Category Archives: Leadership in education

Should maths be taught from government approved textbooks?

Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools, would like to see the introduction of a “quality framework” against which maths textbooks could be assessed. Is this a strong move to improve the national standards in mathematics or government meddling in curriculum being taken one step too far?

Let’s be clear that when you cut through the language of “quality framework” what is sitting behind here is a government sanctioned textbook for the teaching of mathematics. But would a national textbook for mathematics really help us raise the standard of mathematics in the nation or are there other factors which may have greater impact?

Here are my five concerns about a national mathematics textbook.

1: It will limit attainment and we will lower all students to the lowest acceptable standard.
My first concern is that the implementation of a new national curriculum becomes void if the state then controls the textbooks for curriculum delivery. The purpose of the National Curriculum is to provide a minimum entitlement for all children. Schools are encouraged to develop their own curriculum that builds from this agreed national minimum entitlement. A school curriculum should have at its heart the national curriculum to which we all adhere but if this is the only aspect of a school’s curriculum then the national curriculum becomes restricting rather than liberating. A state sanctioned textbook in mathematics could have exactly that effect. One of the positive aspects of our national curriculum in England and Wales is that we allow children to develop at their own rate. We encourage pupils to go beyond the curriculum boundaries for their year group and we introduce concepts to pupils when they are ready. Pupils in such a system can exceed the expectations laid down by the national curriculum. A state sanctioned textbook for the subject can only expect the agreed minimum and therefore would become restricting. Pupils would have be expected to complete the book by the end of the school year, but what of the pupil that could go beyond the confines of that book. As opposed to encouraging pupils to excel and allowing each individual to achieve to his or her maximum we could well end up lowering everybody to the lowest common denominator; the basic level expected of the national curriculum.

2: We will kill teacher creativity and in doing so promote lazy teaching that fails to respond to the need of individuals in the class.
A defined textbook for a subject encourages teaching by numbers. It promotes lazy teaching and the best teachers within the system will be those who adhere to the materials and complete the necessary work with all pupils. The teachers that were supplementing the school scheme with exciting creative teaching will be pushed aside. Forget the need for initial teacher training as surely anybody can instruct a pupil as to which page we are working from today.

3: Pupils will become bored and bored pupils misbehave.
Pupil engagement and motivation will suffer. The most successful teachers are those that engage with their pupils and make the learning interesting and relevant. How do you do that if the materials is controlled centrally? We will run the risk of taking away the creativity that engages pupils and makes the learning relevant and interesting, fun even. The end result will be greater disaffection and almost certainly more behaviour problems. Bored students, especially bored high attaining students who are not being challenged, show behaviour problems.

4: We will further dumb down the entry standard for teaching.
Any attempt to excessively control the teaching taking place in the classroom has the effect of blurring curriculum delivery and teaching. The two are different and we need to avoid any attempt to make it appear as though a teacher’s main role is delivering the curriculum content. The learning takes place through the curriculum and the curriculum itself is not the learning. A consistent message about high performing education systems is that they need well qualified teachers. The national strategies of the previous administration are an example of how a content laden curriculum distracts from the core purpose of initial teacher training (ITT). One of the core roles of ITT is to prepare teachers for teaching. Not delivering curriculum, but teaching. Understanding pedagogy, understanding how children learn and developing the skills to adapt learning experiences to match the individuals in the class. If ITT is taken up with marching mindlessly through a content rich curriculum then we no longer require thinkers to step forward as teachers. We maybe don’t even need degree courses and the routes into teaching will become more varied with the end result of a national body of teachers who know only how to deliver a curriculum.

5: We are ignoring the elephant in the room.
Nick Gibb wants the UK to perform well in international comparative tests such as PISA. This proposal for a nationally sanctioned textbook for mathematics is coming directly from government ministers and their acolytes visiting Shanghai. The notion that Shanghai students perform well (my opinions on Shanghai’s performance can be seen here) because of a national textbook is laughably foolish. High performing school systems perform well usually on the back of significant cultural differences. To put it another way, they have adapted their high performing educational system to their own culture. In Shanghai many students come out of school and go on to additional private classes in the evening. Yet, in Finland, another high performing educational system, students come out of class with no homework until thirteen years old and are encouraged to spend time with their families or out playing. So, homework isn’t the consistent factor in high performing school systems and neither is the presence of a government controlled textbook. That might suit the politics and culture of China. The nation is used to government control of society and it is an accepted part of the culture. It isn’t however the consistent factor in high achieving school systems. So, what is the consistent factor in high achieving school systems? What should our ministers dispatched around the world have noticed and brought back if they want the UK to rise to the top of international rankings?
So, what is the elephant in the room? High performing school systems put their best graduates in front of classes. They don’t have one year fast track schemes to convert other professions into teaching; they don’t allow trainee teachers to bypass national standard testing by sitting university access qualifications in core subjects. Indeed, in Finland all teachers have a masters degree. They spend four years studying how to teach before they are allowed into classrooms. The result is a highly motivated, valued and trained workforce of teachers. If we cannot develop a highly motivated, valued and trained body of teachers then no amount of tinkering with the textbooks or raising the bar in national assessments will make any difference.

If we want a high performing educational system the secret is simple!
High performing educational systems have high performing teachers.

High performers: The secrets of successful schools
by Alistair Smith

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Expert in a year

As an educator I’m fascinated by research into learning and one theme that keeps recurring is the notion that talent is not a birthright but something that is earned through hard work.

An intriguing project that has been getting attention on the Internet recently looks at what is possible in just one year. Under the title “Expert in a year” a table tennis coach by the name of Ben Larcombe has taken a young protege, Sam Priestly, and set off on a twelve month project to try and place that player in the top 250 players in England. The composite video that records the project is compelling viewing.

We watch the early days and, to a man, are thinking “I could beat him in a game”. As time rolls on we see how, with practice and training, Sam develops into a player that looks like a contender. But what does this all mean? How does it have any relation to learning and the work of schools?

In Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed take us on his own journey into the world of table tennis. In ‘Bounce’, Syed doesn’t completely rubbish talent but he does provide a persuasive argument for why natural talent is less important than purposeful practice. Often, we mistake this hard work for a natural talent. To anybody who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success the notion of talent being the product being a reward for hard work isn’t a new idea. Gladwell argues that with 10,000 hours of practice (he believes that with commitment you can reasonably assume to put in 1,000 hours per year and therefore the journey is one of 10 years) anybody can become an expert. What Matthew Syed does is bring that idea to life. Through his own experience of rising up the table tennis ranks and ultimately representing his country in the Olympic Games, he takes what Gladwell wrote about and makes it real. On the way to his conclusions he covers confidence, nerve and even race. Matthew Syed also notices that practice alone is not sufficient. What we need is targeted practice. Relevant practice.

Carol Dweck has then taken the work of Gladwell and Syed and in her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential she explores these concepts in an accessible but scientific manner. She coins the term “Growth Mindset” and compares this to a “Fixed Mindset”. Again, this is nothing new but it is presented in a different manner. Carol Dweck argues that if you have a fixed mindset you are of the belief that you cannot improve. Therefore as educators, our role is to help develop pupils who have a growth mindset. Students who believe that through hard work and effort they can improve are clearly better equipped to work in a modern world where adaptability and resilience are key characteristics to success.

Again, what does this mean to teachers and schools? All of the above can easily be applied to education, specifically to education taking place in schools. However, it isn’t something one teacher on a course or one teacher with a book can use to make positive change. No, rather it is work that needs to be a part of school culture. It needs the support and understanding of everyone working in the school. Only then will the work of the school be directed towards an effective and purposeful change. Fortunately, there is a point by point guide as to how this theory transfers into practice in schools. If you are a teacher or leader in school and have yet to read this book then are missing the single most significant collection of advice to motivate and engage your students. I offer it to you as a key part of any school development plan, a tool for school improvement and far more significant than “common core”, “curriculum 2014”, “OFSTED” or whatever other external political influences are trying to control the direction of education in your part of the world.

Mindsets in the classroom: Building a culture of success and student achievement in schools
by Mary Cay Ricci

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Shareday Friday – Two great ideas for displaying pupil targets

Shareday Friday – my weekly gift to the online educational community
We’ve been looking at how to make individual pupil targets relevant and purposeful. Individual pupil targets in a primary school are a great way of involving pupils in their learning. If the classroom environment can reflect those targets with a well designed display then pupil motivation is improved.

All children in school have three targets that are changed on a half termly basis. Their literacy target gives something they can improve about their writing. Their maths target is an area they are working to improve in number. Finally, we have a third target that we call ‘Habits of learning’. This target is supports the development of learning behaviours that we want to see as embedded practice in our classrooms.

How teachers choose to display those targets is up to individuals. This Friday, in my weekly giving something back to the online community, I present two ideas for displaying and managing individual targets in class.

A primary display of pupil individual targets

Reach for the stars – pupil targets on display

Reach for the stars
In this display the pupils have drawn around an outline of their arm and hand and personalised their work with pattern and colour. The targets, which are easily changed, are attached with post-it notes. Children achieving success with targets are given a star to place on their hand. When they have achieved a prescribed number of stars they know they have achieved success and are ready to change the target. The display is bordered with more post-it notes where the children have recorded how they will know if they have been successful with their targets.

Individual pupil targets on display in a primary school

Bullseye – another method of displaying individual pupil targets

In this display of primary pupil targets the children have written their targets on arrow cards. All targets start outside the board and as children achieve success with their targets they are allowed to move their targets closer to the bullseye. Questions around the board prompt children to remain focussed on success.
“When did you last move your target arrow?”
“How do you know if you are successful with your targets?”

Belair On Display – The Essential Guide to Primary Display


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Teacher turnover and high performing school systems

Teacher recruitment and retention is a real problem, not just in the UK but in other countries too. The USA for example reports 14% of teachers leaving after their first year and 46% after their fifth year. In the UK some reports say 50% have left within their first five years. So what can be done to recruit and retain quality teachers to our classrooms?

First of all, let’s debunk a myth. Teachers don’t leave the profession because of poor pay. Teachers discuss pay, walk on the streets carrying placards if pay rises run behind inflation, but they don’t leave the classroom because of pay. I’ve already discussed my belief that the solution to teacher recruitment and retention lies in managing teacher workload and removing some of the unnecessary external pressures caused by observation and grading. (Read my article “5 facts about reducing workload” for more information on this issue.)

So, the UK, the USA, and no doubt many other countries, have problems with recruitment and retention of teachers and yet Finland which regularly comes out on the top of comparative tables has only 3% of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. Let’s assume that the 3% is indicative of people who either chose the wrong profession or for whatever reason were not right for the role. That means that for every 100 teachers the UK train, 3 don’t hit expectations and 47 leave for other reasons. So, if it isn’t pay, why do they leave?

Before we continue let’s debunk another myth. Finland appear to play PISA tests quite honestly. I have my opinions on Shanghai but Finland really seem to play by the book. Regardless of whether we think PISA a reliable way of judging an education system, Finnish students ace these tests.

So what is different between Finland, which has mastered recruiting and retaining teachers, and countries including the UK and USA that are struggling to get any value for money out of initial teacher training? Here is my ‘Top 5’ of how Finland succeeds in keeping the best teachers in classrooms.

1: Average student:teacher ratio is 1:12
I’ve read Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning), I understand what EEF produces but without doing research or making observations, there is a difference here. This isn’t a promise of infant classes below 30, this is a ‘throughout education’ average of 12. As a mean that must also indicate many children are in classes smaller than 12. A parent wanting that teacher:pupil ratio in the UK is almost certainly going to have to choose an independent education.

2: 1 in 3 Finnish students receives some sort of special help in school
That seems an outstanding intervention rate. In a class of 12 then, there could be up to four pupils receiving an intervention. Again, we aren’t looking at infant or even primary education. This is an average across the education system.

3: Homework
Finnish students don’t start homework until into their teens. There has been substantial research to show that homework produces small or no benefits educationally and yet still parents in the UK and USA have expectations of homework. Children in Finland, according to one observer, are children. They return home and then go out to play with friends. They socialise, talk, enjoy quality family time and crucially, school doesn’t figure at home until they are approaching the only national standardised testing that takes place at 16 years old. No standardised testing until 16 years old and no homework until approaching the tests.

4: Playtime
Children in Finland have more minutes of playtime in their school day than almost anywhere else in Europe. An average of 75 minutes per day spent playing outside with friends. The tendency in the UK is to combat playtime problems by reducing the time spent on the playground and yet Finland seems to achieve better results by giving more playtime. Something we don’t quite understand is clearly at work here!

5: To teach in Finland requires a masters degree
And there it is. You can’t step in front of a class in Finland without a minimum of four years of degree study. No fast track, no returning heroes, no access courses for degree courses. Four years minimum of academic study and practice before you can take a class. Consequently, teaching is still a profession with public confidence. Doctors, lawyers and teachers are seen as a similar status.

So, what can we learn?
My five point system for improving teacher recruitment and retention without discussing workload is:

1: Remove all fast track to the classroom schemes. One year hops into the classroom are damaging our education system. Access alternatives for courses that negate the need for an academic study are muddying the waters. If you haven’t got an English and Maths GCSE then you need to study for one. Remove the ‘equivalent’ courses that universities run to enable late entrants in to teaching.

2: Allow playtime. Allow it outside at playtime and allow it in the classroom, especially in the early years. Teachers know how to create learning opportunities through play. Remove the teaching by numbers systems of an overly controlling central curriculum and judge teachers not on their delivery of national strategy but on the learning taking place in their classrooms.

3: Stop wasting time on testing and homework. All the research says it doesn’t help attainment. It is only in the system to check up on teachers. We are only checking up on teachers because there is a lack of trust in their work.

4: Provide more interventions when they are needed. When I taught in the UK we had two educational psychologist visits per year and no diagnosis could be made without their advice. Support therefore was delivered by the least qualified staff as pupils were in effect excluded from class for support. Make trained teachers responsible for interventions. Trained teachers in school just to intervene when a child has learning problems and to do so on the back of an extensive academic study of how to help that child.

5: Pupil:teacher ratio
Does it matter? Well, sorry to say this Mr Miliband but reducing infant classes (which are already capped at 30) to 30 is a shameless piece of election headline grabbing. If you promised class sizes averaging 12 pupils from pre-school to 18 years old…now that would be a headline!

One final point regarding what high performing school systems can teach us about teacher recruitment and retention.
Cultural difference are never measured but they really matter. Finnish culture is family focused. Something that is missing from UK and USA cultures. Maternity and paternity leave exceed that given in the UK and the USA. Pupils arrive at school having had breakfast with a parent. They come home to a parent and have time to play with friends.

What can Finland teach us about teacher recruitment and retention? It teaches us that if there is a strong family cohesion then children are more likely to achieve at school. If we erode family and leave pupils to be raised by their schools then we may struggle to compete.

Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (The Series on School Reform)

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Primary assessment – questions and numbers but no real answers

Our termly assessment time is here once again and conversation is around what, why and how we assess.

Well, most conversation is about the “how” because with the removal of levels and no new assessment tools to accompany the new curriculum things feel slightly disjointed. Should we use old QCA optional assessments dating back to 2003, teacher assessment, Ros Wilson writing grids, APP grids? Should the assessment output be a level or some other measure?

With these and more questions floating around I reread the government report ‘Primary Accountability and Assessment Consultation Response’ that was published in March 2014.

Here are the facts as they stand.

1: The first principle of assessment reads:
“ongoing, teacher-led assessment is a crucial part of effective teaching”.

2: 85%
The percentage of pupils expected to reach the new expected standard by the end of primary school. (Although this will be increased with time.)

3: 57%
The percentage of respondents who say that the principles proposed will not lead to an effective curriculum and assessment system. The largest complaint was that by removing a universal system it will become more difficult to make comparisons between schools. A further significant response was that without a consistent system parents and pupils moving between schools would be confused.

4: 82%
The percentage of respondents that said the government needed to provide additional support to schools with regard to assessment. Specific requests that featured included a request for examples of assessment, examples of good practice and training.

5: 70%
The percentage of respondents that felt that a scaled score would not provide useful information from national curriculum tests. The scaled score system is the one now in place from 2016 whereby an average child will be rewarded with 100. Above and below average pupils will be marked by their deviation from the 100 target. The cynics may well consider this to be leveling but by another name.

6: 24%
The percentage of respondents that felt that publishing end of Key Stage 1 assessment results was a beneficial exercise.

7: 15%
The percentage of respondents that felt schools should be allowed to choose from a range of commercially available assessments. This now is the system in place for the baseline assessment. Five different providers offer five different systems with five different outcomes.

But does any of the published documentation help in understanding “how” effective assessment can be implemented?

The answer unfortunately is “no”. In 2016 the end of Key Stage 2 assessment will be different but there are still a number of unanswered questions. Teachers will provide an assessment but in what form? If levels are discontinued and the tests output measures as a deviation from 100, what will teacher assessment look like. We are told it will be a confirmation or otherwise that children have met an end of key stage descriptor. I guess, “he made the mark” or “he didn’t make the mark”. That clearly doesn’t help in terms of tracking pupils if they are graded into only two groups.

The system of a database that we update termly with subdivided levels enables us to track progress. Even recording levels now though has been complicated. The criteria, especially in number work, has been raised. Consequently the old level descriptors don’t match the expectation for the end of year when put alongside the new curriculum. Can levels still be used or has pupil tracking been knocked completely off course until further assessment materials are produced?

I propose taking the old level system and making it match the new curriculum. If at the end of Year 6 we were expecting pupils to attain a secure level four (4b) then if they have achieved the required level within the expectations of the new curriculum then they have still attained a secure level four. That way, although the expected attainment has been raised, we can still compare performance across cohorts of pupils in much the same way as we have done in previous years.

Until there is a published alternative that can be used to track progress towards the new measures (careful, that 100 point score system isn’t levels!) then assessment is going to continue to pose problems.

What do you do in your school? Have you come up with an alternative to levels or are you still using levels? Are any of the previous level based assessment procedures (APP, QCA) still being used?

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Using a portfolio effectively on interview

How can a portfolio be used effectively during an interview to help you secure a teaching post?

In two weeks I will be in London interviewing and as always, many candidates will choose to bring a portfolio with them to the interview. But, what should the portfolio look like and how is it best used?

1: How to use the portfolio?
The portfolio is not a gift that you hand over as you leave the interview. It is a prop that you refer to throughout the interview to support your answers to questions. It should contain the materials needed to help you answer questions. Used correctly it can save that uncomfortable pause that happens as you search for the answer. As questions are asked you can be thinking whether your portfolio can help answer and if so your answer might begin “If I can just share with you …”

2: Presentation
When you go to an interview, smart and formal is good advice for your own presentation. Apply the same to your portfolio. Make sure it is clearly organised into sections. Include titles and captions where possible. Try to avoid large fold out pages or an unwieldy A1 folder. Stick to A4 so it can easily be shared during the interview.
Keep to a manageable number of sections, I would suggest five. If there is too much content you risk disrupting the flow of the interview as you flick backwards and forwards trying to locate a specific page.

3: Getting the balance right
Your portfolio is a tool to support you during the interview. Overuse of the portfolio may make you look uncomfortable. The basics of interview technique including smiling and making eye contact are important. The portfolio is reached for at specific points in the interview to illustrate your answer. If the portfolio has been thoughtfully prepared you know which questions you wish to respond to with a ‘portfolio answer’.

4: Make your portfolio honest and personal
Answers that begin with “in my school we” or “what my school does is” are missed opportunities to present yourself at the interview. A poorly prepared portfolio can lead to the same missed opportunities. Don’t include one of your school policies unless you led the development of the policy and intend discussing that at interview. Include items that illustrate you as a teacher and the portfolio will be a  useful tool during your interview. Dependent upon the school and the role you may have a fairly limited time to present yourself and the portfolio should be useful in illustrating what you are like outside of the formal interview room.

5: What to include
I suggest selecting five sections which allow you to showcase your work but focus on illustrating your answers to questions that may well be asked at interview. This may be dependent on the role for which you are applying. A middle management responsibility for example may dictate a slightly different portfolio content to that of class teacher. What you choose to include is personal as the portfolio is a showcase for you as a teacher. Suggestions for content might include five sections taken from the following:
– An example of your planning. For a primary post core curriculum planning is more likely to be relevant.
– Examples of displays that illustrate learning. This may not be the prettiest display you ever did but might include a working wall or any other example where the learning is clear.
– Copies of marked pupil work.
– Evidence of attainment of pupils you have taught. This may be a percentage of pupils achieving a specific level or making a specific progress.
– Photographs illustrating how you work in class. Groupings, pupil targets or even an annotated photograph of you working with a group of pupils.
– Strategies for dealing with behaviour. Be careful to take ownership of this by sharing something you suggested or put into place for a pupil. Avoid “in our school” type statements as these can detract from your own contribution. Make sure this is something you can describe the effectiveness of through evidence.
– Evidence of working with or leading colleagues.
– Evidence of extra-curricular activities that you have led. Remember that the most important aspect is always learning so make sure you focus on the learning that was achieved, even when talking about extra-curricular activities.

If you have other ideas about how a portfolio can be used or questions that you want answered then please do post them in the comments section.

Get That Teaching Job!

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Shareday Friday – Curriculum 2014: An overview

Each Friday I try to give a little something back to the online education community. This week it is an ‘at a glance’ overview of the 2014 National Curriculum.

2014 National Curriculum – An overview

The above link is a PDF file of the primary National Curriculum for 2014. It covers from Year 1 – Year 6.
It gives a simple guide illustrating how the key stage content might be separated into year groups. With one page per year group it is easy to see how a school specific curriculum can be developed.

One of the challenges of the National Curriculum has always been making it relevant to a specific school. The best way to approach the National Curriculum is to consider it the minimal entitlement for all children. This then leaves specific local authorities or schools free to append what is relevant for their pupils. If the agreed minimum content is covered then schools have the flexibility to design curriculum that matches their pupils and supplements this national minimum requirement.

This Friday my Shareday Friday gift is a document that looks at what a school curriculum focused on the new National Curriculum may look like. It isn’t a one size fits all and this document can’t be lifted and dropped onto schools. Rather, it forms a discussion point for schools looking to personalise their curriculum and at the same time have a thorough coverage of the 2014 National Curriculum.

This document has come to me without copyright information and is shared with schools in good faith as a free tool for developing curriculum. If you are the author of this document and can confirm copyright please do contact me.

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10 most effective ways to impact education

I get frustrated when teacher conversations and politician headlines about education ignore research.

Today Mr Hunt stole the front pages with a promise that under a new labour government infant class sizes would be capped at 30 pupils. I think for the electorate this may sound like a big deal. We have a sensation that smaller class sizes mean more attention for our own child which must surely be a good thing. But how much more attention. Let’s take a look at what that shift from 31-30 pupils actually means. With class time spent between whole class teaching and individual or group work, it is only the latter that is affected by a smaller group. Let’s assume that this accounts for about 60% of the working week and that a week in school is approximately 25 hours of teaching.
60% of 25 teaching hours = 15 hours
15 hours = 900 minutes
900 minutes shared between 30 pupils = 30 minutes per pupil
900 minutes shared between 31 pupils = 29 minutes per pupil

So, today’s headlines equate to some children winning nearly a minute of additional teacher time per week. Will that really change the face of British educational achievement?

It may surprise some people to know that lowering group size actually had less of an impact on pupil attainment than teacher subject knowledge! (Ability grouping and differentiation actually score even lower than reducing group size.)

Here are the 10 more effective ways of positively impacting a child’s education according to Hattie’s meta-study.
Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

1: Student expectation
2: Feedback on performance
3: Metacognition
4: Sharing learning outcomes
5: Reciprocal teaching
6: Concept mapping
7: Teaching learning strategies
8: Self verbalisation and self questioning
9: Direct instruction
10: Peer influence.

And so we have ten strategies proven to be more effective at improving pupil outcomes than reducing group size. I guess though that a politician needing hollow sound bites to win headlines wouldn’t have so much success by promising to improve feedback on pupil performance. Until we actually stop the headline grabbing and focus on what is proven to make a difference then politicians are going to struggle to improve the British education system.

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What Russian tennis tells us about talent

Is talent innate, a birthright awarded to the lucky few, or is it something that we all have if it is developed correctly? Given the right experience and opportunities can we all excel?

I remember, when training as a teacher, hearing a lecturer tell us that in our class every child was gifted. Our task was to discover in what field they were gifted and to provide the learning opportunities to develop in this area. Maybe this is true but perhaps talent works in different ways.

Spartak tennis club in Moscow has attracted attention as a result of success. Perhaps it is an example of growth mindset in action. Carol Dweck’s Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential explores why mindset is important to success and Spartak certainly relies upon the correct mindset. Let’s take a look at some facts about Spartak tennis club.

Indoors facilities at Spartak tennis club

Spartak tennis club, Moscow

– It is located on the outskirts of Moscow and has only one indoor court. For many months of the year the outside temperatures mean the only facility available is this one court.
– Three of the top six female Russian tennis players (four if you include the now retired Anna Kournikova) were trained at Spartak.
– Between 2004 and 2007 Spartak achieved eight players in the women’s year end top 20 rankings. In the same time the whole of the USA achieved only seven.
– Spartak has produced more top 20 players on the WTA than the whole of the USA. It has produced more top 20 players on the WTA than the whole of Europe.

But why? What happens to make such a small tennis club stand out. Two things took place here that cemented the celebrated position it now holds in tennis history. Firstly, the lady responsible for coaching took what was, at the time, a unique approach. Secondly, in terms of believing something is possible, success breeds success.

Larisa Preobrazhenskaya

Larisa Preobrazhenskaya – the mother of Russian tennis

The coaching strategy
The coach responsible for the success of Spartak was Larisa Preobrazhenskaya. She developed a system of coaching perhaps in part as a result of her limited resources. Where the USA and Europe were training tennis players by getting them into tournaments from a young age, Larisa was training their muscles. Working in a way that is now common in sports science she realised that a movement could become hard wired (or myelinated) into the brain if it was practised repeatedly. Her coaching strategy was to have her students practise the correct movement for playing different tennis strokes. The students practised in slow motion, with no ball and no game being played. They repeated for hours and with time increased the speed. Only when the students presented with sufficient skill to handle a range of strokes correctly did Larisa use tournament play in the training regime.
In effect, Larisa took the old adage “practice makes perfect” and honed it into “targeted practice makes perfect”. Why spend hours playing a game that might bring only a small amount of opportunity to play a backhand stroke down the line when you can practise that stroke a hundred times in a couple of hours? Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown explores this notion that with the right training talent can be developed. So, is talent simply a matter of the right training or is there something else needed?

Belief breeds success
The importance of self-belief is vital for success in any field. If you don’t believe you can excel then how can you dedicate the time and energy needed. By the way, if you’re still not sure how much time, 10,000 hours. Malcolm Gladwell identified that in any given field to become an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice. That is usually around ten years of dedication. (Outliers: The Story of Success).
Spartak suddenly burst onto the scene with the success of Anna Kournikova. In 2001 Russia had one player in the WTA top 30. In 2007 half of the WTA top 10 were Russian women. In fact, in 2004 the French open final between Myskina and Dementieva showcased an all Spartak final. (A tournament event that became quite common.)
This isn’t unique and talent pools develop elsewhere in the world when an exemplar succeeds and demonstrates what is possible. In 1998 Se Ri Pak from South Korea sank a birdie putt to win the US Women’s Open. This made her the youngest to win, the only South Korean to win, indeed, the only Asian to ever win the tournament. The result, within ten years South Korea jumped from having one player in the top fifty to having more in the top fifty than the whole of the USA. Ten years on and Se Ri Pak was still playing but now although still in the top fifty she was only the 14th highest placed golfer from South Korea. Her success gave belief to South Korean golf and that was the catalyst to a practical take over of the golfing world.

What does this mean for teachers
As teachers, this is important. It is science and it is proven but does it have a place in the classroom? I believe so and I believe there are two key points to take away.

1: Training needs to be targetted – don’t waste time on things that don’t matter
Do pupils have individual learning targets? Are they developing towards an achievable target that moves them forward? Do they understand what they need to do to improve and is it an objective that they can self monitor or, to put it another way, will they know when they have achieved success?

2: Belief breeds success
Using the correct feedback, praising effort as opposed to the child or the attainment, we can develop a belief. Call this what you like, Mindset, confidence or self-belief but without it there is no motivation to invest time and energy into working to improve. Teachers have a duty to make pupils believe in their own capacity to improve and this means removing labels and including individual pupils in an evaluation of their learning. If you know where you are and can see where you are going then you can buy into the possibility that you might succeed. Nothing drives motivation like the likelihood of success.

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Seven big myths (and one truth) about top performing school systems

Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education and skills, wrote an article for the BBC website claiming PISA answers seven big myths about education in the world. Andreas, apart from having an impressive job title, is the man in charge of PISA tests and therefore may not have a completely unbiased opinion. Here is my response to each of his myth busting claims.

1: Disadvantaged pupils are doomed to do badly in school
Andreas busts this myth by referring to Shanghai. He says “the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai have better maths skills than the 10% most privileged students in the United States and several European countries”.
But, China still cheat the education system by entering their two most affluent cities instead of their country. Looking at population, this is probably equivalent to the UK entering Eton and Harrow into PISA! Time magazine ran this article explaining how China is cheating the PISA ranking system. 24% of Chinese students go to college but 84% of students from Shanghai.
One final point that even the BBC acknowledge is that Shanghai doesn’t enter all of its pupils. In fact, only about a third of school age pupils can afford to attend education in Shanghai. With an estimated 300,000 15 year olds eligible for the test, only 100,000 were included. Doing the maths (84% of a third) that means that around 27% of Shanghai students go on to college.
Myth busting busted: Even just looking at Shanghai, it is one of the lower attainers in the PISA ranking.

2: Immigrants lower results
Andreas tells us that there is “no relationship between the share of students with an immigrant background in a country and the overall performance of student in that country”. We would all love this to be true but unless the country concerned has 100% school attendance then Andreas’ statistics tell us nothing. Statistically if there is a cost for attending school then children of recent immigrants are likely not to be in school.
Myth busting busted: PISA data is too incomplete to answer this question.

3: It’s all about money
Andreas says “Success in education systems  is no longer about how much money is spent, but about how money is spent.” He uses South Korea as an example South Korea did well in the PISA rankings but is not one of the biggest spenders on education. But, there is a cultural difference here that is not being included. Much of Asia see school as only a small part of the education a child receives. Children leave school and go immediately into expensive private classes. Often in small groups or individually children are tutored from school leaving time (around 4pm) for up to an additional six hours. This is a cultural difference. Most parents in the UK or America for example expect school to educate their child.
Myth busting busted: What we are actually measuring is not the total spent on education but in fact in the case of many countries we are seeing only about half of their educational spend. The other half is being made by parents after school.

4: Smaller class sizes raise standards.
Andreas finds that smaller class sizes do not, according to PISA, raise standards. Andreas, stop ony looking at PISA. Hattie has already discovered this by taking into account results from much more than just one study. (Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning).
Mythbusted…but not by PISA: This myth that Andreas busted is correct but the proof is found with Hattie and later Alistair Smith (High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools) and PISA alone is insufficient to draw this conclusion.

5: Comprehensive systems for fairness, academic selection for higher results
The same logic that has countered some of Andreas’ mythbusting skills in earlier points applies here. PISA does not have complete information. Shanghai appears to be a non-selective education system and yet two thirds of its 15 year old pupils are invisible to PISA.
Myth busting busted: Unless PISA includes all pupils from all schools and takes into account the pupils not in school then PISA does not have sufficient evidence to discuss whether selective or non-selective education is more effective.

6: The digital world needs new subjects and a wider curriculum
At the risk of repeating myself, PISA does not have the data to answer this myth. Because the PISA data is woefully incomplete it just shouldn’t be seen as useful for making generalisations about curriculum.
Myth busting busted: Innsufficient evidence again!

7: Success is about being born talented
Andreas wheels out his only gun here and uses PISA to bust this myth. Again, PISA doesn’t have sufficient evidence to comment on this but others do.
Myth busting busted: Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success) suggested there is no such thing as ‘Talent’ and that to be an expert at anything took 10,000 hours of practice. Carol Dweck has used research to say something very similar in her work on Mindset. (Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential).

And now time for the one truth…

Truth: PISA is riding high on the fact we love an international competition and is making claims that it just cannot back up by statistics. Until PISA collects data from all students in a country and compares like with like (country with country) then many of the claims that are being made from its data will be easily debunked.

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