Friday, 29 May 2015

Big system, little system – put them in a cardboard box

In a rare moment of escapism, I visited a city this week. On the journey there, I purchased a coffee from a vendor at a train station. It was one of those open shops where you stand and collect the hot beverage at the end of a line. I like excitement and variety, so I bought a white Americano.

“What is your name?” asked the lady behind the counter.

“Why?” I asked confused.

“We need your name to write it on the mug. What is your name?”

“But there is no one else in the line or queue,” I responded looking at the empty space surrounding the whole shop. Not a soul. Nobody lurking behind the sugar. Nobody hiding amongst the cakes and muffins.

“We just need to for the person making the coffee.”

“But, there isn’t anybody else it could be for. Just me. ”   

“I am sorry, sir, but it is the system we follow”.


“I’m sorry?”

“My name is Chris.”

“Thank you. If you would like to wait over there, we will call out your name when it is ready.”

“Yes, because you might lose me in the crowd of people here,” I grumbled.

“Sorry, sir?”

“I just said, thank you.”


I am not a miserable person, but this little exchange hit a chord for me. Somebody following a system because that is the process they always follow come rain or shine. The whole thing was ludicrous in the context. My coffee was not going to get lost in the making of it. There was only one customer and only one coffee. It wouldn’t take a leap of imagination to make a connection that the one coffee being made is for the one customer in the shop.  

The problem here is that a system was in place for dealing with a problem that at that moment wasn’t a problem.

Like cogs in a watch, schools run by a series of processes. Each person has a role and a job to do. The cogs turn and things progress. If there is a problem, then we try to fix the problem and get things running. How do we fix a problem? We put a system in place. All too often a system is introduced to staff through the medium of a flowchart.

My role in school is to deal with subject problems, but, occasionally, I address whole school problems. That little exchange in the line for a coffee made me think about new ideas, processes or procedures are introduced in the school’s machine.

Because people feel the need to pin down systems and processes in schools we have flowcharts made. Flowcharts, for me, are the epitome of evil. A series of box drawings reducing a complex process into a simple yes or no chart which only belongs in Cosmo magazine, helping me, or any reader, to make important life decisions like what kind of bikini that suits my body shape or who is my perfect dream date. When people read these kinds of flowcharts in a magazine, they know that the process is artificial. They know that the chart hasn’t included every possible eventuality, because readers are smart enough to understand that; so when they are deciding on which Bruce Willis character from a movie matches their personality best, the reader knows that Mr Willis has been in hundreds of films, yet the flowchart only has six possible options and one of those is a cartoon.

Flowcharts reduce the complexity of behaviour to a simple yes and no process.

A child is causing disruption in the classroom.

Is the child threatening the life of others in the class? Yes / No

If no, give a demerit.

If yes, call for assistance.


The Smell of Success
Of course, flowcharts are only the way a new system is introduced. The system itself often causes the problems. There are thousands and thousands of schools. Each with their own sets of systems. When I moved schools, I noticed how like a nasty odour they followed me.  And, that’s what is often happening in schools. They move like smells. Somebody visits another school and they like the smell of the potpourri in the toilets, so they bring the smell to their school. Smell this. What do you think?  Tah dah! The school has a lovely smell.  I know, I am talking in metaphors. But, it rings a lot of truth. Let’s call this the ‘smell of success’.

Schools are constantly in search for the ‘smell of success’ and it becomes something spread by rumour. This school uses pine fresh and they got an outstanding. This school used hint of mint and they got a good for this. This school got ‘Ofsteded’ and they did well and they used beef flavoured monster munch. The problem, and this is the big problem, is that the success of a smell or a process is often based on the context of the problem. A process used in a small school works well in a small school because it is… a small school. A process used in a large school will not always work in a small school and visa versa. The solution works because it is the right cog for the right machine. Each school is a different machine and needs a different shaped cog or smell – Oh dear, I think I am drowning in metaphors.  You get my point. This idea of people spreading best practice is good, but the assumption is that those people have the Holy Grail solution is false. Simply: it works for them.    

Mea cupla!
I am guilty of the next part. It is a universal truth: a recently promoted teacher in a school will feel the need to prove their worth by introducing something new. Very rarely will you get a person in a new position saying the following comment: “I am going to carry on with what the previous person did before me and not change a single thing. It worked before, so why should I break it.”

Yes, you could argue that schools need an influx of new ideas and processes, but that needs to be measured. Look at all the recent new changes we have had to deal with in education. Rightly so things have calmed down a bit as people realised that actually there were too many changes. A hard lesson I have had to learn is that you can’t change everything and you can't do it now. I have learnt that it is better to think tactically when to introduce something and give people time to adjust to things. Golden rule: the first day or week back is never a good way to introduce something new. Better to do it before a holiday so that it has had time to settle in people’s minds. People can handle change and they do embrace changes.

Spring Clean
It is funny how processes and systems disappear without any ceremony, but I think it is always handy to declutter before introducing new ideas and initiatives. People are far more likely to follow or support a process if they know that they don’t have to do another as result. Pile all the new processes together and on top of each other and you’ll have a tower that can only do one thing… topple.  


Plus, I think all the time the impact on teaching and learning should be measured. Every new idea should have the learning experience factored in when using it. There is no point having a new system if it reduces the quality of teaching in lessons. The lessons and the learning should come first. What will improve progress? Teaching. What will improve attainment? Teaching.  The more things people have to do, the less time people have to do the important things.


I am in reflective mode and I am looking at what are the problems I need to address and what are the possible solutions. Me cuppa from the shop made me think about the whole process of new ideas in school and departments. The sad truth is this:

The winning solution to solve problem X in your school is …. one of seven hundred possibilities. It is the school’s job to find the right solution for their school.

When looking to improve things, I think the questions I will be asking are these questions:

What is the problem?

Why is there a problem?

What are the different possible solutions people have used?

Why do those solutions work in those particular contexts?

Which solution best fits my school?

What is the impact on learning? Will it hinder or improve learning?

What are we going to stop doing to ensure this new solution is a success?


Thinking back to the lady in the coffee shop. I think it was the blind obedience to the process that bothered me the most. Logic was neglected as a result of the process. A process should not defy logic and a simple bit of thought could have highlighted how that process was a waste of time.


Thanks for reading,



Sunday, 24 May 2015

Planning for the UK’s exit from the …. Controlled Conditions Assessment.

Like most people, I am planning my contingency plan for when the UK leaves the EU. I am thinking of how it will affect the classroom. You can never be too careful. Okay, I’ll be honest, I am not planning anything to do with the EU exit. But what I am planning is teaching Shakespeare for a new exam. In a way, this is a whole new ball game for us. We have all taught the whole play in some form or manner. But, this time, it is about preparing for an exam, which could test a student on any scene in the play.

The assessment of Shakespeare in an exam isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, several exam boards are just behind the times in changing to this approach in the exam.  Some people, for decades, have been teaching in this particular way. Here’s an extract. Answer a question about the language. Now, link the extract to its place in the whole text. Simple.

The question I am concerned about is: how do you teach a Shakespeare effectively over two years for the extract based question? Not a short question, but a question nonetheless that teachers and heads of department are thinking at the moment. How do I fit in Shakespeare in the plans? A Shakespeare play isn’t a nice discreet unit of work.  It is a titan! A gorgon. In fact, it is probably closer to Medusa. It fixes people to stone. It is massive. Sometimes, it is akin to being snowed-in for six months of the year. Don’t get me wrong: the experience is enjoyable, but it takes so long. Just set aside two or more months for it to be done.

I am thinking of how to plan for the new GCSEs and the role that Shakespeare will take over the next few years. But in my planning, I want to make it effective and designed to increase understanding and secure knowledge, so I am looking at possible ways to teach it, and, in particular, ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

The format for the Shakespeare question follows this pattern:

[1] Close analysis of the extract

[2] Link extract to the rest of the play

[3] Explore how the writer has presented things (a character, a theme or an emotion) across the whole text.

Simply put: the students zoom out at each stage. They need to be able to explore aspects across the whole text. Step one can be easily drilled into students. They are taught to spot typical features of the language, but the next stages are probably a little more complex. The teaching of the whole play and not segments is what I am interested in today. So, how can we teach these aspects?  

Approach 1:  - The Traditional

Description: Teach the play from start to finish.

We could teach the play scene by scene. It works at A-Level so why not in Year 10 and Year 11. Scene by scene you build up the knowledge and understanding. Students get to see the whole text as it was intended, including the padding and minor scenes.   

The benefit of this approach is the guarantee that the whole text is covered and no stone or character is left unturned. Once taught there shouldn’t be any need, hopefully, or re-teaching of certain aspects.  

The problem with this method is the pace. Able student can handle the slow methodical pace, but less able students tend to struggle with constant ‘translation’ in their eyes.

Approach 2:  - Main plot followed by subplot  

Description: Teach the main plot and then revisit the play later and focus on the subplots.

The beauty of a Shakespeare play is its complexity. The main plot drives the story, but the subplot often adds texture and another layer to the original story. The love story between Romeo and Juliet is in the foreground of the family feud. What if we separated the two when teaching? Obviously, you cannot completely separate the two aspects. You would have to acknowledge the existence of the other. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. However, you could build the knowledge of the play in layers.

First, you analyse the story between Romeo and Juliet. Focus on their scenes and analyse those in detail. Then, after a period of time, you return to the play and then focus on the warring families. Focus on how Shakespeare presents those scenes. The whole is treated as a jigsaw.

Ask students to recall the plot of a Shakespeare plot and students will struggle. It is hard for an English teacher, because there are numerous threads and strands of the plot. However, breaking the story down into plots helps develop the whole understanding of the play. Ask students to explain the purpose of a plot and subplot when studying a play is hard. The problem often being that the student is too close to the text and the story telling. It is hard to see the machinations and working of the subplot when you just see it as a linear plot.

This way would hopefully keep a level of freshness to the story. The second time of reading allows for a deeper level of understanding as students start to see what the links are. Revising the play becomes a little bit easier as you are not repeating the same experience, but adding to the existing one.  Plus, it helps to move the students from the personal / character driven story to the social  story / context and how it drives the events.

Approach 3:  - Following a character’s journey

Description: Teach the play through a character, focusing on the scenes only that character features in

This is probably more of a variation on a theme, but it is an interesting one. If I wanted to explore a play in great depth, this would be the way I’d choose. The play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is structurally different to plays like ‘An Inspector Calls’ because there isn’t one story for the characters. Shakespeare shows us several stories linking all the character’s together. We see it on stage. Priestly has all his character’s stories occur off stage. Everything about the play ‘An Inspector Calls’ is about learning and putting together the information to build the final story. Shakespeare takes all his characters on a journey. We see them start at one point and end on a totally different one.  The play shows us what happens between the two points.

Imagine reading ‘Othello’ from mainly Othello’s perspective. Miss out Iago’s soliloquys in a first reading of the play and you have an interesting story. Yes, you miss out a key part of the whole, but you understand the character better. It is like ‘Big Brother’ you only get to know the characters well when they are whittled down to a number you can count on one hand. (I don’t watch ‘Big Brother’; I have just heard of it in passing.)

When studying ‘Romeo and Juliet’, you could look at so many different stories. Romeo’s. Juliet’s. The parent’s.  Reading the play that way would give you three readings of the play. Spaced over the years, this could help build up the layers of the play quickly and easily.

The questions on the exam papers often focus on the presentation of a character. What better way to build the understanding of presentation is exploring precisely the presentation of things across the whole play from the start? Shakespeare’s plays are cluttered. Cluttered with characters. Cluttered with plot. Cluttered with ideas. We love them for the different levels of lots of disparate things, but the presentation of one aspect is drowned out because of the abundance of so many other things.  Look at the presentation of Shylock in the play. First you have to screen out the Portia stuff and a lot of the men’s scenes at the start of the play to see Shylock.

Approach 4:  - Start with the drama

Description: Every Shakespeare play has a killer scene. Start with that and then go to the beginning

The killing of Julius Caesar. The trial scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The death of Juliet and Romeo. The first wedding of Hero and Claudio. There is a scene in all Shakespeare plays where the machinations of the plot build and lead to. It is the main cog by which everything else revolves. The opening of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is especially slow and takes a bit of time to…. ummm…get going. Knowing the end point can be helpful to students so that they can see things fitting together. The complexity of the story can be daunting to students without an anchor. Starting with a dramatic moment helps to ground the plot. Oh, this links to this and that links to that. All too often, you have had a student who is on the back row of the train in terms of plot. Who is that? What just happened? Providing students  with an end or middle point gives a narrative direction. Shakespeare plays, as a genre for students, are enigmatic things. They don’t know what to expect because their frame of reference is poor. I wouldn’t have a Scooby Doo of could happen in the plot if I watched a Peruvian love story, because I haven’t experience a Peruvian love story.

The problem with this approach is that you take away the dramatic mystery of the plot. You are simply giving an ultimate spoiler and hoping that keeps them going. Recently, a colleague handed me a copy of ‘Of Mice and Men’. It said on the front page in a scribble: George kills his best friend Lennie. Thankfully, the spoiler was prevented from spoiling a person’s enjoyment. But, the killer scene doesn’t always happen at the end. Plus, the audience of Shakespeare’s plays would know what usually is going to happen in a story. What Julius Caesar dies? Really? He even tells us in the opening of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that they die. He wanted us to experience the inevitable. Fate is written and we are inactive observers. True drama comes from our inability to stop things unfold. There is sense of inevitability in storytelling; we know the general events, we just want to enjoy the experience of getting to those events.   


There is no one way to do things. Like most teachers out there, I like exploring the different avenues for teaching something. Aside from the mugs of coffee, free pens and teaching aspect, the planning process is one I enjoy with relish. I just know there are different ways of doing things. Some better. Some worse. Like all of us, I want to do it well and do it justice.

We are preparing for a new exam and GCSE structure and we are intrigued to see what others do. Let me know if there is an approach I have missed out.


Thanks for reading,



Sunday, 17 May 2015

Revising, revision and the long game

It is a universal truth that a student wanting to succeed in exams will often lean towards one subject rather than another, because it is easier to revise. The Science exam will take precedent over the English exam, because it is easier to retain the information due to its factual, concrete nature.

For me, the English exams start tomorrow. English Literature. The first of many for my students. As with most things, I get a bit reflective. Did we do enough? Did I do enough? Did the students revise enough? Are they revising while I type this?  Crucially, have we trained students to revise in English?

The recent discussions on skills and knowledge have changed the way I think about curriculum planning, but, like most people, I am starting to think of the new GCSEs and how they will pan out. I am not daunted by the fact that students will have to deal with a closed book exam. Nor am I bothered about the choice of texts. Nor am I bothered about the questions. I am, in all honesty, not that bothered about much. It is business as usual as far as I see it. No, the thing I am thinking about is how we can prepare students over time. The long game.  

Do we prepare students for the long game? Because we see English as predominately a skills based subject, we often focus on the present and the short game. If they can do it now, they will be able to do it in the future. Our curriculums seem to be focused on a jigsaw approach to learning. Students build the jigsaw. Then, they move on to the next jigsaw. Next year we will ask them to make the same jigsaw again, and hope they have remembered how to assemble the pieces to make the picture again. Finally, in Year 11 we insist that they revise how they made the jigsaw.

I think other subjects benefit from their knowledge content. They can have an end of topic test. They can have an end of term test. They can have an end of year test. They can even build in tests at the end of a lesson or a key stage. In the DNA of their subject is revising. Listening to students talk about other subjects is interesting. I have a French test tomorrow. Have you revised for the Geography test? When have I heard a student mention the word test in association with English?  Maybe, I have heard the phrase spelling test, but not anything else. A test in English is usually an assessment.   But, for me, and I think for others, an assessment is something much bigger than a test. A test is a quick indicator of knowledge retention. And, an assessment is an indicator of a student’s ability to use a collection of skills.   

I think in English we are too subtle with things. We hope that the essay the students are writing will imply that the student knows what a concrete noun is or the difference between personification and a simile. We hope the knowledge will be bubbling under the surface for all English teachers to see. We will tick off the skills as they use them in their writing and make inferences about the knowledge the student has gained. Yes, they have used the name of the characters. That shows they know something about the story. But, does it truly reflect the sum of the student’s knowledge?

Let’s take the humble noun and all its different forms, such as proper, common, collective and abstract. When do we test students about the differences? Do we test them on it? The majority of students will know the difference between them at the end of Year 6. What do we do with that knowledge? Do we check to see if it is there a year later, a key stage later or even at the end of Year 11?

I’d say most of us would refer to the different types of nouns several times in the course of teaching. What do we call these kinds of noun? We revise the term, but we don’t make the students revise it. We revise, but they don’t. And, I think that is what I am trying to get at. Collective revision is nice in principle, but it isn’t getting students to revise. We are not preparing them for a future where we want them to revise if there is a single point where we say, ‘Learn this on your own.’ We are never building them for retention of knowledge if we don’t build it in to what we do day-by-day.

How many English departments have an end of year test? Some. A few. How many of those end of year tests are assessing skills developed across the year? How many of those tests actually test what knowledge the students had learnt over the year?   

What is a sonnet?

What is the purpose of a sonnet?

What is the volta in a sonnet?

Before people start throwing exam papers and staplers at me for undermining the complex nature of learning and spoiling the fun of learning, listen to this:

What if, in addition to our usual assessments, we had only one end of year test (yes, only one) at the end of each year? That test would be mixture of the basics (grammar terminology) and topic specific knowledge. The students would have a list of terms and aspects to revise a week before the test. Then test.

We have repeated the learning process. We have consolidated the learning.  We put at the front core knowledge. We have modelled revision.

Let’s stop assuming that just because a student learnt what a noun is in primary school it stays in their brain forever.  Let’s stop assuming that mentioning what a noun is occasionally will not keep that definition for a noun lodged in their heads. Let’s assume that we have to do something annually that anchors that knowledge. Let’s assert the role students play in the learning. They have to actively revise in English. We have to teach them to revise. Otherwise we get to Year 11 and students look at us bemused and confused about how to revise for the exam next week.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Twitterartichallenge

Before I begin, I have to say thank you to the people nominating me for the challenge, including @DoWise, @clyn40, @HeadofEnglish and @MissLFrosty. I am humbled by their lovely comments and given the rules, sadly, I can't include you now.

The problem with anything like this is selecting and narrowing a list down to five. There are not just five people on Twitter I go to for thinking. More like five hundred. The whole thing about Twitter is that it is a melting pot of ideas. Each person aids my thinking.

1. Mark Miller @GoldfishBowlMM

I find myself often popping back to Mark's blog and I would say that he has helped me see vocabulary in a different way. As an English teacher, he sees things in a practical way and I love that. He looks at simple solutions which have a wide impact.

2. Jo Facer @jo_facer

I will be honest I want more female voices in English teacher blogging, and blogging in general. I love going to Jo's blog and discovering the books she cites or uses in lessons. She know her books. She is passionate about her subject and someone who regularly makes me think.

3. Joe Kirby @Joe_Kirby

Joe has changed the way I plan and teach things. End of.

4. Andy Tharby @atharby

Andy goes for a really personal approach to teaching and I like the thinking that goes behind his teaching. I often read his blogs nodding my head and simply agreeing. Plus, I have shamelessly stolen his sentences for analysing texts.

5. Phil Stock @joeybagstock

I enjoy Phil's blog as it is so varied. One week it is about a lesson. The next it is about something wider in school. I notice how some blogs are often reactionary to current Twitter buzz and I like Phil's blog because it is him reflecting on things.

I could have included so many other people, but I am limited by the number 5.



P.S. Stuff it. I can't count. Those were the challengers and these people are my support....


#Twitteratichallenge Rules:
There are only 3 rules…
  • You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life.
  • You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already made aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost and (the Rules and What To Do) information into your own blog post.
There are 5 to-dos you must use if you would like to nominate your own list of colleagues…
  • Within 7 days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you regularly go to for support and challenge. They have now been challenged and must act as participants of the #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • If you’ve been nominated, you must write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post within 7 days. If you do not have your own blog, try @StaffRm.
  • The educator nominated must record a video of themselves in continuous footage and announce their acceptance of the challenge, followed by a pouring of your (chosen) drink over a glass of ice.
  • Then, the drink is to be lifted with a ‘cheers’ before the participant nominates their five other educators to participate in the challenge.
  • The educator that is now (newly) nominated, has 7 days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post and identify who their top-5 go-to educators are.