Creativity? Just footsteps in the snow


learn (v.) – Old English ‘leornian’, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated’. From the Proto-Germanic, ‘liznojan’, ‘to follow a track’.

Robert Macfarlane seems to be the closest we have in Britain to an Innuit: not only does he actively seek out cold, featureless, uninhabited space, but he also has about twenty different words for snow. Reading his books feels like following him in a blizzard of fresh vocabulary. Recently, in his Old Ways, I’ve learnt to avoid three different types of bog: boglach (general boggy areas), blar (flat areas of a moor that can be boggy) and, the most dangerous of all, the breunlach (sucking bog that is disguised by the alluringly bright green grass that covers it). All good words to know, I thought. Even in Willesden Green.

But it was the end of his book – his acknowledgements – I was really taken with. He refers to Henry James’ novel The Golden Bough and, specifically, James’ second edition. In it James contributed a foreword in which he reflected on the process of self-revision. James conjures up the figure of the first writer as a walker who has left tracks in the snow of the page, and the revising writer as a tracker or hunter. Macfarlane notes:

‘It is significant that James is interested not in how we might perfectly repeat an earlier print-trail, but in how re-walking (re-writing) is an act whose creativity is founded in its discrepancies: by seeking to follow the track of an earlier walker or writer, one inevitably ‘break[s] the surface in other places’. One does not leave, in the language of tracking, a ‘clean register’ (placing one’s feet without disparity in the footprints of another, matching without excess or deficiency, as an image in cut paper is applied as a sharp shadow upon the wall). James sees our misprints – the false steps and ‘disparities’ that we make as we track – to be creative acts.’

He goes on to say that he has ‘inevitably followed in the footsteps of many predecessors in terms of writing as well as of walking, and to that end wish[es] to acknowledge the earlier print-trails that have shown [him] the way and provoked ‘deviations and differences’.’ He then lists the writers (and musicians) that have ‘shown [him] the way’ – everyone from Byron to Brahms, from Nabokov to Laura Marling.

Increasingly, I understand that that is that creativity really is: the deviations and discrepancies formed as we follow a path that has been trodden before (and for) us. MacFarlane – English tutor and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge – understands this better than anyone. His deeply creative use of language – the path finding he fashions out of words – is rooted (routed?) in the trails set by the writers that have blazed before him. It’s why our most creative authors have often memorised quotations and poems and prose, or spent their formative years gorging themselves on lists of vocabulary and the most challenging texts in the canon. They’ve spent hours and hours internalising the vocabulary, the syntax and the rhythm of the greatest writers who have ever lived.

Why is it that my pupils choose to use the word ‘hegemony’ to describe the dominance of the Catholic Church in medieval England? Have they conjured it out of the ether? No. They use it because I’ve taught it to them explicitly and we’ve practised using it in myriad different contexts, again, and again, and again.

George Monbiot, although a successful writer and journalist himself, doesn’t recognise this. Partly, this is due to his own expert induced blindness: he cannot see that the explicit instruction he received at his (private) school was what gave him the literary advantage he now so effectively employs. Partly, it is because he’s never taught in a school himself. And so when he snatches at inscrutable futurology it’s because, from the cloistered seclusion of King’s Place, it all seems very seductive, very modern, very progressive, very Guardian. And it is seductive; but that doesn’t make it true.

If we want our pupils to be creative then we need to show them the way. The evidence, which Monbiot is either unaware of or wilfully ignores, is clear: explicit instruction and deliberate practice works. It’s not fancy, it’s not fashionable and it’s not even that difficult. But it’s the reason why Shakespeare – a man whose secondary education consisted of hours of imitation, memorisation and drill – grew up to be the most creative wordsmith in the English language. We know that if you want to get good at something – anything – you need to practise that thing over and over again.

I wish I’d known this when I started teaching. I wouldn’t have wasted my pupils’ time desperately trying to extract answers in ‘engaging’ starter activities that they have no possible way of knowing. At Michaela, we call this ‘guess what’s in my head’. It’s one of the more stubborn pedagogical ticks our new teachers tend to arrive with.

I wish I’d been made to read MacFarlane. If I had, I’d have realised much sooner that learning is like following footsteps in the snow. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of ‘to learn’ is at root – and at route – ‘to follow a track’. Our responsibility as teachers is to illuminate the track and show our pupils the way. Without our instruction, how can they know where they’re going? They’re destined to stumble around in circles, trudging long distances but going nowhere. No, we must be clear. It’s by looking to those who have gone before us that we learn. And as we follow we will misstep and misprint. These ‘deviations and discrepancies’ will be our creative acts.

This was originally written for the campaign group, ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’.


Vertical vocabulary

One of the great things about working at Michaela is the symbiosis that happens between colleagues. Inevitably for me, this exchange of ideas is most keenly felt between the Humanities and English Departments and, specifically, between the essays that our pupils write in English and history. As Katie has written here, she and the English Department have developed the ‘show sentence’ in order to combat the problem of what happens after the classic sentence starter ‘This demonstrates that…’

A similar problem afflicts history teachers. We can drill pupils all we like on significant dates, people and places, but that does not, on its own, give our pupils the vocabulary to express what these dates, events and people mean. Unless history is to become ‘just one damn thing after another’ we need our pupils to be able to know what I call ‘vertical’ as well as ‘horizontal’ vocabulary. If the names of dates, people and places help our pupils to describe the ‘horizontal’ narrative of history, our ‘vertical’ vocabulary expresses the themes that link seemingly disparate periods of history together. This is the vocabulary that we need to express change and continuity, cause and consequence, conflict, power, economy and ideas. Crucially, this vertical vocabulary is always domain specific: the causes of the First World War and the causes of the Enlightenment will require different explanatory toolkits. An how are our pupils expected to master this vocabulary if we are not the ones to give it to them?

The big mistake that I made when I first started teaching was to presume that this ‘vertical’ vocabulary would just be discovered over time. I think there are many of the ‘enquiry’ bent who still think that this is something that just appears via osmosis. But I now see that this is as much as a nonsense as presuming that pupils will discover any other form of knowledge. Words like ‘tension’, ‘consolidated, ‘exacerbated’ which express historical ‘analysis’ are as much a form of knowledge as ‘King John’, ‘1215’ and ‘Runneymede’. Pupils must be explicitly taught such vertical vocabulary (and even occasionally make mistakes with it as they use it in different contexts) so that an initially inflexible concept bends and flexes over time.

Over the last two years, we’ve toyed around with various different ways to teach our pupils what a good paragraph looks like, each time desperately trying to get away from the straightjacket of PEEL and towards an understanding of paragraph formation that actually concentrates on what it is that the pupils find most difficult. As the English department have found, ‘this demonstrates…’ is not the part of the paragraph that pupils find the most challenging; it’s what comes next. The challenge for history teachers is not just making sure that our pupils remember the ‘horizontal’ vocabulary of dates, people and places, but to remember the ‘vertical’ vocabulary, too. This is exceptionally difficult, not least because the vertical vocabulary pupils need to express themselves with sophistication changes between periods of history and therefore from unit to unit.

What we’ve tried to do is break down paragraph construction into its component parts:

Point: What is your answer to the question?

Information: What dates, people and places have you remembered (we use this term deliberately) that support your point?

Explanation: Why are these dates, people and places significant? As my colleague, Mike, puts it – ‘So what?’

So if we were preparing our pupils for a question on the causes of the English Civil War, we would use an example show them the sort of structure and vocabulary that we’d expect to see in a good paragraph. We broke this essay down for our weakest pupils so they had to write an essay which included paragraphs on religion, power and finance as well as a conclusion. Have we had to over-simplify it as a consequence? Yes, of course. That is the price we have to pay to give them the foundational knowledge that they will critique as they learn more. I haven’t here got into the debate about long and short-term causes, although colleagues teaching more able pupils certainly would.

Here’s how we structured one of the model paragraphs on the religious causes of the Civil War for our weakest group in Year 8 (bottom quartile). The vocabulary that I’ve emboldened has been written into the booklets we use in class so that, by the time I get to the lesson, they should already be familiar with it. We need to be as confident that our pupils know the vertical vocabulary before an assessment as we are that they know the horizontal.

Question: Why did the English Civil War break out in 1642?

The English Civil War broke out in 1642 because of religious tension/enmity/division/animosity/hostility between the Puritan Parliament and the Arminian Crown.

In 1625, Charles I married the Catholic French Princess Henrietta Maria. This was important because the Parliament was predominantly Puritan and it increased suspicion that Charles was a secret papist.

In 1633, Charles appointed William Laud, an Arminian, Archbishop of Canterbury. This created further division because Laud attacked Puritans and banned their books.

Finally, in 1639, this tension escalated into violence after Charles attempted to impose his English prayer book on Scotland. It was this final act that led to a Scottish rebellion which forced Charles to recall Parliament and sparked off the civil war.

These events show/illustrate/demonstrate/reveal/emphasise that war broke out in 1642 because of increasing religious tension between the Arminian Crown and the Puritan Parliament

How is this different to how I used to teach paragraph construction?

  1. We’re not presuming that pupils will just discover words to express ‘tension’ and the changing relationship between Parliament and the Crown in the period – we’re explicitly giving them to the pupils. We create drills so that the vocabulary they need to express this changing relationship is automatized.
  2. We’re deliberately structured the evidence which supports the point in chronological order to help them remember the examples and to encourage them to think about how this relationship changes leading up to 1642.
  3. Each time they use an example, it’s followed by one sentence of explanation. When we’re constructing this paragraph on the whiteboard we’re saying ‘Yes, but why is it significant that Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop? How does that support your point? SO WHAT?!’

This essay was completed by a pupil in our weakest group in Year 8 at the end of last year (from memory). The pencil mark in the corner is the mark 15/25. What I was most pleased to see was the inclusion of the ‘vertical’ vocabulary that we’d be teaching in the lessons preceding the assessment. We’ve still got a long way to go on this, but I think it shows we’ve made a start.


A lecture on dynamic learning


I’ve always enjoyed the gentle irony of progressive education: its high priests, while invariably eschewing traditional forms of instruction, can always be relied upon to preach from the front. And so it was on a wet and windy Wednesday in half term that I went to Green Park to listen to Charles Leadbeater give a lecture on ‘dynamic’ learning. The full title of the event: ‘A new global learning movement: how we make education dynamic.’ Now, I like lectures. So don’t think for a second that I have any issue whatsoever with the format of the morning. And the Royal Institution is a perfect venue for it. Established in 1799, by the leading British scientists of the age, its explicit aim is the ‘diffusion of knowledge’.

But, as a teacher, it always sticks in the craw when someone – who either has never or who no longer teaches – lectures you about not lecturing. I’ve had it before from Ofsted inspectors and it really grinds my gears.

The reason for this is because lecturing people works. You can say it to them. Or they can read it themselves. But the basic mechanics of instruction are not altogether that complicated. That’s why Charles Leadbeater chose to speak to us (admittedly with a smattering of pair work) from the front. And, in evolutionary terms, our brains haven’t changed much in the last 2000 years. If direct instruction, memorisation and practice were good ways of passing information between generations in AD 16, they’ll probably work in AD 2016, too. Leadbeater’s argument is rooted in the same sort of inscrutable prophecy making as Ken Robinson’s: the next 20 years will be radically different to the last 2000. The corollary of this, according to their argument, is that we should radically change our modes of instruction to spend more time on personal agency, social awareness and personal skills and less time on that devil-word – knowledge.

But for all Leadbeater’s valiant attempts to win me round, I just don’t buy it. At the core of his argument is that ‘the purpose of education needs to shift from learning to follow instructions to learning to solve problems.’ But the more Leadbeater told me about how the next 20 years would be different from the last 2000, the more the juxtaposition of those words in that place seemed to jar. I was sitting in the same institution that had been founded by Cavendish and had at various times been graced by the likes of Faraday, Dewar and Perutz. If you want some good examples of problem-solving then what about ‘How does an electro-magnetic field work?’ or ‘What does the molecular structure of haemoglobin look like?’

And, for me, this is the sort of category error perpetuated by progressives: problem solving (a skill that we all want to see our pupils achieve) is totally dependent on domain specific knowledge. That is why Faraday, Dewar and Perutz were able to problem-solve (in their fields) and it’s why traditional teacher-led instruction necessarily precedes the activity of problem solving (the making of connections of between items of knowledge). It’s why classroom activities or schemes of work that distract from the basic task of absorbing new knowledge can be, at best, a distraction and, at worst, an incredibly damaging opportunity cost, particularly in the formative stages of instruction. Lucy Crehan did a good job at holding Leadbeater’s feet to the fire on this in the Q&A session, but it’s so important, and so easily misunderstood, that it needs repeating.

Then there was the more intractable philosophical conundrum of what education is for. I’m pretty clear on this: for me, education is the passing on of what we already know about the world to another generation. Its economic utility is not our objective. A helpful by-product? Definitely. But not its purpose. I don’t think Leadbeater is so sure. He justifies ‘dynamic’ learning on the basis that ‘better paid and more fulfilling jobs will require non-routine problem solving.’ The financier I spoke to over coffee was clear. He called it the ‘bifurcation’ of the jobs market: a world where some people create jobs and some people work for them. Lurking behind the flim and the flam of the supposedly progressive 21st century skills agenda is a more slippery argument about preparing workers for jobs that do not yet exist.

And here we get to the worrying relationship with the private sector. Now, I’m no Marxist, but even I find the influence of profit in education unsettling from time-to-time. I don’t think the Leadbeaters of the world are necessarily just out to make a quick buck; I know that there are many teachers and many educationalists who really do believe that the principles of instruction need to be radically overhauled. However, the older I get the more sceptical I become: Who is paying for this? What financial stake do they have in its success? And – the most important question of all – how much will it cost them to change their minds? (Sir Ken keeps popping up on my Twitter feed advertising Persil. Imagine how much money he stands to lose if John Hattie suddenly finds out that #dirtisbad?)

Half way through the lecture we were asked to discuss with our partner whether the picture of a washing machine was a fair representation of the sort of world that young people are going in to. It was on this that Leadbeater justified a new ‘dynamic’ form of learning.

I turned to my left, keen to hear what the lady next to me thought about this crucial predicate in the 21st-century skillogism:

‘Oh, I’m in marketing for Pearson. I’m just here to watch.’ Well, quite.

And it was interesting because as I looked around I suddenly understood why I had felt under-dressed from the beginning (I really wish people would specify dress codes to these things…): the vast majority of the people attending the conference were not practising classroom teachers. This was a room populated by educational consultants, higher education lecturers or Pearson employees. Actual sweat-blood-and-bile classroom teachers were thin on the ground.

I know this because I went back to the Eventbrite page and counted the number of registrations that could possibly count as someone who works in a school. Of the 223 who had registered to the event, I counted 32 whose employer was a school, ‘Teach First’ or university (the latter could conceivably be doing a PGCE). But let’s say that I’ve miscounted and there were actually 40. That’s 18% of the room if all those who had registered turned up. I suspect it was fewer.

One of the most perverse of the perverse incentives in education is novelty. Sometimes what is new IS what works: I tell anyone who will listen that Quizlet is the best things since bottled Doom Bar. But often what is new does not work. And to seek the new for its own sake (or, dare I say it, for the sake of profit) is a dangerous distraction when distractions are the last thing our education system needs.


Michaela Summer Projects


Michaela is a free school, which opened in September 2014. It is a mixed community secondary school in Brent for pupils aged 11-18 of all backgrounds. We believe that an elite education based upon traditional values should be within the reach of every child. Our school motto is ‘knowledge is power’. Pupils joining us promise to ‘work hard, be kind’. Lots of our teachers are bloggers and take an active interest in debating educational practice. Watch a video of the school or read some of our blogs to get a better sense of the things that we talk about.

What is the project?

This summer, we would like to offer teachers the opportunity to assist in the design of our innovative curriculum. The curriculum will recognise the central role of knowledge and memory for learning, and will draw on insights from cognitive science and educational research. In the project, you will help plan, create and evaluate lessons and resources for our key stage 3 curriculum. At the top of this page, you can see one of the booklets we’ve made to improve our pupils’ location knowledge. You will be working with our team to help make curriculum resources like this. We welcome applications from anyone with interests in maths, English, science, languages, history, geography, religion, philosophy and the arts.

What experience do I need for the role?

The ideal candidate for this role will:
-have experience of teaching in schools in challenging circumstances;
-believe that all pupils, regardless of prior attainment or socioeconomic background, can achieve excellence.
-be aware of the implications of the research around explicit instruction and memory on classroom practice
-be eager to find out more about Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge;
-be organised, detail-orientated and a clear communicator

How much will I be paid?

Unfortunately, we are not in a position to be able to pay people for their time, although we will cover reasonable travel expenses. The real benefit of the project, however, is the opportunity to work with like-minded teachers who believe in a knowledge-rich curriculum for all. Those who have completed a Summer Project with us are also guaranteed to get an interview if they later apply to teach at Michaela. This is an ideal opportunity to get to know the School and the staff in advance of an application.

When can I take part?

The projects run throughout the summer, although the first two weeks of the standard school holiday are preferred. Most teachers will be working at our school in Wembley, although some teachers may be able to work remotely.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in contact Katie Ashford:, Tel: 07545274090

No excuses discipline works


People bandy around the term ‘no excuses discipline’ in a way that I think is often highly misleading and, ultimately, very unhelpful. ‘No excuses discipline’ is parodied as a cruel and heartless system administered by Gradgrindian monsters such as myself who clearly do not care about children at all. As I’m going show today, nothing could be further from the truth. If you truly care for your pupils ‘no excuses discipline’ is, in fact, the best option available to you.

‘No excuses discipline’ is like Ronseal: it does exactly what is says on the tin. It is a warm but unapologetically strict school-wide system, which sanctions pupils for poor behaviour. More than that, though, it says that as long as the school has set the expectations clearly, and supported the pupils to reach them, there can be ‘no excuses’. Pupils should all wear correct uniform, pupils should all turn up to school on time and pupils should all bring the correct equipment to lessons. Failure to do so will result in some form of sanction.

Now, I don’t for a second think that those who oppose ‘no excuses’ discipline dislike children or have anything but the best intentions. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some immensely diligent and caring teachers who I believe are nonetheless wrong on this particular question of school discipline.

And that is because I believe that the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ school is ‘some excuses’ school: where we accept different standards for different pupils. And I believe that that is profoundly wrong.


So let me start with a proposition that probably won’t be that controversial. The ambient level of behaviour in Britain’s schools is poor.

On one hand, you have what we might call the ‘big ticket’ behaviour. This is the really serious physical, verbal and emotional abuse which is much more common than many are prepared to admit. NASUWT who surveyed 5000 members in March found that nearly half of teachers had been subjected to some form of verbal abuse. More than 1 in 10 said a pupil had physically assaulted them. And, as ever, the thoughts and feelings of the invisible children in these classes, whose learning is consistently disrupted by such incidents, go unrecorded.

But it’s not just the ‘big ticket’ behaviour that we should be concerned about. For many teachers it’s the low-level disruption that really sticks in the craw: the shouting out, the answering back and now the constant fear that the next time you tell off little Jonny little Gemma will record you getting all hot and flustered and post it all over Facebook.

And behaviour is so bad even Ofsted can see it. In its report on low-level disruption in England it found that up to an hour of learning was being lost each day. That’s a staggering 38 days per pupil per year. It says that this is ‘deeply worrying… not because pupils’ safety is at risk where low-level disruption is prevalent, but because this has a detrimental impact on the life chances of too many pupils.’

And that’s the crux of it, right there at the end; ‘the life chances of too many pupils.’ It is why I maintain that this is a moral issue and one that should shame us much more than it does already.

This is because the effects of poor behaviour are particularly damaging on the margins of our society. In schools where the pupils are poor or are in care. These children always get the double-whammy: not only are they more likely to come from turbulent or unstable homes where consistency, routine or even high expectations may be in short supply. But they are often then served by teachers who will not preach what they would practise with their own children. Some teachers expect their own children to do their homework. They expect their own children to bring a pen to school. They expect their own children to put their hand up before speaking in class. But hold other people’s children to different standards. They believe in different standards for different pupils.

This is the specific context in which ‘no excuses’ discipline must be situated:

  1. A system where the ambient level of behaviour is poor.
  2. A system where poor behaviour disproportionately damages those pupils on the margins of our society.

I think it is a shameful state of affairs and one that I believe it is in our power to change. With that in mind, I have two propositions.

Proposition 1: No excuses discipline means all teachers can teach.

It will have escaped nobody in this room that there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. There reasons for this are complex. But one thing that drives teachers away from schools, and particularly schools in the most challenging areas is the anxiety and the waste that come with poor behaviour. In my training we used to call it ‘the Dread’: that feeling when you wake on a Sunday when you know that, not only are you going to spend most of the day creating a card sort, but that the next day Year 8 will spend all day ripping it up.

Now there are those who will tell you that the reason for bad behaviour in classrooms is because of the teacher’s poor planning, their inexperience or their lack of charisma. There is some truth in this. Pupils do behave better with teachers who set work that is pitched to the right ability. Pupils do behave better with teachers that make them laugh (and who they can laugh at!) And pupils do behave better when they know that their teacher, deep down, really loves them. We all know teachers like this. They are the staffroom legends that can always be relied upon to bring even the naughtiest Year 11s to heal.

But you can’t design a system around Tom Bennett. You can’t design a system based on all of your teachers being exceptionally well-planned, exceptionally humorous or teachers who all have exceptional relationships with their classes. Not everyone can be exceptional.

No excuses discipline means that all teachers can teach, not just the exceptional because it creates a consistent culture of sky-high expectations throughout the school. All teachers and all pupils know where they stand. Every pupil knows they have to wear their uniform correctly. Every pupil knows they have to complete their homework. And every pupil knows they have to put their hand up before speaking. Of course there will always be teachers within these systems who are exceptional – teachers like Tom Bennett and John Tomsett will always stand out because of the relationships that they build with their pupils. But the success of our systems should not be judged on how they help the strongest but on how they help the weakest. No excuses discipline means that all our teachers can teach – even the nervous, the inexperienced and the least charismatic.

Proposition 2: No excuses discipline means all pupils can learn.

I want to tell you about one of our Year 7s who, for the purposes of this debate, I’ll call Tom. This is a shortened version of a conversation we had with his teacher in Year 6 before he joined us:

‘Tom is a nice boy but he has a problem with authority. He has had this problem since Reception, but it has worsened since the beginning of year 6. His problems are emotional. He has no father figure and this affects his self-esteem and how he reacts to authoritarian figures. He’s typical of boys round here. He dislikes time outs and detentions. He attends the Behavioural Unit 2 days per week. The other 3 days, he is in school until 1.30pm because he simply cannot cope with the full school day. On a regular basis, he has tantrums after lunch. He cries and throws himself into the walls. On some occasions, he throws chairs. Situations often escalate to violence and he often hits other children. In my opinion, Tom will need to be given time to adjust to secondary school and I think a full timetable from September would be very damaging.”

A ‘some excuses’ school would have taken that teacher at her word. They would have excused Tom’s behaviour on account of him having no father figure at home. They would have excused Tom’s behaviour because he was ‘typical’ [her words not mine] of boys in Wembley. And they would have excused Tom from a full school timetable and a full education because ‘he occasionally cries and throws himself into walls’.

We chose not to do that. We didn’t excuse Tom. We didn’t excuse him because he had no father figure at home. We didn’t excuse his behaviour. And we didn’t excuse him from lessons. And that’s a difficult thing for any adult to do: to use your authority over a child in a way that you know, at least temporarily, is going to upset them. For people who go in to teaching because they care about children it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s not what we thought we signed up to do.

But it is something that we must do because the alternative is so much worse. If we cannot change Tom’s behaviour we allow who he is now to define who he will be.

And Tom found it tricky at first. He spent the first three weeks in and out of detention like a yoyo. He cried a bit and, even now, he turns around from time to time. But he’s on a full timetable rather than leaving at 1.30. He is polite and well mannered to teachers and pupils. And, and most importantly, and because of this, he’s really happy. Because now he can learn. 


And that’s what this really comes down to: the alternative to a ‘no excuses’ culture is a ‘some excuses’ culture – where we allow children’s circumstances to define who they are and what they can be.

Every teacher in this room will have taught a pupil like Tom. And every school and every teacher has a choice. They can make excuses for Tom and say that kids like him are incapable of a full timetable. Kids like Tom will never bring the correct equipment to schools. And kids like Tom will never be able to put their hands up without first shouting out. I’ve said today that this is the ‘some excuses’ school: a school that presumes that because he always was he always will.

‘No excuses’ discipline rejects this. It says that teachers should be able to teach: all teachers, not just those whose planning is perfect, or are charismatic or who’ve established their reputation over 30 years. And, most importantly, no excuses discipline works for pupils. It means our country’s pupils – all our pupils – can go beyond the circumstances of their birth to be whatever they want to be.

Did it work? Year 8 history essays on medieval England

Essay title: What was the most significant challenge to the king’s power in medieval England?

Conditions: Exam conditions. 50 minutes. No notes. From memory. Pupils DO know the title of the essay in advance.

High ability paragraph on the Church.


Mid ability paragraph on the nobles


Low ability paragraph on the peasants


High ability conclusion (typed out verbatim)

‘In conclusion, the most significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period was the Church. It’s spiritual and temporal power, and the lasting grip it had on the population made it a clear rival to the State. The ‘Magna Carta’ was not a major challenge to the king’s power as even thought it restricted the king’s power for a very short amount of time, King John declared it invalid. The peasants were not a significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period as the rebellions such as ‘the Peasant’s Revolt’ were crushed by the king. The Church’s hegemonic influence made it a significant challenge to the king’s power’.


Strengths: knowledge and memory

One of the things I like about the way we assess at Michaela is our emphasis on memory. All our pupils (from top to bottom in ability range) do their assessments from memory. Almost all pupils wrote for the full 50 minutes and almost all wrote three paragraphs on each of the three challengers to the king’s power: the Church, the nobles and the peasants.

What I particularly like about the essays is their clear command of the facts. They have used dates, people and concepts to support their judgement. The high ability pupil has remembered that Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Specific people such Thomas Becket, John ‘Softsword’, Richard ‘Lionheart’, William de Braose. And specific places such as Runnymede, Brittany, Normandy and Anjou. Most pleasingly, the pupils seem to be using challenging conceptual vocabulary such as ‘spiritual’, ‘temporal’, ‘independent’, ‘authority’, ‘tyrannical’, ‘clergy’, ‘lenient’, ‘rivalry’ and ‘hegemony’. All of these were taught explicitly and the pupils have used them, with reasonable accuracy, in their assessment.

One of our less able pupils even managed to remember that pesky apostrophe in ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ – my favourite thing of all!

Improvements: explanation and judgement

However, I want to see more sophisticated explanation in future. The high ability paragraph on the Church is good, but I don’t think it is as well developed as it could be. There is also some speculation in her explanation: ‘This was a significant challenge to the king’s power and authority because the peasants would have judged the king when he was in the streets and, ultimately, threatened his status in the social society.’ How can we support our pupils to make more incisive comments about the significance of this event and what it tells us about the power of the Church in the period? How can we support them also to ‘zoom out’ and see the bigger picture?

I also want pupils at the bottom end starting to see their essay more as a single articulation rather the sum of three discrete paragraphs. You can see that quite clearly in the high ability conclusion in which the pupils weighs up the challengers to form an independent judgement. But it isn’t there in the low ability paragraph: the pupil simply introduced ‘another significant challenge to the king’s power’. 

If you think you have what it takes to help us to improve our pupils’ work and take them to the next level, you should apply to teach with us. Follow this link for more information:





The Golden Mean Part 2: Sample and Domain

In my last blog I spoke about the ‘Golden Mean’. This is the Aristotelian principle that what is virtuous is always between two states: one of absolute excess, the other of absolute deficiency. I suggested that this could be quite a helpful way of thinking of teaching and curriculum design. I said that over the next few posts I would try and explain how this insight has informed my thinking on teaching and assessment in KS3 history. Here are three questions that came to mind:

  1. How do I strike the right balance between the sample (the end of unit test) and the domain (in this case, the period of history in question)?
  2. How do I help my pupils remember what they need to remember for the assessment, as well as helping them to remember what I think is just important for them to remember?
  3. And how do I guide them towards an answer without answering for them?

Sample and domain

 In my last blog, I explained why I think the sample/domain issue is one that particularly afflicts the teaching of history at KS3. The more our assessment system leverages the assessment, the more tempting it is for the teacher to narrow the domain and teach to the test. This is particularly so in schools like my own where pupils, even in Year 7, do all assessments without notes and from memory. The alternative, however, is arguably just as bad: unpredictable tests sprung on new arrivals to the school, which help us to norm-reference one pupil against another, but potentially crush a child’s confidence in the process.

For this reason, I am in favour of giving younger pupils the question in advance. But only if the question itself avoids the sort of ‘narrowing’ I’ve described. An example of this sort of narrowing might be a very specific question about the significance of the Magna Carta or the ‘greatness’ of Alfred the Great rather than a broader question that aims to assess whether pupils have retained a good knowledge and understanding of the period in question. Alfred the Great is perfectly interesting, but I don’t want my pupils’ appreciation of Anglo-Saxon history totally dictated by what could become both a semantic and substantive discussion of his ‘greatness’.

In part, as was put to me, this is just the age-old question of breadth vs. depth. In the case of history, we often choose to sacrifice breadth over depth. With a limited amount of time, we cannot possibly cover everything that happened in, say, Anglo-Saxon or medieval England. We also want to ‘scale-switch’ and to help our pupils see continuity and change in the short, medium and long-term. I think this is true.

But I think what we’re also seeing is some of the effects of the ‘skills-centred’ attitude to the teaching of history. That is ‘We don’t need to worry about teaching a broad sweep of Anglo-Saxon history because it is learning to think about causality/significance/continuity/change that is most important.’ I think this is a mistake. Why? Because I think KS3 gives us a great opportunity to put in place the broad domain knowledge that we need for long-term expertise. In the long run, enquiry questions that are too narrow have the potential to erode the domain at exactly the point in a child’s development when, in my view, the domain should be most broad. With that in mind…

All enquiry questions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

 I think we can find a Golden Mean between the sample and the domain – between breadth and depth. I think we can have enquiry questions that ask our pupils to consider second-order concepts while also giving them the best possible opportunity to learn – and remember – as much as they can of the period in question.

Here is the question that we settled on for our unit of work on medieval England:

‘What was the most significant challenge to the King’s power in medieval England?’

 I expect a good response to include a paragraph on each of the three challengers (the Church, the nobles and the peasants) and top answers to include a fourth paragraph in conclusion. The pupils have 45-50 minutes and all pupils write from memory without notes or sentence starters. We try and achieve this through regular self-quizzing of both the upcoming ‘sample’ (What was the most significant challenge to the King’s power in medieval England?) and the broader domain (the chronology of medieval England). You can see that I’ve tried to place an equal emphasis on this on the pupils’ knowledge grid, which they use in weekly self-quizzing as well as in class.


My hope is that this strikes a ‘golden’ balance between the sample (right-hand side) and the domain (left-hand side). The pupils learn about, and have to remember, important events in medieval English history (The Battle of Hastings, the Anarchy and the Battle of Agincourt), which are not needed to do well in the end-of-unit assessment. At the same time, I hope I’ve also supported all pupils to learn the specific information that they’ll need to do well in the assessment.

Next time, I’ll write a little bit more about how we use these grids, low-stakes testing and songs to try and help pupils automate people, dates and concepts so that their working memory is focussed on the most challenging parts of the assessment.

The Golden Mean: Aristotle and KS3 History


One of the most attractive principles in Aristotle’s philosophy is the Doctrine of the Mean. Aristotle says that what is virtuous is always between two states: one of absolute excess and the other of absolute deficiency. A good soldier, for example, is neither totally cowardly nor totally rash: he uses his reason to find a mid-point between the two – the ‘Golden Mean’. I think this is something that the best teachers do very well: they aim to be strict, without being austere, and kind, without being soft.

I think it’s also a principle that can very well be applied to curriculum design. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced this year is striking the right balance between the sample and the domain. Greg Ashman and Daisy Christodoulou have written persuasively about how bad assessment (and notice I do not say ‘all’ assessment) leads to a situation where the sample BECOMES the domain. Greg has produced a really helpful diagram, which I hope he won’t mind me reproducing here:

Greg Ashman pic

But it is highly problematic, particularly for those who believe that the expert performance – in the long run – depends on wide domain knowledge. Over a long period of time, teaching to the test in this way erodes the domain so that our pupils only learn (and remember) the red dots (the sample), rather than blue shaded area (the domain). Clearly, this affects all subjects, but I think its impact has been keenly felt in the teaching of history.

History teachers are used to creating enquiry questions that act as lenses through which they view a period of history: What was the significance of the Magna Carta? What were the causes of the French Revolution? To what extent was Alfred the Great ‘great’? These questions are designed to assess the pupils’ understanding of significance, causality, continuity and change. They encourage the pupils to see history vertically as well as horizontally; because it is only through these sorts of questions that pupils can learn about the nature of ‘power’, ‘democracy’ and ‘tyranny’, and how these initially inflexible concepts bend and flex over time. Without them, history would just be ‘one damn thing after another’.

However, as important as I think enquiry questions are, I do think they present historians with a significant challenge, particularly at KS3. The reason for this is because, in effect, enquiry questions at KS3 often become the sample. In order to help our pupils write complex end-of-unit essays we provide our pupils, and our teachers, with the enquiry question weeks in advance. And, as such, the enquiry question will always inflect and distort the domain. If my enquiry question were ‘To what extent was Alfred the Great ‘great’?’ huge amounts of my teaching time will be devoted to the question of Alfred’s success as a king, rather than other significant features of Anglo-Saxon history. If my enquiry question were ‘How significant was the Magna Carta?’ much of my teaching, particularly toward the assessment, could centre on quite a narrow discussion of the events pertaining to that document, rather than other significant events in the period – the Peasants’ Revolt, the Anarchy or the story of Thomas Becket.

I want my pupils to learn as much as possible about medieval England, not because I want them to do well in their assessment (I do), but because I believe that, in the long run, their success in history will partly depend on broad domain knowledge. But also because learning about these events, and remembering them for years to come, has educational worth over and above my end of unit assessment. To defer to Aristotle again, I believe that such knowledge, combined with virtue, leads them to eudemonia – a state of human flourishing.

Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to write about how I’ve tried to find the ‘Golden Mean’ when it comes to curriculum design. How do I help my pupils to remember what I’ve taught them for years to come? How can I guide them to write complex answers without answering for them? And how do I strike the right balance between the sample and the domain?

Around the world in 180 days

“Very curious, very curious,” said Passepartout to himself, on returning to the steamer. “I see that it is by no means useless to travel, if a man wants to see something new.” 

Geography teachers are sometimes in such a hurry to move on to sexier process-based topics (coastal erosion, tectonics, migration etc.) that I think they overlook perhaps THE organising principle of their discipline – place.

In a previous school I taught top set Year 9 pupils who couldn’t list the seven continents. They couldn’t place Germany on a map. And they sure as hell couldn’t tell you the difference between the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

Some people will say that’s not a problem. That’s usually because they say that studying crime in the local area is honing those elusive ‘geographical skills’. But I think what you know is important. And the order that you learn it is important. And that’s because you need knowledge to make sense of, and discriminate about the quality of, new knowledge.

I’ve tried to remedy this by putting together a ‘back-to-basics’ Year 7 geography curriculum. Rather than focussing on the usual themes in physical and human geography, which I intend to do across Years 8 and 9, the Year 7 curriculum unashamedly focuses on place.

Phileas Fogg attempted to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. I try and do it in 180.

After an initial unit on the Earth and atlas skills we look at British, European and then world place. The benefits of this for memory are obvious: countries and regions are ‘chunked’ according to continent and pupils build a clearly identifiable schema as they travel to countries and regions around the world.


It’s easy to see learning flags as mere Wednesday night pub quiz trivia. I think this is an oversight. It’s an oversight because flags are the most efficient way of pointing towards a country and its distinct political and physical features. Used appropriately, I think they’re the keys to the memory castle.


Date and title in books. 1-10 of all the places we’ve been already. GO. I begin by just asking for the names of the countries. Soon, it’s countries and capitals. Sometimes I ask them to plot them on a blank map of the world. My more able pupils have even started to master demonyms: Dutch, Greek and, one I didn’t know before, Malagasy – the people of Madagascar. This slide barely changes – we just add a new country each week and remove a few if it gets too cluttered. But there’s so much you can do: choose the countries that are in the EU; divide the countries up by continent; sort the countries according to their system of government (less useful for this particular slide). The list is endless.


Then we’ll do a plotting task.

Pupils are given a blank map of the country/region and they have to plot the listed places/features on their map.


Like the atlas they use, countries are capitalised and capitals are underlined. As you can see from this particular example, you can’t do everything. I’ve chosen countries and features here that particularly intersect with our humanities curriculum. Does that mean that I occasionally have to over-simplify? Yes. But, in my view, that’s the price we pay to build the knowledge and understanding that we look to challenge at a later date. So they plot Israel on the map. And they plot the Palestinian territories on the map. And, in doing so, I leave (some of) the nuance, debate and qualification for another day.

These blank maps make great recap activities too. My pupils will have done at least a dozen of these by the end of the year. Most of them can get 27/27 on that blank map of the British Isles. Can you?


Easiest lesson planning you’ll ever do. Download them for free from Galore Park.


I’ve written previously that often a change is not as good as a rest: I think there is huge benefit in reducing the number of activities you employ in a lesson. I am firmly of the belief that if WHAT you teach is intrinsically interesting, the HOW becomes much less important. You can focus on the activities that have the greatest impact and practise them over and over again.

I spent a long time researching different atlases to find a children’s atlas with the right map to text ratio. I wanted a mixed political/physical map for the plotting task but enough text so that pupils also learnt something of the history, politics and culture of the country/region in question – again, simplified where necessary. Daisy pointed me in the direction of the Phillip’s Children’s Atlas and I haven’t looked back.

The final part of the lesson will always be comprehension questions taken from the atlas. The atlas is pitched to 7-12 year-olds so I find it just right for the majority of the year. These are the sorts of questions I write to try and assess their knowledge and understanding of the region, as well as their ability to use and interpret an atlas:


But some of the pupils need a bit more challenge. My brilliant colleague, Joe Allan, writes supplementary texts, which focus on a notable aspect of the region in question. Often it’s political. But it can also be environmental, religious or historical. Here is the paragraph he wrote for our lesson on the Middle East. It deliberately capitalises on some of the substantive concepts which we’ve explicitly taught in English, history and politics, and which can be effectively reinforced here: ‘democracy’, ‘monarchy’ and ‘dictatorship’. Michael Fordham has described the importance substantive concepts better than I can here.


That’s it. Flags. Maps. Comprehension. Nothing else. And the pupils love it. Why? Because I don’t waste my time and theirs instructing the activity. I devote my time to instructing content. And what content: the whole world, in all its delicious diversity and splendour, in 180 days.

Change isn’t always as good as a rest

If there was a proverb that never quite won me over it was ‘a change is as good as a rest’. This is especially surprising given the frequency at which such aphorisms were pestled into my subconscious as a child: ‘little birds in their nest should agree’; ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ and – how could I forget – ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. When Schott’s miscellany first came out and I saw the list of ‘contradictory proverbs’ it was a shock: one of those moments where, as an adolescent, the previously clear epistemological waters become suddenly much more murky.

My esteemed colleague Joe Kirby has blogged previously about variety for variety’s sake. He made the argument that ‘generic activities, fun, varied and engaging, are being given precedence over silent, focused subject-specific hard work.’ Here I want to make the case that if ‘what’ you teach is intrinsically captivating, the activity you employ – the ‘how’ – becomes much less important. It means that teachers in the humanities subjects can focus on the activities that have, rather than those which appear to have, the greatest impact.

This has two chief benefits:

  1. You can focus on a small number of activities that will have the greatest impact: recapping/retrieval, focused reading, comprehension questions, constructing paragraphs and essays.
  2. A limited number of activities reduces the time spent on instruction of the activity – the ‘how’ – so that more time can be spent on instruction of the content – the ‘what’.

This is the Pareto Principle: you can achieve much more with much less effort, time, and resources, simply by concentrating on the all-important 20 percent. 80:20

As a consequence, change is not always as good as a rest.


Bodil Isaksen has written better than I can about what and how we can recap in our lessons. What she didn’t say, because she is too modest, is the sheer automaticity of this phase in her lessons. What strikes the observer is that it needs no, or very minimal, instruction.

We want our pupils to max out their cognitive load on the content being retrieved rather than the method of retrieval – the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’. Joe and I have tried to make the recapping episodes of our lessons consistent across English and the humanities. Most of the time we blank out one column of a knowledge organiser and get the pupils to complete it in the back of their books. Pupils come in. Pupils sit down. ‘Good morning, gang. You know the drill. 1-10. Go.’ In geography, we might be looking at South-East Asia, but I’ll be damned if they’ll forget about the British Isles.* The content changes but the activity doesn’t. It’s simple, predictable and effective.


If there’s one skill we should prize above all others it’s reading. To anyone who hasn’t taught in England’s comprehensive schools in the last decade this must come across as pretty trite. It’s like a surgeon saying that she tries to keep the patient alive, if she possibly can. But, actually, it’s remarkable how little reading practice pupils are given in the humanities. This is understandable: reading is best done slowly, intently and may involve no apparent engagement of any kind. It may even – dare I say it – be done in silence. It’s that moment in an Ofsted observation where, if you dare do it at all, you rush through quickly and hope the inspector isn’t looking.**

And this, clearly, is madness.

Whenever we introduce new material to pupils at Michaela we do it in exactly the same way: we read together as a class and each pupil has the text we’re reading from. No shared worksheets. Nothing stuck on the wall. There’s just the sheet of paper/booklet/textbook flat on each desk. All the lines are numbered. Pupils must track each line with their rulers. That way we can see if they’re following with the class or not. Pupils read out loud going around the class. If they’re too quiet, I ask them to project. If they mumble, I remind them to articulate. Because they do the same thing in every subject, every day, no instruction of the activity is necessary.


When I was doing my initial teacher training (God knows, I am still learning…) the idea of setting pupils comprehension questions at the end of a lesson was anathema. My tutor would have looked at me with the sort of pained expression that liberal metropolitans usually reserve for their recalcitrant relatives in the shire. I spent hours thinking of ways around this: unlike the duck I wanted it to look like a comprehension question, sound like a comprehension question but not actually be a comprehension question. In a moment of madness a colleague of mine suggested I go all ‘Winter Wonderland’, getting the pupils to write their answers on white paper, scrunch them up and then throw them to another corner of the room for ‘peer assessment’. You can imagine.

These days I keep it simple. If I want to know the pupils have read what they were meant to read, and correctly understood it, I give them comprehension questions. If I want the pupils to do some extended writing, I get them to write a paragraph. Sometimes we do summaries, tables or chronologies: a handful of effective activities that we practise again, and again, and again.

Schott’s miscellany does give the contradictory proverb for ‘change is as good as a rest’, and I’ve rather taken to it:

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

*My bit for British Values.

**The only good argument I’ve ever come across for pretty wall displays.