Are you using the right coloured pen?


Red or green pen?

Having had the honour of working at literally the best school in the country has led me to do a lot of thinking of late.  I think about all the things that people worried themselves about in my previous school – which went into special measures not long after I left.  I think about all the advice I heard the teachers there – many of whom had advice to share that I rely on to this day – had themselves received from consultants who’d came and went.

A big one was around pen colour.  Apparently someone had arrived shortly before my time to help the school spend its money on learning that red was an ‘aggressive’ colour that could upset pupils.  Teachers should all mark in green.  Everyone would be much happier this way.  They’d learn more, one assumes.

The profound philosophical question about whether or not teachers should mark with a red or green pen has plagued schools for a decade now.  The question has proved such an intractable devil that one trainee was driven to make its resolution her ultimate edu-quest.

The debate reached its apotheosis when one senior leader announced a decisive breakthrough: purple and orange pens!  Now, at last, there were no pre-conceived connotations attached to the colour of the pen; lucid and pure, the teacher’s words could shine through on page.

It’s as I prepare training on Lemov’s concept of the Exit Ticket that I find myself jotting down a note about how our pupils might ‘green pen’ a ticket returned to them i.e. correct it with a green pen they are expected to have in their pencil case.  I realise I’ve been writing in red ink now for three years.  I like it; not because I enjoy scrawling angry blood trails across pupils’ work, but because it is the colour that contrasts best against the blues and blacks in which pupils write.  It’s easy to read against a white background, unlike green, making it a solid choice.

And you know what?  It didn’t do our kids any harm.

I almost expect this is why teachers have been marking in red for decades; it’s almost as though this were a natural, sensible, choice, considered and resolved aeons ago.

One wonders… how much time have teachers found themselves wondering long, deep into the night, about things that matter not a jot.  How much nothing has been trumped up into all by people charging a fee.  How much longer will education allow itself to be blustered by changing winds blowing in all directions, before fizzling out to lead nowhere.

Bodil Isaksen’s blog title was obviously wry irony; even a trainee who hadn’t yet set foot into the classroom had been able to see the emperor was naked; why not the rest of us?

There will be ‘the next Brain Gym,’ the next Learning Styles, the next Red or Green pen; my question is how are we so spectacularly taken in by it, time and again.  Why are we allowing ourselves to be humiliated like this?  How long until we develop institutional immunity to nonsense?

At Wellington’s Festival of Education 2014 I argued that teaching needs a codified body of knowledge before we can lay claim to being any kind of real profession.  At the 2016 festival discussed a new model of teacher training and development, and at ResearchED 2016 I flirted with some of education’s historic development.

Not long ago I heard a trainee tell me that their university tutor educated him in learning styles, which is only shocking until you read Howard Jones review of the neuromyths prevalent in education (93% in the UK still thought learning styles were a thing).

We’ve a long, long way to go, but I look forward to us getting there.

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Reading Reconsidered: Two Quick Thoughts


Last week I had the privilege of attending a two day training programme delivered by Erica Woolway, Maggie Johnson, and Doug Lemov.

The training was based on their new book, Reading Reconsidered.

It’s about teaching reading, of which I have no experience, and so the whole experience was packed with learning experiences for me, but two things have stuck out.

I’m not sure I was ever taught how to read

In one section, Maggie ran an extended model of Close Reading, as she would with her pupils.  She began by asking us to read the opening paragraphs of Grapes of Wrath.

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

Then asked us to summarise the main idea of the passage.  I wrote:

That a severe drought has struck, causing all the plants, crops, and even weeds to die.

She then ran through her series of activities, and asked us to again summarise the main idea of the passage.  This time I wrote:

The sun has changed its nature, and now a losing battle is fought between a powerful and murderous sun, and the remaining, beleaguered, forces of nature still dedicated to life.

While the activity was heavily guided, and Maggie deliberately drew our attention to key words, phrases and imagery in the text, both the original and final words are my own.

I was struck by how markedly different they are.  In the absence of experience, I have no baseline to measure whether this is typical of all English lessons.  English teachers, please comment.

Important to me is that my first attempt followed my typical ‘reading quickly to get the gist,’ while Maggie’s activities forced us to spend a long time considering many deliberate choices made by the author.  It’s an activity I might suspect English graduates to have ready to execute as second nature, if needed.  For my part I’m not sure if I was ever taught to read like this at school.  It’s certainly not my nature now.


And I probably should have been

One point Doug made early on, both on the day and in the book, is that if you’re going to attempt to access university education, you are probably going to have to comfortable reading, on your own, a lot.  He distinguished between:

Learning to Read


Reading to Learn

Which I like.

As a physicist, I’m not sure I read a single book at university.  Actually, I think I read some for an essay on chaos theory that I wrote once, and maybe I read something on nanotechnology.  Mostly, though, I turned up to lectures, tried out some practice questions, and then did some exams.  Where I did read at all, I often abandoned it not long in – reading about science is hard.

By contrast, my friend had read the Feynman Lectures, and I’m sure took so much more from all of our lectures and study.  How much more could I have learned and understood if I’d done the same?

It got me thinking – perhaps even in subjects that aren’t literature heavy, such as science and mathematics, where you wouldn’t normally expect there to be much reading, or feel a ‘reading week’ a necessity, there is so much to be gained if a person has habituated the idea of learning by reading.  When not presented with materials to read, would they now naturally seek them out?  Would the math’s student reach for Georg Cantor’s work on Transfinite Numbers?

There’s only one school in the country that I’m personally aware of that has attempted anything like this, Michaela Community School.  In this post, Katie Ashford outlines all of the reading that takes place in all of the lessons – 6,000 words during school hours.  That’s 1.2 million per year, and 8.2 million over 7 years, assuming the reading work load doesn’t increase with age.  I’ve seen it in action, a little, and I saw every teacher in every classroom running the same reading strategies with the children.

Despite being averse to the idea of reading about mathematics to learn mathematical concepts – simply because it’s a linear communication system for concepts that rarely lend themselves to linearity – I applaud and admire the dedication to putting reading front and centre in their children’s lives; I feel I could happily give up 200 words a lesson to be part of that, and might even reason that there is value in the idea of reading in maths lessons.

At the training, a science teacher remarked that they can’t ask their children to learn science by reading, since, you guessed it, most their kids can’t really read.  There may be others, and I’ve love to hear about them if so, but this is the only example I’ve heard so far of a school taking that failure seriously, and determining to overturn it.

And while, as with mathematics, there are more effective and efficient methods for learning many scientific concepts at school level than reading, there necessarily comes a point in our lives when one has to read about science to learn more science.

How might I have approached university education differently if I’d spent every day at school reading 6,000 words, expecting to learn from them?

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Education is the lighting of a fire.

Yesterday I re-read this excellent post by Joe Kirby, which featured this quote-by-not-Yeats:

“I wholeheartedly disagree that possessing knowledge improves your ability to think. I’m afraid your criticisms would give way to a ‘filling of a pail’ approach rather than a‘lighting of a fire’ approach.

I was also pointed in the direction of this woefully misguided ode to vapid, where you can see its echo:

“Moreover, teaching a prescribed “core knowledge” instills a culture of conformity and an insipid, passive absorption of carefully selected knowledge among young people. It doesn’t encourage students to think critically about society – nor does it fire a desire to challenge the views they are taught. Schools that adopt this method become nothing more than pipelines producing robotic citizens, perpetuating the vision of a capitalist society and consequently preventing social mobility.”

Of course.  People with knowledge never thought critically.  Critical thinking is in fact magic.  Magic that happens through shear force of passion and sunbeams, and punk rock.  I’m reminded of Tom Bennett’s hilarious dig at the Education Select Committee, when they asserted that Amanda Spielman didn’t demonstrate enough ‘passion’ during their interview:




-> Critical Thinking



Then I realised something funny about that quote: fire needs fuel.

Knowledge is of course the fuel of thought; a bit like kerosene, used to power jet planes and rocket ships amongst other things.  You’re not going to get much in the way of critical thinking if you have nothing with which or to which you can apply your mind, just as much as your well-constructed jet plane ain’t going nowhere if you don’t fill it with fuel.


So there you have it.

If you want to light a fire, fill the pail with kerosene first.


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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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