Speed – ‘the not-so-hidden curriculum’

So, as usual, I was marking this morning; wading through some S2 classwork, becoming more and more frustrated. I usually set myself a goal of x number of books until I have a break. What always happens is that I start off being meticulous and then, as time passes and I haven’t got though as many as I intended, I begin to rush. I panic, my writing becomes untidy, occasionally illegible, and the last few don’t get the support I give the first few. Not always, but certainly sometimes. After fifteen years I’ve never been able to control that.

This all comes back to pressure of coverage, doesn’t it? Pressure to get through as much work as possible in the shortest available time. However, today I asked myself this; ‘are you more likely to make mistakes if you are rushing or if you take your time?’ Sounds silly when I put it like that but, more often than not, this is how we construct our curriculum. It is unforgivable for me to make mistakes while marking – never underestimate how damaging poor feedback can be – but even more unforgivable if we cram our course so full, pressure of coverage inevitably leads to error,

Having just finished our prelim in English – you may call them ‘mocks’ – it is fairly clear that those who succeed are those who can write well in the shortest space of time. We value speed over anything else, it seems. We are impressed by those who can cover the most work in the shortest time and covet those who cope better than others under pressure; and no doubt there is value in that. Coping under pressure is clearly an enviable trait. Even in teachers, it seems, those who can seemingly cope well with workload go further. However, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right about that.

In his book ‘The Art of Slow Reading’, Thomas Newark describes speed as ‘the not so hidden curriculum’. We have six weeks left until exam leave. In that time I have to cover two poems, half a play and revision of everything else for the whole year; we have to fine tune two Folio essays. We will get there; but it’ll be through tears, sleepless nights, frustration and hours and hours of rushing though marking and assessment as quickly as possible. Think what might we achieve if we slowed things down, covered less and learned more deeply.

This has been the first year of the new Higher in English and much of it I’ve really enjoyed. There are clear progressions from National 5 and it has challenged me to tackle different texts in different ways. However, it has also become clear that I will never be able to tackle two major texts in the same detail that I used to: no more ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, for example. Alongside six Don Paterson poems – yes, I know I could do that a different way but choose not to – there is simply not the time. I hear teachers in others subjects who are on their knees with the pressure of coverage. It needs to stop. If we are to ‘declutter’ the curriculum – one of the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – then we need to do it now. And, somewhat ironically, we need to do it as quickly as possible.

Newkirk, T. The Art of Slow Reading, (New Hampshire, Heinemann, 2012)

We Are All Charlie Chaplin

This is the unedited text of my article in today’s TES Scotland


There’s a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ where the poor hero is desperately trying to keep up with the conveyor belt of screws to tighten in the factory where he works. He copes admirably and cheerfully at first but, as he seems to be able to comfortably manage the workload, the conveyor belt starts to go quicker and more nuts and bolts fly towards him, causing the inevitable. He misses some, things back up and he quickly becomes scunnered with the whole thing, his former enthusiasm a distant memory. That’s before the iconic scene where Charlie is literally sucked up by the very machinery he thought he was operating.

Sound familiar? It may just be me but it seems that we are reaching a tipping point with Curriculum for Excellence where many of us feel we are being sucked up into the machinations of the labyrinthine assessment process and forgetting what it was all about in the first place. Half way through year one of the new Higher in English and I’m still making sense of the Internal Assessment strands. The SQA have suggested a ‘light touch’ to assessment in English, presumably meaning that my own professional judgment trumps any suggestion of passing a timed exam. But the hours I’ve spent attempting to decide where each of my 30 students has passed one of three or four outcomes in four different strands? Too much. Just too much.

I still believe in Curriculum for Excellence, truly I do. But it becomes increasingly frustrating when the machinery which should be there to make it happen fails to take into account the relentless conveyor belt of nuts and bolts which head our way every single day. That the conveyor belt seems to be increasing in speed doesn’t help. But the elasticity of a teaching profession which has stretched and pulled and expanded and contracted in order to deal with a changing curriculum at the same time as teaching a new course in the midst of the greatest austerity cuts many of us have known is becoming dangerously stressed. In a year when we’ve been issued with a ‘Dealing with Workload’ paper, the irony crashes down like a cartoon anvil when it becomes clear to me that many of my colleagues have been unable to read it: they’re too busy.

Where the problem lies, I fear, is in the fact that we are trying to force a new shiny thing into an old tired thing; a beautifully inspiring new curriculum into a structure which does not match its online dating profile; a sleek modern high speed train on tired broken old tracks; the scope and scale and ambitions of the Curriculum for Excellence battering against the door of the same school system that I went through thirty years ago. Is it any wonder that the shine is in danger of wearing off? However, a tipping point can go either way. The strength of our teaching profession in Scotland can and, I believe will, push it over the hump and make it work. There’s too much at stake to give up on it now.

I’ve always been very positive about CfE and I hope I still reflect that in my practice. It would have been easy to write a glowing report card but more honest to write this in the middle of another stressful assessment period. What is difficult is that I see committed and supportive teachers being sucked up by paper work and ludicrously unnecessary evidence requirements. We’re bending over backwards to make it work but perhaps the real change needs to be elsewhere. Slow the conveyor belt down. Let us tighten up the nuts and bolts we have. We can make them outstanding. Our education system could be outstanding. Let us teach.

Work Hard, Be Nice. Whatever Happens.


I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d write anything about this week’s referendum vote but decided, as much to clarify my own thoughts as anything else, that I would. We’ve been asked – correctly I think – not to voice our opinions in class and I stick to that; however, that should not lead to a blanket ban on discussing the matter. Senior pupils have a vote this week and many are genuinely seeking guidance. It is our duty  as adults and educators to help them work it out for themselves.

I’ve been challenging any student who is wearing a badge this week, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. I’ve never stated my voting intention in school. Many of the students might guess but that’s their perogative. If we’re to truly teach them about Citizenship then they will have to justify their choices and this is the best opportunity they will ever have. I want them to understand that having a vote is a privilege and not something to be squandered for trivial reasons. For the most part, they are reasoned and intelligent in their defence of their voting intentions. I’m rather proud of that.

But in class I gave a final speech about the Referendum and promised not to raise it again this week. It went something like this:

I love my job, absolutely love it. There is never a day that I get up and don’t bounce into work, raring for what is ahead. I’m well paid – not rich by any manner of means – but comfortably well off to enjoy my life and never really worry about money. I have a great house, an amazing garden and travel a lot. Because I can. The reason I’m voting the way I’m voting is because I want that for every one of you too. Everyone I teaches deserves what I’ve got and I believe that my vote will help develop and sustain the conditions for that to happen.

I’ve read and read and read in preparation for the Referendum. For every argument the ‘Yes’ camp put forward I’ve found an opposing one from ‘No’. For every argument the ‘No’ camp put forwards I’ve found an opposing one from ‘Yes’. So how did I decide? Well it all came down to which side I would trust. And that should go for each and everyone of you too. If you read the literature there will be no answers. How can there be? But an intelligent, informed electorate reads and listens and debates and then comes to an informed decision. If that oppose mine then that’s fine.

What’s not fine is to see this as a competition to be won. It’s not. There should be no losers. Half the nation will be disappointed on Friday morning, desperately so, perhaps. But when the dust settles we all want a better Scotland. If ‘Yes’ wins then we have to stand taller and work our arses off to make sure it is the best Scotland possible. If ‘No’ wins then we get up, demand what we’ve been promised and make sure Scotland is the best Scotland possible. This is not a football match. We can debate and discuss but we must never disrespect the views of others. This is about Scotland and one way or another we will all be living here, making it work. It’s not ‘them and us’,  just ‘us’. So work hard and be nice.


Is There a Matthew Effect for Teachers?


Most teachers I know are working themselves into the ground. Under difficult circumstances they commit themselves fully to the children in their charge and balance this with full lives outside school. They have suffered for years from poor CPD provision and, despite this, teach well and have children achieve great things. They care not for social media, never consider going to a Teachmeet – they might be totally unaware they exist – and wouldn’t think to pick up a book about education. And, because of this, there is an increasing disconnect between those who blog and use Twitter and those who don’t.

For, while some of us engage in a self-styled CPD sought out in the Blogosphere, things don’t change much in schools. CPD is still delivered to teachers rather than by them; discussion of the impact of that CPD is mostly non-existent. In a sense, we create a form of the Mathew Effect where the gap in engagement with new ideas or, wait for it, research, becomes ever more wider. And, while we continue to blog, attend or even present at Teachmeets, we start to see the same faces and hear the same voices. Preaching to the converted, in many ways.

So our ‘wee world’ gets further and further away from the majority of classroom teachers. New research is disseminated to those with an inkling of an idea of who the researcher is – e.g. Hattie, Whittingham – with nothing much filtering down into the staffroom.  We play to our own audience. I sometimes get a bit too comfortable with that though. Knowing that I can prattle on in my blog and receive some nice comments and nods of agreement, reasonably unchallenged. Things might be a little different if I were to share my blog in school.  It’s all a little too easy, isn’t it?

The aim for me then is not to ‘be right’ about things – I’m very often not – but to engage others in the discussion; not to worry about how many retweets I get for my blog but that I make more teachers aware of what I want to say. I aim to pass on articles and blog posts which I think are relevant to everyone, regardless of the negativity that that might send my way; to ‘talk up’ teaching whenever I can to whomever I can. Fearghal Kelly got it spot on in his analysis of Pedagoo in his recent blog post. Instead of fighting negativity:

‘Let’s instead continue to focus on developing and sharing our classroom practice positively and professionally and as a by-product perhaps we’ll influence the wider picture.’

Twitter has been great for my career. I’m asked to speak at events now and to review educational books. I’ve seen some of my favourite bloggers – and now friends – write those educational books and become established speakers on what can only be described as a ‘circuit’. But there is a danger that we allow that gap between where we are now and where we were to get too wide. We can get a bit up ourselves at times. Remember that, regardless of what we achieve, we are but a tiny minority of the teaching profession. Let’s develop our audience through the positive vibe we create and share in our own staff rooms too.


Changing. One Step At a Time.


I have for some time held the belief that CPD needs to be transformed if we are to change anything in Education. The top down delivery movement has had its day. My involvement with Pedagoo over the last three years has convinced me that teachers are crying out desperately for something new, especially as we struggle to come to terms with the workload issues apparent with curricular change in Scotland. I’ve been thinking of that a lot this year. In February, sitting in a class at Strathclyde Uni, I looked about the space we were in and thought about the possibilities of a room full of teachers in a University environment.

A couple of Saturdays ago that vision became a reality. At #PedagooGlasgow, over eighty teachers gave up their time to talk about their practice; to attend high quality workshops and interact with what they were hearing; to, hopefully, fulfil a need for quality development they perhaps are missing in their own contexts. There was no sponsorship, no free gifts, no tickets, no lunch provided, no prize draws. And there was a moment, during the day, when I managed to take a breather and have a look around, thinking, ‘this is exactly what I had in  mind when I first had the idea’. It was, I think, my proudest moment in teaching, a real sense of achievement.

What was best though was that many of those who lead workshops had never done so before. My ‘constructive persuasion’ – not bullying at all – came about merely because I believed those people had loads to share and others would want to hear them. My school, your school, all of our schools are full of them. Just waiting for an opportunity to speak up. Hopefully they will go back to their schools and tell others; hopefully they will come back and present again, bringing a colleague with them. That, for me, is the real spirit of Pedagoo, that invitation to share and include others.

So what next? Changing existing cultures is an incredibly difficult and challenging task. In many ways teaching is a hugely conservative profession. But what is clear is that we all have a responsibility to make that change happen. Attending Pedagoo events and Teachmeets are nothing if they don’t actively change our practice. I would also argue that unless we go back and convince our colleagues that these events are valuable then we are missing a trick. We all need to engage with the Pedagoo community to ensure that the conversations started on days like PedagooGlasgow and the forthcoming Pedagoo@PL event continue and become part of our everyday language.

After #PedagooGlasgow we were discussing how we might take the energy and enthusiasm and positivity of the day and make change happen. Ian Stuart @ianstuart66 believes that change needs to be organic and that you cannot force it. Keep plugging away and changing one person at at time. The idea frustrates me but he’s right. Whether we like it or not we all have the responsibility for improving things for all teachers. All teachers should be teacher educators, to paraphrase Graham Donaldson. If we are to radically change the make up of the way we improve as teachers then we must bring others along with us. Pedagoo is helping us do that and changing the landscape of CPD provision in Scotland. It’s a slow process but it’s worth it.




Just Because I Don’t Speak…


If I was to trace the roots of my love of language it wouldn’t be an image of me sitting under a tree, scratching my chin and reading Thomas Hardy I’d find. It wouldn’t be a book at all, probably. More than likely, it would be me sitting in front of the TV watching black and white movies; mesmerised by Humphrey Bogart in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or mouthing along Karaokae-style to Laurel and Hardy shorts early on a summer holiday morning. When I hit my teenage years it was ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ which held me transfixed at the verbal dexterity of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy trying to beat a system he, unknowingly, had no chance of defeating.

At that point, I’m not sure I even knew it was a book originally. At University a close friend gave me his copy and, more or less, forced me to read it in a weekend. I found it astonishing. It affected me in a way very few books have done since. It is one of those books which make you want to stop strangers in the street and tellIMG_1213 them about. Told from the point of view of the Chief, mostly mute in the movie, it is a crushing indictment of America’s treatment of the Native American.

In the movie the Chief says nothing until McMurphy’s spirit and willingness to fight the system brings him back to life. The book reflects a character who has been so downtrodden by authority, so defeated by a powerful hierarchy that refuses to listen, that he opts out, welcoming the drugs that send him into his own world. McMurphy arrives and provides the life, energy and hope which has been missing from his miserable existence; helps him rediscover his voice. Just because I don’t speak, it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.

How many pupils do we see in our classes to whom that statement would fit? Kids who have been in the system so long that we have forgotten what they have to say. They say nothing because they don’t believe what they say is valued; or have ben so downtrodden by a system that overwhelms them they merely give up trying. If, like me, you teach 150 kids a day, how possibly can you listen to them all? We have kids who are crying out to be listened to and we fail them. Just because they don’t speak, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.

Or how many mute teachers do you know? How many great teachers who no longer fight the system, no longer offer contributions to the educational debate or curricular change or professional development? Not because they are lazy or indifferent or too busy but because they feel downtrodden by management edicts or ridiculous working conditions and workloads. We dismiss them too easily. Perhaps being a McMurphy, to an extent, is what is required to relight the fires, to allow others to find their voice. I’m a talker who loves talking and listening to talk. But there are too many who are left out of the conversation. Just because they don’t speak…


What Vitas Gerulaitis Taught Me About Persistence


He was one of those players on the tour whom everyone knew; as famous for his flamboyant lifestyle as much for his tennis, he nevertheless, in public anyway, exuded a confidence which was hard to stifle. Vitas Gerulaitis famously entered a press conference feeling ten feet tall after finally beating his nemesis Jimmy Connors following years of defeats. He stared around the room, daring a question. Challenging everyone with a cold stare and a glint in his eye, he uttered the immortal words, ‘Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row.’ As well as being a killer line, there’s a magnificent persistence in that attitude from which we can all learn.

I’m approaching the end of my fifteenth year in teaching. I think it has been a good one. How do I know? I feel happier than I did last year? Maybe. My classes seemed to achieve and coped well with recent exams? Perhaps. However, it is probably because I know more about teaching now. I’ve come to a place where nothing really throws me in the classroom; I can cope with pretty much everything I need to deal with. I am now managing to merge good classroom practice with academic theory, gleaned through my Masters studies and additional reading. I can justify my decisions in and out of the classroom. I can challenge anyone in the room with a cold stare and a glint in my eye.

Our self-confidence as teachers should stem from our experience and what we know. The longer you teach, the more you should know about teaching, surely. However, I’m not sure this is always the case. Unless we underpin our practice with theory are we not destined to make the same mistakes again and again, perhaps without knowing that they are mistakes? The more I learn the more I realise I was probably metaphorically losing to Jimmy Connors every year. The high points often overcome by a sense of disappointment over this class or that; an awareness of what I should have done differently; an inability to avoid the same mistakes as last year.make it stick

I got to thinking about this the other day as I finished “Make it Stick’ by Peter C. Brown. A fascinating book about memory and information retrieval, it seemed to  challenge my existing thinking in just about every chapter.

‘We cannot remember every aspect of an event, so we remember those elements that have greatest emotional significance for us, and we fill in the gaps with details of our own that are consistent with our narrative but may be wrong’.

Our earliest memories of teaching have tremendous ‘emotional significance for us’, good and bad, but it is how we fill those gaps that helps us to become better teachers. Remembering where we went wrong and correcting that is the difference.

Every time something like that clicks for me there is a mini Vitas Gerulaitis inside, punching his fist in victory. Another wee notch to my racket. And I no longer make the mistake of being pleased when I get to the end of the book and feel satisfied that I understood it. My fist punching moment occurs at the end of lessons when I know my teaching has improved. I know more than I knew then. That’s why effective professional development that has impact is so crucial. It allows us to persist with a goal.

Nobody beats me fifteen years in a row.