normally I have a big job cutting it down. Next year I think I will be more ruthless about reading books I’m excited about, and stop “saving” the best ones for holidays (or the last week of term, when I tell myself I “need” something brilliant) – there are too many great books out there for that. 2019 was the year that I published a book on education, Simplicity Rules, but, as inspired by Patchett, I really hope to continue writing fiction in 2020, and perhaps feeling confident enough to share it in 2030.

“Radical Candour” and staff culture

As we start preparing to hire our founding teaching team at Ark Soane Academy, I’ve been thinking a lot about staff culture. Speaking to a wise headteacher colleague recently, I was struck by her advice: “when you get that founding team together, there will be zero trust in the room.” She advised me to think deeply about how to build that trust so they can become a team that executes excellence. And she told me to read Kim Scott’s Radical Candour.

The combination of my colleague’s wisdom and reading Scott’s book have given me a clear steer on staff culture. Radical Candour is essentially about how to set up strong team relationships so you can hold each other to account and continually improve. In Scott’s latest introduction, she notes that she almost called the book “Compassionate Candour”, which I far prefer. What this means for Scott is that you need to both “care deeply” about each team member and “challenge directly.”

The book opens with the all-too recognisable story of the anonymised “Bob.” Bob came to her company with great references, but his first piece of work was sub-par. Rather than challenging him on it, Scott insincerely told him the work was great. This meant Bob assumed that this standard of work was acceptable, and continued with it. Which meant the team kept having to cover for him, and then they themselves stopped seeing why they should put so much effort in when Bob was praised for so little. Eventually, having avoided Bob in the office, Scott finally built up the courage to talk directly – and fired him.

Bob’s reaction? “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

It is easier to care deeply than it is to challenge directly – I’ve often fallen into the trap of what Scott calls “ruinous empathy”: “I won’t have that difficult conversation today because this person is feeling under the weather/has just come back from being ill/is having relationship problems.” And of course, sometimes it’s right to put off a conversation (in fact, Scott says picking people up on every little thing, in work as in relationships, is not advised: she suggests leaving “three things unsaid” each day). But ultimately, there are some hinge points where you do need to hold others to account.

A large part of this book explores the concept that you as the leader need to model welcoming feedback. In fact, if you are constantly seeking, inviting, relishing and (crucially) acting on feedback, you encourage this culture in your organization. People might not have to steel themselves for the “difficult conversation” if everyone is constantly saying: ‘what do you think? What could I change? How could I improve this?” It becomes part of the natural dialogue. Scott describes a culture at Google and Apple where the top leaders – CEOs, founders – would relish being shouted down by others, and thank them for being so direct. She cites Steve Jobs: “I don’t mind being wrong. And I’ll admit that I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.”

So as leaders, we have a huge responsibility to always seek feedback, and then to genuinely act on it and show we have taken that feedback seriously to build that culture of constant improvement. This culture is especially crucial to an organization that is growing.

Scott talks of the particular nature of start-ups, which of course resonates strongly with me at this point: with a tiny team, everyone knows each other extremely well. You tend to find it easy to have radically candid conversations, because you know each other well and the care is evidently there. But as a start-up begins to grow, this does not scale. You can’t deeply know one hundred people in a genuine way. You can’t go around “just being honest” with people you haven’t built relationships with. That, Scott advises, makes you an “a**hole.” The trap is that people actually prefer a competent boss who is a “jerk” to an incompetent boss who is nice to them. The danger of this is that the jerks begin to flourish, and all of a sudden you have an organisational culture that becomes pretty toxic.

How do we guard against this? How do we safeguard the culture, while still being honest with each other about how we’re doing?

The first step, as above, is to model from above. Scott notes that for CEOs (headteachers), the way you line manage others will be mimicked by them: you influence your organization much more than you are ever aware (she tells the memorable story of a hold-up in making a shuttle bus for workers at one company because the team in charge looked at the CEO’s car and chose the same colours for the bus, which then took longer to make. The CEO hadn’t mentioned this and didn’t care what colour the bus was, but for those he managed they added weight to his every visible movement).

Secondly, perhaps having a dialogue of compassionate candour between line manager and managee, i.e. those who have formed a trusting relationship, is the best place for candour to remain. A positive culture focused on excellence can only be built when feedback is freely given and underpinned by the understanding that the person giving feedback genuinely cares about the person receiving it – and relationships do not scale in the way we imagine they do. But if everyone is continually seeking to improve with the support, guidance and challenge of those who know them the best – I think that’s a staff culture I’d want to be a part of.

If you like the sound of a staff culture focused on continual improvement, founded on genuine care for others, we’re starting to hire our founding team in December. Stay in touch!

Jerusalem

I didn’t want to go to Israel. I know that’s a terribly spoiled child point of view, but that’s the truth. When I looked it up the first search hit was “terrorist threat” (which, if you’re interested, was not considered zero). In fact, it was a chance conversation with my friend Lia who told me she was considering going there at Christmas that made me think again.

My Israel trip coincided with discovering Ann Patchett. Readers will be familiar with the “reading rut”: you’ve exhausted all your go-to reads, and nothing on your shelves seems appealing. All of a sudden, a writer emerges – an odd article mentions them in passing, and you’re away. How had I never read Ann Patchett before? Wonderfully, you discover their large back-catalogue, and suddenly the reading vista seems plentiful again; the reading world infinite once more.

So much about This is the Story of a Happy Marriage spoke to me. In “Do not Disturb” Patchett writes:

“what we want out of a vacation changes as we age. It changes from vacation to vacation. There was a time when it was all about culture for me. My idea of a real break was to stay in museums until my legs ached… later I became a disciple of relaxation and looked for words like beach and massage when making my plans… Now I strive for transcendent invisibility and the chance to accomplish the things I can’t get done at home.”

As a full-time, main scale teacher, I went on holiday to do two things: 1. To read books; 2. To sit still. The daily life of a teacher is energetic to say the least, and so all I really wanted to do was sit down. (I always want to read, so that is always my number one aim of anything I’m doing or anywhere I’m going.) My partner, by contrast, has a job that involves a lot of desk-sitting, so his ideal holiday consists of moving and doing. We are not, sadly, ideal holiday companions. This time, we took the advice an Israeli colleague and headed for Tel Aviv, which seemed to have it all: beaches for me to sit on, and no end of things to see and do.

On the penultimate day, we took a small group tour to visit Jerusalem. I want to write about Jerusalem while it is fresh in my mind, and I want to write about it when it is not. I want to find out what stays with me and what melts away, though I suppose writing about anything will also change the experience.

In my ignorance, I’d not known that Jerusalem is a city of three religions: I knew, of course, that the city was disputed by Jews and Muslims; I had been less aware of the Christian elements of the city (and the Armenian presence was a mystery to me). Friends had warned me that I might find disapproving looks from the ultra-religious in the different “quarters”, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, the only location where anyone glanced at our group with anything approaching distaste was during prayers at King David’s tomb, when, perhaps understandably, a man trying to focus on his prayer in the space (which is also a synagogue) was unhappy at our looming, encroaching presence.

At site after site, our tour guide spoke honestly of the reality of what we were seeing: “this is where they say Jesus died… but we don’t really know. This is meant to be King David’s tomb, but it probably isn’t. This is where some Christians believe the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven… But some Christians think it’s somewhere else.” For my scientific other half, this served to strengthen his view that religion is “made up”. But what came through for me was the power of tradition to help us connect to something bigger than ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt the power of belonging quite so strongly as standing side by side with the women on the ladies’ side of the Western wall, or watching a boy read his Bar Mitzvah Torah as his joyous relatives celebrated his coming of age in the streets, or seeing large groups of Muslim worshippers outside the Dome of the Rock eating a shared picnic and holding out bread for us to join them. Religion connects us, and that’s not nothing.

And though the city has had a fractured past (to say the least), and though I can’t speak for those who live there, there was something astonishing about people of such extremely diverse backgrounds living so closely and so, apparently, peacefully (I asked my tour guide if the city was “safe” and she unhesitatingly said “of course!” before adding: “but I am from South America, so,” and shrugging). I’d been warned before visiting Israel to be ready to see the military walking the streets armed with terrifyingly visible weapons, but found that to be vanishingly rare. In fact, I saw this only twice, by those guarding the most sacred places in Jerusalem.

Who are the Jews who live in Jerusalem, who pray three times a day, who dress in the ultra-orthodox manner? Our guide explained that many devote their lives to studying the Torah – they don’t have what we’d consider traditional employment. The depth of the knowledge they must have of this sacred script seemed awesome to me, and reminded me that we need all focuses to make up the intellectual world: the polymath is just as crucial as the post-doc. Why is Judaism the oldest surviving world religion, asked our guide? Because of these people, who devote their lives to fully living this tradition. Without them, she posited, the religion and culture could have died out long ago. So from the Jewish quarter, I felt the value of tradition and the value of deep knowledge.

We learn more from travelling than we would have learned from a textbook not because of our own physical presence somewhere foreign, but because of the people we encounter. Our tour was made up of kind and fascinating people: a couple from Turkey and their colleague, who sold smart fridges and were passionate about their technology. An Italian couple, living in London; one of whom taught Maths, one of whom worked at the Wellcome Collection. A couple and their daughter from Hong Kong, who talked about the protests they were currently living through with great fortitude and occasional humour. And a final couple, who I didn’t manage to talk to until lunch. We had two options, lamb and falafel. I ordered the latter. “My daughter’s a vegetarian as well,” said the gentleman. I was pained to admit that I was not a vegetarian, I just loved falafel.

As we walked together after lunch, I found out he was from Athens and had studied Computer Science in Scotland in the 80s, where he was “part of this incredible revolution.” As we moved on to our next stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said to me: “this is the dream of my life. It is the dream of my life to see where Jesus was buried and resurrected, and now I get to be here.”

“The dream of my life.”

His words haunt me. I feel honoured to have been there at the moment where this man accomplished his life’s dream, but I also feel deeply troubled by his words. To me, there is something infinitely admirable about having such a dream. What, I immediately worried, is the dream of my life? To run a school? To own a dog? To have a child? To read some books? To write some books?

These are ambitions; they are actions I can do, and when they happen, what will be the outcome? Will I say “well, that’s the dream of my life. Onto a new dream.” Beside this man’s enduring faith, all my dreams seemed suddenly stripped of meaning. This man’s faith taught me that we need to seek something more in life than milestones and accomplishments.

I don’t like to think of myself as a superstitious person, but I probably am. When I lose an eyelash, I blow on it and make a wish. For years, I wished for the next rung on the promotion ladder. (I don’t wish for that anymore.) I used to wish I would have children, but for reasons too complex for this essay I don’t wish for that anymore either. On the times that I would pray, I would wish for these two things. I would also pray for friends who were in physical or mental or spiritual pain, or I would ask for those closest to me to be protected, or, embarrassingly occasionally, I would express my gratitude for what I have.

A couple of weeks ago, my step-father’s cancer was given the “terminal” diagnosis. It was very unexpected, and deeply troubling with how rapidly “some tests, nothing to worry about” had become “weeks, maybe months.” When I got to the world’s most holy place, it struck me that the thing I would most wish for, the object I would most want to pray for, is for him. But for what? A miraculous recovery? It seemed so unlikely, so small a wish to put up against the forces of nature that are ravaging his body.

And it came to me as I stood by the Western wall, surrounded by those for whom faith forms a central part of their lives, that prayers are not wishes. That I had misunderstood. Instead, I turned my thoughts to the inner life. I prayed that my stepfather would have the mental strength to die with dignity and to overcome the suffering that was now inevitable, and that I and my family would find the strength to let him go thirty years before anyone expected that to happen. And instead of praying to become a Headteacher (thank you, God), I prayed that I would have the strength to do the job well, and the moral compass to add to the world’s good in my small sphere.

Reading Patchett’s thoughts on dogs, death, divorce and marriage, I reflected that I have written too little about too little. I have stayed in a small sphere, not seeking to contribute elsewhere. I resolved to give more time to more areas of my life, and to reflect that time in the things and in the way I wrote. Because how can I answer the question: what is the dream of my life? It will take much more time, knowledge and experience.

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How do Success Academies achieve such exceptional results?

In Robert Pondiscio’s brilliant book, How the Other Half Learns, readers gain a real insight into the workings of the Success Academies through an in-depth look at one school year in Bronx 1, one of their primary schools. In this post, I’m going to explore Pondiscio’s writing in an attempt to draw out what makes Success Academies so, well, successful. And before we think about the “they choose their children” argument so often levelled at successful schools, I will quote the author: “While critics frequently attribute Success Academy’s results to systematically weeding out low-performing students, it would be hard to get anywhere near these targets, even if you hand-selected each child. Success Academy outperforms New York City’s gifted and talented schools, which actually do handpick their students.” Success’s results are astronomical: on state standardised tests, the network averages 95% proficiency in Maths and 84% in English, far above even the state’s most selective schools. For me the key learning points that shine through Pondiscio’s book are:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Teaching, and the leadership of teaching
  3. Parents

 

  1. Curriculum

The narrowing impact on the curriculum of national tests is something we in the UK can readily engage with. Pondiscio describes low-income children’s “starvation rations in history, geography, science, art and music” as their teachers prioritise a narrow range of skills to pass state tests (the irony being that a more narrow curriculum drilled tightly to the test tends to have the opposite impact on scores). The impact of the Common Core, introduced in 2013, saw depressed results across the board as children’s lack of a broad curriculum experience emerged – in all except Success Academies. This attests to Success’s rich, rigorous and broad academic curriculum. Success employs a common, shared curriculum across its schools, meaning that their teachers focus instead on “intellectual prep”: i.e., how they will deliver the lesson to their specific children. One of my favourite sentences in the book is this: “once children can decode a piece of text fluently, a reading test is hardly a reading test at all; it is functionally a test of background knowledge.” The Success curriculum is a knowledge rich curriculum.

 

  1. Teaching: behaviour management and teacher instruction

Behaviour is always a priority at Success, and this is quantified for rigorous follow-up. The SLT talk about “deliverables”: children are expected to be on-task 95% of the time; teachers are expected to notice and correct off-task behaviour 100% of the time; teachers should be able to de-escalate challenging behaviour 85% of the time. Why is behaviour so key? Pondiscio writes: “Children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their… less engaged peers”.

The culture of learning at Success emphasises what Doug Lemov calls “ratio” – putting the learning onto the children. Teachers at Success are repeatedly described as creating situations for children to grapple with difficult concepts, even from a very young age. One teacher in Pondiscio’s book advises that: “one of the most dangerous mindsets to my mind is ‘it’s too much, you are all doing too much, it’s too hard on them’… Kids are so resilient.” Later, another teacher concerned about her class’s poor performance brings in all the parents for a meeting, telling them: “we will never lower that bar because it’s too hard. We will figure out other paths to get to the destination.”

 

2a. Leadership of teaching

Coupled with these foci is the amount of time invested by leaders in observing and improving teaching. SLT conduct daily “walk-throughs”, giving feedback by email or in the moment (I wrote about this live coaching in my previous Success post, Mission Possible). The principal ensures their SLT are united in their approach, conducting joint walk-throughs initially and asking for their thoughts to check that everyone is looking for the same things ( “what did you see?” – “I want to see that you’re noticing the same things I’m noticing”; “what [feedback] would you prioritise?”) This culture is led from the very top – Eva Moskowitz herself visits Success Academies frequently, and her feedback as described is rooted deeply in her values and ethics: “you’ve got to ask yourself, Would you have your child in that classroom?” The job of the principal at Success is to focus “entirely on instruction, student data, and outcomes” – all operational issues are delegated to a specific, high ranking individual.

 

  1. Parents

By far the greatest learning for me in this book, as with Mission Possible, was around parents. Pondiscio puts it superbly: “Among education reform advocates, there is a regrettable tendency to view urban communities through a lens of dysfunction… ‘Schools should not expect much from parents at all,’ the founder of one national charter school network told me… Success Academy’s relationship with its parents suggests precisely the opposite view. The network makes significant demands of parents, assumes significant leverage, and makes no discernable negative assumptions about parents’ ability to contribute materially to their children’s education. Very little in the network’s expectations, for good or for ill, suggests a view of low-income parents as any less capable and competent than affluent ones.”

Throughout his book, we learn of the almost constant contact with parents and the logistics of how this works. Teachers call, text and email frequently, and daily during important testing preparation periods, about children’s progress, behaviour, or test scores. We are treated to a blow-by-blow account of a parent meeting, where the teacher explains the minutiae of the school day to ensure parents understand why she is asking for what she is asking for, along with offering to support them in any way they need (“You need more stickers? Just ask! You need more cubes, tiles, index cards? Just ask, ask, ask. We’re happy to give you anything you need to support your child at home”). Just as teachers have “deliverables,” so do parents: “97% of students present, 96% on time, 97% in uniform, 97% of homework completed.” Pondiscio even describes a “parent report card”, which was received without argument.

The unavoidable trade-offs

Pondiscio does not shy away from the inevitable trade-offs required. Ultimately, we can’t do everything. He writes that we can either “attempt to serve all disadvantaged children equally and labour to close the achievement gap” or we can  “do all in our power to ensure that receptive and motivated students can reap the full benefit of their talents and ambitions because that is what’s just”. He notes that the latter is what well-off families secure for their own children. Exposing a second moral quandary, he asks: “when a school or teacher fails to engage or manage disruptive behaviour, children are cheated. But who, exactly? The disruptive child who is suspended and excluded from class? Or the diligent student whose education bleeds away hour after hour while her teacher responds to antisocial outbursts or focuses on her classmate to prevent them? The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.” Pondiscio does not cover all the trade-offs, however, and I would have liked the author to look more into the high staff turnover at Success.

Ultimately, Success exemplifies the Charter movement: exceptional achievement, at a cost not everyone is willing to pay: “her methods may not work in all schools, and not all parents would want to send their child to a Success Academy even if they could.” Me? I’m totally sold. I would send my children to Success in a heartbeat, as the CEO Eva Moskowitz herself does. Now, to find out how to visit…

Responsive Teaching

It’s probably not going too far to say that an observation from Harry Fletcher-Wood altered my teaching in the most dramatic way possible. In 2012, he visited my classroom and offered feedback in the gentlest manner possible – with a series of questions: ‘do you think they were focused on the work? Do you think they can handle doing everything in groups? How did you make sure everyone was working? Was anyone opting out from learning? Do you think your weakest readers were also reading in their groups?’ It was through his eyes I saw that teaching everything through group work (as I had been trained and advised to) was not working, and was not going to work.

So it is no surprise to me that Harry can see what is happening in a classroom, see how to make it better, and then kindly suggest how teachers might make that leap. I can imagine no human better placed than he to be an Associate Dean at the Ambition Institute, a body that is working to improve classrooms across the country. I am ever in awe of his humility and constant drive to learn, despite his eminent authority in education, and his most recent book, Responsive Teaching, offers much to the development of our profession. 

The book opens with a typically humble introduction that identifies three main problems in the author’s past teaching practice: ‘assessment seemed to hinder learning, skills seemed more important than knowledge and Assessment for Learning seemed to be just a collection of techniques.’ He moves through addressing these problems, to considering how we can genuinely work out what children have learned and what they are struggling with, and how we can rebalance to ensure children learn both skill and knowledge in their subjects.

Each chapter follows a clear pattern: it outlines the problem, the evidence, the key principle, the practical tools to improve classroom practice, and then the words of individual teachers reflecting on their own practice in each area.

One of the key take-aways from me were the warnings against ‘extraneous cognitive load.’ I definitely need to think harder about paring my lessons down to ensure children are focusing on the crucial aspect, rather than being overloaded by material that is not yet essential for them. I also need to script model examples more frequently – students always need to see lots more of these than I ever think they do. As Fletcher-Wood writes: ‘Overcoming ambiguity by showing what success looks like seems to particularly benefit lower-attaining students.’

One further aspect of practice outlined in Responsive Teaching that I’d like to think more carefully about is student misconceptions. At Ark Elvin Academy where I’m doing my NPQH placement, a subject expert has listed key misconceptions for every lesson the teacher delivers. It’s an incredible resource for novice teachers, or those teaching out of specialism. I think this is a hugely worthwhile task. Perhaps a group of subject experts could club together to write ‘the book of English misconceptions’, for example?

As always, I could go on, and add more detail on what I learned from this book, but to avoid plagiarism I will simply recommend this book whole-heartedly.

Mission Possible

I started teaching in 2010, the same year the documentary Waiting for Superman came out. If you haven’t seen it, you should: it’s a polemic on the American school system, starring the Charter school superstars. You hear from Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, along with Michelle Rhee (ex Chancellor of Washington DC’s schools; proponent of performance pay) and the founders of the influential KIPP Charter Schools. The message of the documentary is that the school system is broken, but there are ways we can fix it.

When I first watched this documentary, I remember feeling that our school system was ‘at least not as bad as America’s.’ But I’ve come to see that working in London schools for eight years blinded me to the challenges of rural communities who cannot choose their school; schools who are dependent on one bus a day to transport children to it (making any kind of detention system extremely challenging to implement); the impact of grammar schools on student self-belief; and the funding of small-town secondaries.

But mostly, I’ve come to think that we probably are failing children, on a system-wide level, in a similar way. We don’t have the annual benchmarks of success, but in the schools where we have run the NGRT (a nationally standardised reading age test), the results have been damning. The amount of children not achieving a basic pass in English and Maths GCSEs at 16 is damning. And the number of children leaving school at 16 is damning. I remember being horrified about the ‘drop-out rate’ of American schools, thinking ‘at least we get everyone to the end.’ But 16 is not the end, so we don’t. In fact, allowing children to leave the school system at 16 (and I know colleges and apprenticeships exist and I know these have their benefits) is deeply troubling to me.

In this post, I’m not going to tackle these monumental system problems. I used to worry a lot about the education system, and what we could do to improve it. Now, I look at what we can do in schools to improve the lot of the children we work with, in spite of those poor systems (something The Teacher Gap has really convinced me of). And what Mission Possible does is to examine what goes on in a successful school, in this case the Success Academies in Harlem, New York.

The defining principle of the authors, shared by many in the charter movement, is that the quality of the school and the quality of the teachers are what make the difference to children’s results. The book opens with the impetus to make schools a ‘magical place’ to be, which I found an interesting word to use. While I wouldn’t prioritise some of what the authors consider important (notably, expensive trips and impressive classroom displays), I would totally agree with their other aim of encoding success for students so they want to come to school every day and succeed (and what is continual success in academics if not ‘magical’?).

The writers make much of the rigour of the curriculum, and the urgency required to ensure children catch up with their wealthier peers. Furthermore, the pages on letting children ‘do the thinking’ I ultimately agree with – not in terms of guessing answers or discovery learning, but certainly ensuring they do the bulk of the work in the lesson. In general we are moving, in so many schools, towards teacher-led lessons (something I wholeheartedly endorse); yet it is crucial this does not result in children sitting passively. It is too easy for children to tune their teachers out. Rather, our teaching must be continually asking students questions to ensure they work hard.

This book has helped to shift my thinking on parents. Of the two extremes on this view – shut parents out at the gates versus give parents autonomy to influence the day-to-day of school – I leaned in the past towards wanting parents to let teachers teach, smiling on from a distance. Yet this book is persuasive in the possibility of parents really transforming their child’s academic success. I’m always amazed by how much parents are willing to do to support their child’s learning if you only ask them.

The book also ranges over rigour, reading and pace, but the chief takeaway for me was on the professional development of teachers. Again, the authors implore us to focus on the adults, and begin by asking school leaders: how often do we fix the children when we should fix the adults? I’m certainly guilty of this: walking into a lesson and using non-verbals to remind the students of their teacher’s expectations, or even just standing there (when you’re senior enough), waiting for the class to behave perfectly and then leaving… Only for the class to immediately start to murmur again.

Instead, at Harlem Success, leaders practise live coaching. Instead of ‘fixing’ the children, the observers whisper to the teacher, or hand them a note (‘Ali is doodling; Tommy is looking out the window’) and then watch how the teacher ‘fixes’ their own classroom. They don’t intervene at all – or, with training teachers, they model the first two ‘fixes’ and then watch how the teacher does it. After the lesson, they feed back on how effective the teacher’s actions were and where they might improve. Doing this would require huge teacher buy-in, but I do think it would be far better for the overall quality of teaching.

The book goes into significantly more detail on teacher development, and I’d recommend reading it for those chapters alone. Although not everything in Mission Possible chimes with my beliefs, there is much to admire here.

The Teacher Gap

I think The Teacher Gap is the most important contribution to education this year. The book offers an incisive critique of what is wrong with the state of education, and then offers governments and school leadership teams concrete ways to fix it.

In the opening sentence of this book, the authors, Becky Allen and Sam Sims, note that ‘education is unique among the public services in its ability to propel people forward.’ At the heart of this is the notion that education is a public good, and the potential of a good education to transform lives. Yet, surveying education policy over the past several years, they note that many of these initiatives – Building Schools for the Future, school choice, class size – have little to no impact on student attainment. What does have an impact? Teacher quality. This is especially the case for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom a good teacher can make the ultimate difference in their educational attainment.

Despite this, improving the quality of teachers has ‘rarely, if ever, been a genuine priority for government.’ We can’t even hire enough teachers, let alone teachers with top credentials; let alone begin improving the ones we have. The answer to all of these conundrums, for Allen and Sims, is that ‘we need to give teachers a career worth having.’ This is two-fold: firstly, to professionally develop teachers so they get better at what they do each year, and secondly to manage workload so they remain in the workforce, improving each year.

Part of the joy of this book is that is balances out research (lots of it) with engaging personal narratives, so the numbers are given faces and feel familiar to readers. At the end of each chapter, instead of saying: ‘isn’t the status quo rubbish?’ the authors provide a series of ‘what we can do’ for schools, even without waiting for government policy to alter. This solutions-focused method makes the book, which could feel massively depressing, wonderfully uplifting.

There are too many learning points for me to list here without running to plagiarism, but the ones which seemed most vital to me in the contexts in which I have worked are:

  • Use anonymous surveys to know what teachers genuinely think.
  • Give new teachers ‘easier’ timetables, ensuring they teach (where possible) the same lesson to more than one year group (i.e. give them two year 7 classes) and have them only teach one subject; write their timetables and roomings first.
  • Develop CPD for experienced teachers with experienced teachers and use the peer effect to ensure this is appropriate, enjoyable, and low-stakes.
  • Implement teacher coaching.
  • The 8am to 4:30pm experiment: two weeks where no-one works beyond these hours. At the end, assess what the impact was of losing that extra work time, with a view to cutting more of what proved unnecessary to move working hours closer to this ultimate aim.

In a nutshell: teachers are really important to student success, and this is even more the case for disadvantaged students. We need to train them better, and we need to treat them better.

Making Kids Cleverer

David Didau’s most recent offering is his most compelling manifesto for closing the advantage gap yet. Making Kids Cleverer eloquently and persuasively asserts the worth of an academic education, and adds much to the current discourse. Brilliantly, Didau has not lost his connection with the classroom: so frequently in books written by non (-practising) teachers I find myself dubiously asking – ‘yes, but what about year 9 period 6 on a windy Friday?’ Not so with Didau.

The book’s power comes from the meticulous logic of its argument, developing from the initial question: ‘given the choice, who wouldn’t want to be cleverer?’ It is the coherence of this argument that propels this to being my favourite education read so far this year.

Although the central thesis of the book might be ‘more knowledge equals more intelligence,’ Didau adds crucial caveats: not all knowledge is equal; not all practice is equally effective.

One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on the purpose of education: schools, of course, can’t do everything. I found the idea that academic education is character education a revelation: we can (can we?) teach generic skills of hard work, perseverance and resilience… Or we can double up and make children learn really hard stuff, and lots of it, from which they will (hopefully) develop those character attributes along the way.

Although I loved the unpicking of what intelligence is along with the relationship between genetic inheritance and our environment, for me the most directly useful chapters were those on school culture. In particular, this book gave me a lot to think about in terms of motivation. Didau writes: ‘if students simply struggle they will learn to hate school.’ While struggle might be the optimal way for children to learn most, the reality of human psychology is that they simply will not choose to learn anything if they feel constantly defeated. Didau’s caution to ‘encode success’ prior to introducing those ‘desirable difficulties’ is something I’m taking into my practice explicitly from now on.

There is so much that is great in this book – from an exploration of the theories of ability grouping (Didau leans toward mixed ability and I find his argument challenges much of what I believe, in a good way) to how to move children beyond ‘just knowing stuff’. I would absolutely recommend this as a must-read for teachers.

Top Reads of 2018

I said last year that I would endeavour to read more non-fiction this year, and I certainly feel I have done that. I’ve stuck, however, chiefly to education-related non-fiction. I’ve tried to cull my list down to ten fiction and ten non-fiction, as not even my immediate family could be trusted to read beyond that. 

Fiction

Roxane Gay: Difficult Women: I picked this up in a bookshop when on holiday and it is the longest I have ever been unable to put down a book prior to buying it. A series of phenomenal short stories.

Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies: for an unknown reason, possibly related to its weight and the length of time I had to carry it around for, I didn’t enjoy Wolf Hall. I now need to re-read it, because Bring Up the Bodies evoked that world of old political intrigue so convincingly.

Meg Wolitzer: The Wife/The Interestings: I can’t decide which; don’t make me. I’d read no Wolitzer until this year; both of these have stayed with me – the former for its incredible twist, the latter for the characters I am still thinking about.

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire: Thank goodness for friends who read: Carly Moran told me to read this modern telling of Antigone. I loved the multiple voices and the ambiguity of the twists (the kind where I had to text Carly saying: ‘did that really just happen? Have I misunderstood?’)

Zadie Smith: White Teeth: Smith is in my top five living authors, but I’d not enjoyed this when I read it while at university. Thank goodness I re-read it this year; there was just so much I’d missed the first time around. I’ve grown into loving epics that span generations, so this was a perfect read for me.

Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow: Matt Pinkett recommended this on Twitter and again it is one that has haunted me (in a good way) since reading it. A fascinating perspective on the Russian revolution and one man’s journey through it, with an almost ‘magical realism’ element.

Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends: This is a strong contender for ‘book of the year’ for me. I’m somewhat biased, because I too went to university in Ireland, and there’s nothing quite like recognising first hand where characters are in the world. But the complex, believable relationships and starkly beautiful writing style make this a firm favourite for me.

Nathan Hill: The Nix: I rationed myself three days on a beach holiday to crack through this, messed up my reading schedule (yes, you read that correctly), and ended up with this ‘to begin’ on an overnight flight. I both started and finished it on the flight. An epic American tale spanning generations and warmly human. Again, thank goodness for friends who read, especially Dani Quinn, who only seems to recommend books I will love.

Alain de Boton: On Love: Second contender for book of the year, this was such a clever little book that was spookily accurate about relationships and brought you from start to finish without really investing you in the characters – almost a clinical look at human psychology, told through story.

Wallace Stegner: Crossing to Safety: Stegner takes the friendship between two couples and tracks it back over the decades, using a few key events as focal points. I loved all the characters so much. If ever there was a book that made you think that language can never fully express meaning, this is it.

 

Non-fiction

Peps McCrea: Lean Lesson Planning: I also loved Memorable Teaching. Peps makes big ideas feel easy in his tiny but mighty books.

Hockman and Wexler: The Writing Revolution: I wrote about this here – although there is so much more I’d like to explore with this, it has already had a huge impact on my teaching.

James M. Lang: Small Teaching: I wrote about this here – I loved this book for its clear explanation of complex cognitive science, along with the fact that it introduced me to a few concepts I’d not come across before.

Craig Barton: How I Wish I’d Taught Maths: I wrote about this here – I adored this book, and it has been invaluable in working with the Maths team at my school to work on curriculum and lesson planning.

Leonora Chu: Little Soldiers: I wrote about this here – a fascinating insight into another culture and another school system.

Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication: I wrote about this here – this really made me consider what we do with our ‘edge-case’ kids who seem impervious to systems, but also how we use language to communicate with all our children.

James and Diane Murphy: Thinking Reading: I think this is the book I have returned to most this year. On reading the immortal words – that ‘reading is the entitlement of every child’ – I bounced into my Head’s office unannounced and she responded by making reading a core priority for the school this year.

Alex Quigley: Closing the Vocabulary Gap: This wins the prize of ‘most discussed in line management’. The Head of English has been working on putting some of Quigley’s advice into practice, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact.

Iain Hall: Glass Ceilings: I wrote about this here – this book took me back to my roots, reminded me why I do what I do, and helped me out of a dark night of the soul professionally.

Maryanne Wolf: Reader, Come Home: I wrote about this here – I was absolutely floored by some of Wolf’s analysis. This was the book that made me re-think how I read.

 

And with that in mind, some reading resolutions for 2019. I’ve learned from Wolf that I don’t need to feel so guilty about reading fiction, but I do need to regret time spent on my phone. I could have read so many more books if I’d had a little bit more willpower. I’ve deleted nefarious, time-wasting apps from my phone’s home screen (so when I unlock my phone now I think: why am I here?), downloaded the app ‘Space’ to track screen time, and resolved to be more mindful next year. That said, I probably do read a little too much. I’m hoping to spend more quality time with people I like and the dog in the new year, and get more balance away from a leisure time that is 95% me reading on my own.

Books not pictured: those currently out on loan.