Body of Evidence

Having looked at the effective selection of evidence in a previous post, I thought it about time I wrote something about the ways we get students to make use of the quotations and other evidence they select in responding to texts.

Madona uses candlelight to locate quotations in increasingly challenging literary texts.

When students who have less control over their analytical writing attempt to use evidence, it can read a little like this:

“Mixed up together like bees in a hive” this shows priestly thinks we should work together more.

What we do about this ‘floundering in the shallow end’ approach to using evidence is so important if our students are to develop a more convincing, analytical and critical voice.

In the past, I’ve produced and seen other English teachers produce lists of phrases which students can use to introduce quotations. My hope, at the time, was that this would help them pretend to embed quotations into sentences. The intention was that this would stop them jarringly dropping quotations at the start of a clumsy, stumbling dribble like the example above. Many moons ago, I shamefully created a PEE Generator which you can see a section of here:

What I’d like to do in the rest of this post will borrow from the methodology used by Jim Carroll (@jcarrollhistory) in this blog about historical explanation writing. Carroll explores how different historians craft historical explanations. His assertion is that the way many history teachers train their students to produce this style of writing is too distant from academic discourse – the writing frames they utilise are overly generic.

In a similar way, I’d like to explore how literary essayists take control of the evidence, shaping it so that it fits neatly into the body of their writing.

To do this, I’ve focused on five extracts of essays on Hamlet, collected by Harold Bloom in his Shakespeare Through the Ages. These extracts can be found at the end of this post. I’ve labelled each one with a source number (A-E) for ease of reference in the remainder of the post. Each of them makes use of direct quotation from versions of the script.

The first thing worth noting, before we even look at these specific sources, is that, compared to a GCSE English Literature response, the essays Bloom selected contain very few direct quotations. This has made me wonder whether, as a result of our obsession with Assessment Objectives and marking rubrics and our attempt to push as many students over a specific threshold of achievement, we have come to fetishise the quotation as a form of evidence. In his 1919 piece Hamlet and His Problems, T.S Eliot includes two quotations – both used to call into question the artistic quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

It is very difficult to find an example in the collection which follows the pattern:

  1. Here’s what I think.
  2. Look at this evidence that proves what I think.
  3. Now read how/why the evidence I’ve chosen proves what I think.

This seems to echo the findings of my not so scientific experiment.

The way the essayists in Bloom’s selection manipulate evidence is mostly very different to the way we train our students to do so at secondary level. It’s certainly a country mile from the model I developed in my PEE Generator.

So, what do these essayists do?

  1. They use quotations to demonstrate their knowledge of key aspects of the play’s narrative, then question and explore what Shakespeare is highlighting in terms of a character’s motivations (Sources A and C).
  2. They thread quotations into a description of the audience’s reaction to the characters. (Source B)
  3. They use longer quotations, hanging outside the prose of the essay, as if to say “Taddaaaa! This proves what I just wrote.” (Sources C, D and E)
  4. They use a string of quotations from the same scenes or sometimes from different parts of the play to support what they’re saying about wider events which support an overarching line of argument rather than an isolated “point.” (Sources B, C and E)

The fundamental commonality between all of these examples is that the quotation falls into the overall line of argument which the writers have in mind. Though it arguably provides students, who are novices in terms of analytical writing, with a structure for an individual paragraph, a substantial concern I have with PEE or its derivatives is that it doesn’t help students to develop a thread through their literary response. Instead, they create isolated clunky chunks which form a less coherent mass.

What we should be doing is teaching students this wider range of ways to utilise evidence through exemplification and modelling, explanation and opportunities for them to practice.

Source A

In the final scene, mortally wounded and having killed Claudius, Hamlet hears the “warlike noise” (5.2.349) of Fortinbras’s approaching army and declares, ”I do prophesy th’ election lights / On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice” (5.2.35556). What could possibly justify Hamlet’s urging Fortinbras’s succession? These words are either spoken ironically or are the stoical observation of someone who knows that even Alexander the Great and Caesar return to dust.

2005—James Shapiro. From A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599

Source B

Shakespeare gives Fortinbras the last word on this, but that word is irony, since Fortinbras represents only the formula of repetition: like father, like son. “The soldier’s music and the rite of war” speak loudly for the dead father, but not for this dead son, who had watched the army of Fortinbras march past to gain its little patch of ground and had mused that: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument.” The reader’s last word has to be Horatio’s, who more truly than Fortinbras has Hamlet’s dying voice: “and from his mouth whose voice will draw on more,” which only in a minor key means draw more supporters to the election of Fortinbras.

1986—Harold Bloom, “Introduction” from Hamlet (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations)

Source C:

Hamlet himself sees from the first that the Ghost may be an instrument of darkness sent to ensnare his soul, and the doubts which appear in his first words to the Ghost are the best possible reason for not rushing, thoughtlessly, to his revenge:

“Angels and Ministers of grace defend us: Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d, Bring with thee ayres from heaven, or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked, or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape. . . .” (1.4.39–43)

Horatio is more certain that the apparition is infernal and may yet ‘assume some other horrable forme’ to ‘deprive your soveraigntie of reason’ and ‘draw you into madness’ (1.4.72–4).

1987—Graham Bradshaw. “Hamlet and the Art of Grafting,” from Shakespeare’s Scepticism

Source D:

If there is one quality that has characterized, and will characterize, every speech of Gertrude’s in the play, it is the ability to see reality clearly, and to express it. This talent is not lost when turned upon herself:

“O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.” (III.iv.88–91)

She knows that lust has driven her, that this is her sin, and she admits it. Not that she wishes to linger in the contemplation of her sin. No more, she cries, no more. And then the Ghost appears to Hamlet. The Queen thinks him mad again—as well she might—but she promises Hamlet that she will not betray him—and she does not.

1957—Carolyn Heilbrun . “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” from Shakespeare Quarterly

Source E

Finally, Hamlet’s melancholy accounts for two things which seem to be explained by nothing else. The first of these is his apathy or ‘lethargy’. We are bound to consider the evidence which the text supplies of this, though it is usual to ignore it. When Hamlet mentions, as one possible cause of his inaction, his ‘thinking too precisely on the event’, he mentions another, ‘bestial oblivion’; and the thing against which he inveighs in the greater part of that soliloquy (IV. iv.) is not the excess or the misuse of reason (which for him here and always is godlike), but this bestial oblivion or ‘dullness’, this ‘letting all sleep’, this allowing of heaven-sent reason to ‘fust unused’:

“What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” 26

So, in the soliloquy in II. ii. he accuses himself of being ‘a dull and muddymettled rascal’, who ‘peaks [mopes] like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of his cause’, dully indifferent to his cause.27 So, when the Ghost appears to him the second time, he accuses himself of being tardy and lapsed in time ; and the Ghost speaks of his purpose being almost blunted, and bids him not to forget (cf. ‘oblivion’). And so, what is emphasised in those undramatic but significant speeches of the player-king and of Claudius is the mere dying away of purpose or of love. Surely what all this points to is not a condition of excessive but useless mental activity (indeed there is, in reality, curiously little about that in the text), but rather one of dull, apathetic, brooding gloom, in which Hamlet, so far from analysing his duty, is not thinking of it at all, but for the time literally forgets it.

1904—A . C . Bradley . From Shakespearean Tragedy

Litteranguage – Part 3

So far in this series I’ve explored whether the English Language GCSE provides an adequate curriculum and assessment model. In this post, we’ll explore how well it gauges the “progress” which individuals or cohorts of students have made between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.


There are some studies – this one from the EEF probably being the most notable – which have explored whether KS2 data can act as a useful predictor of KS4 performance. Apparently, it was at the time the data in the report was produced if fine scores rather than levels were used. I’ve yet to come across a report which does the opposite – namely establishing whether the GCSE actually provides us with useful information on students’ progress since they took their KS2 assessments. If you know of one, please send it my way.

Despite this, there are three key areas I’d like to explore here that call into question whether GCSE results do provide us with a useful gauge of progress:

  1. How far are the assessment frameworks similar?
  2. How far are the question types similar, taking into consideration the need for heightened expectations for Key Stage 4?
  3. How far are the conditions in which the assessments take place similar?

Different Class

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the KS2 English tests from a secondary English teacher’s perspective.

I shared this table which is an attempt to consider how each aspect of the KS2 content domain ties in with the Assessment Objectives for GCSE English.

Producing this grid makes it clear that, although there are undoubtedly clear connections between the skills required at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, there is now more clearly (and rightly so I think) a wider gap between the two levels than there was when we were all using the same Assessment Focuses during the APP days of yore.

What’s more interesting, as it has greater implications in terms of the gauging of progress is that writing is not included in this measure. At KS4, writing constitutes 50% of a student’s overall marks and therefore their grade. Writing is assessed at KS2, but this is carried out through teacher assessment. Michael Tidd (@michaelt1979) has written interestingly on this – in particular, the issues around moderation and defining levels of independence.

In addition, when you look at the reading questions at KS2, they are almost rigidly fixed to a specific area of the content domain. This is not as clearly the case with the English language GCSE (certainly that of AQA). An example of this is the evaluation question, which I’ve explored in the past here. This sometimes loose connection makes it difficult to make comparisons.

This is Hardcore

There’s little doubt that the current Key Stage 2 Assessment framework is challenging for children in Year 6. The difference though between the manner and modes of assessment at Key Stages 2 and 4 with students having to complete far longer responses to texts and two solo pieces of writing with no redrafting, make the measurement of progress between the two key stages somewhat ridiculous.

High Point, Low Point, Cardboard Box

I had a bit of a breakthrough moment with some students the other day in terms of Paper 1 Question 3 of the AQA English GCSE.

I did a dance in class. My students didn’t think it was a dance and to be fair they were (probably) right – some of them do dance BTEC and it wouldn’t even have ticked the boxes for the pass criteria. However, I think it may have helped with the question.

In many ways, considering structure in writing is like examining how a great dancer fuses flashdance with MC Hammer.

An issue a colleague of mine had unpicked was that quite a number of our students had been approaching question 3 by going through the text in a linear fashion – exploring structural features at the beginning, then in the middle, then at the end. Interestingly, this appeared to be limiting the points they were making. In their minds they were overcomplicating it or getting confused and writing too little. She’d worked out that a beginning, end, turning point approach was helping her students. I tried this and, like her students, mine began to move forwards. However, in some of the sample papers and the papers teachers have shared on Twitter, either the ending is the turning point or the turning point is so close to the ending that students find it tricky to spot the difference – sometimes there isn’t a turning point at all and sometimes the line is blurred between the ending and the turning point.

My revelatory moment came (and this is very straightforward so be prepared not to be shocked but it’s helped students so you may want to use it) when I began to use the terms high point and low point alongside turning point.

  • Where is the high point in the tension?
  • When is the low point in the protagonist’s happiness?
  • Where is the turning point in the character’s luck?

Of course, you could use climax and anti-climax as other, more literary terms are available, but having these three terms has just begun to help my students get a grip as they feel more consistent.

Plus, I get to do a bad dance.

Stand back! You’re about to be expertised.

It feels as if the last few years in teaching circles have seen a resurgence of debate about the primacy of knowledge – particularly that of the declarative kind. There has been a proliferation in the publication of books and blogs debunking the once prevalent application of Bloom’s taxonomy as a means to skim and skip past knowledge (of which, this is one of my favourites). We have ‘knowledge organisers’; knowledge based curricula and knowledge rich schools. Much of this stems from the work of E.D. Hirsch and its influence on current government policy. “Knowledge is power.”

Two possible futures are playing on my mind currently which, if we overly-fetishise declarative knowledge, we could end up making a reality.

Chunk says, “Chunk it.”

The first is that we may end up with some students who know some or even lots of pieces of knowledge without effectively developing an overall schema, making useful links between the isolated pieces of information they have learnt.

Just like many other schools, we have been producing knowledge organisers. I’ve written about this process here. We’ve been creating them for Year 7 and 8 first and have (again like many other schools) focused on using various self-quizzing strategies, including look/cover/write/check and flash cards during the first proper year of their usage. To a certain extent, I still think this sensible. Taking on too much can prevent things ever becoming embedded.

However, my current concern is that the way we’ve led students towards this still encourages them to learn particles of knowledge in isolation. I’m moving towards favouring a model of either designing or using knowledge organisers which look more like Kris Boulton’s suggestions here. This would, I suspect, trigger students to generate stronger links between the declarative knowledge on the organisers than learning the knowledge in discrete pieces. Unless schools move beyond quizzing the particles, fewer students will generate the chunks. This requires very careful consideration at curriculum level of the relationships between elements of declarative knowledge in our own school’s curriculum as well as clear thinking about how we can draw on elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and graphic organisers. It doesn’t bode well for schools who are lifting knowledge organisers from other schools and unthinkingly using them as teaching tools. The likelihood is that these schools will believe knowledge organisers don’t work in a couple of year’s time, because they didn’t consider the implementation carefully enough.

This vehicle is reversing expertise.

My second concern stems from some reading around what cognitive scientists call the expertise reversal effect. It is that, in making declarative knowledge the main thing, schools could hold some students back.

In their book, Efficiency in Learning: Evidence Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, Sweller et al maintain that “Many of the instructional methods that are effective for novices either have no effect or in some cases, depress the learning of learners with more expertise.”

They then propose these differences:

Numbers 27 and 28 are really important here as they highlight the risks faced if teachers spend too long on recall or quizzing in lessons where they are teaching students with relatively high levels of expertise in the content being covered. As students increase their expertise in a specific domain, so the level of guidance required from a teacher in that aspect of the domain needs to be reduced. This doesn’t mean open-ended, project based learning. Instead, it requires carefully designed opportunities for students to apply their declarative knowledge of the domain, developing procedural knowledge in increasingly challenging circumstances to consolidate what they know.

As David Didau points out in this post, it will take carefully designed assessments to ensure we go neither too fast nor too slow.

Lessons from The Best Job in the World

Vic Goddard wrote The Best Job in the World as a celebration of being a headteacher. The whole book is a great read. However, my intention here is to summarise some of the key lessons an aspiring headteacher might glean from the book so I’ve left out most of the parts about his involvement in the television show, Educating Essex, even though these are still really interesting in terms of narrative.

One of the key lessons for headteachers from Dame Sally Coates’ Headstrong was to be authentic. Goddard’s authenticity certainly shines through from the first chapter and from every single page afterwards.

Lesson 1:

It’s hugely humbling and should be seen as a great honour for a parent to say they are willing for you to educate their child and support in bringing them up. Never treat this lightly.

Lesson 2:

Develop a roll your sleeves up attitude and give due respect and recognition for other people’s hard work.

Lesson 3:

Celebrate students’ successes. Goddard writes about putting pictures up around the school of any student who has represented the school with their house colours.

Lesson 4:

Workload, isolation, self-image and being the one who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the students’ education are all concerns people have about becoming headteacher, but the benefits outweigh these concerns.

Lesson 5:

Government accountability is important and needs to be balanced with the primary function of the headteacher which is to do what’s right for the young people you serve.

Lesson 6:

Embrace self-doubt in a way which makes you more thorough and build a team around you to complement your skills set so that gaps don’t become faults.

Lesson 7:

Get your relationship with your governors right, including how you share information with them, verbally and on paper.

Lesson 8:

Develop and nurture Goddard’s five P’s:

  • Personality – be authentic.
  • Passion – find what drives you to start something and carry it all the way through to completion and find a way to share this and communicate it with others so that they feel the same way
  • Purpose – define your goals and aims and how you will share these with others in a way which will make them want to buy in to the same thing.
  • Perseverance – keep persevering through good times and bad and find ways to build perseverance in others.
  • Pride – Build towards being humbly proud of your students and your team. Aim for students and the community being proud of their school.

Lesson 9: The Gordon Ramsay Model of School Improvement

Work on:

  • Curriculum – both the model and the delivery
  • Staffing – getting people in, moving people on and moving people up through coaching, CPD and promotion
  • Needs of the students and the community – build student leaders, but also engage with parents (both those who’ve chosen your school and those who haven’t) and local businesses
  • Environment – everything from toilets to classrooms to sports pitches
  • Ethos – get your expectations of behaviour right first with an effective centralised system of sanctions and rewards so that teachers can teach and raise expectations around achievement. Build pride through ensuring uniform is right and successes are celebrated. Build a sense of community through student leadership, vertical tutor groups and a house system with competitions. Support students to achieve, no matter what their backgrounds or barriers to learning.

Lesson 10: Vision

The Passmores’ vision is in six parts, each with a separate related image:

  1. An air traffic control tower symbolising no room for error.
  2. A railway track symbolising a journey to a destination.
  3. Many hands on top of each other symbolising working together determinedly.
  4. Scrabble tiles spelling success and determination.
  5. An image representing exclusions being a final resort and failure on the part of school and the young person involved.
  6. An image of a satsuma peel shaped like a person carrying themselves, showing when things go wrong you have to pick yourself up and try again.

Lessons from Headstrong

Headstrong, by Dame Sally Coates with Steve Adcock and Michael Ribton, highlights eleven lessons for school leaders – handily though unintentionally making it easier for me to structure this blog post. Although many of the lessons are relevant for leaders more generally, the writers mention on a number of occasions that their focus is primarily on schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round. The book draws on the writers’ experiences in transforming Burlington Danes Academy in London.

Headstrong begins with the narrative surrounding Coates’ appointment as headteacher of Burlington Danes whilst the remainder of the book explores what it takes to turn a school round. This includes, “strong leadership; dedicated and talented teachers; decent facilities and resources; and personalised support.”

Coates sets out to establish that, even though “the tragedy is we’ve known about the pernicious link between social background and achievement for decades,” there is no need to accept this link in a defeatist or fatalistic manner. In fact, with strong leadership, and in particular a strong headteacher, Coates argues schools can have an impact on achievement and therefore play their part in narrowing social divisions. The 11 lessons are as follows.

Lesson 1 – Lead from the front

A central message of Headstrong is that headteachers should be flying the flag for SLT, teachers and students to follow. In order to do this, they should be authentic – few of any worth will follow an inauthentic leader or a false idol.

In the early days of leadership, Coates argues headteachers should maximise the leverage they have in their honeymoon period to kickstart necessary changes. This means not accepting that which is substandard, thereby setting your high expectations early. Coates warns against timidity and directs new headteachers who wish to turn a school around towards being:

  • Professional
  • Decisive
  • Boundlessly optimistic
  • Energetic
  • Calm
  • Authoritative
  • Brutally honest

Lesson 2 – High expectations

The kind of high expectations Coates believes should be set early stem from having belief in the students – a belief that should exist no matter what the students’ backgrounds. Children, on the whole, won’t rise higher than their community expects them to and their environment allows, though there will be outliers.

Your behaviour system, Coates maintains, helps demonstrate your expectations. This includes detentions, ‘corrections’ and acceptance of low level disruption. Maintaining high expectations is affected by the contemporary cultural climate but this cultural climate can be overcome by effective relationships and systems driven by strong leadership in schools. Pivotally, the claim of high expectations is less important than the consistency of their application.

Lesson 3 – Professional culture

Coates argues for the prioritising of teacher quality. Central to this is the creation of a culture where teachers can do their jobs, which she goes on to outline in lesson 4.

Making the right appointments to your team is key, but alongside this should be opportunities to gather together to develop and reflect through internally organised CPD. SLT should be a clear presence in the school on what Coates calls walkabout. The idea is to generate a level of sensible consistency. Coates also argues that, where possible, because you’ll have developed your staff you should promote from within.

Lesson 4 – Set Your Teachers up to Focus on Marking, Planning and Teaching

Coates sees this as meaning headteachers and SLT having a vital role in enabling teachers to do the core of the job. In order to achieve this, leaders should secure behavioural standards; recruit wisely; establish minimum standards and core expectations for teaching; provide opportunities for development; and, over time, enable teacher autonomy.

Lesson 5 – Create a culture of transparency and accountability.

Headteachers, Coates believes, are responsible for ensuring that rigorous, accurate, meaningful data is in the hands of those who need it: namely teachers, students, parents and the rest of their SLT. This means that the relevant staff must have had training on producing and using robust assessments. It also requires that checks are in place to secure accuracy of assessment. Coates maintains there should be a rigour rather than ruthlessness around data. She also believes in rank orders as a catalyst or motivator for student progress and, therefore, attainment.

Lesson 6 – Treat students as individuals and personalise intervention.

Headteachers, according to Coates, should make sure students are known as individuals and cared for – in part this means developing and maintaining a strong tutor and pastoral system. It also means:

  • Getting the right data into the right hands.
  • Avoiding intervention outside class impacting on learning inside class.
  • Treating exclusions with the gravitas they deserve.
  • Looking to maximise students’ talents.

Lesson 7 – Create clear systems and structures

Coates asserts that SLT need to be both operational and strategic. They need to gain and maintain the respect of other members of staff, students and the community. School, pastoral and faculty structures all need to be in alignment with the school’s vision. In terms of timetabling and intervention, Coates argues we should look first at how you can maximise the time you have already in the school day before adding any more.

Lesson 8 – Cultivate a Bullet Proof Culture and Ethos.

Here, Coates makes the argument that schools need to create their own code of honour. A headteacher is the champion of the school, the establishment and maintenance of this code. This includes the internal relationships between students, staff and the school as well as the relationship between the school and the community. To achieve this:

  • Use assemblies to share key messages about culture. They drive a sense of collective purpose.
  • Behaviour systems, uniform, your extra-curricular offer, a house system and decor play a key role here too.
  • Use newsletters and staff briefings to support in the development of the code.

Lesson 9 – Develop the Whole Child

Academic outcomes alone are not enough. Many schools talk about developing character without thinking hard enough about the mechanisms through which they will do so.

A substantial role here is played by the school’s extra-curricular and co-curricular programmes. Students need to be aware of and take up the positive opportunities available to them within and outside the school gates if they are to become positive participants in society. Engagement with charities and the local community enable students to see the impact they can have on the world outside of school.

Leadership opportunities, such as school council member and prefect, offer students opportunities to practice the roles they might take on in society in the future.

Diet – both that provided by the school canteen and that sold by local shops – is important too.

Development of character comes from teachers modelling respect towards each other and towards students.

Lesson 10 – Schools Don’t Operate in a Vacuum

In this chapter, Coates deals with the impact of government policy and external accountability. Schools leaders, she argues, have to accept accountability and change but do so whilst managing it in the best interest of their students.

Schools can both support students towards academic success and nurture them to develop other talents.

Accountability is required to ensure they do both. A key point she makes is that testing brings equity between students taught in middle class schools and their peers in other communities. Accountability therefore brings credibility to the profession. In the 1970s-1990s, there were issues for students in schools serving low income communities as they were often neglected. The curriculum in any school shouldn’t hold students back, no matter their background. In fact, it should be designed specifically to help students maintain equality with their peers. Schools are well placed to make a significant impact on social inequalities, though they cannot do this in isolation. Homes, parents and societies matter. This takes a significant commitment from all staff, particularly in schools in deprived areas and challenging circumstances.

Lesson 11 – The Pebble and the Mountain

In this lesson, Coates outlines four stages of school improvement:

  1. Intensive care – six months in which the head tackles low expectations and poor teaching. Some headteachers get stuck in this stage as it’s intoxicating for them. This is where schools can become based on fear rather than trust.
  2. Critical but stable – here, headteachers work on convincing staff that they can develop under the new regime. Provision of excellent training is important here. Leaders need to be highly visible here to support this development of increased expectations.
  3. Development – Coates also calls this professionalisation. In this phase, headteachers shore up routines and rituals to develop a systemic approach to each aspect of school life. Leadership can be distributed more at this stage.
  4. Collaboration – this is where the head is looking to share what they’re doing with others. This can include expansion.

Constant renewal runs through each of these stages. Everyone, especially leaders, needs to guard against complacency. Small details matter as they all add up to the overall impact your school has on the students and the community. This includes the school environment and uniform. Criticism and correction is done in private whilst praise is done publicly. Leaders need one eye on the long term and the other on the day to day processes of the school.


Leadership matters. Though there are standard aspects of school development, strong leaders are required to adapt these to a specific school’s context. Schools are human organisations so require strong systems but strong human leaders and relationships. The headteacher drives this agenda.

Coates argues that headteachers need to find their own strengths and play to their advantage – there are other models than Sally Coates’ but hers is most likely to be successful in schools in areas of deprivation or schools in challenging circumstances which need turning round.

Spots of Time – The Poetry and Prose of Teaching

As a response to the question, “Why don’t poets just write what they mean?” I’d generally subscribe to Coleridge’s view that prose is “words in their best order” whilst poetry is “the best words in their best order.” There are times when both the choice and sequencing of words lifts the meaning of a line of poetry above that which would have been expressed if a writer had selected ‘plain English’ prose. Another argument, of course, is that the poet did write what they meant – they intended to put those specific words in a specific order in an attempt to make us think or feel a specific way. Oftentimes, once we’ve unravelled the syntax and imagery of a phrase, a line, a stanza of poetry, something sublime emerges.

Despite this attempted defence of poetry, I can’t help but agree, on occasion, with the sentiment of the question. Some poetry is neither the best words, nor the best order. It’s just rubbish.

Wordsworth often suffered guilty migraines, resulting from his attempts to mock Coleridge by putting the worst words in the worst order.

Coleridge’s balladeering buddy, Wordsworth, wrote some rubbish, for example. Some real rubbish which would have been better in plain English. Take a look at this seemingly unending and painful sentence from The Prelude:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

Wordsworth, The Prelude. Book 12. 208-218 (1850 edition)

There’s something important and true and beautiful in what Wordsworth is arguing here but I’m distracted from it rather than drawn to it by the meandering syntax of the sentence. It’s this kind of over-complication verging on impenetrability which, I suspect, results in a feeling amongst less experienced readers that poetry is this way – relatively dense in syntax but relatively sparse in meaning.

Whilst Wordsworth struggled to contain the his dribbling sentences, Coleridge struggled to contain his neckerchief and mullet.

In the same way, I think we are often guilty of over-complicating the process and practice of teaching. The more complication we add to our lessons, the less likely we are to notice misconception, bewilderment, reluctance or a lack of challenge. We can be too busy with the sometimes distracting poetry of teaching to notice these issues. I was reminded of this, when this tweet popped up on my timeline the other day:


This was followed by the creation of the #Nobservation hashtag by Matt Pinkett, through which people shared a range of largely ill-conceived advice, given to them by people who had observed parts of their lessons. There were hundreds of responses and, although it’s difficult to tell whether there is a truth in every single one, the sense of collective relief in being able to share the apparent stupidity of some observers comments was substantial. Quite a number of the comments related to the observer’s desire for more poetic excitement in the lesson.

One of the key frustrations which seemed to emerge in the thread was that people who appeared to know little about the context of a class, a lesson, a subject or a school could be so wrongheaded about something. I’ve been on both sides of this situation before. I know that I’ve made some of the suggestions in the thread to other teachers in years gone by. I’ve also received some of the other advice as a teacher. I’m sure I will look back in ten years’ time and think that some of things I’m currently doing are pretty stupid. We’re all, to our own degrees, imperfect.

When you spend much of your time “judging” the quality of education in your school, which is at least a part of the role of a school leader, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the large or even small spots in your school where the prose of teaching has a clarity to it – where there is plain teaching.

Something we’ve done over the last few week’s which has been really useful, I hope, is take all of our teachers in small groups, on a walkabout of the school, dropping into lessons  to see what we can pick up from the teaching of others. It’s been a little like a surgeon’s rounds.

On the walkabouts I’ve been on, I’ve seen amongst other things:

  • An amazingly clear explanation of how to use a saw: “accuracy is life.”
  • Some exceptional trainees demonstrating that, if you have and make use of an effective behaviour system in your school and you prepare your lessons well, then you can teach effectively from very early on in your career.
  • Some of the most efficient resource distribution I’ve ever seen allowing more time to focus on subject content.
  • Superbly crisp transitions between one activity and another.
  • The initial impact of a teacher’s high expectations with regards to the use of mathematical terminology in class discussion.
  • Carefully sequenced questions and tight time limits enabling students to produce really well crafted responses to a key moment in Romeo and Juliet.

The opportunity to walk into lessons with such a wide variety of teachers from different subjects made me look at our school from a different, quite humbling angle. We’ll take feedback from them to see if they felt the same. My suspicion is that many of them will have learnt as much from this as they would from a coaching session and certainly more than from the advice exemplified on the #Nobservation thread.

There are, in our teaching. spots of time in lessons which lift us up, either when we’re higher than we’ve been before or when we’ve fallen to our lowest point. Maybe Wordsworth wasn’t such a nobserver after all.