A guide to this blog

I’m Assistant Head and Head of English at Michaela, a new school in London. I write about teaching, research, curriculum and assessment, teacher training, leadership and the education system. puzzle MICHAELA:

Here’s what I think would improve teaching:









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The Blogosphere in 2015


‘It’s hard to tell the signal from the noise.’

Nate Silver

In 2015, the blogosphere continued its unstoppable momentum. The Echo Chamber Uncut was set up by edublogosphere commander-in-chief Old Andrew in March, with over 60,000 blogposts in 2015, over 1,000 a week. There are now well over 2,500 education blogs in the UK. The Echo Chamber team selected 5,600 blogposts to reblog last year: over 15 a day.


After Britain’s general election in May, there’s to be a five-year consolidation of education policy in England at the Department for Education to 2020, with 500 new free schools to be set up over the next 5 years.


Here’s my effort to distinguish the signal from the noise in 2015:


5 top blogposts on this blog in 2015







5 treasure trove education blogs

These are the blogs I’ve most often revisited this year:

Reading all the Books on memory

Clio et Cetera on history

Wing to Heaven on assessment

Tabula Rasa on reading

Filling The Pail on research



5 education highlights from 2015

Crowdsourcing Knowledge Organisers

James Theobold’s initiative to share knowledge organisers online is a great idea.

Wellington Festival 2015

Jonathan Simons, Rob Peal, Daisy Christodoulou on Gove’s reforms; Dylan Wiliam on assessment; Ken Robinson on creativity.

ResearchEd 2015

Daisy Christodoulou on comparative judgment; Tim Oates on textbooks; Katie Ashford on grammar; John Brunskill on moral psychology; Jo Facer on memory; Andy Tharby on research; Eric Kalenze on knowledge.

Teaching Learning Takeover 2015

Phil Stock on vocabulary; Chris Hildew on character; Andy Tharby on challenge; Mark Millar on data.

Debating Education at Michaela 2015

Daisy Christodolou and Guy Claxton on teacher-led instruction; Old Andrew and Bruno Reddy on setting and mixed ability; James O Shaughnessy on character; John David Blake and Katie Ashford on Ofsted; Jonny Porter and Francis Gilbert on Gove.



3 intentions for 2016


Re-Resourcing: improving our units on Antigone, Rhetoric, She Wolves and others.


Curriculum Design: creating units on War Poets & Holocaust Poetry, The Crucible; Civil Rights Rhetoric; in History, creating units on the Stuarts, French Revolution, The Slave Trade, The Industrial Revolution; The British Empire and World War.


School Visits: visiting other excellent schools in 2016, after invaluable visits to King Solomon Academy in 2013, Burlington Danes in 2014 and Dixons Trinity Academy in 2015.



3 hopes for 2016


Increasing Signal: hoping The Echo Chamber focuses on reducing the traffic and noise, and increasing the signal from the best blogs in 2016.


Surveying Teachers: hoping Nick Rose’s brilliant survey gets funded and expanded in 2016.


Sharing Resources: hoping the education blogosphere starts to collect and share pupil work in 2016.







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“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.

How can we live gratefully? By becoming aware that every moment is a new gift, and if you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment. Behold the master key to our happiness in our own hands. Moment by moment, we can be grateful for this gift.” 

David Steindel-Rast

One way that schools can help their pupils to be happy in their lives is by teaching them the habit of gratitude.

At our school, we tell our pupils about what scientists are finding out about gratitude. It turns out those who regularly practise grateful thinking feel happier, more loving, optimistic, joyful and enthusiastic. As the world’s leading psychologist on gratitude says, ‘Gratitude is one of the few things that can measurably change our lives.’

Being grateful, though, is not effortless. At Michaela, we try to create opportunities for pupils to practise being grateful, so it becomes a habit. There are two main ways we try to do so.



Every day, we encourage every pupil at lunchtime to think of something they feel appreciative for, or someone they feel grateful to, and share why. Everyone is expected to think of acts of kindness to acknowledge and recognise. Pupils become more thoughtful and considerate when they’re actively reminding themselves of others’ efforts and appreciating them in person or around a lunch table.

‘I’d like to give an appreciation to Mr Smith for making his French lessons so fun and for teaching us to be confident in our accents.’

‘I’d like to appreciate Ms Lund for being an amazing form tutor and inspiring us to read challenging books!’


Thank-you notes

Every half-term, we encourage pupils to write a postcard to someone they’d like to thank. Here are a handful of the many notes that pupils wrote to teachers this Christmas:








Some of the most heart-warming times in teaching are when a child takes the time to thank you for making a small difference to them.

It also works both ways! Recognising, acknowledging and taking the time to write a postcard to thank a pupil for their often-extraordinary efforts makes both teachers and children feel happy.

Along with moment-by-moment interactions, small acts of kindness such as publicly appreciating them and writing thank you postcards, are lovely opportunities for showing our pupils how much we care.

When placed at the heart of the school ethos, small acts of gratitude are a promising way of helping children feel happy at school.

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Life after Slide Sprawl: 4 Renewable Resources

One of the many things I got wrong in my last school was resourcing. I spent hours making vibrant, colourful slides with plenty of images. I’d work on weekends and late into the evenings creating slides and making them visually appealing. Here’s just one example of the many slides I made that took longer for me to make than pupils actually spent on it in the lesson:



Slide Sprawl

Teachers around the country are creating their own slides for their lessons, duplicating resourcing a thousand times over. Shared areas proliferate with more and more powerpoint presentations, worksheets, images and other assorted documents. Teachers save slightly different versions with differentiated additions. Lessons that start with 10 slides sprawl into 20 or 30 slides. Slides metastasise. They are the epitome of non-renewable resourcing.


Make Resourcing Renewable

One of the things I’m most passionate about at Michaela is renewable resourcing. The principle we try to live by is this: we don’t create resources that we don’t reuse. We also aim not to use any slides at all in any subject. Barry Smith leads the way in French by abjuring slides altogether.


It’s a big shift for those of us who have previously always used slides. It’s also refreshing! At Michaela, in many subjects we haven’t used slides for months. We love not having the hassle of creating and reformatting slides; we love not depending on the interactive whiteboard or projector or computer. It’s freed us from overdependence on technology in the classroom.

Here are four renewable resources that we focus on creating instead of resources that sprawl like slides, or ad-hoc resources (like cardsorts, storyboards or one-off worksheets) that are rarely, if ever, used again.


  1. Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers are revision tools that specify precisely what pupils most need to remember from each unit. They can be used by every future year group and every teacher who ever teaches at the school. They can be reused by pupils in their homework and revision. They are brilliant for inducting new teachers into the department. We (re)use them for pupils to revise before exams, in cover lessons, and even in detention so that pupils are learning rather than just writing lines.


  1. Quizzes

Quiz questions (and answers) can be used by every Year 7 to Year 11 pupil multiple times over 5 years as they complete GCSEs, so that they continually revisit core concepts and don’t forget them. Each question takes around one minute to make, and under one minute to take. But 120 Year 7 pupils can use them (say) 3 times a year, for every cohort – so over five years in the school each question would be used over 1,000 times. That’s a learning return of 1,000 minutes learning per minute resourced as opposed to the maximum 50 minutes pupils spend responding to every minute of written marking. Quiz questions can have ten times better learning return on time invested than written marking.


  1. Examples

Abstract subject concepts are best taught by sharing lots of examples, non-examples, test examples and practice examples. For instance, when learning about the difference between nouns and verbs, or metaphors and similes, or irony and dramatic irony, teachers need lots of examples to demonstrate, to compare, to check for understanding – in order for pupils to practise and recognise and distinguish between these concepts. It’s very hard to think of enough examples off the top of your head. It’s best to resource these in advance, and not to duplicate this resourcing, but coordinate and share it across the department.


  1. Models 

Time invested in creating and collating model examples of pupil outcomes is time well spent. This could include snapping photos of excellent pupil answers and collating them to share in class, as well as asking pupils to type up their own work, if exemplary. Students love typing up their essays to share their work with future year groups: I tell them they’re leaving a great legacy!


At Michaela, we block out two CPD days a year to evaluate, re-resource and improve the units we have just taught, focusing on these four renewable resources: organisers, questions, examples, and models. These will be used by every Michaela teacher and every pupil who comes to Michaela for the next 10 years and beyond.

Teachers’ time is precious. The opportunity for school leaders to focus teachers on renewable resources is there for the taking.

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Marking is a hornet

Written marking takes up huge amounts of teachers’ time. If the average teacher marks for just over 5 hours a week, that’s 200 hours of marking a year. In a secondary school of 100 teachers, that’s 20,000 hours of marking.

Written marking is non-renewable: it’s a one-off. Each written comment I put in a pupil’s book only impacts once on that one pupil. What else could we do with that 20,000 hours, that would impact more positively on future pupils and other teachers? Marking has a very low ratio of impact-to-effort, and a very high opportunity cost.


There are much better ways to share feedback so pupils improve. There are much better ways to focus teachers’ limited time. That is why we no longer mark pupils’ books at our school – at all.

Feedback is a butterfly 

Feedback is effective when it is timely (not too late after the task), frequent (not too scarce) and acted on (not ignored). Written marking often militates against this: teachers burn out and it becomes less timely, less frequent and less acted on by pupils and teachers.

There are many ways of giving feedback without written marking:


At Michaela, we are continually working on making our feedback have the highest-impact possible on learning:


Our feedback maximises the responsibility pupils take for self-checking, correcting, editing and redrafting their work. It maximises preemptive teaching, preventing frequent errors and common misconceptions; it minimises laborious, slow, reactive written comments. Although we still read pupil books, score exams, and circle misspellings to be corrected within lessons, we have scrapped written marking of pupil books outside lessons altogether. To monitor marking as evidence to hold teachers accountable for pupil progress is an illusion – comforting for managers, but unhelpful for teachers and pupils.

What we’ve found is that this shift transforms staff culture. No teacher has to take home books in evenings, weekends and holidays; no manager is scrutinising pupil books for frequent teacher comments; no teacher is desperately marking books at the last minute before an impending book scrutiny. Instead, teachers are trusted. Teachers can focus on teaching well, ensuring every pupil is understanding and remembering, and helping their pupils love their subjects. Our pupils are motivated, working harder than they ever have before, and improving their writing fast, as they take responsibility for checking and improving it.

When the school has 100 teachers, stopping teachers from marking even just 5 hours a week will save us 20,000 hours every year. Good school leaders stop people from doing good things, so they focus on better things. Next time, I’ll blog about moving from unsustainable marking loads to renewable resourcing.

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Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload

Butterfly      Hornet

When teachers were asked about workload, 44,000 responded. Teachers work 50-to-60 hour weeks, often starting at 7am, often leaving after 6pm, and often working weekends. Some 90% of teachers have considered giving up teaching because of excessive workload, and 40% leave the profession within 5 years. There are teachers out there working 90 hour weeks.

For a school, there are great benefits to leading the way on reducing workload. Teachers who aren’t exhausted teach better. We contribute more over a longer time period. We are far happier to invest time in building trusting, caring, affirming relationships with children. We stay calmer in difficult confrontations, and are less likely to be short-tempered in everyday interactions. We support and encourage each other better. New teachers improve faster, veteran teachers stay longer, and everyone works smarter. A school that pioneers healthy work-life balance is more likely to attract teachers to join – and little matters more in a school than recruiting and retaining good people.

As a school leader, it’s worth asking: “what do you want teachers to say about the school when they’re with friends and family?”

In the school I work in, what I’d most like teachers to say is this: “We work smart. We focus only on what most improves learning. We stop ourselves from doing some good things, so we can put first things first.” 

What it takes to reduce workload is a shift in the mindset and culture of school leaders and teachers.

You won’t spend very long at Michaela without hearing teachers mentioning hornets or butterflies. I first borrowed the analogy in 2012 from Sir Tim Brighouse, who said that hornets are high-effort, low-impact ideas, and butterflies are low-effort, high-impact ideas. Barry Smith has advised teachers for years to think about ‘learning return on time invested’. Since then it has become a part of our everyday chat at Michaela. EffortImpact We can view everything we do at school through this lens. The idea is to get rid of the biggest hornets and search for the hidden butterflies.

Seeking out Hornets As senior team, we think ferociously hard about every decision through the lens of the impact-to-effort ratio. We encourage all middle leaders and teachers to do the same in their own arenas. Here’s what we’ve decided not to do:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

It’s such a relief not to have to do any of these things and be free to focus on what matters most: our subjects and our pupils.  

Searching for Butterflies


Knowledge organisers are the ultimate renewable resource: they can be used by every future year-group and every teacher who teaches them. A knowledge curriculum, teacher-led instruction and strong textbooks reduce workload by eschewing differentiated or personalised resourcing. I’ll write about this idea of renewable resourcing in another post.  


We replace the hornet of setting, chasing, checking, marking and logging homework with revision, reading and online Maths – three of the most beautiful butterflies out there.  


Written marking is the ultimate non-renewable resource. By contrast, multiple-choice questions and icons are butterflies. I’ll write about our feedback approach and minimalist marking in another post.  

Two-Week Half-Term

Teaching teenagers full-time is an exhausting job in itself. The simple decision to have a two-week Autumn half-term has a powerful impact on staff energy in the longest term of the year.


We replace the hornet of transient, temporary display with the butterfly of permanent, enduring display.  


We replace the hornet of highly labour-intensive written parental reports with online access to subject, behaviour and attendance data so parents can see online anywhere, any time, how their pupil is doing. WorkloadImpact ***

If you are blind to the hornets in your school, you are allowing your teachers to get stung. Hidden butterflies improve learning and reduce workload, burnout and turnover. At Michaela, we are just getting started, and we are confident that there are many more butterflies to find.

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A 5 year revision plan

 Revise with self-quizzing books for every pupil across all subjects

What should teachers do about homework? And what should pupils do about revision?

Homework and its Discontents

Homework is a tough ask for pupils and teachers. Pupils have five hours of lessons, then more hours of work loaded into their evenings. Teachers teach 20 lessons a week, then have to set, explain, check, collect, mark, track, sanction, and chase homework.

Revision and its Discontents

Revision is often crammed into a few weeks from Easter in Year 11, and rarely coordinated across the school. Each teacher thinks that their own subject is most important, and expects pupils to do some ‘20-25 minutes a night’, mostly uncoordinated with other subjects.

The science of memory

When I read Make It Stick, 11 cognitive psychologists’ applied scientific research, this insight struck me:


What would that look like across a whole school? What if we combined revision and homework?


A Long-Term Revision Strategy: Self-Quizzing

At our school, from Year 7 onwards, homework is revision: self-quizzing for all pupils across all their subjects. Revision lasts not five weeks, or five months, but five years.

Self-Quizzing Books 

Every pupil is given a self-quizzing book with every subject’s core knowledge. The book is organised in subject sections, with numbered pages. Knowledge organisers from each unit are stuck into this exercise book. For instance, in English by the end of Year 7, there are organisers for parts of speech, syntax and punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, myths, rhetoric, poetry, poems to be memorised (Ozymandias, Invictus and If) and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: everything they study that year. Organisers for Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography and Religion) and Art are all kept within one beautifully organised book that pupils take home to revise every evening.

Practice Books

Pupils self-quiz from one subject’s knowledge organisers every night for homework, as guided by their teacher. For this they use a separate practice book that they take between school and home. They cover up one side of the knowledge organiser, write it out from memory (in a black pen), then self-check and correct any spelling mistakes, omissions or inaccuracies (in a green pen). They learn the most valuable knowledge in every subject by heart.

There is a timetable in the front of their self-quizzing books with five weeknights for the five main subjects: English, Humanities, French, Science and Maths. Every pupil in the year is revising the same subject on the same night. Everyone has the same five-year revision plan. This is important if pupils are absent for a day or two, or longer-term – they still know exactly what revision to do, precisely which subject to prioritise, every day. Self-quizzing becomes a daily, automated habit for the long-run.

Practice Book Checks

We aim for 100% of pupils to complete their self-quizzing every evening. It’s a high bar, and this is what we do to reach it.

Teachers check the practice book to see if the self-quizzing practice is of sufficient quantity and quality. On quantity, pupils must complete at least one page of self-quizzing for prep, with no spaces left on the sides or at the top or bottom of the page. On quality, it must be neat and accurate, with no uncorrected spelling mistakes. We turn knowledge organisers into online and in-class quizzes, so we can see precisely whose self-quizzing is ineffectual, and support them to improve their revision.

Because it is the same revision strategy each evening across all subjects, it becomes an automatic routine. Last week, for instance, we had 98% quality completion: out of 600 hand-ins, only 10 instances were of insufficient quality, and those pupils were put into detention to remind them of the importance of quality revision. The week before it was 97%. We track those who struggle and contact their parents to support them.

The other benefit of combining knowledge organisers, self-quizzing books and practice books is this: they reduce the effort teachers spend on extensions and cover.

Extensions as Revision

Pupils can use self-quizzing books to revise key concepts, definitions, dates and events whenever they have finished a task. In a Maths lesson, the fastest pupil might finish an exercise three to four minutes before the weakest pupil. That’s four minutes they can be revising, which means far less work for teachers providing extra extension resources.

Cover as Revision

No teacher at Michaela has to email in cover work or proforma when they are away. Pupils can simply self-quiz for the lesson, testing themselves on previous terms’ or units’ topics, writing from memory, self-checking and correcting, to help them remember what they’ve learned.

Extra Reading, Extra Maths

Subject self-quizzing is not the only homework pupils do. They quiz themselves online or on their phone with Quizlet flashcards and other multiple-choice apps. They also read for 30 minutes every evening. They also do 30 minutes of Maths practice online on IXL, guided by their Maths teacher as to the topic. All three habits (reading, Maths practice and self-quizzing) are habits that are sustained over five years.

This homework-revision strategy requires coordination:

  • Department Heads and teachers must agree on and create organisers for each unit
  • Teachers must check all pupils’ practice books once a week and set detentions if not done
  • Maths Teachers must check IXL each morning and set detentions if not done
  • The Maths Department displays pupils’ rankings (in the year) by effort on IXL every day

Here’s what I like about this homework and revision plan: it’s long-term, (spread over 5 years) memorable (just 3 things to do each night: self-quiz, read, IXL), habitual (always the same strategy every day) yet still subject-specific (one subject’s content to self-quiz on each night), collective (all pupils in the year do the same subject on the same night), research-based (based on 100 years of science), inexpensive (a few exercise books a year per pupil), and minimalist (one sheet to photocopy and stick in for each unit in each subject every four weeks or so).

It’s still evolving, and we’re open to ideas, suggestions and alternatives. But I think this application of cognitive psychology could reinvigorate homework and revision in schools.

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Knowledge Organisers

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail

What’s the difference between a knowledge curriculum and other curricula? A knowledge curriculum specifies, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. Many teachers underestimate the value of specifying (and sequencing) such detail. It is rare to find an English, Science or even History scheme of work that sets this out. The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page. Here is an example for Year 7: the timeline, activists, quotations and political and legal vocabulary for a unit on apartheid South Africa. KnowledgeMapSA There are two reasons they are so useful: clarity for teachers, and memory for pupils.

Clarity for teachers

Knowledge organisers clarify for everyone, from the Headteacher to brand new teachers, exactly what is being taught. At Michaela, Heads of Department think deeply about the difficult trade-offs between breadth and depth. If, for instance, you only have one religion lesson a week, what exactly about the Bible should your pupils study, and what will you omit? A broad range of stories, or fewer stories in greater depth?

We try hard to choose the most valuable content that we want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. And for each unit, we discipline ourselves to distil it onto a single page.

When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.

Now, any teacher can pop into anyone else’s lesson, look at the unit organiser, and see what every kid is working on. I love seeing the fantastic knowledge they are learning: from astronomy in Science, to European geography in Humanities, to grammatical structures in French. I love asking them questions about their subjects, and seeing their eyes light up as they see others love science, geography and history too.

Memory for pupils

Knowledge organisers are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to help them remember what they’re learning. No longer out of sight, out of mind: instead of leaving behind previous units’ content, teachers can recap quickly and easily in lessons. Instead of forgetting all about it, pupils continually revisit and retrieve prior learning from their memories.

Every lesson, across all subjects, we use knowledge organisers printed off as a pack of in-lesson quizzes. The numbers and columns here help turn the grids into simple in-class quizzes. Emboldening key words allows pupils to peer-mark the complex definitions, working out which terms are vital in them: KnowledgeQuizSA1 KnowledgeQuizSA2 Lastly, knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.

Next time, I’ll write about our five-year revision strategy across subjects.

UPDATE: James Theobald has started this brilliant collection of knowledge organisers across subjects.

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