This much I know about…why Christine Counsell is right about teaching knowledge and cultural capital

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why Christine Counsell is right about teaching knowledge and cultural capital.

This post’s genesis lies in a recent Christine Counsell tweet in defence of RE education:

It interested me because I teach “War Photographer” but, despite having a  Roman Catholic wife and children, I have never referenced transubstantiation once when teaching Duffy’s poem:


In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

The guest revision lesson I teach across Year 11 is essentially an hour’s lecture which gives the background to the poem. I don’t really touch on the poetic techniques; rather, I explain exactly what the poem means on a quite literal level. I do not venture much beyond the denotative; connotative interpretations of the text, such as the parallel between the photographic development process and the bread and wine of Holy Communion I leave to the students’ main English teacher. The lesson and all its resources are available on my blog.

But, back to Christine Counsell. Our twitter conversation contrasted her intellectual grasp of the poem on a relatively profound level and my more prosaic approach to teaching the poem and its utterly clear reference to Don McCullin, one of our more revered war photographers:

I replied:

Christine’s subsequent tweets are excellent in interpreting the poem:

I replied with further McCullin contextual references:

And I thought about our conversation again this week when I taught my stock “War Photographer” lesson for the umpteenth time…

To begin I asked a student I knew which was his favourite of the AQA Power & Conflict selection of poems they study for the exam. He replied “Ozymandias, because it’s the least boring” grinning around the room for his appreciative audience. And at that point I allowed myself a little rant, about how I don’t understand why students are proud to display their lack of interest in poetry, keen to parade their disdain for learning about stuff; rather, I wish that they would show how much they knew, that they would talk about how Shelley’s poem has accompanied news of the fall of many a dictator over the years, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Ghaddafi most notably, and how even the makers of Breaking Bad named a seminal episode Ozymandias as Walter White’s empire began to disintegrate, and how it is a brilliant reminder to anyone who gets above his or her station that we will all die in the end of things and that we cannot take anything with us and that nothing really means anything in the scheme of things, and how the reader is, perhaps, the fifth or sixth person involved in the poem, because you have Ozymandias himself, the stone mason who carved the statue, and then the traveller and then the speaker in the poem and then Shelley and then the reader… and I went on until my flurry of frustration blew itself out. My rant built to an OTT climax about how it feels to work in a world where students are proud not to be interested in ‘the best that has been thought and said’. I managed, self-deprecatingly, to make them laugh. I apologised for my faux histrionics. And then I taught the lesson.

But I had to explain everything. I had to explain what a Mass was. Who Roman Catholics were. Christine Counsell’s transubstantiation. What happens at a baptism (because, like the multiple assassination scene at the end of The Godfather, the link between hands, water, careful preparation, gentle handling, being newly born, created from nothing and returned to nothing are too obvious to dismiss). What happened in Belfast, Beirut, and Phnom Penh. The source of “All flesh is grass” and its meaning. The photographic printing process. Why “dust” relates to death in the funeral service. What a Sunday supplement looks like. Don McCullin. Vietnam. Rural England.

It was an illuminating lesson in how important it is to give our students the cultural capital they lack. If they don’t know what all this means on a literal, factual level, they cannot begin to discuss the link between the content of the poem and Duffy’s poetic art. Instead they will begin making stuff up and stray beyond, what I call, the perimeter of justifiable interpretation because too often they think, mistakenly, that a poem is a difficult mystery to be solved.

We have a moral responsibility to teach our state school students all that they don’t know. How else are students like the one who finds poetry boring going to find out about stuff? I know how that makes me sound, but here’s an anecdote that sheds light on the social mobility challenge our students face, an anecdote I have never forgotten. At the end of his first year at Durham, my son was returning from his boozy end of year college football team tour. He sat between two close mates on the flight from Kraków, one who went to Eton and the other who went to St Paul’s. My son was watching Youtube videos of US basketball; his mates were reading The Economist and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time respectively. As Christine Counsell says, our knowledge alters what we see…

My week ended on a high note. One of the students from the Ozymadias group came up to me in the dining hall where I was on Friday lunchtime duty and told me she had seen something about Don McCullin on TV. She suddenly had cultural capital and had, according to her, displayed her cultural capital to her parents by explaining all about Don McCullin and where he had taken photographs and how he hated being known as a war photographer.

He has an exhibition, she went on, in London.
It’s my half-term treat, I replied. And we both smiled.

Posted in General educational issues, Teaching and Learning | Leave a comment

This much I know about…behaviour management, “flattening the grass” and Mary Myatt

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about behaviour management, “flattening the grass” and Mary Myatt.

A simple truth: you cannot teach as well as you possibly can and students cannot maximise their learning if students are not behaving in the classroom.

For the first time in my 11 or so years as head teacher at Huntington, we had a training day which focused on behaviour management. The day was led by Matt Smith and Gail Naish, two of our deputy head teachers. The training was largely based upon Tom Bennett’s 3Rs of Behaviour Management: Routines, Responses and Relationships. Matt and Gail put together materials which had an immediate impact upon behaviour in school. It was an overwhelming success; on Friday, two days after the training, in a school of 1,526 students we had only three behaviour comments on SIMS, our lowest for a decade. True. Matt outlined seven de-escalation strategies; the slide explaining one of them is below:

The impact of the training was not restricted to the classroom; a couple of colleagues reported to Matt and Gail that they had tried the techniques at home with their own recalcitrant teenagers and they had worked a treat! I think I have persuaded Matt to write a blog about the training. Its impact is testimony to how important it is to tailor training to the school’s context. We are working on reducing low level disruptive behaviour at the margins, rather than confronting school-wide challenging behaviour which borders on the chaotic.

Context matters. Later in the week I heard of a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called “flattening the grass” rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the “grass” which is “flattened” by the experience.

I finished the week inspired by the wonderful Mary Myatt. She reminded her audience at the Canons Park TSA conference that we are all people first and learners second, something I can subscribe to, even if, as Tom Bennett pointed out years ago, I haven’t got the evidence…

Posted in School Leadership, Teaching and Learning | 4 Comments

This much I know about…reading, vocabulary and missing Alex Quigley!

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about reading, vocabulary and missing Alex Quigley!

I was privileged to work closely with Alex Quigley for years. He has influenced my teaching greatly and I miss our challenging conversations about reading and writing now he is working for the Education Endowment Foundation.

Alex’s work on reading and vocabulary has been especially powerful and I have been using some of what I have learnt from him in my recent teaching. My mixed-attainment group of 30 Year 9 students is learning how to understand what meanings a writer implies in his or her writing. They have a wide range of prior attainment and socio-economic backgrounds.

Last week we were unpicking this short but demanding passage by George Alagiah, the BBC journalist and broadcaster:

Just take the first sentence: “And in truth, I never really got used to Mogadishu though, as I said earlier, I managed to contrive an air of experienced disregard.” In order to understand the sentence, first of all you need to know who George Alagiah is and what he does for a living. And to know all about George, a student would need to live in a house where the BBC News was staple viewing. Few teenagers watch TV news any more, let alone on the BBC. Important, then, to tell the class all about Alagiah and his career as a journalist. It would also be helpful to explain where Mogadishu is and a little about the conflict-history of Somalia.

All this before you begin unpicking what on earth this first sentence means and what is explicit and implicit about what it communicates to Alagiah’s readers.

Then we come to the vocabulary required to understand “contrive an air of experienced disregard”. Contrive comes from the Old French controver which means ‘imagine, invent’. Nothing much there to enable students to unlock its meaning, but how about “con” which means to deceive, which is a help, even if its derivation is from the word “confidence”. Maybe “confidence” is a show rather than anything genuine, but when you research its etymology, the word “confidence” derives from the Latin, “confidere” meaning “to have full trust”.

Onto the next challenge: what, to a 14 year-old, is “an air”? I could only explain by walking around the room with a confident swagger, pretending to be Alagiah and creating an image in the students’ minds as he pretended to be unaffected by dead bodies on the roadside and casually dismissed the presence of banda-wearing, gun-toting mercenaries.

“Experienced” wasn’t too hard to explain, but “disregard” was trickier. French for “to look” is “regarde” and the benefits of insisting 85% of our students enter a MFL GCSE became obvious. If “regarde” is to look, then to disregard is not to look, to ignore.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that back in 2003, when MFL became optional at KS4, we ignored the new freedom; Huntington students have always studied a MFL to GCSE since we opened in 1966. We are a fully comprehensive school. In an insular city on an insular island, successive school leaders have felt studying a different language and culture to be an essential element of a Huntington student’s rounded education, no matter his or her background.

And that was the depth of explanation required to ensure everyone in the group understood just the first sentence. It was enjoyably hard work. By the end of the hour lesson, every student understood the whole passage; next we will explore the sentences where Alagiah’s meaning is implied rather than explicit. What does he really think of the correspondents who mistake “drama for credibility”?

As Alex Quigley eloquently claims, reading really is the master skill of school…


Posted in Teaching and Learning | 1 Comment

This much I know about…a fundamental basic of behaviour management

I have been a teacher for 30 years and a head teacher for 15 years, and this much I know about a fundamental basic of behaviour management.

We have banned headphones and earphones. We twigged, way after we should have done, that at the end of a student’s innocent looking head/ear phones wire is a mobile ‘phone, which are banned at Huntington.

So, what do you do when you see one of your most law-abiding, compliant students with his or her earphones just visible, that sneaky white earbud obvious to the naked eye and incontrovertibly seen by you. And the student knows you have seen it, and you know the student knows you have seen it.

Well, as Tom Bennett points out to any audience he talks to, you have to confiscate the earphones. Turning a blind eye is not on, no matter how easy it would be for you and the student to tacitly agree that you haven’t noticed the transgression.

The key reason for absolutely having to pursue a confiscation is that when your colleagues challenge your most difficult students about the same rule-break, it is ten times easier for them to do so if everyone does. And, ten times harder if just one member of staff doesn’t make that challenge.

Behaviour management is a collective effort. Every time you impose the rules, you are supporting your colleagues and securing the culture of the school. There can be no exceptions.

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This much I know about…how to use research evidence to improve both my teaching and my students’ outcomes

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how to use research evidence to improve both my teaching and my students’ outcomes.

In this article, I outline the steps I took from being directed to a research paper, using that research paper’s evidence to change my teaching and then how I measured the impact of that change to my teaching upon students’ outcomes. I have told aspects of this story before, but never in one place coherently, from beginning to end.

I have been teaching for over 30 years and for the first 25 I really didn’t know what I was doing; the shocking truth is that I got by on force of character and enthusiasm. It has only been in the last five years – since we became a Research School – that I have understood how to teach in a way that helps students learn effectively.

In February 2015 I was prompted to approach Alex Quigley, our erstwhile Director of Research, when I was faced with the following problem: my students’ AS mock examination results were poor – the most popular grade was a big fat U.

The frustration was that I knew they knew their Economics content. My challenge was to answer the question, How can I train my students’ thinking so that they can apply their knowledge of Economics to solve the contextual problems they face in the terminal examinations?

By then we were familiar with the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Learning & Teaching Toolkit which rates developing students’ metacognition & self-regulation as a relatively cheap and highly effective strategy to improve students’ learning. Furthermore, Alex suggested I read a short research paper entitled: “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics” by Allan Collins, John Brown and Susan Newman”.[i]

The paper was illuminating. It transformed my teaching. The first section explores the characteristics of traditional apprenticeship and how they might be adapted to teach cognitive skills in schools; the second section examines three teaching methods to develop in students the metacognitive skills required for expertise in reading, writing and solving mathematical problems, and the final section outlines a framework for developing and evaluating new pedagogies in schools, based on the traditional apprenticeship model.

The paper identifies that “domain (subject) knowledge…provides insufficient clues for many students about how to actually go about solving problems and carrying out tasks in a domain. Moreover when it is learned in isolation from realistic problem contexts and expert problem-solving practices, domain knowledge tends to remain inert in situations for which it is appropriate, even for successful students”.

In order for my students to use the subject knowledge I knew they possessed, I had to teach them what Collins et al define as “Strategic knowledge: the usually tacit knowledge that underlies an expert’s ability to make use of concepts, facts, and procedures as necessary to solve problems and carry out tasks”.

I was the expert in the room. I knew subconsciously the skills required to apply my subject knowledge to solve an economics problem; the trouble was, I had not consciously taught my students those skills. What I had to do, according to the paper, was “delineate the cognitive and metacognitive processes that heretofore have tacitly comprised expertise”.

I had to find a way to apply “apprenticeship methods to largely cognitive skills”. It required “the externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally”. Ultimately, I had to develop an apprenticeship model of teaching which made my expert thinking visible.

In response to the research paper, here is what I did: in the first lesson after the mocks I completed the same examination paper, not answering the questions but writing on the paper what my brain would have been saying to itself, question by question, should I have attempted the paper. I did this in front of them, live, with what I was thinking/writing projected onto the whiteboard via a visualiser.

What I wrote on the paper I insisted they wrote down verbatim on their own blank copy of the paper, a key feature of this learning experience.

The exercise showed them just how alert my brain is when I am being examined. I was teaching them, apprenticeship-style, how to apply their domain knowledge to a new context when under pressure. I was making my thinking visible.

In the second lesson after the examinations, I surprised them with a new mock paper they hadn’t seen before. They completed the paper. The numerous students who attained a U grade first time round all improved by three or more grades.

The one student who I know for sure improved precisely because of his use of the metacognition and self-regulation intervention I modelled for him was Oliver. He went from getting 24/60 and a grade U in his first paper to getting 51/60 and a grade A in his second paper. Why am I so sure it was the intervention which helped Oliver improve? Well look at how he has made explicit on paper metacognitive processes in his marginal notes. He mimicked the thinking which I modelled.

The important thing to emphasise is that the students made these impressive gains in their examinations without being taught any more Economics A level content. They improved because I taught them the mental processes required to retrieve the knowledge they had learnt from their long term memories and apply that knowledge in an efficient, precise way which answered the examination questions.

I obsess about the golden thread from intervention to students’ outcomes. Skip a year and in the summer of 2016 those same thirteen A2 Economics students surpassed themselves, attaining a grade B on average, which was 0.27 of a grade higher on average than their aspirational target grades. On the A Level Performance Systems (ALPS) the class performance was rated Outstanding.

Oliver seemed to carry those metacognitive skills with him from year 12; with a B grade target, in the final reckoning he attained an A* in Economics and grade Bs in his three other A level subjects.

As Collins et al conclude, “ultimately, it is up to the teacher to identify ways in which cognitive apprenticeship can work in his or her own domain of teaching”. Reading their paper prompted me to design a pedagogic approach which modelled explicitly my expert thinking, to the obvious benefit of my students.

But one thing troubles me: I cannot help but wonder how many more of my students could have benefitted if only I had read “Cognitive Apprenticeship” 25 years earlier.

This term I will be teaching writing from different viewpoints and perspectives to a Year 9 English class; different elements of what I have learnt about developing students’ metacognitive  writing skills from the “Cognitive Apprenticeship” research paper will inform my teaching.


[i] The paper was first published in draft in 1987 as Technical Report No. 403 by the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, under the title: “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics” by Allan Collins, BBN Laboratories, John Seely Brown, Susan Newman and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. It is available online at:

The final version of the paper was published in the Winter 1991 edition of the American Educator, under the title, “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible”, by Allan Collins, John Seely Brown and Ann Holum. It is available online at:

Posted in Research, Teaching and Learning | 3 Comments

This much I know about…choosing how to think

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about choosing how to think.

Doun from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe…
And in him-self he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste.
– Geoffrey Chaucer, from “Troilus and Criseyde”

If we could see all all might seem good.
– Edward Thomas, from “As the team’s head-brass”

Arguably the most famous line in English Literature, “To be, or not to be – that is the question”, encapsulates the essential human conundrum: Is it worth living or is it not?

When close to death, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, just before losing consciousness for the last time, indirectly answered Hamlet’s question. He said to Joan Bevan, his doctor’s wife: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Norman Malcolm, in his memoir of Wittgenstein, describes this as a “…strangely moving utterance”, perhaps because Wittgenstein led a tortured life. He suffered terribly from depression. Three of his five brothers committed suicide before reaching their mid-twenties. He once wrote, “I ought to have… become a star in the sky. Instead of which I have remained stuck on earth”.

I thought of Wittgenstein this morning, when I heard a recording of Paddy Ashdown, who died yesterday, explaining why he lived life with such determined passion:

“You have been given this extraordinary gift of life, parcelled out into 24 hour chunks, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to devour it, day-by-day, and get as much in as I possibly can. And it seems to me a waste, almost an insult, not to be passionate.”

Wittgenstein’s and Ashdown’s respective takes on life complement each other perfectly. The Cambridge philosopher accepted life as wonderful, whatever that life threw at him, whilst the soldier-politician lived the fullest of lives, never wasting a moment of the time on earth he had been gifted.

Wittgenstein’s final appraisal of his life is rooted, one might argue, in the Stoic tradition, a philosophy which has, at its heart, this line from one of its founders, Epictetus:

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

The Stoics believed that there was little you could do about vast swathes of your life and that the best thing you could do was be concerned with what you could control. The Stoics were certain that the one thing you can control is how you choose to think about events in your life. Similarly, Viktor Frankl wrote that “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

Frankl’s notion of “attitude” relies upon a stoical control of thought. And when it comes to thinking about leading a life, what I have learned is that we have to hold two conflicting thoughts in our minds simultaneously if we are going to live our lives healthily. Firstly, it is not worth getting upset about anything because, in the grand scheme of things, nothing really matters at all; and, secondly, we only have one life and we have to live it with passion, as though nothing matters more.

Keeping things in perspective but not too wide a perspective is an important facet of leading a contented life. Certain events have to matter, but not too much. And an appreciation of one’s own insignificance is, generally, a good thing. Never ask, “Why me?” Instead, ask, “Why not me?

It is worth reflecting upon the fact that here, now, as you read this and take a moment to look back on your life, all the things that have traumatised you, all the disasters which have befallen you, you have survived. Nothing has been as bad as it might have been. Nothing is ever that bad. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a recent interview, “It will be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”.

All of which brings us back to Hamlet and his less well-known aphorism: “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” It is Shakespeare’s take on stoicism. We can surely choose how we react to life’s vagaries. All events are neutral; how we interpret them determines whether they are good or bad and how we allow them to affect us.

Imagine this…impossible as it might seem, everything that happens to you could be good if you chose to think that way.

Posted in Mental Health in Schools, Other stuff | 1 Comment

This much I know about…art, family, friends and the essential self

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about art, family, friends and the essential self.

Scotland at Easter is special. Every year since 2005 we have spent an Easter holiday week in Plockton, near Skye, with our friends the Davies family. They have three boys, we have two, and it just works a treat. The lads muck about, we eat great seafood, drink wonderful whisky and for seven days we leave the rest of the world behind. If you asked me to choose between a fortnight on a foreign beach in August or a rainy week in the Highlands in late March or early April, I would take the latter every time. Truly.

Late last March, however, was far from wet. By then the weather had begun to warm up, even on the Isle of Skye. And so it was, on the third day of our holiday, we set off to Inverie, via Mallaig. Now, Inverie is a full 18 miles from the nearest road; it lies at the heart of the wilderness called Knoydart and is only accessible by boat. Its pub, The Old Forge, had essentially opened for the season the day we arrived. The only lunchtime guests, we were treated to a feast of Guinness and langoustines. After we’d eaten we sat on the benches in front of the pub and drank a couple more beers awaiting our boat home.

It was a day to savour, with every one of our five senses.

As I sat at the window of the pub I took this photograph of the bay where we had landed a few hours earlier, looking back towards Mallaig.

What makes the image work, I think, is how it is framed within the window frame, accentuated by the small lampshade in the corner. A couple of weeks later, back in York, I asked my artist friend Marvin if he would reproduce the image as an oil painting. A month ago, he not only presented me with the finished artefact, he sent me six photographs which chart the development of the painting. As a writer, I am especially interested in the creative process, the u-turns, the changes of tack; the crossings out, one draft after another, until you settle on the final version of the work of art. And I am also moved by the art vs nature debate and whether we can ever, through art, resist the destructive force that the passage of time exerts upon us all.

Here are Marvin’s images, finished with a photograph of the framed painting, which adds yet another dimension to the framing effect of the original image.

I have thought a lot about that late March day in the last few weeks. Not surprising, really. And it has answered certain questions for me. I have been forced to ask myself: So, what is left when everything has been stripped away? What remains when what you thought defined you has disintegrated? What endures? What is your essential self?

Well, that afternoon last March, when both families sat in the remotest of pub windows, the sun beamed down upon us, the sea lay becalmed, the Guinness loosened our lunchtime chat and the rest of the year was ready to unfurl before us…that was elemental. Now, especially now, as winter descends upon us and the days shorten unreasonably, everything about that bright spring afternoon speaks to my very core. And it persists in that oil painting, where art resists nature, and a defining day is replayed in my mind’s eye every time I glance at my office wall.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Posted in Other stuff | 2 Comments