The Root Of All Evil?

So I’m little bit broke.

That’s an exaggeration, actually. We’re not at risk of missing a mortgage payment and there’s no danger of us buying supermarket value mince any time soon. But because of several personal changes, which I’m not going to bore you with, we’ll be accepting an income drop this autumn. This is a bad thing.

So I was really tempted a while back when an email arrived from Target Splash Marketing asking if I’d host guest blogs “highlighting companies and products that might be of interest to my readers.” They offered to provide the links and have me write the articles. But in the end I said no because they said I would not be able to label the posts as ‘paid-for content’. I wonder how many other bloggers received a similar email and whether they agreed.

And let’s not even get into the PR company who offered to provide guest posts about BBC Active Video for Learning but stopped replying to emails when I asked about payment.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive. Maybe you think being this picky is ridiculous, rather than ethical. After all, I’m not exactly a professional journalist with standards to adhere to. But at the moment, the only way I make money from this site is from Amazon referrals that I would make anyway. And it’s about a pound a month.

More recently I’ve had a similar offer from a different company, but they’re not objecting to me labelling the paid-for content clearly. The money isn’t much. But it’s still money. So here I am, asking – would you object to occasional posts, once or perhaps twice a month, with commercial links?

If you do, this is your chance to object. If there are enough valid objections, I’ll reconsider. It’s my site so I get to decide what counts as valid. But I promise to respond to any and all comments.


Now How Next

I just wanted to share a plenary that I’ve tried out a few times now. I’ve found it quite useful and it works with any topic, knowledge or skills. To be honest, I suspect the title makes it clear but I’m going to quickly explain anyway.


Students gauge their current level of understanding, ideally considering progress from a  starting point. This would often be matched against one or more lesson outcomes. The best assessment will be based on something objective, for example an exam question or score in a vocabulary test. This needs to be about competence, not confidence (although I sometimes find it useful to have them assess that too). Building an ongoing list of science skills that they could have gained might be helpful.


This is metacognition; students describe the methods they have used to make this progress. Can they identify what triggered a ‘lightbulb moment’? Was it about a particular method, peer explanations, examples in a textbook, practical results… don’t overlook simple things like using a glossary.


There is always more to do. Students should be encouraged to identify what they might do, in school or out, to make further progress. Do they need more rehearsal of the technique? Do they need to memorise the key terms to improve fluency? Most significantly, what will they do to make this happen? Can they name apps on their phone or techniques on paper that will help them? Ideally what they do should be visible, by the effect on scores if not directly.

Now How Next

This could be a written exercise in students’ books, or in the form of a modified exit ticket. You could even do this weekly and have a double page spread summarising what they’ve done. Choosing their next area of development would fit very nicely with takeaway homework, something I’ve not tried yet. It’s really a formalised version of what we do anyway, but it’s something we could profitably apply to CPD as well I think. I don’t like to think of myself as aiming to tick boxes, but consider:

  • assessing progress (potentially peer and self)
  • L2L/metacognition
  • target setting
  • differentiation

Worth a go? Comments appreciated, as ever – below or via GoogleForm.

Dominic Cummings: Ghost Protocol

I saw Dominic Cummings at Northern Rocks. He was clearly impassioned, but I remain unconvinced by his solutions even though we recognise many of the same problems. Let’s think about how he got to where he is.

He was a Special Advisor to a range of government ministers, most recently Michael Gove. ‘SpAds’ are expected/allowed to be political but work within the civil service. They must follow a code of conduct and their minister is responsible for their actions:

The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment

(from 2010 code linked above)

During his time at the DfE, there were many controversies about attacks on those within education who disagreed with the official line. I’m sure he was not responsible for all of them; equally, I’m sure he was instrumental in at least some. Gove himself has not been above personal attacks. The use of the @toryeducation twitter account is, officially at least, still a mystery – although many feel Cummings and a fellow SpAd, De Zoete were contributors. There were, I’m sure, many reasons he chose to resign last year. Since then he’s been fairly busy, and softly spoken as ever.

Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy whether in speeches or letters to the Press, or in books, articles or leaflets; must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks; and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department.

paragraph 12 from the Code of Conduct


Now, we have Netflix at home. (Last night I watched Tron: Legacy. Don’t judge me.) But more relevantly, a while back I watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. (What’s with all the colons?) In this, the Impossible Mission Force are ‘disavowed’ which means they’re officially not supported by the government, so can hopefully get away with stuff but avoid political repercussions.

Which made me think.

I offer the following satire for your amusement.

In a shadowy office at the DfE, late 2013.

MG: Dom, you know I agree with what you’re saying but you’re really not supposed to say all this stuff.

DC: &%$@{ing @$£ *&^@X& and their code of conduct.

MG: Yes, but I’m responsible for what you say and that means more hassle than it’s worth.

DC: Why does it have to be about blame?

MG: They keep banging on about accountability when everyone knows that public servants like teachers are accountable to us, not the other way around.

DC: But I’ve got all these really important ideas and loads of people disagree and they keep using facts to contradict me and then I get all mad and slag them off.

MG: Funnily enough I’d noticed that, but because you’re not an ex-journalist with the Times the papers aren’t as nice to you, so I get the flak.

DC: So the problem is that you’re accountable because I’m a SpAd?

MG: Exactly.

DC: But if I wasn’t a SpAd, then we wouldn’t be able to swap ideas over email. I couldn’t meet with you at the Department.

MG: Well, we wouldn’t be able to use the official email accounts, because they can be requested as freedom of information. But there are ways around that. And as for meetings, that would only be a problem if we actually kept records of who visited.

DC: So I could make all the claims I wanted, say whatever I liked (or you suggested), talk you up and slag everyone else off… but because I wasn’t a SpAd, there would be nothing Cameron or anyone else could do about it?

MG: Hmm.




So I had a huge argument on Twitter, mainly with @biolady99.

Duty Calls

I shared a link to the news story that teachers are going to be given training about helping students with mental health issues, including recognising the early signs of problems (EDIT: new guidance as .pdf) I think this is great. I think this is really important. But I pointed out that this is more than a little ironic seeing as the support for students with identified mental health needs is, shall we say, uneven.

A long discussion followed, and as usual many of the points were hard to make clearly because of the 140 character limitation. So here I am, with three ideas I want to get out of my system by clearly expressing them.

Pointing out a problem isn’t whining

Complaining about something we can change ourselves is whining. Complaining about something minor could be considered whining. Stating a problem isn’t whining, especially when you point out a possible solution.

I stand by my original implied criticism, that before (or more reasonably, as well as) ensuring teachers are trained to spot mental health issues in our students, we should make sure there is somewhere to send them. Of course we must be sympathetic and informed in the classroom. Of course we should be able to flag up concerns in a structured way. But when CAMHS are overstretched and underfunded, identifying an issue doesn’t help my students in my classroom today. Not when they may have to wait months for appointments, let alone a useful diagnosis and treatment.

What I object to is, once again, the assumption that having us teachers do yet more will solve the whole problem. There must be an adequate service for us to refer students towards, with trained specialists. If a primary teacher notices a child has an odd gait and they help the parents make a referral to the local orthopedic service, then the experts take over. By all means give us information, training and time. But don’t pretend we’re specialists, whether we have personal experience or not.

Sharing In A Classroom Isn’t Always Okay

Of course my life affects my teaching. Only an idiot would suggest otherwise. But there’s a big difference between using life experience to inform your professional judgement, and sharing personal details with potentially vulnerable students. I absolutely respect colleagues who choose to be open about potentially sensitive aspects of their personal life. But I hope they do it in an informed way.

When I speak to my own children, I do so as a parent. I can say things to them I wouldn’t say at work, to my students. I can choose to share things that I think they will learn from, because I will be the one dealing with the consequences. As a teacher, I am in a professional role and this means I am in a privileged position.

That means I rarely speak about politics; the closest I have come is telling students, when asked, that I voted against the BNP and why. I am careful, when talking about religion – inevitable during topics about evolution or the Big Bang – to make clear I am talking about evidence, and data. With older students I might explain how some of a religious persuasion are happy to accept their text as metaphorical in some respects, while others struggle to reconcile religious claims with scientific data. I will, when asked, tell them that I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I wouldn’t explicitly tell them that I think their beliefs are mistaken.

I would see personal medical issues as just that, personal. I’m happy to tell kids I’m asthmatic. Occasionally I’ve discussed – when relevant – my other biological oddity (no, not horns and a tail). But I can see two very good reasons to be cautious, both about welfare.

Firstly, and selfishly, giving kids information can make you vulnerable. Sad but true – you only need one student with a grudge to use that information and your life can be very difficult. Kids can be merciless when they find something they see as a weakness, whether it’s a stutter, a twitching eyebrow or something more.

Secondly, I would see this as potentially unprofessional. Students can look up to us; we are, like it or not, in positions of authority. If my children heard graphic details of a teacher’s surgery in primary school, I would have reason to complain. If a 14 year old, when challenged by a parent about self-injury, responds that “Miss X said they did/do it.” then it will raise all kinds of questions about professional boundaries. It’s a very fine line between open discussion and promotion. (And no, I couldn’t see this applying to sexuality, before anyone accuses me of homophobia – although the paragraph above may apply!)

It’s about what we say and how we say it. Telling my students I have 2.5 children isn’t unprofessional. Telling them how they were conceived or the details of childbirth would be.

I’ve seen guidance about how mental health issues of staff should be handled within the school setting. I’ve seen and fully support the campaigns such as Time To Change hoping to end discrimination and stigma around mental health issues. But I think we need to remember that just as doctors would hesitate before sharing their own health concerns with a patient, we should think twice. I’d love to hear about any specific examples suggesting that teachers should share sensitive personal issues like this with our pupils.

What I do online=/= what I do in the classroom

Finally, it was suggested that because I’ve tweeted about – for example – religion and politics, that this makes me unprofessional. I blogged ages ago about how teachers need to make a stand for their own personal life to be seen as separate from their professional persona. In the ‘real world’, I swear. I very occasionally drink alcohol. (Cider, in small quantities, because I’m a lightweight.) I eat more chocolate than I should.

None of those make me unprofessional. They make me human.

If sharing opinions outside my classroom about religion, politics, sex or anything else makes me unprofessional, then something’s gone badly wrong. If students choose to follow me on twitter (I block them when I can, but my professional account is unlocked and will stay that way) then they’re choosing to be exposed to those non-workplace opinions. And to be bored senseless about teaching stuff, incidentally.

If I was naming and shaming my students on twitter, that would be a problem. If I was openly criticising my workplace or colleagues, I’d be in the wrong. Live tweeting lessons with photos of students without clear consent? Not on. But spending gained time discussing national policies on mental health in young people, implications for the classroom and professional boundaries? That’s not just professional, that’s CPD.

Please comment and respond; I’m particularly interested in any links to model policies about what staff should or shouldn’t disclose to pupils about (mental) health. How do other professions handle it with potentially vulnerable clients/patients? What does the law say and what is the union position?

If you wish to share personal stories anonymously, either take care commenting or email me and I’ll add it stripped of any identifying metadata.

AQA 4/6mark Qs

The shortest post ever (to make up for the 1500word epic of the weekend): I’ve organised AQA questions from past papers with markschemes and examiners’ report comments. The 16 pages of this .pdf have the 4 and 6 mark questions at the front, followed by the relevant marking guidelines and what the examiners had to say afterwards. Last minute but possibly useful today?

6 mark Qs blog as .pdf

Northern Rocks

I had to get up early, on a Saturday.

It rained.

And I missed my train, so it was a really long day.

So in all, I had a fantastic day in Leeds. The speakers were great. The organisation was excellent. The food was good, even though I hadn’t booked anything. The company was funny, enthusiastic and friendly. The site was welcoming, although distinctly damp. The WiFi was highly reliable.

I even got a pen.


This is not going to be comprehensive, obviously. Every attendee will have been to a different conference, with different speakers, picking and mixing to suit themselves. As I did. So all I can do is give a flavour of the day, share links to my rough notes and write about how the day will change what happens for my pupils. In the end, as several speakers pointed out, this is the whole point of what we do.

(Comments in my notes and on here are paraphrases and summaries, in my words not theirs. Please let me know if you feel I have misrepresented the views expressed or points made during the sessions.)

Opening Panel

The speakers were interesting, and in many ways seemed to be in broad agreement.

  • Ofsted is a real problem, getting worse because it is being viewed as more and more political.
  • We need less politics in running schools an less interference in specifications.
  • Teachers work damn hard and we need to make sure it’s time well spent, on things that matter.

Differences became clearer when questions probed:

  • how we could ensure high standards without some form of central organisation – I found Dominic Cummings‘ answers about a market-led approach seemed to miss the point, and his insistence that Gove etc had tried to move away from centralization unconvincing when we consider phonics as a fundamental part of teacher standards, and all authority for a school leading to the DfE. But maybe that’s just me.
  • what we should do about the difficulties with Ofsted; most felt that we still need accountability but that, perhaps, a pass/fail approach would be more constructive. Dot Lepkowska was one who agreed that we need to completely remove political access and involvement with Ofsted, to avoid perception that it is being used for political motives.

Click here for my rough notes.


David Weston aka @informed_edu on Teacher Development

Chair of the Teacher Development Trust (see also: National Teacher Enquiry Network, The Good CPD Guide)

One of the main things I took away from David’s talk is how ineffective most CPD is – and for reasons that we can only change if schools are prepared to adjust their approach. He gave the example of watching bad TV, learning/confirming that we should eat more healthily – but nothing changes. A longer-term approach is needed, fewer ‘bits’ of CPD on topics that have nothing to do with student progress. 

David’s slides / My rough notes

My action points:

  1. Every CPD session should be explicitly focused on the effect it will have on student outcomes. Reflect and ask!
  2. Use the idea of 3 colleagues at different career stages in the same CPD session. These are  my ‘case colleagues’, and I should consider how each of them will take away different ideas; makes the concepts more ‘stract’ (my word, not David’s!)
  3. Spend more time on (teaching) diagnosis skills, rather than just interventions.
  4. Review characteristics of effective CPD and blog about how to build them into small group sessions about science teaching


Tim Taylor aka @imagineinquiry on the Mantle of the Expert

In many ways I wasn’t the right audience for this session, as the techniques have been much more widely explored in primary. I like the idea of a pervasive imaginary world that students can step in and out of; as a parent I’m very familiar with this! (I’ve a very clear memory of my eldest telling his brother earnestly, aged 7 and 3: “Quick, we need to escape from the Chickens of Doom!”). And the ideas of humans being wired to respond well to narrative approaches is one that resonates with me partly from reading about the concept of us being Pan narrans, the story-telling ape, in The Science of Discworld series.

Students taking the role of experts who are commissioned to complete particular tasks, involving cross-curricular learning, is fascinating. It will inevitably be less engaging in secondary when it can only take a relatively small part of the curriculum unless the timetable and teachers can make it work. It is something that I have used working with Year7 using the upd8 WIKID scheme, which can be great but has some very confusing sections. It’s a step up from role play as it links imagination and skills development more closely.

Tim’s presentationMy rough notes

My main thoughts:

  • Limited use across timetable in secondary without major timetable considerations and enthusiasm from management.
  • It would be interesting to examine whether these ideas were deliberately used for WIKID.
  • Develop role play for guest lessons, making clear need for teacher to take a subordinate role to encourage students into a more assertive one.
  • Review/rewrite current roleplays using the immersive principles described – Teaching as Story Telling, recommended by Tim, would be interesting to read if money/time permit.


Dr Jo Pearson aka @jopearson3 on Research Considerations in School

I’ve done a little formal action research and I think most teachers have at some point asked themselves, “What will happen if I change this?” This was the only session in which I was asked to do something, looking at the questions that previous students had wanted to use on a Masters unit. The discussion of ethics was interesting, as Jo made the point that we should perhaps consider this kind of formalised, evidence-driven reflection as a normal and necessary part of our jobs (she still encouraged us to check the BERA Ethics guidelines though). I found myself strongly agreeing with the idea that failing to share what we learn is an ethical failure all of its own.

My rough notes

My action points:

  • Use a wider definition of data eg pupil work decoded, recorded conversations
  • Try using Cogi app with classes during discussion and planning to assess understanding
  • Improved questions for research need to be much more specific, local rather than global. Teachers I work with need to be encouraged to look at much smaller aspects over a small timescale.
  • Buy the book if at all possible: Inquiring in the Classroom


Dr Phil Wood aka @geogphil on Lesson Study

This session was fascinating and is something I intend to spend more time on. Phil was very dismissive of the idea of judging a teacher, or a lesson, based on a brief observation and the cycle he described seems like a much more constructive approach. Basically, several colleagues plan together, predicting how different aspects will lead to outcomes for three ‘case students’. One delivers the planned lesson, while another observes the students, and afterwards they reflect together. Ideally this reflection involves student interviews and/or a second (tweaked) delivery to an equivalent class. And so the cycle continues.

philwood slide-6-638

I like that this is a much more collaborative approach, and Phil described how more and less experienced staff were all able to contribute. The pressure and judgement is removed and instead different approaches are trialed in a safe setting. “An expert teacher understands wider policy, and the micropolitics of the school, so they can subvert these contexts in the interest of learning.” (my wording)

Phil’s session slides / My rough notes

 Action Points:

  • Reading required: need to look into this topic and the varied formats of collaborative planning/deliver/reflection cycle
  • EDIT: really interesting description of using this in science teaching on @headguruteacher‘s blog.
  • Blog about the cycle in more detail, seeking comment on how used by classroom teachers (especially ASTs/HoDs?)
  • “Once you use a ticklist, you miss what isn’t on the list.” – how can I apply this to markschemes and my teaching?
  • Put together timescale – perhaps using distance collaboration tools – for ways to use this cycle in coaching.


Final Session

Probably the less said the better, although the activities were… interesting… and the music was great. It was a really positive event and it was followed by coffee. Hoorah.

As I hope the points above make clear, the sessions I was able to attend (and there were three times as many I would have liked to see, hopefully some of which I’ll catch up with from the recordings) are the start, not the end. I suspect the ideas will feature in future posts and hopefully the impact on students is something I’ll be able to see.

In all, Northern Rocks was a great day and I’m sure the other participants thought so too. Huge thanks to Debra and Emma, as well as the presenters and those behind the scenes. Blogs about the day are popping up everywhere, and with 500 attendees I have no intention of trying to link to them all here. Please do comment with any thoughts about these sessions, in particular if you’ve got resources or links to point me towards. Because I’m lazy. 🙂

Teaching With Evernote 2/2 The Software of Everything

If you already use Evernote and can already see how it might be useful in teaching, read on. If you’re less familiar, it means you didn’t read my previous post. Go now, I’ll wait.

Is everybody sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin

Evernote is a great way to organise resources and commentary on them. The note can include your thoughts about the lesson, while attached files contain a formal plan, printable resources, presentations, even audio files. What I find powerful is that everything for the lesson is in one place, and stays there. If – or more accurately, when – the specification changes again, you simply put a new contents page together, with links to your new running order of lessons.

Like so much in life, you get more out if you put more in. In the case of Evernote, this is literal; the more information you add to your notebooks, the more useful links you can make and the more material you have access to. I use it as an external memory for my brain, and these are some of the approaches which have helped me to make it work.

A note can have lots of Tags, and the tags can be put in ‘families’. So aqa has subtags P1, P2, ISA and so on. I could tag relevant lessons with the appropriate unit for another exam board too, and probably will in the future.

It’s really only recently that I’ve made the most of being able to have distinct Notebooks. A note can only be in one at a time, but you can move them freely. So a note might get moved from freelance to old projects when I finish a piece of work. I find that tags for lessons work better than notebooks, because the same resources might be helpful with two year groups.

You can set up custom searching very easily and saving these searches will make it easy to find what you need. This might be for recent notes, or a combination of tags, or either of two tags in a particular notebook. Along with creating your own contents pages (one of several ideas in this Lifehacker post) this means information is where you expect it to be with a minimum of fuss.

One Place For Everything…

I try to use bits and pieces of David Allen’s Getting Things Done; this is practically a religion in some parts of the internet, mainly those that spell colour without the u. (A simplified version is explained by ZenHabits here.) Some aspects aren’t useful for me, but I really like the idea of ubiquitous capture. Put simply, this means that if you’ll need something, anything,  later then you record it in one place. It might be a notebook – I’m a Moleskine fan myself, I must admit – but for many online things you need an electronic destination.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly by recording ideas and jobs as they come to mind you can stop worrying about them. Reducing those background thoughts reduces stress. Secondly, it means you can spend time going through everything in one go, when it’s convenient. Each item then gets deleted, finished, added to your jobs list, saved for later, turned into a reminder on your calendar… you get the idea.

A lot of notes will be saved for reference – addresses and dates for example. You won’t need them on a regular basis and you don’t need to do anything with them. But many of the others will need to be tagged #action, or merged with other notes as jobs lists for individual projects. How fast you make progress on these will be, if you’re anything like me, highly variable.

Churchill: "Action This Day"
Churchill: “Action This Day” from Lateral Works


…And Everything in Its Place

To make this easier I’m slowly turning everything I do into a ‘funnel’ for Evernote. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a note on my phone, or snapping a picture. If in doubt, these go to the default folder, Inbox. (This is actually _Inbox for me so it shows up at the top of the list, as explained in this productivity post.)

There are several ways to link with your browser so you can share directly, adjusting tags and destination notebook as you prefer. Often you can choose whether the whole page, a selection or just the address is saved. You will need admin rights so unfortunately this may not be practical on work machines.

evernote tips

Download the above flowchart as a .pdf

I use Gmail which means I can use labels and filters. These are rules which act, for example, on any email I label as ‘work’ by forwarding it to another account. Your Evernote account comes with a dedicated email address which leads to your notes.

For mailing lists which I know will produce work items, I can use a dedicated alias (eg which your filters can be set to recognise and forward without you ever seeing it. When you move workplace, the filter gets changed but you don’t have a dozen mailing lists to alter.

A final powerful tool is IFTTT (If This Then That) which links different online tools. A trigger in one account will cause a response leading to another. So if I add a star to one of the blog items in my RSS reader, IFTTT notices this and sends a copy to my Evernote. Because the categories are matched with my notebooks, it arrives already organised.

Actually Doing Stuff

Of course, organising everything is a waste of time if nothing happens. Going through the Inbox is when I finish small jobs, or start the bigger ones. Sometimes it’s about ticking off the next step in a process. My earlier post talked about how I’m using Evernote to save all the resources for each individual lesson. The lesson itself is planned back to front, starting with how I’ll evaluate the kids’ understanding of the ideas, then thinking how to engage them, then considering ways for us to explore the concepts. Regular readers will recognise these as shuffled steps in the 5/7Es process. Of course your own planning process will vary but can easily be converted into a template for comprehensive notes.

Fine Print
  1. All the above links for Evernote are referrals, which means if you use them to start your own account I get a free month of Premium access and extra upload space (as do you, FWIW). It doesn’t cost you anything extra but if you’d prefer not to, follow this unaffiliated link instead.
  2. As usual, if this post has helped your professional practice I’d appreciate a brief comment via this GoogleForm; you do not need to leave your name and there is no chance of a cash reward, but it’s good karma.