#Nurture1415… or is that #Nature1415?

I ought to be resisting invitations from @ChocoTzar and @Sue_Cowley to respond to the call of nurture. Quite apart from spending any part of my New Years Eve blogging about my job, I am currently knee-deep in @sapinker 2002 The Blank Slate, in which he takes a swipe at those who see the brain as ‘silly putty’ just waiting to be nurtured into shape by the surrounding environment.

“…the denial of human nature has not just corrupted the world of critics and intellectuals but has done harm to the lives of real people. The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel.”

I take my turn at this reflection on the assumption that I am not joining forces with proponents of ghosts in the machine or admirers of the noble savage.  Nurture just means looking after yourself, right?
2014 marked my 20th year as a teacher. The champagne corks did not pop, as I realised that – what with changes in pensions – I am now further away from retirement than I was in 2013. But I might be said to be at the halfway point, and as such it proved to be a good year to reevaluate where I was and where I wanted to go in my career. In January this prompted me to apply for a full time post at the IOE London. For the first time since I had joined SLT 6 years before I had to rewrite my CV and shoehorn my experience into answers to 13 extraordinary questions. Just what relevance did it have that I had helped establish School Direct at London Met, or that I had reconfigured meeting and development time at my school? More importantly,  what currency did my 20 years classroom experience have when it came to having credibility in the wider field?
Well, I did not get the job. But – as it appears to be true that they who dare win – I did get a job. So, since May I have been an associate at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (@lcll_ioe), working with some of the best people in educational leadership. I have been devising and redeveloping leadership courses for them, and in the Spring we will be launching an online version of our PD leaders course. I have also been contributing to http://www.ioe-rdnetwork.com, the new website for IOE’s exciting partnership with schools engaging with and in research.
I am being stretched.  I am constantly questioning my fitness for the role and imagining that one day soon they will rumble me. This, for a teacher in the job 20 years,  is no bad thing. 2014 has been my year of living dangerously.
Moonlighting at the LCLL meant I had to relinquish my 5-day-a-week assistant headship and trade it in for exactly the same job, but on 4 days’ pay. My responsibilities actually expanded,  but my role (pd, appraisal,  ITT, NQTs, etc) stayed pretty much as was. The best job in the school. 2014 saw me recruiting yet more NQTs to the blogosphere, and it has now become customary for some colleagues to refer to composite research sites such as the EEF Toolkit before embarking on a new venture. 2014 also saw the expansion of our Lead Teacher team to four; we now have the capacity to confidently move forward on our school priorities, like literacy,  assessment and differentiation.
20 years on I feel I am just hitting my stride as a teacher. I see more teaching than anyone else,  I talk more about it than anyone else, and some of it is even rubbing off in my own classroom.
So I enter 2015 with a degree of personal confidence. As for the bigger picture, I am less misty – eyed. The twin juggernauts of curriculum redesign and assessment upheaval appear irreversible,  and I fear that my own school, and the system generally,  are ill – prepared. Figures may be quibbled with but September 2015 will inevitably see a chasm between the number of teachers needed and the number available. The May General Election will have little bearing on these realities.  But it will matter. Labour’s commitment to a fully-qualified profession (replete with oaths and MOTs) may be more than some wish for, should they be elected.  A Conservative reinstatement will surely see further – perhaps total – academisation, and the de facto removal of education from the state sector. (Realising young Letwin’s dream, as we read in recently declassified Cabinet papers.) 2015 may not be the year in which we see the revolution,  but it may be the year in which its course is decided.
Happy New Year!

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 900 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 15 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Teaching: What a Caŕry On

Last night I dared to break into a Twitterchat involving Andrew Old and Stuart Lock, who were uniting in antipathy towards a blog slagging off Teach First (specifically their ad, which strikes an uncomfortably patrician note in its description of the girl unlucky enough to go to ghe local  comp, where she is taught by people too jaded to see her potential. )
Judging from the next 15 hours of tweet and counter-teeet, it would appear that TF has its defenders and detractors, ready to engage in fierce battle even in this, the season of loving and forgiving, blah blah. I RTd a couple just to poke a stick at it. I really shouldn’t have.
I assume that most participants in this debate are teachers; I make the not unrelated assumption that they are also on holiday. Why then are they working so hard? Don’t we already work 55 to 60 hours per week during term time? Get a life…Have a break!
Sometime during this  xmas  fortnight I, like most others in the profession, will do some marking, plan a few lessons and keep half an eye on school emails. As I tutor colleagues doing their MA in Education, I will also be  checking in on their progress.
Enough, surely. But there I go stalking tweacher friends and adversaries, and here I am playing with my blog.
I am definitely taking tomorrow off.

Is research evidence informing government policy in education?

EPPI’s David Gough encourages comments on DfE’s use of evidence in education.


David Gough

Recently there has been increased interest in the use of evidence from research studies to inform policy making by government. This research evidence can be of many types. It can include empirical findings on things such as educational attainment, and evidence of effectiveness (‘what works’) of different strategies (such as how to teach phonics). It can also include explanations of how things work and how the world can be understood. Research is of course not the only thing that can influence policy

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Educational Research – Where to begin?

From @ImSporticus Excellent summary of readily avaliable educational research and sites interested in evidence-informed practice




Educational Research has always been an area I’ve stayed away from in my teaching career. I felt it was inaccessible and wasn’t really about the students I had in my school. The longer I stayed in the profession the more I saw that it was a way of organisations, who were so far removed from the classroom environment, trying to peddle another rehashed concept to make money and not really about the improvement of my teaching practice. However as I’ve begun to take on more responsibility of CPD within my school and look at my own professional development with a bit more rigour, I am beginning to see some beneficial uses.

As a teacher we have limited time time and energy to implement any changes in our practice. Educational Research is a way to ensure, if we have the energy to change anything, to help focus what we should be doing…

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Middle leaders as catalysts for change in schools: an active, collaborative process

Chris Brown and Louise Stoll refocus on the crucial role of middle leaders


Chris Brown and Louise Stoll

Over recent years, there’s been greater awareness in England of the important role middle leaders – people such as department heads, key stage leaders or pastoral leaders – can play in school improvement. Middle leaders are the key link between teachers and a school’s senior leaders. As such, they are well positioned to offer support and challenge to teachers and lead their learning both within their own school and across partner schools.

How successful they are at this, in an evidence-hungry policy environment, will depend at least partly on their capacity to engage with and share knowledge about high quality research and practice and track its impact on learning and teaching. In short, middle leaders have the potential to be catalysts for evidence-informed change.

We had the opportunity to explore this issue in a year-long R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s)

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NQT Lesson Swap: Removing the Crutches

As a species, the NQT is a self-critical beast. She will admit to falling behind in her marking, or to not quite mastering differentiation for the EAL child. She may experience problems with behaviour management and, without shame, copiously fill out incident reports and referrals for detention. But, on the whole, while all other props may fall away, they will cling on to that reliable handhold: their subject knowledge.

So what might happen when the handhold is less firm, the crutch unsteady?

For some time now I have taken an enquiry approach to NQT induction at my school. Over 3-5 week cycles I set up a question or theme (it might be AfL, or independent learning) with an introductory ‘input’ session; the NQTs then spend some of their reduced timetable allocation watching others for these skills, or consciously planning their own lessons to try out a pedagogical technique. Finally they blog the results of their enquiries so that their colleagues and others can comment.

Subject Knowledge Venn Diagram

We started with a fairly classic definition of subject knowledge. My English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers are all happy with what they know about their subjects, and are becoming more secure with how to prepare their students for how to succeed. They can swot away questions about Dickens and volcanoes with aplomb. Subject knowledge? They have it sorted.

But just how significant is this to their overall effectiveness as a teacher? What is left of them in front of a class, when they are stripped of the atlases and bilingual dictionaries that they carry in their heads? Dropped into the alien environment of someone else’s subject, how well would they cope?

NQT induction programmes (indeed, pretty much most professional development) concentrate on the wider teacher attributes and pedagogies such as behaviour management, marking and feedback, differentiation and the like. Mine too. The theory goes that, by improving in these areas, any teacher can be effective. More than most in the profession, NQTs are supremely conscious of this, as they hoover up advice from colleagues and submit themselves to observation feedback. My NQTs are as keen as the next, so I wanted to know how far they could rely on those ‘non-subject’ skills, if they were teaching outside their own discipline.

So my English teacher, linguist, Health and Social Care specialist and geographers swapped their lessons – just one – and blogged their findings.

Ali Tan is a geography teacher, just hopped off a plane from Canada. She took on Health and Social Care for her enquiry. “Would you still consider yourself as a qualified teacher without deep subject content? My geographical knowledge was thrown out the window the minute I walked inside Room AP1. What can I possibly say to these prospective students about the learning objective: to explain the physical and psychological changes which may be associated with ageing? No longer can I talk about facts, diagrams, and maps on one-child policy, on battle of biosphere, and on volcanoes! It is now about being able to discuss how can we as citizens help an elderly person maintain their self-esteem.”

She found the experience unsettling. She handled the discussion, relying on her common sense, but she found herself counting down the minutes to the end of the lesson. “My reality is we live in a society instilled with the idea that teachers should know more than students. Isn’t that what makes confident and competent teachers in the first place?” And yet, she found the students engaged, happy to answer questions and to offer suggestions to fill in the gaps in her own knowledge.

mnoursite made the reverse swap, from Health and Social to Geography. “Being able to effectively plan and teach well structured lessons, differentiation, AFL, strong behavior management, creating a positive climate for learning, that’s just a few to name. However, I do think that the securer you are in your subject knowledge, the clearer you are of how you expect the students to progress.”

She was impressed by the students’ awareness of China’s one-child policy, and with their ability to answer questions orally. Her own questioning skills were on display, but she quickly noticed that her own shallow grasp of the subject prevented her from probing them more deeply. She could manage them well enough, but she could not challenge them much.

agiacopazzi swapped his French class for a Geography one. He had earlier spent a year as a cover supervisor, teaching mainly MFL and History, so he was more confident than the others that he could cope with the unfamiliar.

“As the lesson progressed I enjoyed the experience more and more”

He felt the students were very well behaved, and that they were able to discuss the topic (trans-national corporations) fully. He got feedback telling him that his questioning had promoted deeper discussion. As the students were able to reach a conclusion, he felt that he had moved their understanding on.

There is no doubt, from this short enquiry, that subject knowledge does make a difference to a teacher’s competence. They are more confident, they can probe more deeply with their questioning, they can set their expectations higher for their students. But on its own it is not enough. Skills of questioning, of managing behaviour and of structuring learning can come from a different place. So, even without the crutches, a good teacher can walk confidently.