Break the ICE with English

Learning English helps us to Break the ICE

Learning English helps us to Break the ICE

English teachers are so often expected to justify why students need to learn their subject. They see no benefit and have, in my past experience, had very little idea about how what they’re learning actually translates to the real world (let alone what it is meant to unlock in their other subjects).

This question was posed to me at the beginning of term and I hadn’t really prepared a concrete answer. What came out in the list of uses however were three key points that I want to get across to my students – and from this – something that might very well inform the future direction of my vision.

Essentially, it is the acronym ICE. We learn English to break the ICE:




I have created a set of posters for my classroom to guide the students who lose sight of this back on track:

BreaktheIce (3) BreaktheIce (4) BreaktheIce (5)And finally, Kafka summarises this perfectly:

A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.


That difficult introduction

Why do we make things difficult for ourselves?

Put simply, my school has a very clear and very strict policy on behaviour. The baseline is that no student’s learning should be affected by the behaviour of another. So, why is it, given that the support for this is a warning, followed by a day’s internal exclusion, that I didn’t use this when my year 8 class were off the wall?

For some reason I had set out today to not issue warnings! Foolhardy, given that we have been told time and again to set out as we mean to continue. Hit the students hard and fast with the guidelines and expectations and stick to them – that’s the whole point of Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion: consistency.

So, there I was, last lesson on a Friday – the first time I had met this group of 29. I had organised their seating plan as per Kagan (a theory of seating plans – a post on this to follow), based on their current targets. It had worked in my second set year 9 group and my fourth set year 10s (though there were only 14 here), so why was it insufficient for my fourth set year 8s?

It might have something to do with my telling them, despite the expectation that we have a) mutual respect and, b) we don’t talk over each other, that I would not be issuing warnings.

Did this come out of some sense of goodwill, that I felt I wouldn’t need to and that they would understand our shared responsibility? If it did, I’m a bigger fool than I thought.

Upon reflection, I think it’s a fear about stepping in. I’d had such easy lessons with my previous two groups – broken up with a 30 minute assembly and a 45 minute writing task (oh, how I’m spoiled) – that to actually have to teach for 75 minutes – or shout over them, do the whole standing with my hand up to silence them, repeat myself ad infinitum, watch the time drain away as student after student wants help because they weren’t listening, or were distracted, or simply couldn’t here.

Certainly, I’ve learnt that even year 10 have trouble following what should, ostensibly be the easy task of sticking three sheets of paper into their exercise books.

The sheet labelled A goes in the front of your book, B in the back, and C on your first blank page. Alas kla?


I am not teaching a language, by the way.

Actually, what this comes down to is that I do not find it easy to put my foot down. In fact, what this suggests is a fear that I have to be consistent (when I fear that I can’t uphold that standard) and that it might bother me if they don’t like me.

I don’t need them to like me! I need them to listen, and I need them to pay attention and I need them to work. Case in point, however, looking back at the year 10 class I let one girl consistently turn around in her seat to talk to the boy behind and the boy behind occasionally threw out words to the class – all without much response from me. When these students had completed their tests I did not question or stop them from having pulled out their planners to look ahead to their next lesson and beyond.

Why not?

I am beginning to think that I fear a student sitting doing nothing. Because we were in test conditions for 45 minutes – problem: I didn’t have to stick to the silence of that 45 minutes. I could have prepared them an alternative task to complete. I could have started marking their work and I could have handed it back to them for editing.

On this front I need to learn some flexibility. I suppose, I was thinking, well, it’s like a test and they should be doing it for the entire 45 minutes, I can’t renege on that decision. How is that consistent?

My revealed issues, as I see them are:

  1. Lack of consistency
  2. No flexibility
  3. No behaviour management
  4. Fear of being disliked

How does it make me feel to reflect on the mess of today?

A failure. It’s a good start, I suppose. Feeling like a failure, particularly that I couldn’t get my year 8s to be consistent with their understanding of the three types of noun, isn’t a great feeling.

It’s depressing actually. So, how do I approach my next lesson?

  1. Restate my ground rules
  2. Make examples of anyone who steps out of line
  3. Based off of that – and only if I do #2 – I need to clarify their understanding
    1. Cold calling for answers
    2. they need to write in their answers in their books
    3. they need to write in whole sentences
    4. Cold calling for examples

Straight forward! Then I can move on… hopefully.


Teacher Manager – An app for all your essential activities – £5

Teacher Manager is a set of applications I have developed to help manage afl and bfl in my classroom. It is a great piece of technical frippery, but its design will help shortcut a lot of extra effort away from my everyday working. Here’s what my blurb says:

The Teacher Manager is a classroom resource designed to aid the management of your classes, by providing a collection of applications that carry out different classroom tasks. You will have the ability to record points, warnings or comments against your students, display the full date to save you writing it out every day, play audio files easily, scroll key words or information, run a timer and even cold call your students with a random selector.

And here’s, specifically, how:

  1. Writing the date
Teacher Date - Never have to write the date on the board again!

Teacher Date – Never have to write the date on the board again!

Very simple, but very effective. It displays the full date on the screen, saving you the need to ever write it on your whiteboard again. It’s even underlined.

  1. Counting down activities
Countdown - Never have to work out a stop time on the clock, or go hunting for your stopwatch again

Countdown – Never have to work out a stop time on the clock, or go hunting for your stopwatch again

Activities will always take the length of time you specify. You never need to check your watch, the classroom clock, or keep a timer in your head, Focus, instead, on classroom management and support.

  1. Audio player
Audio Player - Simple and effective use of audio

Audio Player – Simple and effective use of audio

You never have to worry about what program will load your audio file, how long you’ll have to wait, or that you will need to click play every time it reaches the end. With simple controls, this app will load any MP3 or WAV and put them on continual loop until you decide to stop them.

  1. Marquee
Marquee - keep it all on screen and save your voice.

Marquee – keep it all on screen and save your voice.

Always have your lesson’s essential information on screen so that you don’t have to repeat yourself again: objectives, key words or facts, activity instructions. Why repeat yourself?

  1. Spinners – neurological engagement

There is a great article by Dr Howard-Jones – Toward a Science of Learning Games, which shows that in reinforcement learning, the ventrial striatum in the brain is activited. This is important because the way that the brain responds to rewards affects learning. It’s called the happy surprise – when we are unsure that we are going to win something and surprise-surprise, we do! Uncertain reward accelerates engagement and improves learning.

Conversely, expectation leads to no dopamine release and therefore disengagement.

Spinner - yes, it's gambling, but that's what we do when we make choices, when we choose a certain route to get to work, or we play video games. Don't be afraid of the word.

Spinner – yes, it’s gambling, but that’s what we do when we make choices, when we choose a certain route to get to work, or we play video games. Don’t be afraid of the word.

The spinners allow you to award points for good work / correct answers from your students and to allow them the chance to gamble those points for more – to activate their ventrial striatum and keep them engaged in your lesson. This particular spinner allows you to create groups or teams of students.

  1. Cold calling
Cold call - never have to choose another student again (though, I know you will), but at least you have something truly random.

Cold call – never have to choose another student again (though, I know you will), but at least you have something truly random.

Prevent complaints about being picked on by making your choices for cold calling students truly random. Save on using names from a hat, names on lollipops, forgetting names – putting them back in or keeping them out. Let the app do it for you.

  1. Central management

Finally, this is all brought together by the central management app, which allows you to award scores, warnings or comments against your students, choose classes and keep a track lesson-by-lesson of either a downward spiral or student whose behaviour and activities are getting better. Provide yourself with historical data and information that you can rely on when speaking to parents.

So, there you go. It comes with a short 16 page user guide and works on any Windows computer, with no need to install the software. Run it from your computer or a memory stick.

If you are interested in a copy, please contact me and I’ll arrange a download for you for the paltry sum of £5.

I hope you enjoy.


Going beyond the classroom…

One of TeachFirst’s key interests for new teachers is that we get involved with the community, that we look towards innovation and interaction with the broader school (as a first step to looking at what can be done with that wider community). Within this frame I intend to implement a game that we play at home (a board game based on Sherlock Holmes). This particular game relies on literacy and inference skills. It can also require understanding of metaphors and maybe some numeracy, so it covers a lot of educational bases.

Players are given a crime scenario and they move around the board visiting locations to uncover clues which may lead to the killer, the motive, the weapon, and the suchlike.

My intention is to open the game up to any student within my school who wishes to try their hand at solving the crime:

    It is 1899, and until recently, you were just a Victorian news-child, selling London rags to the
work weary… but after a chance encounter with one Sherlock Holmes, you now find yourself in the Great Detective’s employ. Growing tired of hunting the capital’s streets for clues, he has hired you to hunt in his stead on the promise of a 2 bob bit per clue.
Except, you think you can match Mr Holmes’s intellect…. and he accepts your challenge. Can you piece together the clues as fast as he?

At the beginning of the term, I will stick up the scenario to be solved on my classroom door. Every week I will paste roughly two clues, until the end of the term, when students are meant to submit their answers. The expectation then is as follows:

Post your name, tutor group, the date & the correct answers, through 221b Baker Street’s letter box.

The earliest, correct answers win. In the event of a tie, Mr Holmes will ask for a paragraph describing the events.

Sherlock Holmes - solve the clues, win the prizes

Sherlock Holmes – solve the clues, win the prizes

I made my own postbox out of a small appliance box and a postbox printed off of the Internet – It looks natty, and I hate craft, but I think it’s turned out quite well considering the very low overheads.


Challenge Cubes

In the school I worked in last year, two members of staff used a plenary concept they called Challenge Cubes: 20 or so physical little boxes containing a single question designed to get students reflecting on what they had learned that lesson. For example:

Choose 3 keywords from the lesson today and use all 3 in a sentence to explain the main point of today’s lesson

Students pick a box at random and then answer the question. The teachers would then pool the answers and begin to create a revision guide for the entire class. Some teachers call the initial concept an Exit Ticket, requiring students to have answered the question before they are allowed to leave the classroom.

I wish to use the idea as a multi-use classroom scaffolding and differentiation tool, based on several theories and strategies presented during the Summer Institute. Not simply as a means of summary and getting out of the class. I have created 32 challenge cube worksheets for 32 little boxes:

Challenge Cubes - Randomising the Classroom

Challenge Cubes – Randomising the Classroom

I have provided a number of different exercise fillers, providing frames for answering questions that students can devise themselves (Bloom’s), depending on the level they wish to work at; a speaking and listening frame; a story opener for creative writing; a role for group discussions, a thinking hat for group work; and then, finally, that exit ticket. An example is provided below:

Example Challenge Cube

Example Challenge Cube

I can’t be sure yet which elements will work – for example, with Bloom’s I aim to get students to pick a level and then create a question for themselves that they wish to answer. I.e. Application. How would you use…?

How would you use the persuasive technique of emotional language to argue against fox hunting?

We will have to see whether this is doable. Less than one month to go.


Effective Questioning

Today’s final session of the day, and also the ultimate associate tutor session of the Summer Institute was… brilliant. Another top, concise, energised and bloody-damn helpful session. This one, on effective questioning in the classroom pulled, as many great sessions did, together a number of elements, theories, top tips and strategies that had been touched on previously, but in an effective and pragmatic way that I truly feel I can use it… effectively.

So, enough of the gush, let’s get to what’s important.

We were asked to draw the following graph, offsetting the difficulty of a given question against its engagement.

Difficulty vs Engagement of Questioning

Difficulty vs Engagement of Questioning

We were given the instructions of using verbs, useful for stating learning outcomes, in our questions and asked to pick one of the question stems from Bloom’s taxonomy to ask a question, following which, we placed our questions where we felt it might lie on the graph. Here’s what we came up with (and the relevant section of Bloom’s that they relate to):

  1. Knowledge – What is a verb?
  2. Comprehension – What is the main idea of natural selection?
  3. Analyse – Can you compare and contrast the responses to Lennie by Slim and Curley, in Of Mice and Men?
  4. Create – Could you write Act 6, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet?
Placing our questions on the graph

Placing our questions on the graph

Do forgive me for not remembering to un-select number 4 – it is late! Anyhoo, we did indeed place our questions upon our graph, as shown above. We reflected on what we’d asked and how we’d worded them and that informed our decisions.

Putting our questions in this context helped us question the means and expectations we had. By sticking to the basic question stems provided by the Bloom’s example, we had fallen into the following problems:

  • Question 1 was too simple. Students simply relate a very basic response. Job done. What’s the point in asking such a simplistic question other than for diagnostic purposes? And how does it create Higher Order Thinking, to engage students with moving up Bloom’s and stretching themselves? It doesn’t.
  • Question 2 is similar in its simplicity. As a question, no one would have difficulty with understanding what it was getting at. But, like 1, it’s just a recitation, with no fixed boundaries.
  • Questions 3 and 4 are closed questions – allowing students to simply say yes or no. End of. They’re not very well written as our first attempts, and in the example of 4, it’s difficulty is disengagingly high.

We changed our questions to better enagage and do clearly define our expectations for difficulty:

  1. Define the term ‘verb’.
  2. Summarise Darwin’s theory of natural selection with an example.
  3. Differentiate between the responses to Lennie by Slim and Curley, in Of Mice and Men.
  4. Plan Act 6 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet.

Your first things to note should be:

  • The question marks are gone. These aren’t so much questions, but imperatives. ‘This is the task you are going to do – you will do.’
  • The questions are still situated within the same sections of Bloom’s taxonomy, but now they have different connotations.
  • Think about how define now infers more than simplicity. Able students will better consider the choice of words, with the suggestion that perhaps one sentence is not sufficient.
  • Summarise, similarly evokes a different approach, the inference that natural selection is not a single sentence answer, but multi-faceted; a big enough concept that students need to consider the elements and draw them concisely together.
  • Differentiate, now, pushes for more than a list of how Slim and Curley are alike or different in their response to Lennie. Now students need to make judgement calls, stamp their opinion and reflect upon their answers.
  • Plan, in contrast, is freeing. It engages students more with the ability to spitball and brainstorm. No longer are they facing the blank page and the desperate need to splurge something already completed upon it. They know that this plan is an exploration of ideas. That is empowering.
Altered positions

Altered positions

As you can now see, by simply rephrasing the questions with a view of Bloom’s, they have all been heightened in their effectiveness for difficulty and engagement.

Below is the steps of questioning verbs, from Bloom’s. It was a simple and effective maneuver to create a basic and occasionally appalling question (with very little cognitive overhead on our part) and then to use this ladder to really beef it up (again with very little cognitive overhead):

Bloom's Taxonomy of Verb Questioning

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Verb Questioning

By doing this, by choosing different words and not just using the top questions of Bloom’s will help to expand your students’ vocabulary and get them used to answering exam questions. Be aware however, that EAL and literacy may be a barrier – but it is down to you to scaffold understanding and model.

The Difference between HOT and Diagnostic / Open and Closed

Higher Order Thinking questions, are considered open questions aimed at utilising a skill. They should be a challenge to push understanding and create cognitive conflict.

Diagnostic questions, are considered closed questions designed to gauge knowledge and to try to find out why an answer is wrong. Further to that, if asked correctly, they can help you diagnose why a student’s thinking is wrong.

Using these helps you to assess the class constantly, which build relations your students and helps with your planning of where you are and where the lesson needs to go.

Subtle Tips for Effective Questioning

1. Always aim the lesson at the top of the class.

Aim the lesson at the top

Aim the lesson at the top

2. Get them to double line

In this era of the culture of error, students need to be encouraged to make mistakes, edit and learn from it. Ofsted will be – dead – pleased to see this fantastic approach to showing progress. Students can self edit clearly.

As a point of note, David Didau, yesterday discussed the facsimile edition of Orwell’s 1984, with all of his edits. It’s a great way of showing students to not being afraid of making a mistake, and to get them into the mindset of proofreading and editing:

Orwell's 1984 facsimile with included self-editing

Orwell’s 1984 facsimile with included self-editing

3. If your students are not giving you the right answers, it might very well be the case that they’re not going to get the question at all. So take responsibility for having asked a poorly phrased question and change it:

Okay, those are all great answers, but have you thought about…

Top Tips for Effective Questioning

1. Plan questions

Always have two well thought out questions planned for the lesson. Questions linked to the lesson objective. They are a good checker of knowledge and also for dealing with those moments when you realise they are all on it today and about to finish all your work.

2. Answer questions with questions

If someone’s answered your first question, don’t, for one second, let the class think that that’s the end of the matter. Don’t let them switch off. Push a linking question onwards – bounce it.

Do you agree?
What do you think?
Why is that?

3. Push and push some more

If you get an immediate answer, push it up Bloom’s. You’re being too obvious and need to change it up, change the way you ask.

4. Print and laminate Bloom’s verb staircase

5. Sarah’s question game

This is great for those cold, dark days when you’re out of energy. Simply:

  • Grab an A3 sheet and get the students to divide it into 8
  • They then write down questions and answers relating to your topic in each square (you can scaffold, if need be)
  • Separate the pieces out
  • One by one, read the questions to the class and give the question and answer to the student that answers correctly as a means of point scoring
  • Discuss with the class if an answer written down is wrong
  • If no one gets the answer, put it back in and mix it all up

So, effective questioning! Great.


Closing Key Note Speakers – John Lloyd

So, the Impact Conference comes to an end with an abundance of exhaustion. I’d like to focus this post on the last of those speakers, QI’s John Lloyd, but before I do, I wanted to touch on the panel discussing business involvement in education

Impact Conference Discussion Panel on Business Involvement in Schools

Impact Conference Discussion Panel on Business Involvement in Schools

I tweeted, but didn’t make the final cut, a question evoked in me by visiting all of the stalls at midday and which was becoming increasingly problematic to my thinking of the dichotomy between our opportunities and those of our future charges. It stemmed from the fact that I visited each stall in turn to snatch whatever freebies I could man handle into a bag, or two, or three. As a career changer, having come to Teach First and teaching following a new full time degree at university, not amount of discussion with the sales pitch about future graduate jobs would sway me from my goal of teaching (I won’t say life goal, as I didn’t know it was until that last 5 years).

There I was talking to consultancy firms, explaining,as I surreptitiously slid another pen from the stand and palmed it into a pocket with the deftness of a squid searching the sea bed for molluscs, that whatever they were selling, I wasn’t buying (I wasn’t that rude, obviously. I didn’t get on Teach First by being rude). But, in the practise of discussing why I might be interested in speaking with them I happened upon the opportunity that I would be collecting content and context materials for my future students. I decided that my approach to the conference would be in their best interests.

And, suddenly, I had purpose. I was interested in their business because I wanted information that I could pitch to students. I wanted their materials so that I could discuss career opportunities and progression. I wanted solid facts that I could launch their aspirations with. I wanted resources that I could turn into English resources and use in an attempt to relate the scheme of work to something life-learningly relevant. Why not? Perhaps I could get students to assess persuasive techniques in one of the brochures. Maybe  a class could create their own infographic relating to their own possible career progression. What if I could become involved in career guidance and begin to use these materials to inform my own knowledge and those of my students?

First step? Contact all my Facebook friends and get them to give me a full break down of their grades, courses and career progressions to help provide my students the much needed guidance at the right time in their lives so that they might choose widely.

Anyhoo, as you can see, I collected an orgy of possibilities:

Spoils of war from the Impact Conference

Spoils of war from the Impact Conference

And to think that business doesn’t do enough to help schools and students! At least that’s what we all agreed at the end of the discussion. It was certainly the chaired issue. And it’s right to be. Who are the groups that go along to these sorts of career fairs? Consultancies.

And what are consultancies?

My tweet was exactly about this:

Many of the stalls we had here advertised consultancy jobs. How do we make such abstract roles relevant to the disenfranchised?

Perhaps, you, dear reader, could answer?

John Lloyd

So, onto the man from QI. He was keen to establish an easy rapport of intrigue and good humour.

The most important thing you say is always the first.

He quoted Rudyard Kipling’s poem If:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

In his opening gambit about the best policy being not minding about the equanimity or outcome. You must try and you must do it without being frightened.

I guess all of this – this ethos of the culture of error – goes to suggesting – nay, stating quite clearly, that Yoda was wrong, in that galaxy far, far away.

Do, or do not. There is no try.


In the culture of error, we must, as must our students, try!

Be interesting

He says, pitching to us the QI book of facts.

Be interesting by being interested. Be interested by always being curious. There is no cure for curiosity.

John has always set out to make television programs that he himself wants to watch. He asks what’s not on TV and sets out to please himself. And this was his approach in the last few weeks when he was asked to teach a lesson on poetry at a secondary school. How to make it enthusing, but relevant, and informative?

Maths is patterns described by numbers. Poetry is patterns in words. But, only Maths can prove things.

So, what approach should he have taken with his poetry lesson? He opted to share haikus (a personal favourite of his):

Barn burnt down –
I can see the moon

– Mizuta Masahide

He advises us to pay attention to the kids with behaviour problems. They will become the rockstars, Einstein, Edison, Gallileo. All of whom, John lists as having failed at school. The obedient ones rarely achieve anything. They rarely make things. He mused then on Phyllis Diller’s retort:

We spend the first twelve months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve telling them to sit down and shut up.

John was keen to advise:

Don’t treat anyone like an idiot, or patronise them. Everybody’s a genius, but judging – as Einstein said – a fish on it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Be honest, helpful and nice – who has friends telling them to sit down and shut up?

The most difficult people in all walks of life are the most troubled.

He ended with that sales pitch for his QI book; but for good reason. Returning to his mantra about being interesting, if a teacher can give an interesting fact that raises questions, he’s already won the class over.


The Secret of Literacy – Making the Implicit Explicit

David Didau’s understanding of a learner’s access into literacy emanates from an awareness that what we understand about our own knowledge is implicit. We know, without truly knowing how to explain or model it. As explanation, he presented Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks:

Edward Hopper - Nighthawks

Edward Hopper – Nighthawks

This represents a metaphor for how the word-rich are able to see the big picture. How they – we – are able to extrapolate meaning and context and make inferences based upon our understanding not only of the thing that we are analysing but about the world as well.

Setting this against the Matthew Effect, which states that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Daniel Rigney posited:

The word-rich get richer while the world-poor get poorer.

The word-rich gravitate to like-minded, similar-levels-of-vocabulary people. As such they – we – nurture one another’s vocabulary, helping a communal vocabulary expansion. The word-poor, conversely, in gravitating to their own like-minded brethren, are not at all placed for communal vocabulary expansion. They are said to not enrich one another’s vocabulary.

A student's narrow view of Nighthawks - the Matthew Effect

A student’s narrow view of Nighthawks – the Matthew Effect

What we have, therefore is this narrow understanding of our metaphor – Nighthawks. This is what students see. How might they gather meaning from it? How might they appropriately contextualise?

What can they get- can they understand?

David quoted some statistics around literacy:

  • Good reading at age 10 predicts high GCSEs
  • Speedy and accurate decoding at age 6 predicts success at 16
  • 1 in 6 people in the UK struggle with literacy
  • 7 million people cannot find the page reference for plumbers in the Yellow Pages
  • 1 in 16 adults cannot identify a concert venue on a gig poster
  • A small study of 16 year olds revealed that 1 in 12 has only an 800 word working vocabulary
  • At age 7, the word gap between the top quartile (7,100 words) and the lowest (3,000 words) is 4,100 words!

If you were restricted in this way – and Didau makes no bones about the fact it is the parents who have the greatest impact in this respect (an interesting side discussion in my mind is this – finally – growing acceptance that parents are to blame; I wonder when that becomes explicit) – how limiting would this be? How could you possibly express yourself, your emotions?

George Sampson in 1922 said:

Every teacher in English is a teacher of English

Establishing the fact that even if you’re not an English teacher, by using the medium of English, your only choice is to teach it explicitly, or implicitly… badly or well, knowingly and thoughtfully.

Making Reading a Priority

As a cognitive process, reading is the most taxing of all tasks, as detailed below in Scarborough’s diagram:

Scarborough's Many Strands Woven into Reading

Scarborough’s Many Strands Woven into Reading

There is no link between language comprehension and general intelligence.

So, how might a student with a poor background in literacy make any sense of the analysis expectations within the curriculum? We were given an example text and asked what form it was, and subsequently, upon stating it was newsprint, what paper: the Sun.

We were able to tell this instinctively and when pressed on the why, could point to use of language. The issue became that our approach would provide students with absolutes – and there are no absolutes. There are only inferences based upon knowledge, context and the suchlike.

How do we, then, take our implicit understanding, recognising what it is and what it isn’t, and make that a cognitive process in our student’s minds? Without giving them superficial or misinformation?

Further to this, another example was presented, of Ikea wiring instructions for a lamp. What this revealed about us – expert readers – is that we are able to make judgements over what bits of information that we don’t know and ignore them, from our understanding of other elements in the text.


A skill for reading a text quickly to get an overview of the meaning of a text


  • Read first line then flash through – passing eyes over random words
  • Read the beginning and the ending
  • Cast eyes across a diagonal
  • Pick out nouns and adjectives only

Whatever the method, students need this modeled. They should be helped out of their independent skimming to get them out of the mindset of performing each word to themselves.

By just reading the first sentence of each paragraph gives context, allowing an extraction of meaning, and saves students getting dispirited with an entire text.


A skill for searching a text quickly and picking out specific information.

As a trivial insight, we implicitly know that questions have an order. For example, given a text and three questions, we know

  • the first question will likely come at or near the start
  • the second somewhere around the middle
  • the last towards or at the end

We can also extrapolate from finding the answer to the first question, that

  • the second answer will not be around or before the location of the first answer
  • the third answer, similarly, will not be further back

As a student, if you didn’t know this, you would likely start reading the entire text again from the beginning for each subsequent question.


  • Look for numbers, as these are eye magnets
  • Look for proper nouns and their use of capital letters


A skill to zoom in on certain words, phrases and sentences, so as to understand the text in greater detail.

Imagine that you have a camera to zoom in to get analytical on the finer details; to see detail that we’d otherwise miss. Here’s a tree. Pretend it’s a text.

A tree

A tree

If we just look at the tree, what do we understand?? It’s a tree with leaves and bark and that it grows out of the ground. But, what do we really understand about this particular tree? We have to zoom in:

Zooming in - The bark, the moss, the grooves and mold

Zooming in – The bark, the moss, the grooves and mold

Here, up close with the tree (our text), we have a better appreciation of the interlacing of the bark, the variegated moss and mold. Without zooming in and focusing, a student won’t know what they can’t think about. Following this, the zoom out, and perhaps back further for the forest (or context), to allow fuller evaluation, the student cannot understand how the detail fits into the bigger picture.

Making Writing a Priority

Exam examples have shown Didau that students tend to devolve to thoughtless writing that suggests learning by rote, with many duplicating a line because of the structure of their teaching:

The room that I am sitting in is…

Didau discussed an example lesson task, in which students were writing letters to the dead scientist, Marie Curie as part of their English lesson. He talked about how their letters were filled with brilliant understandings of the science at the heart of the topic, but that their showing understanding of content was at the expense of skill. What had they learned?

It doesn’t matter how you write.

You need, he says,

to value the output; value the skill.

Focus on the how

  • a mixture of short and long sentences (prescribing alternating lengths)
  • restrict writing to prevent students beginning sentences with certain words or phrases
  • avoid and and but
  • teach discourse markers (adding, sequencing, illustrating, causal, comparative, qualifying, contrasting, emphasising)

A simple theory by Didau:

  • we can only write what we are able to say
  • we can only say what we are able to think
  • but, if you can say it, you can write it

What does this tell us about speech?

Myhill and Fisher believe that

our ability to speak caps our ability to write.

And, Robin Alexander states that

most talk is social… but talk in the classroom is cognitive. Talk changes thought.

To improve writing, we must improve speaking. And to do that we must scaffold and nurture the right kind of speaking. An issue is that writing and speaking frames are necessary here but also are restrictive and constraining. Didau has 50 thought stems that were used as writing frames. He got his students to use them for their spoken answers, as follows:

  1. A student provides a great answer (in their own voice)
  2. They then direct their answer through a thought stem
  3. They then write their fully structured answer down
  4. Or, they direct their answer through a particular thought stem
  5. Go to 3
  6. Or, they direct their answer through a memorised thought stem
  7. Go to 3

This provides students with access to academic language.

They really do need to know this foreign language.

It creates a level playing field for the word-poor, even while they must know that there is nothing wrong with the way that they speak. It is the way that they write that is being developed. Their palette is being increased.


Didau always tells his students to not write, but to draft.

This, he says, makes them happier to redraft than write again. They can double space their work to provide space for this. Didau recommends that in the use of marking and proofreading:

  • use a simple set of codes
  • don’t mark work that’s not been proofread (proof is them highlighting and commenting on a section they are having trouble with, or visible annotation/evidence that they have changed elements)
  • if it’s not excellent, it’s not yet finished

Impactful Conference – Key Note Speeches

It began in earnest, this morning, with a hefty weight of emotional, political (and the sublime – of course) focuses of the three key note speakers.

The biggest Teach First cohort yet - so proud to be one of these guys.

The biggest Teach First cohort yet – so proud to be one of these guys.

Much of Nicky Morgan’s context and talk is given here on Teach First’s website: http://www.teachfirst.org.uk/news/secretary-state-education-celebrates-our-largest-ever-cohort

But, I wanted to hone in on some aspects that I wanted to give a positive spin on – Nicky mentioned this herself, that as an MP she will come in for ribbing and negative perceptions, and I do have concerns, looking ahead, and what might actually come out of the government’s thinktanks on marking etc – but, look, let’s try to be positive and worry what we can change for the moment.

So, Nicky’s interests are largely in a strong culture. And she believes we need to focus on whose we like and whose doesn’t fit.

Don’t be afraid of criticism and engagement.

She commented on the need for more graduate teachers – a stark reality throughout the UK’s teaching world. This is the biggest challenge. The quality of teaching is the most important aspect for any student (erm… alongside the needs for great leadership, and a stable, positive home life) – without those, of course, teaching is the most important. And it will be for the vast majority of our charges.

But, she was keen to get us to act upon our ambassadorial monikers:

You have to be the ones to go out and tell others about teaching.

We need to engage other people in taking up the teaching mantle and getting into the best career in the world (I hope – no, it’ll be fine). And we need to work together to ensure that.

Nicky openly admitted that she would recommend teaching to friends and family – and later said that she was not averse to getting into teaching once she was no longer an MP. She did qualify that by listing family members who were or wanted to be teachers.

Always be positive and enthusiastic.

In answer to a question on why so many male headteachers, and few female, Nicky commented that it wasn’t only a teaching issue. As she is responsible for women and equality (maybe – I can’t be bothered to check the exact phrasing of this title, though you’d think it would be easier than typing this long explanation of why not – I assure you, it isn’t). Nicky’s interests lie (at present) in creating role models to ensure all those females coming through from school and into business keep pushing upwards to change equality at the top.

In response to a question on free schools: she believes that these represent a striving for excellence in areas where there hasn’t been any.

There are still many students in the country who don’t have the option of going to a good school.

Finally, she wished for more reporting of the positives of what goes on in schools and what teachers do.

Doug Lemov – Does Teaching Matter?

You are the stewards of hopes and aspirations

You are the stewards of hopes and aspirations

You are the stewards of hopes and aspirations

Doug wowed the crowd with a well received identification of student needs; his candidness in his perceptions of those barriers we fight and the way he styled out difficulties in IT (IT, how we hate thee). He provided the stats, he showed us the scatter diagrams of deprivation against attainment, he talked us through the findings that suggest no link between the amount of time spent in school and attainment. And he, unsurprisingly, echoed Nicky’s words:

Teachers are critical in enabling equality. Teachers drive economic growth.

He listed the challenges to that enablement. Two issues around which teachers must work (I thought there was three, but upon reviewing my notes, I can only find two. If there is a third, please do update me):

  1. The exotic – those unpredictable elements, be it the students’ own disruptions or a vagrant pigeon loose in the pedagogical chamber (not Doug’s own words, though his anecdotal scenario)
  2. The endemic – the entirely predictable: the hardworking student who just can’t master the skill; the ‘just leave me alone’ self-isolator; the one who doesn’t want to be quietly disenfranchised, but quite vocally so.

He quotes Dylan Williams, discussing how a teacher of 20 years doesn’t have 20 years experience. They have 1 year, repeated ad infinitum.

He says that in the US there is a 50% failure rate for teachers because of these endemic problems.

Teachers are a scarce resource.

Doug counselled us on the need to approach our profession like a chair maker.

It’s a craft. Imagine yourself doing this for the rest of your life.

Doug is getting at mastery, something we have touched on on the Summer Institute many times in relation to Carol Dweck’s approach of Not Yet.

Feel accountable about giving your best.

Doug turned his attention on what he termed the sublime and the mundane – the key aspects of a teacher’s repertoire, and what underpins a good teacher’s personality, routines and relationships with students.

It is very hard to connect with all of our students. The mundane is the key to technique.

Doug showed a video and listed the attributes exhibited by the teacher in commanding the corridor and interacting with the students:

  • physical positioning – location and stance
  • consistency of technique
  • economy of language (avoid confusion)
  • formal register of diction
  • breaking the former and latter of the above to engage with students on a different level, providing them a more casual teacher persona, but always reverting back to the formal.

Personality is technique in disguise. Show you care by showing that you look, that you see and that you acknowledge compliance from your students.

He admits that the mundane is sometimes a little like pantomime in behaviour for learning. But we need to be clear that we are aware of the difference between us knowing we have taught something and us knowing that students have learnt it. The mundane provides the framework to enable our monitoring.

The sublime emerges from examples such as the culture of error. Doug showed a video of a teacher who engages and is excited by the tension of differing answers in her classroom.

Get the students to acknowledge the error and then get it right.

She enthuses with the growth mindset of praising the effort, not the outcome.

Be proud. You just figured it out.

Through the culture of error, checking for understanding in a classroom becomes 10x easier.

His final tips for new teachers are:

  • have humility
  • a willingness to study
  • a shared vocabulary with your colleagues
  • bravery (you are a performer)
  • find and study those teachers who are closing the attainment gap.

Richard McCann

Richard is a motivational speaker, professional speaker, inspirational speaker and keynote speaker, available for business, corporate, community and education clients. Richard is a motivational speaker, professional speaker, inspirational speaker and keynote speaker, available for business, corporate, community and education clients.

As inspirational speakers go, Richard McCann’s was harrowing. But, his story of starting life as the youngest child of the Yorkshire Ripper’s first victim, to struggling his way to becoming a force for positive change in the lives of others is by no means the least important of today’s key note speakers. I was somewhat blindsided by the content and I have no notes as I was, as I’m sure many were, in tears to hear of his life.

Simply amazing is all I can really say. Snippets from Richard’s talk on becoming the positive influence you want to make in your own life are:

You can’t tell by looking, what people have been through… An ‘I can attitude’ makes all the difference… never underestimate your students’ potentials, or the change you can make in their lives.

That his story hinged so much on the teaching Mr Hill had given to him so many years before drummed home even more the importance of the unconditional positive regard we must engage our students with. They may need us far more than we can possibly imagine.

To quote Doug again, we are the stewards of their hopes and aspirations.