Lessons learned #5: You don’t achieve consistency through consistency.

One of the criticisms that Ofsted had for us last June was that we had a lack of consistency.

So we revamped the marking policy and the presentation policy. We did a book scrutiny and a series of learning walks. We wrote up what we found and fed it back to staff as whole school feedback. Nothing changed.

Here’s something I’ve learned: whole school feedback does absolutely nothing. All it does is make the best teachers feel more guilty and therefore more stressed than they already are, and the teachers who need the most development don’t realise just how much development they need. So as a leader it may feel like you are giving the staff a consistent message, which surely must help increase consistency, but actually it’s doing just the opposite.

That wasn’t entirely a revelation for me, as it was the kind of thing I knew in principle, but living and breathing the reality of needing to make rapid changes in a few months really made me learn it.

Since then I have started an ongoing document for each staff teacher which encapsulates areas for development and actions to take around the teaching of mathematics. This has been great, because each teacher has their own needs – their own starting points – but each teacher also has two aims in terms of their quality of work: compliance and development.

Every school, every organisation, has their own set of non-negotiables to which their staff must comply. That is the first step to achieving consistency. Some people find this harder than others – my Achilles heel is my handwriting, which I can do well when I concentrate, but at the end of marking 90 books, if I’m not careful it does tend to drift towards the illegible. Achieving consistency is about giving the individual feedback to help each staff member become compliant with the non-negotiables. At my school, it’s not good telling all the staff to improve their handwriting in their marking,as that’s only a message that the select few need to hear.

Development is even more important than compliance. We all want to be the very best teacher we can be. Three things make us good teachers: subject knowledge, pedagogy and motivation, but we’re all strong in different areas. It’s the job of our senior leaders to identify the areas that we need to get better at and give us just the right guidance to become even better in each of those areas. And again, if you were to only work on subject knowledge for all staff, when behaviour management (part of pedagogy) was the issue, you would not be achieving consistency.

It’s been my job to raise standards in maths teaching across the school. I’ve done this by working inconsistently on compliance and development with different teachers, giving them individual written guidance to do so. We’re not there yet, but by feeding back inconsistently, I hope that I have increased consistency.

There are only two types of pedagogy

I’ve had my brain cells jangled over the last few days by some of the debate stirred by Michael Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on 5th Feb. An earlier Scenes from the Battleground post gave an almost prescient insight on the subject. I’ve looked at a few tweets and one or two blogs on both sides of a divide that seems to be termed ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’, including this one, which seems to indicate that not all of Gove’s evidence is as positive as it could be.

I don’t think traditional and progressive are helpful terms when thinking about pedagogy.

It would seem that ‘traditional’ means direct instruction. It means drill and practice. It means chalk and talk. It means text books. It means students as expectant yet passive learner. It means teacher as sage, mentor and guardian of knowledge.

Whereas ‘progressive’ means discussion. It means group work. It means pupil voice and co-construction. It means learning styles and putting the child firsts. It means teacher as coach, or even facilitator.

To me such division is destructive. I don’t think of pedagogy in that way.

To me there are only two types of pedagogy – fixed scaffold and negotiated scaffold.

In fixed scaffold the teacher sequences the lessons in a set way that will enable the student to master the knowledge by the end of the sequence. The teacher is entirely in charge of this sequence – they know the start points and the end points and they use their teaching skills to enable their students to succeed through the fixed scaffold they have designed.

In negotiated scaffold, the teacher may still set the end point, but the journey to achieve that end point is negotiated between student and teacher. Together they set the learning goals of the students on a short and medium term and the teacher alters their teaching to suit those short and medium term needs.

In my experience, both of these pedagogies have educational merit. The former allows the teacher to apply all their subject knowledge to a given group of students so they can succeed, while the latter allows the student to feel more ownership over their educational journey, therefore engendering motivation. I have recently blogged why motivation is so important.

In fact I have my own small scale evidence of the success of both pedagogies. Back in 2011 I taught a maths group for a year. They were low achieving, working about two years below national standards and, just as a ‘by-the-way’, they were nearly all girls.

I taught the first seven weeks using an entirely negotiated pedagogy. So much so, that I didn’t even set goals for the children – we used a Google Spreadsheet to share what area of maths the children most wanted to learn. I ran that through a word cloud gadget and the words that came up the biggest became the curriculum. Progressive or what? We blogged about the learning and used the responses from the blogs to go off at tangents and start new enquiries that we hadn’t even considered. At the end of those seven weeks the group had made twice the expected progress.

In the second seven weeks I planned the entire learning sequence myself. I analysed the weaknesses and taught a sequence of lessons that I thought would address those weaknesses. Each lesson was laid down in a strict order a week or two in advance. After those seven weeks, again the group had made twice the expected progress.

Now I fully realise that this small scale research would not stand up to the rigours of academic study, but for me it means that I have started believing that both pedagogies work. And it means that I regularly use a mix of negotiated scaffold and fixed scaffold within the sweep of my teaching each year. I tend to use the negotiated stuff to start things off with a class or a group – to get to know them and to help them feel like they own their learning. Then when I know them well enough I use the a more fixed approach, regularly using direct instruction, but still intermingling the odd bit of group work, discussion, and dare I say it (especially when I’ve blogged so negatively about it in the past), facilitation.

In percentage terms I reckon I may start a term about 50/50, but then move to 20% negotiated, 80% fixed by about mid-term. If that makes me more of a traditionalist, so be it.

“The Trendy Word is ‘Scaffold'”

“The Trendy Word is ‘Scaffold'”


I blogged a couple of days ago about a mistake an Ofsted inspector had made during a headteacher’s briefing meeting.


It might be somewhat predictable, that as a teacher who’s been through 5 Ofsted inspections, I should seem to enjoy pointing out when an inspector makes a mistake. I’ve had enough of my own shortcomings identified during inspection that it might look like merely petty revenge…


Here’s another mistake anyway.


Part way through the briefing, the inspector, talking about the inadequacies of some aspect of teaching that she had seen somewhere, came up with the quote that makes the title of this post.


“The trendy word is scaffold.” She even raised her eyebrows as if it was some kind of new-fangled educational fad.


Wasn’t it Bruner who first related the word ‘scaffolding’ to teaching sometime in the 1950s? He was working on Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development and came up with the concept that teachers could put structures in place to support learning. And isn’t that what teaching is? Teachers either fix the steps the students most go through to learn something, or they negotiate the steps with the students and guide them through those steps. Two ways if scaffolding – rigid and negotiated.


So, teachers scaffold learning. Some prefer the rigid approach, others negotiate the learning targets, and some mix it up. I’m not convinced that any one approach to scaffolding learning is better than any others, nor have I met any teachers who don’t scaffold their lessons in some shape or form.


I have seen some people get confused between lesson resources and scaffolding. Maybe this is what the inspector was getting at. For example I’ve seen writing frames given out to support a particular style of writing and been referred to as ‘scaffolding’. But that’s not trendy, it’s just wrong – Bruner referred to scaffolding as the interaction between the student and the teacher, not the handing out of some photocopied worksheet – photocopiers had barely hit the mass market by the time Bruner was doing his work anyway.


Maybe Bruner should be pleased that scaffolding is finally trendy. And maybe Ofsted will be raising their collective eyebrows at the work of others academics – a sly laugh at Piaget or a muffled cough at Vygotsky. Don’t worry though, these new fads won’t fool Ofsted.

Good for the fractions learning; bad for the coffee mug


Sometimes children hear the word 'fractions' and they turn off.

I saw it on Wednesday when I started my lesson on comparing and ordering fractions. I had barely uttered the words when I saw a few heads drop. A few children joined in when I asked them what they knew about fractions – one knew the word 'third'; someone else knew 'part'; yet another one knew they have something to do with division. But quite a few heads with dropped.

So while the keen had their hands up, and others were looking to avoid eye contact, I slid an empty coffee mug into an empty plastic bag. Then, for security, whilst the conversation continued, I placed the first plastic bag into a second one.

Then I smacked it against the wall. Really hard.

All the children looked – some jumped.

I proceeded to pull pieces out of the bag and estimate how much of the mug each piece had been, from the large chunks (1/3 or 1/5) to the tiny chips that were only 1/1000 or maybe even smaller.

The children were engaged and by the end of the lesson all of them had made some progress about ordering and comparing fractions. Even the special needs group children who, according to their data, struggle to order numbers 1-100.

As a bonus, we even specified that the bottom of the fraction was called the denominator and the top number the numerator – I love it when children learn proper maths words, although it was amusing to hear one child call the top number the nominator and the bottom number the dominator.

So, if you're stuck with teaching fractions – break something. At least you'll stop the heads from dropping…
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