KS3: The Wonder Years

I had the great pleasure of hearing Mark Lehain (@lehain) speak at the ResearchED National Conference (#rED18) last week. He is entertaining, charismatic and, perhaps most surprisingly given some of the things tweeted about him, not actually evil. He was speaking on the topic of a knowledge rich curriculum – a topic which has provoked as much surreal discourse on #EduTwitter as anything else. He was keen to point out the emphasis on the indefinite article, though. He wasn’t talking about the knowledge rich curriculum; there was no attempt here to dictate or prescribe what all children should learn across the country. Rather, this was a rallying call for teachers to engage with the question of curriculum, and to develop their own answers for their own students.

Lehain’s examples were drawn from popular culture: did you know that The Lion King is Hamlet? (I did, as it happens.) These examples demonstrated how knowing stuff helps to enrich our appreciation of art and culture, and how valuable it is to build cultural capital. This isn’t about elitism – it’s really the very opposite of that.

Lehain referenced the words of Clare Sealy (@ClareSealy) in his inspiring discussion of The Wonder Years,  a further exploration of which can be found at the Parents and Teachers for Excellence project page:

This project was inspired by a great comment the great Clare Sealy made at our inaugural conference. She said that if we accept that Reception and Key Stage 1 is about teaching pupils “to write and not bite”, and that Year 10 onwards is inevitably driven by exam specs, why can’t the time in between be “The Wonder Years”?

She described a glorious period where children are taught a curriculum jam-packed full of the very best that has been thought, said, and done, so that they enter the latter part of their schools with a broad, deep and rich base of cultural & communal knowledge, to draw upon in later life and, yes, exams.

In 2015, Ofsted published a report titled Key Stage Three: The Wasted Years? which raises concerns about a lack of rigour in both the curriculum and teaching in KS3. Of particular concern to me, this report also noted a reduction of KS3 in some schools, as they begin teaching GCSE in Year 9 and have students choose their GCSE options at the end of Year 8.  These concerns about a narrowing curriculum have also been echoed by Amanda Spielman (@amanda_spielman ) in various instances.

Inevitably, there are those on #EduTwitter who see something sinister in these movements, or those who seem to want to peddle an unhelpful focus on some vague notion of 21st Century Skills which reduces schooling to job training and which provides nothing but propaganda fuel for technology companies.

There are more serious critiques of the concept of a knowledge rich curriculum which draw upon critical pedagogy and wish to question what they see as the ‘dead white males’ standard of curriculum design, as perfectly illustrated by union leader Dr Mary Bousted (@MaryBoustedNEU ). However, whilst there may be valid concerns raised in this sort of critique about the content of exam specifications, what Lehain is talking about is, perhaps, somewhat different. A knowledge rich curriculum in Lehain’s conceptualisation would see no such limited focus on dead white males; indeed, equipping students with cultural capital* would enable them to turn a critical eye to such things as curricular set text lists. In my first lesson with my Year 12 English Literature class this week we discussed the prominence of male names in the poetry anthology, and I have suggested that developing a working knowledge of feminist literary criticism would be serve them well.

Founder of the Midlands Knowledge School Hub, Clive Wright (@Irenaeus1969) told me about his school’s English department which studies Ovid in Year 7. His question about curriculum for all departments now is “what’s your Ovid?”. In other words, what are the foundational bits of your subject that your children would benefit from knowing? For me, in order to prepare them for later study at GCSE, I want my KS3 pupils to know about iambic pentameter and sonnets. I want them to know a bit about Prometheus and the Three Fates. I want them to know about Pandora. I want them to know about Romanticism.

But, perhaps more than all of that, I want them to know stuff. I want them to be able to spot references to stuff in other stuff. I want them to be able to say “Oh! I recognise that!”

I want my children – by which I mean the children I teach, and my own daughters – to be able to participate in the great conversations of human activity, endeavour and thought.



*  A fascinating conversation has ensued on Twitter about my use of the term ‘cultural capital here’, which starts at this tweet. Thanks to @memneon and Peter Ford (@EdSacredProfane).



I expected them to be trudging the yard, eyes down, their minds manacled. I expected nervous looks between them as I asked them questions, afraid to utter the truth about their terrible life of drudgery. I expected officious, dry and humourless Vogonesque teachers, chanting out their instructions as the poor children chanted their replies.

What I got was …

I arrived during one of the lunch sittings and was escorted out onto the playground. I saw children. Some of them were playing. Some of them were chatting. All of them were happy.

As I chatted with some of the children, I was struck by their willingness to talk and by their articulate maturity. Inevitably, some were shyer than others; they’re children after all. But all spoke about their favourite subjects with openness and enthusiasm. What upset me, as a teacher of English, is that most of them said their favourite subject is maths.

And then we were into lunch. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had in a school. The children entered the room reciting the words of a poem. They arranged themselves at tables. I was sharing my table with mostly Year 7 pupils, and a Year 9 pupil. We sat. Mr Williams-Yale then recalled the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, drawing out the positive and negative power of influence, before posing two questions for discussion: 1) Who influences you? 2) How do you influence others?

By this time, food and cutlery had magically appeared before me, brought to the table and passed to me by the children. We ate. We talked. The Year 9 girl at our table led the discussion with aplomb, but not before introducing herself to me with a handshake. She was incredible. Her chairing of the discussion ensured that everyone around the table was enabled to participate.

Suddenly, we were on to ice-cream and then the dirty plates and cutlery were gathered up and taken away, by the pupils.

Lunch concludes with appreciations. All pupils raise their hands to offer an appreciation, and my Year 9 girl offered an appreciation to me for my visit and for contributing to the discussion. I couldn’t resist raising my hand to offer an appreciation in return followed by one two clap clap.

I did think that perhaps the lunch was over all too quickly. But then, the logistics of getting children fed in a timely fashion dictate this. It will be interesting to see how this develops when the school reaches full capacity.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the school. What struck me was the silent focus in every lesson. It was impressive, too, to see SLANT in action in real classrooms with actual children. And it works. As the tour progressed, I began to wonder if there was a risk of the children losing a sense of individuality within the pace of the lessons and the direct instruction. I was, perhaps, worried that the children were being somewhat brainwashed to give standard responses. But then I actually listened to some of the answers – and questions – that the children were offering. I noted a lot of discussion between pupils, at the invitation of teachers, but unlike the kinds of discussions I’ve witnessed in most lessons in most schools, these were focused and precise. I was impressed in a Year 8 English lesson by a girl who politely challenged an interpretation offered by the teacher: she gave an informed, coherent, and plausible counter interpretation, supported sublimely by apt textual reference.

Our tour guides, two Year 8 pupils, spoke to us of their ambitions and their experiences of being Michaela pupils. They clearly valued the opportunities that the school is offering them. They were mature, articulate and – and this is impressive in children their age – interested in what we had to say. They asked our opinions of what we’d seen. They asked about our journey. They asked about our schools. These are children who can hold their own when talking to adults.

After my tour, I had the great honour of chatting with Ms Birbalsingh herself. I’ve seen bizarre criticisms of her on #EduTwitter. I’ve seen, too, her speeches, including the infamous Tory party conference one. But here she was, in person. In the flesh. And I was struck by her …

Now look. People who’ve seen me speak at ResearchED will know that I have a problem with the notion of ‘passion’ in education. I resent its use in teaching vacancy advertisements because of the implied expectation of suffering, or of uncontrollable emotion. But that isn’t to say that the term should never be used. And here I’m going to use it.

… passion. One of the criticisms I’ve seen of Birbalsingh is a suggestion that she somehow works against the progressive ideal of social justice. Just ten minutes in her company, or ten minutes walking around her school, will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Birbalsingh adores her pupils. Her kids. She is determined, almost beyond reason, to give these young people the best opportunities to lift themselves out of whatever conditions they find themselves in and to hold their heads up high as they mingle with all those public school alumni who dominate the hegemonic sphere of influence.

As we sat chatting in her office, I noticed the walls which were like those of a gallery: adorned by the most extraordinary artwork. This was a feature of the whole school. The walls around the building were minimal, but the children’s artwork was everywhere. And it was brilliant. Later, I mentioned to the art teacher how impressed I was and she explained how the artwork on display was the direct consequence of drilling. The children work on a particular skill or technique for a long time, enabling them to ultimately produce masterpieces.

After talking with Ms Birbalsingh, I was left to roam the school. This was the point in the day where I would discover the truth behind the facade. Perhaps, up until this point, I had been Mr Whymper, taken in by the apparently full grain barrels. So I went into lessons.

I had the joy of visiting another English lesson where the enthusiasm of the teacher was infectious. I visited maths lessons, art lessons, and science lessons. Everywhere, the children were focused, well behaved, and … engaged. Sure, a few kids looked like they’d prefer to be at home. But then, so do I most of the time. But to see an entire school so engaged in learning was a thing to behold.

I happened to be on a corridor during a lesson change over. It was silent. This is hundreds of children moving along corridors, up and down stairs, in silence. And moving rapidly. In my previous schools, lesson changeover was a key danger spot for poor and dangerous behaviour with children shoving each other on the stairwells, chasing each other on the corridors, and the noise would be horrendous. I once followed a boy down a corridor demanding he let go of another boy whom he held in a neck lock; upon finally releasing him, the aggressor told me this was “bantz”. Here at Michaela seemed like another world.

I did wonder whether I could cope with working in such a place as Michaela. I felt that perhaps I might find it too restrictive, that it would not allow a Maverick teacher to thrive; that creativity and autonomy had been replaced by, albeit very successful, routines and procedures. But then I remembered why I love the sonnet form so much.

The English (or Shakespearean) sonnet has a strict set of rules. It must have 14 lines, constructed of three quatrains in alternate rhymed iambic pentameter, followed by a rhyming couplet. Such prescription, such restrictive order. And yet … Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. The tight structures of the form allow for great creativity of expression and sophistication of expression. A sonnet is a piece of rhetoric, a logical argument which turns at the volta. It is the perfect expression of human artistic endeavour, perhaps even the pinnacle of literary enterprise.

Perhaps, within the tightly controlled parameters of their school days, teachers and students at Michaela can thrive in the creative beauty that form allows.


On the 12th May, 2018, my school is hosting #CharacterED2018, with keynote speakers Nicky Morgan, Sean Harford, Elizabeth Wright, and Martin Robinson.

I look at that sentence not quite able to believe that it’s true. What began as a silly idea dreamt up while I was mooching around last year’s ResearchEDRugby event is now just a few weeks away; and it’s real.

With help, support, and encouragement from my friend, colleague, and co-organiser @joanneowens, we have brought this thing to life. Our little Cathedral School is about to host what we hope to be the first of many such conferences, forming part of an important national debate about the nature of Character Education, whether it can be taught or if it’s caught, and how schools might go about embedding it.

Character Education is back on the agenda (did it ever go away?), with Damian Hinds talking about traits like “resilience”. However, I’m uneasy with talk of “soft skills” and preparing children for the “workplace”, as I’ve discussed before and I don’t want discussion around Character Education to get hijacked by these kinds of reductionist, utilitarian discourses. Rather, I’d like to embrace what Gert Biesta explores and describes as subjectification in his description of the three aspects of educational purpose, and what @bernywern discusses in his comments about educational fideism.

I’d like to reclaim the phrase 21st Century Skills, and wrench it from the hands of those who would seek to sell us technological snake-oil, or condemn our children to a lifelong job training scheme. I wish to redefine it as being-centred education – how to be in the 21st Century.

For me, Character Education is an act of what Foucault calls the “critical ontology of ourselves” and which he describes as a “philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them”.

Character Education, then, is not some vague notion of “soft skills”, nor is it anything to do with preparing for the workplace. Rather, it is the training of individuals to become subjects, it is a deliberate philosophical life, an ongoing experiment with the possibility of going beyond the limits imposed upon us.

Character Education is not just about individuals though. It is about society. It is about focusing on, celebrating, and nurturing those attributes which so many of our young people already demonstrate. It aligns, I think, with ideas around a post-critical pedagogy, taking a “positive stance”.

I’m quite excited about our conference. Why not join us?

Link to Eventbrite page for #CharacterED2018

Character Education in the 21st Century

Confirmed keynote speakers:

  • Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP – Author of Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character;
    former Secretary of State for Education (2014-2016).
  • Sean Harford – Ofsted’s National Director, Education.
  • Elizabeth Wright – Paralympic Medalist, schools speaker and character education expert; co-author of Character Toolkit for Teachers: 100+ Classroom and Whole School Character Education Activities for 5-11 Year Olds.
  • Martin Robinson – Author of Trivium 21c; Education and Curriculum consultant with an interest in the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric).

Additional sessions from:

Sonnet 2 – Education

I’ve been looking at some of my old stuff, and came across this sonnet which I wrote in 2009. It’s interesting to look back at stuff one wrote ages ago to see if it still rings true. This does, to an extent.  It’s not very good.

Anyway. Here it is.


The fatal kiss of targets blows upon
The wind like whispers heard in darkened rooms
The measurements become our only truth
Imagination murdered in the womb
And who would dare to question how and why?
For fear of fateful consequence to come
And judgement is that numbers are the key
For raising the attainment of just some
It’s more to justify the jobs of those
Pathetic parliamentary whores of hell
Who prostitute our children’s future dreams
And have no souls their own that they could sell
There is a secret hanging in the air
It’s only known by those who really care

Hearty Musings 3: Four Years On

This year, Valentine’s Day marks 4 years since I experienced a cardiac arrest. I wrote about some of my thoughts and feelings about this experience and how it affecting my thinking about education in two posts here and here. It’s interesting looking back on that second one, where I contemplated ideas about the Self before I’d read Foucault’s Self Writing. The ideas I was contemplating at the time around identity and an almost deliberate act of identity construction seem now almost ironic, perhaps.

Four years on, how have things developed? How have I developed?

Well, in general, it’s been a pretty good four years. Professionally, I finally decided to get out of the state sector and have found myself in the rather odd position of being happy at work. I’ve taken a promotion, and actually seem to be doing okay at it. I seem more able to deal with things, and to get things done.

Personally, I have been thrilled and humbled to speak at three ResearchED events and getting more involved in the Tweacher Society. This has been great. I’ve met lots of amazing teachers and others who have inspired me and given me confidence; far too many to mention all of them here, but I have developed a strong network of people that I genuinely consider friends. I’ve had some positive reactions to my EdD work, which have encouraged me to continue and I am hoping to finally finish this year.

My family continue to amaze me every day; my daughters are just wonderful.

But, and it’s pretty difficult to find the right words for this, I do still occasionally feel as if I’m piloting a cadaver. This sensation was the dominant one for about a year following the cardiac arrest; a sense of disconnect from the world that was unlike anything I’d previously felt. I was a zombie, rather like the version of Lazarus that Carol Ann Duffy portrays; a fraudulent ghost inhabiting a stolen body and a stolen life.

The obvious damage to my short-term memory didn’t help, and although I’ve gotten used to this, it still causes issues for me at times. People don’t seem to realise that this is a genuine issue; they think I’m just not paying attention. Which may be true. I really struggle with conversations at times still.

It’s timely that this anniversary – my sort of rebirthday – falls upon Ash Wednesday. Lent is supposed to be a reflective time; a time during which we refocus on the things which are important to us. But, whilst reflection is important, it is important also to look ahead. There is not much use in mourning a version of me that I’ve long forgotten.

And so, with Lent in mind, I shall choose to give up the doubts that tempt me to hesitate and procrastinate. It’s time to inhabit this body, this life, and to pilot the phoenix.

#CharacterEducation and #SelfWriting

I’ve been tweeting a bit lately about Character Education and what I’m calling Being-Centred Education. In my mind, these are merging with ideas that I’m formulating around Foucault’s Self Writing. So I guess it’s time for me to try and put some of these thoughts together and put them out there for correspondence.

During the course of my doctoral research into EduTwitter, I’ve been reading a bit of Foucault. I’ve been drawn, though, not to his big theme stuff on things like power or Panopticism, but rather towards some of his lesser-known ideas. I shall write more about these once I’ve completed my thesis, but the one that has really caught my imagination is a little essay he wrote titled Self Writing. I don’t intend to give a detailed exploration of that essay here, but I will endeavour to give a summary (I managed to do a three minute summary at #TMBrownhills with which I was reasonably pleased!).


Foucault looks to two concepts from the Greco-Roman past: the hupomnemata and correspondence. The former is what Foucault describes as an “experience book”:

“a material record of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering them up as a kind of accumulated treasure for subsequent rereading and meditation” (Foucault, 1997, p.210),

Through this activity, these snippets are incorporated into the subject’s Self. This act of consuming the already-said and representing it enables the material to become part of the fabric of the subject’s being.

The second element, correspondence, is the act of offering up one’s writing to the critique of another. This creates a cycle of feedback and discussion which further develops the very being of the subject engaged in the process.

Foucault suggests that Self Writing exists somewhere between and outside of these two elements. A combination of the experience book and correspondence with a critical other.

For me, it seems quite obvious that engaging in EduTwitter is itself an act of Self Writing and I’d encourage more teachers to do it! Furthermore, I think that blogging is an ultimate expression of this kind of Self formation and re-formation.

I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Birmingham’s Philosophy of Education conference Thinking About Teaching in October 2017 where I was inspired by Gert Biesta as he spoke about his conception of the Three Domains of Educational Purpose. Biesta (Biesta, 2015b, 2015a, 2007) points out that schools generally tend to be pretty good at qualification and socialisation; they are perhaps not so good at subjectification:

“which has to do with the ways in which education ‘impacts’ on the personhood of the child or student, promoting such qualities as, for example, autonomy, criticality, independence, compassion, or grown-upness” (Biesta, 2015b).

This is what I mean by Being-Centred Education: a deliberate focus on how to be in the world, inspired by Biesta but also by other ideas about what education – or more precisely, schooling – should be for. I’m a keen advocate for improving the effectiveness of classroom teaching in order to help pupils gain good exam grades; I have been attempting to incorporate what I’ve learnt (so far!) about Cognitive Load Theory into my own pedagogical practices. However, it concerns me if schools have too heavy a focus on these aspects.

My current school has a strong ethos that I would argue sits within Biesta’s domain of subjectification. As a result, I believe that our pupils hold excellent attitudes towards their communities and towards society in general, and that they develop a strong sense of ethical leadership as they go out into the world.

For me, this is the essence of Character Education – Education with a clear moral purpose to help children and young people to grow in their knowledge about themselves and their place in the world and, bit by bit, to change the world for the better.

But it isn’t only our pupils who should be encouraged to reflect upon their own sense of Self and how they wish to nurture and cultivate it. For me, this is the best way to shape effective staff development. Teachers, and school leaders, should be encouraged to actively and continually reflect on their own practice. They should be encouraged, also, to expose themselves to the gaze and critique of others; not through the patently redundant and fruitless trauma of top-down, high-stakes lesson observations, but through a carefully considered narrative account of themselves as teacher.

So, get your colleagues to sign up to Twitter. Get them to blog. And, most importantly, Tweet like you’re Foucault.


Biesta, G. (2007) WHY ‘‘ WHAT WORKS ’’ WON ’ T WORK : EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE AND THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH that teaching should be or become an evidence-based profession has recently come tional research that were commissioned by the Department for Ed. Educational Theory, 57 (1): 1–22

Biesta, G. (2015a) Improving education through research? From effectiveness, causality and technology to purpose, complexity and culture. Policy Futures in Education, 14 (2): 194–210

Biesta, G. (2015b) Teaching, Teacher Education, and the Humanities: Reconsidering Education as a Geisteswissenschaft. Educational Theory, 65 (6): 665–679

Foucault, M. (1997) “Self Writing.” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) Ethics, subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 1. New York: The New Press. pp. 207–222


(not) Action Research

I had the great pleasure of attending the SSAT National Conference in Manchester (#SSATNC17), which provided a rich mixed-bag of speakers, including the ever-brilliant Paul Kirschner, and the utterly inspiring Professor Phil Scraton who spoke about his work uncovering the lie about the Hillsborough Disaster.

In addition to the main stage speakers, there were a wide range of breakout sessions; my favourite of the conference being Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) talking about the great work he and his team at Durrington have been doing to develop a research-informed culture of practice.

One session I was particularly looking forward to was on Action Research. I have long believed that Action Research is a potentially powerful tool for teachers and school leaders to bring about small but radical changes in practice. But I have been frustrated, really, with the poor reputation that Action Research seems to have with some amongst the education community.

So, as I sat in the session on Action Research, I couldn’t help find myself a little saddened, and beginning to understand why AR has such a poor reputation. The projects which the session leaders were discussing were perfectly reasonable and clearly had the potential to improve, for example, staff wellbeing. But I became increasingly curious as to what bit of this was actually AR. Having teachers conduct investigative projects and engaging in reflective practice is, on the whole, a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned – but why not call it something like Research Informed Reflective Practice, or just Reflective Practice? Why use the monicker Action Research?

As Professor Stephen Gorard (@sgorard) tells us in his book Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences (2013), much of what is called Action Research bears little resemblance to what was initially conceived by Lewin, originator of the term Action Research, who called for scientific rigour. According to Gorard:

Unfortunately, other commentators have used Lewin’s title of ‘action research’ to describe their own approaches, which are nothing like this. They eschew the robust science called for by Lewin, and take on only the idea of participatory reflective progressive problem solving. (p154)

So, I asked Gorard what he thought about teachers going Action Research, to which he gave this response:

Looking through the #ActionResearch hashtag on Twitter reveals quite a range of ideas and projects, some of which actually look quite interesting. But very few seem to be in the original, Lewin, mould of AR. Furthermore, I think it would actually be pretty difficult for teachers to engage properly in AR. Lewin said that AR “will have to include laboratory and field experiments in social change” (cited in Gorard, 2013, p.153). It is conceivable that, if working with researchers in universities, teachers could participate in elements of AR but, quite frankly, we do not have the resources at our disposal to actually run proper AR projects. At the very least, teachers do not have full access to journal libraries in order to conduct proper literature reviews; neither do we have adequate research design and methods training to conduct this type of work. I wish we had, and hope that this will become the norm at some point in the future. But as things stand, teachers simply cannot engage in proper AR.

I wonder if the term Action Research is being applied to not-actually-action-research projects in the hope of giving it a sense of academic rigour, or purposefulness, to add weight to what they are doing. Sadly, in my view, it has the opposite outcome – it can look like teachers play-acting at being academics, and we really don’t need to do this.

I think what these teachers are doing is, in the main, pretty good: engaging in an informed process of deliberate reflective practice, trialling interventions and strategies with their own pupils and colleagues, and assessing the effectiveness. I would urge more teachers and school leaders to foster a culture where this becomes standard practice. I would encourage teachers to take up their digital quills and write reflective blogs – to engage in Self Writing.

But let’s not call it Action Research. Let’s call it what it is: Reflective Practice, or Research Informed Problem Solving. Or teaching.




Gorard, S. (2013) Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences London: Sage