Monthly Archives: October 2014

Great Teaching = The Trivium

Please excuse this trumpet blowing. My scepticism about research and education is sorely tested every time a new report on what makes great teaching comes out. Why? Because when I read something talking about the structure of highly effective pedagogy it seems to have the trivium at its core. This might be a result of my cognitive biases or it might be because the ancient art of the trivium basically got it right by chance and since then we have either been refining the model or ignoring the model, with the latter resulting in poor teaching and the former in great teaching. You decide.

Today the Sutton Trust has published a review of the research into ‘What Makes Great Teaching?’ by Professor Coe from the Durham University School of Education and others. It is a very interesting and useful report and, guess what, the trivium is sitting pretty right in the middle as an effective framework for great teaching.

If we take the three arts of the trivium – grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, in that order, as our starting point we can see how this model frames the collection of ‘effective’ techniques that sit at the centre of the report:

There is an emphasis on subject knowledge, what I call the ‘grammar’ of a subject and this needs to be taught effectively, the teacher needs to ‘know their stuff’ and be able to gauge how well a pupil is picking up and learning this stuff over the long term. The learning is then supported by effective practice time, the teacher needs to structure this well and allow pupils to embed their knowledge and skills. This involves discussion, questioning and problem solving, and is captured in the trivium by ‘dialectic’. It is interesting that what I refer to as ‘logos’ is also important. In Trivium 21c I interpret Logos partly as resilience, enthusiasm and a pupil being in harmony with the learning (there is a lot more to this but to capture the nuance you’ll need to read the book). This is then framed by some way of ‘showing’ the application of the knowledge and skills, whether this be in the form of ‘tests’, feedback and the teacher checking for wider understanding. This also includes the setting and monitoring of independent practice, and regular reviewing of the pupils’ learning, as I put it in the trivium 21c model: ‘rhetoric’. Added to this the continual interleaving of the trivium, the circularity of moving from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric, from knowledge to questioning to communicating, more often than not, you have the basis of great teaching. The trivium model does other things too, it questions the basis of knowledge and develops creativity, self-expression, independence as a learner, a thinker and a maker, and meta-cognition and it is possible to access the trivium from dialectic or rhetoric but a very basic pedagogical shape is set out here . I would like to see someone take on the model and evaluate it in all its glory, if you are interested in helping with this then contact me here. If you are interested in your school becoming a trivium school please contact me here.

It is a lot more complex than I have laid it out above but, in essence, Great Teaching = The Trivium!

Russell Brand, Steve Jobs, Malala and the Self Organised Learning Environment

Russell Brandmitra Steve_JobsMalala

“Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow… Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”
― Malala Yousafzai

Russell Brand in his now infamous interview with Evan Davis talks about how he has: “…been going on this journey of learning and education from people who are engaged… we don’t want pedagogic figures coming in and didactically shouting at us, we want to organise ourselves…  that era has passed, the BBC gives enough of a voice to conventional wisdom…” Here Brand’s ‘educational journey’ is set up against ‘conventional wisdom’ which, it is hinted, comes from didactic pedagogues. Not only has Brand a distrust of politicians, there is a distrust of teachers here too. Pointedly he goes on to say: “Now Evan, I hope you are not going to take this opportunity, an Oxford educated economist, to come on the TV and be rude to me, an autodidact, self educated man, for simply trying to suggest that there might be an alternative to corporate hegemony?” This hints at a lack of intellectual confidence which later becomes quite poignant, when presented with a graph Brand says: “I don’t want to look at a graph mate… this is the kind of stuff that people like you use to confuse people like us…” In his book Brand writes that people have been horribly misled by ‘dominant cultural narratives’ and it seems to be this suspicion that informs his world view.

Brand is obviously intelligent but he suffers from a problem that many of us self labelled autodidacts do: we have an intellectual inferiority complex. Maybe we tend towards anti-authoritarian stances because we feel excluded from the inner workings of the establishment. We equate classical western education with the culture of upper class, white, male, middle aged values, a secret society that is formed to hoodwink and exclude us. Latin is for posh people.

If Sugata Mitra had his way there could be more Russell Brands. Mitra thinks present day schooling has its roots in the British Empire. He thinks that a school’s main function is to produce identical bureaucrats who can do maths and be literate, Mitra believes these schools are now obsolete. He wants to replace them with ‘Self Organised Learning Environments’ (SOLE). Mitra boasts of taking teachers away from children, he sees a virtue of leaving children alone with computers. He talks of the children of tomorrow not needing to go to school at all. In this future ‘knowing is obsolete’ and replaced by encouragement or ‘saluting’ learning. Mitra compares the role of ‘encourager’ to that of a Grandmother watching and saying things like ‘that’s great’. “Learning is the product of educational self organisation, it’s not about making learning happen it’s about letting it happen, the teacher sets the learning up and then steps back in awe to watch the learning happen” Mitra describes ‘SOLE’ as: broadband + collaboration + encouragement and admiration.

This is what Brand does, he goes on broadband, collaborates with a selected number of ‘mediators’ and soaks up admiration. This way of learning might be the future but it is hugely limited if ‘conventional wisdom’ is viewed suspiciously. How do we know if our educational journey is on an enlightened path or one that leads to a dead end even though grandmother encourages it? “How do you know what is the right direction?” is asked of Steve Jobs at 1:06:23 in this interview, you can tell it’s a good question by the length of pause that follows…

His answer: “You know, ultimately it comes down to taste… it comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing… I think part of what made the [Apple] Macintosh great was that the people who were working on it were musicians, and poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians, who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world but if it hadn’t been for computer science these people would have all been doing amazing things in life in other fields. They brought with them, we all brought to this effort… a very liberal arts attitude, we wanted to pull in the best that we saw in these other fields into this field. I don’t think you get that if you were very narrow.”

Call it what you will, taste, culture, narrative, are missing from Brand’s and Mitra’s view of education. Maybe both of them are suspicious of this very idea because it might be rooted in the old Empire, a misogynist, capitalist, colonialist place. If we abandon the idea of culture, taught by great shouting didactic pedagogues with a view of aesthetics and taste drawn from the traditions of a range of disciplines made possible by a great western education, for the anarchy of the internet where will we end up?

How many self organised learners seek simplicity on the web? Easy answers are much easier to understand whether they are nuggets of TED-like ‘truth’ or Jihadist hatred. The excuse of opposing western education has encouraged Boko Haram to kidnap school girls. Malala was shot because she wanted a formal education. Would Malala settle for a hole in the wall computer and encouragement from her grandmothers or does she want an education from teachers, in schools, for all girls? Malala does not seem suspicious of dominant cultural narratives, maybe she wants to know them and maybe challenge them not from a point of exclusion but from inclusion. An education from teachers in schools should expose us to narratives we need not just accept but also oppose, not from a sense of inferiority but from a sense of equality. Education just from a computer will never be the equal of an education from a great didactic pedagogue telling us great stories with which we can then engage.


I will be exploring this theme more at my ‘What If…?’ talk at the SSAT National Conference.




The Hunt for a Teachers’ Oath

Tristram Hunt has said it might be a good idea for new teachers in England to swear an oath in much the same way as the teachers of Singapore have to swear a pledge.


In order to assist in the Hunt for an Oath, here is my suggested wording:

The Teachers’ Oath:

Teacher places right hand on the School Development Plan and swears in the following way:

“I swear by almighty Headteacher to teach the whole teach and nothing but the teach. I promise to be at school at the crack of dawn ’til the end of the day as it is decreed. I promise like Pavlov’s dogs to respond to the sound of the bell and to ensure my bowels and bladder are strong enough to endure a double period until the blessed break provides relief, unless I am on duty in playground, corridor or gate. I promise to scowl until Christmas in the classroom but smile meekly in the Staffroom. I will nod at staff meetings but never nod off. I will greet each new initiative with enthusiasm and ensure I praise loudly and often the wondrous effect it is having on my pupils. My pupils I will serve with every ounce of my being. I will go within an inch of doing their work for them until they have reached their target grade, the pursuit of this grade will be sacrosanct and will involve my every waking hour and also interrupt my sweetest dreams in a blind panic at two in the morning when I wake suddenly thinking ‘how the hell do they expect me to get an A* for that lazy good for nothing toe rag!’ But then go back to my slumber safe in the knowledge that I will have to work harder, rather than the child. I promise to clean my coffee cup and scrape away the mould that has so accrued. I promise to read and reply to my emails no matter what time of day or night or what time of year it is. I promise to think school holidays are for wimps and ensure I am there doing extra classes and Saturday schools for as long as it takes. I promise to realise my job is to Assist the Headteacher and will do what I’m told no matter how last minute and unfair it seems. I will relish teaching classes in subjects I have no idea about because of staff shortages. In the few hours I have to myself I will mark books incessantly, emphasising the progress of each child in an array of coloured pens. I will plan exacting lessons that respond to the current whims of the secretary of state and head of ofsted as long as they both shall live. I will nod sagely when the importance of retaining work life balance is mentioned by a senior leader but we all realise quietly to ourselves this is not to be prioritised. I will do all this to the utmost of my ability and I promise to do it until I have reached the ripe old age of 68 or until I drop dead.”


Meanwhile what are the Tories suggesting? My blog about Lord Nash’s suggestions about teacher planning etc.



Teaching by Autocue


Schools will  face even more of a funding squeeze after the next general election. Savings will need to be made. The biggest cost year on year that most schools face is staffing. Cheaper staff costs means savings can be made. The Schools’ Minister Lord Nash has said that: “Savings could come through … a more efficient use of teachers and teaching assistants and a better use of IT… We all know that teachers spend a lot of time preparing lesson plans rather than focusing on how well they deliver those lessons. This is a complete waste of time.” What does this mean for the future of our schools? I have a dystopian view of where this might lead, as it makes absolute sense I offer these ideas to Lord Nash with my regards, for his due consideration:

The teaching force should be shorn of all its older, expensive, workers. A few of the best ones should be retained to write lesson plans. Young teachers should be given bigger classes and smaller classes should be taken by teaching assistants. Each classroom should be monitored by CCTV to allow a ‘Low Level Disruption and Discipline Enforcement SWAT’ team to intervene at the first sight of trouble. Rather than waste time out of the classroom the teachers and TAs who are good at delivery should be in the classroom all the time and read the prepared lessons out from an autocue which is either positioned at the back of the class or transmitted to the Google Glasses that all teachers will be required to wear. The pupils should give in their work at the end of lessons and this work should be sent off to be marked by other elderly teachers maybe even the same ones who write the plans, or by computer software that can read essays. Maybe the work could be marked immediately if written directly onto a tablet computer.

Instead of PE all pupils will play Rollerball.

Mindfullness training will be provided by a sleep inducing gas that is pumped into classrooms at the end of the day, this will enable staff and students to sleep to cue and enable them to wake up next day already in position for a day of learning… This will save on travel costs and also free our roads up from that bloody awful school run traffic that is a blight in many of our cities.


Companion post: 51 Year Lesson Plan

For Too Many Years School Leaders Have Been Trying to ‘Reinvent the Wheel’…

…School leaders should spend their time ‘rediscovering the wheel’.

Emperor's New Clothes

School leaders should spend their time grappling with the ‘big ideas’ and they should be reading about and discussing the things that matter. They should lead their staff in great conversations about the things that matter. Unfortunately too many school leaders are using the slogans and ideas that originate in the business world to try to ape global enterprises. They get their staff suited and booted, and bring in the latest graphs to represent the biggest data they can find. They follow the latest ‘research’ uncritically and get their staff to do inset on anything that seems to be working. There is a problem following business and that is most companies don’t last long.  The average US company in the 1920’s lasted 67 years, in 2012 this was down to 15 years. In the UK we have some of the oldest schools in the world, we shouldn’t be following the business world, if anything the business world should be following our education institutions.

Intriguingly some thoughtful people in the corporate world are onto the problem and, just as schools are being influenced more and more by business practices, they are looking elsewhere. Whilst some head teachers are picking up the latest neuro-bollocks-books with jazzy covers and getting their middle leaders to go on courses with titles like: ‘How to Squeeze the Last Drop of blood C-Grade Success From a Free School Meal Urchin’; some ‘CEO’s’ are turning away from short-term solutions. These leaders are putting away their tired business manuals and no longer hiring consultants who peddle this year’s big new idea based on ‘pop psychology’ or barely understood ‘shallow science’ and are turning to the great books and thinkers of the past. They take a moment to pause and to realise that: “The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts.”

Head teachers, school leadership teams and teachers should be rediscovering the core beliefs that enabled western education to thrive throughout the centuries. The danger signs that many are ignoring the great intellectual inheritance are all around us. Has the theory of ‘Mindset’, the idea of ‘Assessment for Learning’, the ofsted-inspired-over-marking of every book in a variety of different coloured pens, the mind-mapped, brain gymed, thinking hatted, two stars and a wish, wilt, walt, managed to divert your school from the central purpose of educating children in the pursuit of wisdom to help them flourish in their lives?

The oldest company in the world is said to be Nissiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a Japanese hotel founded in 705. In Japan they have a word for long-lived companies: Shinise. “Professor Makoto Kanda, who has studied shinise for decades, says that Japanese companies can survive for so long because they are small… and because they focus on a central belief or credo that is not tied solely to making a profit.” This is what great schools do, they focus on a central belief or credo and are not tied solely to shoving more and more kids into getting ever higher exam results in ever more subjects. A great school will communicate its central credo well. A school that chops and changes without a central core to keep it steady will chase results, ofsted rumours, and the latest fad at its peril. A central credo can be represented by an eloquent school motto but some schools have even cheapened this with ugly business speak. Who would want their child to attend a school whose ethos is summed up by unfortunate corporate cliches like ‘reach for the sky’ or ‘team workers for citizenship’? These are empty aphorisms that show the school wears its Emperor’s New Clothes without a sense of shame, an inarticulate central credo is of no use to anyone.

A school with a strong central belief has a great core or spine around which somewhat paradoxically it can innovate. Great institutions change with the times but don’t change their mission. A great tradition is the backdrop for great innovation. Too many schools are so focused on the next big idea that they lose sight of the great ideas on which education is based. This is why the sub title of my book Trivium 21c is: ‘Preparing Young People for the Future With Lessons From the Past.’ If you always look to reinvent the wheel there comes a point when the wheel no longer works, it might no longer roll down a hill but it’s squareness is a huge disadvantage going up the hill!

It is time for great school leaders to take note and stop trying to ape the here today gone tomorrow businesses, instead of management speak and the corporate lingo of targets and objectives get your staff talking about the great stories, philosophers and educationalists of the past and rediscover the core purpose of education.

Instead of trying to emulate TESCO find out about a bit of PLATO, Aristotle, Hume, Oakeshott, Peirce, Aquinas, Augustine et al… Oh and read my book and get me to come into your school to help you with some ‘inward-bound’ courses to start the great conversation with your staff. (Paradox?)

The Future is Wise

I have a prediction:

In the future there will be no experts.

There will be teachers and there will be schools. The institution of the school and the passing on of knowledge and skills will be valued even more than they are today because the telling of stories, making connections in a world where so much information will be contradictory where confusion and discord might reign supreme will be the most important of functions, it will be the ‘Queen of Arts’. This is why there will be a need for thoughtful storytellers and these storytellers will be our philosopher ‘kings and queens’. The power of our stories to make a sense or a non-sense or a number of senses of our world has always been an intrinsic part of our culture and it will grow, dearly beloved, just so.  And there will be nothing better than the live performance of a teacher in a space telling these stories, sharing knowledge and ideas with a community of learners.

So when the WISE experts say there will be: “No more ‘teachers’, lectures or imposed curricula. Henceforth, the brick-and-mortar school will no longer be a place where students are taught theoretical knowledge, but instead a social environment where they receive guidance, enabling them to interact with their peers and build a diverse toolkit that will better prepare them for professional life.” I say they are as mistaken as the person who thought recorded music would drive away live performance. In the future there will be teachers, lectures and imposed curricula. Students will be taught theoretical knowledge and the social environment will also be there too. As for preparing them for their professional life I hope that will just be a small part, a great education should prepare you for your whole life. Education is not about sticking noses to grindstones.

What is the point of experts if their expertise is pointed towards making predictions that enfeeble education?

For this reason the future will not need these sorts of experts.

Education is its Own Reward: On Performance Related Pay

A bag of Haribo Matador Mix

A school not a million miles away from me has begun to reward children for completing their homework. The system works like this: if all the children do their homework and hand it in on time then they all get little packs of haribos, if they don’t the children who ‘let the class down’ get named and shamed and no-one gets haribos. I call it the bullies’ charter. What messages are being given here? One: the teachers have no confidence in their own teaching ability. Two: haribos are something to be celebrated. Three: The whole class will impose rules better than the teachers. I could go on…

There are schools who use the reward system in more individualised ways. David Didau writes here about his visit to King Solomon Academy: “They use a payslip system where every pupil gets £15 a pay just for turning up. If they still have £75 at the end of the week they can take part in Friday afternoon enrichment, if not they’re in detention all afternoon. A merit is worth £2 and if pupils get a demerit, £2 is deducted from their account. An average balance of £100 or more entitles pupils to attend a week-long residential at the end of the year. (NB – this is not real money.)” Despite it not being ‘real money’ they use the language of money and you can buy rewards if you have kept your money and if you are ‘poorer’ you are punished. I could see a role for Wonga here, now that they are having problems in the real world perhaps they could go into schools and offer friday ‘payday’ loans of pretend money so that pupils may be enriched rather than detained. Personally, I’d like to take my cash and go home early.

These are two examples of performance related pay and punishment. In both cases the idea that education is its own reward has been rejected. Instead we have the unseemly utilitarian approach that work ‘hard’ (do as you’re told) = get stuff or don’t get stuff. Even if this worked would it be right? King Solomon Academy will point to their excellent exam results and say, maybe, that it does. According to recent research perhaps it doesn’t: “Offering rewards such as cash payments or free trips make pupils work harder in class but fail to improve their exam results, according to an intensive £1.6m study involving 10,000 children.” The Professor who helped design the study Simon Burgess of Bristol University said: “I was very disappointed with these results. I thought the incentives would have had an impact on grades.” Yet this little sliver of hope gladdened my heart. The response made by the chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation Kevan Collins was: “The best evidence currently available suggests that the most powerful driver of achievement in schools is great teaching…”

Well, there’s a thing. Instead of bothering to sort out little systems of rewards and punishments that try to bribe children to work in ways deemed to be useful why not look to your own teaching first? This is not a call to get rid of systems that support great teaching it is a call to ensure that rather dull utilitarian systems that undermine the idea that education is its own reward are replaced by a belief in the power of our rich and varied cultural inheritance to inspire teachers and children to study for its own sake. Yes, if someone does something wrong, they need to be dealt with but vast corporate structures of reward and punishment are trying to ape the business world and that is the last thing a school should be doing.

Apart from the idea of reward and punishment the other thing that sticks out like a sore thumb from the research is that despite children ‘working harder’ in class there were no improvements in their GCSE grades. What ‘working harder’ looked like we can only try to guess but is it really any surprise that if we stop passing on interesting knowledge, discussing and arguing about it, and the creation of new ideas and knowledge from being the centrepiece of why we study and replacing the reason to learn with false pounds, real pounds or haribos that not much ‘improves’?

In the end haribos make you fat, make your teeth blacken, go rotten, and end up falling out. In the end a great education will always give you so much more.

Teach first, bribe never.

Life in a Post-Level World: Progress Descriptors for Creativity in Four Days

It should be idyllic. Teachers and children conversing together, children learning stuff because it’s interesting or necessary or both. Assessment a continuous part of the process of understanding:

“Have you got it yet?”

“Yes, I have.”



“Well, have you considered this… ?”

“Oh, does that mean that blah blah might not be right?”


A post level world should be one where teacher and pupil focus on education, the joy and the pain of teaching and learning things. However, what is going on in the ‘real world’? Consider this:

Today I read the following on my Facebook group page for drama teachers:

“Hi, does anyone have anything I could look at re life without levels? I have to come up with 4 progress descriptors for Creativity. My SLT wants them emailed by Monday.” I have cut a couple of things from the original post but the point being made is stark:

Life without levels can mean a senior leadership team deciding at the last minute to ask teachers to come up with rushed and ill-considered descriptors for progress in the most difficult and nebulous of areas. What in heaven’s name is the point?

Before I go any further I need to share a bit of information with you. I think creativity is an essential part of learning particularly in subjects where you have to ‘create’ stuff. Drama is one of these subjects, in drama it is a good idea to encourage creativity and I think most people would agree with this. About ten years ago I was charged with a task by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust to look into creativity across the curriculum, looking at questions such as can it be taught, can it be learned, and can it be assessed? I looked at lessons, talked to teachers, pupils, and creative people from a variety of disciplines. I read a copious amount of literature, I presented at conferences and asked delegates their thoughts, I team taught with a number of teachers, I worked with creative artists and put together an online ‘creativity’ game to see if it could make children more creative. This took over a couple of years, I interviewed over a thousand people, and I’m still reflecting on what I came up with.

I was then asked by the QCA to work on Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills assessment for the new, now old, national curriculum. The QCA wanted me to come up with descriptors and a way of measuring progress in all of the PLTS but, in particular, creativity. I read more books and material written specifically on the assessment and recognition of creativity in the curriculum across ‘all’ subjects. I learned about the pitfalls in subject specific, let alone generic assessment of creativity, teamwork, independent learning and the rest. I took a painstaking approach to try to solve the riddle: how to measure the unmeasurable. I came up with an online assessment tool that did a job. It was very interesting to look at and the data sets it came up with were very pretty and some said that they were of real use. But were they? Well, they might have been but in order to know we would have had to research them over a few years, with a control group or two and would we have found more children being more creative? We may well have done, we might not have done and the point of this blog is not to argue the whys and wherefores of whether there is a point to all this ‘skills’ assessment (I’ll leave that for another blog).

No, the point of this blog is to register my utter dismay that some SLTs are expecting teachers to come up with last minute solutions to hugely complex ideas. This can’t be because they think it will aid the education of the children in their care, it can only be because they want to tick some boxes purely for the sake of ticking boxes.

If anyone wants to take creativity in the arts and across the curriculum seriously and explore how problematic this idea is please contact me here as I have much of interest to share. In the meantime here is a video of Ken Campbell talking about creativity and education as part of a conference I organised. I worked with Ken for a few years on this, both of us ended up none the wiser and wiser for it: