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Michaela’s Blog

Posted on February 13, 2016 by Joe Kirby

Experiences of a Supply Teacher

Charlie Caroll was a successful 28-year old teacher in a great school, who loved his job. In 2008, he decided to become a supply teacher in different cities in England. His encounters bewildered him so much that he wrote a book about them. After reading ‘On The Edge’, I wrote to Charlie and asked if I could share extracts from his book on this blog. Charlie kindly agreed, so here is the first of two blogposts sharing a supply teacher’s experience of tough schools in England, starting in Nottingham.


Tompkins Technology College. Children were running around, yelling and tussling wherever I looked. ‘Morning, Year 10,’ I hollered over the din. ‘Time to sit down, please.’ Chairs were being flung over, snatches of insults occasionally broke free of the general hubbub, and it appeared that no-one had heard me.

‘Year 10!’ I shouted again, this time louder. ‘Seats, please!’

I looked at my watch; by the time I had everyone seated and looking in my general direction, seven minutes of the lesson had been wasted.

I started to introduce myself. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘My name is Mr Carroll, and I’m here for the next week or so. Today, we’re going to be working on…’-

‘For f*ck’s sake!’ one girl exploded. ‘Give it back, you bitch!’ More yelling, more chairs falling over as they fought over a stolen object. I tried to make them return to their seats, but three minutes passed before they tired of fighting and sat back down. Other pupils ignored me completely and talked amongst themselves. The noise grew. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘We need to …’ ‘No-one’s listening to you,’ one lad told me. I wrote the task on the board: Write a letter to your Headteacher, persuading him to get rid of school uniform.

‘Right, girls,’ I said. ‘What I need you to do is…’ ‘I’m doing it!’ erupted one of them, Tracey. ‘God! Just f*ck off, will you?’

‘I can’t have you talking to me like that,’ I said, calmly. ‘Please go and stand outside.’

She clapped her hands, hoorayed and rushed out of the door. When I checked a moment or two later, she had vanished, taking the opportunity to go for a 20-minute walk around the school.

Suddenly a boy burst into the room. Ignoring me, he reached into his bag and produced a large box of fizzy sweets.

‘Who wants some?’ he shouted. ‘No!’ I protested, but I was ignored by all as they swamped the newcomer.

I had just about got them seated again, when a fight between two 16-year-olds erupted outside my room, and the entire class rushed out to chant and holler. Another five minutes wasted.

Once they were all back inside again, a dark-haired lad suddenly leapt across his table and began stabbing another boy in the back of the hand with a straightened paperclip, drawing blood. Tracey came back, and her return sparked a loud argument among her front-row friends. ‘F*ck off, ya white bitch!’ ‘That’s racist!’

Five minutes before the end of the lesson, the class unanimously decided to pack up and walk out, despite my protestations.


As the bell for break-time went, I tried to set up the classroom for the Year 8s and ready myself. The second bell sounded, and they arrived. There followed two hours of noise – of frantic, urgent, unstoppable noise – which echoed about the room with deafening resonance.

Omar had a penchant for sneaking up to the board whenever I had my back turned to draw large and often spurting penises. Zoe had to be moved five or six times after starting loud arguments with anybody she happened to be close to. Raymond made his best friend cry when he graffitied the words ‘Mr Carroll swallows’ on to the cover of his book, held it up for me and the rest of the class to see, and then exclaimed ‘Sir! Look what Dimitri wrote!’ Sharn, after ceaseless taunting from Zoe, unloaded her tormentor’s bag all over the floor, kicked aside her chair, and then stormed out, never to return. And just when I thought it could get no worse, Luke calmly walked over to Habib, and spat on his head.

‘Luke!’ I shouted, my temper close to ripping. ‘Go and stand outside of the room now!’ The boy’s face filled with anger. ‘You can’t send me out,’ he spat. ‘I didn’t do anything! If you send me out, I’ll break your nose.’

‘It’s a very serious thing,’ I began, ‘to threaten a teacher, Luke –‘

‘I don’t care!’ he yelled. ‘I didn’t do anything!’ With that, he ran from the classroom. I followed, but by the time I reached the door he had disappeared. I came back in. A paper aeroplane sailed over and bounced lightly off the top of my head. ‘Oi, sir!’ Terry called out, ‘Chuck it back!’

I spent five days in Nottingham, enduring insults and continuous disobedience, having to make any request at least six times before it was even acknowledged.

I vividly remember a Year 7 lad obnoxiously shouting at his classmate, an orphaned Somali refugee, ‘At least I’ve got a family to go home to! At least I’ve got a family to go home to!’

On entering my lesson, a year 10 girl sang (to the tune of ‘If You’re Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands’):

‘If you think Sir’s a waste,

Clap your hands.

If you think Sir’s a waste,

Slap him round the face

If you think Sir’s a waste,

Clap your hands’.

I stopped her at the door. ‘Tracey,’ I said, ‘there is no way I can let you into this classroom now.’

‘What the f**k are you talking about?’ she hollered, spinning in circles and addressing the gang of youths surrounding her. ‘I ain’t done nothing!’

‘Tracey, I heard full well what you were singing,’ I said. ‘I cannot let you into this classroom after that.’

She shouted back: ‘Are you f**king mad? I wasn’t even singing! What the f**k is wrong with you?’ I tried to start the lesson. But it was difficult. Tracy was outside screaming so loudly that she drowned out my instructions. Abdul threw a chair at Peter. Vicky began playing loud dance music on her phone. Alan stole Tyrone’s left shoe, and ran about the room with it ululating. Charmaine produced a lighter, and tried to set fire to Tyrone’s exposed sock. And, all the while, Tracey stood outside, shouting that I was a twat, a prick, a wanker. Kris, a quiet lad, came up to me and, with a wry smile, said: ‘You know, the Head would probably have come and got her by now if you was a normal teacher. But you’re just a supply teacher.’

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Will advance ominously towards Ashley. ‘What did you just say?’ Will hissed, squaring up to Ashley. Will pushed Ashley hard. Ashley fell back a few steps and then flung a wild swing at Will’s head. It was all Will, the larger of the two, needed. Grabbing Ashley by the jumper, he struck him twice in the face. ‘Stop that!’ I shouted, but Will ignored me. As Ashley careered backwards, he advanced, smashing him in the face with another resounding punch which spun the smaller boy around. Will kicked him hard in the back, sending Ashley flying out over a chair and on to the floor. As he lay there, Will stamped on his stomach.

As Will stood backwards, I stepped into the gap. Heady with adrenalin myself, both arms splayed outwards to prevent him moving any closer to the floored Ashley, I said, ‘Get out!’ He looked at me, and then at Ashley. ‘Get out now!’ I said. Will turned and left. The class, for the first time that day, were completely silent.

Violence in many tough schools is a reality pupils and teachers have to deal with. In one year alone, 740 children were permanently excluded for assaulting teachers; 8,240 were temporarily excluded. In many cases, nothing is done about it.


Next week, I’ll share extracts from Charlie’s experiences in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Yorkshire, Liverpool and London. His book is called On The Edge.



Posted on January 28, 2016 by Dani Quinn

Long-Term Solutions (Or: Why Make a Textbook)

This is my sixth year of teaching and I think it’s the first time I have taught equations properly to a KS3 class. I was almost there last year, and thought I was doing it well, but I now know there are several topics where I completely let the pupils down. This post is about how I could have been better-prepared earlier in my career, and avoided leaving later teachers with a mess to clean up.


Naveen Rizvi’s piece yesterday in the TES caused a stir that surprised me. Many people had a negative reaction beyond what I would have expected (I won’t link to them) and was followed by some negativity – or at least concern and alarmed questions – when Bodil subsequently shared an example of two pages from the booklets we give to pupils.

As I see it, these are some of the main barriers preventing pupils from achieving their potential in maths that CAN’T be dealt with by better resourcing:

  1. Limited working memory (i.e. there is a limit to how many new concepts the pupil can form and connect in a single lesson
  2. Fear of maths; strong and paralysing anxiety around maths



  1. Poor mathematical foundations from primary age
  2. Poor literacy (insofar as it limits their access to everything in education, and their ability to practise independently)



  1. Unsupportive home environment that leaves the pupil unprepared for school in a practical or emotional sense
  2. Low attendance
  3. Fixed mindset around maths, often meeting its first major challenge at secondary
  4. Passive behaviour. This could charitably be called low motivation, or disengagement. It could less charitably be called laziness.
  5. Disruptive behaviour and avoidance techniques
  6. Their peers’ disruptive behaviour
  7. A class culture that doesn’t value effort and hard work
  8. A class culture that penalises mistakes and revealing or discussing errors
  9. A class culture that makes it uncool to want to see the links between ideas in maths
  1. A weak teacher who isn’t trying to improve (either wilfully, or due to disenchantment borne of circumstances)
  2. A weak teacher who is trying to improve but isn’t there fast enough (typically an NQT, a teacher transferred from another dept (usually PE or geography), or a teacher who has been neglected in terms of development)


Possible solutions:Improved teacher pedagogy and understanding of how memories and connections are formed.

Improved teacher understanding of what fixed and growth mind-set actually is (not just a gimmick to console pupils when they underperform… my heart bleeds for Dweck).

Possible solutions:Effective intervention and catch-up programmes in school (ideally supported at home).


Possible solutions:School leadership foments a culture that challenges this (supported by classroom culture created by individual teachers), either through super-high expectations/tough love or alternative approach that challenges and changes issues that hold pupils back in school. Possible solutions:Head of Department leads maths-focused CPD
Caveats:This is not easy. ITT doesn’t seem to cover this adequately, and it appears to be a relatively new part of most teachers’ pedagogy*, relatively complex to understand and highly complex to begin to incorporate into practice (particularly for the weakest pupils).

* This is, of course, excluding some very experienced and successful practitioners. In their case, it appears to be something they’ve come to understand intuitively and isn’t easily shared as it isn’t codified.

Caveats:There are many programmes that appear to have high impact in closing the gap between pupils’ reading and chronological ages, or the gaps in their mathematical foundations. In particular, direct instruction programmes such as Connecting Maths Concepts (McGraw-Hill scripted direct instruction programme) and Lexia appear to be effective ‘off-the-shelf’ interventions (based on my own experience!). Caveats:Really brave leadership on school culture, especially in challenging circumstances, is too rare (in my limited experience). Many bloggers have written about the gap between their school’s behaviour policy and the ‘real behaviour policy’ (teachers are left to defend their own classrooms, with little or no back up). In the best cases I’ve seen, there is total clarity about the positive, learning-focused culture the headmaster/mistress seeks to embed, and the behaviour policy serves this and is always upheld. Caveats:This is incredibly time-consuming. Most HoDs simply don’t have the capacity to do this well. The number of conflicting interests they have makes this difficult: teaching as many of the critical/tricky classes as possible (as they are, hopefully, one of the strongest teachers), writing SOWs, managing staff shortage (it is maths, after all), retaining staff and keeping them happy, improving teaching quality. And, ideally, reading widely to prepare for new exam specs and maths education research…!

However, there are more issues than this that are – I think – relatively neglected outside of the rarefied atmosphere of online edu-chat and conferences.

Barriers created in lessons:

  1. An capable but exhausted teacher who can’t prepare adequately for lessons (their department is under-resourced and teach a full and varied timetable)
  2. Confusion about what they should be covering to prepare for the end of Y11 (it is unclear what the pupils covered in Y7-9, or in how much detail; there is uncertainty about what should *actually* be taught when they see ‘averages, 1 week’ on the SOW… Does it mean calculating the mean, median, mode and range only, or complex questions where some values are missing and then one value is changed?).
  3. Painfully optimistic allocations of timing to teach topics (expressions – 1 week; fractions – 2 weeks), due to insufficient clarity about what should actually be taught.
  4. A gap between what they cover in lessons (superficial) and the rigour of the exam (increasingly higher, hopefully). A recent example of this was the GCSE question: Solve for a: 2a + a + a = 18. This question is beyond trivial, but many teachers had not prepared their class for the possibility that simplifying and solving could be used in the same problem.
  5. Unclear explanations, or rule-based explanations, that makes it difficult for pupils to use their knowledge flexibly or to ask useful questions (e.g. “change side, change sign” to solve linear equations because it seems quicker and easier, or convoluted steps to solve simultaneous equations).
  6. Inadequately scaffolded and varied practice in lessons that doesn’t prepare them for the variety of forms maths can take in the real world (or in exams…) (We all suffer from textbooks that escalate the difficulty of questions too quickly, so that your weakest pupils get only 2-3 questions practising questions in the form a+3=10 before they’re moved onto the other three operations).
  7. The practice gap (i.e. getting much less practice than pupils in other schools). Most textbooks DON’T HAVE ENOUGH QUESTIONS. At all. Most of the newest books boast how many more questions they have. It is not enough. If a pupil has only just begun to grasp a procedure, they need to do it many times to build their confidence and then begin very careful and gradual variations.
  8. Pupils forgetting that they have learned something (“I swear down they never taught us that”). This comes from haphazard, or no, continuous revision or interleaving (weaving old topics into current topics).
  9. Pupils doing what seems obvious to solve a problem, rather than what is mathematically correct (e.g. writing that 3/4 + 1/2 = 4/6). As above, an absence of revision and interleaving.
  10. Pupils knowing they’ve learned something, but muddle it (e.g. calculating the mean when asked to comment on the median). Also as above…

I am increasingly convinced that a good textbook would begin to address these ten problems. A good textbook:

  1. Offers interesting talks and prompts for pupils to have high-quality discussions in pairs and with the class. These can range from puzzles to problems that provoke cognitive dissonance (e.g. which is closer to 1/2, 1/3 or 1?)
  2. Offers worthwhile questions that allow pupils to use multiple strategies to solve a problem or to calculate (e.g. 4.5 x 24)
  3. Plans for revisiting old topics, particularly those that are high impact (directed numbers, fractions, equations, manipulation, mental maths, calculation) or easily confused (e.g. minimally different topics such as perimeter and area)
  4. Has carefully and thoughtfully sequenced content in the big picture (e.g. equations preceding graphs) and in the fine detail (e.g. breaking down directed numbers into the many strands of understanding and procedure that pupils need to grasp).
  5. Has identified key examples that a teacher might want to use with a class, covering the most important problem-types for a concept or procedure.
  6. Offers clear and highly accurate explanations of WHY something works.
  7. Has distilled clear steps to scaffold pupils’ work as they begin to tackle a new procedure.
  8. Offers memory devices to help pupils retain and recall concepts or steps (Chants for the 7 times tables, or mnemonics such a KFC for dividing fractions (Keep the first, Flip the other, Change to times, it’s no bother).
  9. Offers LOTS of practise at each level of difficulty in a procedure.
  10. Has lots of interleaving available, but sectioned off, so that the teacher can judge the level of complexity students should experience.

None of this replaces planning lessons. You still want to share enthusiasm, build excitement, anticipate common errors and misconceptions, explain clearly, model explicitly and unambiguously, check for understanding, grow their confidence in the face of setbacks, celebrate success, maintain pace and focus in a safe and happy environment and – of course – go back and refine the plan and resource after you’ve taught it. This all takes planning, deep thought about your classes and huge love of maths. I don’t understand how the existence of such a resource would compromise the idea that teachers tailor their teaching to their classes.

Sadly, such a resource doesn’t appear to exist. That’s why we’re making a textbook. Please get in touch, have a look, and help up improve it!

Posted on 12 November, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

I could care less: detentions for pens

Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.

Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?

It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:

View image on Twitter

140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.

High standards, high support

Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.

Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.

Some common responses were:

“A conversation is better than a detention”

“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”

“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”

“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”

You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.

We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.

Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.

If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.

Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.

We have high standards, but we also have high support.

Nudging, signalling

Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?


A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.

Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.

The whys and wherefores

Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?

A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.

Why don’t we?

Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.

Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.

Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.

Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.

Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.

Care is a doing word

We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.

I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.


Posted on 11 November, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

What do you want to get out of twitter?

What do you want to get out of twitter?

Do you want to self-promote? Do you want others to congratulate you when things are good and commiserate when things are tough?

Do you want to be intellectually stimulated and challenged? Do you want to debate and pull apart your ideas? Do you want to be forced to defend your stance so you question things more closely?

If you want to do the former, the strategies suggested by Sue Cowley and Teacher Toolkit make perfect sense. Mute, block, ignore. (Everyone does this a little: you tire of engaging with a certain line of debate or individual and stop responding.)

But I believe you are missing out on a massively beneficial side of twitter if you do so as a general policy. You’re missing out on the chance to develop your thinking.

What I’d like to challenge, though, is the perception that people who engage in robust and forthright debate care less. They (we?) are often painted as uncaring and emotionless. That’s simply not true.

You do not have a monopoly on emotion simply because you choose to ignore or react badly to forthright discussion.

I have emotional responses to tone that feels off. I have my fair share of mental health issues. I have received tweets where my instinctual reaction was one of anger, or sadness, or frustration.

But I know that’s just an emotion. I can control my reaction to it. I can control my thoughts stemming from it. I can certainly control the actions I take – including what tweet I send in response.

I think it’s a real shame if your choice of action is to block, or to respond emotionally rather than engaging in the substance of the argument. I think it’s a shame if your choice of thoughts is the least charitable interpretation (“that person doesn’t care about children” rather than “I wonder what’s led them to think that”). I think you’re likely to learn less and grow less.

But. As I said. Your choice.

Posted on November 8, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Grammar and the Art of Writing: ResearchED Literacy

Here is a write up of the presentation I gave at ResearchED Literacy in Swindon yesterday, in case anyone missed it and is interested in what I have to say about grammar (feel free not to be!).

What makes a good writer?

When I first began teaching English, I thought carefully about what it meant to be a great writer, and how I might be able to help my pupils get better at writing themselves. At the time, I was reading ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates. It has since become one of my favourite books, and I re-read it at least once every year. The story is good, but I adore Yates’ writing style. There’s something beautiful about the way it flows. Struck by a couple of wonderfully rich, yet concise, sentences of his, I came to a conclusion. I believe that great writing is characterised by the ability to control and manipulate clauses. So that is what I needed to help my pupils get better at: controlling clauses. By beginning with a clear goal in mind, it is easier to understand the direction and purpose of grammar teaching. From there, I began working out what knowledge pupils needed to know in order to be able to control clauses effectively.

Parts of Speech

Joe Kirby began sequencing a grammar curriculum into three parts: the parts of speech, syntax rules, and punctuation rules. I agreed that these were helpful categories.

One of the main criticisms grammar receives is that parsing sentences is a waste of time. I hear some teachers say that knowing that the word ‘run’ can be both a noun and a verb is unnecessary. I can understand why some may see it this way. On the surface, knowing the parts of speech doesn’t appear to be particularly useful. However, since I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come across a number of examples that demonstrate why this knowledge is in fact extremely helpful.

Take the following examples:

He married an intelligent, charismatic woman.

 He wore a bright red coat.

 Why is a comma necessary in the first sentence, but not the second? The parts of speech hold the answer: ‘intelligent’ and ‘charismatic’ are two adjectives and therefore should be separated by a comma. ‘Bright’, however, is an adverb modifying the adjective ‘red’, so no comma is necessary. Knowledge of the parts of speech also enables us to understand why we say a ‘bright red coat’ rather than a ‘red bright coat’. Red does not qualify the adjective bright; rather, the adverb ‘bright’ tells us how red the coat is.

Whilst most people will intuit this knowledge, many people will not. As teachers, we should be as systematic as possible to ensure that every pupil knows how to punctuate sentences properly. Even the humble listing comma cannot be applied correctly without an understanding of the parts of speech.

I gave more examples of this during the talk. I’ve attached the presentation to the bottom of this blog post if you’d like to read more on this.


Sequencing a grammar curriculum is key. I argue that it ought to have 20% of curriculum time at KS3. Over three years, pupils ought to study 9 units.

Year 7: The basics of the parts of speechsyntax and punctuation. These units should provide a broad overview. For example, when teaching the parts of speech, you wouldn’t want to go into the detail of types of nouns (proper, common, abstract, etc.) as this will overload pupils. Instead, simply teach them what a noun is. Come back to nouns in year 8 and then teach the different types.

 Year 8: Detailed breakdown of the same three units. Here is your opportunity to teach the more nuanced aspects of what was taught the year before.

Year 9: Deepen pupils’ knowledge of the complexities of grammar. A strong emphasis should be placed on its impact on meaning.

A Grammar Lesson

Grammar lessons should be ‘DEaD’ good: that is, it should contain a clear definition, illuminating examples and unrelenting drills.

For example, when teaching adjectives to year 7, I would begin the lesson with a recap of the parts of speech that I have taught previously. I would do this by giving pupils a few phrases to parse, for example:

Our house

Lucy’s kite

A window

The door! Jamie!

Karen’s doll.

 Next, introduce the concept. At Michaela, we have created a short story about grammar. In each chapter, a new part of speech is introduced in the form of a personified character. The Adjective Ladies are the eponymous heroines of this lesson. They are a group of gossipy old women who sit around and describe people. The story contains several examples of adjectives, all italicised.

The next step is to learn the definition. Pupils learn that adjectives describe nouns and we chant this together as a class. This is quickly followed by a sequence of examples and non-examples.

Once pupils are consistently giving correct responses to the question ‘adjective or not an adjective’, they are ready to practice. Begin by asking them to circle the adjectives from a list of simple words. Increase the challenge in subsequent activities by asking them to circle the adjectives in simple sentences, then more challenging sentences. Increase the challenge further by asking them to tell you which noun the adjective describes in every example.

Finish the lesson by carrying out further parsing activities, this time including adjectives. For example:

Our lovely house

Jane’s delicious meal

The music? Wonderful!

Matilda: a reader

Frightening, that ride.

 To ensure pupils don’t forget this in between grammar lessons, and to increase the chances that they will apply grammar to writing across other lessons, carry out daily drill exercises. For the first five minutes of every lesson, pupils parse a few sentences/ underline all the subjects/ punctuate sentences with non-restrictive clauses, etc. as appropriate. On the whole, these should be aligned to the unit you are currently teaching them, but recap of previously taught content is also helpful.

Thanks to Tom Bennett, David Didau and Ruth Robinson for organising what was a brilliant event. I’d highly recommend looking into the work of James MurphyEric Kalenzeand Dianne Murphy. I attended their talks yesterday and all three were totes amaze!

Here is the PowerPoint I delivered yesterday, which includes the sample lesson I have explained above: ResearchED Literacy Grammar

Posted on October 31, 2015 by Joe Kirby

Marking is a hornet

Written marking takes up huge amounts of teachers’ time. If the average teacher marks for just over 5 hours a week, that’s 200 hours of marking a year. In a secondary school of 100 teachers, that’s 20,000 hours of marking.

Written marking is non-renewable: it’s a one-off. Each written comment I put in a pupil’s book only impacts once on that one pupil. What else could we do with that 20,000 hours, that would impact more positively on future pupils and other teachers? Marking has a very low ratio of impact-to-effort, and a very high opportunity cost.


There are much better ways to share feedback so pupils improve. There are much better ways to focus teachers’ limited time. That is why we no longer mark pupils’ books at our school – at all.

Feedback is a butterfly

Feedback is effective when it is timely (not too late after the task), frequent (not too scarce) and acted on (not ignored). Written marking often militates against this: teachers burn out and it becomes less timely, less frequent and less acted on by pupils and teachers.

There are many ways of giving feedback without written marking:


At Michaela, we are continually working on making our feedback have the highest-impact possible on learning:


Our feedback maximises the responsibility pupils take for self-checking, correcting, editing and redrafting their work. It maximises preemptive teaching, preventing frequent errors and common misconceptions; it minimises laborious, slow, reactive written comments. Although we still read pupil books, score exams, and circle misspellings to be corrected within lessons, we have scrapped written marking of pupil books outside lessons altogether. To monitor marking as evidence to hold teachers accountable for pupil progress is an illusion – comforting for managers, but unhelpful for teachers and pupils.

What we’ve found is that this shift transforms staff culture. No teacher has to take home books in evenings, weekends and holidays; no manager is scrutinising pupil books for frequent teacher comments; no teacher is desperately marking books at the last minute before an impending book scrutiny. Instead, teachers are trusted. Teachers can focus on teaching well, ensuring every pupil is understanding and remembering, and helping their pupils love their subjects. Our pupils are motivated, working harder than they ever have before, and improving their writing fast, as they take responsibility for checking and improving it.

When the school has 100 teachers, stopping teachers from marking even just 5 hours a week will save us 20,000 hours every year. Good school leaders stop people from doing good things, so they focus on better things. Next time, I’ll blog about moving fromunsustainable marking loads to renewable resourcing.

Posted on October 18, 2015 by Jessica Lund

Discovery Learning: The Story of the Rubik’s Cube

Starring the inimitable Bodil Isaksen, the amazing Sarah Clear, the redoubtable Katie Ashford, and the wonderful geeks of Michaela Community School

In a bid to make my lengthy commute more enjoyable, I have been experimenting with a range of pastimes on the tube: listening to audiobooks; playing (losing) chess against my phone; ensuring a liberal distribution of croissant crumbs about my person.

I found a new activity a week ago. While talking to the excellent Ms Isaksen in her classroom, I noticed the small pile of Rubik’s cubes she keeps there as prizes for exceptional performance in Maths. She lent me one to play with, and a new obsession was born. I had played with Rubik’s cubes in my early teens, although I had never learned to solve one.

In the following week, I muddled and fiddled and shuffled my way around the cube. I got really good at solving one side, but was utterly flummoxed after that point. I thought that either it was a matter of time until I cracked it, or that I just wasn’t Rubik’s cube material. Meanwhile, my colleague Ms Clear solved one in fewer than 3 minutes in front of my form, to the awe and applause of the kids.

It was then that I bit the bullet and looked up the solution online. I figured that if I wasn’t making any headway in solving one myself, I could learn from the experts. So, I wrote down the algorithms and, lo and behold, I solved the cube. And then I solved it again. I started to see the interrelation of the movements to the positions of the pieces, and the first few steps at least became completely automatic. I was soon able, with the help of the algorithms, to solve a cube in less than 6 minutes. It felt like a real triumph.

A lovely side-effect of my determination was that a group of about 15 pupils would ask to play with the cube every break time, and huddle together helping one another to put certain pieces in certain places. They were all wonderfully confident in their ability to solve the cube, even though they never had before. This confidence usually wore off after about 20 minutes of play.

I realised that my pupils, Ms Clear and I fell into three distinct categories.

Ms Clear has a well-developed understanding of the interrelation of the pieces on the cube, and a seemingly innate sense of how to solve one. She can solve a cube with ease.

The pupils have boundless enthusiasm, but no real understanding of how the cube works or how to solve one. Without guidance, they become quickly disenchanted when their efforts go unrewarded.

I had no real understanding of how the cube worked, but I was shown the answer by somebody with expertise, and as a result came to understand and be able to solve the cube. I was then able to practice until the steps became embedded and automatic.

While showing off my new skills to my fellow teachers, I explained that I was ‘cheating’ – that I’d looked up the algorithms and followed them, because I was fed up of not knowing how to do it. Ms Ashford chimed in that this was an amazing analogy for discovery learning, something that we have quite strong feelings about at Michaela. She had, in just a few words, summarised exactly what was going on.

In a discovery learning classroom, you have two kinds of pupil – the pupils who get it (Ms Clear) and the pupils who don’t (me). The pupils who get it feel clever; the pupils who don’t feel stupid. This is hugely damaging. It lulls the pupils who get it into a false sense of security (“I got it on my own because I’m smart”) and reinforces to the pupils who don’t get it that they never will (“I don’t get it because I’m stupid”).

Neither of these states are necessary. I chose the alternative: learn how to do it from people who know how. I found (was given) the necessary information to complete the task and to be, and feel, successful. It had nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with practice and assimilation of the new material. Now, no layperson would be able to tell the difference between me and somebody who intuitively ‘gets’ how to solve a Rubik’s cube.

My housemate, when I related this story, said that I was cheating – that I couldn’t really solve the cube by myself because I’d learned using the algorithms. This is arrant nonsense. The end result is the same: I can solve a Rubik’s cube. I got there with far less pain and frustration than if I’d tried without guidance. I don’t feel any less smart for not being able to intuitively solve the cube: I feel accomplished because I’ve gone some way to mastering the tried-and-tested technique.

If we give the kids who don’t get it the algorithm, we give them the key to success. If we give the kids who do get it the algorithm, they get to practise and make it automatic. Tell the kids everything they need to know, and then give them lots of opportunities to practise. Only then will everybody be able to ‘solve the cube’.

Posted on October 4, 2015 by Jessica Lund

Spring Clean

Once in a blue moon, I’m moved to rid myself of the clutter that accumulates over the course of term time.  While I was busy having one of the greatest summers I’ve ever had, the heaps of paper and stationery and books and shoes and so on languished in piles around my room.  The piles became mountains. This morning, as I knocked over a mountain on the way to brush my teeth, I thought it time for a spring clean. Yes, it’s autumn, but hang the orthodoxy.

You know the kind of purge I’m talking about.  Summer clothes are banished to the bottom drawer, items are dragged out for re-heeling/mending/taking to the charity shop, hours pass in a haze of ‘what on EARTH was I thinking?!’ It was a morning of cathartic entertainment.

By mid-afternoon I had filled three bin bags.  Now, while this sounds utterly slovenly on my part – and, to some extent, it is – the contents of those bags were different.  They weren’t bags of clothes or shoes.  They were reams and reams of paper.  Paper that had gathered in my room since September 2013, or the day I started my teacher training.

Since I started my training year, I’ve kept every single sheet.  Every booklet, every inset pack, and every set of notes from the many seminars I attended on the various facets of teaching.  I found ‘outstanding teaching toolkits’, guides to various kinds of lesson, data analysis packs.  Over the course of two years, including my NQT year, I’ve amassed close to 3,000 sheets of paper – resources, lesson plans, training notes, advice, photocopies of god knows what…  I kept it all, in the naïve expectation that, at some point, I might need them.

Today I threw them all away.

I figure that the following is true:

  • If I haven’t revisited this stuff in the last two years, I won’t.
  • If I found it useful, I would have in some way assimilated it into my teaching. If I didn’t, I don’t need it.
  • There may have been a huge amount of wisdom contained in that paper, but nothing compares to the wisdom you gain by seeking advice from good people about real life classroom experiences.

Posted on October 3, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.

On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.

In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.

Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.

It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.

I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.

I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.

Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?

But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?

I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.

Posted on 27 June, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Let’s create something awesome – part 2!

I am looking for one enthusiastic candidate for each project who could work at Michaela (North West London) from 3rd – 14th August. Expenses would be covered.

You would get fantastic experience producing some really exciting maths curricula and resources, which we would gladly allow you to use in your own school come September.
Design and refine our year 7 curriculum

Once pupils start year 8 at Michaela, we use the Singapore Math secondary curriculum. That means getting year 7 right is really important. We need a curriculum that effectively transitions pupils from wherever they arrive from year 6, to a point where they can benefit from the Singapore curriculum.

You would work on deciding theOPTIMAL sequence and then producing or drawing together resources to make it a reality. You will have access to Singapore primary and secondary maths textbooks and teacher resources. You’ll be working alongside people codifying the knowledge base.

You will have Michaela’s current curriculum, resourceBANK, and assessment system as a launch pad to create something even better.

It’s a great opportunity to learn more about high performing school systems, mastery, and curriculum design. You might even be able to import part of what you see or create to your own school.

Optimise our calculation bootcamp

Getting our kids to nail number is a massive priority of our year 7 curriculum. We want to take our kids to the Shanghai level of confidence with tackling problems like 0.62 x 37.5 + 3.75 x 3.8 without fear.

In 2014/15, I tackled this through gamified drills, tracking, flashcards, number talks and more. In 2015/16, I want to improve, refine and package what we have done so far into a “calculation bootcamp”.

Calculation bootcamp (name open to change!) would be a programme of study covering number facts, written algorithms, and mental strategies for calculation. It would be the programme that would take Michaela pupils from their given starting point to fluent and flexible use of number by the end of year 7.

I envisage a package of diagnostic assessments, graduated flashcard sets, booklets to work through, interleaved practice, drills, number talks, and teacher powerpoints. Even better if we can use design and gamification to make it more appealing.

I already have many of these elements resourced, and plenty of ideas for the rest. Now I want outside inspiration and refinement to bring it all together into something cohesive and replicable.

If you are interested in either of these opportunities, please send a brief email to bisaksen@mcsbrent.co.uk including your current role and which summer project you are interested in. The deadline for applications is Friday 3rd August at 4 pm.