This much I know about…why I’m excited about the new school year

I have been a teacher for 26 years, a Headteacher for 11 years and, at the age of 50, this much I know about why I’m excited about the new school year.


I’m stuck. I’ve been writing a book called, HEAD Teacher: Why headteachers should be the HEAD teacher in their schools, and I can’t finish it because it all seems so bleedin’ obvious. What else should Headteachers be doing than being actively involved in improving teaching in their schools? By writing this short post, I’m hoping that I’ll unstuck myself!


How do students learn? At the moment I’m struggling with the sense that, until now, I’ve never properly understood the cognitive processes which occur when students learn. And if that is true, how can I have been planning lessons which create the best conditions for learning? I’m excited about returning to school because I think I can become a much better teacher this year.

Real student learning isn’t anything very exciting to watch; so said one of my most experienced colleagues recently during her Performance Management review. And after reading books by Willingham, Nuthall and Berger I reckon she’s about right.

I think it is good to live in a constant state of uncertainty. Chris Husbands warns that whatever one piece of research claims, there will be another piece of research making contradictory claims. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the role of memory in students’ learning: Willingham claims that, Memory is the residue of thought; according to Eric R. Kandel, M.D. recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the molecular basis of memory, There is no memory without learning but there is learning without memory; and the School of Public Health & Health Professions, University of Buffalo claims that, Without memory, there can be no learning.  I’ve always subscribed to the view that there is no learning without memory, but, as you can see, it’s all so much more complex than that!

If I do something new this year, then it will be to challenge students to improve their memories. Combining all I’ve read with all I have learnt about learning after 26 years of teaching, I think we can all develop our memories; it just takes some effort. The University of Buffalo link gives some great tips about improving memory and Willingham’s book is good on the implications of all this for pedagogy.

Method of loci works for me. I know the Electro-magnetic spectrum through attaching its elements in the correct sequence to locations on the journey from my bed to my car, beginning with the radio which wakes me up (Radio Waves) the Microwave oven which cooks my porridge (Microwaves) etc. I love this short clip from Sherlock as he secures key information in his memory using his Mind Palace:

My priority for this year is nailing the day job. And that starts with becoming a better teacher myself.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
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7 Responses to This much I know about…why I’m excited about the new school year

  1. @cazzwebbo says:

    I think head teachers need more than one of themselves. Quantum head teaching might include a number of heads within the school, in the local community, also liaising regionally and nationally, and even engaging in international learning missions themselves.

  2. The point about the method of loci is that it is meant to be used for remembering things that can only be recalled as a list of (apparently) unconnected items. Shouldn’t you also be considering, say, what’s the best way to remember, say, a poem? Perhaps different memory methods are required in every discipline.

  3. It’s interesting to read a Headteacher who sees their own personal development as improving their own teaching. You say it’s all obvious but I don’t think it is. Often Headteachers delegate the teaching to others or have other issues to deal with. I’m glad you have your priorities clear – looking forward to reading the book. I’m interested to know how you’ve established yourself as the head teacher.

  4. Bec Tulloch says:

    I love loci. Such a simple but great memory tool. You continue to bolster my faith in what we do in schools. Thanks, John.

  5. Chris Husbands says:

    I did indeed say that research findings are complex (I think John is qoting a presentation I did in York), but it was partly to illustrate the point that it is necessary to engage with the question being asked and the methods deployed as well as the findings. For a very astringent account of the issues, see

    Chris Husbands

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