Failing to learn

I’ve just finished reading Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking’, which references Tim Harford’s book ‘Adapt’, both great reads on the same theme; failure. If you haven’t read either then Tim Harford’s Ted talk on the subject ( gives you a sense of the territory.

Syed’s approach is to examine the culture which has developed in aviation whereby failure (in the form of accidents and near misses) are systematically and openly picked apart and the lessons learnt used to inform improvements to safety. Over time this has resulted in an incredible safety record for the commercial airline industry. Syed calls this approach an ‘open loop system’, meaning that failure leads to progress as feedback is rationally acted upon. This, he argues, is radically different to the ‘closed loop system’ found in healthcare whereby mistakes are hidden, go unrecorded and subsequently do not lead to improvement.

I was so taken with the ideas in the book that I jotted down some key points which I felt were applicable to an educational context and added a few aide memoirs for later reference.

1. Failure is an opportunity to learn. What are our failures in education? My first thoughts were lessons that go badly and exam results that weren’t what they should be. And then what about when a student’s behaviour means they must be removed from a lesson? Then I started to think about policy failures (I’ve seen quite a few if these over the years!). How do we respond to these failures? In my experience we do one or more of the following…blame someone, moan, brush it under the carpet or quickly move on to another ‘good’ idea. How could we learn to embrace these failures as opportunities to learn?

2. People need to feel ‘safe’ in admitting their mistakes. I fear we are some way from this being the case in schools. If we have a disastrous lesson, do we tell others? If we’re lucky enough to work in a department in which there is this level if trust, what about your senior management team – would you tell them? And what is the response when things do go wrong? If your class achieves poor results what is the reaction? Will it be ‘okay, let’s see what we can learn from this’? Furthermore, how do senior management respond when a policy is clearly not having the desired effect? Do they hold their hands up and admit their mistake, and do we contribute to a culture where they wouldn’t dare show this ‘weakness’?

Syed illustrates the desired culture through the example of a system adopted by Toyota in their manufacturing. Production workers would pull a chord when something went wrong. The result was that a cluster of senior managers would almost immediately appear to help resolve the problem. This system only worked once the workers trusted that the mistake could be openly admitted and the senior managers were focused on finding a solution, not looking to blame. What would it look like in schools if teachers could ‘pull a chord’? Could we envisage a culture whereby teachers could immediately call in support to help get a lesson back on track without fear of blame or a label of weakness?

3. Feedback is essential. Syed uses a golfing analogy whereby a golfer looks at the accuracy of each ball played and uses this feedback to subtly adjust his swing, gradually becoming a better player over time. Without the benefit of feedback, Syed argues, we are like golfers playing in the dark. Experience only leads to improvement when feedback is immediate, clear and acted upon. In schools, we are happy to apply this belief to students but are we as prepared to gain feedback on our own error? Syed talks about ‘error signals’ which are indicators that things are going wrong. What are the error signals in schools and which sources of feedback are most instructive? This section got me thinking a great deal about low-stakes testing as a source of valuable feedback to the teacher on their teaching – designed well, tests are choc full of error signals! Without regular data feedback on our impact as teachers are we just ‘playing golf in the dark’?

4. Interpreting data is not easy. Syed cites the work of Abraham Wald during the Second World War. Wald became involved in trying to improve survival rates for fighter pilots. To do this, the returning planes were examined to establish where the bullets hit and therefore where additional armour was needed. This data showed that the tail and cockpit were rarely hit and therefore no additional armour was required in these areas. Wald pointed out that the data was flawed. Rather than the planes which had returned being examined, the useful data was on the planes which had not returned. Wald inferred that the absence of bullet holes on the tail and cockpit were the reason for these planes returning, and that those which had been brought down had been hit in these areas. The conclusion was that the additional armour should in fact be placed exactly where the bullets holes did not appear. This counter intuitive reasoning drastically improved the survival rates of British pilots. Syed warns us to take account of all the available data but also the data that is not immediately available.

5. Beware theories that cannot be refuted. Syed gives the example from the field of Psychology of Adler’s ‘inferiority complex’. This theory suggests that human behaviour is driven by the desire to overcome one’s own feelings of inferiority. However, opposite behaviours might equally be explained by the same theory. For example, failing to defend a friend against criticism may be cited as evidence that you have overcome the social pressure to put loyalty above reason, whereas leaping to the defence of your friend may be cited as evidence that you have overcome your fear of confrontation. This idea is linked to the problem of confirmation bias which is the tendency to seek out information, and interpret it in such a way as to confirm your pre-existing beliefs. To avoid these traps Syed advocates seeking to falsify your beliefs, not to confirm them. We should ask ‘when does this NOT hold true?’. We hold true many theories about education and rarely seek out evidence that they do not hold true, or do not always apply. How healthy it would be to question when some of our cherished approaches might not actually be effective.

6. Trial and error as an approach can harness the power of failure. It is at this point in the book that Syed references Tim Harford’s book, ‘Adapt’, which in my view gives a more authoritative and compelling account of the power of trial and error. Harford, as he explains in the above Ted talk, makes a powerful case against top-down design in complex systems, arguing instead for a more evolutionary trial and error approach. Both Syed and Harford give the example of the development of a particular nozzle needed in the production of washing powder. Unilever had employed their best mathematicians to design a nozzle that would create the fine powder required. Their designs failed. In desperation they turned to a team of Biologists. They had no idea how to design a solution to the problem, but they did have an approach to finding a solution. The team took ten random designs and tested them. The most effective nozzle was selected and ten slightly varied versions produced. The process was repeated and after 45 generations and 449 failures the final highly effective nozzle was produced. Harford uses the term ‘God complex’ to refer to our tendency to believe we know how the world works when often we don’t. These ideas resonate strongly with me. I believe that school leaders are frequently guilty of possessing a God complex and attempting to design and impose systems and policies in a complex context with no evidence that these will be effective. Senior leaders are full of ‘good ideas’ but their whimsical policy making can be damaging and undermine confidence. It is possible to run schools in a different way. Let’s take the example of a school’s behaviour management approach. These are, in my experience, designed and redesigned with little evidence of what works. Why? It is surely possible to evolve a more effective system through careful trial and error. This would need to be a disciplined approach with clear criteria set for evaluating success. To be completely sure a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) could be set up with a control group as a point of comparison. Alternatively, Unilever’s approach of trying out various methods and evolving variants on the most effective iteration could be employed. Most of the methods tried would fail, or at least not be as effective as they could be, but the end result would be an approach which has evolved through adaptation and selection.

There is a lot to think about here. I think the main message is that improvement will only happen when failure becomes an opportunity to learn. To achieve this you need:

– to detect mistakes and feel safe to expose them

– to avoid confirmation bias

– to have testable/falsifiable theories

– to look to falsify, not just confirm

– to have immediate, clear and analysable feedback data

– to analyse with care – it is difficult

– to avoid the arrogance of top-down design when faced with complexity and instead develop trial and error approaches that build on evidence

Applied to a school context it could look like this:

  1. Get stuck in when mistakes happen – don’t blame unless there is clear evidence of negligence – treat a mistake as a mistake. Apply this thinking to poor exam results, bad lessons, students not making progress, failing systems.
  2. Bring expertise to bear on the problem. Don’t leave people alone to solve it. Allow teachers to ‘pull a chord’ when things go wrong and ensure they don’t feel ashamed to do so.
  3. Share the lessons learnt. Celebrate failure as an opportunity to learn. Make CPD about failure as well as success. Share worst practice.
  4. Generate opportunities for feedback – turn the lights on! Frequent low-stakes testing to get feedback in your teaching. Peer observation. Coaching. Structured reflection. Student and parent feedback. SLT open to and seeking criticism. Be sensitive to error signals.
  5. Openly admit when things aren’t going well. Share evidence of impact openly. School leaders to show that change is evidence based. Look for a solution, not a culprit.
  6. Adopt a systematic approach to trial and error. Accept that failure must come before success. Adapt what works. Avoid God complex by resisting the urge to design the perfect system. Apply this approach to teaching, behaviour management, improving attendance, increasing participation in sport, reporting to parents… Any aspect of the school which needs improvement.
  7. Identify where RCTs might be must effective and practical e.g. Reward systems, specific teaching techniques, marking approaches.

Okay, time to start failing.

Schools have gravity

Successful schools seem to have a force of gravity which pulls things towards them. They attract strong teachers, high attaining students, additional resources, publicity and privilege. As their reputational ‘mass’ increases their gravitational effect grows. This is a zero-sum game for the most part. The gain is at the expense of those schools whose pull is weaker. As a strategy for school improvement it makes absolute sense from the perspective of the individual school, but it makes no sense at the system level.

Now don’t get me wrong; this is no rant against the marketisation of schools. I say this is a zero-sum game ‘for the most part’ because there is the potential to raise school standards by challenging schools to attract students by being the best they can be. However, in the language of economists, we must recognise the failures of the market. There are many factors that mean the competition is not fair and there are unintended consequences of this strategy. For the purposes of this post I’m going to avoid the economic jargon and stick with my gravity analogy to unpack this a little.

How do schools become gravitational giants?

Some schools have a head start; a built in gravitational advantage if you will.

Catchment and intake is for many schools the factor that keeps their gravitational pull strong. High attaining, well cultured children give a core mass around which success can be built. The school is calm, the students are compliant and well turned out, the exam results strong. Such factors mean parents strive to send their children to the school, high quality staff strive to work there and superficial success attracts publicity and strong word of mouth.

There are many factors which mean some schools have this inbuilt advantage; selective schools, social segregation, house prices, league tables which emphasise attainment over progress to name a few.

Our system reinforces these natural advantages further. For evidence, look at the disproportionate number of grammar schools deemed outstanding by Ofsted. Once this label is attached we afford these schools further privileges, such as the right to become a teaching school. We celebrate their excellence in government case studies, we bestow prestige by recommending others learn from their success. We even exempt these schools from further scrutiny from Ofsted, creating a mystique around their untouchable brilliance, these gravitational giants around which lesser celestial bodies orbit.

Artificial gravity

Schools without this head start will seek to create their own gravitational pull. There are two ways they can approach this. Firstly, schools can strive to be excellent, this excellence becoming the gravity which pulls everything towards them. Alternatively, they can focus in looking excellent. We notice the uniform changing. Exam results increase (but through cynical curriculum design and qualification choice rather than as a result of students being better educated). The new zero-tolerance behaviour policy means students are expelled or shipped out to pre-16 courses at college. Under immense pressure and natural disadvantage, can we really expect these schools to resist taking the easy option and creating an artificial gravity around which they can build success?

Whichever of the above strategies are adopted by those schools with a naturally weak gravitational pull, if they are successful then they contribute no more to system wide improvement than the gravitational giants. The fundamental flaw is that the default model for school improvement is in creating gravity which attracts the best resources, thereby depriving other schools of these, who in turn focus their energies on creating their own gravitational mass.

What are the alternatives to the gravity strategy of school improvement?

Another way of putting this is “how can you improve a school without damaging another?”.

This is school improvement the hard way, and the ethical way. It might look like this:

  • Instead of seeking to attract ‘better’ students, work on making the students you have got better
  • Invest in your staff; if every school raises the professional capital of its workforce then the stock if great teachers will increase, to the benefit of all
  • Stop spending money on marketing which should be spent on educating
  • Aim to improve education, not exam results (they’ll follow)

and back in the real world….

The problem is that everything in our system is set up to mean that only the foolish or insane would truly shun the temptation of a gravity-building strategy. What can be done about this?

What about MATs?

 I know of a market town with three secondary schools. There aren’t quite enough students in the town to sustain all three schools. They fight for the students and they market to attract the most desirable students. They can’t help but spend their energies on gravity building strategies. Over time, the gravitational pull of each school grows and declines. There are always two bright winners and one loser.
What locks the schools in this eternal struggle is that they are only responsible for their own success. In fact, their success is dependent on the failure of another school. This competition would, if each school went about school improvement the hard way, lead to raised standards for all. However, all the incentives are set up to promote the quick win, the superficial veneer of looking successful and the easy path to getting on top.

Multi Academy Trusts might provide a way forward. If these three institutions became one trust the incentives would be completely different. No longer would the schools be permitted to gain at the expense of the others; at least not the others in the trust. However, whilst this may prevent the schools from using gravitational strategies to draw in the desirable students it would not prevent them from drawing in the best staff from the wider system.

This localised MAT model also has some downsides. The removal if parental choice in the locality is a concern. If the trust is managed poorly then all schools will suffer. The other problem with MATs is that many are not localised collaborations but rather have schools scattered around in various localities. The temptation of employing school improvement strategies which damage schools outside of the MAT are great. Central government have been guilty of encouraging this behaviour  by celebrating school turnarounds by sponsor academies which have been as the result of gravitational strategies; often radically changing the demographic of their schools.

How else can we discourage gravitational strategies?

Here are some ideas:

  • Reinstate more control of admission numbers to ensure that the total places does not significantly exceed the supply of students in a locale
  • Place significantly more emphasis on progress rather than attainment measures, possibly over-valuing value added by low prior attaining students
  • Hold schools to account for the quality of their professional development
  • Instigate a nationally accredited qualification pathway for qualified teachers and incentivise schools for supporting teachers through these courses
  • Invest in training high quality teachers and attracting an adequate supply of staff in to the profession
  • Scrap the Ofsted outstanding grade and recognise excellent aspects of practice whatever school they are found  in
  • Include in Ofsted criteria for leadership and management a requirement that schools adopt school improvement strategies that are ethical, sustainable and do no harm to other schools
  • Instigate a commission to investigate immoral school improvement strategies
  • Research and publish case studies of schools which have improved through strategies which are sustainable on a systems level

System wide improvement is possible if we can defy gravity.

The micro lesson

This article ( has got me thinking.

Jimmy Carr’s joke referenced in the article is about as succinct as a joke can get; “Vennison’s dear, isn’t it”.

It is a micro joke. It deliberately omits all the necessary information for the joke to make sense (the exformation). Our brains rapidly fill in the missing information. The joke forces our minds to work. This feels an effortless process which requires no conscious initiation. The formation of the words, how the information is presented to us, tells us little but creates a vacuum which our inquisitive brain seeks to fill.

How might we create such a vacuum in learning such that we communicate so little but draw the mind to attempt to fill the void?

When I observe lessons I often see teachers presenting vast amounts of information. If the teacher is skilled, they continually return to the key conceptual understanding they wish to impart and provide a framework upon which students can hang the information. If the student is skilled they are able to pick up the cues as to what the lesson is essentially about and thereby order the information, sifting, discarding and prioritising so that their conceptual understanding builds.

What we might learn from the micro joke is that less is more. At the heart of every lesson is a micro lesson; a succinct way of stripping out all the exformation, providing just enough information for a vacuum to be created which the inquisitive mind seeks to fill. If we seek to clarify the micro lesson we may hope to engage the students minds in finding the exformation which is required to ‘get the joke’.

The topic is photosynthesis. The text book facts are numerous. Rather than start with the topic, the learning outcomes or the definition, why not start with the micro lesson, the information which creates the vacuum?

It could be something like this: “Why don’t plants have mouths?”

In itself, this succinct question tells me nothing I need to know, but it creates a vacuum of information which my mind seeks to fill. If I cannot fill this vacuum with answers then I will fill it with more questions; I will begin to search for the exformation that will make sense of the micro lesson. I don’t want you to do this for me. If you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny. Equally, if you have to tell me , it isn’t interesting.

Who says vacuum’s suck?


The Coca Cola problem

“The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance”

‘A Theory of Justice’; John Rawls (1971)

I was asked recently to fill two hours with wise words to an audience of prospective head teachers. Naturally, I knew that I couldn’t hold their attention for this time without plenty of discussion activities. To start,  I presented this problem…

On the rare occasion that I allow my two children to share a can of Coca Cola I am presented with a dilemma. If I pour the drink in to two separate glasses there will entail an argument about which has more in it and who gets to choose first. There is a strong sense of injustice as one or other of them will think they have been conned out of precious sips of this rare nectar. How do I avoid this perceived injustice?

To their credit, the audience came up with some very creative solutions, but in true teacher fashion I held out until someone told me the answer I wanted to hear.

The solution is this; one child pours and the other chooses. The pourer has an absolute incentive to ensure that the glasses contain equal amounts of Coke as they know that the chooser will choose, if it exists, the fuller glass. Interestingly, in my experience, the child who gets to choose which to drink hardly examines the amounts at all as they know that their sibling will have gone to great lengths to ensure they are equal. Why didn’t they trust me that much? It is because they know that I have nothing to lose if they are not equal (I get my own can – Dad’s privilege).

This dilemma illustrates well the concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’, a term coined by John Rawls but which appears in the work of many political philosophers. The drink is poured in ignorance of which glass the pourer will be allowed to drink from. Justice is served as the decision maker could be subject to the worst effects of their decision.

In politics, it is rarely the case that policy makers will be at the receiving end of their decisions. Therefore, to achieve social justice, a thought experiment is required.

Imagine that tomorrow morning you will wake up inhabiting the body and life of anyone in society other than yourself. In other words, the policy you make today will affect you tomorrow in whatever strata of society you end up inhabiting.

The ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment simply encourages policy makers to put themselves in the shoes of all those the policy will affect. In short, it introduces empathy as a means by which those in charge can seek to avoid vested interests and the trappings of power.

The point I was trying to get across to my aspiring head teachers was that the veil of ignorance is an important concept to hold on to as a senior leader. The justice of any proposed policy may be assessed through the thought experiment described; imagining that tomorrow you wake up as any member of the school community – the NQT, a cleaner, a student with special educational needs.

This sounds simple, but even the most empathetic people will struggle to truly imagine how it would feel to be at the receiving end of a policy from so many different perspectives. Indeed it is perhaps arrogant to assume that we can second guess how others will feel.

To overcome the failings of our empathy we must devise ways to understand what it is to be subject to the whims of school leaders. I would suggest four approaches;

  1. Build a relationship with staff whereby they know their views will be heard. This is easier said than done. It is all too easy to become defensive in the face of endless critics. It is also difficult for staff to trust that you really do welcome their feedback and won’t just see them as trouble makers. However, we must find ways to keep in touch with feelings on the ground.
  2. Consultation over the proposed change.
  3. Engaging those who will be affected by the policy in its development.
  4. Marry a teacher – you can be sure to get a full critique of any management decision.

Applying the veil of ignorance will make for better policy. That is not to say that leaders should avoid making decisions which are unpopular or impact unequally, bringing advantage to some and disadvantage to others. What it does mean is that decisions are taken with empathy, and perhaps policies may therefore be adjusted to promote justice and protect those most vulnerable to the ill effects of a well meaning initiative.

Leaders who are just are leaders we will trust. We should create our policies imagining that we might actually have to be subject to them.

Red pill, blue pill

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

In the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo the choice of a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill allows Neo to return to  his fake reality (essentially the world we know). The red pill offers the chance to escape this virtual reality and live in the actual world; a grim reality where humans are kept as mere energy sources for a web of computer intelligence.

The metaphor of the red pill, or similar, is a recurring one in philosophy and literature; from Descartes’ allegory of the cave, to films such as Total Recall, not forgetting the red vial which Alice is offered as an escape from Wonderland (referenced by Morpheus above).

Aside – my favourite incarnation is in the superb Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy ‘dreams’ of an escape from the world in which she is chosen to sacrifice herself in her role of protector of humanity. In her dream world, her Father is still alive, vampires are a fictional creation and she lives the life of a normal teenage girl. For a while, we question which world is ‘real’ and which is the dream. Like Buffy, we would love to believe the world without evil is reality, but know that this world is just to good to be true.

All these mythologies share the idea that the true reality is likely to be the less digestible option. Ignorance is bliss, whilst reality is grim.

Why take the red pill?

However grim and difficult reality is, at least it is authentic.  To willingly deceive ourselves, or be manipulated by a deceitful other (like Descartes’ demon), is somehow to surrender our humanity.

Educational red pills

As school leaders we are faced with many red and blue pills. When given the choice, it is our duty to take the red pill, but this may not always be an easy choice.

One of these red pills, I believe, is the realisation that learning is invisible. This has been written about extensively, not least of all by David Didau (, despite convincing argument and evidence to support this claim, most senior leaders in schools refuse to swallow  this pill. Why?

This reality is disruptive

It is highly inconvenient to accept that learning is invisible.

  1. So many of the systems and processes we have created are predicated on a certainty that we can tell if students are learning; lesson observation, work sampling, performance management, performance related pay and data tracking, for example. Swallowing the red pill means we have to swallow our pride and start to redesign the systems we have come to rely on.
  2. Senior leaders know best. That’s why they are senior leaders isn’t it? Accepting that we probably can’t tell if learning is taking place is tantamount to the factory manager admitting that he can’t judge the quality of the firm’s product, or the football manager telling his players that he doesn’t know how well they played. The blue pill takes us to a world in which leaders lead with confidence, clarity and certainty. That’s a comfortable world for everyone, not just the leader.
  3. Complexity, uncertainty and messiness don’t sit well with a school accountability system which ranks, rates and  codifies success, or a politics of sound bite and simplification. League tables don’t show learning; they couldn’t be more abstracted from the internal processes of the human mind. Our task masters need to take the red pill too. The red pill world is not one without accountability. Politicians can still talk tough, ‘drive’ school improvement and be intolerant of poor standards. Indeed their efforts might actually lead to higher educational standards if we decouple ourselves from the Matrix.

In short, the red pill presents too many inconvenient truths. We cannot blame our school leaders for choosing the comfortable falsity of the blue pill world. Rather we should, like Neo, help them understand that their is merit in choosing harsh reality over comfortable illusion. The red pill leads to integrity and authenticity; an education worth working for.

I’m only just beginning to explore how deep this rabbit hole is. Take the red pill and join me.

Intelligent accountability pt.1

There are three assumptions about teachers which it is worth keeping in mind when thinking about how to hold them to account for the work they do;

  1. Teachers want to do a good job (not all perhaps, but most in my experience)
  2. Teachers are most effective when they think carefully about their practice, rather than follow instructions like a production line worker
  3. If you exert enough pressure to conform to rules most teachers will eventually comply, whether or not they agree with these rules (we tend to be a generally obedient bunch)

It is number 3 that concerns me. Conforming is possibly okay if the rules are sensible and well thought through. If they aren’t then obviously it is not sensible to enforce them. Forcing compliance when the rules are bad not only makes teaching worse but, if the teacher knows they are bad rules, the feeling of doing a good job will be degraded.

Furthermore, excessive enforcement of rules around teaching arguably means teachers think less about their practice.

Given the above, we may consider the following points as guidance for designing systems of accountability;

  • Make sure any rules or specified procedures to follow are reasonable and well thought through (and there is ideally evidence to show that by following these rules there will be an improvement in learning for all pupils of different ages and abilities)
  • Don’t set too many rules which may disempower the teacher and discourage thoughtful practice
  • Explain the reasons and evidence behind the rules so teachers feel that by following them they will be a ‘good teacher’
  • Be clear about the freedom to exercise professional judgement outside of the rules (the rules should really not constrain this very much at all)
  • Be clear that it is the teachers’ responsibility to ensure that they exercise this freedom in a thoughtful way, have a rationale for how they are teaching and make efforts to evaluate the learning of students over time, and adjust their teaching appropriately
  • Choose methods of holding teachers to account that aren’t too heavily skewed towards checking the rules are being followed as opposed to checking that the teacher is exercising their professional freedom well
  • Choose methods that will promote thoughtful practice by the teacher, not merely compliance to the rules

As an example, lets consider common accountability practice in relation to marking.

My first observation is that there are too many ‘bad rules’ being applied. These range from specifying the frequency with which books should be marked to stating the approach which must be used (triple impact marking, to name one such approach). I am not going to critique these here as others have already done a good job of taking apart these policies (see

My second observation is that many accountability systems focus excessively on compliance, for example checking how frequently the books are marked or whether the right colour pen as been used to respond to feedback. Compliance is rewarded and non-compliance sanctioned, whilst the 99% of what makes a teacher effective is not noticed.

I am not making an argument for ‘anything goes’. I think it is perfectly reasonable for a school to set out some parameters for how teachers should perform their job, and hold teachers to account for staying within these parameters. I also believe that teachers can and should be expected to be effective. We are paid employees, and more importantly public servants, and it is only right that there is an expectation of value for money. Although we like to think we can exercise our professional autonomy without supervision, we also need to accept that we have a boss and toeing the line is part of everyone’s job.

My point is that if we focus excessively on rules and whether people follow them, we forget to check whether teachers are thinking. We forget to check that the practices teachers adopt are reasoned and deliberate. We forget to check that teachers are trying to see if what they do is promoting learning. We neglect to reward these attributes which, once we walk away and leave them to get on with the job, are the things that mean they carry on doing a good job in our absence.

What might a more intelligent accountability approach look like?

In relation to marking, rather than (or at least in addition to) learning walks and work sampling, what about a challenging professional dialogue? One which both checks compliance for the small number of rules we deem necessary and attempts to get at the thinking behind the teachers’ actions (their strategy). One which tests whether the teachers’ approach is joined up, responsive to the needs of the students and mindful of the impact the teaching is having.

The questions we might ask a teacher in such a dialogue might be:

  1. What is your approach to assessment, marking and feedback with this class?
  2. What is your rationale for this approach?
  3. To what extent has your marking made a tangible impact on learning for all students, particularly those with learning difficulties and low prior attainment?
  4. What have you learnt through assessment, marking and feedback about the class and their learning?
  5. How have you adapted your teaching as a result of the above?
  6. How successful have you been in improving literacy through your marking?
  7. Have you consistently applied the SPAG annotations in your marking?
  8. How have you adapted your feedback to students with learning difficulties?

The advantages of this approach in my view are many. Teachers will be more challenged than through conventional accountability methods like learning walks. They will be challenged not just to comply but to justify. However, alongside this challenge comes much more support and an opportunity to coach the teacher, testing out their assumptions and evidence base for their conclusions.

This approach, if done well, should avoid disempowering the teacher. It also ensures that the manager does not miss something (like when you criticise the ‘lack of marking’ in books only to find out that the assessed work is in a folder sitting unseen in a cupboard, or that the teacher has just taken over the group – it happens to the best of us). As a result, trust between teachers and management is built, not degraded.

If you want compliance above all else then spend you time achieving this, and be sure that your rules will deliver the goods. If you desire something more from your teachers then hold them to account for the attributes you value.

Mark my words

Any economist knows that people respond to incentives. Senior leaders in schools should bear this in mind when they seek to hold teachers to account. Pay attention to a behaviour and generally you’ll see more of that behaviour over time. We need to therefore be sure that what we spend time looking at is really what we want more of, and be aware of what we may get less of as a result (the opportunity cost, as economists call it).

Let’s take the example of marking books.

Marking is generally regarded as a ‘good thing’. Parents want to see it. Students expect it. It shows that good work is recognised and mistakes corrected. It is hard to disagree that marking is at the core of good teaching.

Therefore more marking must be even better.

Policies which specify the frequency of marking practice inevitably lead to accountability mechanisms which reinforce the ‘lots of marking’ desire. This approach definitely causes teachers to work harder, but does it cause students to do so, let alone prompt higher standards of work?

In response to the call for ‘impact’ policies may start to highlight the need for students to respond to the feedback or do something with it. (As an aside, I recently saw a student respond in the way required – green pen as instructed – with the pithy reply to some extensive teacher commentary of ‘you don’t say?’. Well you wanted a response.)

And so students respond with the inane (‘thank you for your feedback’) or the required answer. Sometimes they will even do a few more practice questions, redraft a piece of work or correct their mistakes. But what, we might ask, do they learn? Do they learn to wait for a teacher to tell them how the work could be better, rather than work this out for them self? Or do they just do what they could have done anyway if they’d really tried? Will they remember any if this in three months from now?

We should remember the following:

  1. Everything has an opportunity cost. Could the time spent marking in such detail be better spent?
  2. Giving constructive feedback to students is perhaps the less important part of the marking process. Teachers learning from the study of students work and adapting their teaching accordingly is quite possibly much more important, and means less time is spent writing comments and more time planning lessons.
  3. If we accept that the most powerful feedback to students is immediate and delivered face to face, with the opportunity for students to ask for clarification, then should leaders pay at least as much attention to live, verbal feedback ?

To get to the point, what we want is a teacher with a well formed rationale for how they are engaging students in learning. It is not about what they are doing, but why, and whether the teacher has a scooby about whether it’s working! In short, an informed, deliberate and reflective practitioner.

What accountability system will promote this?

Here is my suggestion. Why don’t we start by asking teachers to articulate their approach, their rationale for this approach and how they will know if it is working? It’s not perfect but it’s got to be better than counting the number of ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps, mark my words.