#ResearchED 2014: therapy for a nervous wishy-washy teacher

Last weekend, I cycled from my home in Bethnal Green to the 2014 ResearchED conference at Raine’s Foundation School and was amazed to see so many teachers paying out of their own pockets to attend a conference about educational research on a Saturday. The impressive attendance, possibly over 600 delegates, was a real testament to the power of social media: this was truly a “Twitter” conference in that the interest for it has been generated because its leading lights are such active Tweeters. What was really good to see was that quite a few of its attendees seemed to be young, passionate teachers intent upon trying to improve their practice and wanting to engage in the intellectual debates around education. The conference was absolutely packed: you could scarcely move in the main entrance hall of the school at the beginning of the day.

I was there with two other teachers from my school: the schedule was choc-a-block with different talks so we decided to divvy up going to different events. Most of the talks, though not all, were about the whys and wherefores of teachers should using research to inform their teaching or how they might do their own research. The movement is led by Tom Bennett, who has been a R.E. teacher at Raine’s for the last ten years and is the Behaviour Guru for the TES as well as a prolific tweeter. He is now leaving Raine’s to teach part-time at another school and have more time to run ResearchED and write. Under his guidance, the movement is going global: there are going to be conferences in New York and the Far East soon I believe.

As I’ve pointed out before Bennett is, by and large, a fan of Michael Gove’s reforms and advocates what one might chararactise as a “didactic” model of teaching with the emphasis being on the “teaching of knowledge”. In his book, Teacher Proof, he ridicules what he perceives to be the opposite of his approach: “voodoo” pedagogy which advocates such inanities (as he sees them) as Brain Gym and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that quite a few of the speakers at the conference are evangelical about what might be termed a “knowledge-based” curriculum and keen to show that the research endorses their pedagogical model. Perhaps for this reason, I felt a little nervous about going to the conference. On the whole, I’ve felt a bit dispirited reading Bennett’s work which I believe unfairly judges teachers like me, who advocate collaborative learning and take people Howard Gardner seriously, as being hopelessly woolly and failing to teach children “knowledge”. Furthermore, I’ve found my interactions with teachers who are strongly supported by Bennett like Andrew Old quite traumatic on the internet because I know I am no match for their witty one-liners and put-downs.

But I was delighted to find that talking one-to-one to teachers who probably don’t agree with me on a lot of things – including Tom Bennett, Andrew Old and Katherine Birbalsingh — at the conference was a really positive experience. For me, the real marvel of the conference was the way people were talking to each other outside the events: there was a genuinely open atmosphere. Unlike the Wellington College Festival of Education, which I’ve found a bit snooty, there was a real sense that we were colleagues in this “teaching thing” together, even if we may disagree on certain things. I think possibly holding the conference at Raines was an important factor here: this is a non-selective, inner-city school in Tower Hamlets which serves some of the most deprived students in the country. There’s the smell of reality in the place which is the opposite of the rarefied atmosphere you get at places like Wellington.

For this reason, I found the day therapeutic. Many of my worries and anxieties about the Gove-supporters – who I have unkindly called “Gove’s blob” or “the Glob” in the past – vanished. Just as I am not a member of the Blob – Gove’s term for any person who might advocate anything that smacks of progressive teaching methods – Bennett and his supporters are not the Glob. It makes a big difference that Gove’s gone I think: he was a divisive figure who did insist that you were either “for us” or “against us”. There was a palpable release in tension in the air with him gone: I spoke to journalists, academy chain bosses and other important educational chiefs during the day and found them refreshingly open.

In particular, listening to Andrew Old’s talk, “How to have a rational argument about education”, was the best therapy I’ve had in years. As I said before, I’ve always found his anonymous internet presence rather scary and found his emphatic one-line put-downs a bit upsetting at times. It was a revelation seeing him in person: I suddenly “got” his tone. I believe now he’s actually not confrontational but just certain he’s right; it’s a very difficult concept to get unless you meet him in person. My amateur video of the talk gives you a sense of his personality I think:

I appreciated the way Old related his ideas about logic to etiquette on the internet. At the end of the session, I told him I liked his talk and he told me he enjoyed my two books, ‘I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out of Here’ and ‘Teacher On The Run’!! Later on, in the pub, we worked out that we’ve both taught at the same Midlands school, depicted in ‘I’m A Teacher…’ and had a bonding experience the like of which I would never have imagined could have happened in a million years a few days ago. Now that I “get” his tone, his “habitus” as Bourdieu would term it, I have found myself re-reading his blog http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/ in entirely different light. Although he himself feels tone is unimportant in an argument, my experience of meeting him and others at the conference has made me realize that it’s very important. The internet has been incredible in the way it has brought so many people together to talk about pedagogy, but the real dialogue for me happens face-to-face.

My other therapeutic moments at the ResearchED conference:

  1. Having Andrew Old hand me a TES goodie bag he’d found in the pub because I didn’t have one, only to discover that it was the “Tough Young Teacher” Oliver Beach’s bag!! A few tweets led me to cycle over to Oliver’s place in the East End the next morning. We had a pleasant conversation about the conference.
  2. Tom Bennett taking a “reminder” photo of my copy of Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching and promising to consider Petty and Mike Bell, of The Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network as future speakers. I also had a friendly conversation with him about differing views on group work, which I will do another blog on.
  3. Challenging Nick Gibb about the problems with high-stakes, one-off exams which the Coalition has introduced at GCSE and A level. Another blog here I think.
  4. Talking frankly with TES journalists about the possible Tory bias of the magazine – which they denied with some cogent arguments and evidence – and the whole issue of teachers being paid for their resources, which is now being introduced.
  5. Talking to David Didau, a.k.a. the Learning Spy and author of The Secret of Literacy, about supporting the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and being invited to be a member of the ginger-headed teachers’ club, despite the fact that my hair is possibly no longer ginger. But it once was!
  6. Just feeling the general vibe that teachers are genuinely up for turning this into an intellectual, evidence-based profession which will put us on a par with the medical profession in terms of rigour and dialogue.




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Romeo and Juliet: The Study Guide Edition out now in paperback and Kindle!


My new study guide to Romeo and Juliet, which includes a modern translation, how to write good essays etc. I’ve taught this play every year of my teaching career!! Tyears of teaching it went into the book.

Originally posted on FGI Publishing:


You can buy Romeo and Juliet: The Study Guide Edition in paperback or Kindle.

“Clearly Francis Gilbert is a gifted and charismatic teacher,” Philip Pullman, author of ‘Northern Lights’.

“Gilbert writes so well that you half-suspect he could give up the day job,” The Independent.

“A great teacher,” Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight.

Are you struggling to understand Shakespeare’s classic play ‘Romeo and Juliet’? Are you a teacher who needs a really good edition of the play which will enable students to understand the play’s complex language and cover all the key areas required to get a good grade in an examination or coursework?

This brilliant edition of Shakespeare’s great love story may be the answer to your prayers. Written by a teacher who has taught the text for more than twenty years in various secondary schools, this version is aimed at students who must analyse the text in…

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What really matters

Why do 95% of teachers not know about what really works in the classroom? Why are the media and politicians even more clueless? According to Mike Bell, who runs the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network (EBTN), very few people are actually aware of the teaching techniques that are proven to work across all the age ranges and subjects. Bell feels this is because we don’t live in a culture which values evidence; we prefer to argue and disagree rather than come to a consensual point of view based on the best evidence before us.

I have to confess that, until recently, I was not aware of the full range of work that has been done which shows that there are some really effective, simple teaching techniques that consistently work. Sure, I was aware of John Hattie’s seminal research studies but I have to confess that I’d found his book Visible Learning rather heavy weather: it is full of off-putting charts and statistics and isn’t written in readily accessible language.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to attend an EBTN training day recently and came away feeling much more enlightened. The training day was persuasive because, unlike many CPD days I have attended, Bell produces hard evidence that the teaching strategies he advocates have actually worked. Furthermore, he is an excellent communicator, in my view the best in this particular field: his approach is a bit less technical than his mentor and colleague, Geoff Petty, who has written books on evidence-based teaching.

In this short video clip of my interview with him, he explains where to find effective teaching techniques:

As he says in the interview, there are a number of strategies and policies which we know from years of evidence are ineffective. These include:
• Charter schools/academies/free schools
• Reducing class sizes
• Non-specialist information technology
• Untrained teaching assistants
• Staff development with no feedback

In his interview with me, Bell went through the things that definitely do make a difference to students’ outcomes.   You can find the main sources:  Hattie, Marzano and EEF on the EBTN website. All of the strategies which he advocates and which are proven to work are ones which play to the brain’s strengths. As Bell says, scientists are finding more and more about the human brain and are realising that are brains learn by making connections, spotting the similarities and differences between things; this is why teaching by analogy is so important. This is what effective teachers do anyway, but it is useful to know why making analogies help students learn. In this clip, bell explains why ‘Using Analogies’ comes top of Marzano’s list of effective methods.

Teachers are notorious for being overburdened by marking, but Bell says that they needn’t be. Indeed he says that teachers shouldn’t waste their time by marking too much:

It is more effective often to get students to mark their own work.  Summative Assessment should be minimised.

What teachers really need is to have time to reflect upon their own practice. Good quality staff development has one of the highest effect-sizes in education. In this clip, Bell talks about why they need this space during school time:

Indeed when teachers are encouraged to research a particular area of their teaching, they usually improve their students’ learning.  They start to see the learning through the eyes of the student:

Bell points out that there is a great deal of evidence that setting by ability does not change average results and often doesn’t work for the less able students:

What students need to do is to have the space to talk through problems in mixed-ability groups so that less able students communicate with more able students and improve their knowledge of a topic:

When teachers nurture discussion, they really manage to raise levels of achievement. This is why a “no hands-up” rule often works very well because it forces students to discuss key issues in groups.

Students also need to adopt positive attitudes towards learning and to adopt a “Growth Mindset” where they believe that can achieve if they try. Rewarding students for effort not for their innate ability is vital in this regard:

While some of these methods might seem suspiciously trendy to some more traditional teachers – no hands-up, co-operative learning, Growth Mindset –
some methods are quite old-fashioned. Bell advocates “rote-learning” where appropriate:

He also says that teachers must be giving students the big picture of a topic consistently, as well as the fine detail. This is something many teachers neglect to do.

In the interview, Bell discussed the major researchers in this area, who are: Michael Shayer and Philip AdeyJohn HattieRobert Marzano. Here he talks about how Cognitive Acceleration developed following classroom experiences in the 1970s.  It enables less able students to understand complex topics:

In this clip, he talks at greater length about the methods and approaches of the evidence-based approach:

Bell’s own video, The Case for Evidence-Based Teaching, is a good summary of all the main points he makes:

Let’s hope that teachers are given more support and training in these vital areas. Instead of wasting billions on initiatives that we know don’t work, we need to nurture a system which really helps teachers use strategies which are proven to raise standards.

You can join EBTN by following this link.  EBTN also offer training sessions either at your school/college or at an external venue.  I think they offer amazing value.

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10 tips for Tweeting Teachers by @TeacherToolkit


Extremely useful guide to Twitter for teachers. I need to follow some of the advice I think.

Originally posted on @TeacherToolkit:

After several years of tweeting, it’s about time I published my own Tips for Tweeting Teachers.

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Unleashing Greatness? Education Reform in Action


An enthusiastic summary of the Education Reform summit: Sherrington’s ideas are good and progressive, but will they be implemented?

Originally posted on headguruteacher:

” You can mandate adequacy … greatness has to be unleashed”  Joel Klein - via Sir Michael Barber

Ever since I attended the London Festival of Education at the IoE in November 2012, I’ve had a sense that education reform was there for the taking – it’s just a case of people getting organised and learning to express ideas coherently.  Although it is possible to feel powerless in the system – especially one in which the Secretary of State and OfSTED have so much individual and institutional power respectively – there are lots of channels for making direct contact with policy makers.   Through all the conferences and festivals and the connecting power of social media and blogs, the path towards a profession-led system is getting clearer; the policy makers are less remote and it is possible to make them listen – even if they don’t often do what you want…

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The #LastLecture Revisited


Interesting reference to a book, ‘The Last Lecture’ which I’m shamefully unaware of, but must read now! It sounds quite valedictory.

Originally posted on @TeacherToolkit:

In June 2014, I blogged about The Last Lecture as a source of inspiration and reflection of my own vision and values as a teacher. This was a precursor to my vision and values blog: The teacher genetic code. I also shared with the reader, two key questions to answer.

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Teacher Toolkit: the Profession’s Great Freedom Fighter!


Teacher Toolkit, a.k.a. Ross McGill, is one of the most successful teacher-bloggers in the world. He has nearly 60K followers on Twitter, his blog is the number 1. educational blog in the UK, and his book, 100 Ideas for Secondary School Teachers, is one of the most successful books about school published in the last five years. When you drill down into the factors that have created his success, you realize that his story is one of triumph over adversity in a number of different ways – and his overall message is one of real hope for “ordinary” teachers.

The child of religious parents, who were members of the Salvation Army, his schooling was always unsettling because the family travelled so much; from the ages of 5-18, he only stayed put for 3 years. He doesn’t seem to have excelled initially at school, failing to gain good grades in subjects he now shows real mastery of: ICT and English. Ultimately though, his experiences of school were positive because, as he says in my interview with him, a Design and Technology teacher, Mr. Paul Boldy, at his school in Fleetwood, Lancashire, changed his life: Boldy not only encouraged Ross’s love of the subject but also got him to teach younger students, which, in part, encouraged him to become a teacher.

His experiences of failure at school still inform who he is: he remains a little unconfident about his writing abilities and has a modesty about his achievements that possibly comes from being someone who was once bottom of the class. From 1993-1997, he trained to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College but didn’t take up a job in the UK immediately, preferring to do a stint as a VSO teacher in Nigeria first, where he was Head of Design at St. Thomas’s School, Kano. Returning to the UK, he worked as a supply teacher at St Thomas More RC School and then at Alexandra Park School where he was Head of Design from 2000-2008. It’s clear he was instrumental in helping the school raise standards. He worked there with Tom Sherrington, who was then a Deputy Headteacher but now is better known as @HeadGuruTeacher, having become a noted blogger, headteacher and pivotal member of Headteacher’s Roundtable. In 2004, both his headteacher, Rosslyn Hudson, and Deputy Headteacher, Sherrington, nominated him for ‘The Guardian Award for Secondary School Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in London’. His article about APS in the Guardian is well worth reading because it really outlines what makes an outstanding school.

Things were going well when he joined Crest Girls’ Academy in 2008 as Assistant Principal; he joined Twitter at the end of that year and began tweeting as TeacherToolkit, quickly achieving a devoted following because of his pithy, incisive tweets, his ability to listen to people, and his eagle-eye for good teaching materials. He also uploaded his resources to the TES website such as the Five-Minute Lesson Plan, which led to him becoming the TES Resources Contributor in 2013. However in 2011, financial problems at Crest meant that he took voluntary redundancy and this led to him having quite big money worries; surviving off £20k for one year – with no job and his wife on maternity leave for one year. This probably explains much about his attitude to becoming self-sufficient. To make a difficult situation far, far worse, his son was born prematurely and was gravely ill for some time – but now mercifully is fine. He has blogged movingly about his family’s experiences of caring for a sick child here. The feedback and support he got from his blog about his son encouraged him to set up his own TeacherToolkit blog, and the rest, as they say, is history: the blog is, by far, the most read teacher blog in the UK. Its combination of excellent, relevant advice for teachers, its brilliant presentation and Ross’s diligence at responding to all queries on Twitter as well as the blog mean that it has become the “one-stop-shop” for many teachers to sort out their teaching problems and find out about the essential research they need to know about.

From 2011-2014, he has been working at Greig City Academy as Assistant Vice Principal, being chiefly in charge of CPD and Appraisal. I know from my own Deputy Headteacher that he has gained a loyal following because of the way he has blogged about dealing with the tensions of dealing with staff, family and his own ambitions. His human approach is evident in this thought-provoking blog about working and childcare.

I asked Ross how he managed to run such an up-to-date blog and Twitter stream while holding down a full-time job: he explained that he sets up automated Twitter responses that can Tweet during the day without him doing anything, and that he has 35 blog posts in reserve which he can post at any moment. The short answer: be very well-prepared and work hard.

Recently, he has become much more savvy about developing his own independent brand. Everyone in the educational world wants a piece of him: he told me that he is inundated with offers to speak, to write and endorse. But he’s become a little wary after getting his fingers burned at the TES. After gaining the accolade of top TES contributor in 2013, he was told that he could not put links to his own for-sale resources from the TES website. The full story can be read here. As a result, he no longer uploads his resources for free to the TES website but sells them directly through his blog, using a website called Sellfy.com.

Possibly inadvertently, McGill has challenged some of the dominant institutions in education at the moment, what Michael Gove’s favourite philosopher, the Italian Marxist Anton Gramsci, termed the “hegemony”; the ideology promoted by the powerful which exert a huge influence over people’s lives without them fully knowing it. In challenging the TES Connect over the way they promote resources, as you will see on his blog, he is seriously questioning why this powerful global company, which makes huge sums of money, is profiting from teachers offering their resources for free without getting anything back in return. Furthermore, it is an open secret that the TES consistently has backed government policy in privatizing the education system in its editorial approach; while stories questioning some aspects of government policy are to be found in the TES, the overwhelming slant is favourable to the government, with its lead comment/opinion writers being strong supporters of Michael Gove.

We also see McGill challenging the hegemony of the DfE in much of what he writes in that he has been a strong supporter of “bottom-up” training such as TeachMeets, which by-pass the “top-down”, prescriptive approach of much government teacher training.

This said, McGill is no radical or particularly political; I would characterize his approach as eminently reasonable and practical, almost “apolitical”. As you will see on the interview, the advice for teachers is all about encouraging them to meet, to jointly plan and jointly evaluate their practice; it is very much a co-operative model. However, he’s not against competition where appropriate; after all, this is the man who is selling his resources on the free-market without the support any major institution. He feels ambivalent about performance related pay and I think possibly feels it may be needed in certain situations, although he shies away from stating this explicitly. He is strongly supportive of the Teacher Standards, which some teachers have questioned. In many ways, he embodies many of the tensions that most teachers feel: we know the importance of co-operation between each other and schools, the vital need for autonomy, but equally, we’re aware that a free-for-all with all clarity about standards being abolished won’t do either.

Where next for McGill? Well, in September, he starts a new job as Deputy Headteacher at Quinton Kynaston. It sounds like a really good school, with some very exciting opportunities. Talking to him, I think he wants to find more of a happy medium between blogging and teaching. I’m surprised that a school hasn’t given him more room and time to explore his amazing internet success. For example, why hasn’t a school set him up with his own “TeacherToolkit Centre”? He is doing a really important public service in presenting high-quality research in a palatable form for teachers. This is something the EEF is trying to do, but their stuff doesn’t quite have the zip and pizzazz of McGill’s work, which is both distinctive and authoritative. Perhaps QK will do this. He’s also set up his own job vacancies service https://twitter.com/@MyEdHunt which is entirely free, and this is taking off too. So many avenues…

Above all, it’s hugely impressive and moving to see the way McGill has tackled the varying challenges of a disadvantaged education, a very difficult personal time for his family, redundancy, the wrath of a multinational media conglomerate, an extremely demanding senior post in a tough inner-city school, and managed to create the UK’s most successful educational blog and Twitter feed. Wow! And it couldn’t happen to a nicer man. Hats off to him, I say!

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