An Ethic of Excellence

The new Educational guru of the moment seems to be Ron Berger, author of ‘An Ethic of Excellence’. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his short book, and have taken a lot of inspiration from it. The book opens with Ron describing a pretty tense moment where he was asked to show some of his students’ work at a national conference, and his portfolio momentarily went missing. His panic grew, as he felt that as an ordinary classroom teacher, he wouldn’t be taken seriously, however he believes passionately in the power of the students’ work. When the portfolio was recovered, the audience were blown away to the point of disbelief that young people could produce such polished, mature work.

Ron Berger champions the idea of ‘beautiful’ project work, where students have the opportunity to produce professional quality work that has been honed through the rigor of drafting and re-drafting until it is almost perfect. He believes in quality, not quantity. analysing models of work and teaching students to improve step-by-step.

In our curriculum, and with the sometimes limiting demands our schools place on us, we don’t often have the chance to work on a single piece of work for weeks, or months on end to achieve this level of ‘beauty’, however, here are some of the tips I’ve taken that I will try to incorporate into my practise:

* examples of good work should be celebrated, displayed and analysed. Never throw out great work from previous years; build your own portfolio that can be used as inspiration for future students time and time again
* don’t accept poor quality: find the time to allow students to work on the feedback you give them – on our school we call this ‘closing the loop’
* think outside the box – is there a way that the work done in your classroom can be made relevant in the real world, e.g. posted online, entered into competitions, etc.
* Make feedback specific, manageable and honest. Too much sugar-coating is bad for your students as well as your teeth!
* Aim HIGH! Expect more from your students.

I really recommend this book as a different view of teaching, a little antidote to the never-ending marking of sub-standard work and the disappointment this can bring to us as educators!


Changes to how Ofsted judges YOU!

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat.

I had an illuminative CPD this term that looked at the recent changes to the way Ofsted inspectors are trained. The new guidance is as follows:

‘Inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology.’

‘When inspectors observe teaching, they observe pupils’ learning’.  (School Inspection Handbook p34)

‘ The only orthodoxy is that there is no orthodoxy.’

‘Data should enlighten judgement not dictate- people led not data led’.

This is useful info for us teachers. It allows us to stop worrying about whether or not we’ll be penalised for failing to display the learning objectives throughout the lesson and other such pedanticities. In a letter  to all inspectors (March 2013), it was made clear that inspectors shouldn’t favour particular teaching methods over others.

When evaluating teaching we must not advocate a particular methodology or teaching style. Our inspection frameworks are not prescriptive on teaching style. However, inspection reports often contain phrases that give the false impression that Ofsted expects teaching to occur in a particular way or that adopting a standard approach will lead to effective teaching and learning.

Instead, the focus should, as always, be on the quality of the teaching and learning. This might sound obvious, but it does make me think more about a fantastic talk I heard by an experienced teacher at a conference years ago in which he underlined the importance of thinking about the desired outcome first, and letting all our jazzy teacher’s toolkit-style ideas come into play only if they are the best way possible to aid deeper learning.

So how will inspectors judge the quality of out teaching? Here is a reminder of the five key areas they are looking for:

—* Challenging
* —Pupils’ responses demonstrate gains in knowledge
* —Good monitoring by teachers and adapting teaching as needed
—* Good questioning and discussion to check learning
And here is the difference between Good and the often elusive Outstanding!
Teachers experiment in the classroom and take risks
—learning is often pupil led
—Teacher’s welcome pupil feedback: they ask the question ‘How can I help you to learn better?’
—They allow thinking time. Pose, Pause, Bounce and Pounce!
—They are often inspirational
—Their pupils know how to improve

Tips on encouraging meaningful dialogue in the classroom


Use the classroom environment:

  • Use the interactive whiteboard. Pictures, videos and music are great for encouraging discussion and creating a memorable atmosphere or theme to a discussion. For example, playing wartime music during discussions on WW2, or display a starry sky on the board in Science.
  • Mystery box – fill a box with interesting items and use as a starter activity to encourage discussion or creative writing. The mystery object may be linked to the lesson, or could simply be an intriguing curiosity.
  • Have a ‘no pens’ lesson where all contributions must be spoken, acted or drawn.

Adapt your questioning:

  • Use all your might! Replace questions that suggest to the students that there is only one right answer, and avoid the ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ pitfall. E.g. “What is the answer” = “what might the answer be?” The meaning of the sentence is significantly altered by the word ‘might’.
  • As ‘What if?’ questions. The teacher writes a series of ‘What if?’ questions that create a series of hypothetical scenarios around a topic you want them to think carefully about. An interesting homework task could be to come up with these types of questions which can then be used as a basis for discussion at the beginning of the next lesson.
  • Involve as many students as possible. Use a random-o-meter, pick lollypop sticks out of a tub, use any strategy you can think of to keep students engaged!

Structure and scaffold discussion:

  • Appoint roles in group discussion. See next page for ideas for role cards that can be adapted to any discussion. In whole-class discussion, the teacher may choose to take on a role from the role cards, making this intention clear to the students. Alternatively, the teacher might choose to circulate around groups and challenge them by taking on one of these roles.
Time-keeper: It is your job to keep track of the time. You must ensure that the group completes their task in the allotted time. You will need to encourage the group of when it is necessary to move on.  Scribe: You should note down key points from the discussion. You don’t need to write down everything that is said, just listen carefully and choose which you think are the most important points.

Leader: The leader keeps everyone focused on the task and politely makes sure that everyone takes part. 
Devil’s Advocate: It is this your job to challenge the ideas of others. You should do this by suggesting the opposite of what has been said, looking at things from a different viewpoint.

Stingray: It is your job to challenge the rest of the group by stinging them with unusual and original contributions.

Helper: The Helper helps others to explain their ideas by asking questions such as ‘What do you mean by this?’ or ‘Could you give me an example?’ You may also help to explain what others say by saying ‘I think what ___ is suggesting is… is that right?’

Gadfly: This irritating person picks away at the discussion by asking questions to make sure people are making precise points rather than generalisations, wild comments or things that are vague and unclear.  Observer: As the observer, you do not contribute to the discussion. You observe and give a summary to the group at the end, or feedback to the whole class.

Motivator: You must be super-positive and keep the group motivated and on track.

Other ways of scaffolding discussion:

  • Snowballing (think, pair, share): Students are allowed time to think on their own about a broad discussion point. They begin a discussion in pairs for a given amount of time. The pairs then join with another pair to make a group of four, and share then add to each other’s points. This can be a purely verbal task or contributions can be noted down.
  • Value Continuum: The continuum line can be made from string and pegs, pieces of paper blue tacked on the wall or it can be a double-ended arrow shown on the whiteboard. Show a statement on the board. One side of the continuum should read ‘Strongly Agree’, the other ‘Strongly Disagree’. Students should discuss where their views lie on the continuum line. The teacher now has the following options: they can ask all the students to leave their seats and stand at the front in a position that represents their views. The other option is that paper, post-it notes or initials drawn on the board can be used to represent the views of each student. The teacher can now deepen the discussion by choosing students with a range of views to explain their reasoning and defend their positions on the line.
  • The Goldfish Bowl: Students are seated in two circles, one inside the other. The inner circle should begin to discuss a topic or question with the person sitting next to them. The outer circle observes silently, taking notes on what is being said or the way the discussion is taking place. You might choose to give the students on the outer circle a peer assessment sheet so that they can assess the quality of the discussion, and so that you have evidence of the learning to stick into students’ books. When the teacher gives the signal, the students on the outer circle present their feedback to the inner circle, summarise the points already made, then pick up the discussion from there and the roles are reversed.
  • Silent Debate: In a silent debate, students are asked to take part in a written dialogue that is a little like comments on an online discussion board. The debate can be used to introduce a new area of learning to the class and to initiate independent thinking that can then lead to group or class discussion in the next lesson. To prepare for the silent debate, stick up 1-4 large sheets of paper with starting points for discussion on the classroom walls. During the course of the lesson, students take turns getting up and silently adding a comment to the discussion sheets. This works best when the class is engaged in work that they can be getting on with with minimum teacher-input, such as an extended writing piece or group work. The sheets can be collected at the end of the lesson and kept as evidence of the learning that has taken place.
  • Viva:  A viva is an oral exam that is usually undertaken by PHD students. It involves one or more examiners asking a candidate questions so as to assess their knowledge on a subject. The viva is best used at the end of a topic or as a revision strategy. Students are paired up and given 3 different areas of the topic each. The students then work independently to develop a range of questions for each of their areas. The questions should be open-ended, allowing the candidate to respond at length. The pairs then sit opposite each other and take a turn each to be the examiner and the candidate. The examiner should be encouraged to add to the responses the candidate makes, and to ask additional questions that prompt their candidate to give the fullest answer possible. As an additional element, the examiners could be given a peer-assessment sheet to fill in and give to the candidate after the activity is complete.
  • Showcase: This activity recreates a museum or art gallery set-up in the classroom. After a large project that involves a series of different tasks, everything is cleared from the desks and the work is displayed on the tables. Students walk around the displays in pairs, discussing the different approaches to the task while filling in a joint questionnaire answering questions such as: What do you like about the work? What are three key strengths you feel the work possesses? What one way do you think the work can be improved? Students return to their seats and a whole-class discussion ensues. This might work well with art projects or design tasks, but could be adapted to any project work that contains different visual elements such as posters, designs, pictures, newspaper articles, collages etc.


Encouraging competition:

  • Create your own interactive Blockbusters-style quiz online at Teachers Direct. On this free website teachers can search for quizzes on different academic subjects as well as create their own. Just don’t forget to click right through to the quiz then save the webpage link.
  •  Play Pictionary with a twist by splitting the class into teams and asking them to takes turns drawing a symbol or image that relates to your topic. The team that guesses the picture being drawn first receives one point, then they can earn an extra bonus point by answering a question on that area of the topic.
  • Play Speed-debating by asking students pair up and time each other talking non-stop about a topic without repeating themselves or taking a breath. The winners go through to round 2, then 3 when the winners are then complete one final round in front of the class.

Techniques that Encourage Students to Write and Write Well

Motivating Students to Write

We are all more motivated when a task has a specific purpose and an outcome or reward. One way of achieving this that Sue Cowley suggests is to publish students’ work online, on sites such as:
Competition can also be a great motivational tool, so creating a writing task where the best entries are displayed in the classroom, published in a leaflet to be sent home to parents, or published on the school website are good ways of giving recognition for good writing.
To help give students confidence in their vocabulary, I created a series of ‘word of the week‘ power point that I use as a starter activity once a week with each of my classes which works really well. It’s very simple – it simply has a funky phonetically interesting word (ominous, plethora, smorgasbord etc.) with a definition and a striking picture / moving background. Students copy the word and definition into their books and I allow them to use colours, create a border or draw a picture to go with it to make the words stand out in their books. A couple of times a week I ask students if they can remember the word, think of a synonym or antonym, or use it in a sentence. I’m always surprised by how many of these word creep into their language in lessons and how often they comment that they have heard the ‘word of the week’ and recognised it outside of school.
Another technique that was recommended to me is the use of mystery objects that inspire creative writing. We created a mystery object box with objects such as Christmas crackers, stamps from around the world and old keys for the department to use. The students are shown the object and given time to discuss its possibilities with a peer, then they are given a specified amount of time to write whatever they like about it, be it a description, short story, diary entry, poem or newspaper article. The joy of this task lies in the freedom it allows the student as they can use the item as inspiration in any way they want. An old pocket watch could trigger a piece of writing with the theme of ‘memories’ or ‘time’ for one student and lead to a diary entry outlining a favourite memory, another might write a gripping time travel story, another a description of the owner of the watch.

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orolog...

Pocket watch, savonette-type. Italiano: Orologio da taschino (cipolla). Español: Reloj de bolsillo. ગુજરાતી: ખિસ્સામાં રાખવાની ઘડિયાળ. עברית: שעון כיס. Македонски: Џебен часовник 日本語: 懐中時計. Polski: Zegarek kieszonkowy. Português: Relógio de bolso. Русский: Карманные часы. Slovenščina: Vreckové hodinky. Slovenščina: Žepno uro so izumili leta 1510 v Nemčiji. Suomi: Taskukello. ไทย: นาฬิกาพก. 中文: 怀表. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Creative Secondary Classroom Displays

One of the most optimistic rituals of the school year, for me, is preparing my classroom for the coming September and creating classroom displays. Ever since I turned green with envy helping out a Primary School Teacher friend with her displays, I’ve dreamed of taking some of the elements from primary classrooms and creating The Perfect Secondary School Classroom.

Ambitious? Yes, but classrooms are dynamic environments that should adapt and change and are always a work in progress, so at least we can use this an as excuse. Here are some thoughts on organising secondary classrooms to get us both started…

Key Words

Information Boards

I like to have an information board with info about levels, timings of the school day, behavioural expectations, homework schedules etc. so I can point and gesticulate wildly towards the board when rules are broken. Where possible, I also like to have my own information ‘space’ around my desk where I put up laminated copies of documents that I use regularly. These include my timetable, staff lists, grade criteria  etc, but also handouts from CPD to remind me of the school’s current teaching and learning focus. Not only is this handy and looks good to Ofsted, but I believe it signals to the students that the classroom is the teacher’s arena and that he or she is the expert in the room.

Staple it to the Wall!

In the Guardian’s article ‘Look What I Can Do, Mum!’, Philip Beadle quiet rightly suggests: ‘Use artefacts. If it doesn’t move, staple it to the wall. If it does move, kill it, then staple it to the wall.’ Like me, he was inspired by a primary school that had turned its bare walls in to bright, quirky, arresting museums of interesting artefacts and ideas. He believes that ‘good classroom display is the quickest, and easiest, way of building a positive reputation among your colleagues.’ Bonus.

I’ve begun here by using postcards, an old key, book covers and wrapping paper. I would also like to have a drama shelf at the back of the room with a clapper board and some hats. Any other suggestions are most welcome – please write and let me know what you do with your classroom displays!

The Guardian article can be found here:

Practical Strategies for Students with Dyslexia

The Mona Lisa.

Q:What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Tom Cruise all have in common?

A:They were all dyslexic. While dyslexia presents a range of challenges, with effort and an understanding of strategies that can be used, these challenged can be overcome over time, and can even be a strength. ‘Dyslexia in Secondary School’ by Jenny Cogan and Mary Flemming, and ‘The Gift of Dyslexia’  by Ronald Dell Davis outline some of these challenges, and offers practical techniques that can be used to help. There’s so much useful information out there about dyslexia, and I recommend you learn more about it. Here, I offer a starting point and a summary of some of the ideas these great books suggest.


The Challenge: People with dyslexia will be occupied with decoding words and the pronunciation of words, and they may not remember much of the information, meanings and connotations in what they read.

The Strategies:

  • Practise reading aloud in private, not in a classroom setting, where there will be pressure to decode and pronounce words properly
  • Encourage students to visualise the text in images. This can be done by: explaining what they should specifically be looking for in a text, verbal recapping of events at regular intervals, then  discussing the whole, and attaching pictures to a text using drawing or ready-made images, e.g. putting pictures in the correct order to show a plotline, drawing a cartoon strip as a text is read to them then asking them to recall the story without the pictures, annotating character drawings
  • Break texts down into the senses and discuss each of these
  • Use colours to represent moods or different parts of the text
  • Make abstract problems link to real-life situations e.g. maths should be learnt in terms of slices of cake or money, not just numbers.
  • Difficult terminology can be linked to an image ‘amps’ in science reminds the student of the humps or ‘umps’ on a camel’s back. Subject specific terminology needs to be focused on before they are included in a task e.g. words with multiple meanings or connotations, homophones and figurative language
  • Practise decoding example exam questions prior to an exam so that students focus on what is being asked, rather than  struggling with decoding the question


The Challenge:

Many people with dyslexia have difficulties with remembering an auditory or language-based sequence of events or words. They also can get frustrated when asked to multitask using too much information.

The Techniques:

  • Spider diagrams for bringing together ideas
  • Number ideas in a sequence, discussing links between ideas
  • Include colours and striking images where possible
  • Mind-mapping on the computer may be more appealing to students as they can create neat boxes with clear handwriting
  • Always discuss the mind-map afterwards and try to recall it without the map in front of the student


The Challenge:

Some students with dyslexia have genuine hand-eye or language-co-ordination difficulties that cannot be overcome with practise. By the time dyslexic children reach secondary school, their handwriting skills are pretty well-formed and difficult to change. They often find it difficult to re-read their own writing and the efforts used in forming neat, legible handwriting and remembering basic grammar can distract them from using their other creative talents and intelligence.  Computers can illuminate this frustration and allow students to develop other key skills.

The Techniques:

  • Allow the use of word-processing  –  this is a learning tool, not a hindrance to improving spelling
  • Students may apply to use a computer in exams: exam boards will ‘make every attempt to respond positively to requests for candidates to use computers’, however they will need evidence from an educational psychologist or qualified teacher
  • Encourage the student to go back over his work and check for mistakes before handing the work in – this is a skill he may have previously found difficult when editing work in his own handwriting
  • Touch-typing illuminates the need for the student to look down at what he is typing, which means he is multi-tasking less and can concentrate more on what he is writing, rather than how
  • GCSE Bitesize has interactive activities and revision notes broken up into chunks, often with audio clips, which are good for revision
  • Autocorrect in Word (Menu bar – tools – autocorrect) is designed to correct common mistakes and can be programmed to correct subject-specific vocabulary and extend abbreviations
  • Creating power point presentations allows students to convert written information into a more visual medium with colour, images and graphs. The student can then present the slideshow verbally, turning the pictures and prompts back into words


The Challenge:

Students with dyslexia may find it difficult to keep up with note-taking in class, their notes may be messy or incomplete, and they may be concentrating solely on the task of copying down from the board, and not retain any of the information from the lesson.

The Techniques:

  • Help students to organise and file notes
  • Teach abbreviations where possible
  • Encourage the student to use mind-maps, tables and bullet points

Essay Writing

The Challenge:

Like many other students, students with dyslexia often find the wording of questions difficult and fail to answer the question. In English, they may re-tell the story of a text, without including a deep analysis of a text in relation to the question. They may find planning difficult without having someone there to help organise their ideas, and may be anxious about how to begin, and how to structure essays. Timed essays may not allow enough time for a dyslexic student to complete the task to the best of their ability. Dyslexic students tend to write as they speak, and may not adapt their style easily to a specific purpose, or they might have problems maintaining a register throughout their response.

The Techniques:

  • Identify which writing skills are not automatic for the specific student, e.g. can they: create believable characters, vary their style, organise ideas clearly, use appropriate word choice, grammar and correct spelling, and organise paragraphs?
  • Practise interpreting exam / essay questions, including identifying the key words
  • Practise using a type of mind map that works for the student and purpose
  • Teach essay structures that fit the task e.g. using PEE paragraphs, mnemonics etc.
  • With students who have problems with timing in exams, it is best to first, identify the issue: understanding: do they find it difficult to decide on a question, do they panic because of stress, or daydream? Remembering: does worrying about time make them forget their points? Do ideas wander once they have written one point? Organising: does a muddle of ideas prevent me from writing? Do they rush in and run out of ideas fast? Writing: does worrying about handwriting, grammar and spelling slow down the writing process? Do they have problems with checking work due to poor handwriting?
  • Beforehand, help the student draw a pie chart showing the timings of different tasks
  • Make it clear to the student beforehand whether handwriting, grammar and spelling will be marked
  • Have students take in a watch that they are comfortable reading (maybe digital)
  • Different writing styles can be taught, and it should be made clear which exam questions require which style


The Challenge:

Revision is essential for any student who has difficulty remembering information, key words and approaches to exam questions. Parents naturally can be anxious about how effective the child’s revision is, and students with dyslexia may have disorganised notes, or find organising an effective revision routine difficult. As visual and auditory learners, dyslexic students may find reading notes alone an ineffective and frustrating way of revising.

The Techniques:

  • Parents should plan revision time in advance, and in collaboration with the student. They can help with verbally testing the student after revision sessions and talking through approaches to exam questions
  • Revision notes should be organised in  advance, and an adult could check that they have everything they need for the correct syllabus
  • Short sessions of around 20 mins are usually more effective
  • Help students to change information from one mode to another e.g. text to taking, pictures, diagrams, power points, posters, quizzes, games timelines, cards etc.

Snazzy Starters and Bell Activities

Cover of "The Little Book of Thunks: 260 ...

Cover via Amazon

The 2012 Ofsted criteria for an outstanding lesson states that “Pupils demonstrate excellent concentration and are rarely off-task,” and this should start right from the moment that the first student enters the room, which is why ‘bell work’ is s great idea. In ‘The Perfect Ofsted Lesson’, by Jackie Beere – a great little book that can be downloaded cheaply onto your Kindle, or bought in paperback – Beere points out that “students should expect to start work as soon as they come into the classroom without you directing them… it neatly shows how you are completely and effortlessly in control.” I would also add, that it is said that independent, student-led or group work should make up around 80% of your lesson – a tough ask – and so you might as well start right from the word ‘go’.

Quirky bell activities that are designed purely to wake the students up and get the little grey cells working can be fun and useful, however, in lessons where you are being observed, I do believe that every part of the lesson should be linked to prior learning and / or the learning intentions.

Here are some suggestions of bell work I’ve collected from ‘The perfect Ofsted Lesson’, and my reading in general.

  • Thunks: Ian Gilbert’s ‘Little Book of Thunks‘ offers a goldmine of beguiling questions with no right or wrong answer. Some examples are: Does a goldfish know it is your pet? If you always got what you wished for, would you always be happy? Which is heavier: an inflated or deflated balloon? What has the most freedom – an ant or a school child?
  • Work for, party with, or send to the jungle? Set pairs a discussion task where they say what they would do with the following and why, e.g. Prince William, John Terry, Russell brand
  • A Curiosity: for example, a box where students have to guess what’s inside. I did this with a year 8 class studying war poetry. I brought in an antique hairbrush set in its original box, which was presented to a woman for her 21st birthday just before WW1

Here are some ideas from ‘Pimp Your Lesson’:

  • The Beach Ball Trick: throw a beach ball around and ask each student who catches it to recap something from the last lesson / name one key piece of German vocab learned last lesson, etc.
  • Secret Mission: disguise pair or group activities by putting them in envelopes and presenting them as ‘secret missions’. You can also show differentiation by tailoring tasks according to ability
  • The Rule in the Room: while one pupil waits outside the classroom, the remaining students are given a rule which will govern their behaviour. On re-entering the room, the student must ask random questions and try to guess the rule in the room, e.g. English: participants must use alliteration in their speech, Science: students use a word that can be associated with digestion, etc.
  • Mind the Gap: use mini whiteboards and read something to the class referring to prior learning. Miss out a key word and have students write the word on their mini whiteboards and hold them up
  • Bumps: this retro party game can be adapted so that students must identify examples of a particular concept as they listen to you read a text

Another sneaky way of getting that tick in the Ofsted criteria box is to incorporate ICT. Remember, however, that ICT should only be used to enhance learning, not distract from it. “Resources, including new technology make a marked contribution to the quality of learning”

  • Blockbusters: on the teachers direct website, you can create your own interactive blockbuster quiz before the lesson
  • Create a random-o-meter with thunks on (see above) using a power point presentation set on slide show setting with the time reduced to 0 seconds

Starters and bell activities are opportunities to be creative and wander off the beaten path of the curriculum for one delicious moment. Enjoy it!