Curriculum 2020…

The current OFSTED-driven conversation around curriculum rationale offers a timely platform for me to launch my manifesto for 2020! Step aside literacy and reading for pleasure* because here are two central foundations of our subject to take into the new year: English grows empathy and the magical power of seeing text as a construct. 

The truth is, 2020 Britain is confusing place to be entering. As we catapult through yet another election, the rhetoric from each angle of the discourse is increasingly combative and the state of society in the UK is on the forefront of conversations across the country. What a time to empower young people to be engaged and informed about society and able to reach their own opinions.  To achieve this, let’s grow empathy and lift the lid on seeing text as a construct. 

*disclaimer: I write this very glibly, knowing full well that these words would trigger my own inner English-teacher-anger… 

  1. English grows empathy:

Often in texts, we see ourselves, or at least elements of ourselves, mirrored at a safe distance. Through the buffering security of characterisation, we can observe, criticise, comment, cheerlead, question… But literature also brings previously unimagined experiences closer to us. Through texts, we can live the experiences of others. We can try out a whole new character in an imagined space, and be in their world long enough to see how it feels.  Literature changes us – we steal from the ways of our literary heroes, suffer alongside their sadness, revel in their victories, endure their unravellings and defeats. We experience things beyond our experiences and this provides a powerful practice ground for empathy.

In fact, I’d suggest that we actively develop empathy through the worlds of the texts we experience and the complex and humanly-fragile characters and situations that writers pose to us.  Most English teachers in the country will at some point have taught Of Mice and Men; how often does a class’s journey with Curley’s Wife shift from ridicule through hatred to some form of nuanced pity as they move through the text? Or Lady Macbeth? Even the consideration of what may have generated such pantomime cruelty can uncover the possibility of deep-seated vulnerability, fragility and lost maternal desires. But the reader’s outcome, or even judgement, of these characters is not the point; it’s the process we go through to get there that I find invaluable to personal growth. The study of English offers a place for such developmental explorations and allows us to radically challenge our own perceptions, biases, blindspots and realities. It is a wonderfully subjective space, a ring-fenced grey area for exploration and shifting perception, where emotive response is not judged as right or wrong. To me, this only further foregrounds the importance of text choice for a rich English curriculum. Whose experience are we exposing students across their 4-18 journey in an English classroom? 

I for one want 2020 to be an infinitely more empathetic place than 2019: let’s walk away from combative debate and enter into dialogic discussion; let’s drop non-negotiable absolutes and welcome critical change through listening. This requires greater empathy. 

  1. The magical power of seeing text as a construct:

You know that big reveal in The Wizard of Oz, right? When Dorothy and co notice that behind the green curtain, the ‘great and powerful Oz’ is just a little old man in a suit. ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, he shouts, desperate to keep his pretence alive…but to no avail. They’ve seen the truth. And as a result, they can never accept the old lie again. This reveal, the pulling back of the curtain, is the turning point that sets in motion the eventual victory of our hero and her friends in their perilous world. It throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. 

So what if, in the study of English, this big reveal is the simple concept of ‘text as a construct’. Once you see behind the ‘green curtain’ of writing, once you have that startling realisation that the writer is crafting, controlling, distorting your experience, you won’t settle for mere acceptance of text as reality again. All English teachers know very well that moment of teaching a text with an unreliable narrator, only for the class to call out every narrator for the next 9 months as unreliable. Aside: I’ve rediscovered this feeling for myself having spent 2019 binging a load of Agatha Christie novels and having the exact same response, fearing Christie’s deceptions, false clues and leads in every turn of the page: I trust NO-ONE. 

It’s the same from the early reading experience of realising a character isn’t ‘real’ to the nuanced considerations of a writer’s word choice or narrative tells. When that green curtain is truly pulled back, our experience of literature becomes richer, more intense, more laden with meaning. 

And on the cusp of our 2020 world, this goes beyond exploration of fiction. As English teachers, we have an opportunity (even a responsibility?), to see the pulling back of this curtain for any text as a central rationale for our trade. Remember, it throws a new light on their reality, not just for that moment and the falsehood of the wizard himself, but on every ‘truth’ they see about their worlds and themselves. So what if we can offer this to students? As the written and spoken word of the media shouts ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’, continuing to craft, control and distort our acceptance of what is, we have a chance to skill up our students to see exactly that; to be aware of the constructed nature of all ‘text’ and give them a chance to question the very reality they are being sold.

The power of a no agenda

Mr B_____ hates me. 

We’re sitting in the afternoon sun in a corner classroom of our small East London secondary school, shading in segments of a giant colouring mat. S., a year 8 student in my coaching group, is matter-of-fact, but certain, her colouring pencil angrily working away at the smiling satsuma on the mat in front of us. I nod, but don’t speak. I’ve been working on my 1-1 coaching tirelessly for the past 4 months, trying to hone my listening, my questioning, my solution, opinion and agenda-free role. It’s pretty hard. We’ve had a year of relatively dead-end conversations already, me blurred with opinions, full of well-intentioned beliefs about what she needs, wants, should be or do, her happy to talk, but never really being heard. She continues. 

He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why.  I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone. This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B______ ignored me.  Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B_____ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’ and J_______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said  ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’.  And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’.  It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question  he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions. 

I read back to her the verbatim narrative that I have just typed as she spoke, checking she is happy that I haven’t missed anything, or added anything she didn’t say. We stare at it together. We know what we are looking for, as we’ve practiced this now several times. In our coaching group, we’ve been looking at the defining narratives our opinions give us, how these imprints of the past can control our present, and how, by removing the opinion to leave only the facts of a situation, we can throw a new light on a context and see it differently. She takes the lead, talking through and crossing out all opinions and feelings.  

Mr B_______ hates me. He’s always picking on me and I don’t really know the reason why.  I asked him why and he said something about how he always picks on everyone.   This one day my whole group got a group star. He didn’t put my name on even though I am the group leader. It was one lesson when I put my hand up to ask a question and Mr B_______ ignored me.  Five seconds later, J______ put his hands up and Mr B______ said something like ‘How could I forget you?’ and J______ asked his question and Mr B______ answered it. I said  ‘How comes you didn’t answer my question’.  And afterwards he put my name on the bad side with no crosses and he was all like ‘Why are you shouting out’.  It was ‘When was the best time to be a child’ project and we were asking questions on different children around the country and their toys and that. I was thinking he’s rude. Everytime I ask a question  he says put my hand down but if it’s other people he will answer their questions. 

From this we talk about the shifted context, and change in meanings she attaches to this incident and therefore their relationship. I manage, for the short 20 minutes of our conversation, to ask, not tell, and call myself out internally when I catch myself listening to my own thoughts and opinions rather than her words.  

She sighs. He doesn’t hate me, does he?, she mutters, more to herself than me. I need to tell him how I feel about this

In that moment, it was a small breakthrough for S.; a dissipation of pent up anger, and a way forward. But for our coaching relationship, now almost 3 years on from this, and for my listening skills, it was huge. And the learning? The power of no agenda.

The keys to life…

I’m currently sitting at home in my PE kit, a bit sweaty, and pretty tired, thinking of Will Smith. Or more specifically, his maxim “the keys to life are running and reading.” Why? Well, I’ve just returned from the first day back from School21, our small East London school based in Stratford, Newham. We’re going into our 7th year this year, which is hugely exciting as it is the first time ever we will be full, with an entire cohort of students from 4-18. Anyway, we ended our day today with an optional session with Run21, our staff/student running club.  This has been going for just one year, since the opening of our sixth form, Six21, and has gone from strength to strength with a core team of year 12 students (our oldest cohort) and staff from across the school running weekly though the year, joining in park runs, competing in running events including a couple of half marathons, and at one point getting a whole load of our wider school community to run 5k.I’m a pretty unenthusiastic runner at the best of times – I do it, with relative regularity, but have failed to get to a point where I actually enjoy it (yet).  I run partly as I’m a fan of Will Smith’s words, and partly as I suspect it may be good for me. But I just don’t enjoy it. I do, however, enjoy Run21. It is a wonderful, supportive, inclusive and challenging community; a collective striving to be better, work harder, run faster.  It is 100% a place of, as Will Smith says “learning to defeat that person […] learning how not to quit when things get hard”.Tonight we set out in the beautiful evening sun on our usual short warm up jog to the Olympic Park.  Chatting along the way, the runners (staff and students alike) caught up on summer exploits, lamented our lack of exercise in recent weeks and generally shared stories. The session tonight was organised and led entirely by five Six21 students, who not only came in on their holiday to do this (they don’t return until next week), but had also taken time to plan a session designed to bring together new and old staff and induct everyone into the ways of our club.On reaching the park, we stretched and then the students introduced the plan for the session – after a quick 400m run to set up balanced running pairs, we would run 4 minute bursts in relay around the course with our partner. Between each 4 minute burst, the students posed questions in our relay pairs about the values they perceived to underpin Run21; inclusivity, resilience, vulnerability, growth…  They talked briefly about their journeys with each and challenged us to consider the implications of these values in our wider lives. It was magic. The authentic (side point: making you have a really deep conversation when you’ve just legged it round a track leads to increased candour: discuss) discussions and probing questioning taking place pushed genuine reflection and realisation.But this was no coincidence.I saw in that session the wider purpose of our school in action.  These students embodied reflectiveness, empathy, grit and a desire to grow others (seriously, read the blogs I linked in above). These are students who have had a diet of deep exploratory learning, rich conversation and challenge both in and out of the classroom, and adult-to-adult relationships with each other and staff. And it got me thinking; what we prioritise in our classrooms is absolutely what we will see lived out in our students, our communities and our society.

Fighting the silent arguments: culture in the classroom

Many of the UK’s schools, and it seems inner city ones in particular, appear to agree that behaviour holds the key to successful teaching and transformational outcomes. Repeatedly, we hear teachers and politicians speak on the need for more stringent behaviour systems. The extreme end of this spectrum sees arguments for schools where behaviour is micromanaged to the action and even calls for beginner teachers to use scripted lessons so they can focus on behaviour management until they have that ‘toolkit’ as an automatic set of skills.

The issue this raises for me is that a developmental, learning culture and ‘behaviour’ often work in direct contradiction with each other; a school which says it wants to develop inquisitive, independent thinkers, yet develops teachers who control behaviour tightly, is screaming a ‘silent’ undermining counter-argument to their own cultural goals. With their words, their attributes and mottos they say ‘we want young people to think and act for themselves’ but with their actions, they say ‘we want young people to follow the establishment, not question it’.  And in a world where the establishment is becoming increasingly terrifying, we need to be extremely wary of this ‘silent’ argument that we make to young people. Of course, as teachers, we have an important responsibility to develop young people’s social skills, thoughtfulness and consideration of others. But instead of ruling by control, micromanagement and restriction, shouldn’t we be developing young people who can think, question and challenge for themselves within a realm of humanity and integrity?

In fact, when we focus on developing culture rather than controlling behaviour, we do far more for personal growth and development. As I’ve deepened my thinking on this, I’ve moved away from classroom rules and behaviour contracts and towards thinking about how everything I do makes an argument for cultural growth.  What does the way I set up a task say about the wider culture of my classroom? How do I interact with students and challenge actions that contravene wider cultural goals (both mine and theirs)? 

The difference for me, I believe, has come in the lens I view my classroom through when I think in terms of culture rather than behaviour. Behaviour is inward looking, shutting down and curtailing; culture is outward looking, focusing on what can, not what can’t. Behaviour is about control; culture is about community, crew, togetherness. Behaviour is about imposed beliefs; culture is about shared beliefs. Behaviour is about me and them; culture is about us. Behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.

Vitally, considering culture over behaviour is a shift in thinking more than a shift in actions. It doesn’t mean a classroom becoming a wild, unsafe space.  On the contrary, it means a classroom being a place where cultural norms are cultivated and fiercely, consistently protected.  So yes, that ‘toolkit’ mentioned above is of course a key element of pedagogy – I challenge, hold to account, restore and resolve as much as I always did, if not more – but what I protect, cultivate and underline are much more purposeful and positive. 

Fighting the silent arguments

On a practical level, the question I would pose to teachers over behaviour management and expectations in their classroom is simply, ‘why?’ What is the purpose behind the rules you impose and what ‘silent’ counter-arguments is imposing those rules making?

Cultural development comes through everything: curriculum design, interactions with students and teachers, group norms and expectations, lesson and activity design, experiences, assessment…the list goes on. For example, with my current year 11 class, who this week sit their final GCSE English exams, I have spent 2 years crafting a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king.

I had taught the group in year 8 and then not in year 9, picking them up again at the start of year 10. My cultural vision (a culture where risk taking and independence of thought are central to everything we do, and interpretation is king) was built out of where I wanted them to be as students of English by now (June 2018), as I leave them for their next steps.  My starting point as I planned for their year 10 was to ‘break’ my own norms of the classroom, questioning everything and making practical decisions against my cultural vision, stripping my thinking back to the class and an empty room. This meant reconsidering everything: the room set up, the use of a board, the ‘front’ of the classroom, the use of seating plans, how I mark and give feedback, my role within lessons, the structure of our terms/our year, what we spend our time doing. From this, I then set myself a short list of strict ‘freeing limitations’ to disrupt my own ways of working and my own contradictory silent counter-arguments. They were:

  1. There is no front to the learning space. Lessons take place in the round.
  2. In lessons, I am part of the group; I do everything they do.
  3. We won’t use the projector.
  4. We will study a text together, that none of us have prior knowledge or experience of.

I strictly worked to these limitations for 2 full terms. It was fascinating.  The limitations themselves forced me into fresh thinking and constant questioning. Of course, being in a circle and having no projector is not always the best way to teach, and neither is selecting a text I don’t have any prior knowledge of and intentionally avoiding learning about it in advance, but it made me rethink so many of the things that I had just done without thinking previously: the ‘silent arguments’ I was making by setting up my classroom in a certain way, and the pre-confirmed ideas about education that I was reconfirming in doing so.

Regarding that class, the ‘freeing limitations’ led to a place where we spent (for the whole 2 year course) much of our week sat in a circle, or in self-selected chosen analysis groups; where I regularly paired or group-wrote or discussed with students; where I wrote essays and exams with them, and we had brilliantly challenging debates over each other’s interpretations and ideas; where we comparatively assessed all our analysis, including mine; where we invested (really invested) in reflecting on how as much as what.  

It was a flat classroom, with no hierarchy of ideas. When anyone threatened the development of risk taking or independence, they apologised to the circle, not to me. And I was a guardian of this culture, not a controller of behaviour. 

For my teaching more broadly, the impact has also been significant (and ever evolving). I currently plan around notes, not slides.  In lessons, I only project something if there is something we all really need to see – I ‘teach’ from a clipboard, not a board. Most of my lessons use the circle as the norm, and as a habit now I do tasks that students do, including often (though not always) homework. And more than anything, I currently design a classroom around what I want us to be; behaviour is about stopping; culture is about doing.

Inside the Petri Dish: Growing Culture

I’ve just spent 3 days at Next Jump, a tech company based in London, NYC and Boston, on their intense, immersive and infinitely fascinating Leadership Academy. There are 2 things you should know about Next Jump before reading this blog:


  1. they love tech
  2. they want to change the world by transforming workplace culture

There is so much that I have taken away from this incredible experience, and so many approaches, tools and rituals that were striking. But for me what was really fascinating is the ‘riverbed’ of the culture; the slow-moving, ingrained cultural values beneath everything that is done that are constantly reinforced, deliberately practiced and habitualised by the aforementioned approaches, tools, rituals. And I think that to really learn from this experience and work out what to apply to our own organisational culture, it is these underlying cultural design principles that we need to interrogate.

Here are four of these underlying beliefs that really resonated with me:

1. We are what we practice: I had heard a fair bit about Next Jump before attending the Academy, but what I hadn’t appreciated, and what really struck me from very start of the first day, was the absolute belief in the power of practice.

The ‘developmental gym’ that is working at Next Jump

The organisation builds constant opportunities for staff to practice everything, from technical skills, through organisational and leadership experiences to giving/receiving feedback and being more empathic/less arrogant/more confident/less loud/less quiet (delete as appropriate!). In fact, almost everything they do is designed as an opportunity to practice. This training ground mentality means staff are constantly exercising reflection and development.  They are, as we say at school21, ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable’, always working in their ZPD and therefore always learning. In line with this, Next Jump’s hiring approach sees them recruit for coachability, hiring for learner mindset, rather than expert mindset.

One of the tools which is a very noticeable face of their feedback culture is the app that Next Jumpers use to give instant anonymous feedback on meetings, presentations and other working interactions. This was something I had been a little sceptical of before seeing it in action, as I worried that it was a bit of a blunt instrument for critique and ran the risk of reducing face-to-face feedback and talk around development. Again though, the main purpose of this tool is practice; it is of course a means of giving and receiving feedback, but it is also, and more importantly, a tool of deliberately practicing both of these things. We saw this particularly in action in 10x (presentations of personal growth) and Throwdowns (presentations on current projects), where all Next Jumpers give their feedback on the app following the presentation, but then experienced feedbackers (in role as judges) give their critique publicly, modelling best practice and allowing other staff to compare their comments to that of experts in giving feedback; it’s another mode of practice.

2. The best companies have the best coaches: I am a massive fan of coaching, and my personal learnings as both a coach and a coachee whilst at school21 in the last 3 years have been genuinely transformational, so I was really interested in how central to their culture Next Jump hold coaching.  On the first day of our visit, it became clear that company success is down to coaching; the best companies have the best coaches. And so, unlike many organisations who use coaching just for their senior leadership, Next Jump practice ‘coaching at scale‘. This model means that every member of the company from most junior employee to CEO is built into a coaching network, with a talking partner (TP) on the same level and coaching pair of talking partners above them who lead them though ‘situational workshops’ – effectively protocolled problem solving sessions that coaches TP pairs through concerns and blocks. There is also a wider network of additional coaching on top of this.

A print out of my feedback from the app following a group task – you can see where we drew out trends in a TP conversation – ‘recovery’.

And why? Because Next Jump view coaching as recovery, the vital link between the ‘practice round’ and ‘feedback loop’ mentioned above. This is really interesting – as teachers we spend so much time moving between practice and feedback, but often don’t build in that ritualised ‘recovery’ element, which is vital for contextualising and evaluating/prioritising feedback and raising focus and accountability around growth.

3. Make hiding uncomfortable: There is feedback and feedback right? It’s something that (rightly) gets loads of air-time in education chat and it seems to have got some serious air-time in Next Jump too, where the conversation circles around what ‘bad’ actually is. We are societally conditioned to believe that negative feedback is ‘bad’, but Next Jump want to redefine what ‘bad’ is; bad to them is hiding, not seeking out feedback and not engaging with it. In practical terms, their feedback app (mentioned above) is one of the places where this design principle is actualised. On it, feedback is given via comments and a rating from 1, or ‘below expectations‘, to 4, or ‘far exceeds expectations‘ (see below for example and below for more thoughts on this). Firstly, they normalise to a 2 (meaning the majority of ratings will fall round here – this is when something meets the standards you would expect from them). Secondly, they don’t view getting 1s as bad; they view it as developmental. It feels aligned with Eduardo Briceño’s thinking on categorising mistakes in that it values ‘stretch’ errors and ‘ah-ha moments’ – Next Jump  consider this ‘investment in loss’.

Redefining bad; the grouping of staff based on feedback over time.

Thirdly, they view the directional movement in feedback over time as how ‘bad’ in assessed, rather than the individual feedback itself. This for me is the most interesting bit. One of the functions of the app allows them to map the these shifts in feedback received over time and they group staff into 4 ‘buckets’ based on this. Those trending up and those trending down (investment in loss) are viewed as learning. Those ‘flat’ (sitting on the same feedback ratings over time) and those ‘hiding’ are viewed as not learning. These stats are published; they want to make hiding uncomfortable. One new-ish Next Jumper we spoke to pointed to his name on the ‘hiding’ list saying “Basically I wasn’t putting myself into growth situations” before listing the opportunities he had since put himself into to ensure both risk and feedback.

4. Give away what you are good at: Just yes.

Next Jump’s next jump?

This experience really got me thinking deeply again about both coaching and feedback. Two particular thought/challenges/questions I’d pose to Next Jump on this are:

  1. Do you have the right coaching model/underlying coaching beliefs to really push coachees to transformation? There are a couple of half-formed thoughts I have on this. Firstly, is the ‘backhand’ model the right view for transformational coaching?  It feels like a deficit model believing that we are broken and need fixing. Our ‘backhand’ is an opinion. It is based in the past, in experiences, feelings, memories; opinions. The more we state it as fact, the more it becomes written into our narrative, defining our present (and future), and possibly then holding us in a cycle defined by what has gone before. What if you flipped this, and instead of stating your backhand (“I lack empathy.”) you explored something like your ‘winning strategy’: how you act in the present as a result of your opinions, preconceptions, experiences, the past. To me the other threats of the backhand are it becoming a way of ‘armouring up’/defending ourselves (“well, you know that’s my backhand”), an excuse (“I acted like that because I lack empathy”), or even a catch all cover for problems, which may have more nuanced root causes. I found over my 3 days it almost becomes something to lean in to – I felt more able to play up traits identified as a backhand as they were identified and openly spoken about.  Is this ok? Then, I guess at it’s most extreme end, I’d worry about the backhand becoming what my coaching group recently defined during our explorations around masculinity as ‘Hollywood Vulnerability’; that single tear rolling down the cheek of the action hero as they ‘open up’. All very controlled, very staged; just enough ‘vulnerability’ to show willing, give the people their ’emotion’, but not really going to those most vulnerable places, the place we don’t want to see them and they don’t want to be. And for me, over the week, it was not the backhand, but the Talking Partners (TP) that were often the exposure of true vulnerability. One of the most powerful observations for me was they way every single Next Jumper lit up (literally became animated, gave a cute smile or laughed nervously) when talking about their TP.  This is powerful; this is genuine vulnerability via investment in a relationship and so leaning in to risk. We are hard-wired to be able to self-abuse emotionally, but not to open ourselves to authentic, genuine recognition and gratitude. It takes a real growth mindset to authentically celebrate the success of another who is in a position of competition or comparison with us. And yet this is exactly what we saw in TP relationships at all levels in the company. Maybe explore the vulnerability that lies in this?
  2. Is the sharing of ratings (the 1-4 mentioned above) restrictive to growth? Loads of interesting research has been done in teaching into the impact of formative and summative assessment in giving developmental feedback. Arguably most prominent is the work of Dylan William (It might be in William and Black’s Inside the Black Box, but I can’t find it…!) which found that students only made progress when given formative feedback alone; however developmental the comments, as soon as numbers, ratings, grades etc were introduced, improvement stopped. As I wrote a few months back in a blog around lesson feedback for teachers, we are fixated by data. I wonder if removing the numbers from the feedback app would increase response to feedback from it. Many Next Jumpers mentioned gravitating to the 1s in their feedback (as I did!) – would removing the numbers increase the takeaways and deepen engagement with what is actually being said?


Thanks so much to all the team at Next Jump: it has been a brilliantly provocative and inspirational experience. The rigourous talk felt wonderfully home-from-home from school21, but being immersed in the powerful culture was energising and challenging in a refreshing way and helped me see what we have from a new perspective.

Readers required… apply within.

Most KS3 English curriculums in the UK (world?) ask students to produce masses of pieces of writing that are essentially, pointless. Write a letter to your headteacher persuading her to remove the school uniform code. Why? Write an article arguing that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Why? Even (especially!) the new GCSE encourages this false world: ‘Write a story to be entered into a creative writing competition.’ Oh great, will it? No? Oh. Right.

The entire premise of writing (other than a personal diary, reflection or some creative doodlings) is that it has an audience other than the self. It is a means of communication, of sharing, it is a conversation, and to remove its audience is in effect to remove its entire purpose. And yet in schools we seem to ignore this central provider of purpose: audience.

This is particularly pertinent in the teaching of non-fiction writing. If you’re going to ask them to write a letter to the local council persuading them to improve road safety in the area, then actually write a letter to the local council. And post it. If you’re going to ask them to write an article for a teen magazine giving their opinion on exam stress, then actually write an article for a teen magazine. And submit it for publication. If you’re going to ask them to write a press release for the BBC reporting on a campaign to reduce air pollution in your local area, then actually write a press release to the BBC. And make sure it’s damned good, since it’s going to the actual BBC, to actually persuade them to cover the story, and inform the wider world of the air pollution threat in your area.

This genuine engagement doesn’t only obviously provide purpose and motivation to hone technical skills through vital repetition and mastery, but it also requires honing of authentic voice, that somewhat elusive element that tends to separate good non-fiction writing from really great non-fiction writing. To ask students to ‘sound more authentic’, as I find myself saying to my current year 11s in their English language exams, is amusingly ironic, and something we can develop much more effectively with actual authentic exposure to written purpose.

So how does this actually change day-to-day practice? Interestingly, the day when I began teaching non-fiction writing via authentic projects was the same day I stopped needing to teach the features and conventions of non-fiction writing styles. Instead of being pre-instructed in type, audience and purpose, through redrafting, critique and reflection, students began naturally questioning the phrasing and purpose of elements of writing and having coherent conversations about why a particular tone of features felt out of place or didn’t do the intended. I still remember the first time this happened, with a low literacy year 7 group writing some instructions for building a hedgehog habitat in local garden. I was initially taken aback by the natural drafting of clear ordered instructions using imperatives and time connectives. When one student suggested using modal verbs to offer options to the readers (OK, so he didn’t use the word ‘modal verbs’ – he didn’t know it – but he authentically worked out their purpose and value live whilst drafting) I was stunned; I haven’t taught a lesson on ‘how to write to instruct/advise/inform/explain/persuade (delete as appropriate) since.

And the only difference in set up? They had an audience; the ‘conversation’ of writing became 2 sided.

A Feedback Culture

We’ve all been there.  You’ve just finished your formal observation with the head teacher and your head of department. You’re sweaty, pretty hungry (you probably skipped lunch to print that resource out) and a bit drained. You feel a mixture of relief and worry over whether you moved that final section of the lesson on too late. Did you support Raheem enough?  Was Leon’s thinking challenged in the right way? Could you have probed Ahmed more? You’re also pretty happy; it went well enough, and anyway, it’s over.  You sweep the left over papers off the tables and put that dictionary back on the shelf.  You open the window to let the heavy smell of collective 15-year-olds’ BO and knock-off Linx out into the afternoon air. Job done.

You head into the feedback session thinking through the WWWs and EBIs from your perspective.  The doubts are now more pronounced and are worrying you. You didn’t support Raheem enough; you should have done more.  How else could you have supported him? You should have paired Leon with someone else – this would have given him a different influx of ideas for his writing. The checklist could have had a more stretching challenge for Ahmed.  You sit down, ready for the obligatory “how do you feel the lesson went”.

Instead, you get, “What would have happened if you had not done any of that?  What if you’d just asked them to write, seen what happened, and built the lesson from there?” Well, this is a curveball…

This was the first formal observation feedback I received at School21, my small secondary school in East London.

Following that, it took me another two years more to completely let go of my previous mindset towards observations, born of 3 years of grading, OFSTED criteria and box ticking. Up to then, the most I’d stretched my thinking as a result of an observation was contemplating how to adapt my approach to suit who was observing me (literally ridiculous – I feel a bit sick writing this, but it’s the truth). Observations used to be about self-preservation, safety and striving to ‘succeed’.  They were about me.

Fast forward 3 years and my annual formal ‘impact’ observation here at School21 last year came round as my year 9s were in the middle of typing up some story drafts for a collection of Dystopian short stories we were to be publishing in a week’s time. After a brief project meeting with the class, I would be working 1-1 with a couple of students on some punctuation rules whilst others would be getting their drafts typed up. I knew there would not be ‘rapid’ (or even any) progress for many students in that 50 minutes.  I didn’t change a thing. I needed feedback on the thing that was worrying me the most about where I was at with PBL – that time spent thinking about something other than the learning (check out Daniel Willingham for some interesting and very relevant reasoning behind these worries). This wasn’t about me, this was about teaching.

That question posed to me in the first observation feedback at School 21 of course challenged how I taught writing, but more importantly it transformed the way I thought about feedback on my classroom practice; it questioned beyond the lesson and deep into my craft and it unlocked an openness around my classroom that I hadn’t felt before. It encouraged me to share my most vulnerable moments, my most uncertain experiments, the parts of my practice that need the most scrutiny and the thinking that I need to really be held to account for.

Good feedback is about flipping expectations, throwing a new context onto a current situation. It’s about probing to transformation, not making small changes.  Sure, it’s incredibly useful to get the small stuff, those ‘marginal gains’ that often do make a significant difference day-to-day and to hear practical ideas.  But it also needs to open the door to what we don’t know we don’t know. Good feedback should be planned and thought about; in that way it’s basically the same as teaching: designing questions that will drive deep and transformational thinking, facilitating ‘difficult’ conversation and challenging thesis with antithesis to provoke synthesis.

But good feedback goes beyond what is actually said; for significant impact and a truly deliberately developmental culture, it’s the wider school ethos around observation and feedback that needs crafting.  We need to undo the oppressive grading culture of the wider teaching world and open up honest and challenging conversation around classroom practice. This means not grading (and not ‘grading-behind-closed-doors-but-pretending-not-to-grade’….actually not grading), designing a culture of near constant feedback that goes in all directions on all things (why not feed back on my assembly, my phone call to a parent, my chairing of a meeting, my restorative conversation with a student?) and building an organisation on kindness. Genuine, deep rooted kindness means we can be challenging.

Of course we need to differentiate feedback and personalise it to the stage and needs of the individual, but we need to open a true dialogue in feedback, and that doesn’t stop with “how do you feel the lesson went”.