A guide to this blog

I write about teaching, research, the curriculum and assessment, as well as teacher training, leadership and the wider education system.


Here’s what I think would improve our teaching:

















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Teach like an All Black


Taringa whakarongo!

Let your ears listen!

Kapa o Pango kia whakawhenua au i ahau!

All Blacks, let me become one with the land!

Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!

This is our land that rumbles!

Au, au, aue hā!

It’s our time! It’s our moment!

The All Blacks have been the best rugby team in the world for more than a century, the most successful sporting culture in human history. Their sustained competitive advantage comes through cultural cohesion.

Stuart Lock pointed me in the direction of James Kerr’s book, Legacy, on how the All Blacks succeed. This blogpost summarises what leaders can learn about cultivating a strong culture.


Humility: sweep the sheds 

Humility allows us to ask simple questions: ‘how can we do this better? what do you think? . . . how can we make this better, how can we improve this?’ Excellence begins with humility; with a humble willingness to ‘sweep the sheds’.

Like all good teachers, the All Blacks love to learn.

Focus on the team culture: not how each person performs, but how well they work together. Collective character is vital to success. Focus on getting the culture right; the results will follow.

Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.



Train like a champion

Implement a set of high, non-negotiable standards. These standards identify the expectations and set the ethos, the culture of the team.

Practise with intensity: the training, decision-making wise, should be harder than the game; throwing problems at them – unexpected events – forcing them to solve the problems. Replicate playing conditions. Effective training is intense, regular and repetitious. For world-class results, it should be central to the culture. 


Ritual: your own haka

Rituals are key for reinforcing the emotional glue. Inspiring leaders establish rituals to connect their team to its core narrative, using them to reflect, remind, reinforce and reignite their collective identity and purpose. Rituals, symbols and mottos are the welt and weave of elite teams and organizations – the fabric that binds people together. Though the individuals change, the rituals remain, and these rituals are the structure that maintains belief. Rituals make beliefs real and tangible. Rituals tell your story, involve your people, create a legacy. Rituals make the intangible real. By inculcating rituals into a culture, leaders can bottle its essential spirit, capturing it for future generations. Ritual represents a pre-verbal language, physicalising experience. In combination with values and vocabulary, mantras and mottos, narratives and metaphors, signs and symbols, rituals achieve a literal embodiment through repetition of our central story. By creating their own equivalent of the haka, leaders can attach a sense of personal meaning and belonging to the organization’s overall purpose. Wise leaders look for ways to ‘ritualize their enterprise’, to find vivid, visceral process that bring their ethos to life.

Richie McCaw

The current All Black captain, Richie McCaw, has 127 New Zealand caps, 105 points, is the first rugby player to win 100 tests, has an unbelievable 87% win record, won the World Cup, and is the most capped All Black Captain of all time.


“Over time, the All Blacks have been the best team in rugby, setting the standard for the world. There’ve been some great men who made sacrifices, spilt blood for this jersey. You won’t last in this jersey if you’re not prepared to do the things you need to do to fill it.

“I wanted to be captain because I enjoy having an influence on how the team operates and performs; I like the pressure and responsibility that comes with the captaincy; I believe I can improve with experience; I care about how the team goes and want to help set high standards.

“I began breaking my game down into four key roles: tackling, clearing rucks, pressuring the opposition ball, and carrying the ball. I look at the video of breakdowns and ask really specific questions: about the decision to be at that breakdown; whether my technique and timing were right; whether my positioning was good.”


Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick played 128 matches for the All Blacks, 50 as captain, won the World Cup, and holds the record for the most matches undefeated. His book Winning Matters is a great insight into All Black leadership.



“To be truly successful you have to set the standards as high as possible, and then expect everybody to consistently achieve them. Having a clear view on where you want to get to as a team – a clear view that everyone understands and that everyone buys into – is critical to its success. You have to be absolutely persistent and obsessive about what you are doing, so everyone knows the plan and is totally committed to getting there.

“Success is all about modest improvements consistently done. All of them can achieve outstanding things if they focus on being the best that they can be, and if they are in a good environment, with a good team. Success is about identifying small specific areas of improvement or cohesion that will make the difference. Put your heart and soul into it.


“Think of your team as a family. If a team feels like a family, it performs like a family, and that is a powerful, powerful thing … families rally round when it gets tough. Families help each other out. Families give straight counsel, and honest feedback. It is the best model I know for a successful team. The more that you can think of your team as your family and act (and demand that they act) as such, the more powerful I believe your team will be.

“Acknowledge them. Understand the value that they have already brought in terms of how they’ve helped and supported you, and let them know that you see it and value it. Then take the next step – think about how to use their talents and support to even better effect. What could they do more of or less of? What changes would you need to make in order to allow them to do that? Look around the team and the group of players and continually be asking myself, ‘How can this team become the best that it can be?’


Lead from the front

“I spent every minute of every waking hour focusing in on the task in hand.

Leading from the front distils down into a simple truth against which you should measure yourself and judge your own performance. Did you do your best? you have to be self-critical and honest.

“You can’t be at your best until you are passionate about what you are doing. What are your passions, your traditions? Seek them out. What are the rituals and symbols that have a positive part to play in your life and your world? They give meaning and motivation to what you’re doing.


“Leading from the front isn’t a part-time role that you can pick up and set down as and when it suits. You have to do it all the time and every time. Doing the basics well matters, whoever you are, and whatever you do. Make no mistake, if you are leading from the front, everybody is watching – so take pride, and do it right.


“You have to do things to the very best of your ability all the time. Everything that you do and say (and those things that you don’t do or don’t say) will impact upon the collective whole and you need to be acutely aware of that. Make sure that personally, you model the excellence you are searching for collectively. You need to be what you want the team to be, and if everyone is doing the same thing as you, then the team becomes stronger.

Front up

“Talk directly, not behind their backs. Put it on the table, sort it out.

“If you are going to be the best that you can be, you are going to have to front up, and get it sorted. Knowing what you want, and being prepared to fight for it puts you at the front of the pack. Fronting up becomes more important precisely as it becomes harder … that is what makes you successful. You have to decide whether to take the easy option or take the tough, sometimes painful road. My choice? Front up. Every time. This is me, and this is who I am. This is what I stand for, and this is my life. I will front up. You have a simple choice. You have to decide. Do you stand up or step aside? To be the best that you can be, front up.”

Sweep the sheds; train like a champion; set your own rituals; see your team as a family, lead from the front; front up – these are the lessons to be learned from the enduring success of the All Blacks.

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Stop OFSTED grading teaching

What’s the one thing in education that unions, teachers, headteachers, bloggers and think-tanks all agree on? OFSTED must change. 

Social media is a spearhead of the campaign to reform inspection. The irrepressible teacher-blogger Old Andrew has catalogued OFSTED’s contortions since 2006. Bloggers David Didau, Tom Bennett and Stuart Lock, amongst others, have kept the pressure high. Daisy Christodoulou has published analysis of 228 reports on the web. Teachers’ online outpouring of frustration is beginning to influence national policy.

The cross-political convergence at the Policy Exchange event in May on the 2015 education manifestos was striking: OFSTED must be reformed. When the Anti-Academies Alliance agree with Free School trust founders, the tremors reach Whitehall. 


Policy Exchange called for an overhaul of OFSTED in March. The unions have too: the NAHT have a reform petition, and the ATL say OFSTED are ‘riddled with problems’ and call for it to be ‘radically and completely transformed’. Now Civitas add their voice: ‘the era of imperious central direction should be brought to an end.’


End the OFSTED orthodoxy


Robert Peal, the report’s author, makes two major recommendations:

• remove the teaching judgement from inspections 

• remove graded lesson observations from inspections 


Stop judging teaching

The report gives three main reasons for this:


1. Inspections rate the achievement category so similarly as to make the quality of teaching category redundant. In97% of inspections, the achievement and teaching grades are identical.


2. OFSTED inspections have shown a persistently enduring preference for one teaching style, and criticism of teacher-led teaching. Prior to 2014, praise of teacher-led lessons is entirely absent, but three-quarters of reports praise child-centred methods. After 2014, cosmetic report-editing and verbal feedback shows that this preference remains ingrained. This is from analysis of 260 reports. OFSTED has become the main arbiter of what an orthodox ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ teaching style in schools is.


3. High-stakes OFSTED inspections influence schools’ teaching culture through performance management (PM) and CPD. An inadequate grade results in budget strains as pupil roll falls, recruitment pressures as NQTs are no longer allowed to be employed and salary premiums are needed to recruit and retain staff. An outstanding grade is required for exemption for inspection, becoming a teaching school and running initial teacher training. Inspectionsexertahigh influence on schools.


PM in schools mimics OFSTED four-point gradings and criteria.

“Teachers now face a situation where if we teach using direct instruction for observations we will be graded as requiring improvement and then threatened or placed onto capability proceedings unless we change to progressive methods.”

CPD is often linked to OFSTED grades and criteria. The UK’s leading training provider Osiris offers 32 courses for becoming OFSTED-outstanding, claiming to be ‘proven to improve all teaching by at least one OFSTED level.’


Stop grading observations

Rob Peal gives a double rationale for this:


1. Graded lesson observations are ineffective, invalid and unreliable. Professor Rob Coe has shown that in the best-case scenario, two inspectors would agree on an inadequate grade only 38% of the time. Sutton Trust research corroborates this.


2. Teachers in England resent observations, and world-class school systems use observations far less than England does. Whereas 99% of 2,500 English teachers from 150 schools surveyed by the OECD had annual observations, only 81% of teachers surveyed highest-performing countries had. Of all 34 countries surveyed, English teachers were the least likely to say this resulted in positive change. I have catalogued around 50 anecdotes of teacher resentment.


I whole-heartedly agree with this report’s recommendations. I believe we should go even further and end 1-4 OFSTED grading altogether. Why grade schools out of 4 at all? The cult of outstanding is impossible to combat whilst schools are chasing OFSTED ratings. Set our effective schools free to innovate however they see fit, rather than condemning them to perpetual agonising over the latest OFSTED-outstanding criteria.




In Denial

In response, OFTSED has dismissed Civitas’ report, claiming it does not have a preferred teaching style. A spokesman told the TES: “The arguments put forward in this report are largely reheated ones. Our judgements on teaching are predicated on whether children are learning, progressing and achieving good outcomes.”

In January, Sir Michael Wilshaw said he was ‘spitting blood’ when Civitas accused OFSTED in The Times of enforcing an educationally harmful orthodoxy. When questioned by Stuart Lock about rogue inspectors at the Festival of Education in June, he said ‘We have had inspectors in the past who’ve disagreed with the ideas I’ve set out but they have been rooted out.’


Above all, what this shows is that OFSTED are in denial.


Mass Action


We, the teachers, must hold OFSTED’s feet to the fire. There is a critical mass of campaigners, and we have momentum. We need to keep up the unrelenting pressure on those in power to change OFSTED irrevocably, and for the better. In the run-up to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s promised redesign of the inspectorate from September, we should this summer mount an uncompromising online campaign for reform.


Teaching unions, education think-tanks and teacher-bloggers unite: we have nothing to lose but our chains.




There are excellent reviews of the Civitas report from David Didau and from Stuart Lock. Like me, Stuart would go further than the report and abolish 1-4 grading.



Robert Peal’s history of English education, Progressively Worse, is here. I have reviewed it here, and there are excellent reviews from David Didau and Stuart Lock.

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All the world its stage: The Globe Theatre


You buy your ticket and enter The Globe. It’s a startling theatre space. Straight off, you’re not given a seat – you stand to watch the play, literally up to your neck in the stage. Look up, and you’ll notice it’s open-air, outdoor and in broad daylight. Three trumpets pulsate the play into life. Twisting fast round twin pillars, the actors are within touching distance, making eye contact, provoking you – ‘Who calls me villain?’

Seeing a play here today is perhaps as striking as seeing it four centuries ago, still fresh from its openings in 1599 and 1997. How does The Globe perform its role of entertaining and enthralling its audience? A potent mix of theatricality, versatility, violence, interactivity, outreach, adventure and irreverence make The Globe unique.


Theatricality: all the world’s a stage


Above its entrance, you see its motto: ‘Totet mundus agit histrionem’ – ‘All the world’s a stage’. Uniquely amongst theatres, The Globe ties its colours to the mast of theatricality. In this world, those who improvise are the most exciting characters to watch: Hamlet, Prospero, Falstaff, Mercutio. Those who orchestrate evil often stage-manage plots-within-plays: Richard III, Edmund, Iago. Those who cross-dress are playing roles-upon-roles: Portia, Viola and Rosalind would have been boy-actors playing girls acting as boys. Those who disguise themselves, such as Edgar, Henry V, and Angelo, are commoners playing monarchs acting as commoners. Chaotic characters unlock discoveries in the story through their chaos: think Bottom, Caliban and Dogberry. The pulse of the play is in its playfulness.


Versatility: this our scene


On its unusually empty stage, versatility is the name of the game. The plays transport you into a vast variety of spaces and times. You spin through ancient pagan Britain, Verona at civil war, turbulent Lancaster and York’s War of The Roses, merchant Venice, Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Norwegian-invaded Denmark, and regicidal Scotland, all the way to the Forest of Ardennes, the Dukedom of Naples, the island of Sicily, an embryonic Athenian democracy, and the republican Roman empire. The past plays out as your imaginative landscape for the present: ‘how many times will this our scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?’ William Shakespeare placed the Latin words of a first-century BC Roman on a seventeenth-century London stage in English; that his words still play in Japanese at Tokyo’s Globe Theatre in the twenty-first century, seems prophetic.


Violence: or else were this a savage spectacle…


The thrust platform reminds you of an execution scaffold, and violence enacts many of the most powerful visual scenes at The Globe. In Othello, we witness suffocation and a suicide. Macbeth displays a decapitated tyrant’s head to its onlookers. In King Lear, we see an old man tortured and his eyes gouged out; blinded, he later tries to throw himself off a cliff. Julius Caesar enacts assassination and martial suicide, when the conspirators fall on their swords. The fencing match in Hamlet kills a King with his nephew’s sword, while the Prince and the Queen die of the King’s poison. The spectacle of death always attracted spectators. Perhaps the plays could only enthral insofar as they could appal? Cruelty was good box office.


Interactivity: the original instrument


Looking around, you’re in a spherical amphitheatre, ‘in the round’, encircled in 360 degree surround-sound, radically interactive. The Globe today sees itself as a laboratory to experiment and rediscover how Shakespeare’s theatre worked. The modern Globe’s first Artistic Director, Mark Rylance explains:

“In my mind, it’s a bit like someone discovering the original cello, and saying, ‘He wrote for this instrument, not for the modern one we’re using. Who will take up the challenge to try and play on his instrument?’

The building seems to inspire a wild spirit in the audience. Its crude, chaotic energy is visceral, and it becomes paramount to say to the actors, ‘don’t speak to them, play with them’. Anything they do is like another player on stage doing something.”

As a spectator, you experience how it animates the audience as army on the battlefield, mobilises you as mob in the city, and exploits your ability to play many different roles, from best friend to stern parent. It invites you into the limelight to become the most versatile actor.


Outreach: lively action


Bankside of the River Thames, based near areas of deprivation, The Globe roots itself in the local Southwark community, stealing the stage as an educational force for social change. It gives 14,000 free tickets to performances, 2,000 pupils from London schools receive free workshops, and 90,000 students visit the exhibition on site each year. On the website, which attracts 1 million virtual visitors a year, Globe Education’s Head of Learning, Fiona Banks, provocatively asks: ‘Why do young people feel culturally entitled to go to the cinema but only one in three feels that they can go to see a play?’ Through its practical school program, Lively Action, The Globe recasts Shakespeare from elite intellectual artist to popular working playwright.


Commerce: business venture


In asking you to pay for your ticket, The Globe recaptures the territory of the original Elizabethan playhouse. For the original was a business enterprise, a joint-stock company. Its profits were distributed among core actors who invested as shareholders, who shouldered the risk and who took a slice of the reward. Taking a percentage of the box office was unprecedented; Shakespeare was the most incentivised playwright in English literary history. The modern counterpart re-enacts this groundbreaking commercial venture. Unlike the state-funded National Theatre or crown-licensed Royal Shakespeare Company, The Globe receives no annual subsidy from government. Instead, it counts only on ticket sales. Much like its original: among the first permanent (rather than touring) playhouses, it relied on a repeat audience of thousands of Londoners willing to pay day-in, day-out to see performances. It required habitual playgoing: from 1599, 15,000 Londoners paid to see a play every week, and a third of the 200,000 population saw one a month. Shakespeare was writing for the most experienced playgoers in history. Today, London takes centre-stage as the world capital of theatre; you can’t walk through her streets without hearing about a play. The Globe, now as then, could depend on an unusually discriminating commercial audience.


Irreverence: these roarers…


Look up a last time, and you’re reminded the playhouse is open-air; it has started to rain. This uncovers how unpredictable and irreverent The Globe is. Open to the elements, it is egalitarian in asking its audience to ‘answer to the extremity of the skies’ with the provocation: ‘What cares these roarers for the name of King?’ Some of the most dramatic scenes played here pit King Lear against the storm and wreck a Duke’s ship in The Tempest. Weather is a great social leveller, and so is The Globe. Historically, it subjected nobles and courtiers along with tailors and tinkers to its unpredictability. Today, The Globe reconstructs this irreverence and enacts the part of embattled underdog. Its iconoclasm pits itself in a David and Goliath battle of wills against the RSC’s traditionalism. Its maverick spirit challenges more than it conforms to the heritage industry.


As you leave, you wonder: if The Globe was an actor on the London stage, what role would it play? It casts itself in the starring role of theatrical trailblazer. Would it be more like Puck or Prospero? Certainly, having stood you in the yard, The Globe always earned your standing ovation.

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‘Teachers hit out at teacher training’… or do they?

An article in the Sunday Times quotes Katie Ashford and my thoughts on Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in the UK. This follows a speech that we gave at Wellington Festival of Education in June, in which we argued that it is the ideas in education that contribute to the attainment gap.

We are disappointed with the article because it fails to recognise the many positive things that Katie and I think and have said about Teach First. Both of us believe that Teach First is an excellent organisation. As I have said before, evidence suggests that Teach First is working, and that it has contributed to a shift in the perception of the teaching profession among graduates. And we are not alone in thinking that. In 2011, Ofsted rated Teach First training as outstanding in 44 categories out of 44.

Nevertheless, Katie and I think teacher training can still improve. I could do a lot improve my teaching. Katie could do a lot to improve hers. Both of us are focused on getting better. Teach First shares our desire to learn, and is always willing to listen to and act on feedback from participants and ambassadors.

One of the things that Katie and I find most refreshing about Teach First is the willingness to have a dialogue about what it could do to improve as a training provider. We, and many other Teach First ambassadors, often have the opportunity to express our opinions and offer constructive suggestions. Teach First are continually making changes to the programme, aiming to prepare participants as well as possible to start in teaching.

For our part, we will continue to work towards closing the research-practice gap in ITT.

You can read more about my thoughts on Teach First here:


and here:


You can read more about Katie Ashford’s thoughts on Teach First here:


and here:


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The beauty of annotating


Dewdrops on a dragonfly


Like dewdrops on a dragonfly, annotations are microscopic, fragile and beautiful. I’ve come to believe that they’re the most important secret for teaching literature; a hidden treasure trove, waiting to be discovered. Here’s what I think is precious about them:

  1. Annotations are the best way for pupils to analyse texts in detail
  2. Annotations are an instant way for teachers to see pupils’ thinking
  3. Annotations allow pupils to return to poems and remember ideas for comparisons

Close analysis 

When pupils are taught explicitly how to annotate, they can go much deeper into texts, beyond surface level ideas. For instance, here are three pupils’ annotations of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If:




 You can see how much of an advantage small, neat handwriting is! The detailed precision that these Year 8 pupils can achieve through annotating and colour-coding themes, rhyme scheme and poetic devices is very powerful. The deeper thinking results in much sharper understanding of the poem and much more imaginative responses in analytical essays.  


Visible thinking  

The greatest benefit for me as an English teacher is that, at a single glance, I can see the quality of thinking that the pupil has put into the poem. For example, take these two pupils’ annotations of the poem Sister Maude by Christina Rosetti:      





It’s immediately obvious to me as a teacher who understands the poem better. Sharing lots of concrete examples like this with pupils is a great way for them to see what successful and ineffective thinking looks like.  


Memorable comparisons

Over time, annotations become a beautiful way to revise poems previously studied. Pupils can flick back through an anthology and see instantly how far their thinking has evolved. When it comes to writing a comparative essay, they have all their ideas beautifully laid out. This also gives them a feeling of success as they can literally see how far they’ve come from the beginning of the poetry unit in a couple of glances.   Of course, this goes for plays and novels as much as poems. It reminds me of annotating my own texts while studying for GCSE and A-level. Teaching, I’ve found my 11-year old pupils just as capable of annotating to this level of detail as my Year 11s, with explicit instruction and stretching exemplars.



Now what?

I tried asking my Year 11 GSCE set to annotate their AQA anthologies using four-colour pens, with different colours for themes, language, form and ambiguities. Explicitly teaching a sequential series of questions to ask of poems to interrogate and annotate them worked a treat. You can read about this in the book on English teaching I published last year. To bring the best out of my pupils’ annotations, I’ll do a few things from now on:

  • Use a visualiser to model the process as well as showing examples of the end product
  • Build a bank of excellent exemplar models, digitising, displaying and celebrating them
  • Print anthologies of set poems for Year 7, 8 and 9 for each pupil to annotate over the unit

In a word, annotating is beautiful!

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Wellington Festival of Education 2014


The theme that ran through Wellington’s 2014 Education Festival as I experienced it was a focus on teaching becoming a self-improving profession.

Michael Wilshaw said discipline must not be seen as a dirty word by school leaders. When asked by Stuart Lock whether he had difficulties with inspectors, he said ‘We have had inspectors in the past who’ve disagreed with the ideas I’ve set out but they have been rooted out.Stuart, and everyone around him, looked sceptical.


Tom Sherrington denied that progressive pedagogy is problematic, said that children who haven’t had the grounding at home can’t just be lectured at, and that ‘one of the issues with teacher transmission is there’s too much to know.’  Bodil Isaksen challenged him afterwards on why decorating a Maths hat for homework wasn’t good enough for his own son, but that engagement and enjoyment was important for some kids. She tweeted her notes:



Robert Peal made a compelling case for his history of the education system in England, and argued that we need a school system that allows more teachers to teach traditionally, and fewer teachers in thrall to progressive ideology.


Jonathan Simons said that the balance had tipped too far, and that it was vitally important to counteract the tenacious forces and bias in schools.


John Blake said teaching isn’t a mature profession, and argued that it’s undeniable that progressive ideology is pervasive and continues to have a pernicious influence.


Daisy Christodolou summarised the evidence and statistics to show that standards have stagnated and even declined in education in England.


Sam Freedman endorsed Rob and Daisy’s case that standards have not improved, citing additional research.


Dylan William said teacher talk is more intelligent than student talk, and that testing and spaced practice were the two things the science shows work best for learning; David Didau challenged the cult of outstanding; both concurred that the aim of instruction is long-term memory retention.


Michael Gove said that he loves teachers, and that many, many more children are capable of access to a far broader range of knowledge.


Tristram Hunt did not turn up.


Andrew Adonis set out a vision of teaching as the foremost profession in the country. Afterwards Jonny Porter and I challenged him on the research-practice gap in Initial Teacher Training, a challenge he seemed to acknowledge, though he said ‘I haven’t got it cracked’.


David Weston reminded us that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on teaching practice and student learning.


Claire Fox said the year of her PGCE was probably the low point of her life, it was so bad.


Kris Boulton suggested that a codified body of knowledge in Initial Teaching Training could improve the status of teaching as a profession. It will be fascinating to see how the profession reacts to the suggestion of codifying subject expertise for new teachers, and I hope Kris writes about it to answer the questions it raises.


Katharine Birbalsingh gave a talk arguing that performance-related pay would destroy the staff ethos in schools.


Katie Ashford and I cited the statistic that 96% of private school children reach University, whereas only 16% of our poorest pupils, and told some stories around that stat. We argued that many of the ideas in the system, particularly weak ideas on discipline, the curriculum and teacher training, exacerbate educational inequality.


Stuart Lock did an epic job of covering the festival on Twitter. It was also excellent to meet Wellington’s Head of Research Carl Hendrick, and fantastic to see my former sixth form English teacher, Tom Wayman, who is now Head of Wellington College’s English Department. It’s a very impressive team, and one I have lots to learn from.


In brief, Wellington’s annual Education Festival is fast becoming an arena for confronting the tenacious orthodoxy of the current status quo in education.

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Motivation and peer pressure

Image       Image

Odysseus faced the peril of the Sirens and their irresistible song. He told his men to fill their ears with wax so they would not be tempted by the music, and to tie him to the mast so he could hear it, but be restrained from submitting to the temptation to steer closer to the fatal rocks…


A casual stroll through a students’ union bar on any weeknight will tell you peer pressure is one of the most powerful influencers out there. Peer pressure is at its most visible and visceral when it comes to drinking alcohol. Just try ordering a glass of water when out with the rugby club.


In schools, peer pressure is just as visceral. Whether it is a force for good or ill, depends. Where it pressurises kids into bullying or bystanding, disrupting lessons or disrespecting teachers, it can be monstrously damaging. Where it creates a virtuous circle of friendly competition, encouragement, hard work and useful revision, it’s a big, friendly giant. Where it tips over into unhealthy competition, sleepless nights and agonising stress over grades, it’s just as dangerous a beast.


How do we harness the daunting power of peer pressure, especially when it comes to motivation, willpower and self-control?


Thaler and Sunstein explain:

‘Problems arise when people must make decisions that test their capacity for self-control. Self-control issues are most likely when choices and consequences are separated in time. Costs are borne immediately, but benefits are delayed. On the other hand, for some things we get the pleasure now and suffer the consequences later.’


This sounds to me exactly like the decision that pupils have: ‘do I make the costly effort to work hard now for some hazy, eventual, potential future? Or do I have fun, muck about and disrupt the lesson, earning street cred now from my peers, which pays off right away?’ The options of effort exertion and lesson disruption have opposite reward profiles: the first has immediate costs and delayed benefits; the second has instant benefits and delayed costs.



Instant reward

Long-run costs


Instant costs

Long-run rewards


But this isn’t a simple, rational incentives problem. Thaler and Sunstein again:

‘Self-control issues can be illuminated by thinking about our minds as containing two systems, a far-sighted Planner and a myopic Doer. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but cope with your tempted Doer. Self-control strategies are our Planners taking steps to control the actions of our Doers often by trying to change the incentives our Doers face. Doers are often difficult to reign in (think of controlling Homer Simpson) and they foil the best efforts of the Planners. For example, alarm clocks lead to fierce battles between the Planner and the Doer. Stickk.com is a way planners can constrain their doers by committing to a specific action or habit. It uses peer pressure such as emails to family & friends, group blog. Alarm clocks are external commitment devices people use to solve their self-control problems. ‘

But remember, internal control systems are vital. You still have to overcome the snooze button!



There’s a fantastic TED talk on exactly this problem by Daniel Goldstein, who personifies it:


‘There’s this unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let’s face it, the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams.’




So, Odysseus used one of the first commitment devices to strengthen his future self over his present self.


For pupils, the battle is even more unequal: the present self prefers fun to effort, and their thirty peers do too. Against these forces, weakly voicing the need for effort, are only the feeble future self and the lone teacher. The temptation to give in to distraction is very high. It’s a classic self-control issue, and as we know, demanding self-control for extended periods of time (like the school day) is depleting.


Given that peer pressure is a reality, how do we turn peer pressure from negative to positive influence? Goldstein gives us a clue: external commitment devices like alarm clocks (or, for pupils, sanctions like detentions) don’t always work, so intrinsic commitment is vital.


Making positive peer pressure more visible just might work. Goldstein does this with finance: he makes the future self more powerful by building visual products that let people ‘see’ the future consequences of their present actions. I ham-fistedly tried to do this with this graphic in my first year of teaching:


I started using visible tracking, and it tapped into the undertapped resource of healthily competitive peer pressure, as I share in this story.


Why might this work? Behavioural economists have shown in scientific research that the urge for conformity is strong. ’We like to conform, we don’t want to face disapproval of the group and we so we do as others do.’ For instance, on tax returns, messages that say ‘more than 90% of people have already complied’ increased compliance. So visual, public display of pupils’ effort across subjects would harness the power of peer pressure for effort exertion.


‘But everyone else is doing it!’


Kelly McGonigal explains the science behind peer pressure:


‘Humans are hardwired to connect to others. Our social brains catch willpower failures contagiously through unintentional mimicry, emotion contagion and seeing others give in to temptation. We eat more with others than alone, and spend more when shopping with friends. Rule-breaking is contagious. Researchers have shown this with passers-by of signs: when rule-breaking was planted, people took their cues and ignored the signs. When we see others ignoring rules and following their impulses, we are more likely to give in to any of our impulses. We catch willpower weakness from others.


‘This is called *social proof*: it has an enormous sway over our behaviour. For instance, researchers tested social proof with energy usage: they went door-to-door with different messages: ‘99% of people in your community turn off unnecessary lights to save energy’ was by far the most effective for reducing energy usage. Social proof can strengthen self-control when we believe that doing the right thing (or the harder thing) is the norm. If we want people to have more willpower, we need to make them believe that self-control is the norm.


‘Research has also shown *goal contagion*: it is surprisingly easy to catch a person’s goal in a way that changes our own behaviour. In one study, students caught the goal to work hard just from reading a story about another student who worked hard over the Easter holidays. These students worked harder towards tests. Seeing another person pursue one of your competing goals can tip the balance in your own mind. To a remarkable degree, our brains incorporate the goals, beliefs and actions of others into our decisions. The flip-side is also true: our actions influence others, each choice serving as inspiration or temptation for others.


‘Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.’


Chimps, Bees and Elephants

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, explains further:

Image       Image

‘We care more about looking good than being good. Our minds are 90% chimp, 10% bee: we have primate minds with a more recent hivish overlay. People are simultaneously selfish and groupish. We evolved to live in groups, we are designed by natural selection as conditional hive creatures. Groupishness was a key innovation that took us beyond selfishness and into civilization.’


Ultimately, external commitment needs to be internalised in pupil mindsets, as I wrote last time. What does this mean? The key insight is the difference between automatic system 1 and the reasoned system 2. A brilliant metaphor for this is Jonathan Haidt’s: the powerful elephant and the reasoning rider:


‘The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between reasoned processes and automatic processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.’


How do we train pupils’ elephants? How do we tap into pupils’ hivish and chimpish nature? How do we strengthen pupils’ self-control and willpower? How do we empower their future selves over their present selves? How do we give pupils’ restrained, far-sighted planners control over their impulsive, myopic doers? How can we ensure they choose effort over disruption every lesson, no matter who teaches it? How do we strengthen their weak system 2? That we can ask these questions, which I think get to the core of motivation, is thanks to the insights of behavioural economists and social psychologists.



  • Design and share regular visual trackers of your classes’ effort and progress
  • Influence the influencers: tackle disruptive ringleaders head on
  • Share stories of exemplary kids who worked hard and succeeded with great effort
  • Strengthen your pupils’ immune system: remind them of their future goals


School leaders

  • Design and display regular visual trackers of pupil effort and progress
  • Reinforce the message that 95% to 100% of students are working hard
  • Influence the influencers: choose and coach role models carefully
  • Make self-control contagious: bring role models to mind often in assemblies



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