Usefully Concise

One of my professors at university used to start his seminars by asking us what we had read that week. He felt very strongly about some of our choices, once proclaiming one particular volume to be ‘dangerously thin for a history book’.  I cannot now remember the title of the book in question; it may well have been insubstantial. The professor’s comment, however, seemed to be directed against short books in general, and left us with the feeling that any tome of fewer than 200 pages was bad per se.  I am glad to say that rather the opposite view seems to be prevailing in educational publishing houses at the moment, with the release in recent years of a number of books that some might characterise as ‘dangerously thin’ but I prefer to think of as usefully concise.  Most notable amongst these are Daisy Christodoulou’s two seminal volumes: Seven Myths of Modern Education and Making Good Progress. Peps McCrea’s Memorable Teaching (of which more another week) is also very concise and extremely useful. And now we also have Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington, a book I think even a slow reader could finish in a couple of hours.  For new teachers especially, the tips this book provides on sequencing, modelling, questioning, reviewing material, and making practice work will be a real boon.  And because the book is so short, it leaves the reader time to reflect on the particular practical strategies they can use in their own classroom.

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Chip and Dan Heath, Decisive: how to make better choices in life and work

Like all teachers, I get asked for advice from time to time.  Should I apply to X university?  I’m having difficulty choosing between politics and geography A level, can you help?  From the tearful student not sure how to cope with the unpleasant comments she is receiving via Instagram to the colleague wondering whether or how they should do or say a particular thing, my response has tended to focus on the content on the problem.  What is the situation? How comfortable would you feel dong X or Y?  What do you want to achieve?  Whilst I do not think that Chip and Dan Heath would consider this the worst possible approach, their book helped me to see that I should be taking a much broader and more systematic approach both when helping others make decisions, and when making them for myself.

The Heaths use the acronym WRAP to summarise their recommendations to those wanting to make better decisions:

  • Widen your options.
  • Reality test your assumptions.
  • Attain distancing before deciding.
  • Prepare to be wrong.

What exactly do these mean?  Explained below are some of the key points made in the book.

In order to widen your options:

  • Consider how you are framing the problem – are you wrongly assuming that it is an either/or situation? Could you actually have both options?
  • ‘Multitrack’ – produce two or three plans or options, so that you don’t get too wedded to any one idea.  But don’t fall victim to the paradox of choice by creating so many plans that you find if difficult to choose between them.
  • Look at what others in your situation are doing and don’t be afraid to copy good ideas.
  • Remember that you may be able to learn from organisations and people outside of your own sector.
  • Don’t fall prey to the confirmation bias when seeking out information relevant to your problem – be open minded about perspectives and ideas you might want instinctively to dismiss.

Reality test your assumptions by:

  • Considering the opportunity costs of your decision.  What else could you do with the same time and/or money. Does it still seem worth it?
  • Doing the ‘vanishing options’ test – imagine that none of your preferred options are feasible and ask yourself what you would do then.
  • ‘Ooching’ – this essentially means doing a pilot or dry run and trying out before you buy.

To attain distance before deciding:

  • Think what someone outside your family/peer group/organisation would say or do – this will give you greater emotional distance from the decision.
  • Aim for a ‘promotion focus’, in which you are ‘open to new ideas and experiences’ but temper this with the caution of a ‘prevention mindset’, which helps you to consider the problems, drawbacks and difficulties.
  • Play devil’s advocate or get someone else to assume this role, remembering that the point is not simply to argue but rather to ‘interpret criticism as a noble function …and [surface] contrary arguments in situations where skepticism is unlikely to emerge naturally’.
  • Make yourself consider your least favourite option. What would convince you that it might actually be the route to choose?
  • Talk to an expert but be careful what you ask them.  Some open ended questions are fine but even experts fare surprisingly badly when asked to speculate or predict the future.  Specific, probing questions should be part of your conversation.
  • Think about what you would tell your best friend to do if they were in your situation.  Do not forget, however, that the right decision for you might be the wrong one for someone else because you have divergent goals, priorities and interests.
  • Imagine that you have made the decision.  How will you feel about your choice in 10 minutes?  What about in 10 months or 10 years?

Prepare to be wrong by:

  • Doing a ‘premortem’ – picture ‘the future death of [your] project and ask “What killed it?”.’  write down every conceivable reason for the project’s failure and then adapt your plans to forestall as many of the negative scenarios as possible.  At the same time, ‘preparade’ – think through what success would look like and make sure you are ready for it.

I have started to use the Heaths’ wise and practical advice when making my own decisions and I am sure that it will help me structure conversations with others about their dilemmas in a way that helps them not just to be decisive but to make insightful and well informed choices.

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Calling time on the pointlessly argumentative

I have taught a few students over the course of my career whose default intellectual position was to adopt the contrary position.  Occasionally, their proclivities become clear early in their school career but rarely are they writ large before the sixth form.  I describe such students as ‘pointlessly argumentative’ because of their tendency to object to each and every piece of information with which they are presented.  As a teacher, it is quite wearing to be constantly contending with objections to carefully chosen evidence or examples, especially when these objections lack validity.  Consider, for example, the following: ‘It says here that more people died per capita in the English Civil War than any other conflict in British history but over a half a million people were killed in the First World War and not even a quarter of a million in the English Civil War, so that is just wrong.’  The student in question continued to argue her case, even after I had explained the meaning of per capita.  Twice.  I once had a very memorable exchange with a sixth former who claimed that human migration had only begun in the age of the aircraft.  She refused to concede, and it all turned into a very silly discussion, with me saying things like: ‘Are you entirely discounting feet and boats as a form of travel?’ and ‘The Romans didn’t invade by aeroplane.’

The pointlessly argumentative are a rare and extreme case but many students fall prey to a version of this condition, worrying that agreeing with something can seem passive and unthinking, whilst viewing disagreeing as an active process.  The key problem with this is that if you focus your intellectual energy on finding fault, you can lose opportunities to learn.  Just as importantly, this approach cements black and white thinking, such as this argument is either right or wrong.  And, of course, rarely in life, or history, is it that simple. Getting students to adopt a more nuanced approach is the ideal but it is hard to achieve.  Here are some of the things I have tried:

1.  Stressing that when we use the verb to criticise in history, we mean to form and express a judgement,  rather than to express a negative opinion.  Asking students to critically engage, rather than simply to criticise, helps to reinforce this message.

2.  Asking broad, general questions about books or articles that the class has studied, such as ‘How does this fit with what you already know?’

3.  Teaching students how to test evidence.  This is impossible without plenty of subject specific knowledge but also involves asking probing questions about the evidence, such as ‘Is it drawn from a wide variety of contexts?’ or ‘Are the people referred to representative?’

4. Requiring students to focus on the complexity within arguments, rather than homing in on the big picture.  They should not just be thinking about the main claim a writer has made but also the arguments and assumptions from which that big claim is constructed.  This means reading big chunks of texts, rather than short excerpts.

5. Using questioning to ensure that students respond fully to complex arguments.  Oversimplifying an argument sets up a straw man as surely as misrepresenting someone’s point of view, and an oversimplified argument is often one begging to be knocked down.

6.  Not allowing a change of mind to be characterised as in someway dishonest.  People with open minds are more likely to change their ideas and often this is to be celebrated.  Martin Niemöller’s change of heart on the Nazis is, for example, hardly to be condemned.


Pedro de Bruyckere, The Ingredients for Great Teaching

This book covers a lot of ground in its 12 cogent chapters, but never in a way that feels overwhelming.  It explains key concepts simply, and makes good use of humour and analogy to keep the reader entertained and informed.  The explanations given of metacognition and dual coding are easily the clearest I have ever read, and it is also excellent on key issues such as how, when and why to use spaced practice, why teachers must focus on making children think, what makes feedback effective and why knowledge matters.  The book is aimed at teachers, but I would recommend it not only to them but also to any parent wanting to better understand what they should be looking for in a school or how they can best support their child’s learning.

One of the things I appreciated about this book was its open-mindedness, which is evident from the start.  De Bruyckere is clear that educators should not be too prescriptive about what does and does not work in education – a lot of different methods can yield success ‘but not always, not for everyone, not for every purpose and not in every context’.  What we need to focus on is how and why things work, and this book is very helpful in synthesising all the key research on this.  The four sections of this book for which I was particularly grateful were those on: correcting ingrained errors; why teachers think that their students get stupider every year; the importance of a shared vision; and how good relationships improve learning.

Correcting ingrained errors

A friend of mine was told by a teacher at his primary school that ‘palm trees are amazing because not only do they give us coconuts, they also give us bananas.’  It was only some years later that my friend realised that he had been misinformed and he once admitted that every time he sees a palm tree, part of him still expects to see a banana growing from it.  This illustrates how hard it can be to shake misconceptions.

As a teacher, it can be pretty hard not to feel frustrated by children’s misconceptions, particularly when those misconceptions have been instilled in them by other teachers.  A little piece of me dies every time a pupil tells me that the reason that they wrote in their essay that Henry VIII founded the Protestant church was because this was what they were taught at primary school.  Sometimes they write this even after I have devoted lesson time to debunking this myth.  What this means, of course, is that my debunking strategies have fallen short.  What I need to be doing, research from Duke University suggests, is not simply correcting but ‘hypercorrecting’ – finding opportunities to repeatedly stress the right answer, although even this is only proven to correct the error in the short term.  The evidence suggests that misconceptions need to be revisited and put straight multiple times, if they are to be permanently eliminated.

Why teachers think that their students get stupider every year

Good teachers keep learning – they will learn more about their subject each year, and come to understand all aspects of it better and more deeply.  The students, on the other hand, come to us with the same (lack of) knowledge each year.  Thus, over time the gap between our knowledge and that of the class in front of us increases, giving the false impression that our students have become stupider.  For me, this was an important reminder not to despair of the class in front of you – they are probably no better and no worse than the previous year, and my aspirations for them should remain as high.

The importance of a shared vision

Children need to feel that all their teachers are on the same page, so to speak.  Knowing that all teachers have the same expectations and standards isn’t stifling but does provide an important sense of familiarity and security which aids pupils’ learning.  In addition a shared sense of purpose among staff is a ‘predictor of professionalism in that school and professionalism can have a significant impact on learning’.  My main thought on this one was that it almost certainly means that any attempt to impose a vision on a school is likely to encounter serious obstacles – if a school is trying to remake itself, this needs to be done through a partnership of SLT and classroom teachers.

How good relationships improve learning

Research by Hunter Gehlbach from the University of California,  Santa Barbara examined the impact on students’ learning of being able to identify with their teacher.  For his study, Gehlbach used a control group who were told nothing about their teacher and contrasted this with a group who were told five things that they had in common with their teacher (I wasn’t clear if it was the same five things for each student).  The second group went on to achieve better results in that class.  Knowing a little about their teacher had a particularly notable impact on children from ‘difficult backgrounds’ with the gap between their achievements and those of their peers being smaller than in the control group.

Other readers will find different aspects of this book as useful and thought provoking as I found those I have highlighted above.  It is definitely worth a read.

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Want to cultivate confidence? Teach knowledge.

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman is three things – an extended worry about the fact that women are less confident than men, an investigation into why this is the case, and a set of tips for how to boost female confidence.  The last two are interesting enough, although not so interesting that I want to write about them.  What got me thinking was a claim that Kay and Shipman cite.  That claim is that confidence is a better predictor of success in life than competence.  The authors imply that this is a bad thing, and if it means that those rising up in society are morons possessed of a high degree of bravado, I agree we should worry.  Indeed, some pretty unimpressive political leaders with an inflated idea of their own abilities do give me cause for concern, but, generally, I don’t think it is that simple.

For a start, confidence and competence are not unconnected.  People feel far more confident completing tasks at which they know they are assured.  The vast majority of people are going to feel more confident about delivering a speech on an issue they have fully mastered.  You are more likely to have confidence at a job interview if you have researched the role in advance.  Knowing that you possess competence in a particular area gives you the confidence to take risks or learn additional skills.  I have a friend who is a software engineer.  He told me once that he would never admit at work to ignorance of any aspect of computer programming because ‘I know I can learn the new information before anyone has realised I wasn’t aware of it in the first place’.  That’s confidence, yes, but it stems from competence.  This is not to say that confidence is necessarily domain specific but nor is it generally over-arching.  Yes, some people have a higher general level of confidence than others but few people are equally confident in all aspects of their lives.  I am entirely confident of my ability to knit a pterodactyl (yes, really) but have no faith at all that I could execute an accurate drawing of a horse.  This is not to say that I don’t think that, with practice, I could get better at sketching equines but my assessment that I can’t do such a thing well now is entirely correct.  I suppose my general point here is that we should not automatically assume that lacking confidence is a bad thing.  It can reflect no more than a realistic assessment of your abilities.  And if we can harness that as a spur to learning more that is surely a good thing.  For better, certainly, than having the false confidence that provides a lazy sense of entitlement.

All that having been said, I teach students who lack confidence in areas in which they should abound in it.  The girl with the beautiful voice who doesn’t believe she has the talent to give a solo performance.  The child who offers brilliant ideas so tentatively during class discussions.  Perhaps merited and specific praise will raise these children’s self belief, but I am sceptical of how far we can instil a sense of assurance in others, confidence being, after all, a state of mind.  The most powerful thing we can do as teachers is to equip children with the knowledge and skills that will help them navigate the world successfully, in the belief that with each success, our pupils will grow in confidence.  I don’t want to think of this simply as instilling competence in those we teach.  That sounds worthy but unambitious.  Instead, let’s think in terms of instilling the kind of fluency and mastery from which gains in self esteem can hardly fail to flow.

Caroline Webb, How to Have a Good Day

I made 15 pages of notes on this book, which says something about how useful I found it. Webb’s stated aim is to ‘translate … science into step-by-step techniques for improving your day-to-day life’.  Much of the science on which she draws will be well known to anyone who has read Thinking Fast and Slow but Webb does more than just regurgitate the work of others.  She explains the practical lessons that can be drawn from psychology experiments and behavioural economics.  In the process she helps the reader understand how to avoid negative thinking and defensive behaviour; how to set and achieve positive goals; and how to work as successfully as possible with others.  Yes, I was sceptical.  It’s a self help book and I’m British, but the advice that Webb gives is not woolly or fuzzy, on the contrary, it is precise, specific and related to everyday life.

Webb’s primary interest is in improving people’s working lives, and when she thinks about work, it is clear that she pictures an office.  There is some advice in the book that it would be nigh on impossible for a teacher to follow during the working day, such as:

  • Always take a short break between one task or meeting and the next.
  • Make sure you do something to ‘refresh your mind and body’ every 90 minutes.
  • Ring fence blocks of ‘uninterrupted time’ each day.

I don’t mean to criticise Webb here.  I think this is all good advice, it just made me reflect on how it can be difficult for teachers to work as effectively as possible or, indeed, to minimise the stress in their working lives.

Still, there is lots of advice in this book I know that I can follow.  One of the first things Webb discusses is what she calls the ‘defensive mode’.  This is the behaviour we fall into when we feel threatened.  People tend to show one of three defensive responses:

  1.  Fight (can be just getting angry or arguing but might be a physical response)
  2. Flight (running away from a problem or simply pretending that the problem does not exist)
  3. Freeze (seizing up or choking).

All 3 defensive modes have been shown to have a detrimental effect on our ability to think clearly.  Indeed, tests done by Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology at Yale, have found that ‘even fairly mild negative stress can significantly reduce the amount of activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most of the deliberate system’s work gets done’. (The deliberate system is what Kahneman calls our slow system.  It’s the system we use to plan ahead, and think things through carefully.  It’s also the system that provides us with our self control.)  What counts as fairly mild negative stress?  Worrying about an email to which you haven’t had a reply, or puzzling over why a colleague gave you that look are both signs of negative stress.  I found myself reflecting a lot on the information about the defensive mode.  It told me that it’s easier to cause stress in others than I had realised.  It also helped me to understand some of the behaviours of my pupils better, and thus to react to them more effectively.  Furthermore, I realised that knowing what my own defensive response is, has sometimes helped me to avoid falling into that reaction in difficult situations.

For me, a meeting can often be a difficult situation.  I don’t enjoy meetings.  Webb made me realise that part of the reason I hate meetings is because I expect to hate them.  The negative assumptions I make prior to meetings, mean that during the meetings I focus on the negatives and fail to notice the positives.  Articulating and challenging my negative assumptions is starting to help me to keep a more open mind about meetings, and sometimes even to appreciate what is useful and worthwhile about them.

Another thing I am trying to appreciate more is why other people behave as they do. Webb’s book has provided me with a new mantra ‘good person, bad circumstances’.  This mantra helps me to remember that if someone is being difficult or irritating or hostile, it is not necessarily because they have major character flaws; it’s much more likely to be because they are having a bad day, and that’s something I might be able to help alleviate.

I have done no more here than skim the surface of what Webb’s book has to offer.  It contains dozens more tips and insights on everything from how to delegate effectively to how to establish a rapport with someone as quickly as possible.  There is also a lot in the book about working effectively and avoiding negative thinking that is worth sharing with students.  I think it will take a while to introduce all the changes I now want to make in my working life but Webb has certainly inspired me to try to do some things differently.


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Robert Plomin, Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are

Plomin is Professor of Behavioural Genetics at Kings College London and, as such, an expert in his discipline.  Most of his academic research has consisted of conducting studies which compare the outcomes for identical and non-identical twins.  His main conclusion from this research is that: ‘Genetics is the most important factor in shaping who we are.  It explains more of the psychological differences between us than everything else put together.’ At the same time, Plomin admits that the argument he makes in Blueprint is a ‘subjective’ view.  This presents a problem for me as a lay reader.  I sometimes found it hard to tell when Plomin was stating the facts and when he was interpreting them.  And a sceptical review of Blueprint in Nature ( suggests that Plomin does quite a lot of interpretation, not all of it rigorous.

From a teaching point of view, the most interesting section of this book is the one on genetics and school achievement.  Plomin writes that ‘school achievement is 60 per cent heritable on average’.  He goes on to claim that ‘shared environment’ (growing up in the same home, with the same parents) has ‘no effect on performance in STEM subjects’ and accounts for ‘only 10 per cent of the variance’ for humanities subjects.  What this means, according to Plomin is that ‘parents matter but they don’t make a difference’ – they matter because they pass on their DNA but what they do as parents makes little material difference.  Similarly, schools are said to matter but not make a difference.  In this case, they matter because children spend much of their time in them but they make little difference to how much children actually achieve.

Plomin predicts that his readers will find these claims hard to accept and, in my case, he was right.  I can’t really get my head around the idea that parents who nurture their child’s abilities and curiosity will have little material effect when compared to those who allow their child to spend all their waking hours playing Fortnite or scrolling through Instagram.  Equally, it is hard to see how a school providing an enriching and rigorous curriculum won’t be better for a child’s intellectual development than ‘schooling’ them at Summerhill.  Plomin would probably say that this is just wishful thinking.  I am a teacher and can’t bear the idea that I don’t make a difference.  He is almost certainly right that my choice of career colours my thinking but even his own statistics don’t entirely seem to support his sweeping conclusions.  He says that ‘environmental influence shared by children attending the same schools as well as growing up in the same family accounts for only 20 per cent of the variance in achievement in school years and less than 10 per cent at university.’  It is the only 20 per cent that throws me.  Surely 20 per cent is a lot?  Far too much, I would think, for any responsible parent to shrug their shoulders and say ‘whatever’ when faced with choices about how to raise and educate their child.

Plomin certainly hasn’t done enough to convince me, and it is people like me he needs to convince if he is to win the argument.  Overall, I found this book dissatisfying.  If you want to better understand genetics, I would point you instead to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.  Mukherjee is a great storyteller, and he explains the science is more detail and with more clarity than Plomin.  If you do choose to engage with Plomin, however, I would love to know your thoughts.

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