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Category: Teach Better

Use a forum for class discussion

Use a forum for class discussion

I used to collaborate across schools on a discussion of a taught text. This is a small site with an educational section that makes it more school-friendly than the likes of Reddit and Voat. I gave some simple instructions and let the students take over.

I’ve found this useful for kickstarting revision. The upvotes/downvotes might not work with every class (though I’ve found them a motivating element). If this is the case, Google Classroom discussions might work. Alternatively, you could investigate corkboard apps like Padlet  , Spaaze and, or collaborative mind map apps like Mindmup or Popplet.



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Whose data is it?

Whose data is it?

These days just about anything – from your toothbrush to your toilet seat – can generate data about you. This new information revolution is already being touted as a force that will transform education. We can turn Data from the troll under the bridge to a magical helper, serving brand new insights about your students. But as with any blog post that begins with “these days”, things might be quite a bit more complicated than they first appear.

I completely agree that ‘new data’ can transform schools, but only if schools transform how they think about data. Let’s start with a question:

Whose data is it?

You only need so many performance management meetings to convince you that your class’s data is your data. Why shouldn’t you take ownership? You’ll be the one held to account and most of your students probably don’t even care about the data.

Yes, this is the reality, but things get a bit more complicated when we consider the broad range of data students can generate about themselves. Should we take ownership of our students’ heart rate data? Their cognitive ability profiles? Their mood? Sleep? Productivity?

I am certainly not arguing that we should stop collecting this data. All of these metrics could provide valuable insights that enhance an individual’s lifestyle and learning. I’m arguing that we need to look at this another way. Data can be something our students do, rather than something we do for our students: I’m arguing for a model that is bottom-up before it is top-down.

The sociologist Deborah Lupton outlines five distinct ways of handling personal data:

  1. Private: For one’s own purposes only
  2. Communal: Shared with other self-tracking peers
  3. Pushed: Encouraged by others
  4. Imposed: Foisted upon people
  5. Exploited: Repurposed for the use of others

Chances are, your school is somewhere in the 4s and 5s (and if it isn’t, let us know about it). At best, you’re using data as the edifice within which students earn validation, and at worst, you’re using it as a stick to beat them with. And then maybe there’s all the data you keep secret from the students: the data you use to create focus groups, assign support, decide on setting or get tactical about which students will give the school the best results.

I’m not here to point fingers, but I would suggest that some of these practices are not appropriate for “new data”.

I hope to show in my research that once data stops being seen as the troll that termly wakes from beneath the bridge of whatever bulky data software you’re asked to use, it can take on new forms and become something that students willingly engage with.

Once data is

  1. Generated and owned by the student
  2. Clearly presented and frequently seen
  3. Responsive to concrete student behaviour rather than abstract criteria

It can become meaningful and motivating, without our complete top-down control. What’s more, if these interactions can also allow for peer sharing (and I’ll offer some suggestions in future posts) then the effect could indeed be revolutionary.

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Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

Teachers, stop rewarding your students!

You’re not going to like this but you need to hear it. The kids you teach don’t benefit from the institutional bribery you are facilitating.

The Educational Endowment Foundation (UK’s biggest funder of educational research) released a recent study on motivation across more than sixty UK schools. The Year 11 students were split into two groups and a control group.

Group 1 got the offer of £80 but had money deducted from this incentive if they failed to meet targets.

Group 2 got a voucher they could use to go on a trip if they met their targets.

The study found that neither group saw any significant improvement in their attainment as a result of the programme. What do the authors of the study suggest? Bigger incentives!

In fact all past studies by the EEF have so far failed to find an effective incentive. Strange, isn’t it? Someone should really look into that.

They have!

Over the last thirty years researchers in Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Science and related fields have overwhelmingly found that people just don’t behave like the rational predictable mice we used to put in mazes in days of yore.

Researchers separate rewards into “intrinsic” (from the activity) and “extrinsic” (unrelated to the activity being rewarded). The consensus is that extrinsic rewards just don’t work. You can have a look at Deci and Ryan’s work in this area yourself but I particularly like a study by Carol Dweck. She got two groups of students to paint for an hour but gave one of the groups extrinsic rewards. Next time the kids got together to pain, the group that had been rewarded reported that they enjoyed painting significantly less than the group that received no reward. In another study two groups had to find a solution to an “escape the room” problem (think Portal). The group that had been paid for getting out of the room came up with fewer solutions – because what’s the point of being creative or coming up with more if this quick route gets you to the outcome quicker/easier?

Finally, take the case of two online communities: Mahalo and Quora (Thank you to Nir Eyal for this example and much else). Both sites were free and asked users to post their questions and have others in the community answer them. Both gave kudos points to top answers. The difference is that Mahalo allowed users to exchange their kudos points for actual money. How did they do? Have you heard of Mahalo? Didn’t think so.

Dopamine is the chemical most associated with reward. Dopamine motivates us to act not when we receive a reward but when we anticipate novelty. The short term gains we see when we give kids sweets for finishing a task (as well as making the task a means to an end) will quickly stop being effective as the reward becomes expected. Think of a drug addict who needs ever increasing amounts of the substance or a gambling addict who doesn’t even enjoy playing anymore. What’s more, if the things we teach have any real-world application, our young people will likely find themselves in situations where the expected reward just isn’t there. The thing they had to be bribed to do now has to be done for free and suddenly all the ways they’d previously cheated the system will come back to bite them.

When we give students rewards, what they learn is how to get rewards.

In an impressive show of collaborative learning, kids at my school have learned that they can get points for finishing a book if they share the answers to the comprehension test with their friends, dividing the amount they actually need to read by five or six. Of course, much of this learning and conditioning is unconscious and the consequences will only become apparent down the line.

A focus on intrinsic motivation meanwhile will save you time and money and leave class work untainted. How do you feel about your GCSE English text? Why?

But intrinsic motivation isn’t proper motivation you say, checking your Facebook page for the 48th time today.

What I hope to show in my research is that it is entirely possible to create environments of motivated learners without investing in systems of extrinsic motivation. I don’t mind giving away an early secret weapon: it’s “Hooked” by Nir Eyal. 

Can we start putting some thought into this please. Am I missing something?







I know that some teachers are working in contexts where extrinsic rewards are necessary e.g. some forms of special education.


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Some things I learned at the Learning Disability Worldwide conference

Some things I learned at the Learning Disability Worldwide conference

Mind maps are marvelous for all your learners
1. A review of all the good studies on mind maps and comprehension showed that they im20160910_120846prove students’ understanding of a text. Get all your students to fill in a mind map once they’ve read something, whether it’s a textbook page as well as a novel. Some teachers also got students to create ever growing mind maps as they went along in their reading. A separate study showed that it works with maths too!
2. A replication study confirmed that mind maps are better for revision than a traditional textbook. Students need a bit of training on how to convert their notes or textbook page into a mind map but once it was set up, students saw clear improvements.
There are lots of tools that let students create and track their own mind maps. The app SimpleMind and the website X Mind are two good starting places. You can set up a teacher Evernote notebook to receive these mind maps when a student creates one.special

Paired writing probably doesn’t work (unlike paired reading)
It seems Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are the exception. Pairing students to work on a piece of writing wasn’t going to plan for this researcher. Though it’s worth noting these were primary school kids.

Someone is doing a review of whether you can actually teach spelling
It seems German schools have an actual system for doing this that’s rather different to the spelling tests I’m familiar with.

There were also many other investigations into things like how kids with special educational needs feel socially excluded.

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Spice up your literacy with Story Wars

Spice up your literacy with Story Wars






It’s hard to get thirteen-year-old boys excited about alliteration or subordinate clauses. Of course the best way to teach grammar is the best way to teach anything:  you have to get them to follow or break the rules in “real life” and then to reflect on the impact. For us English teachers, real life is sometimes hard to find.

Story Wars comes close.

I’m excited about Story Wars because

  • It’s social (and competitive)
  • It’s light and flexible
  • It’s set up to make writing intrinsically rewarding


Story Wars is an online community of (mostly) young writers. The idea is that someone writes the first part of a story and then other members submit the next part. Other members vote on which version of “Chapter 2” is the best. The member with the most votes “wins” and the whole process is repeated with “Chapter 3”. You are awarded “gems” for your activity on the site.

At first, the gem thing seemed a bit lame – I’ll write about why extrinsic rewards get my goat in a future post – but the good thing about these gems is that they are actually the currency you need to continue engaging with the site. For example, it costs twenty gems to post your own story.

Story Wars allows writers to conduct quick and easy experiments.

Be warned: the stories on the site occasionally use adult language; for example, “As sweat poured down his forehead, Sergeant Jizzbucket reached for his radio.”

Let me give you one way to use it in class.


  1. Teach the class one or more language devices / structures
  2. Show them a list of writing prompts. Get them to write a paragraph from a prompt using one or more of the devices. There are several good writing prompt apps out there like Writing Exercises and Writing iDeas .
  3. Split them into groups of five and get them to share the paragraph, feeding back on effectiveness and use of devices, then voting on the best one.
  4. Give each group sixty seconds to decide what could happen next in this story. (This is to allow them to focus on form rather than content later on).
  5. Get the class into a computer room (or set this as a homework with the winner of the vote sharing a link to their story with the rest of the group) and have them set up a personal account on
  6. Ask the winner of the vote in each group to start a new story (the green pencil icon at the top) with their paragraph, while the other group members explore/vote for stories on the site.
  7. Get the other group members to find the story by searching for the title. Have them write their own “Chapter 2” without talking about it or looking at what others are writing (you might not need to do this since they are competing against each-other). Remind them to try out some of the devices or structures they looked at earlier on.
  8. Write down each group’s story names on the board and have the class vote on all of them. Wait at least a day and check which version of the chapter got won. Look at the various winning entries with the class and get them to identify why they were successful.
  9. Ask them to forget about the rules and devices when they write Chapter 3 and then reflect on how successful these writing pieces were.
  10. Set it as an ongoing homework for the class to finish the story.

It’s quite liberating to write for an audience of strangers and not to worry about whether your piece “goes anywhere”. Here’s my attempt: (vote for it!)

It’s easy to shift the focus from devices to whole-text structure. You can choose how many parts the story has. Then think about the plot progression from one part to the next, modelling a chapter on the board. For instance you could limit the story to five parts and look at Shakespeare’s Act structure or Booker’s five stages to a basic plot or Freytag’s pyramid.


There’s probably a better way to use this that I haven’t thought of. Let us know.


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Cut the stress of lesson planning with Trello

Cut the stress of lesson planning with Trello


If organisation doesn’t come naturally to you, then juggling what resources you need to produce for what lessons for what day for what class can be rather stressful. It’s nearly as stressful as finding all those resources when you’ve got two lessons back to back and the class are temperamental and last time the email with the attachment got buried in your inbox and when you tried to find it on your USB they all saw the photos from your holiday in Magaluf.

With Trello I can create a dashboard so that everything is right there in front of me. I plan

A Y12 Creative Writing lesson
A Y12 Creative Writing lesson

and retrieve my lessons in one place without fiddling about too much. If I click on a lesson in my timetable, all my PowerPoints, worksheets, links and notes are there.

Be warned though: the process of setting this up and sustaining it from week to week could be a lot more streamlined. Can you think of another way to achieve the same results? I feel like it’s something Google should do, by integrating Calendar and Drive.



  1. Create a Trello account and create a  new board.
  2. Title your board “Blank Timetable”.
  3. Click “Add a list…” and name the list for the day of the week. Create a new column like this for each day of the week.
  4. Click “Add a card” under each day for each lesson you are teaching (Add after school and lunch sessions if you’re going to track clubs and duties).
  5. Every time you add a new card, write in the name of your class.
  6. Once you have your full timetable laid out, hover over a class and click the grey pencil in the top right of the box. In the drop down menu click “Edit Labels” – this will allow you to colour-code each class.
  7. On the right-hand side, near the top of the page, click “Show menu” and then “More”. Choose “Copy Board”.
  8. You are now working on a copy of the board. Click the title in the top left to name the board with the starting date of the week you are planning.
  9. Click on a lesson to add resources or notes to it. You can choose “attachments” from the right-hand side and choose a file from your computer, Dropbox or Google Drive. Any links to websites or videos you paste it will automatically preview, ready to play / visit once you click enter. Make sure you’ve got at least a comment on every lesson you’ve planned already so that you know what you still need to do at a glance.
  10. Use “stickers” from the menu on the right side as reminders for specific lessons / break times.


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This is for the ones who made it

This is for the ones who made it

I know nothing about special forces. All I know is that new recruits have to go through intense and unpredictable training  and about 80% of them don’t make it. I couldn’t tell you what sets apart the minority who make it into the profession but I’d be interested to know what they do differently. I don’t think anyone would argue that it takes hustle to make it into Spetsnas or the RAF.

A lot has been said about the 40% of would-be teachers who drop out before completing their teacher training. There’s also a lot out there about the 50% or so of teachers who say they want to leave the profession in the next two years. Finally, there are the concerns, expressed by the NUT and others, about teacher shortages in key subjects. There are serious and complex issues shaking up British education and there are excellent blogs about these issues, but this isn’t one of them.

That didn’t quite come out right. What I’m saying is that I want to create a different kind of narrative.

This is a blog for the ones who make it and the ones who stay.

Your undergraduate degree does not prepare you for teaching any more than three years at the local gym prepares you for the marines. The job of teaching is changing fast and nobody can be blamed for drowning in the torrents, but some of us get through, day after day. I want to know how we do it and how we can hustle and break the rules and do it better.

Many of you are stuck in classrooms in departments or in entire school systems where you feel alone. Some of you haven’t stepped into a school since you were first allowed to leave but you have the unique eye of an outsider. This is a community for anyone who wants to shake things up and give young people a proper education.