Sweet Success

Recently I have enjoyed a ‘healthy’ discussion with a colleague about rewarding work in exercise books and reward systems in general. Although we disagree about what the reward should ultimately be, we both agree that many systems just peter out and become ineffective as a student progresses up the school. The house points / merits / commendations that work so well in the early career of a secondary school student hold no currency later on, neither with student nor teacher. Currently there is a lot of thought from the pastoral leaders at my school to try and get the best system for throughout the five years of KS3 and KS4. Reading through the blurb from other schools I can’t help but wonder whether they too suffer from the ‘Year 9 dip’; chatting with acquaintances is an easier way to get closer to the truth. Certainly a policy on rewarding work should not be merely window dressing to look good on a website or prospectus. It needs to be applied consistently and to actually engage the students, motivating them to improve and contribute to the school community in a worthwhile manner. This is where I hope we are heading.

Returning to the opening sentence of this post, the ‘healthy’ discussion on how to reward students centred on whether confectionery was a good choice of reward. Despite my musings on Jaffa Cakes, it will surprise very few people to know that I was very much against this… Not only on physical health grounds, but also the mental association of success and chocolate. I strongly believe this is not a healthy coupling to make. As part of a healthy balanced diet and with regular exercise I am all for sweets, chocolates and other unhealthy foods. In fact I am quite the chocoholic, but I do not eat chocolate to reward myself for having done something good. To equate success to sweets is a terrible policy.

PS: I am also against the random bringing in of cakes for Sixth Form classes, something that seems to have grown in popularity. In the past my classes have received short shrift when trying to bring up the subject of ‘cake Fridays’. This year my timetable has me teaching two different Upper Sixth classes after lunch during period five and six (of a six period day) on Friday. When the inevitable questions was posed I have relented, to an extent. We now have ‘fruit Fridays’, instead of cake someone brings in enough fruit to satisfy our postprandial cravings. Happily one class has totally gone for this, we’ve had blueberries, satsumas, grapes aplenty. While I am sure students would prefer cake there needs to be a good deal more ego and less id, to paraphrase Dr Freud’s suspect theory.

PPS: Just so no-one thinks I am a totally miserable so-and-so, the header image is a lovingly made Chocosaurus birthday cake for my son. It would be a bit much to have just carrot sticks and grapes!


EdFest Part II

Day two started with the Brexit news hanging over conversations at the Festival of Education. It was a relief when the sessions started and thoughts were turned squarely to teaching, learning, assessment ands way from the uncertainty. As with yesterday’s post what follows is a brief précis of what I enjoyed most.

Slow Education – featuring Mike Grenier, Ciran Stapleton and Rhiannon Morgans. The latter two being Head and Head of Sixth at St Joesph’s School, an establishment that is working with Grenier’s school to bridge partnerships between Sixth Form students. Slow Education sees schooling as a social exercise with a clear and defined philosophical side, moving away from the puritanical to seek a greater depth of engagement. Mike’s ferment belief that education is above and beyond measurement is one that I totally agree with in theory; I would certainly love the chance to discuss it with him further in the future. Back to the session, the real stars of the show were two Sixth Formers from St Joesph’s who spoke eloquotently and extolled the virtues of their tutorial collaboration. A great start to the day.

Questioning with Toby French – highlighted a common issue when questioning pupils; often when it is successful the teacher has to do all of the work. Why try to draw something out of a student – who quite clearly doesn’t know the answer – when you can just tell them?! His colour coded questions based on an idea from Dylan Wiliam is something I’ll try in my classroom next week. Ultimately Toby suggested we shouldn’t ‘not’ ask students questions, but we should change what we ask. He also amused me greatly by sharing an anecdote about a meeting on picking a type of font in response to my question about shifts in culture.

Martin Robinson asked “what type of teacher are you?” Having been privileged to host Martin at a recent conference it was great to hear him without the pressure of organising the event! Do we want a meritocracy? Are we happy to have the deserving poor? Are we being taken away from the core purpose of education? Are we cogs in a machine? Is bueauracracy the driver in our schools? All these questions were posed in the tradition of dialectic and made immensely interesting in Martin’s session. We were encouraged to “be heroic, be wild” as a final call to arms. Interestingly speakers from both of the sessions I had previously attended were present, which was very much standing room only.

Tom Sherrington started with the point that these events sometimes lack a real focus on classroom teaching. A fear that enivatably comes from the sheer scale of EdFest and the variety of speakers. However, his session was great and shared the Teaching and Learning priorities of his school, Highbury Grove. From ideas that staff should know about (even if they don’t agree with them!) to thoughts on behaviour, there was certainly something to take from his presentation. By the end Tom had achieved his goal of evoking “the heat of everyday practice”.

Another great day and I hope the ideas continue to mature in my mind over the final few weeks of the academic year. These two blogs on the Festival of Education will act as a fixed point to refer back to, as well as a rambling summary of my experience here.


EdFest Part I

I write this post with a wonderfully elated feeling. Although I thought I was prepared for the enormity of the Festival of Education at Wellington College, the vast sprawling avenue of CPD still took me by surprise. At first I feared I would not enjoy the brobdingnagian proportions, however, my current euphoria is evidence that this was a misplaced fear.

Just deciding a schedule for the day was tricky and my best laid plans were immediately changed by the delay to the start of the first session. Nevertheless I managed to see some incredibly high quality speakers; Daisy Christodoulou, Tim Oates, Germaine Greer and Sir Clive Woodward. I also met a very nice man from 9ine. If I am totally honest I made a beeline to him as his stall had water bottles, but his patter rang very true with my experiences and hopes for tech in the classroom. The same goes for Co-ordinate ECA, a new startup that aims to outsource extra-curricular activities to schools. I discussed the importance of all-round education with Jenny, one of the founders. What happens in schools beyond the classroom is incredibly important to me and I hope to hear more of their work tomorrow. I am also very grateful to Stephen of Co-ordinate for buying me a water (you might detect a correlation here; it was incredibly hot and humid when it wasn’t torrential rain and it is very important to keep hydrated!). Bumping into Jill Berry, chatting with Candida Gould and Daniel Sabato, as well as Daniel’s company during yet another biblical downpour, very much put the icing on the cake.

A brief summary of the best sessions I attended:

Daisy Christodolou – discussing issues with APP and looking to explore why it didn’t work. I particularly liked her putting into words one of the fundamental issues, namely that students who needed the feedback most could not access its meaning. It is always a pleasure to listen to Daisy, especially when she is using football-based metaphors: let’s spend more time working on passing drills than playing 11-a-side games!

Tim Oates – deliberated on whether science education has suffered as a result of the reforms to practical work. And in a word “no” it has not. This chimed with my own view, as someone who has taught IGCSE for the last five years, I see no harm in not having a controlled element to practical assessment. And my experience of teaching GCSE for five years before that made me incredibly cynical of so called ISAs, EMPAs and controlled assessment. But it was Tim’s questioning of policy makers wanting students to be “mini-scientists” – do they actually know what being a scientist is like?! – that I most agreed with. Science is full of counter-intuitive ideas that “thinking” like a scientist will never prepare a student for studying it a higher level. This echoes a particular axe I had to grind with the how science works element of GCSE science: students needed to know the ethical considerations for kidney transplantation versus kidney dialysis but did not need to know what the kidney did or its structure. Madness! Tim deserves extra praise for being so incredibly engaging that the impromptu appearance of Will Greenwood (see below) at another session in no way dampened my enthusiasm of listening to him speak.

Sir Clive Woodward is more than anything responsible for my feeling of elation, listening to him in the final slot. WARNING This post is in danger of descending into hero worship. As a schoolboy during his early tenure of England and a university student when we won the World Cup, he really is a living legend in my eyes. Watching Will Greenwood, Jonny Wilkinson, et al is a memory that is becoming more and more rose tinted. If you enjoyed Sir Clive’s Q&A session read Winning! for more insights. He referenced the one hundred one percents by suggesting we “set lots of little standards” which will all add up to make the whole better. He also identified that we have an under-reaction to success; instead of asking what went right we switch off and celebrate. Conversely our over-reaction to failure means we often become stuck in a cycle of disheartening self-evaluation. Woodward finished by suggesting one of the most important attributes is how you bounce-back from failure; specifically referencing Eddie Jones he said “failure strengthens your CV”.

With all of this still fresh in my mind I await tomorrow’s day at the Festival of Education with eager trepidation…



The Conversation – SASFE16

Saturday was an incredible day to be part of. We held our first teaching and learning event, titled Forum on Education. With a raft of great speakers taking the seminars and delivering the keynotes, I was incredibly grateful to everyone who delivered the content. Even more so I am very thankful to the delegates who attended, charging the day with a co-operative and benevolent atmosphere.

SASFE16 delegates deep in conversation

The format of Forum on Education was plenty of time for chatting and mingling, three 30 minute keynotes and three longer seminar sessions. A full schedule of the day can be viewed here. My greatest disappointment was that due to my role in helping the day run as smoothly as possible, I was unable to actually stop in and be part of the seminars. While I did pop in to take photos (and use unintentionally humorous session timing cards) to catch a few moments, the impossibility of being in four places at once prevented my full participation. However, all of the feedback (or should that be guidance?) on the day was incredibly positive, with delegates coming out of sessions buzzing with enthusiasm.

Martin Robinson opens the conference

Luckily I was able to listen to the entirety of the keynotes. The unmistakeable Martin Robinson, of the excellent Trivium 21C fame, kicked off proceedings with a well thought treatise on how we assess the arts. Whether posing the telling would you rather… “Hollow Crown or Game of Thrones?” or provoking our senses with modern art, I couldn’t help agreeing that “taste is destroyed if you give it a number.” This introduction to the conference was a great way to get started and certainly challenged the delegates to reassess or reaffirm their views. It certainly got people talking.

A melodic five minute drone flight over Radley College signalled the start of Ian Yorston’s pre-lunch keynote. Ostensibly he spoke on the role of using technology to enhance assessment and feedback, however, we were treated to much more besides this. In particular Ian’s signposted the tension between the “happiness agenda” versus the results driven “academic agenda” in many schools. His advice of not setting homework as this made him happier and therefore a better teacher will have struck a chord with many, especially with workload so much in the spotlight. If I had to pick one idea it would be that “IT has to be invisible” for it to be successful in schools. However, I still feel sorry for the humanoid robot that was pushed over in the video Ian showed towards the end of his talk.

Ian Yorston takes the second SASFE16 keynote


The final keynote was given by Jill Berry who continued the conversation by looking at how feedback can be used in leadership, whether for classroom or head teachers. Questions such as are we owls, lambs, foxes or donkeys were posed. There was a clear message that support and “guidance” are vital.

Indeed Jill made the point that feedback is screechy and unpleasant, whereas guidance does not invoke the same earache inducing thoughts. She also used her experience as a head to make the point that “we can learn a lot from the people we lead” and not to entertain an echo chamber of “yes men”.

Jill berry brings the curtain down on SASFE16

The end of Jill’s keynote marked the end of the conference and, from my perspective, an end to a very enjoyable day. I had hoped the event would be full of conversations, in this respect I was not disappointed. It seemed that as the day went on a theme developed, tying together the keynotes and seminars. My thanks go to all three keynote speakers and all seminar leaders; Andy Ford, Mark Pedroz, Cameron Palmer, Drew Thomson, Nick Dennis, Heather Fearn, Jen Hart, Dawn Cox, Rob Tanner, Scott Crawford, Ben Weston and Colleen Young. Additionally the behind the scenes helpers; Alison, Guy, Owen, Bernie, Kirstie, Sharon and Helen. 

Here’s looking forward to the next Forum on Education and the conversations it starts!


The Spark

Forum on Education is a teaching and learning conference being hosted in St Albans on Saturday 28th May.

I remember clearly the spark that generated my renewed passion for teaching and learning. It occurred at the inaugural Teaching, Learning and Assessment conference at Berkhamsted School in March 2013. Throughout the day I was both comforted by agreement and challenged by differing views. More impressively my eyes were opened to hardworking teachers willing to give up a day of well-earned weekend. Spark after spark of enthusiasm and possibility on show all around. Post-conference the spark started to catch. The incandescence of Twitter – with its myriad ways to interact, view and discuss education – swiftly followed and the glow became brighter. Then bursting into flames and bringing forth this very blog: tlamjs being a homage to the Teaching, Leaning and Assessment of TLAB. Numerous times my curiosity and appetite for information and discussion has been sated by interacting with and sharing ideas online with a huge host of active educationalists and teachers. The fire was fed oxygen from discussion, debate and agreement. Continuing to burn, even illuminating colleagues and friends along the way.

It is this luminosity that I hope Forum on Education will bring to its delegates, twinkling beyond to the children and colleagues they work with. A day to provide the spark for thought and reflection. The intimacy of the conference eschews the grandstanding of some events, the smaller number of delegates as a catalyst to allow more in-depth conversation to occur. Allowing conversations the oxygen to crackle into life, the flames fanned through discussion and burn throughout the day. There will be no shortage of sparks. Just look at the line-up of speakers, leading figures in education. Many have already achieved recognition for their contributions. Others are more than on their way to be the leaders of the future. This combined heat igniting a veritable feast of educational pyrotechnics that will take hold, influencing and aiding the learning of students, both now and in the years ahead.

With just under two weeks until Saturday 28th May there is still time to book a ticket to be part of the day. Act quickly as due to the nature of the day places are limited. I do hope you will be able to join us as the sparks fly upwards.

Header picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tomatoes and Pens

Tomatoes and Pens: Revision Ideas

Despite what one of my colleagues might think (don’t ask!) the Pomodoro technique is a way of helping focus attention over a short period of time. It helps to break up uninteresting or hard work, not all people need to use it but it can be a valuable tool for students overwhelmed by revision and something that I would advise they at least try. Essentially you set a timer for 25 minutes and start working – during this time there should be no access to phones, internet, talking or any other distractions – once the timer starts you are on the clock until the 25 minutes is up. There is much more detail about this process in A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley, which I would highly recommend. And if you are into R2D2 you’ll want to read the mention at the bottom of Nick Dennis’ post.

Having spoken to my Upper Sixth about this method since September I finally made them work in this way during a lesson on Monday. After five minutes of setting out the task and ensuring everyone had what they needed, we set off on 25 minutes of focused revision. Everyone was engrossed in their work, actively revising by making resources, answering questions or testing their knowledge. Following this period of deep concentration I encouraged students to get up and take a stroll around the classroom. After this short break we reconvened and students were then free to work as they wished, most had questions to ask. Either I answered them or they came to agreement in discussions. Once again everyone was on task. They felt this exercise was very productive and something they will try independently in their own time.

The Pomodoro technique has become one of my favoured ways of working for many tasks throughout the day. However, I do not always stick to working for just 25 minutes. Sometimes I find that I am on a roll and want to finish the report or marking I am working on. Very rarely do I ever end early. Once again I would suggest that this is not necessarily a method for everyone, but definitely worth trying. I find it most helpful during those odd periods where I feel listless and lack the drive to “eat my frogs” (to use another term from A Mind for Numbers). And if you are wondering why it is called Pomodoro, this is due to the use of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer by Francesco Cirillo, the originator of the idea.

Monday’s lesson was a double, so after the Pomodoro task I handed out the old staple of revision lessons – a past exam paper. Once again I had a particular trick that I wanted students to use to help with the revision process. It has been something I have urged them to do but thought that modelling it in a lesson would help pupils see the benefits. I call this method the three pen technique, so called because you need three different coloured pens (as I type this I realise that requiring pens and the need for them to be of different hues has stirred up a lot of discussion in the past. I suggest you read this surreally brilliant blog by Whatonomy as a way of catching up on this). E.g. blue, green and red. Students would complete the paper under the following conditions:

  1. Using the blue pen and under timed exam conditions, answer all questions on the paper.
  2. Using the green pen and with the help of notes, textbooks or a classmate, add to the answers given in step 1 and finish the paper if necessary.
  3. Using the red pen use a mark scheme to add further details to the paper.


Come revision time I have used this technique for a while and in a number of different environments. Here are some examples of step 2 and step 3 from a student on course for a high grade:


Step 2:


Step 3:


And another step 3:


Should students complete a series of papers in this way it is interesting to see how the proportions of each colour change. In many ways this acts as a crude diagnostic test to see why students are losing marks. E.g. Lots of blue and red but little green can show a lack of understanding or poor choices of selecting information from their notes (or indeed poor notes to work from). Similarly a lack of blue denotes a student has not committed to memory the key aspects of a topic. It is easy to see how the combinations can help a teacher infer where a student is in terms of their revision; therefore making suggestions to help the student better prepare for their examination. It is also easy to discuss with a student how they might take this way of working as an opportunity to self-assess where they need to target revision. Therefore helping a little with the journey towards independent learning.

So there we have it. Two simple ideas that have been around for ages but can help students as they embark on revision. Both have the potential of making a student more independent and go a little further to taking ownership of their revision. And if the pen is mightier than the sword, imagine how mighty three pens are!


The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What links an inept bank robber, Charles Darwin and two Cornell University psychologists? Read on to find out!

David Dunning and Justin Kruger describe the Dunning-Kruger effect as a cognitive bias of both unskilled and highly skilled individuals. What I find most interesting is the differentiation between how the bias affects the skilled versus the unskilled.

  • Those that are relatively unskilled are biased towards thinking that they are better at a task than they actually are.
  • Whereas highly skilled individuals underestimate their competencies, instead thinking that a task that they find easy will be easy for everyone, regardless of how objectively difficult it might be.

This is aptly summed up in the statement below:

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”

(Kruger and Dunning, 1999)

This topic is such a huge source of fascination to me. One reason in particular is that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Although given its Dunning-Kruger moniker in only 1999, scientists have been aware of it well before. For example the extraordinarily talented Charles Darwin commented in the Descent of Man that

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

(Darwin, 1871)

This covers precisely the bias of unskilled individuals; they think they know something exactly because they do not know it well enough (feel free to swap know for understand  or vice versa at any point in this post, depending on what side of that particular precipice you stand). Darwin goes on to say

“It is those who know little…who positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved”

(Darwin, 1871)

Or, less eloquently put, individuals without the skills to understand an issue will often by the first to say it is intractable. Even more interestingly we are all prone to some degree of agnosognia, or deficit of self-awareness, about ourselves. If you are not very good at something then often it can be impossible to know you are not very good at it!

“The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is”

(Morris, 2010)

From a personal perspective there are obvious exceptions that come to my mind; I know I am not very good at singing or speaking Russian. There is no false sense of expertise in these fields! But my concern is the things that I think I am good at… Perhaps my confidence in thinking I am good at explaining the semi-conservative replication of DNA is totally misplaced? Perhaps it is a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect twinned with “The Curse of Knowledge” (another closely linked cognitive bias, this time held by people who know a great deal on a subject and assume others know as much causing issues when they try to explain concepts)?

At times in my teaching career I have had the immodesty to think that I am good at helping students learn in general. Reverse Imposter Syndrome* might be the culprit?! I am an impostor thinking that I understand a topic, simply because I do not have the capability to realise I do not understand it. Or as Dunning put it perfectly:

“We are all just confident idiots”

(Dunning, 2014)

There have certainly been watershed moments in my time as a teacher. When looking back I have realised that certain techniques or strategies didn’t really work. Certainly reading literature on learning has allowed me to see how I can refine and improve my practice. With each epiphany helping to shed a little more of my Dunning-Kruger outlook with the realisation that I did not know enough or understand what I was trying to do to actually evaluate it properly. I might venture to suggest most teachers are subject to a little of the Dunning-Kruger effect at one time or another. We are all, and this is by no means a criticism, “confident idiots” some of the time. Conversely we also fit the bill as unconfident geniuses* at times too. 

What of the inept bank robber mentioned at the start? This is perhaps the reason I find the Dunning-Kruger effect so interesting! The story goes that a man named McArthur Wheeler inspired the eponymous psychologists. Perhaps recalling the childhood activity of using lemon juice as invisible ink, he rubbed it into his face then set off to rob two banks. To his astonishment he was arrested shortly afterwards, police simply watched the CCTV footage from each bank. The height of stupidity one might argue? Yet this was not a spur of the moment decision; Wheeler had planned this novel approach, testing the lemon juice’s effectiveness by taking a photograph. The fact that the Polaroid picture in question was empty should not surprise us, it is thought that the camera had not been set up to face him. Wheeler fitted the bill of an unskilled individual so well that he could not even take his own photograph correctly! Or in more blunt terms:

“Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber [so] perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber”

(Morris, 2010)

*Recently there have been suggestions that the Dunning-Kruger effect leads to Imposter Syndrome, suggesting that feelings of inadequacy are due to the skilled thinking what they do is easy, thus devaluing the skill. This is exactly the reverse of the “confident idiot”, e.g. the unconfident genius.


Darwin, Charles, 1871, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, John Murray, Introduction, p3.

Dunning, David, 2014, “We Are All Confident Idiots”, Pacific Standard, Tuesday 27th October 2014.

Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David, 1999, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77 (6), p1121–34

Morris, Errol, 2010, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)”, New York Times, Sunday 20th June, 2010.