The Fine Art Of Avoiding Failure

Failure, what does it mean?

A lack of success in a physical or mental task

Failure could be  an  outcome failure – You have failed the exam,

or  a process failure  – You passed the exam but with a disappointing performance

Very young children don’t fear failure . They fall over many times as they try to learn to walk for example . They are naturally attracted to things that can cause injury.  They show little sign of risk aversion .  They seem universally attracted to six ‘dangerous’  things:

  • Heights – They love to climb, often going dangerously high
  • Going fast – Swings and roundabouts they shout to go faster
  • Dangerous tools – They love a sharp knife or scissors
  • Dangerous elements – Fire is fascinating !
  • Rough and tumble – Play fighting runs the risk of injury
  • Getting lost – Hide and seek and wandering off

All of these things are thrilling, but also have potentially dire consequences if they go wrong.

As we get older we tend to become more risk averse. The pain (sometimes literally ) of failure looms larger in our lives. High stakes testing in early education makes both process and outcome failures a real possibility. Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it becomes out of proportion and causes  performance anxiety that is limiting.  Then we turn to failure avoidance.

How to be brilliant at failure avoidance.

We all have taught students who put far more effort into avoiding failure than in trying to be successful. What are their key strategies?

  • Do nothing – this is quite simply the perfect fail safe mechanism. If you don’t do anything you cant possible get it wrong. This is commonly used by disengaged boys and high achieving desperate to please girls.
  • Feign indifference – I really don’t care, so I wont try. In doing this you can easily hide your true ability. Failure is from lack of effort, not through any personal inadequacy. This can be extended in more interesting ways by becoming outwardly hostile.
  • Blame external factors. Other people – My teacher is useless ! Situations – The equipment is really poor quality ,  State of mind – Im tired. There are unlimited options here for the advanced skills failure avoider.
  • Copying others.  A low risk strategy. If I do the same as others then I cant fail relative to them. So I buy my designer label clothes as they are the safe option.  I copy a friends homework
  • Cheating – Given the option of appearing really good falsely or being quite good in reality. The failure avoider will choose the short term gain even though their inability to do it themselves will probably unravel at a later date.
  • Lie – A much easier solution than telling the truth. Failure avoiders are short term fixers, we’ll just get this problem sorted regardless of the long term consequences
  • Procrastination – Making decisions is always accompanied by a sense of loss. We now have less options than we did before.  By not making a decision I cant get it wrong !
  • Ignoring the problem. Reality is far less important than our perception of reality. Lets live in our fantasy world because reality sucks!
  • Disappear – Just don’t turn up for the challenge !

Its great being a failure avoider because you don’t have to take responsibility if things go wrong. In your mind you’re still doing ok !

So how many of the strategies above do your students use?

How many do you  use  ?

Please add any more ideas in the comments

Next post will be – How to change the mindset of a failure avoider !





Resilience – Why do our youngsters lack Resilience? – What we can do to help them

Do you find your students (or your children)

  • Often give up too easily?
  • Lack initiative?
  • Deal with failure badly ?
  • Blame others when things go wrong?
  • Want you to solve their problems?
  • Fear failure, so use avoidance strategies?

They are possibly lacking in resilience

The American Psychological Association defines Resilience as:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives.

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.


I decided to ride up a mountain on a borrowed bike this morning. Setting off optimistically up a 2050 foot climb, I soon realised it was going to be tougher than I’d predicted – Being realistic has never been my forte. Negative thought processes almost immediately appeared, blaming external factors – ‘It’s too hot, the bike is too heavy, the gears are too high,’ (It was an old 1980s road bike with dodgy ancient tubular tyres and those horrible biopace chainrings – info for those cyclists geeks) ‘No one knows I’m challenging myself, I’ll just turn back’.

I nearly stopped several times but kept going, mainly because I wanted to write a blog on resilience and didn’t want to feel hypocritical. Then my thoughts started looking for excuses to do with my own failings – ‘I’m not feeling too well, haven’t ridden for a while, maybe I should just turn back’. Then a guy on a much better bike than mine burned past me, obviously because he was on the better bike! – he was under much greater pressure though as he couldn’t blame his bike if he failed. I plodded after him, then he stopped for a cigarette ! – ”Thats it I’m not letting this mountain beat me if a smoker can get up it” It was hard, it hurt, voices in my head were telling me to stop – ‘Whats the point? ‘ but I made it.
Did I feel good? No, I felt terrible, exhausted! Then the great feeling came, I had conquered the mountain (or more precisely my own demons) , I could write this blog, but more importantly, I had a long downhill blast that I had earned.

Why do so many of our students give up, or scream for help when the going gets tough?

In Psychology Today Dr Peter Gray writes

Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges
College personnel everywhere are struggling with students’ increased neediness.

A US College found that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.

Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.

This mirrors what huge numbers of teachers around the world have said to me. Students lack independence and require constant handholding and support. Teachers are having to deal with this lack of resilience. Our students don’t expect to struggle at all, if they do, It’s our fault for not teaching them properly. Failure in a test is seen as a catastrophe, not something you can learn from, but something you can blame someone for. With the ever-present pressure of exams teachers are stuck in a situation where we all too often cave in to their helplessness (and they know we will!)  and so the neediness cycle continues.

Dr Gray theorises that much of this has to do with the lack of free play experienced in childhood. Children rarely have to make decisions for themselves away from adults, so therefore when they reach adulthood they are poorly prepared.

What elements of play might be missing?
Ellen Sandseter, a professor at Queen Maud University in Trondheim, Norway, has identified six categories of risks. These are:

Heights: Most children love to climb whether on climbing frames or trees. Shouting excitedly’ look at me ‘ often to the horror of parentis who would not have allowed them to go that high
Rapid speeds: Even tiny children love swings and want to go faster, then scooters, bikes, skateboards etc.
Dangerous tools: It isn’t random behaviour that causes children to be drawn towards the knives, drills and other things that parents immediately move out of the way (A Swahili proverb state: If a child cries for a knife give it to them – they will learn)
Dangerous elements: All children are fascinated by fire, are drawn to deep holes or fast currents
Rough and tumble: Play fighting and chasing each other. They seem to prefer being chased and being thrown around rather than being the ones in control
Disappearing/getting lost: Hide and seek gives the thrill of separation at an early age. As they get older they make dens and find places away from adults if they can.

Looking at these I realise I climb and coasteer, ride a fast motorbike, love my chainsaw , am a pyromaniac, do judo and Thai Boxing and rarely know where I am going – Can anyone recommend a good psychotherapist? But we take risks not to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping us.

We are living in an increasingly risk averse ‘safe’ society ,by overprotecting our young people are we actually damaging them?  Is there much adventure in our children’s lives?
Children allowed to explore, learn from small painful episodes (or larger ones) and failures. They learn that in play fighting, hurt can happen without intention.  They discover how to regulate their own behaviour and response to being hurt. They learn how to assess risk. How to balance the reward of the thrill, with the actual danger. They can learn from failure, take responsibility for it and hence build their own resilience.  They learn to deal with unpredictable events and not to fear the unknown.

Without these learning experiences they may become adults incapable of making decisions for themselves, paralysed by irrational fear.

Resilient people tend to have the following characteristics:

Optimism: There is a clear link between optimism and resilience. The most resilient people tend to be those who feel when faced with adversity that things could be worse. This is certainly true of survivors in shipwreck situations
Faith and/or spirituality: Having a belief in an external deity or a belief in yourself that things will get better. Having a strong moral compass
Humour: Being able to reframe the situation and either laugh at it or at yourself. Always look on the bright side of life!
Social support: There is huge amounts of evidence that cancer survival rates for example go up when that person has strong and supportive friendship groups.
Can Learn from Role Models: Resilient people take responsibility and action learning from others who have been in similar situations

Resilient people tend to feel they have a measure of control, or that its all a journey and a new learning experience is taking place.

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Does the online world help our young people?

Many students can escape this scary real world into an online world of gaming. Your failures happen away from people you have to meet every day. There is a sense of order and predictability in the game and you can learn in safety without damaging social repercussions. There are lots of benefits to gaming – evidence Players show huge resilience in that they fail,learn from that failure and try again. Does this translate into the real world? I fear not but maybe that is just my own non – gamer bias, then I watched this:

You may want to try this  SuperBetter

Other children turn to a virtual online social media world that is potentially hugely rewarding or damaging. People present on sites such as Facebook an airbrushed, perfect life. Had a wonderful day …., what a perfect husband/friend/parent/child .. We get a rose tinted distorted window into the worlds of others . You can control what others see, but not how they react to what you show them so there is a high stakes and often high fear . The evidence from researchers  appears to show it makes us unhappier and almost certainly wont improve your resilience.

The team found that Facebook use correlated with a low sense of well-being.

“The more people used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” they said. “Rather than enhancing well-being… these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Does Facebook infantilise us?  Lady Greenfield thinks so here  Im not a big fan of these, but you can test yourself here:

What can be done to help our young people in a resilience crisis?

Understandably some schools have adopted the approach that the results are the only thing that matter and hands are held all the way through to the end of school. Thus the job is done in getting the students the qualifications needed (and in some schools this is what the parents have paid for and expect )

The work of Carol Dweck and her Growth Mindset has revolutionised some peoples lives

Some strategies for teachers: 

Have a clear definition of what you want your students to be like that is achievable by all and not simply based on performance. Resilient, creative, risk taking etc.
Deal with helicopter parents ,  encourage them to let their sons/daughters to make decisions for themselves. To be clear what the damage that frailty can cause and to buy into your vision of an outstanding student.
Encourage students to look at failure in a different way. Let them fail in low stress environments. For example get them used to pre-topic tests as a simple diagnostic tool – you need to know what they know before you teach them a topic. Or simply a question they shouldnt be able to answer yet and get them to consider strategies for answering it.

In Maths use dan Meyers 3 Act Maths here, in science try my  (being developed) 3 act science. here
Teachers need to model failure and how to react to it by failing themselves
Using strategies outlined in Visible Thinking Routines get students to look at dilemmas and difficult decisions and practice reframing and dealing with problems  here  You can just  add – ‘What might happen if? ‘ questions
For a way of breaking down barriers you might try the ‘Yes factor’ outlined below
One interesting thing is my high school principal like to use the “Yes Factor” when she runs a post-suspension meeting with a student and his/her family. How does she do this? She always starts with “Today we are here to resolve the matter so that you can come back to school. In the last few days you probably have thought about what you have done. We would like to talk about this now so that we can move on and not to dwell on this matter any more.“Today we are here”, “to resolve the matter”, “so that you can come back to school”, “In the last few days”, “you probably have thought about what you have done”, “We would like to talk about this now”, “”we can move on”, “not to dwell on this matter any more” are all the “Yes Factors” and undeniably true as everyone in the post-suspension meeting tends to agree with that. When people agree with what you say with the first few statements at the beginning, it is more likely that they will also agree with some suggestions you are going to bring up. find out more here
Some Strategies for Parents:

Try to let go and give them some freedom to explore their 6 risky behaviours and allow your partner to do the same (maybe not hand them the knife!)
Let them solve problems by themselves, you may suggest strategies and ways of tackling the problem, but try not to influence their decisions too much.
Talk through how you make decisions yourself, weighing up the pros and cons of different approaches.
Discuss films and decisions the characters made and the consequences.
The film Inside Out provides great opportunities for opening discussions
Talk about what happened at school. Not by using the question. ‘What happened at school today ?’ that normally generates a monosyllabic response – 25 questions you can use instead are here
For teens here are 28 questions here  though don’t have a high expectation that it will bring forth much. We can but try!
Learn basic counselling skills -Ideally on a course with a tutor but there are plenty of online courses for example here 

What do we mean by Grit?


What have you found works to improve resilience = either your own or other peoples?

Please add comments and resources below


Put the Glory back into your classroom – Humanising the education system

As a scientist I am a great believer in research. There is some fantastic and informative research around but I have one great worry. As we strive towards efficiency I think we may be losing something possibly more important – The Glory of the Ride

Zen Dog

Are you the teacher you wanted to be? The one who took the students on amazing journeys and instilled lifelong learning and a passion for your subject?

Or have you been turned into a destination focussed, pass the exams, bogged down in a curriculum parody of your ideal?

Efficiency can come at a cost. I went to swimming race training as a child. We pounded up and down, used deliberate practice. It was hard, but efficient.

It has been very useful to me . I’m a beach lifeguard, kayak instructor and as a surfer it may even have saved my life.

So whats the problem?

Well I never swim for pleasure – purely a purpose. Would never dream of swimming for no reason

I worry that our students will never consider learning to be a pleasure, simply something you do fora purpose.

So how can we put the glory back into your classroom?

Watch this space for the follow up blog

Motivating the Lower achievers – Humanising the Education system – Ipsative Assessment

Think about something that you have little talent for. Now imagine that you spend your days continually assessed on that area that you lack talent in.  You are constantly compared to your peers and shown how poor you are.

I love singing, but sadly have very little talent, not helped by congenital hearing loss. I wasn’t aware of my lack of ability, choosing to ignore the negative comments until I used the playstation game Singstar that brutally and quantitatively confirmed how bad I was.  Did this motivate me to try harder ?  It did briefly , although it was more about trying to find a song I could sing (Clash Should I stay or should I go! ) but being trashed by everyone soon lost its appeal and now I don’t sing any more in public. Which is no great loss to the world, but it is to me.

The thought that singing ability could be what the education system values allows me to empathise with the lower achievers. Of spending my days singing in front of others and however hard I try most other people are better than me. I may have other talents (I may be deluded here) but these are not recognised. My only value is my singing, the good singers are celebrated and their superiority over me quantified and celebrated.. This carries on for 11 years until in relief I leave an education system that has utterly failed and humiliated me.

This is how many lower achievers spend their school life. You are really not very good and if you put lots of effort in you probably still wont be . You can argue for a growth mindset at this point (which I believe in to a point)   or take the view that we are telling penguins that they might be able to fly if they flap their wings really hard (reality also has a place )

Research from the EPPI in 2002 has found that Summative assessment, so loved by those who are good at it and who also run the system  can be highly motivating to some higher achievers , but damaging to many others with the lower achievers particularly vulnerable.

The current widespread use of summative assessment and tests is supported by a range of arguments. The points made include that not only do tests indicate standards to be aimed for and enable these standards to be monitored, but that they also raise standards. Proponents claim that tests cause students, as well as teachers and schools, to put more effort into their work on account of the rewards and penalties that can be applied on the basis of the results of tests. In opposition to these arguments is the claim that increase in scores is mainly the consequence of familiarization with the tests and of teaching directed specifically towards answering the questions, rather than developing the skills and knowledge intended in the curriculum. It is argued that tests motivate only some students and increase the gap between higher and lower achieving students; moreover, tests motivate even the highest achieving students towards performance goals rather than to learning goals, as required for continuing learning.

What were the findings ?

Evidence of impact – Remember this was from 2002

Between them, the identified studies considered a number of the component aspects of motivation, but none considered all. The following main findings emerged from studies providing high-weight evidence:

• After the introduction of the National Curriculum Tests in England, lowachieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achieving pupils,whilst beforehand there was no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.

• When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences.

• Repeated practice tests reinforce the low self-image of the lower achieving students.

• Tests can influence teachers’ classroom assessment which may be interpreted by students as purely summative, regardless of the teacher’s intentions, possibly as a result of teachers’ over-concern with performance rather than process.

• Students are aware of a performance ethos in the classroom and that the tests give only a narrow view of what they can do.

• Students dislike high-stakes tests, show high levels of test anxiety (particularly girls) and prefer other forms of assessment.

• Teachers have a key role in supporting students to put effort into their learning activities.

• Feedback on assessments has an important role in determining further learning. Students are influenced by feedback from earlier performance on similar tasks in relation to the effort they invest in further tasks.

• Teacher feedback that is ego-involving rather than task-involving can influence the effort students put into further learning and their orientation towards performance rather than learning goals.

• High-stakes assessment can create a classroom climate in which transmission teaching and highly structured activities predominate and which favour only those students with certain learning dispositions.

• High-stakes tests can become the rationale for all that is done in classrooms, permeating teacher-initiated assessment interactions.

• Goal orientations are linked to effort and self-efficacy.

• Teacher collegiality is important in creating an assessment ethos that supports students’ feelings of self-efficacy and effort.

• An education system that puts great emphasis on evaluation produces students with strong extrinsic orientation towards grades and social status.

It would appear that the more importance we put on summative assessment the more likely our education system is to become;

  • A narrow, what gets tested gets taught, system
  • Focussed on performance rather than learning with all the damage that this entails
  • A qualification system rather than an education system
  • Highly divisive with those exam decoders motivated by success and those without this arguably arbitrary skill
  • One that only values those high performers and there is evidence these high achievers at school do not continue into society as high achievers in life  (link to blog)
  • One that dismally fails and alienates many students who leave feeling they have no value and have had their school years wasted

Does these sound depressingly familiar?

Formative assessment (see blog here for ideas ) has developed hugely where students are told what they need to do to improve, however this for some has only limited value. Would I be motivated to sing in public if after tuition I went from being appalling to pretty awful? Probably not. The system has inherently damaged many of these students and caused them to withdraw from putting in effort. You can only be humiliated if you have appeared to have tried. Want to keep your self esteem? Then don’t participate, show you don’t care or deliberately under perform to demonstrate your contempt for the system.

It doesn’t matter how good your formative assessment is if your students cant see the point in improving and are still measured against their peers.

Enter Ipstative Assessment

Rather than comparing yourself to the world, you look at creating personal bests. I am a cyclist and if I compared myself to Chris Hoy or Bradley Wiggins I could never feel good about myself. I am however motivated to improve my best times and that has sufficient value to not care how far behind the others I a would be.

This is the fundamental principle behind appositive testing. Research has been limited to distance learners but the results encouraging here  and workshop files here 

You mark progress rather than simply products. Bringing in formative assessment in order to improve their appositive mark.

To give a measured grade a students work is compared to a previous piece of work

If a student has improved from 50% to 60% they would get an ipsative mark of 10%

The focus is on improvement and being the best that you can be hence everyone can make progress

The research which was the effects on distance learners looks highly encouraging and it makes sense as a human being.

I can find limited evidence of it being used in classrooms so please get in touch if it has been trialled and any thoughts on it

Confusion vs Clarity – Great teachers who beat themselves up and poor ones who think they are great

We like clarity – defined as clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity. So surely this is what we as educators should be aiming for. Brief succinct and to the point and our students are happy.

Confusion on the other hand is something unpleasant and to be avoided says conventional wisdom.  This may be true for superficial tasks such as rote memorising, but there is mounting evidence that confusion promotes learning at a deeper level of comprehension.

Science is different than most subjects in that most students enter our classrooms with a preconceived notion of scientific concepts . Their minds are not a blank slate (sadly as that would be easier) but a mass of beliefs, many of which are wrong.

If we use the classic teaching idea of showing a demonstration and then having a discussion about what they have seen, that must be effective. 


It would appear not, from research from Eric Mazur,the Harvard physics education researcher that we are better off not doing the demonstration at all unless you get them to predict an outcome first. If only the demo is viewed you tend to remember it in a way that confirms your belief rather than the reality. This is a common fallacy that we remember things as they really are. Making the prediction seems to force us to realise that we got it wrong and hence more likely to change our minds. The social discussion afterward seems to have no direct effect on their performance although longer term benefits were not evaluated. Nor was peer instruction used which would have been interesting.

Dr Derek Muller – with the youtube channel Veritasium exploits this improved performance with his videos that deliberately confuse  Great Youtube Channel

Students prefer not to be confused and far prefer teachers who give clear explanations,  .  Is this always a good thing?  Mazur tried an on-line test on several topics, where he asked students a couple of hard questions (novel situations, things they hadn’t faced previously), and then a meta-question, “Did you know what you were doing on those questions?”  Mazur and his colleagues then coded that last question for “confusion” or “no confusion,” and compared that to performance on the first two problems.


Again the results are counter intuitive. The confused students actually perform way better than the ones who are not. Which probably means that the students who are happiest with their teachers are the poorer performers – (this has huge ramifications for fee paying schools who want their teachers to be popular )

For teachers we may be faced with the choice of being popular and ineffective, or unpopular and effective!

Not only are students poor at judging how effective their teachers are they also according to Mazur are very poor at predicting their own performance.

This could be partly down to the Dunning-Kruger effect where people have a tendency to overrate their own ability. This is usually down to ignorance rather than arrogance. In virtually every survey done more than 50% of people judge themselves as being better than average attractiveness, intelligence and ability as a driver. Perversely the least competent are the ones most likely to overrate themselves and the highest performers underrate themselves.


Perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance

An article here outlines Dunning – Kruger effect and there’s a detailed blog here 

Add all these things together and you can have very popular poor performing teachers who think they are great as they lack the analytical skills to see their failings and unpopular, but  high performing teachers who beat themselves up. It can be a cruel, unfair  world!


I will be launching a new YouTube Channel to support this so please watch this space

What they probably won’t tell you at Teacher Training – opinions of a successful teacher.

There are some wonderful and fantastic bloggers who have much to add to educational debate that are far more intellectual and research orientated than me. Many talk a good talk, some sadly dismiss alternative views to their own as completely worthless. However they are not the ones I would choose to teach my own children. Many of the best teachers I have worked with have been racked with self doubt and constantly question themselves. I believe that teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach children, those wonderful frustrating beings that can seem scarcely human at times and at others astound with their insight and creativity. Teaching when it is going well is the best job in the world. When it is going badly it can be one of the worse and a wet and windy Friday last lesson with the challenging year 9 class can be an ordeal few outside teaching can imagine. You can have the oratory skills of Barak Obama and the prescience of Mike Tyson, but you will still suffer.

My students in a very challenging school won JP Morgan Bank’s ICT in the Community competition two years running. Rather than seeing this as the students achievement (I just let them loose) they mistakenly paid the school to release me as a consultant. I left school one afternoon having had a nightmare lesson that seemed to have lasted days, it ended with me physically holding two year 8 boys apart, who were determined to kick lumps out of each other. Several others were screaming at each other. I entered the banks marble halls with soft music playing. I pointed out to the lovely young lady who greeted me that our working conditions couldn’t be more different. “Oh no” she said “you should see it sometimes, it’s mad!”

I’m writing this from the point of view of a teacher who has been very successful on whatever criteria you want to judge me by. (Sorry to blow my own trumpet but I need some credibility to show I can teach) On my Advanced Skills Teacher Assessment I showed the highest performance at GCSE and A Level they had ever seen. Also some of the highest uptake at degree level . I had the best uptake at A level for my last GCSE class in a challenging school according to IOP data. 9 of my last 12 lessons were graded Outstanding by OFSTED and HMI and I have been described as ‘Inspirational’ in their reports. The ‘unsatisfactory’ lesson gave me many sleepless nights, but taught me more than any of the others. I never discovered my grade for an observed lesson for the Special School Inspection who brought their students to me for science, which ended with me imprisoning a lad with Down’s Syndrome in the toilet. I still maintain it was the best course of action.

This is what I think I have learned whilst not following conventional wisdom. I take risks, have failed often, but I know how far my students can go. I was usually the most disruptive influence in my own classroom, but It was a time of laughter and tears. It was with huge regret that I had to leave teaching due to a hearing loss (not helped by Motörhead concerts in my misspent youth).
I would like to be remembered for my humanity, not my intellect.

I am the son of two teachers (how many of us are!) My father gave me three pieces of advice before I started teaching:

Be either very good or very bad if you want to progress quickly. Looking at the SLT in many different schools this seems to be true.

Look after the support staff as they can have a huge impact on your working life and deserve to be treated with just as much respect as teaching staff, which is certainly true.

Learn from others, but be true to yourself and be the best you can be.

Interesting reading David Weston’s blog here about the progressive vs traditionalists. I’m a middle class ex grammar school boy who was firmly on the left. I read Physics at Manchester University in the early 80’s, a time defined by the Smiths, Joy Division and the incredible place that was the Hacienda. We also danced to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Stand down Margaret’ (the days when your music choices could reflect your beliefs).
In my final year I was all set to become an oil well logger and make heaps of money but then I read Colin Wilson ‘The Outsider’. I quickly decided I had no idea who or what I was, so headed off travelling instead, which I did for about 10 years.
I’ve been a potato picker, shepherd, financial consultant, tennis coach (Hong Kong), condom packer and Rubber Workers Union member (Sydney), prawn fisherman(Queensland), freelance photographer and taught in Zimbabwe and  a Buddhist Wat (Thailand).

During my travelling days I was arrested 4 times abroad (always innocent!), faced death many times at the hands of hippos, lions, Komodo dragons and armed angry border guards in Kashmir. Being an inept extreme sports enthusiast and adrenaline junkie caused countless self inflicted injuries at times. I feel I know who I am as I have learned from the adversity I have experienced. I have been in the best restaurants and hotels in the world and slept rough in parks and queued up with homeless people at soup kitchens.

I see the point of Education being to allow students to make choices in their life rather than others making choices for them. To equip them with the skills, knowledge and qualifications that reflect their ability and to know what they are good at. To know their own minds, be curious and questioning.

I went into teaching from a social services background: I was going to make a difference. I was pretty clueless! My first teaching practice was at Altrincham Grammar School; I nearly failed my first observation due to my appalling organisation. I used to cycle into school and get changed but that particular morning I realised I hadn’t brought a shirt. A quick run to lost property, I got the only one they had, it was tiny and only just about did up. I made my tie as fat as possible and put my jacket on. To my horror I found my tutor sitting at the back of the class. I was nervous and it was hot in the room so I started sweating profusely, but I couldn’t take my jacket off because I had a ridiculous shirt on. Worse as I turned around to write on the board I realised the shirt was too tight to lift my arm up. Fortunately it was a roller board, but still it was a bizarre performance. It was hard to fail in the Grammar School, the students were bright and compliant. I had no idea how far they could go though because I taught as I had been taught, neither interesting them nor stretching them; the students learning despite rather than because of me.

The next school was a very challenging school in the mid 80s set in the shadow of Strangeways Prison, to which many of our students graduated in a similar way to the Monopoly board. “Go straight to jail, do not enter society or earn any money”. This was where I realised I really was not a teacher yet. The nightmare class were 3 Yellow. A group of girls would wolf whistle me, I never worked out how to react. The room had massive old windows with curtains. Some of the boys used to hide behind them, one day they opened the window jumped out and ran away. The disturbed boy from Liberia would crawl around barking like a dog. I taught them nothing. The lessons took hours of thinking to prepare for no reward. No one watched me teach or supported me. I asked my tutor to teach a demo lesson with them and never saw him again. I exacted a horrible revenge on them in my last lesson, which was sexual reproduction. I had a huge cut away model penis that I showed, informing them ‘this is is about average size for an adult male …’ I still feel guilty.

My ideals had changed; the vision of myself leading these young minds to a love of science had gone. I had become harsh. It was their fault, senior leaders fault, I became fabulous at blaming. I then realised I had become the teacher I despised, moaning about my students and wanting someone else to fix them.
I became defensive, not wanting people to observe me or come into my room. I stopped taking risks, stopped doing practicals. Hated the fact that they wouldn’t let me teach them in interesting ways; we were in a Catch 22 -I couldn’t make it interesting as they wouldn’t behave or listen. They found my lessons boring so played up. I could just about control them but there wasn’t much learning happening.

The turning point came when I realised that I was the one who had to change. Dakota wisdom states ‘ when your horse is dead, dismount’ I realised that I had just been trying to whip the dead horse harder. I read lots of books and learned a bit. I watched other teachers, analysed what they did and learned a lot. The more I taught the more I learned but failure was always the best tutor and I continued to fail regularly as I took risks. There is a safe middle ground, but average was never going to be for me. I’m utterly convinced there is not a single best way of teaching. There may be a single best way of teaching a particular student at a particular moment in time, but that changes if they are hungry, tired, hormonal, aroused … the variables are huge for each individual student. Multiply these by the number in your class and a single strategy for teaching becomes a disastrous compromise. To me the best teachers tune into their classes and can take them on journeys using the most appropriate style at that time. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

The influence of arousal can be horrific. I once taught a class immediately following a fight between an unpopular boy who was very much a victim and a popular one. The unpopular one was in my class and the mood of his classmates was one I will never forget. They were like a hunting pack sensing a weakness in a quarry. Even the ‘nice’ students were involved. A friend who went through the Bosnia conflict as a Marine described situations in much the same way, although far more extreme. The veneer of civilisation is very thin.

See Dan Ariely

My observations (not backed by any reliable data)

We all think we have a growth mindset, but we probably haven’t. It is something I try to follow.


For behaviour management the single biggest thing I learned was that it is not personal, so don’t take it as such.

If you are a new teacher it is going to be very hard to win over the older students. You are on their territory, they know the score. I had a difficult relationship with many of my year 11 form group at my last school. After I left teaching I opened my Facebook to ex students. Most of them added me as a friend and then apologised profusely.

My Observations – make up your own mind to their validity.

There are some brilliant and compelling traditional and progressive teachers and there are some appalling ones, on both sides. The brilliant ones on both sides are equally wonderful. A poor progressive teacher sometimes allows students the freedom to learn despite them, a poor traditional teacher can stifle all.

Teachers will never be replaced by computers or online learning. Teachers who can use digital devices to enhance learning will replace those who cannot.

Digital devices are simply tools that have no intrinsic value in themselves. It is all about how they are deployed.

Try to stop emotional reactions to conflict situations, they are rarely the most appropriate responses. Go in deal with it and get out quickly leaving the dignity of both intact.

If you fall out with a boy it is usually gone the next day and you haven’t fallen out with his friends.
If you fall out with a girl she can hate you forever and her friends will hate you too.

Listen to everyone, watch as many teachers as you can, learn from them but don’t try to be them, be yourself.

The more certain someone is about something in education, the less I tend to trust them.

Smile, always smile! Education is too important to be taken seriously.

Being disappointed is the most powerful weapon of all. Anger tends to be reflected back, disappointment, if you value the relationship, can be crushing. If you have no relationship this will have no effect. (I still remember the deep sadness on Mr Woodward’s face when I told him I hadn’t done his biology homework!)

Always analyse your lessons to consider: if you had an outstanding student in the classroom, would they be able to show they are outstanding? If the answer is no then you are limiting what your students can achieve.

Link to OFSTED Outstanding stu

Teaching, like being a parent, seems very simple before you try it.

Complex behaviour problems rarely have simple solutions.

Some in education seem worryingly keen to punish kids.

There is a massive difference between compliance and engagement.

Having my own children changed my perception of teaching. I’m not sure that it made me better but it certainly changed me.

I really like Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, then to be understood”. Listen to them before you try to teach them or deal with their behaviour.

I treated all my interactions with students as if it were an emotional bank account. Make deposits whenever you can, you will never know the difference it may make.

Having a student walk out of our school and throw himself off the cliffs to his death changed forever my perception of what matters in education. Rest in peace Stephen.

Learn to identify the students who wield the power in your classroom and how to deal with them. Otherwise every lesson can be a battle.
I believe behaviour management is far more complex than simply rewarding the behaviour you want to see and punishing the behaviour you don’t. I want my students to be self regulating not simply compliant in my presence because of fear of repercussions. Model the behaviour you want to see.

Students misbehave because their needs are not being met. It is impossible to meet all their needs in the production line educational system that we have. We should never write a young life off, nor simply punish those who have been punished more than enough in life.

There are very many well qualified people who are not well educated. They are simply exam smart.

There are many clever people who are not wise. Those who are clever and wise are usually humble.
Think before you respond. Once the head boy of the school was very disruptive in my lesson. I held him back and was furious, something stopped me from having a real go and instead I just said “what was that about Tom?” He immediately burst into tears, said he was under enormous pressure and that he couldn’t exceed expectations in anything, just possibly fail and he hated the feeling. Our highest achievers sometimes have unbearable pressure.

Don’t make assumptions. After the Columbine shootings it was (wrongly) reported that the perpetrators were Marilyn Manson fans and that he was therefore partly responsible. When asked what he would say to them his response was “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say and that’s what no one did”.
The priority in lessons is learning, but I don’t feel fun and learning are mutually exclusive and have yet to see any evidence that they are. Physics is awesome because it allows us to do these sort of things


Students need teaching, it is extremely unlikely that they will understand complex ideas simply from doing stuff. Practical activities need to be carefully considered as to what value they have. This is a great document to see the issues

York stuff

Teaching students science without proper practicals is like teaching them to swim without water.

One of the biggest problems to overcome in teaching maths, is the students saying “I can’t do maths” which unfortunately can be a societal norm. I think it’s acceptable to slap their parents who say ‘I couldn’t do maths either” giving their offspring an external locus of control and not taking responsibility for their own learning.

Performance obsessed cultures can inhibit learning see Alfie Kohn

Twitter is amazing, as you enter an incredible global staff room with unbelievably talented people. Like all staff rooms beware the moaning corner!

Twitter can also be a hall of mirrors where we can simply confirm our bias and cliques can reflect each other’s views with great authority. It doesn’t mean they are right!

Some people use twitter and blogging to make the world a better place, others to make their own world better.

Beware those who love the data more than the kids.

People who are not teachers will never know that feeling of walking out of a room buzzing as you know you have inspired them. I had this feeling more often in challenging schools than high performing ones, but the same goes for despair.
My year group I had for four years gave me a standing ovation in our final assembly. That feeling will never leave me.

Kids have one shot at education they deserve the best. Strive to be better: not because you are not good enough, but because you can always be better.

Never, ever give up.

Please feel free to comment or add ideas