We need to talk about the army of elephants

by James Mannion |

I wrote this back in March 2013 in an attempt to map current and historical discourses around education, and to question why some things just don’t seem to be up for discussion any more. 


“The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

(HL Mencken, 1924)

During the last two or three years, I have spent an unusual amount of time reading blogs written by teachers. There is certainly no shortage to choose from, and I am often pleasantly surprised by how well written they are. And so to the edubloggers of planet earth, to paraphrase what Stephen Fry once wrote of Douglas Adams: your ability to put one word after another in the service of awakening, delighting, bamboozling, informing or amusing the minds of your readers never fails to amaze me.

In particular, I find it incredible how much time and energy teachers are willing to invest in this emerging extracurricular activity. I feel it is testament to the commitment teachers typically feel toward their vocation of choice – that in spite of the already questionable work/life balance that characterises our profession, we are prepared to sit tapping away at our keyboards at unsociable hours, chipping away at the marble in the hope that one day, our individual and collaborative efforts might just have shaped something more worthy of our gaze.

The vast majority of the blogs teachers write adopt an optimistic tone, and I think it is fair to say that the majority of posts could be described as sharing good practice, or seeking to establish “what good looks like”. No-one gets paid for blogging – we do it because we want to learn, share and connect with one another. This is a wonderful thing indeed. Through social media and a dizzying array of grassroots gatherings, teachers are coming together in unprecedented numbers to share resources and ideas, to meet and question education researchers and to challenge one another to see things from different perspectives. Through this, I have a strong sense that a new professional identity is being forged – one that is more robust, and more sure-footed, than ever before.

To me, the underlying message that emerges from all this activity is that teachers know infinitely more about “what good looks like” than the people who call the shots, and to whose tune we all dance daily. It must only be a matter of time until the burden of governance is transferred to safer hands.

In the mean-time, I would like to explore three questions:

  1. Where lie the boundaries of current discourses around education?
  2. How does this differ from educational discourses throughout history?
  3. What paths in the current discourse are well-worn – and are there areas where we no longer dare tread?

To take the last of these first: This is not the most scientific thing I’ve ever done, but here’s a ‘word cloud’ of topics that have been up for discussion in recent months, on some of the most widely read teacher blogs:

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 19.28.06


The ideas that define our professional lives

Take a good look at this word cloud. What do you notice? These are the components of currently accepted and acceptable discourse around education. The boundaries of this discourse are regulated and reinforced daily – by political parties and their favoured think tanks, by journalists and newspaper editors, by institutions such as Ofsted and Ofqual, by education consultants and advisors, by school governors and academy sponsors, by academics who are themselves regulated by strict assessment and funding criteria – and increasingly, by teachers themselves. Everyone except students, basically. Not that I’m suggesting students should be running the show – but their contribution to these wider discourses is notable by its absence nonetheless.

I wrote recently that Twitter makes me raise my game every day – that I hear a multitude of critical voices now when I teach, or plan, or give feedback. While this may sound disturbing, I consider it to be a rather healthy state of affairs. So, I would like to emphasise that what follows is not intended in any way to diminish the Herculean efforts of my fellow teacher bloggers.

Here comes the ‘but’

The scope of current discourses around education appears to be broadly limited to sharing good practice, within the institutions and organisational structures of the system that generally pre-date our entry into the profession. These discourses take place within a set of assumptions about our education system which – as far as I can discern – have gone largely unexamined since the 1970s, when people like Jerome Bruner, Richard Peters, John Holt, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, Paulo Freire, John Garnder, Jurgen Habermas, AS Neill, Ivan Illich and Pierre Bourdieu were doing the rounds. (I realise how male this list is, by the way. Is this my bias, or a 1970s one?) Now the names I read about most frequently are John Hattie and Doug Lemov – more technicians of “what works”, than rattlers of the cage.

Now, I was only born in 1976, and I did not engage much in educational debate as a toddler. It might well be the case that in the late 70s, everybody collectively decided that Deschooling Society is a terrible idea and agreed to get on board with the programme. Maybe that meeting did happen, and it passed me entirely by as I sat watching cowboy films, slurping bowls of cereal. But I have not yet been presented with any evidence to suggest that this is the case, whereas I am fairly convinced that many of the issues authors like these were writing about 40 years ago, are just as relevant today as they were then – if not more so.

What concerns me is this: the rich seam of educational discourses that question or challenge the status quo, which can be traced throughout history from Rousseau through people like John Dewey and Carl Rogers to those listed above – this centuries-long flow of critically engaged intellectual thought appears to have all but run dry. Have the concerns of these authors – about how education happens despite schooling, not because of it; about how compulsory schooling serves to perpetuate and even deepen social divides, as well as perpetuating existing power structures; about whether Mencken might not have been wearing a tin foil hat when he wrote the quote at the top of this article – have these concerns really gone away? And despite the noble intentions that have driven the recent explosion in teacher blogs, by spending our precious free time writing about “what works” within regulated discourses prescribed by establishment institutions, without ever pausing to question the long-forgotten assumptions that underpin them – are teacher bloggers too merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?

Such assumptions can take many forms, but my identification with them generally stems from naturalistic observations of behaviours that significant numbers of young people display, especially in secondary schools: the apathy and the learned helplessness; the all-pervading desire to be cool or popular, or to conform to expressions of boredom or disinterest; the staggering levels of bullying; the betrayals of former close friends; the wilful disruption of lessons, from the gentlest tapping of a pen to sudden explosions of anger or aggression; the ‘boffin-baiting’; the endless attention-seeking; the creation of melodrama as entertainment; the mental health issues; the increased prevalence of smoking, drinking and drug use schoolchildren.

This list makes for uncomfortable reading, and I have no desire to dwell on the negative aspects of schools which are, simultaneously, incredibly rewarding and life-affirming places in which to work. But it is a list that anyone who works with young people will recognise. These issues do not present themselves constantly in schools. But they are there, every day, in every lesson, bubbling away beneath the surface, quietly undermining everything the system ostensibly sets out to do. I am not suggesting that these issues are caused directly by the education system. I am simply asking – are we really sure that there is nothing else to be done, beyond spreading good practice in the domains outlined in the word cloud above?

The unquestioned assumptions that underpin current educational discourses are many and varied. In no particular order, here are a few:

  • The best age to get people to sit state-funded, high stakes compulsory examinations, is 14-16;
  • Compulsory schooling to age 16 should be insisted upon for all young people;
  • Raising the age of participation is a good idea;
  • We should restrict the number of subjects students study as they progress through the system;
  • All students should attend an assembly at least once each week, regardless of whether there is anything important that needs to be communicated in this way;
  • Primary and secondary schools should continue to be separate;
  • Secondary schools are a good size;
  • Adults should not be able to enrol in classes that run in the daytime;
  • Maths, English and Science should continue to be compulsory;
  • Exams are a good way to measure educational success, ‘student learning’ or ‘student outcomes’;
  • Schools need to exist as physical buildings that people attend every day;
  • Teachers can reliably attribute a numerical value to a student’s ‘attitude to learning’;
  • We should educate children in batches according to chronological age;
  • ‘Stage not age’ is organisationally impossible;
  • Classrooms should continue to exist in their current form;
  • It is a good idea to study 8 or 10 subjects simultaneously – in fact, we should never deviate from this model;
  • The school day should be divided into roughly 5 one-hour slots;
  • We should encourage higher ability students to pursue academic courses, and lower ability students to pursue vocational courses;
  • Some students need to fail exams in order for others to pass;
  • It makes sense to speak of a single ‘education system’, rather than ‘systems’;
  • Teachers should only be allowed to teach certain subjects;
  • Learning should be based around subject disciplines;
  • Students’ abilities can reliably be represented as an alphanumeric code, or a number on a scale;
  • School uniform is a good idea – especially when it resembles grey suits;
  • Labelling young people with various Special Educational Needs is in their best interests;
  • If you work hard in school you will get a good job and earn more money. This will make you happy.

In short: our classrooms and corridors are occupied by an army of elephants so vast, it is surprising we are able to breathe.

If there is one thing almost everyone agrees on, it’s the diagnosis that “all is not well” in the state of education. People get attached to different ideas as to how to treat the symptoms: we need more effective CPD; or whole-school behaviour policies; or to promote a ‘growth mindset’; or to interleave the curriculum and testing regime; or to promote imaginative enquiry; or to do battle with Ofsted; or to become ‘research literate’. I do not doubt that there may be value in each of these things. But should we not perhaps also be asking more fundamental questions as well?

Here’s one:

If you could design an education system from the ground up – to what extent would it resemble the one we have?

Why I am not a Tiger Teacher, part 2: Knowledge is porridge

| by James Mannion |

The notion that you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly has been hailed from the rooftops in recent years like it offers some great insight. This seems strange because it is so obvious. This so-called ‘neo-traditional’ concern for subject knowledge seems to be born of a frustration with a national curriculum that has been overly concerned with skills, twinned with insights from cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham that, well, you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly.

I must say I welcome the development, albeit for slightly different reasons than those often given by neo-trads. As a Science teacher of 10 years I think it is fair to say that in my subject at least, knowledge has been… not under-represented, so much as misconceived. I don’t think this is because there has been too much emphasis on skills, because the actual skills scientists use are under-represented as well. (Not to mention, bizarrely distorted: I have worked in neuroscience research labs at UCL and Harvard Medical School, and I never once heard anyone say “Hang on a minute guys… what’s the independent variable here?” I have also attended many medical conferences; not once have I seen a medic raise their hand and say “Thanks for your talk, it was fascinating but there’s one thing I’m not clear on: did you list your equipment?”)

Rather, my concern is that the knowledge base in Science is so broad – and therefore so shallow. The outgoing Triple Science GCSE, being sat for the last time this year, is like a vast ocean of knowledge that’s about half an inch deep. There’s a mind-boggling amount to cover but there’s no depth to any of it, and barely a whiff of what is by far and away the most fascinating aspect of Science – the incredible human stories behind how we came to know all this stuff. Bill Bryson grasped this when he wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, as does Michael Brooks in the equally excellent Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science. If only these guys wrote the GCSE specification.

To master this Pacific-sized puddle may make for a gruelling exam, but it provides a flimsy foundation for authentic scientific thinking and reasoning. So to clarify: I am not defending the status quo. If I had my way I would cover fewer topics in far greater depth. I would also introduce essays, to enable and encourage scientific thinking to go beyond the current upper limit: the point-scoring exercise of the 6-mark question.

So far so Tiger, you might think. Why, I’m asking for a greater depth of knowledge for goodness sake. So where do I part ways with my stripy feline friends? Well, as Neil Mercer explains in his chapter of the excellent ‘Speaking Frankly’ publication (recommended reading, free to download here): “Learning to become a scientist… obviously requires both content knowledge and the development of critical thinking skills.” Having read quite a bit from Tiger types on the role of subject knowledge, I think they tend to place too much emphasis on the former and too little on the latter. Allow me to explain.

Neo-trads frequently quote from Daniel Willingham’s excellent book Why don’t children like school? However, they tend to read it quite selectively. In particular, they are strongly influenced by passages like this one:

“Trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible. Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills teachers want for their students – such as the ability to analyse and to think critically – require extensive factual knowledge. The cognitive principle that guides this chapter is: ‘Factual knowledge must precede skill’.”

Because of statements like these, we have seen the phenomenon in recent years of teachers waking up from their blob-induced slumber like a scene from a science fiction movie, taking to the rooftops and declaring aloud “I was lost but now I am found! For all these years we’ve been teaching skills, when what we really need to do is teach knowledge! Let’s strip away everything and just drill knowledge! JUST TELL THEM! JOIN THE REVOLUTION! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS!” (These last 3 are direct Tiger Teacher quotes, by the way).

It is difficult to know the extent to which schools like Michaela “just drill knowledge” – this is not really something a visit to the school would solve, unless you stayed for several weeks – and so we have to go off what Tiger Teachers write. For example Joe Kirby, a Deputy Head at Michaela, wrote recently: “We use drills a lot at Michaela. Every lesson, six lessons a day, multiple times per lesson, learning at Michaela is an unrelenting regime of deliberately designed, subject-specific practice drills.” Perhaps I am misinterpreting this in some way, but here Joe does make it sound like drilling knowledge is pretty much the beginning and end of everything at his school. It is difficult to see where critical thinking skills could be developed in a timetable where every lesson is riddled with drill, because pretty much by definition you can’t develop critical thinking through drill.

Drilling knowledge has its place, and Willingham makes a good case for it in his book. But if you read what he says a bit more closely, you find that this is only half the story. Even if it is true that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking skills (it really is), this does not mean that drilling factual knowledge is sufficient to develop critical thinking skills (it really isn’t). Drilling knowledge for 6 lessons a day does not mean that students will automatically develop critical thinking skills in the way that Neo learned Kung Fu in the Matrix.

Here are some more quotes from the same Willingham chapter (emphases added):

“The implication is that facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills

We want our students to think, not simply to memorise. When someone shows evidence of thinking critically, we consider her smart and well-educated. When someone spouts facts without context, we consider her boring and a show-off.”

“The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge in parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”

“In this chapter I describe how cognitive scientists know that thinking skills and knowledge are bound together.”

“Our goal is not simply to have student know a lot of stuff-it’s to have them know stuff in service of being able to think effectively.”

Willingham even offers a quote from JD Everett, written in 1873:

“There is a great danger in the present day lest science-teaching should degenerate into the accumulation of disconnected facts and unexplained formulae, which burden the memory without cultivating the understanding.”

To reiterate, because this is important: knowledge is necessary for critical thinking, but it is not sufficient. It is abundantly clear that Willingham’s central message is one of balance, and he sums up the twin insights of cognitive science succinctly:

“It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”

He really couldn’t make it any clearer: knowledge is important, but please don’t rush off and create a school where knowledge is drilled didactically for 6 lessons a day… oh wait.

To explain the subtitle of this blog, borrowed from TV’s The Thick of It – I am currently in training for the Brighton marathon. Think of my goal – to complete the marathon in a respectable time – as a metaphor for writing a brilliant (if overly long) essay which showcases my critical thinking skills. As I increase my weekly mileage, I need to increase my intake of slow-release carbs accordingly. If all I do is eat porridge, I’ll just get fat; I’d get a stitch after half a mile. To run really well I need to combine eating lots of porridge with a detailed training regime; combining long runs with tempo bursts to increase my aerobic threshold; using technology like running machines and apps; reading about race tactics, sports psychology; and so on.

In becoming a scientist, as well as learning content knowledge you also need to understand how scientists collect and use evidence; how to design experiments so they’re resistant to experimenter bias; how to synthesise different strands of evidence into an argument or theory; how to pick holes in a method; how to spot when someone is cherry-picking data; how to question and determine the reliability of a source; how to systematically identify the source of data that doesn’t fit the pattern (shockingly, in GCSE science the advice with regard to anomalies is simply to ignore them – this is actually a question that regularly appears on the exam!); how to spot logical fallacies and rhetorical sleights of hand in the flow of a verbally fluent speaker… to name but a few.

To help students get better at critical thinking is not some woolly-minded progressive tree-hugging exercise. It is something you can achieve with traditional means also – modelling, explaining, deconstructing, providing opportunities for practice, scaffolding, withdrawing support, providing and acting on feedback, drafting and redrafting. It also benefits hugely from the judicious use of group work and paired work, as well as working independently or at the whole-class level. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.

Some people seem to suggest that critical thinking skills can’t be taught, For example, on Sunday Michael Fordham, a vocal advocate of subject knowledge, tweeted “Bailin et al took a lot of the critical thinking bandwagon apart in the late 1990s”, and provided a link to a paper entitled ‘Common misconceptions of critical thinking’. This was a response to my suggestion that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the development of critical thinking skills, and I assume that Michael intended this as proof that I was barking up the wrong tree, and that critical thinking can’t be taught. However in this article, which is well worth a read, the authors conclude that:

“a variety of means may be employed to promote [the development of critical thinking skills], including direct instruction, teacher modelling, creation of an educational environment where critical inquiry is valued and nurtured, and provision for students of frequent opportunities to think critically about meaningful common misconceptions of critical thinking challenges with appropriate feedback. Practice may also have a role to play, but it must be understood that it is not practice in the sense of a simple repetition of a skill, process or procedure. Rather such practice presupposes the kind of knowledge outlined above, and involves the development of critical judgement through applying this knowledge in a variety of contexts. It also involves attempts on the part of the learner to improve according to specific criteria of performance, and frequent feedback and evaluation with respect to the quality of thinking demonstrated.” (emphasis added)

I don’t think these is anything to argue with here. If we can accept that schools should seek to develop both subject knowledge and critical thinking skills – ideally embedded within the same scheme of work, and developed sequentially – shouldn’t we seek to do both? I have no doubt whatsoever that if schools like Michaela grasped the nettle and concerned themselves with finding ways to teach and develop critical thinking skills really well, I’m sure they would generate a lot good practice worth sharing. I hope it is not too long before they lift their gaze from relentless knowledge drills, re-read Willingham and accept that there is more to running a marathon than eating porridge.

If you want to find out about a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that is almost the polar opposite to Tiger Teaching – an approach rooted in research evidence, which has been found to lead to significantly improved academic attainment and a closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up – we are running a training event at Streatham and Clapham High School on January 27th. A Curriculum Journal article outlining the approach and its impact is available here. Tickets are available here. Tiger teachers welcome.

Why I am not a Tiger Teacher, part 1: Compliance will set you free

| by James Mannion |

I had an illuminating exchange on Twitter the other evening with Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of Michaela School. It began because I was intrigued by a phrase she had used in the “heightened” part of her talk at the book launch for ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers’, which you can see here. Here’s the exchange:

Me: Hi Katharine. I enjoyed your speech, but may I ask – what did you mean by “we will lose our country”?

KB: If our children never learn to behave and consequently cannot learn at all, we are doomed.

Me: Oh so it was more a figure of speech, rather than a specific point? It’s just you mentioned country in your blog as well…?

KB: The future of any country is its children. If we destroy ours, we will lose our country. Not more specific than that.

Me: I don’t mean to split hairs, but it is quite an unusual turn of phrase. Lose it to whom?

KB: You know how you can talk about ‘losing’ a class? You lose control of it, you can never get them back on track again. You lose the class or the country to the dark side…

At this point @LeoToAquarius chimed in with “lose to the oligarchy. We’re in-between a Democracy & a Republic = needs an educated population” and linked to a video called Types of government, explained; if you haven’t seen this before, it is well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Regardless of whether you think it is possible to get a class back once you have lost control (it is), the reason I think this exchange was illuminating is that while we may disagree on the means, fundamentally Katharine, Leo and I share an answer to the ultimate question “what is education for?”

I did not decide to become a teacher because I woke up one day with a burning desire to to turn D grades to C grades, or As to A*s, although obviously it is good if you can do this along the way. I became a teacher because following years of contemplation, I came to the conclusion that education is humanity’s best bet for building a brighter future. If you really want to change the world, be a positive role model for as many kids as you can and if you can – change the way education is done to make it work for everyone. Some people dispute this notion and say that if a teacher thinks their job is social engineer, they need to wind their neck in. But education has to be about more than a concern for your country’s PISA ranking. For good and for ill, education shapes lives and it is therefore fiercely political. It always has been, it always will be, and it always should be.

I too want a future where we do not “lose” our country in the same way an inexperienced teacher might “lose” a class. Because it won’t be an amiable assistant head who steps in to the power vacuum to restore order. I too want to prevent an unwitting, uninformed slide to oligarchy. As HG Wells once memorably put it, civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe. I get that. The question, as ever, is how best to achieve this.

The teachers at Michaela School have undoubtedly made a number of valuable contributions to the education debate – especially around teacher workload, for example. However, like Debra Kidd I also have a number of serious concerns about aspects of what they do.

It seems to me that if our aim is to create the kind of informed population that is able to prevent an unwitting slide to oligarchy in an age of fake news and post-truth politics, we need to educate young people so that they are not only knowledgeable, but also questioning and appropriately critical of those in authority. We need a population that is independent, informed, verbally confident, politically literate and politically engaged, self-regulating, organised, adaptive and disruptive where disruption is needed.

I have not yet visited Michaela (pitchforks at the ready), but I don’t need to visit to know that they insist on silent corridors for example, with utterances presumably punishable by detention. I don’t need to visit to take the view that this is unhealthily controlling – even if the students tell you they love it. (What would happen to a student who speaks out against the regime to a visitor?)

I presume that the main reason for silent corridors is a concern for the students’ safety. Katie Ashford here describes non-Michaela school corridors as “chaotic, violent, and out of control”, which is not a picture I recognise having worked in state schools for the last 10 years. (In describing a child magically transported to a Michaela corridor, she also writes “you remember the corridors and the fear and the dread and the loathing and the horror, and the words of the naysayers do nothing to perturb you or shake your faith in the environment you have helped to build.” I’m pretty sure I could eke out a PhD doing discourse analysis on this sentence.)

Look at any bunch of people in the street. They’ll likely be talking. Talking is what we do. Talking is what makes us human. You don’t want there to be bullying in corridors, and there are good ways to minimise this. There are also good ways of dealing with bullying when it does happen, and this too can be a valuable learning experience. But bullying is a fact of life, as any teacher who uses Twitter will attest. Should schools seek to suppress any independent talking among students altogether, sacrificed at the altar of no bullying? Is this really the direction we want to head in as a society?

If you have ever been bullied, as I was at school, you might think “Yes! Bullying is horrible and we should do everything in our power to stamp it out entirely – whatever it takes.” If this is your view, it’s perfectly understandable – however you also have to accept the consequences of this decision as well. As well as promoting knowledge, a school that insists on silent corridors (as just one of a raft of unusually controlling measures regarding types of pen, types of bag, how to use a chair, when to fold your arms, where to direct your eyes etc) also strongly promotes compliance and conformity.

Is this the best way to create the kind of informed population that is able to prevent an unwitting slide to oligarchy in an age of fake news and post-truth politics? Is this the way to educate young people so that they are not only knowledgeable, but also questioning and appropriately critical of those in authority? Is this the way to produce a population that is independent, informed, verbally confident, politically literate and politically engaged, self-regulating, organised, adaptive, disruptive where disruption is needed?

Of course I recognise the need for teachers to be strict at times. The golden rule of behaviour management is that you don’t let anything slide – ever. But strictness is not the only way to “not let things slide”, and it’s not always the best way. It should certainly not be the only tool in your box. When it comes to strictness, as ever Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is apposite – the desirable middle way between excess and deficiency. Good behaviour management also involves being authentic, and listening to your students. It sometimes requires you to make exceptions, rather than excuses. More than anything, it involves good relationships. Of course you need whole-school systems that support NQTs to teach as well as their more experienced colleagues. But as a former colleague once said – an inspirational classroom practitioner who had the students wrapped around his little finger – you win the behaviour battle in the corridor. Not by insisting on silence, but by talking to students – showing an interest in their lives, establishing common ground, making them laugh, making them think. Being a role model. Making them feel understood. Making them want to be in your lesson.

If you want to find out about a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that is almost the polar opposite to Tiger Teaching – an approach rooted in research evidence, which has been found to lead to significantly improved academic attainment and a closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up – we are running a training event at Streatham and Clapham High School on January 27th. A Curriculum Journal article outlining the approach and its impact is available here. Tickets are available here. Tiger teachers welcome.

The heuristic hippo

On Friday evening I received this series of 3 tweets from Greg Ashman, who writes a blog called Filling the Pail.




I wrote Greg a fairly comprehensive reply, but he didn’t get back and so I thought I would share it here.

Hi Greg. You are quite correct, they are related and Guy’s version did indeed come first, although we actually adapted ours from another school. Guy and I discussed it when we met for a beer one evening. I would be happy to explain how and why we developed this language of learning, why we chose to present it in this way and how our students found it to be useful if you like.

The academy chain we were a part of had 6 attributes that it wanted its students to aspire to – the 6 large words on the brain diagram. But these words are far too broad to be helpful – “we are going to use teamwork in this lesson” is so broad as to be meaningless. What we wanted was to develop a language of learning that enabled pupils to drill down through these broad attributes to focus on specific learning behaviours that they could practice and improve at.

I know people like you refute the notion of generalisable thinking skills, but these are ‘doing’ skills which are absolutely transferrable: managing distractions, public speaking, argumentation, engaging in exploratory talk, organisational skills, learning how to memorise stuff – the minutiae of being an effective human being. All of this is rooted in 3 key ideas: metacognition, self-regulation and oracy.

As you know, as a general rule skills tend to remain rooted in the context in which they are developed, and they do not automatically transfer to other contexts. However, this does not mean transfer is a hopeless cause. It just has to be carefully managed, at both ends of the process – in our case, transfer out from L2L lessons, and transfer in to other subject areas. Have you read the paper Neil Mercer and I wrote about this study? There’s an explanation of the brain diagram on page 13 of this version, but it should really be viewed in the context of the entire paper, and certainly within the context of the lengthy discussion of transfer that surrounds it (pages 10 to 14).

It is also worth noting the outcomes of the study. After 3 years (in which the L2L cohort participated in more than 400 lessons of L2L), compared with the pre-L2L cohort there was around a 10%increase in the proportion of pupils hitting or exceeding target. A fairly modest improvement. But among Pupil Premium students, the improvement was 20%. By the end of year 9, the Pupil Premium gap in the pre-L2L cohort was 25%. In the L2L cohort, the gap was just 2%. The gap closed, from the bottom up.

Furthermore when L2L cohort 1 reached year 11, they achieved the best set of results in the school’s history by some margin, and the school saw by far the greatest reduction in Pupil Premium gap of any school in the city – in a year when the PP gap increased across the city as a whole. So you can call our brain diagram ‘spurious’ if you like, but I am incredibly proud of the role I played in these students’ education and I am strongly persuaded of the novel contribution our study can make to the education debate more widely – not least, with respect to the notion of complex interventions.

To return to the language of learning, I see it as essentially pre-teaching the vocab. If you want students to learn about electricity, you might provide them with a set of key words we use to describe and explain electricity – voltage, current, resistance et al – that they can refer back to as and when the need arises. Likewise, if you want students to get better at learning, they need to develop the vocab we use to describe how learning happens, how *they* learn in different contexts – and how they might get even better at learning. As they start to use, assimilate and internalise this language, they begin to develop a stronger identity of themselves as learners.

For what it’s worth, if I had my time again I’d probably use the glossary of 225 learning terms I published recently. Although I’d probably try to find a nice visual way to present it… Come to think of it, your heuristic hippo is kind of neat. I’ll be sure to reference you.


Ashman, G. (2016) The heuristic hippo. Available here.

Learning to Learn: A counter to the tiger teachers


In recent weeks and months, there has been a lot of noise about drilling knowledge and “no excuses” discipline. There is another way.

In January, we are running a training day for classroom teachers, senior leaders and headteachers, based on original research into Learning Skills – a whole-school, evidence-informed approach to teaching and learning. A 5-year evaluation by researchers from the University of Cambridge found that the Learning Skills programme led to significantly improved attainment, especially among students eligible for the Pupil Premium (Mannion & Mercer, 2016).

Tickets are available here – come along to find out what we did, how we did it and how you can start the counter-revolution in your own school!