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.

Balance

I’ve not been a very balanced person in my life. A few years ago, I wrote a post about how I had approached teaching called ‘At What Cost?’ It was the start, for me, of a new way of thinking about education. I was sinking hours and hours and hours into my job, and although I was seeing benefits for the students, I was starting to wonder if it was possible to maintain.

Unfortunately, I continued to sink hours and hours into work after writing that post. Although I thought seriously about how to simplify teaching, and started writing about making teaching a sustainable profession for the long term, I was not living by those principles. Ironically, when I wrote the most about simplicity, I was putting in some of the longest hours of my teaching career: arriving at 6am, leaving at 7pm, and working weekends and holidays.

It’s true, not all of that time was focused on school work. Some of the ‘work’ I’ve lumped into those above hours and days was spent writing a blog, then writing a book (it is out in May and I am very excited), then writing book chapters or contributing to education groups or speaking at conferences. I was living a deeply unbalanced life.

At the time, one of my closest friends compared their calling to education with those called to other causes in history. Nelson Mandela, they liked to say, sacrificed his life for the cause he so believed in, and all for the greater good.

It is very hard to argue with Nelson Mandela.

And you know, if people want to be that teacher, that is absolutely fine. I started teaching the same year the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out. I saw teaching as a vocation too, and I saw my own life as merely the conduit for improving the lives of others.

The problem always comes when reality confronts the ideal.

I probably would have continued to sacrifice my life for my calling, had not a confluence of bad news in 2017 – personal and professional – led to me feeling like I had lost everything in my life. With the disruption of my career, I felt like I had lost all meaning.

For a long time I struggled with that meaninglessness and emptiness. I struggled to work out what to say in my blog, so I didn’t, or what to say at conferences, so I didn’t.

And then I got used to a new balance. I got used to getting to work at half 7, and leaving at 4, or 5 at the latest. And never working weekends. And not even checking work email on holidays.

For a while, that made me feel empty too.

The me of five years ago would have filled that emptiness with work. But instead I recognised, at long last, that I needed to fill that emptiness in other ways. Here’s what I did instead.

I read more fiction. I went to the theatre. I met up with friends. I invested in my relationships with people. I got a dog. I wrote for myself, not for other people. I enrolled in a creative writing class. I auditioned for an amateur dramatic society. I called my parents more.

Put bluntly, I got a life outside work.

So I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a very long time, but that’s ok, because I haven’t had much to say that I haven’t said in my forthcoming book (please read it).

I’m starting to find balance, and I’m here to tell you it is a lovely way to live.

A New Way of Reading

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Home sells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading around 100,000 words a day now. That’s a short novel, every single day. But what should be cause for celebration is in fact cause for concern, because the way we are reading is so dramatically different.

Wolf quotes a memorable speech by Barack Obama where he said that information has become ‘entertainment rather than empowerment.’ Moreover, our reading is ‘chopblock,’ not continuous, and situated within a technological world where ‘cognitive overload’ is ubiquitous. To take in all this information, ‘skimming’ has become ‘the new normal.’ We focus on the surface rather than digging deeper. And this has a profound impact on the way we process information.

I have often felt I read too much fiction; indeed, my aim this year was explicitly to read more non-fiction. That was before Wolf articulated to me (and I do feel this is personal, as she writes the book explicitly as letters to the reader) the benefits of fiction. For Wolf, we understand others and can show compassion and empathy through reading. Reading connects divergent cultures, so we have a more in-depth understanding of those different to us.

But this only happens when we read with ‘close attention.’ This kind of deep reading requires ‘analogical reasoning’ and ‘inference’ to uncover its many layers. In praise of beautiful prose, Wolf reminds us that beauty in words holds our attention so we focus on what lies deeper.

Yet in the modern world, the prevalence of digital devices results in ‘continuous partial attention’: we live in a ‘world of distraction’. This is not conducive to deep thinking. As well as cycling through the argument, familiar to readers of Lemov and Murphy and Willingham, that knowledge is crucial for deep reading, and that critical thought ‘never just happens,’ the author goes on to explore the impact on children of this way of processing words.

Boredom in children is normal. But ‘post-digital’ boredom is a different kind altogether. Wolf says that this kind of boredom, rather than provoking creativity as the former can, ‘de-animates’ children. The constant stimulation of the screen prevents them from experiencing true, tranquil tedium.

We know from our own adult lived experience how addictive devices are; studies abound to support this, but are barely needed. Of course children are much more vulnerable to this. And when they are developing their cognitive abilities, this has a devastating impact. The multiple stimulants on devices split children’s attention, and studies show that texts read on devices compared with traditional paper lead to weaker comprehension even if no other applications are running. The mere expectation that the device will have multiple purposes diverts their attention, ability to focus, and thus weakens their ability to understand what they are reading.

Moreover, the information overload of our reading society makes it much harder for children to build background knowledge. With so much information and so little time to process it, this threatens the development of children’s attentions and working memories.

There is so much more in this book, and I would urge everyone human to read it. It urged me to reflect on how I feel when I read a novel compared with how I feel when I read Buzzfeed. The guilt I used to feel for losing myself in a novel will be banished from my life. Instead, it will be my phone that I must lock away; my laptop I must periodically lose. Fiction is vital.

Wolf asks: ‘What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different?… It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.’ Far from an optional extra, deep reading is the stuff of life itself.

The human side

I haven’t written for a while. It’s always busy at the start of the school year, but it has not been that busy, and it is suddenly October. But I had to write about what happened on Thursday.

Our school population is changing, and rapidly. At the end of last year, we began to have an influx of in-year admissions, with a heavy bias towards those for whom English is an additional language. That trend has intensified this term. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented at my school, and we are moving rapidly to put in place a more comprehensive programme for EAL learners. But it is embryonic, so I won’t write about it now. I want to write about the human side of EAL.

I want to write about G. G is new to year 7. Two days new. I noticed him first on Tuesday, where he was sitting at the back of our ‘Aspire to Oxbridge’ assembly with this sort of blank look on his face. Entirely still from the tummy up. Legs dancing on the floor ceaselessly from the tummy down. I saw him on Wednesday, when he was late in, and I mimed PE for him before taking him to the class, much to the hilarity of the reception staff. I’ve seen him in lessons, sitting happily compliant, his legs a constant dance below the table, clearly at sea. It is so hard for G.

At lunch today, I saw him during my canteen duty. He was eating alone, but with others – we make our students fill every gap, so no one is ever sitting alone. As usual, those legs were going. I said hello and he replied, merrily, before leaving. He returned ten minutes later.

A lot can happen in a school canteen within ten minutes. For one, I’d spotted a lull and started eating my own lunch in the same spot G had eaten in, so I was right there when he lolloped back to his place. I had a front row seat. And I’ve never seen anything like it: he crumpled in two, and wept. He convulsed with heaving sobs. The boys behind him turned to see what the noise was. I gave them my ‘look.’

‘What’s wrong G?’ but he couldn’t understand me; or if he could, he couldn’t tell me. The year 7 to G’s right clocked it faster: ‘he’s lost his bag. He’s come back to look for it, and it’s gone.’

I didn’t know what to do. I got G to sit down, and he wept on the table.

‘Romanian?’ I guessed. G did not look up. ‘Romanian?’ I prodded further. He looked up and nodded. I used the radio to locate a Romanian-speaking student I knew of on the playground, who came in and spoke to G. Two sentences. Then the student turned to me: ‘he’s not Romanian. He doesn’t understand me.’

But the young helpful man continued to speak to G, and then turned to me. ‘He’s Bulgarian, Miss.’ A few more calls on the radio, and we had a native Bulgarian before G, who had stopped crying, but was still visibly distressed. It hits me in a wave: this goes beyond his bag. It’s the fear he has lost something he will never get back, compiled with the fear of all these strangers in a strange place speaking a strange language.

‘Miss! I don’t even remember Bulgarian! Is so long since I’m there!’ said my native Bulgarian, whose patchy grammar belies his actual home language situation. I suspect Bulgarian may be one of many languages he speaks.

As my so-called Bulgarian tried to talk to G, G suddenly broke into a wide smile. He was laughing. I don’t know what about – was it the old Bulgarian’s broken language? Or was he joking in the language? I have no idea what was happening.

‘Tell him we will find his bag! Tell him not to worry!’ I pressed.

‘Miss, Miss, I can’t even remember “find,”’ my helper protested. ‘Use Ms C’s phone. Use Google translate.’ I do; tell him: G, don’t worry, we will find it. I send him away with his two helpers.

And then comes H, another year 7.

‘Miss! Miss! I found G’s bag!’ Because what had happened? K, the student sitting next to G, had noticed G had left his bag, and had picked it up to give it to him. This has all stemmed from an attempt at kindness.

We move rapidly to the playground to locate G, and I trust I know where he will be. And it is so. He is sandwiched on the bench where my Romanian and my old Bulgarian sit every lunchtime. All are laughing. He grabs the bag with such glee, without even the words to thank his helper.

That afternoon, I pen an email to his father. I write that G was upset about his bag, but that he found it. I write that I hope he is ok, and that he should let me know if there is anything else I can do to support his son. I then stick the whole thing into Google translate and press send.

Twenty minutes later comes the reply:

‘I will talk with him when he gets home. I’m trying to speak English with him at home so he can learn quicker. And thank you so much for your email that was very kind of you trying email me in Bulgarian. Next time you can just email me in English.’

Non-Violent Communication

When a close friend of mine who works in the prison service told me to read this book, she caveated it with saying: ‘I know what you’re thinking. But it’s actually really good.’

The name alone sent shivers down my spine, let alone the tag-line: ‘if “violent” means acting in ways that result in hurt or harm, then much of how we communicate could indeed be called “violent” communication.’

My friend told me that some prison officers use this technique with their most challenging inmates with amazing success, though, so I thought – why not have a read? If nothing else, I always try to engage with what I disagree with to ensure I keep an open mind. Plus, at my current school, we have a short-term programme of alternative provision (run on-site) for children at risk of permanent exclusion. I thought this could be a good route in to re-engaging those children with school.

Whilst I couldn’t claim to agree with everything in the book, there was a surprising amount I found incredibly helpful, and perhaps applicable even beyond our alternative provision. The foundational idea behind the book – which is, in my view, impossible to argue with – is this: treat everyone with respect. To do this, we must resist the urge to respond to others in anger or upset. When we hear something that upsets us, instead of reacting we have to ask: what is this person needing that they are lacking now?

In order to practice non-violent communication, there are four basic steps:

  • Observe what is happening in the situation;
  • Explain how this makes us feel;
  • Ask what needs of ours are connected to the feelings identified;
  • Make a specific request of the other person.

For a full explanation of the method, you really need to read the whole book. The part that seems least obvious to me, however, was step three: needs. According to Rosenberg, the root of our feelings is in our unmet needs. We need to ask: ‘what does this person need? What would they like to request in relation to those needs?’ We have to accept full responsibility for our own intentions and actions, but not for the feelings of others. We are completely responsible for our feelings and reactions, as illustrated by this eminently relatable anecdote: ‘if someone arrives late for an appointment and we need reassurance that she cares about us, we may feel hurt. If, instead, our need is to spend time purposefully and constructively, we may feel frustrated. But if our need is for thirty minutes of quiet solitude, we may be grateful for her tardiness and feel pleased. Thus, it is not the behaviour of the other person but our own need that causes our feeling.’

Another central theme of this book is empathy: ‘empathy… requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.’ Rosenberg gives example phrases for tricky situations, like: ‘I’m frustrated because I’d like to be clearer about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to tell me what I’ve done that leads you to see me in this way?’ For the author, ‘Self-expression becomes easier after we empathise with others, because we will then have touched their humanness and realised the common qualities we share. The more we connect with the feelings and needs behind their words, the less frightening it is to open up to other people.’

I still believe that for a large institution like a school to work, we need sanctions that are enforced fairly and predictably. Children must know that their actions have consequences.

For all children, sanctions can be given with love. We must reiterate to children that we are showing them their actions have consequences because we love them enough to care about their future, and to want them to change their behaviour to have a great future. I have never worked at a school where sanctions have been implemented without this philosophy, but I think in every school every teacher has, at least on some occasion, failed to be explicit enough about the love behind the sanction. We could all get better at this.

But what I am increasingly coming to see is that for the very most challenging students, sanctions with love are not enough. Our children at risk of permanent exclusion are impervious to sanctions. They simply do not seem to care what happens as a result of their behaviour. Yes, these children need to be apart from the mainstream, at least for a short period of time, because they need something more and something different to reorientate their mindset. And I do think that this method, which undoubtedly will take much more time and effort with each individual case, sounds extremely promising in helping these children feel understood, cared for and listened to. At this point, our only hope is that they choose to change their behaviour. Sanctions haven’t worked – what comes next?

“Do now”

I recently finished Glass Ceilings, which is my favourite education book of 2018 – so far, that is. Amongst the many, many take-aways from this book was a reminder to me of a simple but effective practice I had all but stopped. The ‘do now.’

In Glass Ceilings, Hall describes the powerful simplicity of a small number of repetitive teaching activities observed in US Charter Schools that had a dramatic impact on learning, and one was the omnipresence of a ‘do now’ so children entered a classroom and were immediately working. Hall called this ‘bell to bell working,’ which I loved.

I raved about ‘do nows’ in my early years of teaching, adopting the name after devouring Doug Lemov’s seminal Teach Like a Champion. You wouldn’t walk into my classroom without finding a slide on the board of some kind of ‘starter’ or ‘warm-up’. The idea is that they ensure all students have something to do from the moment they enter the classroom.

At some point, I seem to have forgotten this. During my first few terms at Ebbsfleet, I’ve wasted at least 3 minutes of every lesson getting my class in and doing the register, tending to ask the students to revise using their knowledge organisers while I do this. But for the past two weeks, I’ve asked them instead of answer the questions on the board silently in their books.

At first, they rebelled. The first two lessons they went from being placid, calm and silent on entry to chatting and asking unneeded questions as I valiantly struggled to behaviour manage, answer questions, and take the register. Any change in routine is hard for children. After about three days, they got into the swing of it, and the focus and learning right from the moment they enter the room has now hugely improved.

The other benefit of a ‘do now’ is it forces me to reflect on each lesson as I teach it: what are the key concepts they struggled with that I want to revisit straight away at the start of the next lesson? Here are some recent ‘do nows’ for our study of Jekyll and Hyde:

  1. Write down every date you can remember that links to ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
  2. What happened on those dates?
  3. Use your knowledge organiser and add anything you have forgotten in a green pen.

Extension: What has happened so far in the novella?

Super extension: What do you predict will happen next?

  1. Who wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ and when?
  2. How does ‘On the Origin of Species’ link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?
  3. Who developed the theory of psychoanalysis?
  4. How does this theory link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?

Extension: what specific quotations or examples from the novella link to these two texts?

 

These examples are quite ‘knowledge-heavy’ – they look like overly basic recall perhaps. But over time, after finding the students were beginning to automate this, I started adding some more ‘application of knowledge’ questions to these – such as ‘why did Stevenson write this novella?’ or ‘how do specific aspects of Victorian society impact on the novella?’ or ‘why did Stevenson choose to write a novella and not a novel?’

All in all, the do now takes me about four minutes to plan and type into a Word document, and four minutes for the students to complete. Simple but effective.