This much I know about…finding golden nuggets to help improve your teaching

I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about finding golden nuggets to help improve your teaching.


Matt Smith is a truly great teacher. Matt leads our Mathematics department. I had an illuminating conversation with him this week about his students’ recent GCSE results as part of his Appraisal (aka Performance Development at Huntington) meeting.

The Discipline of Noticing is a brilliant book by John Mason. Its title is something I work hard to instil into the professional learning culture at Huntington. I’ve said it before, but your students’ outcomes hold a great deal of information about the effectiveness of your teaching. Sifting through your classes’ examination results is like panning for gold. A shining knowledge nugget can suddenly appear when and where you least expect which will help you improve your practice. And so it was with Matt…

Embrace the data. Matt had two GCSE classes, set 1 out of 5 and set 3 out of 5. In terms of Levels of Progress, the stats were truly great – set 1: 100% 3 LPs and 89% 4 LPs and set 3: 80% 3 LPs and 45% 4 LPs. In his first year at Huntington, and in his first year as a Subject Leader, it would have been totally understandable had Matt basked in the glow of that data; instead he began a forensic analysis of his set 1 results. You see, he also taught set 1 the Further Mathematics GCSE, with similar success. One girl’s results threw up an easily ignored anomaly which Matt noticed – she attained an A* for the Further Mathematics GCSE, but only a grade A for the basic Mathematics GCSE.

Dig into the detail. Matt’s approach to teaching the class had been to teach to the Further Mathematics specification, his logic being that if they can learn the hard stuff, the easier basic GCSE Mathematics will look after itself. The girl’s odd results seemed to question the effectiveness of that tactic. When he then scrutinised his students’ performance in the basic Mathematics GCSE at question level he found that they had completed the A/A* grade questions brilliantly, but many had dropped marks on the C/B grade questions such as transformations and rotations. He had assumed the students were so competent that they would have no trouble with the early questions on the paper; his investigation proved he was wrong.

We can always get better. Matt’s learning from a set of results which appeared, on the face of it, truly great, is already influencing his teaching this year. He is being doubly diligent about checking what students know and can apply. He now assumes nothing. Matt’s story seems to me to exemplify the culture we are creating, one where we are never complacent, where we relentlessly review our practice and where we all want to be better teachers.

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in Research, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to This much I know about…finding golden nuggets to help improve your teaching

  1. Keef Feeley says:

    Excellent article especially your comment -“He now assumes nothing” I began teaching in 1973 -P.E. & Science(Chemistry degree) and this should be central to all teachers thinking-in fact key to scientific thinking. I also taught Maths to GCSE for several years in the nineties and my research observed that too many maths teachers tend to have ‘tunnel vision’, (possibly a result of the logic of maths, excluding the lateral and systemic thinking?). You (English specialist) observed previously that ‘literacy’ is frequently a problem in maths which too few traditional maths teachers realise. Being a non-traditional Maths teacher I experimented greatly in the nineties with my maths classes and discovered that for GCSE many students, including my own daughter found doing GCSE exam papers IN REVERSE -starting at the back with the more difficult questions (often Trig or Shape & Space), finishing with the NUMERACY. Many students (including my daughter) got over 10-20% more marks this way, a key factors being that they said they concentrated better at the start of the exam and were pleasantly surprised that they could do the ‘difficult questions’, increasing their confidence, furthermore these ‘difficult’ questions carried more marks so when their concentration deteriorated at the end of the exam (1 hour +) they were doing the ‘easier’ questions. Also, some of the supposedly weaker students (D/E candidates) were good mathematicians but poor at arithmetic, which occurred in the early numeracy section. Since, like you, I’m a sport fanatic, I’d realised in my youth (before going to Carnegie) that the ‘loss of concentration’ was a huge factor in success in sport, and it clearly is in exam success.

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