Category Archives: teaching and learning

Bobbing up and down in a sea of school

If you are a teacher, you have probably heard the word ‘resilience’ bandied about at staff meetings and INSET. Questions might have been posed such as ‘how do our pupils become more resilient?’ or ‘how can failing safely build resilience in learners’. Do you know what… It is a load of nonsense to use ‘resilience’ to describe the vast majority of pupils in the UK school system. Resilience is not achieving a D when the target was a C grade. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a school context are rarely so all-encompassing to require the use of the term ‘resilience’. It is purely natural to have peaks and troughs in academic and co-curricular performance. Indeed, the trials and tribulations of social interactions will also cause embarrassment, regret and anxiety as well as elation and joy all in the same day (insert ‘and that’s just in the staff room’ joke here). This oscillation of good and bad is perfectly natural, something that is part of life as a human being. It is not normal to be permanently happy as much as it is not normal to always be top of the class. Bobbing up and down between extremes is normal. Recovering from the lows is a hugely important life lesson, so too is coping with success. There is nothing new under the sun, certainly this is not a new concept in education.

Here is a better way of looking at the idea of bouncebackability*, this time with a slightly different buzzword: academic buoyancy. It is defined as “students’ capacity to successfully overcome setbacks and challenges that are typical of the ordinary course of everyday academic life” (p129, Martin et al, 2013). It is the word “typically” that is so important. Children at any stage in their learning will be disappointed by events in and out of the classroom at school. But it is all relative, a ‘first world problem’ as the meme goes. Learning how to interdependently deal with the disappointment is key. The capacity to overcome everyday academic adversity, or in other words academic buoyancy, is a much better way to look at this than resilience. So the next time that someone uses the word ‘resilience’ in the staff roo, think to yourself ‘do they really mean it?’ More likely what they are eluding to is academic buoyancy. And we should welcome this bobbing up and down with open arms as part of the learning process.

* The word “bouncebackability” is attributed to former Crystal Palace FC manager Iain Dowie following a 3-1 win against Wimbledon AFC on 31st January 2004.

Want to find out more about academic buoyancy?

Martin, A. J., Ginns, P. and Brackett, M. (2013) Academic buoyancy and psychological risk: Exploring reciprocal relationships, Learning and Individual Differences 27 (2013) 128–133.

Learning from the teaching perspective

I was recently asked what I thought were key ‘pillars of learning’ that teachers should be striving to uphold to ensure learners are successful. While I am not keen on the symbolism, whether Doric or Ionic, this is a short and to the point exploration of what I believe is central to good learning. In fact I would go back to a tweet, a particularly unloved one, from last November:



The cornerstone of learning, without pupils paying attention and co-operating it does not matter what else the teacher does. As David Rogers points out at the start of his blog post Behaviour: it’s about the simple, small things, “behaviour is an emotive subject”. Different teachers invariably have different points of view, but my own view is quite simple: pupils should be silent when someone is talking to the class and should act on teacher instruction in good time. This approach aims to produce and maintain an environment where learning can flourish. But what do I know? If you prefer a little more clout and evidence and have not read Tom Bennett’s Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour you should really check it out. While there is a lot to take from this report, not all of it applicable to every setting, the statement “better behaviour benefits everyone” cannot be argued with. Behaviour is the linchpin of learning. A slightly more appreciated tweet of mine in reply to Abbie Mann’s question “What one piece of advice would you give to an NQT about managing behaviour?” sums up some key behaviour advice I have magpied together:

Tweet advice for NQT


Simply put, there is no substitute to working hard. Industry is needed and pupils must put in the necessary hard yards of effort and toil to try to understand and recall the work they are covering. Both at school and through homework, time must be dedicated to learning. It is not easy, particularly in today’s world of distraction, but without hard work pupils cannot expect to be successful. If you are willing to stretch the metaphor of learning to pugilism, Muhammad Ali’s quote below puts it nicely:

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”


Another habit of character that needs little explanation. Getting to class on time and handing in work before deadlines is crucial to making the most of a teacher’s time and therefore receiving the guidance and feedback needed to succeed. Where there is a slapdash approach to moving between lessons or handing in work, this will have much larger issues for learners and contribute to a general malaise within a school. Ignore Evelyn Waugh’s take on punctuality, instead look to the New Zealand rugby union team’s mantra:

“If you are not early, you’re late”

Trust and patience

This is more about the expectations of the teacher and senior staff. Learning is not something easily defined and nor is there a clear outcome. Therefore, HoDs and SMT must be patient in expecting any ‘results’ from approaches to teaching and learning. Trust must be in place that by focusing on behaviour, graft and punctuality pupils will learn. To paraphrase the idiom, you won’t lose weight on the first day of your diet (or something like that); lessons are not appropriate units of time to measure learning outcomes.


In the vein of Lieutenant Columbo “just one more thing”… Since November I would add to the ‘pillars’ identified above the concept of a learning relationship. It is crucial that there is a productive relationship in place between learners and teacher. It is important to note that this does not equate to being liked by a class or pupils enjoying every single task that they complete. Just as you might have a good relationship with your GP this does not necessarily mean you are best friends or enjoy being poked and probed. However, relationships are at the very heart of learning. The more I teach, the more firmly I think this is true. Don’t believe me? Well how about this from Professor Daniel Willingham’s exceptional book Why Don’t Students Like School?:

“The emotional bond between students and teacher – for better or worse – accounts for whether students learn”

The Pillars

  • Behaviour
  • Graft
  • Punctuality
  • Relationships
  • With time and trust afforded to those at the chalkface

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!

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

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.

What will SASFE be like?

UPDATE: Please see the official interactive schedule for Forum on Education.

Unbelievably it is just under two months until Forum on Education takes place in St Albans on Saturday 28th May. Although the official St Albans School blog has been detailing most of the information for the day itself (St Albans School Forum on Education), I thought I would take this chance to set out the vision of what delegates can expect.

Certainly SASFE will be deliberately smaller in scale than some teacher-led CPD events and education conferences. This is to encourage a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere, bringing discussion and sharing of ideas to the fore. The keynotes will be delivered in the School’s library, an intimate and scholarly setting as befitting the three distinguished speakers. Martin Robinson, of Trivium fame, will kick the day off, no doubt posing the questions that truly challenge how we think about education. Just before lunch Ian Yorston will discuss how technology can aid and abet assessment and feedback in and out of the classroom. As a final act Jill Berry will speak about leadership, bringing the curtain down on the day.

In between the keynotes delegates will attend three seminar-style workshops, led by some incredibly talented teachers from both the state and independent sectors. There will be a choice of different seminars covering a diverse range of subjects and concepts that are representative of the debates and discussions currently occurring in education. A full list can be found on the official St Albans School blog SASFE Keynotes and Seminar Information.  The workshops classification as a “seminar” is deliberate, once again reflecting the small-scale and collaborative nature of Forum on Education. These sessions will eschew didactic presentations, instead very much being an exploration and discussion of a topic to encourage a conclave of collaboration. The study group concept of the seminar returning delegates to the tutorial atmosphere of higher education and allowing discussion to flow, bringing nascent ideas to fruition.

As a reminder of the nuts and bolts of what else is on offer, tea, coffee and refreshments will be provided before, during and after the conference. Lunch is also included as part of the £30 ticket cost. Finally an on-site parking space or collection from St Albans City railway station is also part of the package, another way to try to make attending the conference as hassle-free as possible. Tickets are available direct from Ticket Source (click icon below), alternatively an invoice can be requested for school finance departments by emailing
Book now

Teaching and Learning Observations

One of the duties of my role is to “undertake an extensive programme of lesson observations”. This is a task I greatly enjoy and not an altogether new assignment. In my former life as a Head of Department lesson observations were an annual duty as part of Performance Reviews. However, I was always left dissatisfied with the focus on accountability rather than the craft of the classroom. Certainly more time was taken up with the nuts and bolts of performance management than having a proper discussion on teaching and learning. Ultimately this would often leave both parties involved in the process a little short-changed when it comes to actually reflecting on the observed lesson; more a case of box ticking than profound contemplation.

Therefore it was a very happy coincidence that the eminently sensible Dawn Cox was at hand with advice. Last year she blogged on how lesson observations were often divorced from what really mattered. This was just as I was coming to similar conclusions and yet here it was in black and white, with a clarity and directness my own thoughts lacked. Dawn highlighted a list of some of the worst points of lesson observations. Some of these points I could identify having occurred when I have been observed and also, more distressingly, some mistakes I have made when observing as a HoD. To improve what is a vital and omnipresent part of teaching she suggested several ideas; these got me thinking about what lesson observations should really focus on.

Before I describe and explain my adaptations of Dawn’s ideas it should be pointed out that as Head of Teaching and Learning my observations are completely decoupled from performance management. I go out of my way to make these as stress-free as possible, including the option to say no to the observation (most colleagues are pleased to invite me in…I think!) and no need to provide any planning or paperwork. Listed below are three distinct stages that my ideal teaching and learning observation would comprise:

  1. Pre-observation – teacher and observer sit down to agree and discuss a lesson to observe. This discussion would cover what the teacher of the lesson would like to take from the observation. The focus would therefore come from the observee / teacher not the observer. Alternatively the observation could have a more general focus, if the observee wishes.
  2. Observation – this would be recorded in the narrative style, listing actions that have occurred during the lesson. This objective viewpoint would then form the main stimulus for stage three of the observation. Additionally, and with the observee’s permission (agreed during the pre-observation meeting), student work would be looked at and specific students spoken to during the lesson in an attempt to glean more information.
  3. Post-observation – a formal meeting between the teacher and observer. The observer would act both as a sounding board as well as bringing constructive ideas to the discussion, sharing the narrative record of the lesson and any other relevant information.

Time. It always comes back to time with any new idea in teaching. In practice I had to almost abandon stage one due to lack of time, particularly mutually free time. In the picture below you can see the top section is called “arrangement of observation”; this can be as simple as “via email”. Sadly it has been almost impossible to schedule a meeting before and after an observation; I feel that of the two the post-discussion is more vital to the process.

Overall image

Here is an anonymised scan of section 1. As stated before it is incredibly difficult to have the pre-observation discussion, however, I feel that this section should still have some role in the form. So, like the human appendix, it is there shrivelled and of no real use hanging on in vestigial format.

Section 1

From the same lesson is the narrative account, making up section 2. Note the post-it note box, which I use to record my musings. In this anonymised version it states “A picture tells 1,000 words!” and “Live marking – in front of student”. Both of these I picked up during the lesson and wished to remember for the Teaching and Learning newsletter, used to share good practice. The narrative record is split into two columns and has notes on what was going on.

Section 2

Finally the third section shows my attempts at noting down the major discussion points during the debrief. To write everything down would detract from the reflection, certainly it is difficult to be in the moment when trying to scribble down each point. This lack of comprehensive notation is a nod to Dawn’s proposed coaching suggestion and very much the essential part of feeding back observation details. However, the point detailed below were all discussed and considered in one way or another. I believe it is important to have the signatures to show that this is an official observation, albeit divorced from performance management, and also gives a more formal ending to the process.

Section 3

This post-lesson discussion actually led to me arranging a second observation to watch the same teacher with the same class (hence the “Tue p2” scribble) as part of a longer reflection on teaching and learning.

Should anyone be interested I am more than happy to share the blank pro-forma. Essentially I have tried to shape teaching and learning observations to best suit the observee. As with everything this is an ongoing process and very much of the ‘design-refine-redesign’ model of formative evaluation. My thanks go to Dawn Cox for providing the inspiration in her original blog post. Although I have adapted it and focused on just three of the key points, it is very much the offspring of her thoughts.

DID YOU KNOW??? Dawn was a presenter at the St Albans School Forum on Education on Saturday 28th May. Follow @SASForumEd to keep up to date!