Archive for the ‘Notes’ category


Adjective Game for English Lessons

I’ve had a very quick stab at hacking together a simple version of a game I used to play as a child.

Whoever is playing chooses their adjectives and then these are dropped randomly into a famous story.

I’ve grabbed the opening to Alice in Wonderland from Project Gutenberg as a first effort. Would love to hear some other possible suggestions.

You can download the game here.


Seymour Papert

Seymour Papert


“When it comes to thinking about learning, nearly all of us have a School side of the brain, which thinks that school is the only natural way to learn, and a personal side that knows perfectly well that it’s not.”

Seymour Papert, The Children's Machine

Research on Ability Grouping and Setting in Maths Classes

I’ve been trying to tie together some of the various bits of research I’ve come across for and against ability grouping in maths. Below is what I’ve got so far, but would love any other pointers, for or against.

The last 30 years’ research suggests setting marginally improves high-achievers, but to the detriment of everyone else.
Sources are: DfES (2004) Making Mathematics Count (London: TSO), Askew, M. and Wiliam, D. (1995) Recent Research in Mathematics Education 5-16 (London: HMSO), Sukhnandan, L. (1998) Streaming, setting and grouping by ability: a review of the literature (Slough: NFER), Education Endowment Foundation, http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/ability-grouping/

This may be for various reasons but some relevant findings are:

  1. Summer births are penalised (Much like ice-hockey players with December birthdays) (Ed Endowment link above)
  2. Approximately one-third of the students taught in the highest ability groups were disadvantaged by their placement in these groups because of high expectations, fast-paced lessons and pressure to succeed. This particularly affected the most able girls.
    Boaler, J., William, D., & Brown, M. “Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure.” – http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csme/meas/papers/boaler.html
  3. Surprisingly, too, we all as teachers actually differentiate more poorly in set classes than when teaching mixed ability classes, teachers typically use methods and materials that allow students to progress at their own pace through suitably differentiated material. By contrast “setted lessons are often conducted as though students are not only similar, but identical – in terms of ability, preferred learning style and pace of working.” (Boaler and Wiliam)
  4. Setting is for life, though, not just for Christmas. Most children never change sets.
    Ollerton, M. (2001) “Inclusion, learning and teaching mathematics” in Gates ed. (2001b: 261-76)
  5. And nobody is very good at setting well. We are all more fallible and subjective than we like to admit.
    Watson, A. (2001) “Making judgements about pupils’ mathematics” in Gates ed. (2001b: 217-31)
  6. Ability grouping within a class has had tentatively positive results.
    Sukhnandan 1998: 17-8, 37-9. see above
  7. The conclusion from the research is that if it helps, it helps teachers more than children
    Director of IoE, Chris Husbands, https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/setting-by-ability-what-is-the-evidence/
  8. The most successful maths countries set the least – PISA rankings

What to avoid when teaching

Durham University, the Sutton Trust and CEM published an interesting report called “What Makes Great Teaching” in October 2014. It’s an overview of what research appears to be telling us at the moment.

While it would be wonderful to think there is a simple, step-by-step formula to a perfect lesson, I’m not at all convinced it exists. In fact, I tend to think any complicated scenarios (classrooms, trading floors, warzones etc) preclude those sorts of plans beyond the “Stay in touch, keep moving and head for the high ground” heuristics.

One of the sections that caught my eye, though, was a list of things that don’t work. That instantly appeals.

The Don’ts

Don’t use praise lavishly.

This is Dweck, Hattie and others.

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

Don’t allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Research evidence broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006).

if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

Don’t group learners by ability

Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014). If anything,

[it] can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

Don’t encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas

Highlighting feels good but is deceptive – it doesn’t really work. A range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches. (My notes on some of these studies are here)

Don’t address issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content

The effect of trying to boost morale before the content is near-zero. Poor motivation is actually a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.

Don’t present information to learners in their preferred learning style

Over 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”. Sadly, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

Don’t ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember

If you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This might be achieved by being ‘active’ or ‘passive’.


Careful Documentation

This (thank you Cristina) is a great mini-documentary about the impact of documentation as used in the Reggio Emilia schools and with the Making Learning Visible project

Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective from Melissa Rivard on Vimeo.

Intuitively, I am wholeheartedly behind this sort of approach. Instinctively, too, I worry about the biases that come with collecting. A while ago, I was interested in collecting and the biases, problems and difficulties with that. Documentation is clearly prone to that.

To summarise, though it’s a little jarring as a quote, you can use the wonderful Culture of Collecting:

“… if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by ‘shit’, if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing … and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense ‘our own’, then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch.”

Often the display work you see published online, or the student portfolios is similarly kitsch. Student work can be work that is “cleansed” by teachers, so to speak. Displays, while often remarkably talented, are also often remarkably kitsch.

Where the documentary scores for me is that those involved clearly see who “owns” the documentation to be an issue. For older students, what is helpful is that they become the protagonist in their own documentation. That, for me, is the exciting part. And that is what stops it being kitsch.


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“Tyrrany is the deliberate enemy of nuance”

Albert Maysles

Kurt Vonnegut, Art & Making Your Soul Grow

In 2006, an English teacher called Ms. Lockwood asked her students to write to their favourite author and ask him or her to visit the school. This was Kurt Vonnegut’s response.

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Trophic Cascades and Wolves


Making It Stick

Dogears from Make It Stick. Note to self – formatting on blog seems to have gone AWOL…

The Illusion of Mastery

V common

“The fact that you can repeat the phrases in a text or your lecture notes is no indication that you understand the significance of the precepts they describe, their application or how they relate to what you already know about the subject.”


A lead-pencil has a point, an argument may have a point, remarks may be pointed, and a man who wants to borrow five pounds from you only comes to the point when he asks you for the fiver. Lots of things have points: especially weapons. But where is the point to life? Where is the point to love? Where, if it comes to the point, is the point to a bunch of violets? There is no point. Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.

D. H. LAWRENCE (1885–1930)