We need a way forward that doesn’t overload us as school leaders.
But we should also beware of oversimplifying and boxing ourselves in to templates.
The history of strategy can help. Out of hundreds of concepts developed over the centuries, which are most useful for school improvement?
I’m trying out organising the concepts I’ve found most helpful into a schema of three sets:
Concepts help us conceive things differently, notice and think the previously unthinkable.
I’m testing out and sharing here the schema, concepts and questions I’ve found most useful to keep returning to when thinking about school improvement planning.
Six concepts for knowing our domains, contexts and challenges.
‘Know yourself, and know your challenges, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Sun Tzu
Study the best available literature, research and evidence on the crux problems for schools: pupil behaviour, attendance, motivation; curriculum, subjects, teaching, vocabulary, reading, homework; staff recruitment, development, management and retention. Each domain has its own body of hidden knowledge and several disciplines that have studied it such as psychology, history and ethics.
What can we learn from the literature and research? What do we most need to know? What are we least certain about?
Study the best schools and departments. Visit. Ask lots. Benchmark against their best approaches to raise the bar. Study their curriculum and development selection and sequences. Learn from the best examples.
What are the best schools, departments (or even other professions) out there doing?
What are the possibilities for what we could do better, deliberately worse, not at all and differently?
Evaluate our current depth of knowledge and expertise.
Work out our strengths and challenges.
What are the strengths, areas of expertise, constraints and development areas for us internally?
What are the best questions to ask, given where we are at right now?
Identify the crux obstacles for our school or team. Know them well.
What are the decisive obstacles – and what are their weak points?
Work out what’s in tension. In curriculum and CPD, there are always breadth-depth tradeoffs. In school decision-making, there are sometimes also tensions between what’s best for students and what’s best for staff. There may be 1,000 students and 100 staff, but staff happiness has a massive impact on retention, relationships, teamwork and student happiness.
What are the opposing options, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
How could we combine the advantages of each whilst mitigating the disadvantages of both?
Imagine scenarios, risks and opportunities for our school or team.
Clarify our hidden beliefs and test them. Turn assumptions into testable hypotheses.
What are we assuming? How could we work out if we’re wrong?
What futures might we need to consider and plan for?
Three concepts for prioritising curriculum and culture
‘Choose your battles. There are roads not to take. There are terrains not to contest. Know when to fight and when not to fight.’ Sun Tzu
Focus on the critical few curriculum and culture initiatives. Select the high impact, high sustainability.
What could we pursue that would have the highest impact without being unsustainable?
Pick our battles. Pick what not to do. Filter the essential from the desirable. Filter out what’s least important. Remember: there’s an opportunity cost to every yes. Yes means saying no to everything else we could do with that time.
What is desirable but not essential? What should we say no to?
Craft a one-phrase guiding principle for culture and curriculum, with the heat of the school fray in mind.
What one thing or ‘anchor’ should all of us keep in mind at all times when making decisions?
We keep asking: will it improve our learning, without overloading us?
We help students and staff love school, and love learning our subjects.
Three concepts for adapting as things change
‘No strategy survives first contact with reality.’ Carl von Clausewitz
Make time to walk round, see classrooms, breaks and assemblies; have conversations; listen; chat! Invest heavily in our own and our colleagues’ educational expertise and subject knowledge with discussions in CPD and line-management conversations.
How can we carve out the time and space and create the conditions for great conversations to happen?
Involve and invest teachers and staff in thinking about school improvement. Ask lots of good questions to gather perspectives.
Who should we involve? how and when?
Reappraise the school dynamics and keep drafting multiple iterations of school improvement planning and whole-school strategies on curriculum, staff development, pupil culture, feedback, vocabulary, reading, homework, staff development, and others, so as to keep improving in the light of unintended consequences.
How – and how often – will we iterate?
We might improve our school improvement planning with expert strategic thinking if we keep:
deepening our knowledge of the school, team and educational context and challenges.
prioritising the critical curriculum and culture initiatives.
adapting, reviewing and iterating our strategic planning to school complexity and education’s fast-changing reality.
Not to be used as a template or checklist, these concepts and questions are best applied as ways of thinking and noticing to hone our expertise over a long timespan.
Improving our expertise across 20 subjects and many more topics is daunting.
I’ve found it useful to select some crux concepts and questions, captured in a single snapshot, like the one above; that way, I can revisit it at a glance to jog the memory when under time pressure in school.
A next step is to delve down a level of granularity into the specific problems facing school leaders: curriculum, staff culture and pupil culture. There’s still masses more to consider about school culture and curriculum at a much finer-grain level of detail. We need to know much more about them, and about the most useful underpinning concepts for each.
Strategic thinking for school improvement is best built on firm foundations of deep knowledge.
In 10 years in schools, I’ve always been prone to frazzling overstretch. I think we as school leaders often are: it’s tough to know what and how to prioritise. I reckon the history of strategy can help us out.
I’ll try and distill 10 years of studying strategy for school leadership into 10 minutes or so! A fool’s errand!
What’s out there on strategy for school leaders at the moment?
Let’s explore two examples, one from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), and one from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
Both have revenues of well into millions of pounds a year; both act as authorities in the school system. Headteachers, governors, school leaders and teachers look to their publications for the best available guidance. So I hope they’ll forgive me as a teacher providing a little healthy scrutiny and constructive review.
In 2020, ASCL, the NAHT and the National Governance Association together created a guide for school leaders and governors called Being Strategic. It has a four-step annual cycle:
(A) Good governance
(B) Creating the strategy
(C) Monitoring the strategy
(D) Reviewing the strategy.
It recommends a mission, values, a three-to-five-year vision and ideally no more than six improvement priorities annually. It recommends a termly progress report with triangulated data and an annual review with time to discuss culture and evidence of outcomes, such as progress, wellbeing, careers, resources and stakeholder engagement.
Step 2: Identify possible solutions using the EEF Teaching and Learning toolkit
Step 3: Give it the best chance of success with the EEF implementation guide
Step 4: Evaluate impact
Step 5: Secure and spread change
What do these have in common?
Their strengths are the focus on follow through. They simplify things for school leaders under intense time pressure. They focus us on a limited number of priorities, recognising the overload that school leaders find themselves under.
They also show how deep thinking is tough under tight time constraints.
They turn complex, dynamic planning for a complex, uncertain reality into a step-by-step template. That may be what governors need! For school leaders though, it may not.
To see why, let’s look beyond scientific research evidence for a bit, to consider a different, equally longstanding discipline: history.
What can we learn from the history of strategy for thinking about school improvement?
The history of strategy suggests that step-by-step approaches are flawed in how they guide our understanding, decision-making and adapting to the complexity of our ever-evolving reality.
An ultra-concise history of strategy might start with three of its greatest thinkers.
Sun Tzu, Chinese strategist
2,500 years ago in China, Sun Tzu was thinking long and hard about strategy. His thoughts have stood the test of time.
‘Know yourself, and know your challenges, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’
‘Choose your battles. There are roads not to take. There are terrains not to contest. Know when to fight and when not to fight.’
‘Be ready for the unexpected. Know how to create and sustain morale. The well prepared are relaxed and fresh.’
In short – knowledge. priorities. adaptability.
Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian strategist
Some two thousand years later, and two centuries ago, Carl von Clausewitz wrote another of the now-classic books on strategy.
‘No one ought to start anything without first being clear on what is intended to be achieved and how.’
‘Identify the decisive point and concentrate on it, ignoring lesser objectives. Pursue decisive aims with determination.’
‘No strategy ever survives first contact with reality. We need a philosophy of strategy that contains the seeds of its constant rejuvenation — a way to chart strategy in an unstable environment.’
In short – knowing your top priorities and adapting to evolving contexts.
Adaptability is a crucial and recurring theme in the history of strategy. After all, what happened to our school improvement plans during a global pandemic that few expected? Partly due to a lack of Tzuian readiness for the unexpected and Clausewitzian adaptivity, few survived contact with a choppy reality.
Richard Rumelt, American strategist
Over the last 50 years, Richard Rumelt has diagnosed the problems with bad strategy. To paraphrase the four problems he sees:
1. Avoidance: we don’t identify or define the crux obstacles, so we can’t assess or improve our strategies.
2. Fuzz: we set a big goal, a long list of aims or a handful of buzzwords without setting out a clear plan for tackling the obstacles.
3. Indecisiveness: we don’t do the really hard work to set aside good goals in favour of the best. It’s hard to forgo certain interests.
4. Boxiness: we fill in templates for mission, values, vision and goals, step-by-step, without taking the time to diagnose the truly decisive insights, or having the agility to think beyond the linear.
Result: our strategies don’t work as well as they could.
Bad strategy is avoidant. fuzzy. indecisive. boxy.
Rumelt suggests that strategy tells us what not to do.
Let’s now revisit the ASCL/NAHT & EEF approaches to school improvement in the light of what we know about the history of strategy.
Both approaches – the 5-step EEF school improvement cycles and the 4-step ASCL ‘Being Strategic’ cycle – try to be concise. Both, though, fall into the template trap, reducing strategy to following a step-by-step process. Neither mentions domain knowledge or expertise. Yet! Perhaps in future iterations..!
Here are three pitfalls for us in our school improvement planning.
First pitfall: we might oversimplify our planning into step-by-step templates that risk a reductive ‘just-follow-the-steps’ approach. The three main steps in the ASCL/NAHT guidance on ‘Being strategic’ are (a) creating (b) monitoring and (c) reviewing strategy. Each has a series of sub-steps. For instance, under creating your strategy document, the first sub-step is: ‘1. start with your vision.’
A ‘follow-the-steps’ approach is a pitfall for us as school leaders, although the simplicity might be handy for governors. If we think what we need to do is complete an annual ‘create-monitor-review’ cycle with a series of sub-steps to follow, we lose out. Starting a one-off, once-a-year school improvement plan with a vision might inhibit us from taking the time to really deeply study and understand our contexts. Taking the shortcut of ‘start with a vision’, we might miss out precious chances to listen, ask, discuss, think and seek to learn about underlying areas like student and staff cultures and subject curricula. We might miss opportunities to draft our priorities, share them, seek challenge, rethink, redraft, reshare and iterate. We miss out on messy but vital thinking and insight.
Second pitfall: we might overload ourselves with jargon like mission, vision, and metacognition, ideas that become buzzwords.
The EEF toolkit, for instance, bundles the ideas of metacognition and self-regulation together as having ‘consistently high levels of impact’: +7 months of additional student progress. One of the top two interventions based on ‘the international evidence’, apparently. The EEF then unbundles self-regulated learning into three supposedly ‘essential components’: cognition, metacognition and motivation that are ‘usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups’. There is lots of abstraction here and not much clarity.
ASCL and the NAHT say, ‘try not to have more than six improvement priorities in the same document’. Why so many, isn’t clear.
Buzzwords like mission and vision risk becoming fuzzy, abstract, overloading and unmemorable phrases for websites and brochures that mean little to our children, teachers and other staff.
Third pitfall: we might underestimate the importance of domain knowledge in making good decisions. Neither the ASCL/NAHT report nor the EEF mention knowledge even once. Likewise, we might imagine, from lofty heights on SLT, trust, governing board, union or national level and beyond, that knowledge is lower-order and doesn’t matter very much, and that our generic strategic thinking skills apply nicely across all areas of the school, regardless of whether we know very much or very little about the specific area or context in particular. But a school leader who doesn’t really know their stuff loses their credibility with teachers and subject leaders.
The risk is, we as SLT might overreach and distort subjects by imposing generic strategy on them.
We might fall into this pitfall as school leaders if we rush school improvement plans without first considering the gaps in our own knowledge. If we’re honest, there is always too much for any individual or team to know. SLT won’t be experts in every one of the 15 or so subjects that school teaches.
So we also need to know when and how to draw on expertise from outside our existing teams in order to make better decisions. For instance, secondary teachers and school leaders rarely have in-depth knowledge of decoding, phonics, bereavement or child criminal exploitation. We can usefully draw on external expertise in certain arenas to make better decisions when prioritising curriculum tuition and pastoral strategy.
In summary, we’ve seen three pitfalls to watch out for.
We might end up oversimplifying our planning into step-by-step templates.
We might end up overloading ourselves with too many abstract buzzwords.
We might end up underestimating the hidden knowledge that’s useful for effective decision-making, perhaps overestimating our expertise or overreaching.
How can we avoid these pitfalls of oversimplifying, overloading and underestimating the importance of knowledge?
We can develop our expertise by building underpinning knowledge in the crux domains of schools, such as curriculum, behaviour and staff culture.
Research on experts suggests that expertise is highly specific: that complex skills are tied to specific knowledge of a specific subject arena or domain. Expert chess players aren’t necessarily great bridge players. World-class tennis players won’t be as good at badminton. Expert pianists won’t be as good at electric guitar. Near transfer between domains that are closer may be easier than far transfer between domains that are further apart – but even transfer of knowledge to new problems within subject domains seems to be quite tricky for novices.
When we as senior and middle leaders create strategy, that isn’t all it is – it’s a school improvement strategy, a subject curriculum strategy, a subject department strategy, a behaviour strategy, a student recruitment strategy, a staff retention strategy, a vocabulary strategy, a homework strategy or a reading strategy, say.
Expertise is domain-dependent. It’s best to know a lot about vocabulary or reading if you want to create a really good strategy on either. If you know more, you see more; you see differently. Over time, you see better, learn more and decide better.
One example: one of my many mistakes
Three years ago as Vice Principal for Curriculum, I brought in a ‘research-based’ start-of-lesson strategy of written subject recaps to begin all lessons in the school, aiming to focus us as teachers on what cognitive science suggested was important for lasting learning – knowledge, memory, practice, revisiting, retrieval and subject thinking – rather than the jazzy, whizzy, flashy, entertaining starters that took us as teachers ages to prepare. Written recaps, when selected and designed by subject experts with deep, broad, oceanic knowledge of their subject curriculum and student struggles in the subject, might work well for writing subjects.
But I now think that imposing an always-written start distorted subject knowledge in languages (where conversing, listening and choral repetition are central), drama, art (both visual and performing), music, design technology, physical education and other creative subjects.
Now, I would allow subject leaders to choose the format of subject recaps at the start of lessons. Knowing more about structures of subject knowledge in these disciplines has helped me see things in a different light, decide better and, hopefully, distort less. Knowing more than I did before, I see things differently. Underpinning knowledge can improve overarching decision-making.
We can improve the thinking and decisions in our school improvement plans, our curriculum strategies, our behaviour and attendance strategies and CPD strategies if we remember the research evidence that suggests expertise is solving precise problems using specific knowledge sets to see hidden issues and lurking pitfalls.
When we create school improvement strategy, or any other strategy in the school, psychological research into expertise suggests that to make effective decisions, one of the best things we can do is to build our own and our team’s knowledge in that area.
Drawing on the best current research base, Leona Cruddas and Ian Baukham at the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) likewise offer us a similarly deep yet decisive view of school improvement as deliberate and intentional knowledge-building. If we as school leaders can wisely build our knowledge of curriculum, student and staff culture, we may improve our thinking, make better decisions, create better strategy and achieve better outcomes.]
Questions gleaned from the history of strategy can help us see and evade classic pitfalls in school improvement plans.
To avoid the pitfall of overload and to deprioritise better, we can ask:
To avoid the pitfall of oversimplifying and to embrace complexity, we can ask:
where can we better stay adaptable and not box ourselves in to templates?
To avoid underestimating knowledge and to know our school better, we can keep asking:
where can we deepen our knowledge of the crux domains of curriculum and school culture?
These questions can start to challenge our thinking and broaden our conversations.
Ultimately, though, questions and discussions alone won’t fully address the challenges facing school leaders.
Knowing our subject curricula and school culture really well, knowing the best available research evidence and knowing how to use the best mental models from broader subject disciplines like the history of strategy, help us to make better decisions on what’s best to do and what’s best not to do for our school.
There is no shortcut to effective school improvement. It depends on deep expertise.
Every September I’ve taught in schools, I have to admit I’ve felt a bit frazzled!
School staff are beset by a dizzying dazzle of pressing decisions, concerns, dilemmas, and requests; cudgelled with urgent demands, requirements, conflicts, pressures and pickles.
Even the essential core alone is vast.
Quite a lot! and that’s not even all of what’s essential, certainly not what’s exhaustive. Even just reading it is exhausting, let alone making it all happen!
Somehow we are supposed to coordinate improvements of these into a coherent School Improvement Plan, to communicate on them and give staff clarity – and others, like governors.
Time in schools, as Doug Lemov says, is like water in a desert.
At the same time, we tend to come up with lots and lots of potential ideas and intriguing initiatives as teachers and educators.
The Education Endowment Foundation tries to compute and quantify some of these and calculates that some of them add quite a few months of supposed additional pupil progress. Metacognition, +7? Collaborative learning, +5? Outdoor adventure learning, +4? Learning styles, +2? The mind boggles…
Beyond schools, headlines scream: ‘why aren’t schools doing more to teach X?’, ‘schools should teach the dangers of Y’, ‘[Celebrity] slams schools for failing to teach simple skills about Z’. In 2018 and 2019, Parents and Teachers for Excellence tracked the number of public calls for schools to teach extra content. They counted 337 calls in two years.
You can see why the report called it ‘Clogging up the Classroom: the jostle for curriculum content.’
No wonder we feel frizzled to a frazzle!
How can we deal with all the overload?
Time is limited. Opportunity cost is high.
Constraints on attention and working memory are severe.
Beyond the already-and-always-extensive core, we must focus only on what is high impact and high sustainability.
Priorities are crucial. If everything’s a priority, nothing is.
We must jettison initiatives that are low impact and high effort.
We must stop our staff getting stung by hornets.
Maxims from great educators like Viviane Robinson, Mary Myatt and Kat Howard are beginning to circulate in the teaching profession, helping us to deal with our overstretch, overload, change fatigue and initiativitus.
Less change, more improvement.
Fewer things, greater depth.
Do less, better.
In brief, say no. I can’t tell you the number of times in my career that I wish I’d had Viviane, Mary or Kat alongside to shout at me: ‘JOE! Do less better, don’t forget! Fewer things, greater depth!’ when I was hideously overcomplicating something and overstretching myself.
We must find ways to gently, kindly and reasonably say no to many of the ideas generated by well-meaning colleagues and outsiders. We should only choose the one very best idea in a thousand, clarifying why – to prevent overload, overcomplexity and overwhelm, and to enable greater focus, clarity and impact. First things first.
We must stop doing what works well, and focus only on what works best.
We must get better at saying no.
Even to very good things.
Our kids have one shot at school.
Tricky distractions and temptations for kids at home and school proliferate.
We owe it to them to be super-selective in what we choose to do.
And super-decisive in what we choose NOT to do.
So, in sum – why say no to good ideas?
Three main reasons.
(1) to improve focus and free up time and headspace for what matters most.
(2) to improve thinking and decision-making.
(3) to improve follow-through by reviewing fewer initiatives, better.
Not saying yes to so much, might even boost staff energy, morale, wellbeing and retention. Though it’s not a silver bullet for any of those.
I have to keep reminding myself of these reasons to say no. So often, I bite off far more than I can chew.
James Clear puts it well:
‘When you say no, you are only saying no to one option.
When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.
No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.’
Let’s have a look at an example of a school leader, Adam Boxer, decisively and deftly saying no.
Every day in school leadership is a new battle to say no to what works well (and what does not!) and yes only to what works best. Every day is a new battle to shield teachers’ precious time, effort and thinking space, so we can make kids’ lives better.
How, once we’ve decided to say no to someone, can we best communicate that to them?
Here are 15 suggestions for us to try out and experiment with, some from the subject discipline of behavioural economics.
(1) Be direct: commit in advance to being honest and forthright. Remember the many reasons (such as the three above) to say no to what works ok.
(2) Explain why it’s a no: it’s about focus, thinking and follow-through.
(3) Set a sky-high bar: decline 999 out of 1,000 opportunities. If it’s not a hell yeah, it’s a no! Remember options blindness – even better options are out there, perhaps as yet invisible or unthought of.
Remember opportunity cost: every big choice you make costs you the time and chance to choose a better alternative.
(4) Go evergreen: invest more time in the highest-impact, highest-sustainability ideas and less in others.
(5) Share the 80:20 rule: set the vital few tasks apart from the trivial many. 20% of tasks tend to bring 80% of the impact; 80% tend to bring just 20% of the impact.
(6) Set limits: reduce overloading meetings, briefings, homework checking, data entry, display and slide design.
(7) Find hornets: eliminate gimmicks, bureaucracy, lesson plans, monitoring scrunities, written marking, written reports, evidencing, learning objectives, display board updates.
(8) Find butterflies: low-effort, high-impact practices. Ask: will it improve learning while saving time? how much? what’s the evidence base for learning return on time invested?
(9) Share mantras – ‘first things first!’ ‘let’s do less, better!’ Turn them into shared mental models by reminding each other of them as a team in moments when flashy, jazzy, whizzy, shiny or vespine new initiatives are suggested.
(10) Prime time: help every team member to spend the vast majority of their time on the highest value uses of their time: teaching, learning and contributing to others’ learning.
(11) Focus: keep focusing the team on the very few – 3 at most – top shared priorities, and ask if each suggested new initiative dovetails with them.
(12) Prioritise: help every team member retain crystal clarity on their three own top priorities – the top 3 things they’re pouring thinking time into every day without exception. Perhaps even include them in their email signature.
(13) Stick to ‘the bouncer rule’: none out, none in. Keep a wishlist of suggested initiatives to consider for next year. One in, one out – a.k.a. the nightclub rule.
(14) Bureaucracy busters: asks others for low-value tasks and bureaucratic frustrations; share the input, or a summary of it, and act decisively on it to encourage future feedback.
(15) Hofstader’s law: anything we do takes way longer than we think – even using this law! Make it a shared mental model among staff. Remember future fallacy – just like at self-service buffets, our eyes tend to be bigger than our stomachs. We bite off more than we can chew.
How can we best, gently but resolutely, turn people’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ideas down? What can we actually say when saying no to someone, when given a kind offer, invitation or opportunity that we’ve decided to decline?
Thank them and appreciate them.
‘Thank you for thinking of me!’
Decline gently with a genuine reason.
‘I tend to say no rather than overcommitting- there’s so much already on!’
Suggest another option.
‘How about this as a way of perhaps having even more impact in less time…?’
Invite other similar suggestions.
‘What do you reckon: what are some alternatives…?’
Are these 15 tips and 4 ways to say no, in any way adequate to deal with the amount of overstretch that we see in schools?
No. Not at all.
Given that we still have 800,000 children in schools in England that are not yet good, given that there are over 200 secondary schools where the pass rate in two GCSEs is 20% or below, given that some 30,000 teachers leave the profession every year (for reasons other than retirement) – addressing the overstretch, workload, burnout and retention crises is of crucial importance for us.
No set of tips will do. Choosing what to prioritise in schools – and what not to – are crucial and difficult choices. How can we know and decide what to best say yes or no to?
What might knowledge of the 2,500-year old discipline of strategy have to offer us?
‘The scientific approach to identifying best practices is the best long-term bet.’
Prof Rob Coe
The scientific revolution dramatically improved medicine.
Doctors applied scientific research evidence to vastly improve healthcare over time.
Infant, maternal and preventable mortality fell worldwide; longevity and health improved for billions of people globally.
By 1999, evidence-based medicine had been established, integrating doctors’ expertise with the best available research evidence.
Teachers and researchers are now leading a scientific revolution of their own in education.
We are working out not just what works in teaching, but what works best for most, why and how.
In 1999, Professor Rob Coe published a manifesto for evidence-based education: for a culture of two-way efforts between teachers and researchers, similar to those between doctors and scientists.
By 2013, a grassroots, teacher-led, web-powered movement started up, spearheaded by education bloggers, symbolised by ResearchEd (led by teachers Tom Bennett and Hélène Galdin-O’Shea). From 2019, teachers Adam Boxer, Stuart Lock, Sarah Donarksi and Craig Barton led on producing research guides.
Teachers are studying and sharing the scientific advances in the study of the mind. Learning, memory, attention, reading, writing, vocabulary, revision, assessment, motivation, habits, self-control, resilience and more are being increasingly rigorously investigated. To borrow from Dan Willingham, we’ve learned more about the human brain in the last 40 years than in the previous 4,000.
What might an early draft of the recent history of the scientific revolution in education look like?
The dawn of the scientific revolution in education: a timeline of 25+ research summaries
In fact, research into memory in learning is long-standing; Aristotle studied it at the dawn of scientific thinking, and the modern science of it began in 1880 and had been replicated210 times by 1996, before the start of this timeline.
The dawn of the scientific revolution in education: 44+ seminal articles
I’ve collected 44 articles by teachers applying the research, all freely available online, organised into three sections: curriculum, pupil culture and staff culture. I’ve chosen, and summarised in a sentence, articles that I’ve found continually useful in 10 years of thinking about school leadership, that I think may become seminal over time. I’ve also tried to distill the core message of each of the 25+ research summaries above into a sentence. Feel free to make a copy and adapt.
Over the last decade, our thinking in education has made sustained advances.
Teachers and former teachers, writers of the texts above, like Doug Lemov, Tom Bennett, Daisy Christodoulou, Nick Rose, David Didau, Kat Howard, Claire Hill, Greg Ashman, Ruth Ashbee, Carl Hendrik, Stuart Lock, Tom Sherrington, Harry Fletcher Wood and Matthew Evans are asking great questions and clarifying axioms that can guide thinking for school leaders.
Even just ten years ago, things were very different.
Teacher blogs barely existed at all.
ResearchEd didn’t exist. Since 2013, there have been more than 20 worldwide.
Research schools didn’t exist. Since 2016, there are now 23.
Trusts of schools centring their leadership, teaching and training on scientific research evidence, like Advantage, Greenshaw, Star, Inspiration, Charter and Astrea, didn’t exist.
Since then, schools have started up like Dixons Trinity, Bedford Free School, Greenwich Free School, Michaela and Jane Austen College – schools whose teaching is based on cognitive science.
Now, new headteachers like Darren Hollingsworth, Dan Carter, Summer Turner, Jo Facer, Patrick Farnborough, Robert Peal, Carly Waterman, Tilly Browne, Izzy Ambrose and Carly Moran have stepped up to take the lead, joining those long at the frontline like Matthew Evans, Katharine Birbalsingh, Barry Smith, John Tomsett, Sam Strickland, Clive Wright and many others.
Now, great thinkers are creating a research-based ecosystem for subject teachers and school leaders, thinkers such as Christine Counsell, Daniel Muijis, Amanda Spielman, Tom Bennett, David Didau, Tom Sherrington, Daisy Christodoulou, Stuart Lock, Michael Fordham, Tom Rees, Peps McCrae, Nick Hart, Russell Hobby, Sallie Stanton, Craig Barton, Jonny Utterly, Kathryn Morgan, Kat Howard, Greg Ashman, Andrew Old, Ben Newmark, David Thomas, Kris Boulton, Naveen Rizvi, Louis Everett, Dani Quinn, Alex Quigley, Laura McCinerney, Shaun Allison, Jon Hutchinson, James Theobald, Rebecca Lee, Phil Stock, Claire Stoneman, Carl Hendrik, Tom Boulter, Hannah Cusworth, Andy Tharby, Pritesh Raichura, Nimish Lad, Oliver Caviglioli, Ruth Ashbee, Mary Myatt, Amy Coombe and many others.
Some caveats. Science won’t resolve divergences on values for those of us in teaching. We must be alert to pseudoscience masquerading as science. Science has its limits, and we should be wary of overreach. We can find inspiration and insight from the sciences of learning, memory, habit and motivation, but not cast-iron mathematical proof. Some sciences are more recent than others: moral psychology, evolutionary biology and complexity science are nascent and advancing. Other subject disciplines beyond science, such as philosophy, history, sociology, economics, politics, literature, strategy, organisational management and systems thinking, have lots to offer us in school leadership too. And crucially, as headteacher Carly Waterman insightfully says, we must be alert to lethal mutations, cargo cults, groupthink and bandwagonism!
Even so, genuine scientific thinking can provide a foundation for those of us trying to create enduringly successful schools. It can help us establish axioms. Since 1880, for instance, research into forgetting has found that people don’t remember new things well if they are not revisited. Scientific research provides a starting point for evaluating ideas, initiatives and claims on school improvement, behaviour systems, curricula, teaching, assessment, performance management and CPD with powerful questions:
To what extent does the approach resonate with or clash with long-standing scientific research evidence on human learning?
What evidence do we have to support our claims?
Teachers and school leaders are now at the forefront of the scientific revolution in education, challenging well-meaning but misguided approaches and leading on how best to improve school culture, subject curricula and staff development. We can keep studying and applying the best available scientific research evidence while staying alert to overstretch.
As Rob Coe says, and as history suggests, scientific thinking may be the best long-term bet of all.
Winston Churchill once said ‘success is stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.’
Looking back now on assessment in our first year at Michaela, I can now see what I was blind to then: we stumbled and blundered. What mistakes did we make, and how did we stumble?
We spent hours marking. We spent ages inputting data. And we didn’t design assessments cumulatively.
First mistake: we spent exorbitant amounts of time in the first year marking, in particular marking English and History essays and paragraphs. We wrote comments, we set targets, we tried individualised icons, we corrected misspellings, we corrected grammatical errors, we judged and scored written accuracy, we wrote and shared rubrics with pupils. We spent hours every week on this. Over the year, we must have spent hundreds of hours on it.
The hidden pitfall of marking is opportunity cost. Every hour that a teacher spends marking is an hour they can’t spend on renewable resourcing: resourcing that endures for years. Marking a book is useful for one pupil once only: creating a knowledge organiser is useful for every pupil (and every teacher) that ever uses it at again. Marking is a hornet. Hornets are high-effort, low-impact; butterflies are high-impact, low-effort. Knowledge organisers are a butterfly; marking is a hornet. We had been blind to just how badly the hornet’s nest of marking was stinging us. So we cut marking altogether and now no longer mark at all.
Our second mistake: we spent far too much time in the first few years on data input. We typed in multiple scores for pupils that we didn’t use. Preoccupied by progress, we thought we needed as many numbers as we could get our hands on. But the simplistic equation of ‘more data, better progress’ didn’t hold up under scrutiny. Every teacher typed in multiple scores for each assessment, which were then collated so we could analyse the breakdowns. We were deluged in data, but thirsting for insight. There was far too much data to possibly act on. My muddled thinking left us mired in mediocrity, and we had invested 100s of hours for little long-term impact.
What we realised is this: data must serve teachers, rather than teachers serving data. Our axiom now is that we must only collect data that we use. There’s no point in drowning in data, or killing ourselves to input data that we don’t use.
Our third mistake was this: we had forgotten about forgetting. We designed end-of-unit assessments that tested what pupils had only just learned, and then congratulated ourselves when they did well whilst it was very fresh in the memory. We had pupils write essays just after they had finished the unit. We coached them to superb performances – but they were performances that they would not be able to repeat on that text in English or that period of History even a few weeks later. Certainly, months later, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Just as if you asked me to retake for Physics GCSE tomorrow, I would flunk it badly, so just one year on, our pupils would flunk the exact assessment that they had aced one year earlier.
Looking back with hindsight, these three mistakes – on marking, data and design – helped us realise our two great blind spots in assessment: workload and memory. We didn’t design our assessments with pupils’memory and teachers’workload in mind.
We were creating unnecessary and unhelpful workload for teachers that prevented them focusing on what matters most. Marking and data were meant to improve teaching and assessment, but assessment and teaching and had ended up being inhibited by them.
We were forgetting just how much our pupils were forgetting. Forgetting is a huge problem amongst pupils and a huge blind spot in teaching. If pupils have forgotten the Shakespeare play they were studying last year, can they really be said to have learned it properly? What if they can’t remember the causes or course of the war they studied last year in history? Learning is for nothing if it’s all forgotten.
The Battle of the Bridge
Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. There’s always a teaching-learning gap. Just because we’ve taught it, it doesn’t mean pupils have learned it. The best teachers close the teaching-learning gap so that their pupils learn – and remember rather than forget – what they are being taught. We’ve found the idea of assessment as a bridge to be a useful analogy for curriculum and exam design. Once you see assessment as a bridge, you can begin to ask new questions that generate new insights: what principles in teaching are equivalent to the laws of physics that underpin the engineering and construction of the bridge? How can we design and create a bridge that is built to endure? How can we create an assessment model that bridges the teaching-learning gap?
We’ve found 3 assessment solutions that have exciting potential. Here are the reasons I’m excited about them:
They have absolutely no cost.
They are low-effort for staff to create.
They have high impact on pupils’ learning.
They are not tech-dependent at all.
They are based on decades of scientific research.
They can be immediately implemented by any teacher on Monday morning.
They have stood the test of time at Michaela over the last three years.
I anticipate we’ll still be using them in three, six and even ten years’ time, and beyond.
In short: no cost, low effort, high impact, research-based, long-term solutions.
Three of the most effective assessment tools we’ve found for closing the teaching-learning gap are daily recaps, weekly quizzes and knowledge exams.
Over 100 years of scientific research evidence suggests that the testing effect has powerful impact on remembering and forgetting. If pupils are to remember and learn what we teach them in the subject curriculum, assessment must be cumulativeand revisit curriculum content. The teaching-learning gap gets worse if pupils forget what they’ve learned. As cognitive science has shown, ‘if nothing has been retained in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’. Assessment, by ensuring pupils revisit what they’re learning, can help ensure they remember it.
Pupils forget very swiftly. We use daily recaps, weekly quizzes and biannual knowledge exams to boost pupils’ long-term memory retention and prevent forgetting.
Daily recaps are a butterfly: low-effort, high-impact. Departments create recap questions for every single lesson. Every single lesson starts with a recap. They are easy to resource. They consolidate pupils’ learning so they don’t forget. Every day they spend up to 20 minutes in each lesson applying what they’ve learned before. In English, for example, we spend those 20 minutes on grammar recaps, spelling recaps, vocabulary recaps, literature recaps (with questions on characters, themes, plots, devices and context). We do recaps on the unit they have been studying over the last few weeks. We do recaps on the previous unit and previous year’s units. This daily habit builds very strong retention and motivation: pupils feel motivated because they see how much they are remembering and how much more they are learning than ever before. All recaps are open questions, and weaker forms might be given clues. The recaps are always written; they are no-stakes, without any data being collected; they give instant feedback, as they are swiftly marked, corrected and improved by pupils themselves. We’ve ask pupils after: ‘hands up who got 4 out of 5? Hands up who got 5 out of 5, 100%?’ Pupils achieving 100% feel successful and motivated to work hard to revise.
Weekly quizzes are a butterfly: low-effort on workload, high-impact on learning. Departments create quiz questions for every week in the school year. Every week there is a quiz in every subject. They are easy to resource. They challenge and test pupils’ understanding. They are mastery tests, where most pupils should be able to achieve a strong result.
We have dramatically, decisively simplified how teachers score them. Instead of marking every single question laboriously, teachers simply sort them into piles. They make swift judgement calls about whether each pupil’s quiz is a pass, excellent, or fail. Each judgement is a simple scan of the pupil’s quiz paper and a decision as to which of the three piles it should be in. Accuracy isn’t perfect, but nor does it need to be: there are diminishing returns to perfecting accuracy.
The data is then inputted in 30 seconds into a beautifully simple tracker. Any pupil failing often is red-flagged, so teachers can focus in lessons on pupils who are struggling. And that is the only data point that our teachers have to keep in mind: which pupils are struggling most?
Knowledge exams are another butterfly – high impact, low effort. What I love about our knowledge exams is that they are cumulative, so that pupils revise and remember what they’ve learned. We have exam weeks twice yearly, in January and July (not half-termly). We set GCSE-style exams for depth, and we set knowledge exams to test a much fuller breadth of the knowledge pupils have learned. Knowledge exams are 35-question exams that take 60 minutes to complete. They are beautifully simple: they are organised onto 1 sheet of A4 paper, and they can be answered by pupils on one double-sided piece of A4. The breadth we can achieve with these exams is staggering. By Year 9, we have 3 knowledge exams in History, Religion, Science and English alone; they organise 35 questions on what pupils learned in Year 7 and 35 questions on what pupils learned in Year 8, centred on those years’ knowledge organisers. Twice a year, pupils are challenged to revise and remember what they’ve learned over all the years they spent in secondary school. This means they answer 12 knowledge exams – over 400 questions in total across 4 subjects. I am willing to bet that many of our teachers could not beat even our Year 7 pupils on these exams across all subjects! Imagine more than 24 sides of A4 packed with answers from every pupil in the school. The humble knowledge exam is a great catcher of knowledge.
As for marking them? We simply sort them into three piles: excellent, pass and fail. We don’t even record the marks. Teachers just note the names of pupils who failed multiple knowledge exams so we know who’s struggled.
Knowledge exams solve the breadth-depth tradeoff in exams. They give pupils maximum practice with minimum marking burden on teachers.
Simplicity must cut through assessment complexity. We should practise what we preach on cognitive overload for teachers as well as pupils. Assessment resources must be renewable, replicable, sustainable, scalable, enduring, long-term.
And the impact of recaps, quizzes and knowledge exams? Well, it’s very early days yet, but we’ve had some (very weak) Y8 or Y9 pupils miss an entire term though unavoidable long-term illness, only to return fully remembering what they’ve been taught the previous term and previous year. It’s an early indicator that the assessment strategy is bridging the teaching-learning gap and overcoming the savage forgetting curve. The real test of its impact will be GCSE results in 2019, A-level results in 2021 and University access and graduation beyond.
The two blind spots we’ve discovered – memory and workload – provide us with ways of interrogating our teaching and assessment practice:
How much are pupils remembering?
Where are they forgetting?
Where are teachers overloaded?
And I still think that we at Michaela can do more and find better ways of creating assessments with memory and workload in mind. I’m sure our pupils are not yet remembering as much as we’d like them to. I had a conversation with Jonny Porter, our Head of Humanities, just this week, about ramping up the previous-unit daily recaps we do. In this sense, even at Michaela we still feel blind on the blind spot of memory – pupils are still forgetting some of what we are teaching, and we want them to remember what they are learning for the very long-term. Our ambition is that they have learned what we’ve taught for years to come: for five, ten, twenty years.
Every day, teachers and pupils at Michaela see Churchill’s words on the wall: ‘success is never final; failure never fatal; it’s the courage that counts.’ It takes courage to radically simplify assessment – and courage to continually confront our workload and memory blind spots.
Some two thousand years ago, a teacher, a playwright and an emperor asked:
What is the best way to live?
How can we deal with the difficult situations we face?
What does it take to improve our minds?
Their answers are the heart of Stoic philosophy. We in schools can use their insights on the mind, on adversity and on practice to help our pupils shape their thought patterns.
Here is a rough overview of what we teach our pupils about staying stoical at Michaela:
“Some things are under our control, some are not. We are responsible for what is in our power to control: our mind and its perceptions. The chief task in life is simply this: to identify which externals are not under our control, and which are the choices we actually control. We control our opinion, choice, attachment, aversion. It is learning to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.
“Whoever can be irritated – that person is a slave. No one can frustrate you without your cooperation; you are only hurt the moment you believe yourself to be. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves responsible. We forever compound our problems because we make them out to be worse than they actually are.”
“Life itself is only what you deem it. Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought. Such as are your habitual thoughts, such will also be the character of your mind.Your anxieties are creatures of your own imagination, and you can rid yourself of them. Observe how disquiet is all of our own making. Troubles never come from another’s hand, but are creatures of our own creation.”
“Difficulties show a person’s character. So when trouble comes, think of it as training, strengthening, toughening. When a challenge confronts you, remember you are being matched with a stronger sparring partner, as would a physical trainer. A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner, training his patience and even temper.In adversity, be happy that what you have learned is being tested by real events. Philosophy is preparing ourselves for what may come. So, what should we say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline!”
“Like a boxer with a sparring partner – no protest or suspicion – act this way with all things in life. Instead of: “How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!” Say rather: “how lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness, undismayed: to endure this is not misfortune but good fortune.” The obstacle on the path becomes the way.”
“Seize your adversities head on. To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden. Complain little: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it. Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions weigh less on those who know how to bear them.”
“Study, practice and train if you want to be free: for as time passes we forget what we learned. The secret of happiness of the human mind is gratitude. Discipline yourself with thinking, exercises and reading: that’s the path to human freedom. If you’re succeeding, you see any moment as an opportunity to practise.”
“Train your mind through regular practice. Persevere in your efforts to acquire a sound understanding. One needs constant, daily practice … the pursuit of wisdom sets us free.” Seneca
“Make a habit of studying the maxims. Practise even when success looks hopeless.Discipline brings peace of mind.”
Stoicism in school
Children at school are learning how to deal with difficult emotions: frustration, worry, fear, cravings, temper, arguments, gossip, jealousy, squabbles, hurt, bitterness and more. Stoicism offers fortifying ways to think about these difficulties.
Teachers can …
show pupils what is always within their control: their thoughts, responses and reactions.
preemptively teach pupils how to anticipate and cope with adversity.
guide pupils to change their perceptions so that they complain, blame and resent less, and instead keep perspective, stay grateful, and are happy.
Pupils can learn how to…
let go of frustration: by realising that it is in the mind, so within our control, and by remembering that irritation is counter-productive and should be released and not dwelt on.
let go of worry: by remembering that the more we worry about things we can’t control, the worse we feel; the less we worry, the calmer and happier we feel.
cope with arguments: by avoiding criticising, complaining, blaming or resenting others, and instead feeling cheerful and grateful for what we have.
School leaders can convey the lives of the thinkers, and their thinking …
Epictetus was a Greco-Roman slave who earned his freedom and became a teacher.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor taught by philosophers who wrote personal diaries.
Lucius Seneca was a tutor and advisor to the emperor of Rome, who wrote letters and plays.
All three thinkers used analogies, mantras and writing: notebooks, diaries, letters or plays.
Slavery: irritation enslaves us; wisdom frees us.
Illusions: anxieties are creatures of our own creation; we can get rid of them.
Boxing: we musttrain hard so we don’t get beaten!
At Michaela, we continually return to stoicism in our interactions with pupils. From their first week at Michaela, we teach them about its approach to life: that everyone experiences difficulties, but that we can overcome them. We have assemblies on it, we spend an hour lesson on it, we discuss it over family lunch, and we revisit it in form time. We teach them to anticipate the frustrations of life, and the mantra: ‘stay stoical!’
Here are six ways we see it come in handy: in detentions, in exams, in arguments, in pain, in sport and with their families.
In detention … stay stoical!
Sometimes, pupils feel upset or resentful about being given a detention. In conversations with them, we remind them to stay calm, stay stoical, keep perspective, let go of anger, work out what they control, think about how they can build trust in future, and decide what they can do differently next time.
Before, in and after exams … stay stoical!
Tests can be seen as stressful by children. We help them see that preparation, revision and overcoming procrastination is within their control. If they fail an exam, or get a poor result, staying stoical and not agitating about it, but instead focusing on what they can do differently, helps them for the next assessment ahead.
In arguments … stay stoical!
When children get into arguments with their friends or fellow pupils, stoicism can help remind them to practise keeping a calm mind, ignoring gossip, vicious rumours, or insults, and staying positive rather than exacerbating mistrust and anger.
When ill or struggling… stay stoical!
It is sometimes a struggle to come in to school if children have a cold or feel a little ill; persisting rather than giving up makes them feel proud and strong. One Year 7 pupil we teach lost a tooth in assembly, put it in his pocket and carried on listening. One was stung by a wasp at sport, and overcame the pain by keeping stoicism in mind. Another gets regular nosebleeds but proudly endures. After she broke her wrist just before exams, another taught herself to write with her left hand, and is now ambidextrous. The stoic mindset reduces our fragility: the volatility of the world can’t destabilise us. With stoicism, problems become opportunities to train our resilience.
5. At sport … stay stoical!
Sport, by its competitive nature, is a time when tempers can run high. Stoicism reminds pupils not to overcelebrate and jeer at others when scoring a goal or winning a match; and not to despair or blame team-mates (or the ref!) having conceded a goal or losing a match. It prevents yellow cards turning into red cards and prevents fights breaking out. At Michaela, we call our football team The Stoics as a symbol of this mindset. If it’s cold and raining, we say: ‘great! character-building stuff: a chance to train our willpower!’
6. With your families … stay stoical!
Children experience difficult times growing up with parents, siblings and cousins. If they are taught how to stay stoical at school, it helps them to overcome arguments, illness and adversity in their family. It can help them keep perspective, stay grateful and not take their brothers, sisters, mums and dads for granted, but appreciate them.
Teaching children to stay stoical when times are tough gives them a powerful perspective that helps them improve their resilience, their relationships, and ultimately, their lives. It even improves teachers’ lives, too!
Imagine working for an organisation where there are no annual performance meetings, no bureaucracy, where you do not need permission to take time off, and where the expense policy is just five words long: ‘act in our best interest’.
Imagine working for an organisation where every person you work with is someone you admire and learn loads from.
Or rather, here it is.
Netflix is the world’s leading video on demand streaming company and a studio library in the cloud. Since its startup in 1997, it has gained over 90 million users in over 190 countries, and its revenues in 2016 were well over $8,800,000,000. It now produces more series and films than any other network or channel, spending $6 billion on content in 2017. It has unlimited viewing, no adverts, no cancellation fees. They are a harbinger of the era of internet TV. And one part of its success is due to its remarkable staff culture.
It’s been called the most important document to come out of Silicon Valley. Netflix’s slidedeck on their culture has been viewed 13 million times.
What lessons can we learn for creating a great staff culture in education? There are three that might be worth thinking about.
Align your team around your values.
The Netflix culture focuses on achieving excellence through living their values, hiring and promoting for their values: priorities over bureaucracy; alignment, simplicity, candour, challenge, teamwork and self-improvement.
All of us are responsible for ensuring we live our values.
Building a great team is the most important task for managers, making sure everyone understands the top values, priorities and high performance.
Managers are responsible for creating a great place to work. Employees stay because they are passionate about their work, and well paid, not because of bonuses.
Give people excellent colleagues.
The best thing you can do for employees is have only the best people work alongside them. Hiring and retaining excellent colleagues outmatch everything else.
One outstanding employee gets more done and costs less than two adequate employees.
We develop people by giving them the opportunity to develop themselves by surrounding them with stunning colleagues and giving them big challenges to work on.
Promotions are for extraordinary role models for the culture and values.
Teamwork is key to great culture.
“Years ago we eliminated formal performance management reviews. They didn’t make sense—they were too ritualistic and too infrequent. So we asked managers and employees to have conversations about performance as an organic part of their work. People can’t believe that a company the size of Netflix doesn’t hold annual reviews. If you talk simply and honestly about performance on a regular basis, you can get good results—probably better ones than a company that grades everyone on a five-point scale.”
“We continually tell managers that building a great team is their most important task. We didn’t measure them on whether they were excellent coaches or mentors or got their paperwork done on time. Great teams accomplish great work, and recruiting the right team was the top priority.”
Managers own the job of creating great teams.
Leaders own the job of creating great culture.
Tell the truth about performance.
Identify things that colleagues should start, stop and continue
“Let’s just tell the truth. People can handle the truth.”
Is there a mismatch between values and behaviours?
Have the courage to question actions inconsistent with the values.
Does everyone know what they should be doing right now to improve the organisation?
An organisation’s culture is shaped by its people and its teams, and their values and priorities. It is well worth us as school leaders taking a look at our own staff culture with this in mind.
Soul of the Age: Life, Mind and World: Jonathan Bate
‘with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide … Shakes-scene’
Robert Greene, Shakespeare’s contemporary
“Shakespeare’s schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays. Having mastered the rules of language, he was able to break and transform them. Shakespeare’s education is an argument for the value of memorising and of constant practice.”
Teaching Shakespeare: Rex Gibson
William Shakespeare, whose father was probably illiterate (signing his name with a cross) and broke, became one of the most creative, prolific and successful playwrights of all time, writing over 40 plays and 150 sonnets, with some of the most gripping plots, memorable characters (from protagonists Caesar, Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Juliet, Viola and Rosalind to villains: murderous Richard III, usurer Shylock, the bastard Edmund, attempted rapist Caliban, the Puritan Angelo and the Machiavellian master-manipulator, Iago), a dizzying variety of settings (England, Rome, Egypt, Athens, Troy, Verona, Vienna, Venice, Cyprus, Scotland, Denmark, Naples, Sicily), and the most moving and mellifluous language that audiences had ever heard, perhaps ever since. Four centuries after his death, his words and plays sustain a multi-million pound global industry spanning from California professors and Hollywood films to Indian textbook authors and the Japanese Globe Theatre in Tokyo.
What can we teachers learn from Shakespeare’s schooling in England some five hundred years ago?
Shakespeare went to King’s New School in Stratford. It was a free school established by royal charter of King Edward VI in 1553, just 11 years before Shakespeare was born. It established free lodging and a salary of £20 a year for a schoolmaster, a substantial sum that signaled how much education was valued. The aim of Tudor schooling was that ‘good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our Kingdom’: literacy and moral education were seen as the foundation of the commonwealth. Children would learn about wisdom, virtue and civic action from books, classic texts and studies.
Seven-year olds started school at six in the morning in summer and seven in winter, and studied from dawn til dusk all year round, six days a week, twelve months a year. They spent 2,000 hours in school, more than double current school hours. William spent 7 years at this school from 1571 to age 14 1578, equivalent of 14 years’ worth of school hours today, and had been to primary school from age 5 to 7 to learn lessons in behaviour, literacy, scripture and manners, ‘until they can read perfectly, pronounce and sound their words plainly and distinctly’. In his teachers young William first met professionals educated at University: all seven masters who taught there between 1554 and 1582 were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. One, Thomas Jenkins, was so dedicated to teaching that he asked Oxford for two years’ sabbatical so ‘that he may give himself to teach children’.
Pupils at the school studied few subjects in great depth to high rigour, with total immersion in classical language and literature. The Renaissance was the driving force behind the syllabus: Religious Education, Latin, Literature, Arithmetic, English Grammar, Philosophy and Theatre, learning entire textbooks by heart, including one called ‘An Introduction of the Eight Parts of Speech.’ Set texts were the Geneva Bible, Aesop’s fables, Virgil’s epic Aeneid, Cicero’s philosophy On Duties, (a handbook of civic humanism), Plutarch’s Lives (paired biographies from antiquity), Livy and Pliny’s Histories, Ovid’s poetic Metamorphoses, Palingenius’ Zodiacus Vitae (the Zodiac of Life, philosophy where the world’s a stage and humans are actors), Caesar’s War Commentaries, Erasmus’ Adagia (3,000 proverbs) and De Copia, (On Rhetoric), Juvenal’s Satires, Terence’s comedies and Seneca’s tragedies. The young Will read prodigiously. His originality stemmed from his deep knowledge of the origins of deep thinking: the best that had been thought and said.
Children were trained by strict discipline into respect and obedience, but not fear or subservience. The school day was strictly controlled and supervised. The school statutes expect: ‘strict order and quiet to apply their learning’. A good teacher was by definition a strict teacher. The humanist educationalist Erasmus, whose handbooks Elizabethan teachers used, wrote: ‘Fear is of no avail in education. Love must be the first influence, followed and completed by a trustful and affectionate respect, which compels obedience far more surely than dread can ever do. Masters conscious of their own incompetence are generally the worst floggers. They cannot teach, so they beat.’ In Measure for Measure, the Duke mentions the birch rod is ‘more mock’d than feared’. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare stages a school lesson with a Welsh schoolmaster Hugh Evans (he was taught by Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins), who says the words, ‘Remember, William’ at least three times in the scene, uses praise – ‘that’s a good William’ – and where flogging is threatened but not carried out: ‘Go your ways and play, go.’
Shakespeare learned through a rigorous regime of sermons, rote memorisation, relentless drills, endless repetition, copying and imitation, textbooks, daily analysis of texts, extended practice exercises, dictation, composition, declamation and twice-weekly examinations. Forty hours a week were spent reading, memorising and writing. Children sat in rows facing the schoolmaster at the front of the room. There was continual instruction in the art of remembrance, in systems of memory or ‘mnemonics’. Catechism – combining written summaries with oral chants – was used as a mode of instruction and memorisation. The culture prized eloquence: many hours were spent by pupils compiling long lists of synonyms. Debate, dialogue and drama were foundations of Elizabethan teaching and staples of learning. At school, pupils read and performed ancient plays: the young Will acted in his first play while still at school.
The central educational principle was immersion. The essence of the system of foreign language learning was translation, translation, translation: double translation, backwards and forwards between English and Latin, day in, day out. The result was a command of Latin in leaving school at 15 that was better than a University graduate in classics today: fluency, even in conversation.
Collections, memorisation, imitation exercises and composition drills are four of the ways that Elizabethan grammar schools taught writing. Amplification was so drilled into the young master William that it became second nature in his writing. Commonplace books were copied into in order to have a ready record of examples of general truths about life and behaviour. Sententiae, collections of memorable aphorisms, provided a series of building blocks for composition. ‘Assiduous practice makes everything possible.’ ‘A liar needs a good memory.’ Pupils would be required to play around with such phrases: change the tense and mood to interrogative: ‘What will your practice make possible?’ Make it plural, William: ‘Liars need good memories.’ If you are making a story, writing a play, or plotting a rival’s downfall, like Iago, you need a good memory so your plot withstands scrutiny. They were invited to write anecdotes, confirmations and refutations of maxims and adages.
Out of imitation came invention. Pupils were required to imagine they were a character from classical mythology, literature or history: persuade Caesar to cross the Rubicon; convince Cleopatra to choose suicide over slavery; sway the senate to ostracise Antony for monarchical-dictatorial intent. Write that, Master William, and you are well on the way to inventing dramatic characters of Caesar and Cicero some 20 years on in 1599 in the opening of the Globe Theatre.
There is much to be learned from the education in England some 500 years ago that enabled our greatest ever writer to create the greatest plays ever written.
Based on research from these texts:
Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
Soul of the Age: Shakespeare’s Life, Mind and World by Jonathan Bate
Shakespeare’s England by R.E. Pritchard
Shakespeare’s Language by Frank Kermode
Shakespeare’s Genius by Jonathan Bate
Shakespeare: A Biography byPeter Ackroyd
Revealing Shakespeare by Rene Weiss
Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice by Peter Mack
King’s College School Wimbledon is one of the most academically successful schools in the world. 96% of pupils achieve A*-A at GCSE, and 41 pupils gained A*s in every one of their exams. 25% of their pupils achieved 45 in the International Baccalaureate, which put them in the top 1% globally. 56 pupils won places at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In October, I went to visit.
On a bus on the way just before 8am, I overheard a conversation between two King’s boys. They were practising speaking in Russian for a test. They were learning this as an extra-curricular language and preparing for a trip to Moscow at Easter.
It would be easy to dismiss Kings’ results as impossible for us in the state sector to replicate: their expensive fees, high funding, lucrative facilities, academic selection, high-achieving-only intake, highly invested parents. They own a cricket pavilion, expansive playing fields, a swimming pool and even a boathouse on the Thames that they share with Cambridge University. State schools will never have the money, intake or facilities that they have.
Nevertheless, there is so much that can be learned from Kings, and other private schools, if we approach them in the spirit of an abundance mentality. Their success need not detract from our own in the state sector, but can contribute if we seek out ideas that could help us improve. Here are some of the ideas that I learned from my visit.
Rigorous academic and cultural curriculum
At Kings, pupils study complex Maths and Science from a young age, challenging literature, sweeping narrative history, theology through scripture, Latin, philosophy, fine art, classical music and theatre written by the greatest dramatists the world has ever seen. The rigour is sky-high. Offering the International Baccalaureate at sixth form forces pupils to study a broad academic curriculum: you cannot give up Maths, English, Science, Humanities or a Language until 18. Michael Merrick puts it beautifully in his post about a year growing up in a private school:
‘We were not only exposed to high culture, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales. This exposure to high culture [showed] an instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic.’ This is uneasy and unfamiliar territory for many (but by no means all) of us in the state sector.
Simple traditional instruction
Teachers teach didactically and unashamedly from the front, and lessons are heavily teacher-led; pupils sit in rows facing the front; textbooks, exercise books and pens are the default technology, even up to sixth form; simplicity is the watchword: in English, the main resource is simply class texts. The tasks tackle extended subject practice with limited variety: reading, writing, comparing examples, noting, discussing and summarising. For many veteran teachers at King’s, this seemed to be straightforward, no-nonsense common sense.
Culture of hard graft
The message that hard work is the only way to succeed is everywhere: in every assembly, pupils give a musical performance, and then explain how hard they had to work to practice, persevere and resist the temptation to give up; in every lesson, the focus is on thinking hard about the subject and maximising pupil cognitive work on tasks; every evening, pupils and parents are clear that they are expected to produce two hours of homework. Hard graft is celebrated and admired.
Teaching writing is heavily guided, even up to sixth form. In History, for instance, starting point sentences are shared for each paragraph of complex essays on new material. Extensive written guidance is shared with pupils. Sub-questions within each paragraph and numerous facts are also shared.
Examples as feedback
Excellent examples are continually shared as feedback. In English, the best essay is photocopied, handed out and meticulously annotated so that others begin to internalise the mental models of success. Exemplars, combined with redrafting, are the simplest way for teachers to give guidance on how to improve.
Introductions are the vehicle of choice for improving essay writing. One-sentence thesis statements are set out to frontload and signpost the essay, and this is taught from Year 9. They are very easy to share and compare. A bank of exemplar thesis statements can therefore be built up, with teachers collecting lots of excellent pupil examples.
Extensive homework is set at two hours a night in Year 9. In History and English, extensive written homework is set, collected, marked and returned. Over the holidays, two 2-page essays were expected of Year 10 over the week-long half-term. It was simply scored out of the same denominator (i.e. always out of 25) for comparability. Massive amounts of rigorous, independent subject practice are being done by King’s pupils, which sets them up to achieve A*s.
Pupils frequently enter national subject competitions such as Oxbridge essay prizes. There are sports fixtures, choir and orchestra performances, music concerts, drama performances and debating contests organised throughout the year.
Form tutors go over King’s kindness commitment every term, and it is in every pupil planner. A culture of kindness is seen as a collective responsibility.
Sixth formers mentor and teach youngsters in Key Stage 3. Sixth former had set up their own drama club, for instance, and produced and performed their own plays. Captains are appointed for sports, debating and general knowledge teams. Prefects are also appointed to take on leadership roles in the school.
When I was there, I asked several pupils what they most liked about the school. All said similar things: ‘the atmosphere: everyone gets on here’, and variations on that theme.
None of these things is irreplicable for a state school; they do not rely on extensive funding or a selective intake. Any school in the state sector can learn from these ambitious, common-sense practices that could help us improve the education we give to our pupils. The challenge for us is to show that scaling Mount Improbable is not impossible.