Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes. The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements, especially following the poor performance of human beings, the failure of systems and procedures, unexpected events and even complete disasters.

How does black box thinking apply in education?

In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, to help ensure consistently high performance. But despite the amount of time put into these areas, students still sometimes underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, which contains a wealth of meaningful information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively.  After all, which information should we act on? How should we act on it? What culture should we create around the data we collect?

When teaching doesn’t work…

A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an outstanding teacher. This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades. In his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher in September, Steve was required to account for this dip, despite submitting much higher predictions only two months earlier. How could he have got it so wrong?

In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Only this time, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way. Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account and subconsciously had inferred that the data he had used effectively to predict this year’s results was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He himself was a seasoned examiner, so felt competent to judge the quality of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the techniques used in his students’ answers to exam questions. It didn’t matter in the end.

Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?

The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content. As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t know the answers. Steve was expecting a deep evaluation of quotes and had taught the students how to go about it, focusing on multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases. But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes. The hypothetical case studies presented in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events. But the students hadn’t understood the ones they were supposed to write about on exam day. They only understood the ones they were tested on in class.

Despite the failings of some, a small number of students had performed well. But instead of patting himself on the back, Steve just felt bewildered. How had they performed well when others hadn’t? After all, they were all in the same class, had access to the same resources and were assessed in the same way throughout the course. Their results should all be roughly on par.

Or so Steve thought.

Why do some students fail?

Students succeed and fail due to a multitude of factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have memorised the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the quality of their responses. The structure of their answers could make it difficult to demonstrate their mastery of the question. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play.

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.

Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.

Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so badly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

  • Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
  • Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
  • Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
  • Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
  • Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
  • Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
  • Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your use of “Black Box” thinking in education.

Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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Starting a Class Blog in 5 Minutes

Starting a Class Blog

Why is starting a class blog important?

Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.

For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.

Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.

When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?

Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?

Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…

  • The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
  • The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
  • The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
  • The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
  • The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.

Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.

Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.

Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’

  1. Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
  2. If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
  3. Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
  4. Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
  5. Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
  6. Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.

How do I set up my first class blog?


Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.

All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!

  1. Go to and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
  2. Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
  3. Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
  4. Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
  5.  Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
  6. Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
  7. You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
  8. You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.

Publishing your first post

Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.

Keep your first post simple.

I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.

To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.

Congratulations, you are now a blogger!

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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Giving Effective Feedback

Giving Effective Feedback

Giving effective feedback is a balancing act

My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.

Why target setting is priority number 2

As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.

In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.

Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.

Students need to see the bigger picture

One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?

They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.

By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.

Students need to feel supported

Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.

Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.

Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.

Preparing students to receive feedback

This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

Here are the questions I’ll be asking:

  1. What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
  2. What is your end-of-course target?
  3. What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
  4. Which of those practical steps paid off?
  5. What was your target for the mock exam?
  6. If your two targets are different, then explain why.
  7. Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
  8. How close do you think you will be to your target?
  9. If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  10. If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  11. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?

I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.

Planning your next steps

After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!

Steps you can put in place:

  • Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
  • Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
  • Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
  • Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
  • Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?


Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.

Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.

You can be proud of that.

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Measuring Progress: A Pointless Exercise?

Measuring Progress

Why measuring progress is overrated

Last time you were observed teaching a lesson, did your observer focus on ‘measuring progress’ in their feedback? What exactly did they mention? Did you believe them? Did you feel proud or ashamed of the feedback? Did either of you ‘grade’ the quality of the teaching or even the teacher? Was the amount or rate of learning measured? Was the observation a positive, or even a useful experience? Teachers across many schools have had experiences such as these. It is one of the factors contributing to a crisis in recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers across many countries. But it is a factor that can be eliminated very simply. Ban lesson observations from discussions on student progress. They simply do not work.

What does ‘progress’ even mean?

In this post, I hope to convince you that measuring progress in lesson observations is a waste of time. There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

This problem is exacerbated even further during lesson observations. In many schools, the ‘rate’ or ‘amount’ of progress within the lesson is still being ‘measured’ by SLT and external inspectors alike. However, the problem with aiming for short-term success is that the long-term needs of the students are put aside. This is simply for the sake of teachers trying to demonstrate excellent progress in front of observers. After all, nobody wants to be judged as anything less than brilliant! Observations are a snapshot, a small-scale sample. They simply cannot be used as evidence of student progress.

Fortunately, many high-performing schools are taking on board ever-increasing levels of educational research, in order to raise the achievement of students. Organisations such as the Sutton Trust have researched what factors make the greatest difference to learning. Schools have developed Learning Improvement Plans in response to this research. Now it’s time for Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) to examine whether or not lesson observations are useful enough in improving student progress, to justify the problems they also generate.

So, what’s wrong with measuring progress?

To really understand this question, it’s important to go back to first principles and to ask these fundamental questions:

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What role should teachers play in education?
  3. What role should students play in their own education?
  4. What else matters?

1. What is the purpose of education?

The ‘purpose’ of education, in my mind, comes down to one simple idea. Education should aim to provide a person with the knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to flourish and succeed once they have left education. In order to achieve this aim, educators should measure progress. But only when it helps education over the long-term. We should evidence the development of students’ knowledge, but there are far better methods than old-fashioned lesson observations. Monitoring student folders is far more accurate. It can’t be staged and it allows teachers to teach in their own way, using their own professional judgement to guide them.

Artificial situations have also been created by teachers, in order to ‘demonstrate’ their own teaching ‘skills’. But a teacher’s aim is to promote learning as their first priority! The cause of this mismatch in priorities is that in too many cases teachers feel they must ‘perform’ to the latest standards, or use the latest methods ‘preferred’ by external inspectors or SLT.

Finally, too many teachers provide students with everything they need in order to pass an exam. This can be useful, but only insofar as it equips the students with the skills they need after leaving school. However, students are often so spoon-fed that they don’t know how to learn or how to solve problems even though they managed to achieve good grades in their exams. A good education system should create resilient problem-solvers. A focus on measuring progress, however, makes teachers less likely to spend a long time on a challenging task. This is because the task may not provide positive ‘progress’ data in time for the termly data-window when assessment results are submitted. Instead, many teachers favour shorter and less rigorous tasks, where they can demonstrate repeated intervention, rather than allowing students to learn resilience.

2. What role should teachers play in education?

There is often a debate about whether the teacher should be the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. I don’t think it matters, so long as you change it up now and again. Students need both direct instruction and the freedom to tackle things in their own way. That way, they benefit from having an expert in the room and from having the space to be creative in how they learn. A focus on measuring progress in a lesson can sometimes interfere with this process, creating unnecessary constraints on the structure of lessons.

Teachers should be able to teach in whatever way they like, so long as by the end of the course students are able to demonstrate that they can achieve well in the exam and go on to lead successful lives. After all, isn’t this what matters most to our students?

3. What role should students play in their own education?

Learning how to learn is arguably the most important skill a student can learn at school. It happens when we give students a variety of levels of challenge, over time, with varying levels of support. Independent learning is crucial, whether through homework or through students’ own wider reading around the subject. Students often overlook their own role in their own education. Therefore it is vital that we teach students explicitly about their own role in the learning process.

Unfortunately, though, students often overlook their own role in their education. Therefore it is vital that we teach them explicitly about this. I would even argue that it should be done before you begin teaching subject topics. That way, it won’t be viewed by the students as a simplistic reaction to a badly completed homework, or as a trendy add-on following a course we’ve been on.

One consequence of creating a culture of independent learning is that some students will do it extremely well. Sometimes my own students will turn up to a lesson, having taught themselves the topic at home.

4. What else matters?

Teachers are in education for the long haul. So are students. Observers should be too, but often they become distracted by short-term thinking, rather than planning for the future. The consequence is that lesson observations are added to the workload of teachers and SLT. However, a quick cost-benefit analysis shows that the number of hours put into lesson observation schedules does not make enough positive difference to long-term teaching, to justify the expense. Teachers are worn out. SLT are worn out. We can’t really use the ‘data’ gathered as it doesn’t really measure progress accurately. Our paperwork is then filed away for external inspection teams. This is so that SLT can at least be seen to have tried to monitor and make an impact upon student progress.

Meanwhile, lessons are taught with ‘education’ as a secondary priority.

But there is one last nail in the coffin of lesson observations: external inspectors now take less and less account of what they see in lesson observations when making judgements on progress. Sir Michael Wilshaw, an experienced headteacher and the head of Ofsted (at the time of writing), has frequently bemoaned the way that many teachers feel they ought to measure progress, often several times per lesson and especially during inspection visits. Bite-sized chunks of learning are used too often, at the expense of students taking their time on more challenging tasks. I mentioned this earlier, but you can read more about his experience in this Telegraph article.

In essence, Wilshaw views the process of measuring progress as a much more long term one. Progress ‘measurements’ should take into account long-term data trends and evidence of students making progress over time. The individual lesson observation plays such a superficial role in the measurement of progress, that we might as well abandon it altogether.

So there you have it. If you want to measure progress then leave lesson observations out of it. They are quite frankly, not fit for purpose.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a reply below or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.


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Raising Achievement Using Teamwork

Raising Achievement

Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?

Answer: Teamwork.

No man is an island. Not only that but in a world where  teachers connect with each other 24/7 over email, social media, etc, we no longer work in isolation. This week’s blog post is something I’ve been considering for a while now. We work in teams, so how do we make the best use of our colleagues in order to raise achievement?

What does a successful team look like?

If you want to see what phenomenal teamwork looks like, just watch a pit crew in a Formula 1 race. Teams in education are no different and the most successful all have the same essential attributes:

  • Every member has a pre-defined job
  • They all do their jobs extremely well
  • They trust each other
  • They hold each other accountable
  • They hold themselves accountable

Now ask yourself: do the above points accurately describe the teams you belong to? If not, then what can you do to improve your team and to raise achievement?


Five simple ways to improve your team and raise achievement:

1. Know your job

It’s crucial that you know exactly what you are personally responsible for and what others are personally responsible for. Without knowing this, how could you begin to raise achievement? If you are unsure then a useful exercise is to sketch out a hierarchy (most if not all schools are hierarchical), showing the different levels of responsibility of team members from the very top to the very bottom. That way, it will be much easier to hold yourself and others accountable for the whole range of responsibilities. Once all the jobs are defined, you can begin to collaborate more effectively.

2. Actively work with each other

When designing a scheme of work, or contacting a student’s parents or planning a trip, do we actively involve others in the process? Not only is it useful to share workload when completing complex tasks, you will also benefit from colleagues’ experiences too. In their roles, they may well have encountered similar issues to the one you are busy solving. I always find it helps to see things from a different perspective – it also pays dividends to learn from other people’s mistakes!

3. When analysing your own performance, focus on the important details

It’s very easy when things don’t go to plan, that we can make excuses. Studies show that this happens even more often when others are observing – some people just don’t like to take responsibility for things that THEY could have done differently. For instance, a particular cohort of students may have a real issue with completing homework on time and to a good standard. Is this a behaviour issue? is it their organisation skills? Is there a knowledge deficit? Do they lack engagement with their subject? It’s vital to determine the correct cause of the issue, or else you will waste energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, whilst the real problem keeps rumbling on.

4. When holding others accountable, ask the right questions

The same studies that show our unwillingness to hold ourselves responsible also show that we prefer to blame others. Teachers MUST hold each other accountable. Without this, we won’t be able to maintain and drive up standards. However, this can be done in a positive, developmental way, or it can become punitive and lead to decreased motivation. When asking colleagues to evaluate their own performance, ask questions that generate practical and useful answers. Framing ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities to develop specific teaching methods’ is another proven strategy. Another popular one is the ‘feedback sandwich’ – give one piece of positive feedback, then one way to improve and then another positive. Remind colleagues that they have more good points than bad, but don’t shy away from being totally honest. Over the long term, it’s important to make sure that colleagues feel supported and encouraged. Even teachers who are completely honest in their self-evaluation won’t feel motivated to fix problems if they feel their positive attributes aren’t valued.

5. Keep in regular contact with each other

This one is my own particular failing (hence why I put it at the end!) but it makes a huge difference when I get it right. Far too easily we can become engrossed in a never-ending checklist of day-to-day tasks. It’s important, now and again, to let others know what you are up to. Also to engage them in a conversation about how they could participate, or how you could help them. In my own experience, it prevents problems down the line, where I’ve ended up duplicating the work a colleague had already done, or where I could have offered help before a problem reared its head. One very short email every week or so is all it takes and the shorter it is, the better!


Call to action!

The best teachers will always act on advice, even if they only focus on one tiny snippet at a time. Don’t get left behind! Take one small step from those outlined above and spend no more than five minutes on it TODAY. You know fine well if you leave it until tomorrow then it will never get done. Be outstanding and raise achievement NOW!

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Independent Learning: Three Top Tips

Independent Learning

Why is independent learning so important?

Top students often go beyond what they’ve been asked to do when it comes to producing extended pieces of work, especially if given the chance to conduct research. It’s a virtuous circle, helping students become top students and then because they are top students they continue to learn independently as that is now their new ‘normal’ expectation. Depth and frequency of independent learning typically lead to better results in formal assessments. So the question is, how do we get the rest of the students to conduct independent learning?

Below are three handy tips you can use to encourage students to engage in independent learning.


1. Guide your students

Most students don’t use independent learning to complement the required tasks they are given. Sometimes they just can’t be bothered. However, many students don’t bother because they haven’t the foggiest idea where to start. One thing you can do for them is to provide a simple and unintimidating list of sources they can use for specific topics. Break it down to page numbers and even paragraphs if need be, just to get them started. You could give the students this menu of options at the beginning of each topic, each term, or as I’ve done, at the beginning of the year to glue onto the inside cover of their folders. I give a copy of a Wider Reading List to my A Level students at the beginning of their final year. They should aim to use at least one of the sources in addition to the textbooks and other materials they receive in class when they submit an essay. I also encourage them to add a source to the list, to demonstrate even greater independence. The list offers guidance to those who don’t know where to go for information, but allows them to be independent learners too.

Independent Learning - Wider Reading List

Wider Reading List

Choice is important too. If the students feel as though they can pick whichever source they like, they will feel a greater sense of ownership over their learning. This is a well-documented way to boost engagement. Not only that, but once students are offered a choice, they are able to consider a range of alternatives before finally deciding upon a source to use. Their skills of source-selection and evaluation become more refined, allowing them to be even more independent in the future.

2. Choose your sources carefully

If independent learning is not a common feature of your class, then ease yourself into it. Don’t pick a stack of weighty titles from the bookshelf, or the top ten ranked pages on Google – the students won’t thank you for it and will most likely just not read it.

Instead, choose two or three easy-to-access resources and not necessarily written ones either – YouTube is brilliant, so are Vimeo and Slideshare. Students who have conducted independent learning before are much more likely to do it again, compared with students who have never done it before. Remove the barrier to starting independent learning by making it less demanding first round.

3. Set your expectations and monitor them

Students must know that independent learning is not an optional extra, but a required part of the course. Those of you operating a Flipped Learning model will understand how homework can be used to gain huge advantages. Here, the student gets to choose what, when and how they use the independent learning material. They choose how much advantage they want to take and in what direction.

How do you know they’ve done it?

At the bottom of the options menu, create a box where students can write down each time they’ve used one of the sources. You could even give a termly reward for those who have made the best use of the menu, or for those who have shown the most progress. Make it meaningful to students and they will adopt it.


I would love to know how you promote independent learning in your classes. Send me a message!

Also, if you want to see an example of a menu that I’ve used then leave your email address below and I’ll send you a free copy.


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