Beautifully Fractured

It's all about the why.

Page 2 of 4

What’s a school’s biggest advantage?

I’ve had a great few weeks. Reinvigorated by a new challenge, a chance to confirm my values, and being able to operate in an environment where I feel at ‘home’, has been welcomed by all those who are close to me. In the current climate of seemingly relentless high stakes accountability, ever increasing pressure to meet the sometimes competing demands of students, parents and staff, and in all this ensure that we are true to our beliefs, it’s no wonder that organisational health is critical.

I have long been a fan of Patrick Lencioni’s work and much that he writes resonates with me. Several years ago I read The Advantage and remember at the time thinking how much of it rang true from my experience. Of late, I have revisited the book and as a leader, I am still convinced that organisational health is by far and away the most important aspect to get right in our schools. We can spend masses of time trying to make marginal gains from tweaking classroom practice, making changes to the curriculum, engaging with parents in ever more inventive ways, and working hard to inspire students to be curious. Yet all of these are ultimately never going to yield the outcomes we want, if we do not have a healthy organisation.

What makes organisations really great?

In a nutshell, Lencioni argues that the single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organisational health. Yet why is it that this aspect is the one which is most often ignored by leaders? Lencioni argues that there are three biases which prevent leaders, in all walks of life, giving it the attention it deserves. And ultimately according to Lencioni, this comes down to the issue that leaders believe it’s beneath them – whether this is because they feel that they are too sophisticated, too busy or too analytical to bother with it. Contrary to many people’s initial response to the term organisational health, it is not touchy-feely and more importantly, it goes beyond just culture.

Why do people ignore organisational health?

I have been guilty of all three of the biases that Lencioni outlines at one point or another in the leadership roles I have undertaken. The three biases are as follows:

The Sophistication Bias

Because organisational health is so simple and accessible (this doesn’t mean it is easy to achieve!), many leaders wonder whether it really will make a difference.

The Adrenaline Bias

A healthy organisation is not a quick fix. And in today’s climate, acknowledging and accepting this is tough. Seemingly hooked on day to day activities, and in some cases fire fighting, it just feels too slow for some leaders to focus on it.

The Quantification Bias

It’s no wonder leaders in schools find this one difficult as the reality is that it is very difficult to quantify the benefits of becoming a healthy organisation. It is made more difficult by the fact that it is impossible to separate out variables and measure their impact because organisational health, by its very nature, is cohesive and permeates all aspects of the organisation.

How do you create a healthy organisation?

So even if, as leaders, we accept it is an absolute must, how do we go about creating it? Like learning, it’s a messy process and it doesn’t happen in an orderly, linear fashion. However Lencioni distils the process into four simple disciplines:

1.Build a cohesive leadership team. Here Lencioni references, his perhaps more well-known book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team but we are once again reminded in The Advantage of the necessity to build a team which behaves cohesively. Without this, an organisation will never be healthy.
2.Create clarity. In order to create organisational health, the leadership team must all be aligned and committed to the same answers to the following six questions:

•Why do we exist?
•How do we behave?
•What do we do?
•How will we succeed?
•What is most important, right now?
•Who must do what?

3.Overcommunicate clarity. Once the leadership team behaves cohesively, and has created clarity around the six key questions, Lencioni outlines the importance of communicating those answers to everyone involved in the organisation clearly, repeatedly and enthusiastically.
4.Reinforce clarity. A healthy organisation has to be worked at and maintained over time. The leadership of a healthy organisation must establish a few, critical but simple systems to reinforce clarity in every process that involves people.

What does it look like in practice?

What does this look like in practice as a senior leader within a large secondary school? It starts with recruitment and appointing the right people who commit and align with the values of the school. I have seen firsthand recently how leaders who create organisational health believe that it’s not the skills and experience that people bring to their school, but their values and beliefs. These leaders believe that skills can be taught, and what’s more, they are confident that they can nurture and develop these in their organisation. What’s of most interest to these leaders in the recruitment of any member of staff, is whether or not their values are aligned with those of the school, and just as importantly the confidence that they will complement the dynamics of the existing team. There has not been one potential applicant to any of the current vacancies at my school that the Principal has not personally spent time with and shown around the school herself. And there has not been one of these applicants who has left the school uninspired or unclear about the values and vision of how the school intends to transform lives and make everything possible. These professionals may decide not to apply but this is because they have found that the school and its ethos doesn’t align with them – and it’s better that they know this at this stage.

Cascade messages which Lencioni discusses in his other work are also a way to help reinforce clarity. Letting everyone know what has been discussed at SLT meetings not only opens the forum for discussion, but it also ensures that every member of the SLT is giving a consistent and clear message in relation to the school’s strategic and operational priorities. Cascade messages work best when all teams undertake this mechanism as it begins a structured but interpersonal process of rolling key messages down through the organisation directly from the leadership team.

I wrote several months ago about the importance of starting with the why and I still believe this is central to healthy organisations. This why must be authentic and it should permeate all aspects of a school’s life – from communication with parents, to the way relationships are built with students, to the systems the school operates and perhaps most importantly in the work and priorities that the staff undertake.

Being honest

The Advantage is worth reading, and rereading, and for good measure reading again. And it’s worth being honest with ourselves as leaders – how much time and energy do we really give to creating a healthy organisation? If this isn’t our main priority, then I would question how effective all the other things we do are. And perhaps the most important point Lencioni makes is that the critical issue is that leaders must take responsibility for this themselves. It is not a task or job which can be delegated. And it’s a tiring and unrelenting job. And most of all one which is selfless. Yet it is the most worthwhile and important job in any organisation – when an organisation is healthy, everyone else within that organisation finds a way to get things done. No matter how great the systems or initiatives, if we have an unhealthy organisation, nothing will counteract the misalignment and politics that take hold. healthy is your school?

healthy organisations

“The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness…”

It’s been a busy term – in fact so much seems to have happened in the last few weeks both professionally and personally, I don’t really seem to know where the days have gone. One of the consequences of this is that I have had lots of ideas swirling around in my head and thought more than once – I must write about that – if only for an opportunity to clarify my own thoughts and for a chance to escape into something which I feel at home with.

Rather than write a post tonight, I am going to take the opportunity whilst my brain is still not quite in gear, to order my thoughts and come up with a plan. I love a plan, and I love writing a plan – ask anyone I work with. My A level students are finally on board with my obsession and it is great to see them approaching their responses to texts in a structured, logical and ordered way – and understanding why this is important. And as I taught them today, I was struck by how in this very act of giving them the structure and understanding of how to order their thoughts, that they were actually enabled to be far more ‘creative’ in their responses than if they had had no plan or structure. I absolute believe there is a balance that can be struck between helping students think, understand and write meaningful analyses without having to resort to a mechanistic use of acronyms.

So…as a first step in ordering my own thoughts, here are the things I want to write about:

  • inspired by @xris32’s ‘one slide’ on Shakespeare, a context slide which can be used with any text to focus students’ reading of fiction and non fiction texts on this aspect
  • one which I have been thinking about since Christmas and an exchange with @Positivteacha about PP strategies and approaches
  • a follow up to my learning without limits post, focused on practical strategies and examples
  • the use of the WHERETO tool as an approach to planning lessons which does not become formulaic or prescriptive but still ensures a well planned lesson
    practical strategies for engaging with the linguistic aspects of texts as promised to @Mrs_Badham
  • a post on how the use of a priority matrix which ‘plots’ ease of implementation against impact can help focus and drive the work of a team, as well as help create shared ownership and collaboration so that ‘crunch points’ are avoided for teachers in the classroom

I think that’s probably about it for now. And I do feel better for at least having put a list to paper. Just need to decide now on which one to do first – suggestions welcome…


English teachers – please don’t rush over the context!

Imagine this short piece of dialogue at a breakfast table.

Participant 1: Morning.

Participant 2: Good morning.

Participant 1: Tea or coffee?

Participant 2: Coffee please.

Participant 2: Can you pass me the jam please?

Participant 1: Raspberry or strawberry?

Participant 2: Either.

(Participant 1 passes strawberry jam.)

Participant 2: Thanks.

Participant 1: Juice?

Participant 2: I’m ok.

Participant 1: Are you sure?

Participant 2: Yes

In scenario 1, imagine the dialogue takes place in a family home and participant 1 and 2 are parent and teenage child.  Scenario 2, we move to a hotel restaurant with a waitress and customer.  Finally scenario 3, a flat where participant 1 and 2 are in a relationship but had an argument the night before.  How quickly the dynamics of the imagined conversation, and the inferences and implications of the same utterances change when there are subtle amends to the context in which the dialogue is produced or received.

Every text – spoken or written, fiction or non fiction – has a unique context. A context which is rich and complicated, a context which is created by the interplay between producer and receiver, and one which absolutely should not be ignored. And so I get frustrated when students are asked to write their own text, or analyse someone else’s text without first starting with a recognition and appreciation of this. How many times do you see students trying to apply a checklist of techniques to engage, persuade, or create tension without any consideration first of what the text actually is? How and why, for example, writers create tension is completely different dependent upon whether it is a ghost story, an autobiography, a piece of journalistic writing and so on – the possibilities are endless. And within each of those genres, there are all sorts of other possibilities depending on the intentions, attitudes and beliefs of both the producer and receiver, and in fact, determined by where the extract of analysis or intended writing is to appear within the text. Any production of language is informed by a myriad of considerations and it’s not quite as straightforward then, as asking students to identify or analyse what techniques the writer has used to create tension, or asking them to write an effective piece of descriptive writing. It would be like expecting a chocolate cake without telling the baker what flavour you wanted, and then being surprised when you got a carrot cake. The same piece of writing can suddenly go from appropriate to inappropriate with a swift change of audience.

Of course the real issue is that competent readers and writers will often add this contextual knowledge intuitively. As accomplished users of language, we have a huge range of experiences we can draw on to fill in the gaps. As English teachers, we have all been exposed to a massive variety of different types of writing, and the subsequent knowledge of register that we have is therefore vast. But we cannot assume all our students also have this knowledge. Those students who have not come across academic writing in any form, have not sat around a dinner table and listened to conversations which involve debate, have not had access to newspapers and magazines, let alone novels, plays and poems, are exactly the students who don’t have the cultural capital that is required to fill in any gaps that we may overlook in our teaching activities. And in our methods to teaching analysis or writing, we do often skip the vital step needed to close this gap for many of our students. There are always going to be those students who when you ask them to write for a particular audience, purpose and genre can draw on their real life knowledge to adapt their writing.  But even those students need to start by understanding where the text ‘sits’. Even at KS5, I see A level English language lessons where analysis of texts starts by identifying language methods rather than thinking about the context of the ‘text’ they are looking at.

A short trawl of resources for Touching the Void confirmed a general pattern.  They all demonstrated (to a lesser or greater extent) detailed and precise identification of a range of linguistic methods used to engage the reader or create tension, and there was some attempt in some resources to link the reason for the use of these methods to broad comments on audience and purpose.  But imagine how much richer those analyses would be if the activities or discussion of the text had really allowed students to explore the context of whichever extract they were analysing.  Lots referenced a general audience – I would dispute this.  Obviously to some degree it is written to be accessible to a general audience but think about real life.  Personally I would never choose to read Touching the Void, whereas my sister who is an avid mountain climber and self-confessed adventure seeker would absolutely pick this up from Waterstones.  And then think about the difference between me reading it and my sister reading it.   I could definitely appreciate the terror and fear that Joe Simpson would be feeling, and the language certainly helps me imagine that.  But my sister, who has put herself in potentially similar situations and is far more aware of the technical aspects of climbing, brings a whole different level of understanding and prior experience to her interpretation of the same piece of writing.  And we can’t ignore the fact it is an autobiography – students should be able to consider and understand how this has affected the writing.  This was not an account which was recorded at the time -it was written after the event with Simpson being fully aware he was writing what would be an edited book written to both entertain and inform.  His portrayal of his experiences has had layers of time and reflection added to it, and this recognition adds a whole new dimension to a student’s analysis.  I could go on…but I guess what I am advocating is that we don’t ignore or rush through the beauty of language use in our desire to meet assessment criteria, tick language analysis boxes or write exam style responses.

I think before starting any piece of writing or analysing any text, it is every student’s entitlement to be given time, and our guidance as expert users and readers of language , to explore that text’s context.  Surely their own writing and analysis will be so much richer because of this.

Practical activities and texts to follow next!


A confession…why should life always outweigh work?

I have a reputation as a workaholic. It’s not something I call myself, or attribute any value to (positively or negatively) but ever since I was a trainee teacher, colleagues, and even close family members, have attached this label to me. The very word itself suggests it is a bad thing -an addiction which needs to be kicked or a state of being which is unhealthy. This blog is going to be pretty self-indulgent, and I appreciate that people will have different and conflicting views. I am also aware that there may be some who will probably level the criticism that in drawing attention to my take on work-life balance, I am somehow perversely encouraging it. Then again – perhaps I think too much.

A recent conversation got me thinking again about this whole issue. I am someone who thinks very much, at times, in absolutes – this black and white, all or nothing thinking is not always helpful, but what frustrates me sometimes about conversations in relation to work-life balance is the assumption that there is a particular (and correct) balance to seek out. That in order to achieve this mythical balance, the scales must firmly fall down on the side of life, and if they don’t, this is a problem.

I am not a stranger to people making assumptions – or even saying outright at times – that they think I ‘neglect’ my children…that I need to spend more time with them, playing with them, taking them out…that I need to spend less time thinking about work, engaging on twitter, writing blogs, undertaking my examining roles…It’s no surprise therefore that I am sometimes left questioning whether I ought to feel guilt or shame at the way I balance different aspects of my life. But I don’t. Because I am not afraid to say that I am a far better mother to my children when I am working full time. I love my profession and it motivates me daily, it keeps my brain ticking over, and in the words of Daniel Pink, it gives me a sense of purpose, mastery and autonomy that drives me.

I value hard work and always doing your best above almost all other traits. I am not ashamed that my children see me working hard, that they see me talking about and engaging with a job that I genuinely love, and one which intrigues and interests me daily. I don’t see work as a means to just earning money to enable me to live my life outside of school. My approach to work is part of who I am, and I would be the same regardless of the profession I had. However, as a school leader, I am acutely aware that my approach to my job is not the same as others, and just as I wouldn’t want others to make judgements about me because of my particular balance, I am appreciative that what works for me, might not work for others. As a leader, I will always look to protect and support my colleagues’ work-life balance – and that requires me to adopt a different approach to each and every one of them.

There is only one person I have met in my life who I think genuinely understands the way I am in relation to my attitude and approach to my job – and that’s because he is the same. And that’s probably also why I have never met anyone who I respect and admire as much. And you know what? It works for us. Just as I am an advocate in the classroom of “what’s good, is what works”, I apply the same philosophy to my life. I love my job and I love my family – and at different times, I love them in different proportions. This is one situation where it is not just black or white to me, and I feel strangely comfortable with the shifting priorities and demands on my time that both my job and my family expect of me.

Balance is not something you find. It is something you create – and most importantly, in a way which works for you.


If you think simply removing grades from lesson observations will solve a problem, it didn’t for us.

If you have removed grading lesson observations, are you still grading teachers? How are you evaluating the quality of teaching at a teacher, department and whole school level?  How are you able to articulate clearly and precisely which areas of teaching are a strength and which areas require development?  All schools need to be able to answer these two questions and in fact, our students require us to.

For many people, the removal of lesson observations has (like us a couple of years ago) been replaced by not grading lesson observations but still using observations, learning walks, lesson visits and triangulating this with book scrutinies, feedback from students and assessment data to come to a judgement about the quality of a teacher.  Whilst this may provide a more sound evidence base for the quality of teaching over time, it still has the inherent flaw of grading a teacher with a number – we fine graded this judgement for a time but it was still a number.

I have written previously on this blog about our learning and teaching journey:

Is a whole school coaching model really the best alternative to grading lessons?

However looking back now, whatever we did was always going to be flawed by the fact that everything developmental we did, still resulted in teachers being attributed a ‘grade’ at some point in the year.  We still reported the percentage of 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 teachers at a whole school level and department level.  And it’s probably worth saying that these are my 5 core beliefs in relation to learning and teaching and everything we undertook over the last few years was driven by this why.  But at the time, I couldn’t see any alternative to grading teachers.

L+T core beliefs

But what about governors?  What about Ofsted?  How will we report and show what the quality of teaching is like in our school?  Common questions.  And questions we had to work through to get to where we are today.  I am an absolute advocate that development is more important than measurement, and I absolutely believe that good teaching is what works.  However, I am also acutely aware and understand the accountability that schools face.   Yet I am a firm believer that schools and leaders can make schools a place where students and teachers love coming, whilst still operating within the parameters of policy. This is why @Xris32’s blog at the weekend resonated so strongly with me.  The system is what it is.  It is our job to make it work for us.

So what’s the answer?  Surely it is to apply what we know about what works in the classroom to our staff?  We all know that just grading a student’s response with a grade or number is not particularly helpful in helping the student, parent or teacher understand what exactly it is that the student needs to do next.  We all know that one grade A student is not the same as another – they have different areas of strength and areas to develop.  Teachers are no different. Teaching is so complex that it cannot be narrowed down into single judgements about that teacher’s performance.  And why would we want it to?

It is worth stating here my opinion that I do think all schools need to have a common language when it comes to talking about learning and teaching.  This common language can be different between different institutions, but it is my belief that in order to create a culture of openness and improvement, a common language which is clearly understood by all is central.  We have tried many different rubrics for this common language over the last few years, including the Ofsted criteria – which was probably the worst of the lot – but we have finally settled on the teacher standards.  This makes sense to us as they apply to all phases of our school and they are linked to our performance management cycle.  A couple of years ago, we broke the teacher standards down to try and articulate more clearly what differing levels of performance would look like for each standard.  This enabled us to create directories of expertise and share good practice and target developmental work dependent upon individual teacher and faculty needs.  We toyed with the idea of looking at breaking down a teacher’s performance in relation to particular key stages but in discussion with our Directors of Learning, we realised this was again trying to make something overly scientific in a way which wouldn’t be helpful.

Ultimately the quality of teaching (rightly or wrongly) is judged by the outcomes of a school, and therefore our evaluating teaching not teachers cycle allows us to promote data-informed instruction and evaluate the impact of teaching across all layers within the school.  Alongside this now operates the equivalent of our subject and student personalised learning checklists.  This teacher PLC enables us to discuss more forensically the developmental needs of our staff, as well as enables us to talk with confidence about the quality of teaching within our school.

It promotes an ethos of continual development for all teachers and like we have found with students, provides us with ‘data’ which we can use meaningfully to inform our learning and teaching work across all layers in the school.  It also allows us to ‘quantify’ if needed the profile of teachers, faculties and the school for those who still like the security of this.  But what it doesn’t do, is compromise our beliefs about learning and teaching.  And for that, I am happy we have found a solution which works for everyone.

@benbainesSLE has on his to-do list to share what these teacher PLCs look like, and how they are being used within faculties and across the school.  Part 1 is written…there’s now no excuse @benbainessle!

Rethinking PEA – why this shouldn’t be used as an entry point to an interpretation of a text.

In writing this post I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I had not used the very thing I am about to question.  As an NQT, I was immensely proud of my PEA mobiles which I hung from my classroom ceiling, my ‘chair dressing’, and my walking / talking parts of analytical paragraphs made up of whichever unsuspecting students were in front of me at the time.  But what happens when this approach takes over at the expense of everything else? 10 years and an evening debate later, I feel I have finally achieved clarity about how we can help students structure their analyses of texts without it becoming a strait-jacket.

The process of interpretative reading is very different to writing about that same reading

In essence, my clarity comes down to the very thing I want my students to do most – recognise that different types of writing and speaking have different sets of parameters. Interpretative reading of a text, whether that be a literary text or not, is a very different process to writing about that reading.  Interpretative reading should be about open-mindedness – a recognition that both writer/speaker and reader/listener approach that text with a whole host of assumptions/attitudes/beliefs and intentions.   This massively impacts on their reading of a text and unless we encourage students to start their interpretation of a text from this point, we are not allowing them to see that texts are ‘real’ – they are not artificial constructs designed for students to analyse in examinations.

Louise Rosenblatt sees reading as a transaction where both the reader and the text have a symbiotic relationship. Her description of reading as a ‘live circuit’ (1970, 1978 and 1985) sits comfortably with me, as does the work of Michael Benton. He asserts that a “’response’ is a process not a product, or even a series of products.” Benton et al. (1988: 202).  As a teacher of English I want to cultivate this idea of process not product. Reducing a response to a text, as a PEA paragraph for example, is creating a product rather than a process. This is bound to affect the richness of both the students’ experiences, as well as the quality of their responses to that text. The article linked below from English in Education is well worth reading in terms of exploring this further.

I wrote here:

An approach to tackling unseen data.

about the approach I have found which works best for me in getting my students to engage with interpretative reading of texts.  But what happens next?   How does this then translate into a written response?  Above all, it requires an appreciation that the subsequent writing about these interpretations is an entirely different process.

Why can’t students write up their analyses in the same way they formulated them?

When I work with my A level students about how they can write about their analyses of data, I always ask them to write about these by reversing their thinking process.  So my students think about a text in the following way – context / ideas and concepts / linguistic methods – but they never write their responses in this way.  Why?  Because it leads to an unsystematic response which is confusing to a reader, leads to them making assumptions and generalisations, and because it very often leads to meandering descriptive writing about a text rather than a sharp, focused and insightful analytical piece of writing which illuminates the data in a meaningful and considered way.

Why a formulaic approach like PEA should be questioned

It is worth thinking about where PEA / PETAL / SQUID (I have never come across this myself but am assured it is real) originate from. We all know that there is a structure to writing an analytical response to a text. I was never taught this at school in the explicit way we seem to encourage students to formulate responses now, but my experience from reading those types of writing, and my experience of writing them myself, meant that in effect I was doing this.  I would write in a way which structured my analysis around making a point, giving evidence of where that point was exemplified, and then writing about how and why I had come to that interpretation. It might not have been called PEA but in crude terms, it was.  However, there was a critical difference – I was never asked to respond to a text immediately by completing this ‘formula’, nor was I ever taught that this ‘formula’ was all it required to write a good response.

I am not arguing that students do not need to have a structure when they write up their analyses, but I am questioning whether constraining them to an overly formulaic approach is the best way to do that.  I see it in my own students’ responses – particularly in English Language where students can sometimes struggle to develop their points meaningfully and they end up just glossing, for example, child language acquisition theories.

For me, students need to appreciate that part of good textual analysis is looking for patterns, and linking ideas – not just completing the ‘answers’ to what a particular formula demands.  My experience is that in encouraging students to take this approach, it limits a depth and richness of analysis as it almost promotes a ‘once you have written a PEA paragraph it’s time to move on to the next one’ mindset.  Analytical writing should, at its best, demonstrate to its reader the depth of how that analysis has come into being.  And that’s not just by completing one PEA chain.  Going back to my previous post, the thinking that went into the creation of that interpretation of the data was not a quick process and it is often impossible to separate elements from each other – both across the assessment objectives and within the assessment objectives.  This is because reading and interpreting a text is complex.  It cannot just be reduced to a ‘formula’.

So what’s the alternative to PEA?

One of my favourite phrases when it comes to school improvement processes is ‘tight-loose’ – it is no different in my English teaching. Analytical writing is not a free for all but it’s certainly not a tick box approach which limits the very engagement and joy of reading a text in the first instance. Students need to be encouraged to think and write about their interpretations by making interrelated and complex links clear.  They need to be shown how to do this and the best way I have found is by asking them to reverse the process that they went through when they interpreted the text originally.  I tell them to write up their interpretation by starting with the linguistic method used, giving me evidence of where this is used, and then linking this to the ideas and concepts, and context within a text. At this point, it is absolutely critical to note that this does not work if students haven’t ‘read’ the text in the first instance from the other way round. If students initially interpret texts in this same way, it leads to feature-spotting and decontextualised analysis.

The below is an example of an analytical paragraph which my year 13s and I created together in response to addressing global errors which analysis of their ENGB3 mock exam responses had shown (a lack of development of ideas, a tendency to approach data in an unhelpful way which centred on judgement and speculation, and responses which lacked linguistic precision).



In text B, the caregiver uses several features to control the direction and agenda of the conversation.


In particular, she uses interrogatives such as “have you got some homework to do tonight?” to keep Roxy and Eva engaged and focused.


This is a common feature of CDS as it keeps the focus of the conversation in the “here” and “now” which is especially important with younger children.
AO3: This can be seen in text B as the caregiver uses more interrogatives when communicating with Eva, the younger sibling. This is likely to be because Roxy is going to be more focused as it is actually her homework and their mum will want to help her, whilst still keeping Eva engaged. At this age children can compete for a caregiver’s attention, so engaging Eva with direct questions may be a strategy used by her mother to avoid her feeling left out.


The use of interrogatives and pauses is also likely to be due to the caregiver’s more powerful position within the relationship as well as being related to CDS.

(Analysis and Evidence)

This can be seen in the data when the mum uses an imperative alongside the interrogatives, “let’s just clear the table (.) no let’s just clear the table.” Here, the imperative is mitigated by the use of the adverb “just” alongside the contraction “let’s” due to the close relationship between the participants. Mitigating the imperative is a common strategy used by caregivers to ‘coax’ children into following instructions. Despite this, the caregiver’s power is made clear when she repeats the phrase adding a pause, and the use of “no” to assert her control.
AO3: In the domestic setting of this data, the participants are going to be familiar with the expected roles and behaviour, and it is likely that completing homework is part of a routine which both Roxy and Eva are used to.   This may explain some of the shared references which are made.

Approaching the writing of their analysis in this way, rather than just writing up the way they had originally ‘read’ the data was enabling to them all, regardless of their ability.  Less confident students felt reassured they had a structure, and more able students were able to see how they could develop their analyses in an appropriate way.  All of them wrote far better responses when they redid their mock exam for me after this lesson.

So what’s the problem?  

If we accept that there is a structure to analytical writing, why am I so frustrated when I see the use of ‘formulas’ in classrooms or see students responding in this way?  My answer to this has developed over the last week and for me, it has come down to three key points:

  1. Reading a text in an interpretative way is fundamentally different to writing about that interpretation.
  2. Asking students to respond to a text straight away by completing a PEA worksheet or activity denies them the thinking process which will allow them to do that in a meaningful way. Even more importantly for me, this approach completely destroys what much of my love of English teaching is about.
  3. In our attempt to help students respond in a way which will help them in examinations, we are actually constraining them and denigrating their responses to mere mechanical processes which will never demonstrate the depth needed for them to actually achieve the top mark bands.

I am lucky to have someone who is able to give me the ‘science’ to my instinctive thinking and experience in the classroom, and whilst I am reassured that I am not just ‘making up’ what I think is happening, the theory simply confirms my practical experience in the classroom.  I would therefore strongly advocate anyone reading this to try the approach in my previous post, and to think about what I have written here next time you use PEA or any other number of ‘structures’ when asking students to respond to texts.


Benton, M. , Teasey, J., Bell, R. and Hurst, K. (1988) Young Readers Responding to Poems, London: Routledge.

Giovanelli, M. and Mason, J. (2015) Well I don’t feel that’: Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom’, English in Education, 49(1): 41-55.

Rosenblatt, L. (1970) Literature as Exploration, London: Heinemann.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978) The Reader, the Text and the Poem, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. (1985) ‘The transactional theory of the literary work: Implications for research, in C. R. Cooper (ed.) Researching Response to Literature and the Teaching of Literature: Points of Departure, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp 33-53.

An approach to tackling unseen data.

Being an A Level English Language teacher, my life revolves around unseen data of all types. Consequently, I spend a significant amount of my time thinking about how I can encourage students to engage with this in a meaningful way, and in a way which not only gives them confidence but also a structure to approach this data without becoming constrained and formulaic.

There is much debate in our household about the use of PEA / PEAL / SQUID or any other framework used by students to structure a response. As is very often the case, I had my instinctive thinking illuminated to me earlier this evening when with the usual clarity, the point was made that responding to a text in an initial interpretative way was a very different kind of reading to how we then subsequently write about that reading in an analytical response. I have had two great lessons this week – the kind of lessons which remind me why I love teaching so much – and what I had experienced, absolutely made clear the reality of this distinction.

How do you approach unseen data?

I have written before about how my biggest frustration as an English teacher is seeing analysis of a text devoid of any context – the kind of feature spotting approach which is mechanical at best, superficial and speculative at worst.

I have long trained students to think about the following in this order when they respond to a text:

  • Context
  • Ideas / Concepts
  • Linguistic Methods

This approach ensures that they think about a text as existing, in what elsewhere I describe as a magical space, between producer and receiver. No text just exists. Both producer and receiver negotiate meanings based on all kinds of contextual information including the prior experiences and knowledge of those engaging with the text. This has to be the starting point of a response to a text, otherwise it simply becomes a case of what feature can be named, or how might this feature be artificially linked to why it has been used. It is also useful for students to think about the bigger ideas and concepts which are embodied within a text because of the contextual factors relating to that text. Once armed with that knowledge, students can then select and consider which linguistic methods have been used BECAUSE of these factors, not in spite of.

My students have become pretty good at training themselves to have the discipline to think like this and override their natural instincts to look for linguistic methods that they feel comfortable or familiar with. However, this isn’t always enough and I have plenty of students who when faced with an extract of data struggle to know where to start with engaging with it.

Ask questions, rather than look for answers

About a year ago, I was looking at some data with my students and thought to myself I wonder what would happen if instead of trying to look for answers within the text, they just asked questions. It was one of those great teaching moments. Suddenly there was no panic about what they should say, no worry about how they were going to respond, and no attempt to try to fit preconceived answers into the data. Instead, with an open mind and lack of pressure, they simply engaged with the text. I have repeated the activity many times since then but during my lesson on Monday, it naturally developed further.

Students still started by just asking questions. I asked them to think about questions in relation to context, ideas and concepts, and linguistic methods. There was no right or wrong question and it didn’t matter if they knew the answer or not. They had 10 minutes to do this and they had to keep going. Making them continue to ask questions for the full amount of time elicited some thoughtful questions that had far more depth than the initial ones.

Interrogating the questions 

Once questions had been generated, we went through the process of determining which were irrelevant / or less important and which were more key. This was a good way for students to think about the issues with some of the questions they had asked – which ones would lead them to make speculative comments or guesses for example. It also got them to think about which were most useful or interesting.

Making links

Following this, students were asked to create chains between the three columns. Again, there was no right or wrong answer – the only stipulation was that a link had to be made across all three. Once this had been done, students then looked at the nature of their links. It very clearly allowed them to see where they had used the same linguistic methods to support their points which they, quite rightly, said would lead to repetition and a lack of range. They revisited this column and saw whether some would be better suited to support another point.

It became a very messy diagram:

ENGB3 response

but the thought process we went through led to some of the best responses I have seen from my students in relation to their response to data.

What did the students think? 

At the end of the lesson I asked them to reflect on what they had found difficult or helpful about the approach. They made the following observations:

  • It helped them to think first of questions as they knew the answers but the questions helped them to retrieve these.
  • It encouraged them to engage more deeply with the text as they had to keep asking questions until the time was up.
  • It enabled them to see that they had even coverage across the AOs.
  • It provided a clear plan of the most interesting and important aspects of the data.
  • The steps meant they did not jump straight to their initial thoughts, and the process of sorting and refining these sometimes elicited more useful analysis.
  • Some raised concerns about the time the process took, but acknowledged it meant much of the hard work of their responses had been done for them when they came to write up their analysis.

What it has absolutely confirmed for me is that in our desire to help students respond well in exams to any text, fiction or non-fiction, by getting them to skip straight to the step where they write up their response to a text, we deny them the thinking that will get them there.

Is a whole school coaching model really the best alternative to grading lessons?


When @teachertoolkit asked me this earlier, it got me thinking. What follows below is my attempt to try and unpick further the journey I summarised in the original post in just one paragraph.

2010 – Triangulating evidence bases / whole school coaching model

In 2010, the recognition that it was inherently flawed to evaluate teaching based on one off lesson observations began. We were clear that it didn’t promote a developmental or rigorous approach to improving the quality of teaching. Nor did it actually improve outcomes or the learning experience for our students.

Instead, we moved to a system of triangulating a range of evidence bases to come to a decision about how teachers were graded.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 18.56.23

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I can now see the issues with this although I was convinced it was innovative and helpful at the time.  The issues are as below:

1) Although the evidence base was wider and we removed the artificiality of grading one off lessons, the practice of grading a teacher still existed and therefore regardless of anything developmental on top of this, the grading culture still existed.  It was also unhelpful looking back to try and almost scientifically come to a conclusion about something which doesn’t lend itself to a simple algorithm.
2) Workload – the whole school coaching model required time and the paperwork accompanying it in reality was unhelpful. The methodology was right but again the way the process was set up meant that, if I was being critical, a lot of the time it was simply given lip service and had little impact on initiating change whole school.
3) The main driver came from the top down, and although we had a team of 27 coaches, it was very much that responsibility for learning and teaching came from me as the senior leader in charge of learning and teaching.

2013 – Driving the quality of teaching from where it matters most

Three years on, and the underpinning principles of coaching and collaboration still existed but it was clear that the whole school coaching approach was not having the impact it could. To cut a long story short, this was ultimately because there was no real ownership from the most important change agents in the school – the middle leaders.

Over the year we worked together, meeting each week for a TLR breakfast to discuss, share, trial, collaborate, refine and adapt the way we both monitored and developed the quality of teaching. The outcomes of this resulted in the following (with particular thanks to Jane Phillipson for what transformed the way we evaluated the impact of feedback):

Faculty MER-1

Over the next two years we made this consistent approach and shared set of values and beliefs underpin our faculty work on learning and teaching. In reality, this approach embedded the coaching cycle in a way that never happened with the whole school approach. And the expectation that the fundamental role of our TLR holders was to develop teaching in an individualised and collaborative way is just part of how our faculties operate now.

But there was still a problem. In 2013 we still reported and attached grades to teachers even though we had become more refined at the evidence bases we used to arrive at these judgements, and they were agreed together through discussion of the evidence by the DoL and SLT line manager. I was happier than I was in 2010 and I could see the shift in culture so that grading was not the most important thing. But I still couldn’t reconcile what I perceived as a discord between the whole school evaluation of the quality of teaching and our actual day to day practices in developing it. We used a forensic approach to explore the quality of teaching based on our agreed common language and this enabled us to share good practice and create directories of expertise, but it still ‘felt’ inauthentic to me.

2014 onwards – Squaring the circle

From 2014, and inspired by Leverage Leadership and various other books, conversations and thinking, I finally began to square the circle. I line manage the Director of Learning for science and on many occasions he challenges my thinking – but none more so then when we got into debate in the Autumn Term of 2014 about evaluating the quality of teaching within the faculty. His argument was that he wanted his team to have collaborative responsibility for the faculty’s quality of teaching which meant that everyone shared ownership of student outcomes. I argued that I wasn’t sure how this would work in practice as I wondered if it would provide a potential hiding place for someone who was underperforming, or be frustrating for someone who was excelling. Again, underpinning all this conflict, was the issue that we still graded teachers and reported faculty percentages.

In 2015, a resolution was finally achieved and led to this post:

Evaluating Teaching Not Teachers

I finally believe we have an authentic model which puts into practice the following set of principles:

L+T core beliefs

We no longer report faculty percentages of the quality of teaching. Instead, we use the teacher standards to identify where each and every one of us have strengths and areas for development in our teaching practice. This is used to inform PPD and cross-faculty collaboration. It allows us to articulate whole school teaching strengths and areas for development and gives us all the evidence we would ever need to show any external scrutiny that we have a real handle on the quality of teaching in our school. @benbainesSLE is going to blog about this soon.

The real beauty of the evaluating teaching not teachers cycle for me is that I can finally see a process which is fit for purpose for leaders, teachers and students.

It was worth the wait.

Is grammar really such a dirty word?

The debate about the new format of the KS2 grammar test for this year has recently renewed the uproar amongst teachers, parents and the media about its worth, value and impact on our children. But with a big increase in students taking A-level English Language and taking part in the UK Linguistics Olympiad, is grammar really such a dirty word?

Before I start, I think it’s important to make the point that at no stage during this post am I advocating ‘feature-spotting’ or simply naming parts of language. Language does not exist in isolation, and what fascinates me most about how it works is that the negotiation of meaning happens in the magical space between the producer and receiver. It is absolutely vital that any consideration of language use considers the rich array of contextual information that is required to really understand any interaction or piece of writing.

I wonder whether the real issue is that the debate has conflated a lot of different, and quite complex, issues.

The test

Let’s start with the issue that people may find most difficult – the testing. And I would hazard a guess that it is perhaps this aspect which is clouding judgement on the issue of grammar itself. There has been lots written about the absurdity of the test questions and the level of challenge it demands, and these perceptions seem to pervade the media coverage of the test both in and out of education. Of course testing is everywhere, and we are all aware of the restrictions that this can place on both teaching and learning. And it is not difficult therefore to see that where teachers are perhaps not confident with linguistic content and how useful it can be, that this can lead to simply teaching ‘the test’. But for me it is not a natural step to then draw the conclusion that the knowledge and content of the test ought to simply be thrown out.

I am well aware that using the word ‘grammar’ in the context of the KS2 test can be problematic. The testing of word classes which appears to be causing much of the furore isn’t really grammar at all, but more just basic terminology which is needed to talk about how language is used between people as a way of co-operating and communicating. Think of this as a bit like learning different parts of the heart during a Biology lesson to then be able to explore how the cardiovascular system works.

But why should English terminology be any different?

Every academic discipline has an agreed set of terms which allow those studying it to talk meaningfully about it. I can’t ever imagine a situation where we argue that it is acceptable to be vague when discussing angles in maths, or the names of the bones in the human body. Nor can I imagine a situation where we claim that these things are too ‘difficult’ for children. One of the things that frustrates me most is the discourse surrounding the KS2 test that assumes it is too difficult. To me, this just promotes low expectations. Whilst I accept there is no real agreement about what the content of English is, it is surely important to have a metalanguage which allows students to discuss ideas without resorting to vague impressionism.

But grammar stifles creativity doesn’t it?

The other prominent argument is that teaching grammar doesn’t help writing and reading, and that it actually stifles creativity.

Just as an aside, why should grammar have to impact positively on something else? Isn’t it inherently valuable in itself? Learning about physics may be boring for some and won’t help you in your everyday life, but it is important if you want to study the subject further and I doubt we would hear people dispute so vehemently that it is not interesting or worthwhile in its own right. Since language is a human-specific phenomenon why shouldn’t children learn about something that is singular to them?

There was a body of research from the 50s/60s which claimed that the teaching of grammar was pointless. These studies, however, have been shown to be flawed in their methodologies, choice of the participants and so on – Walmsley%201984.

The work of Debra Myhill and her colleagues at the University of Exeter paper (ref 1) shows that grammatical knowledge can support reading. Furthermore, her work (ref 2) has also shown that grammar teaching which seeks to make tacit knowledge that we all have about how language works into explicit knowledge which becomes up front and available for conscious and deliberate use, can have positive benefits on students’ writing. There are of course caveats to this with teacher knowledge being crucial to promoting this benefit, and it does appear to work better for more able students. Nevertheless it does bring into question the argument that grammar teaching has no use.

Across the continent, there has been a long tradition of teaching around systemic functional linguistics (a functional model that sees language as a system of choice). This work shows how ‘thinking using knowledge about grammar’ can support students in becoming betters users of a variety of registers. For a really impressive application of this see Ruth French’s chapter in this book This is particularly the case when children’s written work is too much like speech and they are unable to understand that written registers need to operate in different ways. In many schools in our area (both primary and secondary phases) we have seen the huge benefit that Talk for Writing has had for exactly this same reason.

The great leveller

So the idea that knowing about language is stifling seems dangerous to me – in fact it can be quite the opposite. In his book  which argues for greater teacher awareness of linguistics, Marcello Giovanelli from the University of Nottingham calls knowledge about language, ‘the great leveller’, which can promote a more democratic classroom. In this instance, redistributed knowledge about how language ‘works’ allows all students to access texts and make comments in meaningful ways rather than simply relying on innate intelligence or other types of capital they may or may not have through background, prior education and so on.

Isn’t it better to develop the subject knowledge and confidence of teachers in every phase to equip them to show children of all ages the huge benefit of language knowledge? I am an English Literature graduate but I am absolutely a better reader and writer for the knowledge I have about language. A recent study of A-level English teachers shows just what can happen when teachers become enthused by language work and the impact it can have in positive ways on them as practitioners.

Why not give it a go?


  • Watson, A., Myhill, D. A. and Newman, R. (2014)  ‘Grammar at GCSE: Exploring the effects of a contextualised grammar pedagogy on reading and writing at KS4’
  • Myhill, D.A., Jones, S. M., Lines, H. E., and Watson, A. (2012) ‘Re-Thinking grammar: The impact of embedded grammar teaching on students’ writing and students’ metalinguistic understanding’, Research Papers in Education 27(2): 1-28.

My principles for effective teaching.

Inspired by @headguruteacher’s weekend post on his 12 principles of teaching, I have had a go at his final question and written my own.  In a strangely comforting way for an English teacher, they all begin with the same letter.


If I ever lead a school, I would like its tagline to be ‘a school for the incurably curious’.  Living with a linguist, I am reliably informed that the phonological patterning of the phrase doesn’t work – but for me, there is something appealing about the never-ending spirit that is suggested by the phrase.  By curious teaching, I don’t mean gimmicks or contrived activities which artificially engage students.  Instead, I am referring to a deep-rooted sense that ‘thinking and not just being’ is both celebrated and encouraged within lessons.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t comfortable, but the moment we stop being curious is, I think, the moment we have lost the joy of teaching.


Great teaching develops character.  Students ought to leave our care as polite, respectful and decent people who are confident and comfortable about who they are, and how they behave.  Teaching needs to foster and develop this both in and out of the classroom.  Sadly, for some of our students they do not have this modelled for them, and we have a duty to address this gap.  Modelling these attributes and expecting all students in our classroom to demonstrate them is a must for me.


I don’t believe that schools should apologise for the role they have in ensuring that their students have the currency they need to succeed when they leave.  It’s part of life.  We all need qualifications and to argue otherwise seems naive to me.  In my mind, there is not a dichotomy between currency and character.  Schools should be able to deliver both.  Teachers need to know their exam specifications and use this to drive and underpin their learning sequences.  There is not for me, an issue with assessment language being prevalent in a classroom.  It is a problem when teachers use the language of assessment to cap students’ expectations and therefore limit achievement.  Teaching the test is very different to teaching to the test.


Being an expert in your subject is a must.  This does not mean you know everything, but it does mean that you read, keep up to date and if you don’t know, you are interested enough to go and find out.  Just as important is the ability in the classroom to make this content meaningful and relevant to students.  This is not a green light for dumbing it down or glossing over difficult principles.  There is nothing more enabling then giving students the tools and language to articulate their ideas and thinking.  I have seen year 7 students flourish when given concepts such as metaphors and modality to help explain their thinking.


High challenge is crucial to good teaching and this can only be achieved by structuring learning from the top down.  By starting planning with an understanding of what mastery would look like, and then scaffolding this to enable all to get there, creates a culture of high challenge for all.  This does not mean teachers should alter the assessment criteria so that students are doing a different activity and being limited by the constraints of a must / should / could model.  It does however, mean a recognition and understanding that some students might need more support and timing to achieve this.


Working hard is essential and I sometimes think teachers apologise for expecting and demanding this of their students in lessons.  Teaching should give students the resilience and expectation that learning is not always easy, that they are in control of their future, and that no target grade is ever a guarantee or a limitation.

I am curious as I write this post how similar my list is to others.  Is there something about the essence of teaching which is in the DNA of all great teachers?

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