Reading ‘Little Soldiers’

I recently read Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu. It is part personal anecdote, supplemented by research, and tells of an American couple (one half of whom is Chinese-American) who moved to Shanghai for work and made the decision to enter their son in the Chinese school system. Chu’s insights on the system, particularly those from her personal perspective, are fascinating.

The book opens with note on Shanghai and its status as dominating the world’s academic league tables. Chu at no point questions the strength of Shanghai’s academics, but she does debate the values of the system. Throughout the book we continually see Chu finding herself at odds with the top-performing Shanghai school, and in parts of the book I couldn’t work out whether I sympathized less with Chu or the school.

Chu cites ‘troubling signs’ in her four-year-old son, including a ‘habit of obeisance,’ giving the example of her son, Rainey, saying ‘I don’t like singing, but if you want me to do it, I’ll do it.’ More troubling to Chu is that Rainey doesn’t like eggs, and she discovers that the teacher has put egg in his mouth, which leaves her feeling affronted at this invasion of her son’s choices. Although the episode did make me feel very uncomfortable, the mother’s interactions with the school also contains an uneasy kernel of truth that the Western way is far from perfect: “‘We motivate them to choose to eat eggs,’” she tells the school. “‘Does it work?’ ‘Well… not always,’ I admitted.” What is clear in this, and all episodes, is the Chinese clarity on values, with a black/white sense of right and wrong. The teacher follows up this conversation saying: ‘Rainey needs to eat eggs. We think eggs are good nutrition, and all young children must eat them.’ Conversation over.

At a number of points, the Chinese teacher advises that narrator ‘refrain from questioning my methods in front of Rainey… it is better that the children think we are in agreement about everything.’ I could not agree more. Although parents questioning a school’s practices can provide vital feedback to school leaders, if this is done in front of the children it can be undermining and give children an ‘out.’ I’m always grateful when parents ask to speak with me one to one after their child has left a parent meeting to share their concerns about how an issue is being dealt with.

Indeed, at times I did feel the narrator came across as slightly disrespectful to the teachers – not only in questioning their choices in front of her son, but also when she narrates her husband complaining as they tear and staple their son’s many worksheets of an evening: ‘Shouldn’t this be the school’s responsibility? Or a teacher’s aide?’ I am grateful that the narrator has been so honest, but I found this a shocking insight that parents would be so unwilling to do this kind of admin for their child, especially so given the massive class sizes in China. This factor would mean this kind of task, if done by a teacher, would take vital hours they could be spending more productively, in terms of planning the children’s learning.

At another point in the book, Chu is concerned that Rainey doesn’t want to stand out, for example on the school’s ‘grandparents day’ when he does not have a grandparent available to fly across the ocean and is advised to stay at home for the day (which does, I think, seem a little insensitive). Chu comes in and stands in the place of the grandparent. Chu’s worries this is due to ‘the Chinese cultural focus on the collective rather than the individual,’ but I think this issue transcends culture: in my experience, all children are sensitive to difference, and those who do not conform are often picked on, in nursery and primary schools often cruelly so.

In places the Chinese methods come across as simply shocking. On the first day of primary school, for example, physically placing children in their seats and shouting at them for breaking rules they have not yet been taught comes across as outrageously inhuman. But it is also easy to understand the Chinese argument that ‘with more than fifty children in a classroom, it’s simply impossible to let children step out of line.’

Again, though, it is shocking from both sides. When Chu and her husband visit the school to air their concerns about their methods, they are told during the meeting that their child is mounting other children like they are a donkey and hitting them. If I’m honest, their response is nowhere near as shocked on hearing this as I expected – surely this is a cause of huge embarrassment to them? (“‘Oh,’ I responded, as flatly as I could. [The teacher] looked at me with surprise, as if she’d expected me to recoil with horror. I was concerned, but frankly, I also wanted to laugh.’) Though I admit my experience of teaching reception children is precisely zero, so perhaps this is normal.

The book is underscored with the parents’ Western prioritisation of individualism and exceptions – yet their child actually adjusts quickly. As Chu says: ‘unlike me, I could see that Rainey had adjusted. He was finding his own way to get things done. He wanted more water, and he’d discovered that faking a cough was the most effective way to accomplish his goal without triggering the teachers’ ire.’ She finds that when they return to the USA for a vacation, everyone who meets them is amazed at how well behaved their son is and how advanced he is. The son’s pride in these interactions gleams off the page.

As with so many of these cross-cultural studies, it all ultimately comes down to what you value in education. The author cites country after country rejecting their low PISA results claiming that the ‘results don’t measure what we value.’ Chu cites the evidence that American children score far lower in Maths than their Shanghai peers, but follows up with the evidence that the American children who do score highly love it. This raises an important question: what is better, doing well, or loving the subject? And aren’t both outcomes possible?

At one point the father worries ‘we’re losing control of his mind,’ and some of the examples of Communist propaganda are shocking to read about, and a chilling reminder of just how easily influenced young children are. (I’m sure many Western readers will remember stories from Communist Russia where children would shop in their own parents to the authorities.)

It is also unequivocally disturbing for this Western reader to hear children being called by numbers and not names.

Indeed, it is clear that the Chinese system is far from perfect, most notably in the chasm of educational achievement between rural and urban areas. There are deep inequalities, with frightening numbers of children falling out of the system altogether.

At the same time, there is lots to learn. Chu quotes the values of Chinese educator Xiaodong Lin: ‘Americans emphasise achievement without hard work. They believe in the concept of genius. This is a problem. The Chinese – they know hard work.’ This includes training children to endure discomfort and persevere anyway: Chinese schools usually lack even the basics like heating, where, in contrast, an American educator is quoted saying his class can’t even sit still for an hour.

As the book goes on, Chu becomes increasingly positive about benefits of the Shanghai system, at least for her son in his high-performing urban school: over halfway through she writes: ‘the Chinese way is to hire good administrators and trust them to do their jobs; parents were to support the system, take responsibility for as much as possible, and keep petty distractions out of the equation. I didn’t disagree.’ In fact, Chu becomes increasingly concerned that her parenting methods conflict with the school and are potentially negating any advantages of the Chinese methods. All in all, this is a compelling read.


Reading Reconsidered

Teach Like a Champion,’ by Doug Lemov, changed my teaching profoundly: it was the most practical and helpful piece of writing I had ever encountered, and transformed my classroom practice, giving me specific aspects to hone and improve.

When I heard that Lemov had been an English teacher, it didn’t surprise me – in particular, in TLAC 2.0 there are several techniques which are especially useful for the English teacher. When I heard he was co-authoring a book on reading, I had very high hopes. ‘Reading Reconsidered,’ written by Lemov with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, does not disappoint. With a nod to the poetic importance of literature (‘this book is about the enduring power of reading to shape and develop minds’), again, we have a manual for practice; specific things that teachers can do, day in, day out, to read effectively with pupils.

‘Reading Reconsidered’’s opening gambit is that text selection is key: in pages referencing Hirsch and Arnold, canon and cultural capital, the writers note: ‘part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read.’ The great conversation of literature, intertextuality, ‘works only when pupils have read some texts in common.’ The writers extol the value of a common reading curriculum for all pupils, and warns us to select our texts carefully, noting: ‘a typical pupil might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes’ over their time in school and ‘these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works.’ If only there were as many as fifty texts! Such a sentence puts the demands of the new GCSE English Literature, with its four texts (I include the poetry cluster as a ‘text’) over two years into frightening perspective. To those who argue that canonical texts are unreadable by youngsters, the authors respond: we just need to get better at teaching them.

The writers go on to isolate the ‘five plagues of the beginning reader’, looking at five challenges all readers face in encountering tricky texts, and how we can overcome these in our everyday practice. One example is using ‘pre-complex texts’ to prime pupils for the canon, such as children’s classics like ‘The Secret Garden’ which use challenging syntax but have child-friendly story arcs.

The chapters on close reading are a must-read primer for all English teachers, going meticulously through how we should read closely in class, supplemented with specific questions designed to unlock meaning in complex passages. One key take-away for me was: teachers! Prepare to close-read! Annotate your text! It sounds blindingly obvious, but I know I’ve been guilty of sauntering into class, blank copy in hand, hoping for the best. Yet what more important preparation can there be for a lesson than our own annotation?

The most revolutionary chapter for me in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was that on non-fiction. It made me recognise how vital it is for pupils to read non-fiction alongside fiction to assist with their comprehension and to enable really excellent analysis: ‘reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text increases the absorption rate of pupils reading that text’; ‘when texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up.’ Overall: don’t teach non-fiction as a separate unit, but rather interweave non-fiction texts into your teaching of literature, either with short, contextual glosses or in-depth historical study of the time period in question to deepen analysis.

Though reading is this book’s chief subject, the authors do not neglect writing: ‘we are suggesting that pupils [should] write with more frequency and consistency as part of their daily work of responding to texts’. They recommend intervening at the point of writing to help pupils improve (no mention of lengthy, burdensome and delayed marking), explaining: ‘great teaching begins at the moment learning breaks down.’ ‘Writing,’ in this guide, also encompasses annotation, and again there is detailed advice for modelling these, with the goal of pupils eventually annotating autonomously.

Again, though the goal is for pupils to read independently, we need to be aware that if they do this poorly they are ‘inscribing errors’ (and of course we know from Lemov himself that ‘practice makes permanent’). It is vital that pupils read aloud, as well as listening to great reading being modelled for them. In considering ‘accountable independent reading,’ the writers give such guidance as using short sections with a specified focus, or scaffolding pupil comprehension by using questions.

Although the focus of the books is practical, with advice to be found on the specifics of vocabulary instruction and the dynamics of a classroom discussion, the underpinning voice here is one deeply concerned with children loving reading and doing it effectively. The voice of the parent in each writer is heard most clearly in the book’s dedication: ‘to our kids, with whom we have 16,000 more nights to read – not nearly enough.’ Foundational to this book is a personal and deep love of reading, for all the right reasons.



Top reads of 2015


Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

This book is a scathing attack on the messages the media sends to women about how they should look and act. It made me really angry, in a good way.

Matthew Syed – Black Box Thinking

Syed explains how we learn from failure, and if we don’t, we are idiots. This is great for getting a new perspective on the ‘gift’ of feedback.

Susan Scott – Fierce Conversations

Sarah Donachy, the smartest person I’ve met this year, told me to read this. It really challenged my tendency to be a bit too cuddly rather than having the difficult conversation that is needed, and I’ve revisited it lots.

Irvin Yalom – Love’s Executioner

Joe Kirby told me to read this when I was feeling a bit stewed up. It’s great for giving perspective, and making you realise your emotions are in your control.

Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down

Since Research Ed 2015, I haven’t stopped hearing about this book, and it lived up to the hype. A great exploration of why education is set up to make disadvantaged students fail, and what we can do about it.

Anna Funder – Stasiland

I read this in Berlin, and it really brought to life the reality of living in the German Democratic Republic. The injustices suffered in East Berlin and East Germany in general astonished me.

Daniel Willingham – Raising Kids Who Read

Having listened to Katie Ashford, the guru on reading, for 2 full years, this was the year I finally began to grasp the reality of how children read, and this book really helped.

Daniel Koretz – Measuring Up

Daisy Christodoulou recommended this book at Research Ed in 2014, and it explained excellently the flaws in our current assessment model, and a better way forward.

Doug Lemov – TLAC 2.0

The first ‘Teach Like a Champion’ changed my life, and yet Lemov has improved even on this. The only guide a teacher needs for improving their classroom practice.


John Steinbeck – The Red Pony

I read this and wept. A wonderful exploration of growing up, told beautifully in Steinbeck’s ever-complex simplicity.

Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage

This novel has stayed with me more than any other I’ve read this year. The horribly flawed characters and their ghastly choices felt so real and so close as I read it.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Unbelievably, even better than ‘The Secret History.’ An astonishing tome of a novel, feeling epic in its scope.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

This book has one idea, and it explores it in great depth. A searing look at love and relationships.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

My last line-manager recommended this book to me. I adored the narrator’s innocence which was gradually eroded throughout, and the ideas of class and community.


Just one book: ethos

When I started this series, my aim was to distil my thoughts on education through the prism of a single book: which one book, for me, held the key to that particular aspect? For curriculum, it was Cultural Literacy; for assessment, Make it Stick; for teaching, Teach Like a Champion, and for school leadership, Leverage Leadership.

 For me, the book that most exemplifies my ethos of education is Rafe Esquith’s There are no shortcuts.


 Esquith’s ethos, embodied in the title, was adopted by Mike Feinberg and David Levin shortly before they launched their ground-breaking charter school, KIPP; now a chain boasting significant results for poor children in the USA. KIPP in turn went on to inspire other schools, including King Solomon Academy in West London. Esquith’s legacy is an extraordinary one.

I first read this book during the 2010 Teach First Summer Institute: bright eyed and completely clueless, all I knew was that the amorphous challenge ahead would be grueling. Esquith’s book is often about defying the officials and putting students first, like when he writes: “when my district assigns textbooks to the children that would cure the most seriously afflicted insomniac, I’ve used texts of my own choosing to inspire the children to dedicate themselves to their studies.”

The writer confronts the challenge ahead: “Yes, life isn’t fair. Other kids have more money. Their English is better. Their parents are better connected.” And there are no shortcuts. The students just have to work harder and learn more. I especially liked Esquith’s focus on high academic expectations, notably in text choice (like students studying unabridged Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, Malcolm X and so on). This is no better exemplified than here:

If fifth-grade students are reading at a first-grade level, placing first-grade books in front of them will never help them catch up with the students across town who not only are in higher-achieving classrooms but have parents and tutors helping them every step of the way. Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up. If this means staying after school or taking extra hours sitting with the child and reading, so be it. There are no excuses.

I have been advised to withhold information like this from students in the name of motivation. But we must aim higher than this, as Esquith reminds us: “society is filled with forces of mediocrity that are going to battle you for the potential that is within your child.”

The second strapline of Esquith’s classroom, alongside “there are no shortcuts” is “be nice, work hard”; KIPP’s founders inverted this, and the founders of Michaela Community School in Wembley altered it to “work hard, be kind.” The message is simple, enduring and essential.

Much of this book is dedicated to examples of Esquith going above and beyond; extra classes, summer classes and the all-important field trips: “as a teacher of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I came to understand that my students would work harder for a better life if they saw the life they were working for.” Esquith details raising funds for these trips which often include travel to a different state by plane and an overnight stay, underwritten by awe-inspiring fund-raising methods. Now, trips are often costly, both in terms of time, money and energy; they frequently, at secondary schools, lead to missed learning time. But I do think Esquith has something here, and I’ll be writing over the next few weeks about field trips and why I think they need to be prioritized despite all of these drawbacks. The learning is the thing, of course, and the ethos behind the learning is relentless progress, defying the odds. But ethos is also nurtured by those aspects of education which cause students to feel that emotional connection, that energy and excitement, and for some this is best achieved outside a classroom setting.

In summary, the key messages on ethos from this book are:

  • There are no shortcuts to success; only hard work
  • All children deserve a rich, challenging curriculum
  • All children deserve to be educated in pleasant, safe classroom environments
  • We as teachers must be honest but positive with our students, always believing they can achieve, and knowing how hard they will need to work to make it
  • Teachers must do right by their students; this needs to be their guiding aim

Of course, this book comes with a major caveat: Esquith is exceptional; exceptional in his ability and exceptional in his commitment. Some people go into teaching to be missionaries; most do not. Some people submerge their lives to the lives of their students; most do not. Early in my career, I sought to emulate Esquith in my priorities and in my dedication.

But I’m not him. I’m a better teacher when I take time out to read fun books, go on holiday, visit a gym, sneak out of work early once in a blue moon to meet friends or go to the theatre, take an entire weekend off to do nothing but watch an entire series of something rubbish on Netflix. I’d like it if this was not true, but it is. I’m flawed.

But Esquith, I’ve come to realize, isn’t the model; Esquith is the touchstone. He is the bar we all strive to reach. So few of us will make it. I know I won’t. But in my best moments, his is the ethos that flows through me; it my lowest moments, his are the words I turn to for the gold standard of caring and commitment.

This is not a book for the practicalities of teaching and ethos. This is a book for inspiration.

Just one book: teaching

Perhaps I ought to have begun with teaching. Two years ago, I probably would have done. The primacy of teaching then for me was that it was the everything: in a school with no schemes of work and no curriculum plan, part of my teaching was choosing my curriculum and then assessing whether I had effectively taught it.

Now, I’ve moved schools, and seen the benefits of a more stratified approach. All students learning the same curriculum, with the proviso that it be high-quality, is surely more equitable and manageable. I wouldn’t want my children learning Skellig if the folks next door were tackling Oliver Twist. 

For some of the books in this series, I deliberated for weeks, going back and forth over which book to choose. The only topic I didn’t even have to think about was this one. Because, obviously:

TLAC 2.0

Doug Lemov: Teach Like a Champion

Why is this book so good? Because it tells you what other books won’t. This book tells you the nitty gritty practicality of how you should set your classroom up and then what you do in it in order for learning to occur. You don’t go to a book like this for vision and broad strokes, although those too are present; you go to Lemov for practical guidance. This book is the awesome mentor you might not be lucky enough to have in your early teaching years; the fantastic coach you almost certainly will not have in later years of teaching.

I first encountered this book in a lukewarm Guardian article, and decided to give it a miss. A few weeks later, a respected colleague from an ARK school called me up, telling me something had completely changed her practice, and it was this book. I’m so glad I listened to my friend and not the Guardian. Why does TLAC work so well?

Lemov has painstakingly observed hundreds of teachers at work, (“there is no gap that has not been closed already by some teacher somewhere”) and has drilled down into what they do to be effective in their classrooms. The results are distilled into manageable actions anyone can take, with examples you can watch on an accompanying DVD. They’re not quick-fixes; they’re not gimmicks. They are habits which, if embedded, will change the amount your students learn and want to learn from you.

Lemov notes that “perhaps the most salient characteristic of a great teacher is her ability to recognize the difference between ‘I taught it’ and ‘they learned it.’” Too often, I find myself despairing that students still cannot embed quotations and analyse language, given how many times I have taught it. Lemov reminds me that there is always a tweak; always a way I can improve my practice.

Just some of the key habits Lemov advises include avoiding the use of yes/no questions; instead, we must use pointed questioning to distil the students’ true understanding. Cold-calling is the widely preferred method of questioning, ensuring that all students are primed and listening and always ready to respond to your questions – by which he means no hands up. (Incidentally, one major benefit of the prevalence of TLAC parlance is the creation of a shared vocabulary of teaching.) Alongside cold-calling, which transformed my practice, he advises “No Opt Out” – students can never be excused trying. Wrong answers are ok, not even trying is not: “everybody learns in a high-performing classroom.”

Yet for methods such as these to be truly effective, we must create what Lemov terms a “Culture of Error” in our classrooms – less ironic than it sounds, this means students need to be willing to “share their struggles, mistakes, and errors” so teachers “spend less time and energy hunting for them and more time fixing and learning from them”. This might seem like overly broad brush advice, but Lemov follows this up with precise examples of how to do this, which include narrating growth, celebrating improvement, and praising struggle (“great question!”).

On structuring a lesson, I can’t think of a simpler or more easily applicable method than Lemov’s “I do, we do, you do”: therein lies lesson planning. Firstly, the teacher models. Then, the class practises together. Finally, students practise independently. Peppered in this structure you can have your cold-calling; your “Turn and Talk” (a much nicer way of saying “pair share” to my mind, rolling, as it does, so much more easily from the tongue: “turn and talk to your partner about…”).

One of the most helpful additions to the new edition of TLAC is the section on reading, which I have revisited more than any other this year – again, full of useful tips on how to encourage students when reading aloud in class, explained in lucid detail and with helpful examples.

As frequently thumbed in my own copy is the section on managing behaviour. Lemov’s overarching idea of making the “least invasive intervention” has changed the dynamic in my most challenging groups. Helpfully, he details examples of these interventions: positive group correction (“I need to see everybody writing”), anonymous individual correction (“I need two more sets of eyes”), private individual correction (quietly, one to one, with the student in question), lightning-quick public correction (always followed up by praise).

For those who fear that the outcome of these techniques is the creation of tiny obedient robots, Lemov reminds us all to “seek not only to be both warm and strict but often to be both at exactly the same time.” We must be strict, and never excuse poor behaviour; yet just as imperative is to be warm and kind, and love our charges, infusing our corrections with reminders of this love.

TLAC distills what the best teachers do:

  • Cultivate classroom culture, systems and routines
  • Enforce high behavioural expectations
  • Build trust
  • Set high academic expectations
  • Plan, pace and structure their lessons
  • Increase cognitive ratio (making students do the thinking) through questioning, writing and discussion
  • Check for understanding

To go on further would run the risk of plagiarism. In my view, to summarise, this is the book on teaching.

So far, I’ve explored curriculum and assessment, two aspects of education which are inextricably linked. The final two posts will be on leadership and ethos.

Just one book: assessment

In my last post, I outlined what I believed to be the foundational concepts that must underpin a school’s curriculum, using E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as the one text I felt most clearly displayed what a great curriculum should be. Of course, it is almost impossible to create a curriculum without simultaneously thinking about assessment: it is all very well to teach students great stuff, but if they immediately forget it all, or show you that they’ve understood none of it by the end of your teaching, you might as well have taught marbles.

make it stick

The one book that has truly changed my view on assessment is Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. Prior to reading this book, I too believed in the value of re-reading, highlighting, and testing students’ knowledge and understanding using extended essay after extended essay, running the risk of breaking my own will to carry on teaching due to having to endlessly plough through immense paragraphs riddled with small misconceptions and tiny errors, all of which I would painstakingly correct, before trying to rationalise each error into a single “target for improvement.” Then, weeks, months, years after I’d taught students, what did they recall of what I had taught? Too, too little.

I want to make a clear distinction between feedback and assessment. I define feedback as qualitative commentary, and assessment as quantifiable, measurable snapshots showing a teacher what their students have and have not understood. Both have their place, but my feeling is we have over-emphasised the former to the detriment of both student learning and teacher well-being.

The key messages from Make it Stick seem to me to be:

  • “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”
  • “We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”
  • Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

The authors note that: “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.” Joe Kirby has brilliantly explained how this might work in practice over the long term for individual students here. In lessons, I would suggest, we need to not only assess what students have retained in order to know what to teach them, but also to model what this kind of self-quizzing looks like and enable them to practise prior to doing it alone.

And when should this quizzing occur? There frankly does not seem to be a bad time to quiz, according to this book. Students do better in the long-term if they have pre-quizzes (even if they get everything wrong, as “unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating a fertile ground for its encoding”), immediate quizzes (“in 2010 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested”) and quizzes after partial forgetting has occurred.

The latter is of particular importance: “When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.” The most helpful quizzing, they suggest, takes place long enough after learning that the quiz isn’t “mindless repetition” but not so long that “retrieval essentially involves relearning the material”.

“Quiz” does not necessarily mean multiple choice, or even teacher-directed. Brown et al give examples such as students simply writing down ten facts they didn’t know before reading a passage. Another user-friendly option is a “free recall” homework where students: “spend ten minutes at the end of each day sitting with a blank piece of paper on which to write everything they can remember from class”. This enables students to know what they have not yet learned, and so pinpoint their future revision of key facts and ideas. Even cloze exercises can be of benefit, as “the act of filling in a missing word in a text results in better learning and memory of the text.”

In practice, quizzing works best when it is:

1. Purposeful

Students understand why quizzing is beneficial – they buy into the idea of frequent quizzes when they understand the benefits it will have for their long term retention of key ideas.

2. Targeted

Quiz questions are thoughtful and targeted to the specific ideas students need to know, isolating individual facts or key pieces of information.

3. Instantly Corrected

Wrong answers are corrected immediately to ensure students do not leave your lesson carrying misconceptions.

4. Low-Stakes

The stakes are low – there is no need for any of this to stress students out. This, along with emphasising the learning benefits also tends to preclude cheating.

Taking the advice of Make it Stick, schools would do well to build frequent, low-stakes quizzes into their day-to-day teaching. High-stakes, long-answer assessments should be less frequent, partly because the feedback teachers can give on these will not be as accurate, as students will be displaying a much larger breadth of skills and knowledge. Short, frequent quizzes allow teachers to break learning down into its core components, and isolate exactly where students are weakest, and then teach to that weakness. They should also reduce the need for overly extensive feedback on long-answer questions, thus reducing teachers’ workload significantly.

My next post will explore teaching, and one book that I will suggest provides the clearest guidance.

Just one book: curriculum

There are countless books on education. Some will entirely change your outlook and thinking, revolutionising what happens in your classroom and in our schools. Some will be a complete and utter waste of your time.

It is with this in mind that I propose to put forward just one book for some of what I see as the key aspects of education. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be exploring one book for each of the following aspects: curriculum, assessment, teaching, school leadership and school ethos.

It has been easy to pick just one book for some of these categories, and devilishly difficult for others. Of course, my choice will be a personal one, informed by my own personal view of education, and I accept that it may not be a view all share. Hopefully, those who disagree with my choices will put forward alternative single wondrous tomes. We are, I think, always honing, always refining our thinking.

I’m beginning with curriculum. I take curriculum to mean the stuff a school teaches its children. Taking the “what” before the “how” is incredibly important to me, and is one of the defining aspects of the writer I have chosen.

E.D. Hirsch: Cultural Literacy


 I’ve always had a longing to teach children challenging texts in English, but I have often shied away from articulating a curriculum-wide position. I’ve come to believe, now, that we must unapologetically teach the best stuff to all our children; but especially to the children who are least likely to encounter it outside of school, as Hirsch explains:

“Middle class children acquire mainstream literate culture by daily encounters with other literate persons. But less privileged children are denied consistent interchanges with literate persons and fail to receive this information in school. The most straightforward antidote to their deprivation is to make the essential information more readily available inside the schools.”

To be culturally literate, according to Hirsch, is “to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” In our everyday interchanges, even in reading a daily newspaper, our comprehension and therefore ability to interact with, question and enact change relies on our background knowledge. The broader our background knowledge, and the more honed to the important “stuff” of the world, the more effective we will be at understanding and communicating.

Contrary to some dissenters, Hirsch reminds us, this “literate” culture “is not the property of any group or class.” I saw this on a small scale when visiting the first school I worked in, in South East London. There, at a fabulous concert in aid of a school trip to Malawi, I saw the children I used to teach uproarious in their enjoyment of classical music, hip-hop and spiritual songs, among others. Just as these children could enjoy every type of music without seeming aware of its cultural baggage, so we can anticipate children will enjoy and be interested in all different strands of literature, history, art, politics.

The key to my agreement with Hirsch is in his drive for social justice: we have a moral imperative to teach the good stuff: “illiterate and semiliterate Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension.”

A strong curriculum builds up this crucial, important knowledge piece by piece. We may begin by knowing only a small amount about a wide range of individual topics or people, but that little allows us a place to hang our later acquired knowledge and understanding on. At one point, Hirsch lists off several names, some of which I’ve only heard of, but can at least locate in a time period, discipline or ideology due to this background knowledge I have somehow absorbed (names like James Fennimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant) and notes: “most of us know rather little about these people, but that little is of crucial importance, because it enables writers and speakers to assume a starting point from which they can treat in detail what they wish to focus on.” Simply put, “The more you know, the more you can learn.”

Hirsch’s message in this book is a hopeful one: all students can be “highly literate” if they are “presented with the right sort of curriculum.” This curriculum should be organized, according to Hirsch, as a vivid system of shared associations.” He does not advocate arbitrary prescription of the stuff children should know, commenting almost flippantly: “almost any battle will do to gain a coherent idea of battles. Any Shakespeare play will do to gain a schematic conception of Shakespeare.”

But clearly, analysing Shakespeare play is always better than analysing an advert. His comment “in each classroom somebody always does decide what material our children will be storing in their minds in the name of skills acquisition. All too often it is content for which our children will have no use in the future” rang true to me. I have spent too many lessons analysing language in simple advertisements and leaflets with 16 year olds in the run up to an English Language exam that did not teach a thing. This is time wasted, and for the children I teach this is an atrocity. The new, strengthened curricula in English at KS4 at least provide an impetus to teach far, far beyond such trivialities.

Finally, Hirsch makes the point that: “it isn’t facts that deaden the minds of young children… It is incoherence – our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.”

So, a strong curriculum for me has the following components:

  • Selection: of core knowledge: what are the ideas, concepts and facts students need to know in each subject in order to be able to access higher order ideas in that subject?
  • Sequence: your curriculum sequence must build on prior learning; knowledge builds on knowledge.
  • Revisiting: within this curriculum, there is space to revisit content and concepts, to strengthen them and aid learning.
  • Coherence: a strong curriculum dovetails with other subjects where suitable, so that the overarching schema over the course of a year coheres.
  • Challenge: the curriculum contains high quality, challenging stuff that is interesting and worth learning for all young people.

It is nearly impossible to write about curriculum alone; any construction of a curriculum requires simultaneous consideration of how we assess what has been learned, understood and retained. My next post will be exploring just one book on assessment.