Unconditional offers: a warning from history

Back in the 1990s,  I got a two E offer to study history at University College London, and I have always felt grateful for it.  Following the current debate about unconditional offers, however, I am starting to wonder if I have been thinking straight.  When I got my offer letter (no emails in those days), it came with an accompanying blurb the gist of which was that they would be disappointed if I actually got two Es but wanted to give me the security of a definite university place.  That was all OK.  I had no intention of getting two Es.  I was doing A levels I cared about and wanted to excel in, but I was also doing economics.  The economics department at my school wasn’t sparkling, and I had never really enjoyed the lessons.  If I am being honest my first thought on reading my offer letter was ‘Bye, bye economics’.  From that day forwards, I pretty much ceased to make any effort at all in economics.  When it came to my A level examination, I put ‘b’ for everything on the multiple choice paper and made a vague stab at the essay questions.  And, on results day, I was not surprised to find out that my final grade was an E.  At the time, I was largely unbothered by this.  Unlike lots of my friends, I hadn’t been stressed about getting into my first choice of university; that was all but guaranteed.  I had done lots of additional reading for history, during the time I might otherwise have been studying for economics, and considered this time well spent.  And I didn’t care enough about economics for its own sake to be upset by the E grade.

I was wrong, of course.  Effectively giving up on economics in Year 13 limited the breadth of my education.  Furthermore, universities are not the only people who care about A level results – I have been asked at more than one job interview why I got an E in economics when I was clearly capable of better than that.  I tell the truth but it doesn’t make for a great answer.  I always wanted to be a teacher, which is perhaps as well because my E would have ruled out of certain companies and careers.  Yes, the two E offer did take some of the pressure off me in my final year of A levels but I would hardly have crumpled under the need to get a B or C.  (An A, I think, would have been beyond my reach.)

When I arrived at UCL, I learned that my story was hardly unique.  Several of my comrades in the history department had also messed up at least one of their A levels, safe in the knowledge that it did not really matter.  This is all very anecdotal but it highlights some of the negative consequences of unconditional offers.  For me, a two E offer was a safety net too far.  An incentive to try harder would not have been a bad thing.  Along with a love of knowledge for its own sake, that’s what I want for all my students – an incentive to work to their full capacity and achieve the best results they possibly can.


Daniel Pink, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

The key argument made by this book is that trying to motivate people through traditional ‘carrot and stick extrinsic motivators’ is ‘deeply unreliable’ and we would do better to try to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation.  Amongst the evidence cited in support of this argument is an experiment which showed that paying blood donors decreased the number of people giving blood, and a famous study of the attitudes of pre-school children to drawing carried out by psychologists Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett.  For the latter, children who had previously shown an interest in drawing in their free time were divided into three groups.  Children in the first group were shown a certificate and asked if they would like to draw to receive such a certificate themselves. Children in the second group were asked if they wanted to draw, and then given a certificate when they had completed their drawing.  Children in the third group were asked only if they wanted to draw.  Observations of the children two weeks later showed that children in the second and third groups were as keen on drawing as ever, but the interest and motivation to draw of those in the first group had declined.  This experiment, which has been replicated many times, with both children and adults, certainly casts doubt on the motivational value of expected rewards, and Pink also argues that if ‘unexpected’ rewards are overused the impact will be the same.  He does, however, add the caveat that the situation is different if the task is boring, routine or repetitive.  In those instances rewards do not corrode intrinsic motivation, mostly because people have little intrinsic motivation for such tasks in the first place.  Pink also makes a distinction between monetary rewards and trophies, on the one hand, and praise and positive feedback, on the other.  The first two of these sap motivation in a way the second pair do not.  Often directly linked with extrinsic rewards are externally set targets, which are also problematic.  Teachers will be only too well aware of the ways in which targets imposed from outside can narrow a school’s focus and encourage gaming of the system.

If extrinsic rewards and externally imposed targets don’t work, how should we be motivating people?  Pink’s prescription is greater autonomy – allowing people as much say as possible over how and when they work and greater say in who they have in their team or office.  He also recommends that organisations institute ‘Fed Ex Days’, an idea borrowed from software company Atlassian.  These are days on which employees get to decide what project they want to work on; with whom, if anyone, they want to collaborate on this endeavour; and how to approach the job, with the only proviso being that everyone must ‘deliver something – a new idea, a prototype of a product, a better internal process, the following day’.  Clearly, there are practical limits on the amount of autonomy that can be given to teachers, but I largely found myself nodding along with Pink’s arguments.  We once had an INSET day at school where each department was allowed to choose how to spend the day and it was brilliant.  (The history department went first to an exhibition at the Weiner Library and then had a private tour of 19 Princelet Street, a former synagogue which is now a museum of immigration.  Both were inspiring and interesting places to be able to spend time.)  My nodding turned to frustration, however, when Pink started applying his arguments to schools.  At the beginning of the chapter on schools, Pink falls into the trap of assuming that ‘creative and conceptual abilities’ can’t be grown in a school that emphasises ‘routines, right answers and standardization’.  This is despite the fact that he acknowledges that mastery of the subject matter is important.  There follow various case studies of trendy schools that do some very silly things.  Sudbury Valley School for example ‘gives students total control over [the] task, time and technique of their learning.’  I really wanted to put the word learning there in inverted commas because it is hard to believe that most students at that school will learn anything important.  Another suggestion that had me banging my head on the desk was that of allowing students to write their own reports.  At what age should children start doing this? Four?  Five? Thirteen?  Even when I was doing my PhD there were times when I struggled to assess my own progress or know what I needed to do next; that was why I had a supervisor.  And let’s not forget the wider point that solutions that work for mature, competent employees with a high level of expertise cannot necessarily be applied to school children.  Learning, knowledge and wisdom are essential to the meaningful and useful exercise of autonomy.  To give children too much autonomy too soon is to do them a disservice.  And good guidance really can be something that motivates all of us.


Ian Leslie, Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it

This book is about the importance not just of curiosity but also of ‘effortful cognitive activity’, something Leslie argues is being seriously threatened by digital technology: ‘When you are confident that you can find out anything you want on your smartphone, you may be less likely to make the effort to learn the kind of knowledge that might lead you to query the answer that comes top of a Google search.’  Leslie sees knowledge as important for the same reasons as Hirsch, Willingham and Christodoulou whilst also citing studies that point out that:

–  if we have some knowledge about a subject we are more likely to be curious to find out more about that same subject

– to be curious to know more you have to be aware of what you don’t already know and want to fill those gaps in your knowledge.

The book is well written, and contains some really interesting case studies and insights, although it also repeats material that will be familiar to readers of the aforementioned ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ trio.  His discussions of the nature and importance of ‘staying curious’ are the most distinctive aspect of the book, and his tips on how to hone curiosity perhaps the most useful from a teaching and learning point of view.  There are 7 of the latter.  They are:

  1. ‘Stay foolish’ – never be afraid to ask a question, even if you think it is a stupid one, and make sure that you are aware of what you do not know and keen to fill the gaps in your knowledge
  2. ‘Build the database’- always take opportunities that will expand your intellectual horizons, so that you build up your stock of knowledge and understanding.
  3. ‘Forage like a foxhog’ – aim for breadth as well as depth of knowledge, be prepared to range across disciplines as well as to learn a lot about your favourite subject.
  4. ‘Ask the big why’.
  5. ‘Be a thinkerer’ – the portmanteau word ‘thinkerer’ is a combination of thinker and tinker, and the instruction to ‘be a thinkerer’ means to consider the big picture, as well as the details. In the words of Peter Thiel ‘to integrate the micro and the macro such that all things make sense’.
  6. ‘Question your teaspoons’ – interest yourself in the little things in life and consider their value and significance. Discover what is interesting about the life you are already living.  The quotation ‘question your teaspoons’ comes from the French writer Georges Perec, who was fascinated by what he called the ‘infra-ordinary’ everyday things which most people do not notice or take for granted.
  7. ‘Turn puzzles into mysteries’ – a puzzle, according to Leslie’s definition, is something that can be solved, a mystery is something that cannot. A puzzle will interest us only until we have solved it but a mystery will have enduring fascination because it cannot be solved.  If we see life as a serious of puzzles, we seek to solve things and move on, but if we think in terms of mysteries we continue to enquire, explore and ask questions, and that allows us to keep learning.

Jeroen J.G.Merriënboer and Paul A. Kirschner, Ten Steps to Complex Learning

This book is now on its third edition, so I probably should have read it ages ago but it is as relevant as ever.  As the title suggests, this book explains how to create a rigorous ten step learning programme.  It is not just for teachers, anyone designing a vocational training programme should definitely do so with this book to hand.  Its guidance will enable a teacher or trainer to construct a programme that makes the best possible use of all those familiar things like cognitive load theory, modelling, scaffolding, spaced and deliberate practice and corrective feedback.  It is also the perfect introduction to concepts such as IF-THEN rules (specific instructions that remind the learner that if X happens or is true they should do Y), attention focusing (methods for making sure that the learner focuses on the ‘most difficult or dangerous steps’ in a ‘complex procedure’) and snowballing (training someone to do A on its own, then training them to do A followed by B, then adding C to the sequence).  Another really useful aspect of this book is its short, self-contained explanations of cognitive load theory, ‘rule formation and procedural information’, ‘elaboration and supportive information’, ‘induction and learning tasks’ and ‘strengthening and part task practice’.  Even if read in isolation from the rest of the book, these provide a good opportunity to reflect on how we do things in the classroom, and what we should change or do more frequently.

The thing that I thought I would get my students to do a lot more of, having read this book, was to create relational diagrams.  Chapter 9, which is on analysing mental models, really helped me to see the power of these for highlighting what students do, and do not, understand.  If I get my students to list the key characters from any historical period, and identify their key actions, and they do this well, I can tell that they have got the basics.  If, on the other hand, I get them to draw a diagram showing how these things and people interrelate, it should reveal or help build a much more complex level of understanding.  To use a very simple (and simplified) example, it is the difference between (1) and (2) below.


Who was key in persuading Louis XIV to persecute the Huguenots?

  • Madame de Maintenon – Louis’ second wife, Huguenot upbringing, zeal of the convert.
  • Louis’ Jesuit confessors – ideologically committed to conversion of all to Catholicism
  • Council of Conscience – mission to keep Louis focused on his coronation oath, which was to rid France of heresy.
  • Louis himself – wanted the glory of being the ‘Most Christian King’.  Feared rebellion.
  • Frondeurs – had made Louis fearful of rebellion.  Some Huguenots had been involved in this.



Who was key in persuading Louis XIV to persecute the Huguenots?

louis 2

The second of these models gives a much clearer idea of the pressures Louis faced, and someone with a lot of knowledge could add another level of sophistication to it, by indicating connections between Louis’ confessors and the Council of Conscience, and between Louis’ confessors and Madame de Maintenon.

I’ve focused on the use of relational diagrams because their value and importance just jumped out at me from the pages of this book but, obviously, the book is most useful in its totality – it’s one to follow through from beginning to end.

Ten Steps to Complex Learning: A Systematic Approach to Four-Component Instructional Design by [van Merriënboer, Jeroen J. G., Kirschner, Paul A.]

T. Sherrington, The Learning Rainforest: Great teaching in real classrooms

Anyone starting out in a career in teaching should read this book in its entirety.  It synthesises a huge amount of research and provides clear and concise explanations of a whole range of things that every teacher should understand, such as cognitive load theory and desirable difficulties.  It contains useful sections on, amongst other things, discipline, feedback, assessment, how to build knowledge and teaching for memory.  In each section, Sherrington not only points the reader towards the research of at least one educationalist, but also engages with their ideas, making clear what he finds useful, or otherwise, and why.  The chapters on ‘Establishing the conditions’ and ‘Building the knowledge structure’ are packed with practical advice for classroom teachers on how to implement good practice.

Three specific things from the book I particularly liked were:

  • The section on homework (p. 93-100), which Sherrington uses to explain why headline effect sizes are not always that useful.  In this particular case, the overall effect size of homework, as quoted in Hattie, is 0.29 but this obscures the fact that the effect size for primary schools in 0.15, whereas for secondary schools is it 0.64.  Furthermore, when you dig deeper into the data, as both Hattie and Sherrington have done, it emerges that if what is being measured is clear and specific, such as ‘improving addition or phonics’ the effect size will be bigger.  As important to note, is the caveat that the effect sizes that Hattie compiled only really provide feedback on what has previously happened in schools.  Thus the effect size for homework in primary schools may mean no more than that teachers have been setting homeworks that are of little value; it does not mean that homework cannot have a significant impact on the educational outcomes of primary school children.
  • The chapter on the progressive/traditional debate in education – Sherrington deals with the debate in a very even handed way, and I thought it was interesting to view the debate from the perspective of someone who was initially sceptical about the idea of a knowledge rich curriculum but now argues in its favour.
  • The emphasis on providing a curriculum that teaches to the top and provides plenty of stretch and challenge.  I agree entirely with Sherrington that raising expectations is a game changer.  My own light bulb moment on this came when I was training to be a teacher.  It was the summer term and I was at my parents’ house, marking a set of Year 7 books.  My mother, a primary teacher who had taught at more than one of the feeder schools for the secondary in which I was placed, was leafing through the books.  “You see”, she said “It looks like they have made progress since September, but they were doing more challenging work than this in Year 6.”  That was when I decided to up the difficulty in Year 7, and once you have done that you reap the dividends as the children move up the school.

Image result for tom sherrington the learning rainforest

Getting some perspective on stress

In the midst of the general worry about how stressful life is today, I think 4 key points are often forgotten.

1.  Not all stress is negative.  There is both eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress).

The distinction between positive stress and negative stress was first made by Dr Lennart Levi in 1971 but it was endocrinologist Hans Selye who coined the terms eustress and distress.  Selye, who had by that time been studying the causes and effects of stress for over four decades, explained the distinction between good and bad stress in his book Stress Without Distress.  When we talk about stress in casual terms we are usually referring to distress – something that causes us anxiety or concern because we are not sure of our ability to cope with it.  Eustress, conversely, is caused by a stimulus we find invigorating or exciting.  It enhances, rather than inhibits, our performance.

2.  Even negative stress can be a positive motivation.

One of my friends from school once proclaimed that he never did any work until he ‘hit the panic zone’.  A high level of anxiety galvanised him into action; without that he procrastinated.  He is probably an extreme case but there is a reason most of our students write their essays the night before they are due in.  Stress concentrates their minds and keeps them focused.  They need to be reminded of this.  If we treat every instance of stress among our students as a cause for concern, we risk pandering to them, rather than helping them to develop resilience.

3.  Different people handle stress differently.

I am not a last minuter.  I like knowing that I have completed a task in good time.  I have never revised for an examination the night or morning before.  I like having time to think, to plan and revisit my work.  If this makes me sound insufferable, I should say that I don’t always think it’s a good thing.  Tight deadlines cause me a level of anxiety that they don’t provoke in others.  I would like to be better at thinking on my feet when plans change at the eleventh hour.  You might interpret all that as meaning that for me negative stress is a wholly bad thing but in the sense that I have a strong desire to avoid it, I find the existence of negative stress highly motivating.

4.  As Dr Dean Burnett pointed out during his excellent lecture at the Brain Can Do conference in March, activities, hobbies and pastimes that we enjoy can cause stress.

Students can be very quick to complain about the stress caused by impending exams or by trying to manage their homework load.  At the same time, they voluntarily participate in ‘leisure’ activities that contribute to their levels of negative stress.  Social media is a major culprit here – all that worrying about why more people haven’t liked a comment or picture, or wondering why someone hasn’t responded to a message or, even worse, coping with the impact of unpleasant or bullying comments.  If we want to reduce the overall levels of stress in the lives of young people, we’d be better off restricting their access to electronic devices than we would be  rethinking the public examination system.  (If you want to understand the topic of social media and stress more fully, I recommend  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, an article by Jean M. Twenge.)

I am not trying to be unsympathetic here – excessive levels of negative stress are obviously bad.  A child living in a home where there is conflict, violence or shortage of money is not going to find their life transformed by deactivating Snapchat or Instagram, and anyone feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of their life needs constructive support.  Ideally this support should deal with the causes of stress and not its symptoms.  Counselling might help a child who is stressed about their exams but a decent revision programme would probably help more.  In a situation where the stress is primarily about exams, the purpose of the former should be to ensure the creation and implementation of the latter.  And, if I am looking stressed, please don’t suggest yoga.  Last year, a memo went round my school advertising a staff yoga session. It was, we were told, ‘a great way to distress’.  Quite.



Barnaby Lenon, Much Promise: Successful Schools in England

Common sense, as all teachers will be vividly aware, is not actually that common.  This book, however, offers a large and very palatable dose of it to anyone who wants to better understand the components that make up a successful school.  And, as Lenon has recognised, it should not just be teachers who aspire to fully understand this but also parents and governors.

The chapter aimed specifically at parents is certainly one I will be recommending to the friends who ask me about what to look for in a school or what questions to ask at open days.  Amongst other things, it explains how to interpret school data; gives advice about what to do if you are worried about how well the school is providing for your child;  points you towards what to look for in terms of behaviour; and tells you what to ask about a school’s extra-curricular timetable.

From my perspective as a teacher, I particularly enjoyed the case studies of successful schools, which contained enough depth and detail to give you a really good sense of what sort of places they all were.  What the case studies make very clear is that although there are some absolutes on which you can’t compromise – a clear and consistently implemented discipline system being one of these – beyond these you do need to think about the particular circumstances of your school.  Doing a thorough audit of your current situation is, I would say, an essential precursor to developing a vision for change.  Still, it is very instructive and inspiring to read about what other schools have achieved.  I found myself wanting to visit each and every one of the schools Lenon discusses, and to think further about them as models for education.  I probably won’t ever be able to organise all that but I enjoyed my armchair journey of successful schools.  I almost feel well travelled as a result.