Archive | March 2013

Coaching in Schools: Top Five Reads

There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.

Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:

1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.


This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.

2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.


In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.

3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.


There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.

4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.


This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.

5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.


You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.

I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.

Shared Writing: Modelling Mastery

If the path of repeated deliberate practice makes something like perfect, then imitating good models of writing provides solid foundations for the pursuit of writing excellence. ‘Shared writing‘ is one specific strategy that models writing in a highly effective way and is one of my favourite and most effective teaching strategies. ‘Shared writing’ begins with the sharing of the key information or language related to the written task, before the teacher then leads the students in co-constructing the writing, scribing the writing with targeted questioning and feedback. In my experience there are few better ways to illuminate each step of the complex writing process for students and it can work across the curriculum.

In many of my blog posts I keep returning back to a quotation from the brilliant Ron Berger about excellence:

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.”

(page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

This brilliant insight into the transformative power of excellence chimes beautifully with the importance of modelling and the potential power of ‘shared writing’ when it produces writing of real excellence. We can co-construct with students a piece of writing – helping them tread the path to mastery, but we, as teachers, take the primary role as expert guides. It is much more than just a demonstration – it is an active process which can engage the entire grouping in effective questioning and feedback. With the writing process students have internalised their own models over a span of years. When students approach something like expertise they develop an internal ‘mastery model‘. That is to say a model that has instinctively broken down a complex process into effective steps that can be reproduced over and over. In English, it is the internalising of a pattern of sentence structures and the use of a range of vocabulary and rhetorical devices, until those patterns become automatic. Here is a video example of Pie Corbett modelling the process with teachers:

The problem that we know keenly is that many students simply don’t have a ‘mastery model’ in mind when they are writing, due to a potential array of complex factors (such as a lack of wider reading) so they revert to a ‘default model’. Such a ‘default model‘ is taken on either consciously or subconsciously, where they revert back to the their faulty habits of writing. The problem with this model is that students slip into an automatic state which can simply reassert all their flaws, inaccuracies and misunderstandings. With repeated modelling and ‘shared writing’ students can over time internalise the ‘mastery model’ of a given genre of writing. They can then free up their working memory to develop the requisite creativity to diverge from a model of imitation to one of greater independence and originality.

I have usually enjoyed undertaking guided writing, but I am not unaware of its pitfalls, or why people can shy away from it as a teaching strategy. Providing a ready made model is easier in the sense that it is quicker and it gives the teacher a chance to craft and perfect their writing. I have undertaken guided writing and invariably it is very quick paced and it is not error free. Some teachers lack the confidence to write free-form, in case of errors, but, of course, this is good for the students to learn. In fact, it may be the most important thing that they learn. We must make students recognise that errors and self-correction are a wholly natural part of the writing process. Indeed, they are integral if any student is to make sustained improvement towards their own ‘mastery model’. Another reason that can inhibit using the strategy is behavioural control. Shared writing can mean writing with your back turned to the class, which, of course, is manna from heaven for some cheeky students! Through lots of deliberate practice and failing I have developed a few tricks to hopefully smooth out those issues and help shared writing sing:

Shared Writing: The Top Ten Tips

1. Have a clear idea of your desired ‘mastery model’, to the point of having large elements of it already pre-prepared (like some ‘here’s one I made earlier’ Blue Peter special!), from specific vocabulary you wish to model, to specific discourse markers or sentence structures

2. If you are unconfident that students will stay on task throughout the writing, select a student to scribe the writing, either on the computer or on the whiteboard. This allows you up to manage the room and place yourself according (such as hanging around like an ‘Angel of Death’ behind your more troublesome students!)

3. Be crystal clear about your expectations. Will you allow students to simply contribute orally when they so choose, or is there a simple protocol, like putting their hands up. I don’t think there is a foolproof method, but build a simple habit and have quick and easily cues to make the task run smoother

4. Questioning: pre-plan who you will question in readiness. This can be highly specific, pitching questions that are appropriately differentiated so that students can co-construct the model with you with confidence

5. Pre-plan your questions, thinking how ‘open‘ or ‘closed‘ you want each question to be, for example: ‘How do we best start an essay paragraph?’ and ‘What discourse marker would be most appropriate at this stage of your paragraph?‘ or ‘What term we learnt earlier in the lesson should we use here?’

6. Pose, Pause, Pounce and Bounce‘ your questions around the room. The ‘bouncing‘ of your questions are particularly key. It keeps the class focused on the task because they know they may be questioned at any point. Make clear to students that the best writing is often a sort of mental dialogue, whereat you question what is appropriate. By undertaking ‘guided writing’ you are making that thinking visible, drawing upon the knowledge of the group

7. A crucial point for me is to ensure everyone is writing simultaneously. It works as a control mechanism, but it has learning value, as students have to commit to the ‘mastery model’, even simply through their motor memory of writing the piece. I have often had complaints from students about being ‘tired’ by writing so fast, or writing such a detailed response. My answer is simple: ‘Good!’ Feel the pain, no-one said becoming an expert was easy or effortless

8. Circulate the room and praise their effort (with specific feedback like “Good use of a discourse marker for clarity Claire – thank you” – rather than a vague “Excellent!“) if they are making thoughtful contributions. Get as many students involved as possible; invite critical challenges and revisions. Don’t feel the need for everyone to necessarily contribute, some students will need to concentrate wholly on the act of writing. Silence does not always confer disengagement with task, some students will be thinking deeply about the writing process

9. Get ongoing feedback on the model. You could use the ABC Feedback model, whereat students can either ‘Add to‘ the writing, ‘Build upon‘ what has already been written, or ‘Challenge‘ what has been written

10. Get students to review the writing. It may be masterful but it certainly won’t be perfect! Get them to discuss and feedback what are the key elements of this genre of writing and exploring evidence from the model that has just been co-created. Also, you can get students to compare with their ‘default model’, too often in evidence in their work, highlighting the salient differences. Finally, ask them what they have learnt about writing so that they explicitly reflect on the process.

When shared writing works well it can be a brilliant symphony of ideas. It can also at times be flawed and not produce a shining gem of mastery! Embrace this fact – writing can be messy and disorganised – the process can be just as valuable as the product. The greatest pieces of writing are often a brilliant chaos of revision and rewriting (show students a draft of Orwell’s ‘1984’). In reality students will gain confidence in this knowledge that writing may not be fluent or easy. They can, and will, still learn much even from a flawed ‘mastery model’. I would heartily recommend ‘shared writing’. It is one of the best ways of modelling, which we can all agree is important, because it doesn’t just model the end product, it also models the process of writing. Done repeatedly and habitually it can also, I would hope, engender Ron Berger’s ‘appetite for excellence‘.

What My Parents Taught Me About ‘An Education’


Educating Rita!

On Friday the 15th of March I had the great pleasure to watch my mother, Rita, finally become a graduate, a couple of years short of sixty. It was a moment of sublime pride to stand with my father, my brother and my two sisters and watch my mother hobble across the stage (thanks to a recent knee replacement!) and receive that little envelope that means so much. I don’t normally write about my personal life, but I know my parents are a key reason why I am a teacher, why I value education so much. I also wanted to publicly celebrate my main role models for grit, perseverance and wisdom: my parents. Of course, they made me teacher I am and the person I am. My mother completing her degree, whilst working full time, confirmed every cherished belief I have about the value of having a great education.

I came across this quotation recently and I thought it very wise:

“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” William D. Tammeus

I knew that I didn’t really understand fully the love of a parent, so crucial to human nature, until I became a parent myself. That incredible and irreducible tug of love that keeps you perennially in its wake became so real, so quickly. Now that I am a parent of two beautiful children I am more thankful than ever to my parents for the values they have instilled in me and the love that have given unreservedly. I began to reflect more closely upon the ‘education’ my parents had given me.

My parents are both from proud but humble roots. Education was very much a privilege in our house – without doubt. It was, however, a privilege we were free to spurn or cherish. My parents didn’t look to the best Primary around, or a Secondary schools with stratospheric results. OFSTED reports were an alien document back then. My parents believed simply in going to the local school with your friends and doing your best. My parents, both hard working, expected us to be the same. In the main, we did work hard, but not always and I experienced failure more times than if I were mollycoddled . I cannot once remember being chastised about homework or pushed regarding exams – I failed in those areas more often than I would have liked. My parents had little knowledge about the actualities of getting into universities that so crucify many parents with anxiety today. The whole attitude of my parents was rather laissez faire – if you worked hard enough you would be what you wanted to be. If you didn’t, well, you would get what you deserved – nothing!

For years, into my mid-twenties, I had thought my parents hadn’t known enough about education, hadn’t pushed me. I hadn’t gone to a great school like the one I teach at myself. I compared the situation to many of the forthright parents I see today, supporting their child with specific resources, guiding them into learning instruments, moving post codes to secure the best school – that sort of thing. I had thought my parents rather naive about education on the whole. It had turned out that I was the naive one all along. My arrogance stopped me seeing it for too long. I had received an exemplar education from my parents – I only hadn’t been wise enough to see it.

My father’s boldness of character, wit and warmth have always been qualities I have wanted to emulate (if I ever get there I will be a happy man!). My mother’s loving generosity and sheer grit and determination were always qualities I had secretly wished I could possess. I hadn’t realised that an education of character from my parents was the best education possible – more than any school prop (be it tutor or computer), or even wisdom regarding the machinations the school system. Both my parents have worked as carers for the elderly for the majority of their lives (including their infirm parents as a more natural obligation) in different capacities. Once more, their utter dedication and emotional intelligence stood me in better stead to deal with the complexities of my job than my teaching training ever did. My father was, and is, a home carer for the elderly; my mother arranges care packages for the elderly. I couldn’t be prouder that they do the jobs they do. They both work with dignity and integrity that I will always strive to imitate in my fashion. That is an education to be proud of indeed.

Most recently, my mother’s pursuit of her degree (whilst working full time) has been something of a culmination of my understanding – my education of character. It is also a very appropriate circle of experience, as my young daughter will start school for the very first time this year. My mother’s four year degree has never been a sure thing. Working full time, and being a grandmother to a legion of grandchildren, whilst researching, writing essays and sitting exams, created a gruelling schedule that would stretch the capacity of anybody. A few times she contemplated quitting, but she simply refused to give in. Holiday suitcases were filled with books and essay materials. She would have you believe it was other people around her who kept her going, and yes, our family were supportive, particularly my father of course, but it was her inner-drive – this personification of grit and resilience – which meant she hobbled proudly across the stage to receive her degree. In some ways, professionally, the degree will make little difference. But, once more, to me and my family, it means more than we can express.

It is another step in my brilliant education. It makes me want to be better. A better parent, a better partner and a better teacher. In my role ‘in loco parentis’, I hope I can be a proxy role model for my students. More so, I hope they receive an education from their parents the like I did from mine. They will be lucky, loved and well educated if they do. The motto of the Open University is ‘Live and Learn’. I most certainly am learning. Thanks Mum – thanks Dad.

Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill!’


It is that time of year already. The weeks have suddenly crashed forward like waves and exam dates loom bleakly in the distance. Of course, we start looking for creative ways to sustain the interest of students. We look to engage them in their learning so that they may pay some attention to our relentless pleading for effort and revision. We explain the grandiose importance of said exams and those simple letters on certificates that provide their ticket to their future lives. I have taught for a decade now and I may despair of the examinations themselves, and the crass system of judgement that is league tables, but if our students are to succeed in these exams then as we approach exam season the answer is simple. In the words made famous by that famous sage – Sarah Palin(!): “drill baby drill!”

Let me explain my rationale for what may seem a simplistic and backward looking approach. Yes, there are many constructivist techniques that will aid the mastery of knowledge and therefore be appropriate for revision. Spacing out revision to encompass different topics, with varied pedagogy is likely to help make some of their learning more memorable. The evidence at hand; however, proves that testing as practice, repeated, with skilled feedback has a very positive impact on learning – see research here. This has been labelled the ‘testing effect’, whereat the act of retrieving information for a test is proven to improve recall more than simply restudying information. This is not advocating lots of high stakes testing, but simply a recognition that testing for learning works and improves long term retention of knowledge: the holy grail for exam success. We mustn’t shy away from exam drills given the nature of the assessment.

Let me say that I am a teacher of English that values creativity and imagination hugely. I deplore exams which are narrow and reductive. I will prepare students for an AS level English Literature exam where the great literature we read and I teach, such as the poetry of Robert Browning, is reduced rather simplistically into a mere list of narrative devices. Yet, exams in themselves are a necessary evil – an imperfect judgement of knowledge and understanding – but one of the best tools we have to do the job. What I have come to learn myself is that repetition, and even rote learning, can actually create the fertile conditions for subsequent creativity and the potent force of imagination. In the words of the great American basketball coach, John Wooden: “Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.”

I recently posted a blog on ‘deliberate practice’ here which reiterates the point that real improvement and mastery comes from drilled repetition, with quick, useful feedback. Of course, to make the many marginal gains required for true expertise there is much repetition and deliberate practice required. Students will likely not often experience the heralded ‘flow’ state during revision. Going over and over any body of knowledge takes grit, discipline and perseverance because it can often be simply boring. We must be honest with students about the power of conquering boredom. I think the skill of mastering boredom is a sure-fire path to ultimate success. What we mustn’t do, as teachers, is collude with many aspects of our instant gratification culture, and actually avoid the challenge – we must embrace the boredom and the difficulty of repeated exam practice. We must communicate with our students that not all learning can, or even should, be fun; it can often be hard, challenging and mentally gruelling.

Through repeated deliberate practice of exams students become skilled in the automatic state that comes with habit forming. It is like driving in a car for the thousandth time, we then switch off and drift into our own automatic mode, often having creative reveries as we drive. A good real life example of his notion is from the world of sport. Barcelona FC are world renowned for being the greatest football team in the world, perhaps of all time. Their creativity and skill is celebrated by every football fan. Of course, it isn’t sheer chance that has seen this come to pass. The Barcelona way, initiated by a great player, and believer in deliberate practice, Johan Cruyff, relies on the simplest of training drills – the ‘rondo’. See here:

The ‘rondo’ drill cannot replicate the pressure of the actual match in many ways, but the repeated drill hones that quick passing habit which is so key to their creative passing style – known as ‘tika taka’. It is a simplification of the real game, much like focusing in on exam technique, crafting and drafting the perfect exam answer singularly, rather than sitting full papers endlessly. what you can see in the video is the mastery, and the related pleasure, that comes from drilling and deliberate practice. What we must do is stop seeing repetition as being the enemy of creativity or higher order thinking. With exam revision repetition is our friend. We need to communicate that in the language we use to students. Like with writing, we cannot exhibit real creativity unless we have mastered the laws of grammar. Like Picasso painting a Cubist masterpiece, we cannot creatively break the rule unless we practise and understand those rules in the first place. We cannot make the cognitive leap of imaginative originality unless we have a solid grounding in the core knowledge of the basics.

It is common sense really, but too often teachers feel the pressure to teach ‘all singing, all dancing’ lessons, or make the learning fun and creative, when sometimes the most effective method is some good old-fashioned drilling of practice and well chosen drills of testing for learning.

Becoming a Better Teacher by ‘Deliberate Practice’


“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee

When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big! After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers. 20130303-152547.jpg The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!

Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here). A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy form Colvin:

“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’

Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:

“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.

Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trail and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.

It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as action research, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all. Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.

Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:

Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’

1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.

2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.

3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections. If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to ‘confirmation bias‘ i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.

4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.

Coaching in Schools

Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.

What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise. In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.

In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!

In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward. My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are. My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!

Support resources for ‘Action Research’, ‘Deliberate Practice’ and ‘Coaching’: Action Research:

‘Action Research’
Needs a sign up for full access but useful:
Does what it says on the tin!
Highly recommended by Zoe Elder – need I say more?

‘Deliberate Practice’:
Quite simply the link of links!
Interesting article:
Clear and very useful blog:

Great overview of coaching for schools: Another good overview:
My faculty based coaching resources:

Thank you to @Andyphilipday for the conversation that inspired this blog and to @fullonlearning for the many great links on action research.

Motivating Students Using ‘Gallery Critique’ #Blogsync

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.

After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.

More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:

– clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
– engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
– providing feedback that moves learners forward
– activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
– activating students as owners of their own learning

The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.

(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)

The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.

Well, I didn’t say it was an aesthetically beautiful gallery!

In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).

The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.

The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.

It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.

It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.