Teaching Teachers – a silly idea? (ResearchED 2016)

Here’s a rough outline of the talk I gave at ResearchED 2016, on Saturday 10th September.



As I move further into teacher education, I feel it behoves me to know something of its history.  To that end I’ve begun a tentative foray into its story, and although I don’t know enough yet to speak about it with the same degree of confidence that I would my usual subjects, there are a few points that have informed or even surprised me, and I would like to share them now to see if we can’t get a sense of where we’ve been, which explains where we are, and informs where we need to go next.

Here are some of the books and papers that I’ll be referring to.  The dominant ‘narrative’ I’m relaying is provided by Elizabeth Green – with a little of my own thoughts and feelings mapped onto it.  Many of the points I make or the quotes I use are referenced in her work.



First, I might argue that the perspective of a trainee teacher today looks a little like this:


ITE Today

We have no codified body of knowledge for trainees to study, and instead we place them in front of a few dozen people with experience or even expertise, who them proceed to dispense with bits and pieces of accrued wisdom.  Disjointed, and unrelated.  The result is noise.

I would suggest we need to structure our work better so that the experience of the trainee looks a little more like this, where a structure to the ‘bits and pieces’ can be seen, along with a relationship between them.  This can be studied and developed systematically, over time.


ITE as it should be

Next, here are a few quotes that tell a certain story.

“No-one can really tell you how to teach… you have to figure it out for yourself.”

This one is from my own training, and it might be familiar to you.  Perhaps it was said to you; perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.

“I’m so happy I don’t have to work with those dumb-ass teachers!”

This one is taken from the early 80s, and probably won’t be familiar to you.

We’ll come back to that one later.

“Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.”

This is over a century old now.

We can thank Bernard Shaw for that.  And of course we’ve seen modified to:

“Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

And what I see here, is a running theme of disdain.  Disdain for teaching, for teachers, and for those who associate themselves with the work.  This will be important in understanding how on Earth we come to where we are after a hundred years of universal education.

If we go back to the early 18th century, we will find that there are no schools.  Not really, not as we understand them, at least.  There may be a handful of church run institutions concerned with instruction in the Bible, but serious education was the preserve of a wealthy elite, usually delivered through one to one tuition.  This is important, because of course if you’re drafted in to teach the children of the wealthy, they are probably of above average intellect.  Furthermore, in a one to one setting you can directly interrogate what the pupil has and has not apprehended, question them, engage in discussion, much of which will likely be Socratic.

Of course, when you’re attempting to teach every child, and you’re now attempting to do it in batches of 20-50, suddenly those same simple methods cannot work, and its necessary to think deeply about how to manage that group environment and about how to deliver instruction such that every child has a high probability of correctly understanding your meaning, immediately.  Strategies must also then be in place for assessing a mass of pupils, and responding to a potential range of misconceptions.

As we progress across the 19th century we build an increasingly universal system of education, one thus requiring inquiry into the above.

Fast forward to 1948, and enter Nathaniel Gage.  Nate Gage is described as a man of charm and charisma, that seems to evaporate the moment he tries to teach.  Wishing to rectify this, and reasonably assuming that after half a century of study the literature must have something to say about effective teaching, he looks at the existing research.


Nathaniel Gage (1917 – 2008)

What he discovers, is a hodgepodge of work that says little at all about good teaching.  Instead, it tries desperately to draw correlations between good teachers and their personal characteristics.  Good teachers might be, for example:

  • Warm
  • Organsed
  • Radical
  • Enthusiastic
  • Sociable
  • Interested in their subject
  • Emotionally sensitive
  • Bohemian
  • Worryingly suspicious…

Alternatively, we could look at:

  • Age
  • Experience
  • Eye colour
  • Clothing style
  • Strength of grip…

5 - Strength of Grip.png

Is strength of grip important to good teaching…?

Conclusions, if they existed at all, were often completely contradictory (sound familiar…) or vague and unhelpful.

One paper, for example, concluded that teachers must be:

“Friendly, cheerful, sympathetic and morally virtuous…”

And if you’re worried that that doesn’t offer much advice, worry no more, its authors clarify:

“…rather than cruel, depressed, unsympathetic and morally depraved.”

My favourite, however, concluded that the best teachers exhibit:

“Teaching skill.”

See here for a quote from Herbert Simon criticising this kind of circular reasoning.

So this is the world Nate Gage found himself in.  In his words:

“The simple matter of fact is that, after 40 years of research on teacher effectiveness during which a vast number of studies have been carried out, one can point to few outcomes that a superintendent of schools can safely employ in hiring a teacher or granting him tenure, that an agency can employ in certifying teachers, or that a teacher-education faculty can employ in planning or improving teacher-education programmes.”

Why?  Why had all this work so supremely failed?

One suggest Green makes is to look back to the origins of educational psychology.  There, we see the roots of that disdain I mentioned earlier.

William James (1842-1910), for example is quote as saying:

“Educational psychology? I think there are about six weeks of it.”


William James (1842 – 1910)

While his student, Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) is quoted as saying:

“The bane of my life is the practice school they stuck me with.”

7 - Ed Thorndike.jpg

Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949)

These were men who didn’t seem to take school teaching seriously at all.  They were working at a time when experimental psychology was still struggling to have itself taken seriously as a science, and I can only assume the last thing they felt they needed was to be associated with low-level school teaching!  It’s fascinating, as Thorndike is otherwise considered one of the earliest thinkers in human learning, even creating ‘the law of disuse‘ that Robert Bjork has much more recently co-opted into the far more powerful ‘New Theory of Disuse.’  (Try this for something far more accessible.)

So, these serious psychologists struggling to be taken seriously had no interest in really researching and working with school teachers.  To them, it was a chore to be stuck with a school; they wanted to get on with the serious business of psychological research.

This left Gage with the task of figuring this teaching stuff out for himself, and to understand what happened next, we need to take a quick look at his lineage.

8 - Behaviourists.JPG

The Behaviourists

Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, Gage.  Nate was a behaviourist.  Behaviourism held that to be an objective science, psychology could only seek to measure that which was objectively measurable.  It could observe inputs (stimuli) and outputs (behaviours) and correlate the two, but the ‘mind’ was a black box, impervious to observation.  While later behaviourists such as Skinner did allow for a concept of mind, it was viewed only as a convenient fiction to help understand the correlations, not as a real object of study in its own right.

This means that Gage’s approach was to assemble a team, record good teachers teaching, and then analyse hundreds of hours of footage looking for common behaviours.

Just like Doug Lemov.

Here we get to my first surprise.  How could it be that Lemov found himself needing to 60 year old work of Nathaniel Gage…?!

Even worse, as I watch Lemov’s detractors argue that the approach is ‘behaviourist,’ or ‘shallow,’ or that we cannot write ‘a simple formula’ for teachers to follow; and I think of my own experience and just how much Lemov’s work supported and developed me as a teacher, and all the great teachers I’ve seen who are where they are thanks to Lemov; as I consider just how clearly necessary this work is, and then I consider that we are replicating forgotten work, decades on… I cannot help but feel anger and pity towards those who would see it brushed aside, again!  We made this mistake once – are we really going to make it again, and wait another half century for someone to realise how important it is?

Why did we forget it?

Enter Lee Shulman.


Lee Shulman (1938 – Present)

To Shulman, Gage’s work is almost passé.  Behaviourism… really?  Shulman is at the forefront of what becomes known as The Cognitive Revolution.  Dismissive at first, he would later work with Gage in developing his own ideas about teacher expertise, but from a very different perspective.

The Cognitivists believed that not only was it possible to measure and map the structure of the human mind, but that it was indeed essential in order to understand human behaviour; trying to understand behaviour without understanding the mind was naive.  In this case, you would only be observing the surface structure, the output, and failing to understand the historic inputs that allowed a teacher to behave in the way we observe.  It’s equivalent to a Cargo Cult analysis.

Shulman started out interested in decision making.  He began by analysing the decision making processes of doctors, and was fascinated to discover that they didn’t match the supposed decision-making process set forth in flow charts in the medical texts.

When he was given the chance to work with teachers, he saw it as a great opportunity; after all, teachers had to make quick decisions under extreme pressure.  Through his work, he found that the decision making processes of teachers were even more complex than those of doctors.

If you’ve never heard of Gage, you may have heard of Shulman.  I’ve seen Shulman cited in more modern academic work, but never Gage.  Shulman’s enduring legacy is the invention of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK).  It’s Shulman who first suggests that teachers of mathematics, or history, have knowledge that other expert mathematicians and historians don’t: how to teach it.  It’s Shulman who brings an end to the idea of ‘mere expert’ as teacher.  Now, the teacher must be both expert and pedagogue.

As I tell this story, in my mind the narrative swings from one focus to another:

10 - Mindset.JPG

Before Gage, there was only Mindset.  That’s a word I often use, but you can call it whatever you want: qualities, characteristics, beliefs.

Gage moves us on to look more scientifically at Craft.

11 - Craft.JPG

And Shulman refocuses our attention on Knowledge.

12 - Knowledge.JPG

Yet something else has gone wrong in this history.  In 1982, this paper was published by Harry Judge, an Oxford professor visiting American schools of education.

Judge found that the supposed professors of educational psychology were publishing papers with titles like:

  • The history of the family
  • The role of the media in the formation of public opinion
  • The structure of higher education
  • The changing shape of macro-economics
  • The evolution of organisational theory

How is any of this of use to a teacher?!  And this doesn’t feel all that too dissimilar to the kinds of papers I was asked to read for my PGCE.  What on Earth was going wrong?

As hinted at in Thorndike’s quote above, the teacher education system used to operate through ‘practice schools.’  Slowly, this changed.  The universities set up schools of education and began to train teachers.  Why?  Money.  It was lucrative business.  And how ironic, I thought, upon reading this.  Here we are today with critics of academies and free schools pointing the finger and crying ‘profiteering,’ when, naturally, the academic establishments are not immune to the siren cry of money.

So the universities would set up ed schools, and then stock them with begrudging academics who had little love or time for such trifles.  Judge parodied the process in writing about a fictitious college, Waterend:

“The dominant tactic was to make a foray into the disciplines, to track down a scholar of achieved distinction or of sparkling promise, and to carry him triumphantly through the gates of Waterend.  Thereafter, the professor would be careful to explain that this was the first appointment he had ever held in a school of education, that he was unsullied by contact with the lower worlds of educational practice, that he was first and foremost a Waterend Professor – with at least a courtesy appointment in another department as well.”

And there again is that thread of disdain.  And they did it on mass, with dozens of academics.  It’s from this paper that the quote about working with ‘dumb-ass teachers’ comes.

Worse still, where people did care about education, and about making great teachers, their incentives were directly aligned in opposition to that goal.  As Green writes, a member of the school could be a brilliant teacher trainer, but if she didn’t have something like ‘Sex stereotypes of secondary school teaching subjects‘ on her CV, she wasn’t going to find herself a post-doctorate appointment anywhere.

Finally on knowledge, Shulman was at the forefront of the Cognitive Revolution, and yet, where is all the cognitive psychology in teacher education…?  There is none!  I’m not entirely sure how, yet, but we somehow switched tracks and got lumbered with a fetid diet of nothing but Developmental Psychology.  Piaget, Vygotsky et al.  I can only speculate that this happened when the pedagogic conclusions derived by some fit neatly with the ideological aspirations of many.  As much as I too would love discovery learning to work, it doesn’t, and we just have to accept that and move on.

Then enter what Green calls ‘The Entrepreneurs.’  The Entrepreneurs include Lemov, and much of the KIPP, TFA and the wider charter school movement in the US.  Where do they focus?  Back to Craft.


Here now in the UK I know many schools, MATs and even some training institutions that are beginning to do great things in the instruction of teaching Craft, or Practice, often making use of the Instructional Leadership model.  But even in these places I againstill, see a dearth of Knowledge!  Where is the commitment to teachers as experts in their subject, rather than being interchangeable between subjects?  Where is Sweller and Cognitive Load Theory?  Engelmann and Theory of Instruction?  Baddeley’s models of cognition?  Bjork and Long Term Memory?  Hirsch and Core Knowledge?  Young and Powerful Knowledge?

Until we have all three, mindset, craft and knowledge, we will never have a system that fully develops teachers, and we will keep fighting and swinging from one pillar to the next post.


A more comprehensive model of teacher education

(the many acronyms at the bottom are taken from Deborah Ball’s work)


I’ve borrowed a story from Green, and through it highlighted what I see as a shifting back and forth between important features in teacher development, which has made little progress in over a century due in part to an historic disdain for the work, amongst those who were responsible for it.


So my call to action is two-fold:

  1. Let’s take the act of teaching, and therefore training teachers, seriously
  2. Let’s start to train teachers in all three necessary components


Many people today already do take teaching seriously of course, within and without the universities.  Let’s be sure we’re holding everyone to account on this.

On point 2, though, I know of very few places that might be making any headway

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Is effortless learning possible?


If you want to know what it looks like to learn using Engelmann’s techniques, take 45 min and watch this.

At age 9 I desperately wanted to learn French, tried with a few language tapes, and failed.

At 10 I tried again.  It all seemed to be going great, but then I realised I was getting stuck at the same point as before – le, la, les.  How can there be three words for ‘the’!?  I failed again.

And so it was with great enthusiasm and excitement that I looked forward to studying French at school, age 11.

I failed, again.


Slowly, and systematically, my attitude in French lessons deteriorated over 5 years until I would say things like ‘What’s the point in learning French anyway, everyone speaks English!’

My French GCSE grade was a D, it was the only grade that wasn’t an A or A*, and by that point I didn’t care.

Six months later, free of school, my old passion returned.  For the next six years I will again want to learn French, but my attempts to join classes at Warwick failed.

When I finally graduated, I moved to France, and got lucky: a friend recommended Michel Thomas’ CDs to me.

In one month I learnt more French than I learnt in five years at school.


I described it as effortless.  As I took an interest in education, I turned to Michel Thomas as one of my influences.  I could see some of the things he was doing… one of my friends failed completely with the CDs and gave up quickly.  Why?  He kept repeating the first CD, trying to ‘memorise’ it – exactly what Thomas forbade.

I just ploughed onwards, as he asked, and I discovered something interesting: just as I realised I’d forgotten how to say something, like ‘glass,’ a moment later he would ask something like ‘How would you say I would like a glass of red wine, in French?’  You’d have to sit and think long and hard to try to remember that word you felt you’d just forgotten.  If you couldn’t recall it, hit play, and bam!  Verre.  That’s it!  You didn’t forget it again for a long time (10 years and counting, in my case.)


Engelmann’s Theory of Instruction (1982) has three essential parts:

  1. Analysis of knowledge
  2. Analysis of communication
  3. Analysis of behaviour

31:10 in the documentary:

“It takes Michel eight months to dissect the complete structure of a language…”

That’s analysis of knowledge.

“…and find a way to teach it so that it is effortless to learn.”

That’s analysis of communication.


“Like, when he talks to you and asks you a question, it’s like he’s looking into you and knows that you’re thinking inside.”

That’s analysis of behaviour.

Thomas’ experience meant he knew the misconceptions and the mistakes that learners would always make, knew the behaviours they would exhibit, and accept and correct accordingly.  In Engelmann’s Theory, behavioural analysis is about watching to see how learners respond following instruction and adapting as appropriate.  It’s the practice of being a classroom practitioner, what most of us have learnt as ‘questioning’ or AFL.  Thomas was so preternaturally good at this that when he attempted to engage universities in the US they insisted that there was no ‘master method,’ and pointed to Thomas’ natural charm and charisma as the secret to his success during his late 60s experiments in LA schools.  In other words, they retreated right back to decades-old theories of ‘the natural born teacher,’ (which I’ll be discussing at ResearchED this weekend.)

But it wasn’t anything so mystical, he just knew the structure of the language, knew how he was trying to communicate it, knew where it might go wrong, and knew what to do about it.  It was knowledge, derived from experience.

This is about the same time in history that Engelmann was developing his Theory of Instruction with Doug Carnine.



“…and interestingly one of the girls said: After five years in school, my French teacher, she said ‘I think you better give up because there’s no way you’re going to succeed.’

And here she said: I just managed it!  Fine!  I feel as though I understand it!”


I don’t know if it’s possible to make all learning effortless, but I do know that we can do a lot better than we’re doing.

When this documentary was filmed, it was true that we didn’t know how Michel Thomas’ method worked.  Although tapes of his programme existed, they could only be listened to inside his schools.

This is no longer the case.  The recorded programmes are publicly available.  They have been analysed, and the former secrets of his method are laid bare in Prof. Jonathan Solity’s book The Learning Revolution.  Sadly, like Engelmann’s Theory of Instruction, this book is now out of print, and sells for exorbitant amounts on the Amazon marketplace.  In it, you will find many of the tricks that are increasingly working their way into a certain part of the educational psyche:

  • The 80:20 principle
  • Distributed practice
  • Interleaving
  • The testing effect

It was in this book that I first heard about Engelmann and Carnine, and their work.  They and Thomas hit upon the same set of methods independently of one another.  Thomas discovered his methods empirically – trial after trial after trial, experimenting on wealthy customers.

Engelmann and Carnine combined psychology, logical analysis and empiricism to produce a comprehensive and fundamental model of interrelated instructional theory that all teachers should know.


“…the mastery of part of the language is the thing that keeps them going, and keeps them enthusiastic… and we lose site of that!  In the way we teach, we think we capture their interest by finding them interesting materials that are supposedly related to their interests in the outside world, and maybe we miss the point, and I think he’s probably onto something very important here.”

That was said in 1997.

It’s been nearly 20 years.

It’s time we stopped messing around, started paying attention, and get this right.

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The need for educational infrastructure.

Part 1 – What’s the difference between a bad teacher, and a good teacher in a bad system?


Here’s what we do every time a child is born in the UK:



But you’ve got to picture it with millions of dice:

I’ve been flirting with some of the writings of Prof. David Cohen recently.  He uses language that I like.  In one paper discussing education reform he references a ‘veritable deluge of critiques, reform ideas, proposals and materials… the aggregate [of which] was a blizzard of different and often conflicting ideas.’  Sound familiar…?

The other language I like is ‘educational infrastructure.’  Broadly speaking, these are what must be in place for effective and incremental improvement in education – the kind we see in Singapore or Shanghai maths curricula, for example.  A short summary of his infrastructure top three would be:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Assessment
  3. Teacher Education

The assessments are tied directly to the curricula, and importantly this isn’t curricula in the UK NC sense of ‘teach whatever you want, but roughly something about x,’ but more in line with the Engelmann and Carnine sense of ‘Precisely what to teach, how to teach it, what textbooks to use, what questions to pose and so on.’

Without educational infrastructure even the good teachers will not do well, because they operate in a bad system.  This is what I started to discuss in the last post, in which I called the second video an example of a good teacher in a bad system.

It was a bad system because you can’t really convey what energy is in only 4 minutes – no matter what, it was going to fail in its explanation for most people.  The explanation was a good one though, which can be seen clearly when compared with the first video.

What video 2 needs is time and sequencing.  For example, Kinetic Energy probably needs to be explored in greater detail before this video would make sense.  Except now there’s a circular problem: how can you talk about Kinetic Energy without first talking about Energy…?

The solution, I suspect, is to explain the concepts in a limited form first, identify the limits of the explanation, then systematically push those limits out, introducing new concepts to solve the problems presented by our previous limitations.  We see an example of this in the video itself: having fleshed out the concept satisfactorily to some extent, right at the end it points out that a passenger in a car would see the driver as stationary, whereas someone outside the car would see them as moving – so do they really have Kinetic Energy or not?  That question identifies the limits of the explanation to date, and sets the scene for the ‘next stage,’ Relativity, in this case.

If the video were one in an extended series, I reckon it could do a seriously good job.

In schooling, I believe the KS2-5 system was supposed to provide this staged approach to exploring and fleshing out scientific concepts.  It failed, and how could it not?  In order for it to work a child’s teacher must have clear knowledge of what their pupil was previously told, how the concept was explained to them, so they can introduce the next step.

Here we have a problem.  A child’s science teacher in one year has *no* idea what last year’s teacher told them.  There is a limit to the information assessment can provide.  So we fly blind, often finding we need to repeat content we would expect to be known, or accidentally missing out important steps and leaving children to feel that they’re too stupid to get it, when the fault probably lay in our instruction.  Unavoidably, in a bad system, some kids are well placed to follow the current explanation, and others are not, and we roll dice to determine who wins and who loses.

We need consistency from one teacher to the next.  We need to know what teachers are saying to children so we can pick up where they left off.  We need educational infrastructure, so that in future we guarantee that every child wins.



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What’s the difference between a bad teacher, and a good teacher in a bad system?


Here’s one for you:  “What is energy?”

Even if you have a degree in physics, like me, you’ll probably struggle to answer that (like me).  Even if you’re a science teacher, I’d take a bet that you struggle in answering it.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about both the answer to that question, and how to convey it to children.  Naturally I’ve taken to the Internet for help, and two videos showed me something.

Video 1 was produced in collaboration with Google, which one can only imagine means access to infinite resource and one hell of a marketing and communications team.


Video 1 – Bad Teaching

This is my example of the ‘bad teacher’ (apologies to SciShow, who are otherwise doing great work.)

Look it’s hard to get this right at all, let alone in 4 minutes. But compare it with this:

Video 2 does a few things that video 1 doesn’t.  It defines what it means to ‘know’ something (‘does’ vs. ‘is’, ‘compare and contrast,’ ‘divide and categorise’ – I see more than a  little Engelmann in here) it creates a map of different kinds of energy and compares them with one another, it uses clear diagrams and animations to help convey meaning, and finally it accepts that there are reasonable limits to what it can mean ‘to know’ a thing (see Feynman for a *beautiful* explanation of this!)


Video 2 – Good Teaching in a Bad System

It also makes some mistakes.  The early etymology was probably superfluous in this instance (I’m otherwise in favour.)  It brings in relativity at the end, but only to raise further questions, rather than providing their answers (again not opposed to in principle, but not in a 4 min video…?  Would work better as a hook into ‘the next video’ in a series,)  and ultimately I can’t help but wonder if it goes too fast for someone who doesn’t already have a physics degree…  I’m not sure what the target audience is for Science Asylum, but the Turtles t-shirt and silly running around earlier would hint at a younger audience.  In this, it helps itself to concepts like potential energy, chemical bonds, quarks and nuclear bonds with very little explanation.

BUT!  Compared with video 1, the explanation is a good one – it systematically fleshes out what we mean by energy in a way that Video 1 doesn’t.

Video 1 tends rather to jump around randomly to vaguely talk about things that are related to energy in some way.

If you came to video 1 looking to know what energy is, by the end of it I worry that you’d leave just feeling that you’re stupid… because you probably don’t have any more clear an understanding than before you started, and that will hold true no matter who you are.

Whereas, in video 2 is it possible to feel like you’re getting some kind of answer to the question from this video?  Yes.  I felt my understanding was deepened by it.  The flaw is in whether the explanation is too fast for everyone to keep up.

If you don’t already have lots of scientific training, I’d love to hear how clear you found Video 2 – my guess is ‘not very’ for most people, but would be good to know.

I call video 2 Good Teacher in a Bad System.

I’ll explain why in the next post.


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Should we bring back grammars?




I found myself reading over many articles on the issue this morning, and just wanted to throw another voice into the mix.  I won’t say much, because better people have already said it better than I could – and I’ll link to them in a bit – but I want to highlight this one graph out of all the others.


Grammar schools entrench social division

The graph is taken from here.

It shows the following:

  • Wealthier pupils outperform poorer pupils
  • Attainment in London schools is, overall, better than anywhere else
  • If you’re poor, grammar schools lower your chances of success


Cast your eyes to the left of the graph – that’s where the least well-off live.  There are three scenarios shown, from top to bottom:

  1. Live in London
  2. Live elsewhere
  3. Live near a grammar school


Unless you’re wealthy, you’re better off living anywhere but near a grammar school.

In other words, grammar schools are not the engines of social mobility we have in the past – myself included – believed them to be.  They are engines of social division, for all but a lucky, lucky few.

Conversely, if you live in London, where the comprehensive school system is believed to have made the most remarkable gains in the past decade or so, then you will do better than ever; the gap’s still there, for now, but better than ever.

From this we might infer that the solution to social inequity is certainly not a return to grammars, as May and Greening would have you believe, but might lie in a determined effort to improve all schools, as championed by Gove and Morgan.


More on this

Chris Cook – Why not bring back grammar schools?

Jonny Porter – Grammars and the grain of truth

Natasha Porter – 5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea

Toby Young – New grammars won’t do more for social mobility than comprehensives

Sam Freedman – Why grammar schools are not the real issue




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What are the three reasons we teach stuff?


  1. It’ll be useful
  2. It’ll allow you to access higher level content
  3. It’ll help you make sense of the world


I think we linger around 1 and 2.


It’ll be useful

‘When will we ever use this?’ is the refrain oft heard in maths classes, but I’ve heard (and said) it elsewhere.

‘What’s the use in learning French, everyone speaks English anyway.’

‘What’s the point in English?  I can already speak English!’

‘When will I ever need to know that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1066, except for a pub quiz?’

‘Why do I need to know Newton’s Three Laws of Motion?  I want to become a writer, when will I ever use this?!’

It’s probably the weakest case.  Outside of primary education, and some basic mathematics and literacy, we will directly apply very little of what we learn in school.


It’ll allow you to access higher level content

‘You need to learn this so that you can have the choice to study it more fully, later.’

Yeah true… but why?  In the end this line of reasoning lands on either ‘contributing to expanding the body of knowledge’ i.e. become an academic, or to allow access to a choice of jobs or careers.

Valid, but hardly inspiring.  Why did I waste my time studying all the other things if I was just going to end up doing this one thing here?

Three years ago I wrote my first blog post, noting that ‘to get a job’ is not the most inspiring reason for study.


It’ll help you make sense of the world

This is the one I think we miss.  It’s passive, so we don’t realise we do it when we’re doing it: we read, we listen, we engage in conversation, we think, …we think, and we do it all within the confines of what we know.  The more we know, the more we can think, the more we can engage, the more we can make sense of the world.

We do it without even realising we’re doing it.

So we teach stuff so that, in the future, it might help children, who become adults, to make sense of the world around them, and the people in it.


If you brought this idea front and centre of your mind, rather than ‘to be used directly’ or ‘to lead to the next thing,’ would you change anything about the way you teach your subject, or the way you think about its place in the curriculum?

Do you agree that these three capture everything, or have I missed something?

Are they ‘MECE‘?


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Should we teach children how to study?


See here for how (How we Learn: What Works, What Doesn’t)

But how is this different from programmes and language like ‘Learning to Learn‘ or ‘Building Learning Power‘?

Programmes such as these seem to sit more in the affective domain, than the cognitive.  They tried to be a theory of everything, bringing in motivation, academic self-concept, meta-cognition, relationships with every stakeholder imaginable, and the so-called ‘soft skills.’

At the same time, they communicate next to nothing about what to actually do if you want to learn something.  ‘Learn from your mistakes’ might be sage wisdom, as you’d imagine dispensed from a village elder, but it hardly tells me what to do today so that I still recall all that lovely history tomorrow, or 20 years hence.  They appear to make the mistake of conflating output with input, providing a description of what we see when we look at a ‘good learner’ rather than what went in to making them a good learner.


Learning to Learn


Building Learning Power

Dunlosky, Willingham et al. have put together a super-simple guide to what probably works, and what doesn’t.  It’s short, it’s actionable.  Here it is:

Gold Stars (definitely do)

  1. Self-quizzing
  2. Distributed practice

Runners Up (maybe do…)

  1. Elaboration
  2. Self-Explanation
  3. Interleaved Practice

Don’t Do!

  1. Highlighting
  2. Rereading

Notably, it is *not* a theory of everything, and here’s where the word ‘study’ becomes important.  For my part, I see study as an activity that a person will engage in with relative independence from the teacher.  It might be entirely on their own, it might be with others, but I would expect it to take place mostly outside of a classroom.  I see ‘studying’ as the act of either working to ensure content it retained for the long-term, or elaborating on existing knowledge to build connections, meaning and therefore deeper understanding.

While knowledge of the above is of course important to teachers as well, teaching is not studying.  I know that sounds obvious, but often distinct activities within, or without, a classroom, become conflated with the entire enterprise of teaching.

The ‘independence’ is important, because it involves choices on the part of the student, therefore the student needs to know how to make good choices, therefore we must teach them how to make good choices.  Whether or not they will make them is another matter, which can be dealt with by other theoretical models and practical approaches.  But they do need to at least know how to study effectively, independently, and we need to teach them.  It would take very little time to do, rather than taking over the curriculum.


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