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CIE Biology: How to Ace Paper 3

This post is specifically for the CIE Biology International A level qualification. What follows are my attempts to help guide students to do the best they can in the advanced practical skills exam, Paper 3. However, the information below is no substitute for proper revision and the dedicated practise of actually carrying out a variety of biology experiments. Additionally, I would strongly recommend you use the past papers section of CIE’s website to sit as many “mock” practical exams as possible.

Command words in a question


  • Say what is going on, e.g. the trend or pattern of results.
  • When describing data, always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).


  • Say why a trend or pattern is occurring.
  • When explaining data, always link it to A level Biology.

Although describe and explain are the most common command words, you might find yourself answering questions with any of the following:

  • Calculate: use mathematics to find an answer. E.g. mean, percentage, percentage change, rate, ratio, etc.
  • Measure: use a suitable measuring instrument to take a reading, being sure to include units after the numerical answer.
  • Suggest: there is no one correct answer; you should look through the information you have been given for some clues.

Even more rarely you might find one of the below command words in a question:

  • State: give a brief answer – maybe one word or a phrase.
  • Define: give a definition – these should be concise.
  • Determine: explain how you could take measurements and calculate an answer from these measurements (e.g. in an experiment).

How many answers should I give?

  • If a question states “identify two” then only the first two responses will be marked.
  • If a question states “record observable differences” then all responses will be marked.

How great is the risk?

If a question asks you to “state the hazard with the greatest level of risk” for your practical, do not choose one you deem to be low risk. E.g. warm water in a thermostatically-controlled waterbath set at 30°C, is a hazard that is low risk and so would not gain a mark. A better answer would identify a risk that was either medium or high, e.g. hydrogen peroxide is harmful to the skin. The key is to identify a hazard with “the greatest level of risk”.

Deciding independent variable values

Give five values at roughly even intervals (e.g. every 5°C or 10 cm3) when deciding what values to use for your independent variable. Always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).

Recording numbers and drawing tables

Do not go past one decimal place when recording the results from your experiment, usually whole numbers are fine. And always use units if appropriate (e.g. °C or cm3).

Table Headings:

  • Put the independent variable (IV) on the left and dependent (DV) on the right.
  • Draw a line between the top row and the body of the table, e.g. underline the IV and DV.
  • Use the full name of the IV and DV (e.g. temperature of hydrogen peroxide and time taken to rise).
  • Only use units  in the headings, not the body of the table (e.g. temperature of hydrogen peroxide / °C and time taken to rise / s).



  • Record results for at least five values of the IV.
  • Results should show the pattern or trend theoretically expected of the practical.
  • Use whole numbers.
  • Record results for two trials and calculate a mean average.
  • The mean average should be recorded to no more than one decimal place.

Identifying sources of error

Think carefully about your experiment, where might there have been an error? E.g. if you are looking at colour changes this is subjective and will be a source of error. Ensure you state the error and the reason it occurred.

Describe how an element of a practical can be investigated.

  • Use five values.
  • State how these five values will be made, e.g. if the IV is concentration of enzyme, “use simple or serial dilution” or if it is temperature “use a thermostatically-controlled waterbath at 20°C, 30°C, 40°C, 50°C and 60°C”.

Constructing graphs

  • You will normally use data that is given to you in the paper.
  • Put the IV on the x axis, DV on the y axis.
  • Use the full title from the table to label each axis, e.g. “initial rate of catalase activity / s-1“.
  • Always use units if appropriate (e.g. s or seconds but not sec).
  • Look at the values and use a logical scale. E.g. a scale of 0.06 or 0.04 for every large square of graph paper is not logical. However, a scale of 0.05 is logical.
  • Each plot will be checked to see whether it is accurate to within half a small square of the graph paper. It is recommended you use an x mark to do this.
  • There should be no labelling within the area of the graph.
  • Lines will be judged for their quality*.

Bar graphs

  • Ensure lines are not too thick, as the quality of each one will be judged*.
  • Bars can be touching. However, if you chose to leave gaps the gaps must be evenly spaced.
  • The horizontal lines at the top must be perfectly straight, parallel to the x axis.

Drawing diagrams

  • Quality of lines will be judged*.
  • No ruler straight lines for your diagram: nature is not straight!
  • No labels or writing within the drawing.
  • Label only what is asked of in the question.
  • Do not draw in anything that you do not see. E.g. smaller organelles.

Plan diagrams

  • The diagram should be at least 60 mm wide at its greatest width.
  • There should be no shading.
  • There should be no cells in  plan diagram. Do not be tempted to draw them in!
  • Use the correct section of the slide. This will be in the instructions of the questions, but make sure you actually draw what it wants you to!

Diagrams of cells

  • Cells should be at least 50 mm at their greatest width.
  • Draw exactly the number of cells stated in the question.
  • Do not include half cells. The questions always state “whole cells”.
  • Cells should not overlap but may be abutting (e.g. touching each other or sharing an outermost line).


  • Always show your working and the steps you take to come to your answer.
  • Always show units, but do not mix units. E.g. not 1 mm and 50 µm.
  • When converting units, show the conversion. E.g. 1 mm to µm: 1 x 1,000 = 1,000 µm.
  • Try not to go beyond one decimal place, or the same level of precision as is given in the question.
  • Give ratios to the lowest common denominator. E.g. 168:58 should be 84:29.

Comparing observable differences using a table

  • Organise the table as three columns; one for the differences and two for the samples. E.g


  • Underline the headings and divide the columns as per the table above.
  • If asked for differences, do not give similarities!
  • Differences would ideally be “X is thick” and “Y is thin”.

*Quality of lines

Each line you draw for a graph or drawing could be judged for its quality. E.g. whether it has been drawn by a sharp pencil as a thin and continuous line. This is really important as you don’t want to lose silly marks for not sharpening your pencil!


Image by Asim18, CC BY 2.5,


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


This weekend witnessed another great day at Berkhamsted School’s education conference. TLABTLAB is a very special event for me. It revitalised my outlook on education and is the reason I set up a Twitter account, started blogging and engaging with teachers across the country. What follows below is a brief account of Saturday.

First up was John Neal, using a host of incredibly interesting anecdotes he spoke about the conflict between winning versus development. In the short-term it can be easy to win, but often the long-term effect is a malaise that eats into the very fibre of an organisation. Along the way he noted the peculiar triumvirate of avarice found in many professional sports; worth is rated through winning, ego and money. Once again these traits are actually inhibitive to developing the character to enable lasting success. Neal noted that those who achieve long term success look beyond a win in isolation, they have the sole ambition of being the best they can be. Entertainingly he compiled a list of attributes that would lead to sustained success in an athlete:

  • Bouncebackability
  • I am FG – perhaps more politely known as self-confidence
  • The ability to understand why they are good
  • Achievement orientated
  • TCUP (one for the fans of Sir Clive Woodward, Thinking Correctly Under Pressure)
  • Curious learners
  • Selfish, to the extent that they always want to know how they can get better
  • Courage, the ability to speak out

However, without the quality of humility Neal noted that although these characteristics will enable you to win, you would be a thoroughly unpleasant person (he may have used a slightly different word beginning with W). This presentation was a great way to start the day and had us absolutely spellbound. The message is clear, if you want to enjoy sustained success don’t just focus on winning .

Next came three workshop sessions. I opted to listen in to the Heads’ Panel Debate, which considered character education, safeguarding, examination reform and what education will look like in ten years. One choice quote from the discussion was that “change is a constant in education”. It was equally reaffirming and interesting to listen to those in charge of a school discuss and consider some of the topics du jour. Certainly the panel were unanimous in their feeling that in ten years examinations will still be taken en masse at desks, with pens and paper.

PMGThis leads delightfully to the second workshop of the day run by the brilliant Paul Gilliam (for those unaware, he writes the best IGCSE Biology revision blog on the internet and I would recommend you share it with your students / Biology teaching colleagues). At TLAB Gillam was discussing the paperless classroom, although he was at pains to point out that he really means a classroom with “less paper”.
Recently he has tried out eLearning paraphernalia with the aim of supporting students outside of the classroom as well as reducing paper waste. Having visited the magnificent new centre for research in learning at his school, it was a surprise to hear that the three vital pieces of equipment in his classroom were buckets for catching drips from the flat roof! However, it was also an insight to hear him talk about the ways he has engaged with technology, coming from the position of a cynic to seeing the benefits. Even a technological malfunction during the presentation did not dampen his bonhomie. By the end, never mind the technology or shiny new teaching centre, I would have loved to see Gillam just teaching such was his benevolence and obvious passion for learning. Indeed after the session he was mobbed, we were all eager to have a go on his iPad Pro and “game changing” iPencil.

Fitz HallAfter a very nice lunch I presented a workshop looking at how we are currently trying to build a programme of academic reflection and self-assessment. With huge thanks to those who attended, it was a real pleasure to chat about the ideas and end product. I am especially grateful that people didn’t leave the room following my atrocious pun about former QPR and Watford FC defender Fitz Hall.
At the final keynote Phil Beadle spoke with zeal about writing. He was adamant that the skills of constructing and understanding sentences were the domain of all teachers. And it puts me on edge, as a relative grammatical dunce, to be typing this now. I can imagine his gleeful disdain and deconstruction of my writing (odd though that we still call it “writing” when in fact we are tip-tapping away at a keyboard to produce it). My English teacher friend sitting beside me was very much in her element when carrying out Beadle’s tasks. However, I was pleased that I can use the word “however” properly. I think.

Once again the best thing about the day was not a single keynote or workshop, but the chance to meet, discuss and laugh with other teachers. Without the hugely energising input of this interaction I do wonder how my run in to Easter might differ. Therefore it is only appropriate that I thank the wonderful organisers of TLAB, Laura Knight and Alastair Harrison, as well as Rebecca Brooks and all of the support on the day (particularly Ross who was a very effective laptop-whisperer, just when I thought I would be presenting sans PowerPoint).

And if you enjoyed TLAB or were unable to come along you might be interested in SASFE. St Albans School are holding a Forum on Education at the end of May. For full details see here. Hope to see you there!

NQT advice, a summary of other people’s thoughts

We have a teacher new to the profession joining the Biology department this year and following the TES “NQT advice” Twitter hashtag on Monday I felt compelled to send her an email. My hope is that it did not come across as patronising, but rather opened the door for a peek into the amazing world of Twitter and the blogosphere that exist to share educational ideas. You just need to search #NQTadvice and a huge variety of suggestions pop up. Additionally blogs detailing similar advice were shared and it was four of these that I sent to my soon to be new colleague. Although some are from a couple of years ago I really like the range of ideas and plain honesty about starting out in such a demanding and rewarding profession.

As our new teacher will be teaching Science I recommended @IanMcDaid’s post Top Tips for Science NQTs for September. With 21 ideas and tips there is plenty to take away, but personally I particularly like tips 12 and 13:

“12. Identify the ‘bags and coats’ space, be consistent in its use.

13. Take advice from techs, years of expertise.”

Certainly tip number 13 is vital advice for any Science teacher no matter their experience; I have said it before but a good technician is worth their weight in gold!

Next up was the excellent advice from @HuntingEnglish with his top ten tips for new teachers. Tip three particularly resonates, “consistency is key” as I think there is often an unrealistic expectation for new teachers to teach whizzy lessons and turn in a bravura performance each and every lesson. As James writes “just be consistent” and you will get a very long way.

Another great blog that I sent across was @MissJLud’s Just keep swimming tips that drills down into the “privileged position” a NQT is in. However, it is also a very honest reflection of the agony as well as the ecstasy. It was interesting to read her thoughts on teaching new material

“When faced with something new and unknown I pick it apart carefully and find myself teaching it in smaller and lighter chunks. These are usually my best lessons as I too have had to approach the topic from an unknown although hopefully with a slightly more able perspective to begin with.”

This is something I have definitely experienced and makes all the hard work in researching a new topic more than worth it.

The last link sent was to @Mr_Bunker_edu’s Getting to know you: Why telling new teachers to ‘build relationships’ is bad advice, which serves as an excellent reminder of what is actually important when meeting classes during the first few weeks of term. His five tips distil exactly how getting the basics right will help a teacher excel. As he states in tip number 1 “Together we’re greater than the sum of our parts” and this equally applies for all of the small things, the nuts and bolts, that go into the daily grind of teaching.

Finally I also tried to convey the idea that there is no expectation to agree with everything that is posted or tweeted. The good thing about reading these things is that whilst one might not agree with all that is written, there are always good ideas interspersed amongst the posts. We are surely all familiar with the echo chamber effect of choosing who we follow based on mutual opinions and values. Additionally these two posts from @NickDennis nicely sum up the potential pitfalls of blogging and tweeting.

PS should you be interested, my own advice was to go to TeachMeets to pick up ideas, reinforcing the magpie-theme of teachers sharing good practice. They are some of the best CPD events and certainly the most cost effective. Coincidentally I can recommend just such a super event: TeachMeet NQT Herts, which is organised by @abbiemann1982 and features some super speakers (and me). Hope to see you there!

My thoughts…PedagooLondon15

This post was originally published here on Pedagoo and what follows is an updated version, with pictures!!!

Saturday was a wonderful non-stop carousel of enthusiasm and inspiration. I had not attended a Pedagoo event, nor even a teachmeet, before and it looks like I will now be making up for lost time! What follows below is a brief chronological summary of my Pedagoo experience.



As the eighth floor of the Institute of Education was slowly filling up I found myself agog at the fact that so many of the teachers I follow on Twitter were in the room. One of my happiest moments was spotting the batman socks of a certain well-known tweeter!


Phil Stock gave a very welcoming speech and channelled Andy Lewis’ question of whether we were “Mugs, Martyrs of Fools” to be giving up a day to take part in CPD on the weekend. The question he put to us was “what is missing in our schools for this to be the case?” However, his positive summary that we can and are growing CPD from the inside out clearly resonated. Who could question the need to put student learning firmly at the forefront of our training?

Session 1

3I am currently part of a working party to look at redesigning the marking and assessment at my school, so it was logical to attend Dawn Cox’s “Assessment without levels.” Indeed this topic is very much en vogue and I have read many recent blogs with great curiosity. During this session I was very interested in the development of Dawn’s assessment system for Religious Education. Two ideas I particularly liked were:

  1. The concept of students working back from a definition of a command word (e.g. explain) to the actual command word itself.
  2. No stakes multiple choice question testing where one option is always “I don’t know” to see exactly what a student doesn’t know.

Two simple yet highly effective strategies to help students engage with the assessment process. I will be interested to hear how it progresses as it is rolled out next year, particularly the no stakes testing.

Session 2

For the same reason as above I chose to attend another session based on assessment, this time Chris Curtis’ “The link between planning, progress and marking.” He started his talk by asking whether books actually tell the story of how a student is taught and of their learning.
This again is a key topic in the days of work scrutiny and book checks. 4His use of the magician mastery and leaping up the ladder analogies were spot on and ones I will be using with staff and students alike. As part of an activity during the session I wrote down two very prosaic sentences on London and then managed to self-mark using a very clever grid of 15 targets to improve my work; unlike the famous Paul Daniels quote I liked this idea a lot!

Session 35

The ever enthusiastic dynamic duo of Crista Hazell and Candida Gould were up next with their “Recipe for Deep Learning.” This was a fun session, but also one that made me question many of my core educational beliefs; although not specifically about this session Hélène Galdin-O’Shea put it brilliantly in the tweet below:


During Crista and Candida’s presentation they had a slide with a scale from the seemingly interchangeable Nicky Morgan / Michael Gove Tory Secretary of State for Education to Sir Ken Robinson. Perhaps my difficulty in digesting the mention of “Shift Happens”, “jobs that don’t exists” and “digital natives” would put me squarely at one end of that spectrum? However, that is not the point and I took many fine ideas from this session. Indeed it was a celebration of enthusiasm, hard work and, above all, passion for the job. Whilst listening to both Candida and Crista speak the sheer love they have for student learning come across loud and clear.

Session 4

This was the session I was delivering, ostentatiously called “The one hundred one percents.” This topic is very close to my heart and was essentially a whistle-stop tour of ideas, gimmicks and thoughts to get the best out of teaching and learning.100 1 Since its first outing in March I have tweaked, changed and (I think!) improved the session. It was very enjoyable running the session and I am hugely grateful to Hélène for inviting me to do so and the wonderful people who actually came to listen; I do hope they took away a few ideas and look forward to hearing how they get on.

Session 5

Grassroots Leaders and Research-Focused TLCs was next on my list from Athena Pitsillis and Keven Bartle. I particularly liked the idea of pedagogy leaders as “brokers” between SLT and teachers and this made me think how it felt to be in such a position. My initial thoughts of it being akin to metamorphic rock were allayed as the session progressed. 6One thing that struck me is the sheer volume of leaders that this approach develops, in some schools such opportunities are few and far between. This reminded me of the Multiplier Effect and echoed the theme that all teachers are leaders; I really would recommend this book to those who enjoyed the session. Finally it was also inspiring to hear Keven talk about how they have broken down barriers between teaching and support staff; as a teacher that relies on two excellent technicians I heartily agree that we should be doing more to develop the roles of support staff within schools.


The final official part of PedagooLondon was Summer Turner’s summary of the day.7 This was particularly apposite as she called for more autonomy and empowerment in what we do as well as encouraging debate to help allow opinions to form. This talk embodied the collaborative nature of the event and called on maintaining the positive activism.


8There was also time to see Martyn Reah’s collection of #teacher5aday ideas in an exhibition on the seventh floor. Not only were there some great thoughts and reflections but this also distilled just how connected we can be and was a lovely way to leave PedagooLondon.

The Marquis of Cornwallis

This led nicely to a nearby pub where I was lucky enough to meet some extraordinary teachers, chatting for hours and reflecting on the day. 9Certainly I hope to return in a year’s time to PedagooLondon16, but until then I will be keeping in contact and trying to get to as many events as possible.

Thank you to all who were involved in organising such a fantastic day! The tweet below sums it up nicely, click on it if you would like to share this post.


Why I don’t worry about blogging (anymore)

Why do I blog? This was a question I found myself thinking about over lunch with a colleague from another school a few weeks ago. Between mouthfuls (of very fine cuisine, I certainly now have food-envy of this particular establishment) I managed to come up with a few reasons. However, since then I have thought more and feel that there are two main motivations:

  1. I do it purely as a way to distil my thoughts and therefore reflect on a matter I have been pondering. Consequently I couldn’t give two hoots if anyone reads the posts or not. The process of jotting down ideas, typing them up, re-reading and editing the content has really helped me to gain clarity over aspects of my job and role within education. In fact some of my best ideas have been left on the “cutting room floor” and not actually made it into the published post. Yet they have profoundly changed the way I approach a problem (should that be “opportunity”?) or task.
  2. Despite not minding if anyone actually reads the posts I publish them so that they have, at the very least, the potential to give back to the network of teachers on social media. The number of brilliant blogs or tweets I read per day is phenomenal and they directly improve my ability to do my job. Therefore if I can give anything back, no matter how big or small, I will be doing my bit. As the Beatles sang “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I doubt very much that anything I write will revolutionise education or give the reader a eureka moment, however, if they help even a yocto-amount I would be glad to be a part of the thriving online education community.

Recently I read an excellent post from Mark Anderson, aka @ICTEvangelist, discussing his fears for teachers who blog. Although I have not had the good fortune to meet him in person it is clear from Mark’s online output that he is a highly accomplished and inspirational educator. Therefore his post shook me from my blogging-stupor and opened my eyes to some digital etiquette I had not considered properly. He has five big worries and offers clear advice on how to overcome these challenges when writing a blog. Worries number one and four do not apply to me and never have; despite what you might hear I can be quite sensible! I do not think I would ever be carried away when writing a post, in fact by the time I have re-read and proofed a post there is very little chance of me being controversial. I also sometimes encourage colleagues to read them, one in particular is often displeased with the banality of the posts. And I do not include pictures of students for innumerable reasons. However, at the time of writing the first draft of this post I was guilty of worries two, three and, by consequence, five.

After the first read of Mark’s post I am ashamed to admit I thought “gosh, how impractical, I would never have time to do that” and promptly closed my browser; classic case of cognitive dissonance. It also made me question why I used images in my work; often I feel it livens the post up a bit and distracts from the insipidity. However, do I really need a copyrighted and uncredited picture of Scarlett Johansson in a post about assemblies? Although there might be some that argue a whole-hearted yes to this rhetorical question I knew Mark was right and using incorrectly sourced images was not good form. In fact it is exactly the kind of detail that I ruthlessly pick up on with students. Thus, with the benefit of thinking through the issue, I was driven to change my ways. As I make my second, third and subsequent edits to this post I am pleased to say that all my old blogs have been changed, images replaced and credit given. This even includes changing my beloved, but copyrighted, Mr Happy profile picture on Twitter. Having finished I genuinely think it was worth the time and effort, especially as I have quite a limited back catalogue so it was not exactly a brobdingnagian task. If you ever did find yourself glancing through my old posts and notice that they do not conform to the rules please tell me, it might take me a while but I will try to make the necessary changes.


Header image taken by and modified by Michael Smyth, 2013.