Why do British students not fear failing? Thoughts on Chinese School

There is so much to discuss anflagsd reflect on when watching the BBC programme; “Are our kids tough enough? Chinese School” which finishes next week. I’m not going to analyse the teach strategies (or lack therof) displayed in the programme – everyone appears to playing a very specific part in the ‘experiment’ and they are keeping tightly to their roles even when it is apparent that they are not being effective. I doubt any professional, from any country, would be so stubborn and closed minded to act in this way for so long. The difference between respect and deference towards teachers is also an interesting point that comes up in this programme.

Before going any further, I am well aware that we see on this programme in far from action research – it is designed, carried out and then edited for entertainment (which in this context means controversy).school

What I wanted to reflect on was a point made by one of the Chinese teachers, and it has been made in both programmes so far. This was that, in her opinion, British students are lazy and unmotivated because the welfare system means they will not starve or be homeless, even if they fail at school. I thought about this for a while after watching, and came to realise that she has just missed the point; although perhaps not by much.

From my experience of working in schools, there is a growing complacency amongst some students about their work, effort and the impact it has on their eventual qualifications. This has no doubt led to the rise in prominence of the ‘growth mindset’, amongst other things, as a way of emphasising to students that it is their effort and attitude that determines their success rather than innate ability. Unfortunately, for too many students in the British system just now, that simply isn’t true. You see, the risk of failing does not just impact on the student; it also impacts on the teacher and the school.

The increased accountability that teachers have faced in the time I have been teaching (8 years)has been significant. I do not for a minute think that we as professionals should not be held to account for our performance, but it is undeniable that teachers’ performance (at least as far as it can be determined from exam results) is more rigorously analysed than ever before. The impacts of not hitting the required standards are also much increased, so the risk of an individual student failing is now much greater both for the teacher and for the school as a whole. The positive side to this is that students are not forgotten or left alone as they once might have been, that interventions are put in place and teachers supported to ensure that all students have the best opportunity possible to achieve.

However, it is also true that the growing culture of “we can’t allow them to fail” has other impacts. It leads to some teachers and schools pushing the boundaries of acceptable practice in areas such as controlled assessments. It leads to teachers being put under huge pressure from higher up to get students to reach their target grades, however appropriate those targets are to the individual student. It leads to booster classes, catch up classes, intervention groups and so on that mean many year 11 students spend significant amounts of time either over lunch breaks or after school working with teachers. Whilst these appear to be good, and are put in place with the very best of intentions, they promote the belief amongst students that any gaps they have in their knowledge or understanding is down to the teacher to put right. In short, they take the pressure and perceived risk off the student themselves.

The BBC programme is based on a year 9 group. What does year 9 look like in your school? It could so easily look just like this programme portrays – a time where the students so no reason to work hard and do not see any risk in making minimal progress. Why should be there a risk? After all, GCSE exams are more than two years away – plenty of time to catch up. With staff focussing on year 11 each and every year, this cycle continues.

So, if I believe that it is the teachers and school who students believe they can fall back on as they approach exams and things are not on course, then what can be done to improve matters? It is too easy to say ‘concentrate on earlier years, not just year 11’ – we all say this every September and it just never happens, because we can’t risk it. The current accountability culture which is meant to ensure all teachers do the best job they possibly can is what is causing teachers to protect their students and not expose them to the risk of failure, thus not preparing them for the competitive world in the way we should be. The thing is, there are a tiny number of teachers around who don’t think and act like this already – the increased accountability increases stress and pressure without affecting performance for the vast majority of staff. Thinking back to when I was at school, I am confident that my teachers cared about my education just as much as I do about my students’. However, I was never offered an after school class even approaching exams. I never thought about the impact my grades would have on my teachers – I knew it was all about me and the work I put in.

My call then is this – seek opportunities for students to experience real risk and potential failure. Do it in ways that matter to students without it affecting their final grades. If anyone has any suggestions on how to increase the risk of failure that students have I would love to hear about them. To get it started, we use public displaying of mock exam results and posting results home regularly as a way of encouraging students to prepare properly for mocks.

Finally, one last thought. The premise of the programme is to test which way of teaching is best. All I have seen is that it is clear that the Chinese methods shown simply don’t work with students brought up in the British educational system and wider culture. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the reverse programme made? Send a small group of British students to China to see if their wider range of strategies and more individualised approach works with Chinese students in China.

The real losers in performance related pay could be those that actually matter

“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.” – Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK (Sutton Trust 2014)

Before I outline my main concerns with the possible impact of the current performance related pay and performance management systems, I will outline some basic beliefs that I have;

  • Schools (and education more widely) should be managed for the benefit of students (as opposed to the convenience of teachers or to score political points)
  • The impact that a teacher has should be measured beyond exam results and progress data from classes that the teacher themselves provides
  • The vast majority (but not all) teachers are hard working, competent and wanting to become better
  • When applying to work in a school, teachers should be encouraged to find the school where they will have the greatest impact

Performance related pay was introduced for teacher last year. The reason for this was increased accountability. But accountability for what, exactly? As I said, the impact teachers has goes far beyond exam results and even these are impossible to judge teachers on. Each student comes to us as a unique individual. The simple average points score that they arrive with cannot possibly show the difference between these students, and yet this is what their final GCSE target grade is based on. No impact from the support they receive at home, their maturity, the social background… what about the quality of teaching they received before they reach your classroom? If you teach a student only in year 11, your pay progression is now decided partly on whether that student reaches their GCSE target. Put simply, if they have been taught poorly for four years in your subject by others then how can it be your responsibility to close this gap that has built up over such a long time? More to the point, how can you as a teacher be held accountable when the gap is not closed?

Now, all of this so far is a teacher whinging about how no-one understands how difficult the job is and how they should be paid more for doing it. More calls for Government to trust as to do our jobs and stop checking up on us. To some extent, I agree with this – but not all the way. Whilst most teachers are competent and hard-working: not all are. There must be accountability but it should be a way of finding out those teachers who should not be doing the job – not stressing the teachers doing it well. How to do this better is beyond me; but one step forward could be to separate the accountability system to check a basic level of competence from the development system to improve teachers year on year. At the moment my feeling is the current system aims to do both of these and therefore achieves neither.

More importantly than the unfairness on teachers, however, is the impact this system may end up having on students. There has, quite rightly, in recent years been a prioritisation of recruiting and developing teachers in those areas most disadvantaged. Teach First is one example. The undoubted success of the London Challenge is another. These schemes gave teachers an incentive to find work in difficult areas and schools where they would have the most impact. They were rewarded for this: financially, by seeing the impact they are having and by being supported and developed through high quality CPD programmes. My worry is that the current performance related pay system will put all of this at risk.

If teachers in a department, perhaps from a shortage subject where recruitment is already a huge problem, are set a performance management target that is not met. This may be for any of the reasons already discussed, or for many more. Of course, it is possible that the target was not met because the teacher did not work hard enough but from what I see in school this is not the most common reason for targets being hit. As things stand, that teacher does not progress up the pay scale. Now, the lucky thing for the teacher is that they teach a shortage subject so they now have a real incentive to leave the school and find work at another school where perhaps student attainment is higher – a less challenging school. This leaves our school needing to recruit again, something that will become harder and harder as teachers are less willing to take a financial risk by working in challenging schools. A positive feedback loop develops where results go down, the best staff leave to take up jobs with other schools and only weaker teachers are willing to fill the gaps. This has a further impact on student progress and attainment and so each year those targets become harder and harder to reach.

The factor that has the greatest impact on student progress and attainment is the quality of teaching; this is the double edged sword we are presented with. We need a way of making sure that every student has a good teacher in every lesson. As a society, we need to get the best teachers into the schools where the most disadvantaged students can benefit. But these schools are the ones where it is going to be hardest to reach the performance management targets being set that affect pay progression. Therefore, we are effectively penalising teachers financially for choosing to work in these schools.

Much has been written and said by teachers and teaching unions about the impact that performance related pay is having and could have on teachers. These are all valid and understandable points; but the real arguments should be around the impact this has on students. Currently, I worry that the system is benefitting no-one other than a small group of politicians who have put in place something that on the surface appears to be aiming to raise standards, but in reality is penalising hard working, dedicated students and most importantly the students who need them most.

Using ICT in Science – not all that glitters is gold!

Love it, hate it, trust it, rely on it, avoid it… teachers have very different views when the issue of ICT in lessons is brought up. However you feel, though, it is inevitable that ICT does feature in your classroom in one way or another. Whether this adds or decreases to your workload, and more importantly; whether it adds to or has no effect on the learning that takes place, is probably the thing that teachers disagree on. These two points are not separate – in my experience, teachers are already working at pretty much full capacity and this makes us reluctant to take on extra work unless we can see that it will improve student outcomes.

In this blog, I have tried to put together a list (far from comprehensive!) of some different uses of ICT I have built into my own practice. They all either reduce my workload, have measurably improved student outcomes or have achieved both of these aims.


webcamSince my NQT year I have had a webcam in my classroom. The one I use currently was cheap (£10 from Amazon with a 5m extension USB cable for another £2) but when connected to my computer and displayed on the whiteboard the picture is excellent. I use this for so many different things; displaying student work for discussion, displaying demonstrations that are too small for everyone to see, trouble shooting students experiments (especially electrical circuits!), recording demonstrations to replay later on (e.g. thermite, alkali metals in water)… the list goes on and on. My webcam is attached to a retort stand with clamp for that proper ‘school science lab’ look! This way, I can use it like a visualiser but at a tiny fraction of the price.

All teachers in out department have one of these webcams in their labs. It was a small investment but having one in each room means that teachers use them far more than if we only had one and had to book it ahead of the lesson.

I would say that I use my webcam in over 80% of my lessons – it makes class control and management easier by displaying things for students without having to move them around them room and crowd together and improves learning by showing students small demos and allowing them to review each others’ work collectively much easier.

YouTube & Flipped Learning

I don’t know of many teachers whyoutube2o don’t use YouTube at least sometimes in lessons. Using a short video clip as a starter, to emphasise a point, to show an experiment we are not able to do in school or to prompt further discussion are well known and used strategies. I always try and download the clip before the lesson using http://www.keepvid.com to avoid any slow network problems, having to sit through an annoying advert or the video being moved on YouTube.

I have also set up my own YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg34Jk53WFEEOqpLt0sBgPQ) which was originally set up to use for Flipped Learning. The idea behind Flipped Learning is that rather than spend too much youtubeclass time passing on factual information in a whole class ‘chalk and talk’ style before setting a homework task where students apply this knowledge you switch it round. The point is, if you get students to learn the background knowledge before the lesson, more time can be spent consolidating this knowledge and applying it (the higher level skills and more demanding tasks) with teacher support.

As we got towards exams at the end of the year, students told me they were using the videos to revise from and requested videos on other topics for their biology exams. I now have videos covering the whole of the B2 Edexcel unit and hopefully this year I will complete B1 & B3.

These videos are useful for revision, flipped learning, catching up after absence and so on. There are so many similar channels set up by other teachers with videos far better and more professional looking than anything I can ever produce – but the students did say they liked the familiarity of hearing their own teacher explaining things in the same way they heard in lessons.


edmodoI came across http://www.edmodo.com at a TeachMeet just over a year ago. It is an educational website that works in a similar way (and has a very similar appearance and layout) to Facebook, so students find it easy to navigate and use. I have groups set up for all my KS4 classes. I can set homework quizzes that I can write myself in a just a couple of minutes that edmodo marks automatically. The great thing is I can then analyse the results either student-by-student or question-by-question, which I find much more useful as it shows me areas that I need to cover again in future lessons.

Students can also communicate with each other and share resources and ideas (you can moderate these posts if you choose!) and also upload files into folders for students to view or download. I put up all worksheets, powerpoints and so on I use in my lessons so that students can access them for revision or catch up if they miss a lesson.


wii iwbOpinions about the use of Interactive Whiteboards are varied. Some see them as indispensable in a modern classroom, others as a trendy fad that has slowly died away. For those in the position where they want one but don’t have one, Johnny Lee (http://johnnylee.net/projects/wii) has developed software that uses the IR camera in a Wii remote, an IR pen  and a Bluetooth connection to your laptop to turn any surface into an Interactive Whiteboard.

I have one set up in my lab which is rarely used, but there are some topics and lessons I find it very useful for. For example, being able to move electrons around from atom to atom and demonstrate different types of chemical bonding.

There are so many other ways that I use ICT in my job. Blogging (!), Twitter, keeping all my marksheets in Excel… For another example, I couldn’t now imagine teaching the the particle model without using the fantastic Atomscope animation programme that can be downloaded for free (http://getwordwall.com/VisualSimulations).

ICT offers so many possibilities for improving pedagogy or speeding up other tasks we need to do that we should always keep looking out for new opportunities. We need to do this at the same time as keeping a skeptical eye out for glitzy technology that appears to be ‘better’ than traditional/low-tech methods but actually simply improves the presentation rather than the content itself.  It can be hard being a magpie without being attracted to every shiny new possibility!

Developing Literacy Through and For Science

This article was published in SecEd in July 2014. Online article can be viewed here: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/literacy-through-science/

Prior to this year, literacy had been one of those issues that, in all honesty, I had never truly understood. I knew it didn’t just mean English, I knew it was important but I wasn’t really clear how a science department should contribute to what was certainly a whole-school issue. Two light bulb moments last summer made me realise why literacy needed to become a core part of what we were doing within the science department, and also how we could start to achieve this.

My light bulb moments

The first light bulb went off when I was listening to Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton) speak during the Teaching Leaders (@TeachingLeaders) residential week last August. He spoke wonderfully about literacy and how it was the responsibility of every teacher, but also how it belonged to every subject. The main thing I learnt that day was that if the only people teaching our students to write and communicate are the English department, our students will be limited in the forms of writing and communication they have experienced. Scientific writing and communication have different conventions and aims, so if we are going to get students to operate as scientists (as the subject specific Ofsted criteria for ‘Outstanding’ describes) then they need to develop this skill. Failing to achieve this will also set our students up for a tougher experience at A-Level and beyond.

On returning to school, my new found passion (as it was fast becoming) for literacy in science was further reinforced by the second light bulb moment. Reading through a controlled assessment from a student who is expecting to achieve three A* grades in science, I noticed that the method he had written for his experiment was written like a descriptive essay. My first thought was, “Who taught him to write like that?” Surely a top science student like this would know to write a method as a set of simple bullet points? Then I realised, no-one had taught him– he was writing in the only way and style he knew; one which was just not appropriate for the task.

Adapting to the changing landscape

Our school will not be alone in having a whole-school push on literacy at the moment, probably in response to the more challenging exams being set at GCSE. Looking back just a few years shows how rapid this change has been in science, and suggests why the student described above has found themselves in this position. When he was in year 7 & 8, the GCSE exams we were preparing students for were mostly multiple choice questions. The exams he himself faced were a mixture of short and extended answers. Clearly the literacy demands have increased hugely in this short time, a change which a school which is all boys (except for our current year 7) and has a high proportion of EAL students is finding significant. This shows the two sides to the literacy problem I now realised our department faced; on the one hand we needed to catch-up on and fix the neglected skills of our current Key Stage 4 students to enable them to access and be successful in their GCSE exams; and at the same time we needed to look at our Key Stage 3 programme to make the changes necessary to avoid this happening every year.

Getting the team on board

The first thing that needed to happen was to change people’s mind sets. The department, staff and students had to realise that there needed to be a new emphasis and expectation on literacy. Being part of such a positive and learning-focused team made this stage straightforward, and we could start to look at what practical steps could be taken to help achieve our twin goals.

Improving literacy to access GCSE exams

I analysed a series of past exam papers for biology, chemistry and physics from core and additional science. I was looking at the command words used in these exams, and how they varied between foundation and higher papers, and also if there were differences between the three sciences. From this I produced “Wordles” as a way of showing the department the most common command words used. We realised that not all of these were being used in lessons and our internal assessments. We now incorporate these command words into our learning outcomes each and every lesson, providing a daily opportunity to discuss their meaning and how to respond to them. I also produced a guide for the five most common command words to show students what they meant and how to respond to them. This was produced with the help of our school’s literacy co-ordinator and it has now been included in student handbooks for next year so that it can be used across the school.

command words


Improving literacy at Key Stage 3 to be a better scientist

The new emphasis in recent years on enquiry within science has started the process of students operating as scientists more realistically. By getting them to not just think and act, but to communicate as scientists has brought the literacy skills to the fore in our Key Stage 3 lessons. We ask students to consider how a scientist would discuss what they have done, how a scientist would write about what they have seen and so on. With the use of a literacy mat we wrote ourselves, students are now much better supported in their writing. The mats provide reminders on style of writing, sentence starters and so on for different types of writing they use in science lessons (explaining things, planning experiments, making conclusions, justifying decisions and so on). We have also brought in writing frames that allow students to write up their practical investigations in the same format as the GCSE controlled assessments.

Sharing our learnings with others

Whilst it would not be accurate to say that practice within the department is fully developed and consistent at this stage, the progress we have made in just a few months has been significant. My role has been to keep the message consistent and clear, and that has meant keeping literacy within the teaching and learning conversations taking place within the department. One way of doing this has been to spread the message beyond my own department, so that the department then see the importance of it and the progress we are making. This has included talking about literacy at local TeachMeets, having it as a focus in my Teaching Leaders Impact Initiative and speaking at our weekly whole-school teaching and learning briefings. Having other schools contact us to see what we have done and brought in has given the team confidence that we are on the right track with this difficult area of teaching.

The results so far

There is plenty of progress still to make as a department, and measuring the final impact at this early stage is difficult, but a look through exercise books and controlled assessments certainly shows that the students’ skills have developed markedly during the year.

My advice to other middle leaders in a similar position is:

  • Don’t ignore the importance of literacy in your subject area. Forget literacy as just being about writing and see it as communication; it will be much clearer to teachers in your subject what it then needs to look like in lessons and having that clarity in your vision makes other changes much easier.
  • Don’t expect too many quick wins in this area, but take every opportunity to remind colleagues and students why it is important and tell them where you can see they are improving.
  • Make Key Stage 3 assessment as useful in preparing students for Key Stage 4 as possible. Develop writing frames and other resources to support students as they learn these skills.
  • To prepare students for tougher GCSE exams, analyse past papers for command words; then use them in lessons as lesson outcomes, teach their meanings and use them in all internal assessments.

A pragmatic approach to SOLO

I first came across SOLO taxonomy at a TeachMeet run at the Teaching Leaders National Conference in the summer term.  The session that really caught my attention was by @Mr_D_Cheng who outlined how he had used SOLO taxonomy in his lessons and across his department. A colleague of mine happened to have been on another course earlier that term and had also come back keen to talk about SOLO and try it out in our school. There are plenty of websites and blogs around to get you up to speed on SOLO if you have not come across it before, but in essence it is a hierarchy describing the depth of understanding being shown on a topic. The thing that impressed my colleague and I most was the elegant symbols denoting each stage or level. If you want some background reading try these;

Embarrassingly, I then did nothing about it. I am not sure why I took a full term from hearing about a good idea to doing something about it myself, but that is how long it took. This may not actually be so unusual amongst teachers generally, but it is for me. I love finding new ideas, strategies and techniques and trying them out. Not is some glossy, new-must-be-better way, but more in a new-might-just-be-better way. Perhaps the time of year was not ideal – the end of the school year can be a great time to innovate and try things out as some of the pressure is off once exams have passed but with schemes of work to re-write, new assessment frameworks to develop and so on it just never happened. It may also have been that every time my mind wandered back to SOLO, I found more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/changed-mind-solo-taxonomy/) on how he changed his mind about SOLO certainly put the brakes on me trying it out. Firstly, I was impressed someone was bold enough to go back to what they had considered, tried, found to work and later on found to be less effective than they had originally found. This reflective and challenging approach was something I liked.

Still, in thesolo end SOLO kept popping up and I thought I had best try it myself and give it a go. With David’s note of caution strong in my mind, I questioned why I wanted to try SOLO at all. What was it that had caught my attention months ago? Was it the terminology to describe learning that could be applied across the curriculum? Not really. Was it the neat looking resources (such as the hexagons) that would allow students to show their depth of understanding? No – they always seemed a bit artificial anyway in that they encouraged students to justify links they were making between topics that were not really there. It was the symbols. No more, no less.

So, to dipping my toe for the first time. I was planning a GCSE revision lesson on the DNA, cell structure, GM and cloning. I started by getting students to answer a 6 mark question “Describe the function of DNA”. They all had a go at this. In our school they are used to peer assessment so they were ready when I handed out the green pens to do “2 stars and a wish” or something similar. It was here I described what the symbols meant as quickly and concisely as I could.solo lesson

I had students swap books and simply draw the symbol they thought best fitted the level of understanding shown by the writing. A quick scan of the room identified an example of each stage which we then checked as a class for consistency and I was staggered by how quickly students understood what this was about. Immediately conversations were happening about what they should draw if links were being made between ideas but the information being linked was somehow factually wrong. Seeing it as a hierarchy meant the important point that ‘knowledge and content are King’ was understood very well.

I then tried to scaffold an answer to the same 6 mark question on the board with the class’ input. Rather than producing a mini-essay plan or a conventional mind map as I would normally have done, I built up using the the SOLO symbols again. You can see what happened here.

 mm1   mm2


I then gave students the same amount of time as before to answer the original question. Engagement was incredible, the volume and quality of what was written in a short time far surpassing what would normally be expected from the group. The building up of knowledge in this way helped the students see what was most important and formed a structure for their writing. Paragraphs were being used (unprompted!) to split up different areas of content relevant to the question. The connectives that the English department have been working hard on developing were being used more appropriately than before. Overall, the students seemed to have a much better grasp of what was expected of them from their writing and feedback was that the liked the new symbols.

Repeating the process with other sets and other year groups produced very similar results. It is early days but I do feel that the use of the symbols is helpful for me in explaining what I am after from a task, and for students in describing where they are in their own understanding and seeing what they need to do to improve.

It is early days still and I want to keep trying this out with more groups and am encouraging others in the department to do likewise.Importantly, by using SOLO as a way of focussing peer feedback and an alternative to mind mapping a topic seems to me to have avoided the arguments that have risen against SOLO. No time wasted learning labels like relational or extended abstract, no credit for forced links between content by using hexagons – just more clarity in what they know, and what they need to do improve.

First attempt at blogging

I started using twitter to keep track of ideas and thoughts relating to science and education a few months ago. The best posts often led to interesting blog postings which often made me really think about my own practice as a science teacher. Working in a school, working life is so busy it can be very difficult to find time to stop, reflect and think about teaching and learning in the day to day routine. This is why I think it is so important to have student teachers on placement join our department – you are forced to think about teaching and learning and then discuss it on a daily basis. I strongly believe that working with a colleague to develop their practice is one of the very best ways to improve my own teaching. Reading blogs became a new stimulus for this thinking and reflection that I have struggled to find in the past few years, and I have made several clear changes to my own practice based on reading these articles.

So why have I decided to start writing my own blog? Well, I aim to use it as an exercise in clarifying ideas in my own head – by trying to organise thoughts into a written format I expect they will become clearer and more useful for me. If other people read these and find something that they find helpful as well then so much the better!

So, here goes. I don’t know how often I will write on this blog, or quite what I will be writing about but I will certainly try and put something up here every few weeks.