Bottom’s on Fire

I love Mantle of the Expert. I especially love it when I come back from working with the best teacher on the planet, Luke Abbott, and realise that there’s so much more to learn. I went into my classroom today, after working with Luke and Tim Taylor all weekend and it was the best double lesson I’ve had in ages. My Year 9 English class (we’re bottom, us) are on fire.

We’ve got rid of setting in Years 7 and 8 for our new English and Philosophy curriculum, but for the moment, Year 9s are still in sets. Having the set who, despite our best efforts to avoid the word, know and call themselves ‘The Bottoms’ throws up many challenges. For a start, all bar two are boys. Some are so disaffected by the idea of writing that they’d rather stick their pens in their eyes. And they do. They are hard to manage, have short attention spans, push boundaries and are deeply, deeply vulnerable. They think they are rubbish and they push those who teach them to confirm it. But they’re not rubbish. They’re actually really funny, imaginative and brilliant. And sadly bordering on illiterate. Almost all are dyslexic or have another language development problem. So I’ve been working on building on two areas to improve confidence and to get their pens off their eyeballs and onto the page: knowledge and vocabulary.

Another problem with this setting business is that sometimes, you wonder if the departmental scheme of work is quite right for the children you’re working with. But it’s what we have and so my job is to find the awe and wonder in our unit of work on travel writing. Last year when I had set 2, I tried to make ‘writing to persuade’ and ‘writing to inform’ more interesting by setting up an elaborate in-role enterprise which involved a failing travel company, a rebranding and marketing exercise and finally a complex liaison with various press and law enforcement agencies as our passengers sat as hostages on a cruise ship captured by Somali pirates. This year, I needed something simpler – the complexity of language required for those tasks was too difficult and the recent events in Kenya a little too raw. In addition, I was finding that this particular group didn’t really care if our company failed or not. The tension that had captured the attention of the children in the higher sets did not work for these children. So I needed something simpler and something more enticing. God sent me Luke.

Today when I went in for our double (two hour) period, I set the chairs out in a semi circle and placed a small scarf on my chair. When they came in I explained that they were about to meet a potential customer with an unusual request. The brochure pages we had been working on might not be suitable for her – “she needs something bespoke, that is, created especially for her”…(no need to stop and ask ‘who knows what bespoke means – just support with an explanation/synonym). Then I put on the scarf and sat down:-

“Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice – I know you’re all so busy rebranding your company, but I’ve heard that you’re the best in the business and I have some exciting news. My husband and I have come into some money, well quite a lot of money actually and we want to spend some of it on a holiday”

– How much money?

– How did you get it?

“Ooh, well we sold our business for half a million pounds and we’ve worked so hard for so long, we’ve never had a holiday – not once in twenty years, can you believe it? Anyway, now we really want to go travelling. Somewhere exciting – an adventure – and we don’t want to travel on a plane, we want to take our time and see everything we can. Do you think you would be willing to help us?”

– lots of nods.

I take off my scarf and ask them what they think we might need to know – to draw up a list of questions to ask her when she comes back. They suggest:-

– Does anyone in your family have any medical problems?

– How long can you travel for?

– What did she mean by ‘we’? Who is going on this holiday? Are there children?

– What is your budget?

At this point, as a teacher, I have a choice. I can go into role and answer all those questions, or I can build up their investment into the fiction and get them to do some of the groundwork. So I tell them that perhaps we should impress her by finding out a little about her family.

“You took her initial call didn’t you Adam, did she say how many children she had?”


We have a brief discussion and the class decide that there are three children aged 15, 14 and 12, a girl and two boys in Years 11, 9 and 8. When she comes back, they bombard her not only with more questions but with information:-

– We know that your eldest is in Year 11 so we assumed that you’d want to go after her exams?

– Are any of your children afraid of heights?

– Is there any particular weather that you’d want to avoid?

Already, an area of the curriculum is opening up to me. This is not a Geography lesson, but we are clearly going to have to learn quite a lot about Geography to fulfil this brief. We also need to build a notion of a ‘responsible’ team – a team which has moral purpose. And to do this, we need to tempt them with dilemma. They agree to meet with Mrs Snoop (don’t ask!) next week and present her with a suggested itinerary and she leaves.

I ask them in pairs and threes if they could possibly show me some examples of the types of ‘adventure’ activities they have in mind. They are to represent them as if they are photographs in a holiday brochure. This allows me to manage chaos – photos can’t move, leap off tables and punch each other. But it also allows the children to focus on detail. We see self conscious and slightly awkward representations of a scuba dive, skiing, a rainforest tree top canopy walk, skydiving and a tiger safari.

As we view each one, instead of asking ‘what is happening here’ I ask ‘is there something interesting that you notice about this image?’ It stops them making wild guesses and encourages more tentative answers.

– He’s holding his nose and leaning backwards

– She looks like she’s trying to balance because her arms are out to the side

By focusing on detail, two things happen. Firstly, the images begin to subtly become more clear – the children in the image respond to the comments. Secondly, the children are constructing fuller descriptions, not rushing straight to an answer. If I can develop this habit in speech, it will impact on their writing. In addition, by simply being asked to comment on what they notice, not on what is happening, they’re more prepared to have a go and not feel compelled to get straight to a ‘right or wrong’ answer. This subtle shift in language was one of the key things I’d learned over the weekend while Luke had taken us through similar processes and it works.

The children caption their images with the words that would appear in the brochure under their photograph.

– Discover an underwater wonderland

– Snow fun for all

– Monkey around in the treetops

– Discover what it feels like to fly

-Close encounters with the kings of the jungle

We decide that we’ll ‘show’ these pictures to Mrs Snoop next week when she comes in. But “hmmmm”, I say. “Where are we sending them? Where in the world could you scuba dive and ski? Walk in the treetops of a rainforest and meet a tiger? What do we need to know?”

-Where tigers live?

– India

– Are there mountains in India?

– Where’s Everest?

-Do we have a map?

After pouring over a map and some globes and a couple of travel brochures, they decide to send the family to Nepal, India and The Maldives.

-I’ll get some pictures and bring them in Miss.

“OK” I say, “I just wonder if all these adventures are safe. I wonder what might go wrong. Do you think you could show me some photographs of a time when your activity went wrong? Could we do that, do you think?”

They’re off. Two figures on a beach, one laying face down, the other leaning over him, hands pressing on the injured man’s back.

– You don’t give CPR to someone’s back

“Is he giving CPR then? What do you notice?”

– He has his hands on his back. Miss, miss, he might be bleeding and he might be trying to stop the blood coming out


“Do you think you’d be able to cover a shark bite with the palm of your hand though?” Silence.

– No – it’s more like he’s stabbed himself on something – maybe a bit of metal

– Maybe a sting ray got him

-No – they don’t stab you, they like shock you. It wouldn’t bleed

-Maybe they’re diving at a wreck and he’s fallen against something sharp


– yeah

“Why don’t you ask the man who is trying to save him?”

– Did he hurt himself on the wreck?

-Yeah, there was a sharp metal pin sticking out and he fell back against it.

-Why didn’t it just hit his tank?

-He was sort of twisted

– How did he fall back, did something push him

– Yeah, a big current of water.

“That’s interesting – you take people diving down to this wreck all the time, don’t you?”

– Yeah

“Don’t you know the currents well?”

– Err, yes, but err, they’ve changed

” I wonder what could make ocean currents change?’

– Climate change, Miss, Global Warming!!

A brief discussion starts about whether or not this would be possible and similar conversations crop up about the other images. The children are building general knowledge, vocabulary, belief and investment in the work.

“The thing is” I say once we’ve finished looking at them “do we tell Mrs. Snoop about these accidents?”

-No way! She’ll never buy our holiday if we tell her that

– We should say something, like put a warning on the brochure or something

– No we should keep quiet.

“Do you think we have a duty to warn people though? I don’t know, but I wonder if it might even be illegal not to tell her”

– I don’t think we should tell her, but maybe we should say that people should be aware of danger like

– or that it’s their choice, or fault if something goes wrong.

“Hmm, yes, I think that’s called a disclaimer. Where will we put it? How big should it be?”

– like on the front page in a big font in red

-no, it’ll put her off – on the back page, dead small.

– small print!

We vote. Ten in favour of small print. Four against. We’ll come back to that vote later.

“Right, then, we’d better crack on with getting this brochure page done for her then….”

They rush to pick up their pens.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll track the Snoops on their holidays. We’ll ask them to write postcards or contribute to our company travel blog and the children can write in role. We still need to do some homework on the climate of the places they’ve chosen and create a proper itinerary. We need to liaise with the organisations who plan and deliver the adventure activities and check their safety procedures. Of course, we’ll be going in and out of role as Snoops, adventure companies and so on, and sooner or later there will be an accident….

There will be writing to inform, writing to instruct. There will be travel writing. But crucially, there will be problem solving, there will be dilemmas, ethical choices to be made, stories to be created. And there is knowledge. Lots of it. Geographical, scientific, legal, linguistic knowledge. There will be new words to be learned, texts to be written, artifacts to be made. And hopefully, if they continue to enjoy working on this, there will be children whose writing, speaking and willingness to engage with texts have improved. There will be busy, confident, agentive children who are learning that they are not rubbish. They are responsible and they have important stuff to do. So thank you Luke, Tim and NATD. I feel my teaching got a great boost of vitamins this weekend.

Pride and Prejudice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle class adult in possession of a child, must be in want of a boast. I confess, I do, from time to time, have little smug moments of pride and look for someone to tell. But then I get a grip. It is an unattractive trait and one I try very much to suppress. It would appear, however, that this is one trait that the government would very much like to encourage. Publishing deciles at the age of 11 is one of the most astonishingly divisive and cruel suggestions I have seen any government ever make. And there have been some terrible ones. This one strikes at the very heart of the parent and child relationship, feeding insecurity and competition and setting child against child. And I cannot see one single benefit from doing so.

I am a mother of three. One of the benefits of having one child every seven years is that you get a chance to try to put right the mistakes you made with the last one. The problem is, you just make different mistakes. Each child compares themselves with the others. My middle child wrote in an English essay recently ‘I have chosen this song because of the line ‘run as fast as you can’. It reminds me of the feeling I have had since I was little that I have to chase my brother and parents – not to be better but to try to catch up.’ It broke my heart. But I thank my lucky stars that he didn’t have to receive a letter when he was 11 laying out for him exactly how he compared, not only with his brother, but with every other child in the country.

I’ve seen tweets from many quarters claiming that this is what parents want. Really? In reality the only ones who say so are those who suspect their children are near the top. And even if it is, do we really want to pander to pride in educational policy? Are parents really the best judge of this? My husband specialises in counselling adolescents at his sixth form college. Many of them self harm. There are of course complex reasons for this, but one of the most frequently heard is the feeling of inadequacy that teenagers feel in not meeting, or in feeling they may not meet, their parents’ expectations. He cites case after case of children driven to harming themselves to the point of having suicidal thoughts as a result of the pressure they feel they are under. Have we not already done enough harm?

Sue Cowley imagined the moment Tom’s Mum opens the envelope in her heartbreaking blog Please read. Even after she wrote it, people were tweeting that it didn’t matter, because Mum wouldn’t tell Tom. She’d just do something about it.  Let me tell you three things about Tom’s Mum:-

1. If she’s attentive, she already knows he is struggling. She doesn’t need it ramming down her throat.

2. If she’s negligent, she’s probably part of the problem and getting a letter is not going to make a jot of difference. At Manchester Airport this year, I watched in horror as one mother hit her child over the head (for not being able to find the toilet) and called him ‘thick as pig shit’. Let’s hope she doesn’t get a letter. (And no I didn’t intervene, and yes I still feel guilty).

3. If she’s worried, the letter gives her no useful information. It tells her he is not secondary ready. But offers no alternative provision. It tells her he is in the bottom 10% in the country, but gives her no advice as to how he might improve. It tells her nothing of use at all. And it comes at the end of 7 years of education. If she didn’t know this already, there is a problem with the school.

But let’s pretend for the moment that she doesn’t tell Tom. She pats him on the head, gives him a jaffa cake and saves her tears until bed time. The next day Tom goes to school. He sits next to Sally in assembly. Lots of parents imagine that their Top Trumps kids don’t mingle with the bottom trumps, but they do. That’s the lovely thing about primary school.

Sally: I’m getting a bike!

Tom: Whoah – is it your birthday?

Sally: No – but Mum said I’m like in the top 10% in the country in my results and she’s dead proud and she’s going to get me a new bike.

Tom: My Mum didn’t tell me mine. Maybe she’s going to surprise me….

Don’t imagine for a moment that the children in the top 10% won’t be told. Don’t imagine that their superiority won’t be plastered all over Facebook. And when it is, don’t imagine that they won’t tell the others, even in innocence. In such ways. children will figure out where they were.

How is that different to having grades or levels you might ask? Well, grades and levels have clear criteria. If you read the criteria, you can see what you did to get the level or grade you got. This information can be shared usefully with parents and teachers so that planning for progression can take place. Personally, I’d get rid of the grade thing altogether and have pupil profiles based on competencies reached and next goal targets, but that’s something for another day. Secondly, IF the tests are criterion referenced and not norm referenced, there is the possibility that children can reach the standard required. It may take them longer; it may take several attempts, but they can get there. Norm referenced deciles will always leave a pile at the bottom with no recognition of the possibility that there has been improvement of standards even at the bottom.

We seem to be living in a world where the rights of children to a childhood, to being accepted and loved for who they are right NOW are trampled on in the name of The Future. To appeal to parents’ basest and most primal fears and instincts in order to win votes is, in my opinion, a form of abuse. It is an abuse of power. It is an attack on innocence. It marks the end of childhood. And I pray that it shall not come to pass.

In case you didn’t read the suggested wording of the recommended reporting, here it is:-

In the end of key stage 2 reading test, Sally received a scaled score of 126 (the secondary ready standard is 100), placing her in the top 10% of pupils nationally.  The average scaled score for pupils with the same prior attainment was 114, so she has made more progress in reading than pupils with a similar starting-point. 

In the end of key stage 2 mathematics test, Tom received a scaled score of 87.  He did not meet the secondary readiness standard (100).  This places him in the bottom 10% of pupils nationally.  The average scaled score for pupils with the same prior attainment was 92, so he has made less progress in mathematics than other pupils with a similar starting point.

These proposals are out for consultation. Please respond.

In Defence of the Six Thinking Hats

I have been embroiled this week in a number of long twitter conversations in a tentative defence of Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats. I’m not quite sure how this happened; if I were to defend a pedagogy to the death, it would be Mantle of the Expert, but for some reason I find myself feeling the need to write an explanation of my position.  Before I go any further, and because some people seem to think that the thinking hats involves leaping around classrooms wearing headgear and pretending to be someone else, I should point out that the hats are simply a metaphor, like a ‘thinking cap’. When people say they need to put their thinking caps on, they rarely rush off to the wardrobe. The same is true here – when I talk of putting a hat on below, I merely use it as a shift in thinking mode. There are some people who do use hats in their classrooms. Each to their own, I say, but I don’t. Nor do I sit here as a big fan of the very wealthy Edward De Bono. Suffice to say, I prefer people to look at my face when they speak to me. But I like the thinking hats rationale.

The Six Thinking Hats are so overquoted and misused that it’s become an educational cliché and there is some truly misguided practice out there. I can understand in part, therefore, why some people have come to view them as little more than a gimmick. I come across a lot of teachers who think they know the six thinking hats. I’ve sat in on training where advisors and consultants have ‘taught’ the thinking hats to teachers and got it wrong. Nigel Newman of the De Bono Foundation says it happens a lot – and that there are many schools in which this simple and effective technique is misconstrued and misunderstood. I’ve seen Thinking Hats linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy – there’s no connection. I’ve seen Thinking Hats used in classrooms where one group sits in black and another in yellow, debating an issue. This undermines the very point of thinking consensually.

So what are the thinking hats? Why are they useful? What is the thinking behind the thinking? And, most importantly, what is their application to the classroom?

What is the underlying principle?

The Six Thinking Hats are lateral thinking tools devised by De Bono in the 70s. They are one of several thinking tools he developed to help people to clarify their thinking and move towards a more productive and collaborative model of decision making; a process which in part led to a nobel prize nomination for Economics. In his book ‘The Six Thinking Hats’, he explains what is wrong with the way we approach thinking and the historical reasons for this.

De Bono’s concerns about the way Western societies discuss problems are mirrored in ‘Metaphors We Live By’, by Lakoff and Johnson. In this book, they starkly expose our flawed approaches to argument. Consider the following phrases:

‘He shot me down’
‘I won the point’
‘He destroyed my argument’
‘He fired criticism after criticism at me.’

Lakoff and Johnson highlight that our decision-making is often combative; a state which can lead some people to avoid discussion altogether. De Bono agrees – he points to the development of dialectic thinking, stemming from the works of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato in which detailed questioning and probing form an argument that challenges accepted thinking and norms. In a society in which the hierarchies of power are being challenged, this combative form of debate can be useful. But does it have a place in the classroom or the boardroom, where the ideal is a consensus – a consensus in which there is freedom to share ideas without fear of attack and where it is recognised that there will be many ways of looking at an issue?

The thinking hats process attempts to move discussion away from the adversarial towards the collaborative. In his book, De Bono makes great claims about the impact this approach has had on efficiency in industry – Seimens, 3D and IBM are just three international companies committed to the approach. The thinking hats process facilitated parts of the Northern Ireland peace process, and has been used in marriage counselling. So what can it do in the classroom?

What are the Thinking Hats?

The idea is that when we think, we tend to default to modes and patterns ingrained in us. Rooted to experience and largely left to their own devices, these modes influence the way we approach our thinking. We all have the capacity to think in each of the six ways De Bono colour coded and iconised as hats (and probably more), but we tend to rely very heavily on just a couple of them. These ‘types’ of thinking are all important and all serve their uses. They are:

Red – The emotional hat – described as ‘gut instinct’. Emotions are important in driving our responses to issues. We all have them, although some people deny their place in business. People accuse each other of “Being emotional”, as if it’s a weakness. In fact, says De Bono, it is important to allow everyone to share their emotional reactions to an issue so they don’t fester and affect their thinking in other areas of their work.

In a Thinking Hats exercise, people are asked to quickly share their emotional responses to an idea at the beginning of the project. Then they can examine later whether those early emotional or gut feelings have changed (in the classroom I sometimes do this as a continuum task). Being able to put on and take off the red hat is crucial in developing perspective and objectivity – a crucial skill in the emotional and social development of children. If this doesn’t happen, the red hat thinker remains in an emotional mode throughout the discussion – this is rarely productive.

White – The information Hat. The white hat is used when information is required. It allows the group to discover what they already know to be true. The group can then discover what gaps exist in their knowledge and can decide how to fill those gaps. It also allows the group to report, factually, other people’s views. A white hat thinker can find themselves being exasperated by a red hat thinker:

Mr Red: I hate the idea.
Mrs White: Don’t be ridiculous – you’ve not even looked at all the facts yet.

Mr Red: I don’t care – I’m sick of the way these things are always pushed on us.

Mrs White: You’re being too emotional about this.
Mr Red: Yadda yadda…

Mrs White-Turning-Pink: Oh for heaven’s sake!!

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed conversations like that one 😉

Yellow: the ‘benefits’ hat. It looks for the good and the possible benefits of any given situation. Reasons must be given, but the thrust of using the yellow is that it asks for the positives. Sounds simple – but strangely, many people find the yellow hat difficult, particularly adults who have come through an education system in which they have been trained to be critical and objective.

Yellow hat thinkers get negative reactions – they can be described as “hopeless optimists” or “away with the fairies”. But optimism is crucial to our survival and to progress and innovation. We need to practice this thinking mode more often.

Black: The cautionary hat. Black hat has been referred to as a ‘negative’ hat – this is wrong. The black hat is productive and vital, but looks specifically for the risks and advises caution in the decision making process.

This is obviously crucial in any decision making process. The government might have benefitted from a little black hat thinking when introducing League Tables into the education system. A good black hat thinker might have foreseen the impact on local house prices surrounding schools appearing ‘high’ in the league tables, the subsequent increasing polarisation of the classes and so on…

So what happens when yellow and black join a discussion about organising an event?

Mr Red (angrily): I hate the idea.
Mr. Black (calmly): So do I.
Ms Yellow (enthusiastically): I love it – think of all the people who would come to look at our work – no-one else is doing anything like this.

Mr. Red (sarcastically): Quite!

Mrs White (warily): You’ve not looked at all the facts yet.

Mr Red (impatiently): I don’t care – I’m sick of the way these things are always pushed on us.

Mrs White (calmly): You’re being too emotional about this.

Mr Red (dismissively): Yadda yadda

Ms Yellow (soothingly): Don’t get upset – I really do think there are lots of benefits. You might enjoy yourself!

Mr. Black (cautiously): And there are lots of problems. What about car parking?

Ms. White (thoughtfully): Hmmm yes – how much car parking would we need?

Mr. Black (dramatically): Loads and that’s just the start of it – think about congestion.

Ms. Yellow (waving her hards): It’s worth it – think about the PR!
Mr Black (pointing his finger): This is a big mistake – we can’t accommodate all those people.

Ms Yellow (shaking her head): All those people will bring in money – and raise our profile.

Mr. Black (frowning): I disagree.
Ms Yellow (frowning): Well I disagree with you.
Ms White (frowning): I think we need to call another meeting to discuss the parking issue.

Mr Red (frowning): Oh yes, another bleeding meeting. I hate meetings.

And so on. As you can see, good decisions are rarely made when all hats are allowed to talk at the same time and are unregulated.

Green: the creative hat. The green hat is characterised by statements like “What if?”, “Why not try”, “Wouldn’t it be fun/interesting if…?”. In the above conversation, Mr Green might have said: “What if we get a shuttle bus to bring people here?”. The problem is that green is often drowned out – because other modes of thinking have become entrenched. Green is also often silenced by the tension in the room.

Applying the thinking hats.

In meetings like the one above, nothing is decided and all leave feeling frustrated. The loudest get heard. Arguments are ‘won’ and ‘lost’, and wonderful ideas get lost in the fray. So how is a Thinking Hats meeting different?

In a Thinking Hats meeting the colours are worn by everyone at the same time. The above exchange fails because a different person wears each hat and they all clash.

Turning to each mode of thinking in turn and ensuring that everyone looks at the issue from the same angle at the same time allows people to shift their point of view. There is no ‘winning’ – because you’ll be contradicting your own arguments in a few minutes time as you try on a different hat. This removal of the adversarial gives quieter children time and confidence to put their points of view forward.

It is a crucial rule of the process that everyone makes a contribution to every hat. This is most easily managed by putting the children into groups. All the groups are working on the same hat at the same time – but talking in small, manageable groups (I’ve found that using Kagan structures like Round Robin help here). Most importantly, there is a consistency of approach, time is used effectively and there is an opportunity for everyone to try a new way of thinking – reminding the brain that there might be more ways to approach a problem than through its habitual modes of thought.

There is one final hat – the Blue. The Blue hat is the organiser hat – the one that sets the agenda, decides on a time limit for each hat, sums up and records the discussion and keeps order. Usually the blue hat is worn by a facilitator sitting out side of the main discussion –like the teacher. But it is also the only hat that can be worn simultaneously with another.

For example, if a child wearing the yellow hat notices a flaw in the plan, another child in the group can stop that line of thinking – and tell them to save it for black hat thinking. Getting back on track is part of the blue role – it can be put on briefly to remind a group of the task in hand.

Case study 1: A Group discussion.
A class have been studying the evidence for climate change. As part of an assessment, you want them to write an essay which examines the evidence for man made climate change and to offer an analysis of the potential ‘solutions.’ To help them to prepare you have decided to set up a class discussion under the title ‘What could be done to minimise the impact of climate change’.

1. Red: ask them how they feel about the question and to share that with a single word – some of mine said ‘angry’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘sad’, ‘unsure’ , ‘confused’ etc.

2. White: In groups of four, they compile a list of facts and questions relating to the facts. For example. ‘Weather patterns are becoming more extreme’ ‘Carbon levels in the atmosphere have passed 400parts/1000000’ and so on.

3. Yellow: list all the possible benefits of climate change – this should be hard, but they came up with ‘humans will realise how important it is to take care of what is left’ ‘the planet will survive even if humans don’t’ ‘perhaps the situation will challenge human innovation and new things will be invented to help us to cope’ ‘We won’t have to fly south to enjoy the sunshine (!?!)’

4. Black: What are the problems? ‘the threat to human, animal and plant life’ ‘decreased land mass and increased population’ ‘spread of malaria north’ etc.

5. Green – what could we do? Pupils offer a range of suggestions, not simply ordinary (recycle reuse etc) but also putting forward proposals for identifying changes to immigration policies, to energy and water use and even ‘move to Scotland’. The ideas are free flowing and enjoyable because there is no-one allowed to say ‘but’. We’re in green hat.

6. Blue – summarise the key points of the discussion.

Write an essay – kids who often struggle to order their ideas find that following the hats structure gives them a writing frame and generally speaking the essays are balanced and thorough with some evidence of original thinking.

Case Study two: Thinking Hats in role
Picture this. Year eight – a pretty boisterous group in Stoke on Trent. The pupils are about to embark on a Mantle of the Expert as employees of a failing drinks manufacturing company – StokaCola. Their jobs are on the line. New products are required which need branding (this is a joint English/business studies collaboration) in order to save the company. Some external consultants have been brought in to help the company but the ideas, the market profiling and the manufacture and marketing of the products is up to the employees.

When the class enter the classroom on the first day, they are initially bemused to be in role, but they soon warm up to the task. They are asked to identify where the problems lie in the current branding. The children immediately decide that the name ‘StokaCola’ is too regional. They find problems with the image of cheap cola – they think it is too unhealthy and too close to the main brands.

The children start to develop ideas for new products, but there is a lot of disagreement in the group. They are quite combative in nature, often rowdy and confrontational and this spills into the role. We decide that the children need some help to work more co-operatively and to organise their thinking. We decide to start the next session with some Professional Development training – with a ‘management consultant’ (or me!) specialising in Six Thinking Hats.

In role I ask the groups to identify what their problems are. They nearly all maintain their roles and speak in first person as if their enterprise is real. They know of course that it is not, but they are willing to suspend disbelief. I give them an overview of Thinking Hats and explain that we were going to use the hats to decide on a new drinks brand.

Even children who had taken entrenched positions the day before show that they are able to see the potential weaknesses in their ideas when doing the Hats exercise. One child who found it particularly hard to concentrate was fully focused in this task – he found it easy to switch modes of thinking quickly – his mind was occupied.

Far more ideas were generated after thinking hats training – and the ideas were followed through. The colours helped the children to peg an idea on an image, making it more memorable, so that in future meetings (and staff reported even in other lessons), they started to say things like “We need to put on a black hat here” before rushing into a decision.


The Thinking Hats formed only a small part of both of these processes. But the important thing is that it was contextualised in a ‘real’ learning context. Thinking skills are often taught in isolation and while I have heard many arguments as to why this is so, they ring hollow to me. Why waste time when the thinking skill could be being applied within the knowledge domain being studied? While it is necessary for the hats to be quickly ‘taught’ and experienced remotely before being applied to a real problem, the reason for their use was what gave them a direct relevance. One child said:

“I surprised myself. Don’t talk much normally, but I have a lot of ideas like – I just daren’t say them in case they sound stupid. But green hat lets you get em out, and we used one. I was dead proud when they chose that idea of mine.”

ResearchEd 2013

I was wary of coming to ResearchEd. I worried that there would be a single agenda and an overriding ideology underpinning the event; that it would be hailed as an official launch of the pursuit of certainty. But I was very pleasantly surprised.

I arrived with my friend, Emma Chicken (was there ever a better name for a primary school teacher?) who has just started her PGCE at the Institute of Education after 20 years of working in the film industry. ‘Why haven’t they got an outsourced tech team?’ she asked as Ben Goldacre’s technology failed to appear. Welcome to education Em 😉

Ben Goldacre did not have an outsourced tech team to help him when his slides would not appear and ended up resorting to holding up his lap top. He won the audience over quickly with smiles, jokes and expansive hand gestures, but I wished there had been more substance in what he had to say. The presentation was entertaining but unfocused. There were, however a couple of important points. He argued that education needed an ‘information architecture’ in order for researchers and educators to work more closely together and he recommended the setting up of journal clubs, as is common in the medical profession – a coming together to critically engage in a piece of research and to explore its potential impact on practice in the classroom. This seemed like a good idea, and I am fully in support of the idea of teachers engaging with research in this way. I was less keen on Ben’s fondness for RCTs and in particular, his assertion that all those who might question the extent to which RCTs are useful are dinosaurs. That pretty much switched me off. This kind of polarising language is in danger of ripping our profession apart and it got my goat. But then, I am a Kidd and I was sitting with a Chicken.

 We farmyard animals and Miss Smith (of the hey/hay variety) then went to see Frank Furedi speak of the danger of scientism in educational research. What a refreshing presentation it was. Frank warned of the dangers of drawing parallels between medicine and education. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and of course, as a doctor, he needs to know ‘what works’. As Frank Furedi said, if I am ill, I am quite keen to know that the medicine I am given will cure me. But children are not an illness. They are not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be nurtured and embraced. He warned against using deficit language to describe the process of learning – interventions and so on. He also warned about the difficulty of attaching mathematical, statistical data to something as complex and individual as a human being. The thing that stuck in my mind most was how science itself – the science working at the edges of discovery – was a discipline rooted in the celebration and acceptance of uncertainty. The science that teachers/policy makers seem to want is not that pioneering, experimental, creative process that leads mankind on towards new understanding and invention, but rather scientism. A deadening desire for certainty, turning our backs on what might be and focusing relentlessly on what IS and what WORKS. Works for what? To what end? For what purpose?

That might all sound a little nihilistic. One of the biggest criticisms of post- structural (and post-post-structural) theory is that it can leave one feeling despondent – wondering what the point of trying to understand is. But Frank Furedi offered two very positive ideas to combat this. One was that knowledge is power and that teachers can powerfully shape children’s lives by giving them access to thoughtfully contextualised knowledge. The other is that the teacher, over years of practice and engagement with children, will build a repertoire of what works for them and the children they encounter. That this individuality should be valued and embraced and that it takes all kinds of teacher to enrich children’s lives. This is a view that is now beginning to take hold in challenging the nonsense that there is one kind of ‘outstanding’ lesson/pedagogy. I liked that. I liked it a lot.

I missed the next session because I was hungry.

Sandwich eaten, I went to see Laura McInerney. I already knew I would like Laura. She’s northern, clever and doesn’t sneer at poor people. She’s also, I discovered, one of those people who within a minute of speaking reveals themselves as a natural and gifted teacher. She just engages. Laura’s challenge to us was to ask whether or not it would be possible to find seven ‘touch paper’ questions that if answered would move education on immeasurably – like the millennium questions. I started to wish I hadn’t drunk wine the night before as my mind struggled to think of how to frame a question. But then, thankfully, she explained that these questions should take a long time to formulate. They have to be important. Her view is that if we frame key questions or problems within the realm of social/cognitive development then we might genuinely be able to move education forward. One of the questions Laura asked was ‘what would be the most effective way to teach a dyslexic child to memorise the spellings of 1000 words?’ Immediately my mind kicked into unhelpful critical mode. ‘What if’, I thought, ‘the answer involved electric shock therapy’? ‘What if it involved removing the child for a period of ‘intervention’ away from peers or other subjects he/she loved’? ‘What if they felt forced and labelled’? ‘What if we simplified our spelling system instead’? ‘What if we just accepted that dyslexic people are dyslexic and bring other great benefits to our society in addition to their poor spelling?’. What if…

You see, I’m a bit annoying to talk to. And by the time I’d what iffed all that, everyone had gone and the room was dark….

I drifted a little and popped into a session being run by Jonathan Sharples from York and caught the end of Sam Freedman talking about the power of teacher blogging and tweeting as a political force. This belief is evident in the number of his Teach First mentees who are now a loud force on twitter and I think it is important for many more teachers, from all backgrounds and schools of thought to join in with the social media revolution. This was a position that Sam argued well and his reassurance that politicians from all parties are keen to engage was one I think that we all should consider in using social media in positive and pro-active ways.

I really wanted to see Tom Sherrington AND Christopher Waugh next and almost did, but I decided I should try to take on a range of views so I went to see Daisy Christodoulou instead. I sat with Miss Smith and Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy) whose book, Trivium, I have now finished and can whole heartedly recommend. I thought I might disagree with Daisy on pretty much everything. And then I found that I couldn’t. She made some really good points. She pointed out that her teacher training on Teach First had not in any way prepared her properly for the job of teaching; that she had not been directed to some of the research that might have helped her to be a more effective teacher. She charted the realisation, as an English teacher, that without vocabulary and knowledge, children struggled to access exam papers which tested reading comprehension. She gave an example of a Year 11 class who had been unable to complete a GCSE paper because they did not know what the word glacier meant. They tried to guess the meaning from the context, but guessed that a glacier was a tribe of primitive people from the north, or a pack of wild animals. She also recounted how, in attempting to teach the apostrophe through an elaborate dramatic context, she had realised that the children had only remembered the drama and not the function of the apostrophe. Now…I agree that children need to develop vocabulary and knowledge. I’ve written about both many times, and Daisy made this point very persuasively. But here’s where I depart a little. Daisy said that when armed with the knowledge from cognitive science that vocabulary and knowledge domains were crucial to child memory development, she became a better teacher. And this is probably true. But I argue that we have to be very careful then in leaping to conclusions of ‘so’…and ‘therefore’…. Some advocates of the Willingham/Hirsch position have then suggested that children should be given a very prescriptive set of knowledge taught through Direct Instruction. This is a huge leap to make. The fact is that all of those children will have been taught glaciers in KS3 Geography. The problem is not that they are not taught it, but that they don’t remember it. The question for us as teachers, I would argue, is how do we make learning so meaningful that it is memorable? That’s my touch paper question. See Miss McInerney – you sowed a seed!

The final session I went to see was David Weston’s. That man should have had a bigger audience because what he said was of crucial importance. He’s another very natural and gifted teacher – what a loss he and Laura are to the classroom. David also raised the difficulty of attempting to apply medical research processes to education and he very helpfully explained, as a mathematician, why we need to be very wary of applying Hattie’s findings too blindly to our practice. There are too many variables to be able to say with certainty that what he says is less effective would not be effective in your particular school, with your particular circumstances. There are flaws of interpretation, and as with all research, context is essential. So while meta-analyses and RCTs might open up useful lines of enquiry, on their own, they are not enough, and sometimes, damaging when picked up as self evident truths by policy makers.

David made the points that to really engage with research, teachers needed to become engaged with the research community and vice versa; that educational research needed to be accessible (both intellectually and practically) to teachers. He pointed to ideas surrounding lesson study and collaborative action research groups as a way forward. He advocated the idea that CPD should be rooted in inquiry and investigation, reflection and analysis. It was a presentation that really resonated with me as one who has moved between HE and school and who found the pressure to write obscurely for academic journals, regardless of relevance to teachers, pervasive. I do believe that the best teacher training would take place in universities. I think that having time to think with an academic, to reflect and the regular access to an academic library is essential in building and supporting teacher professionalism. But I also recognise that SOME (certainly not all or most) ITT tutors seem out of touch. How much better would the system be if all ITT tutors were required to work in a school, either modelling teaching, or researching with teachers, once a week? Simples. And while we’re at it, open up Athens journal access to schools.

After a brief summing up, we retired to the pub and at the kind invitation of the lovely Loic from LKMCo, joined him, Laura McInerney, Sam Freedman, Katie Ashford, Kris Boulton, Joe Kirby, some other lovely teachers and….Andrew Not-so-Old for a drink. We had a lovely evening, but Andrew, I do wish you had stayed long enough for me to say hello properly. I hope we didn’t frighten you away. I was happy to meet Alex Weatherall and Bio Joe too – Alex is a bit of a hero of mine! As the evening waned and the cheeks reddened, we all had many a good and stimulating conversation about education. We didn’t all agree on everything, but there was common ground. We care about children. We want to do our best. We need to pull together. And ResearchEd allowed that to happen. We need more events like these. So thank you Tom and Helene for making it happen.

Dear Mr. Gove

Dear Mr. Gove,

Thank you for your speech. I thought, given the length of your Summer break that you might have had time to write new material, but I expect that even Secretaries of State need a holiday/run out of new ideas. Perhaps you are modelling the view of your former Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, who once said he would consider it an achievement when teachers could pull out laminated lessons from September to September which had not been altered. Perhaps, instead, they could have laminated speeches to be read to silent pupils as this seems to be the pedagogy you now advocate. I have to confess I was a little confused by your direction towards a preferred pedagogy as this was one area you said was best left to the experts – i.e. us.

There are elements of your speeches I always find myself in agreement with. I will come to those later so that you can leave this letter with a lighter heart.

I work in a school every day, unlike some of the people in your speech who you named as teachers. Morale is low, but people stay for many reasons. One is that every day a child makes you laugh. Another is that when things get hard, you often get a little boost from a grateful child or parent. It keeps you going. Some of us stay because we genuinely believe that we can make a difference, and, I have to say, I personally stay in order to protect children from the relentless pressure that constant testing and measuring puts them under. I try to make them feel that their lives have validity even when they fail. I have more time to be able to do these things because I have PPA time and my union fought for Rarely Cover so that when I am free, the child whose mother died over the holiday, can find me in my office and have a good cry. Indeed one of the reasons that the young generation of teachers you so admire are so successful is because of the hard fought rights that the unions won for them. These rights allow these young teachers some time (not enough, granted) to plan, mark and collaborate.

It was interesting to see you mention the McKinsey report, which indeed did come to the conclusion that the education system of a country was only ever as good as the quality of its teachers. It was also clear in that report that making time for high quality teacher collaboration was key to this process. It referred to the idea that when a great teacher leaves in America, the great teaching leaves. When a great teacher leaves in Japan, the great teaching remains, because of the way co-planning time is structured. Such an approach helps to insure schools (and pupils) against losses incurred by staff turnover. In addition, I would hope that as a result of the findings in both the McKinsey report and research conducted by the OECD, that you would invest in the high quality university-based education of teachers, free from government interference which is a hallmark of those successful countries. It is clear from these and other sources, such as work by Daniel Pink, that money is not a motivating factor for most people and that Performance Related Pay tends to lead to poorer performance in all but the most ‘dull’ and ‘rudimentary’ of tasks. It is heartening that you have taken an interest in the McKinsey findings. I would urge you not to use them selectively. Obviously these changes would mean working closely with Universities and the teaching unions. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fact that you seem to have offended and alienated many unionists and academics. They are motivated by a desire to improve the system and I’m sure they will forgive you.

I was surprised to learn that 21% of teachers leave the profession in the first three years of their careers. They have incurred a cost of £9000 or more in many cases to train and for one fifth of them to leave is quite shocking. I was more shocked that you thought that this was a triumph. It is far less worrying for an accountant to leave accountancy to pursue a new career in marketing than for a teacher to leave what has often been a vocation. I would add that one of the teachers you describe as being among the country’s finest is in fact one of the 21% who left in the first three years. But who cares about a little fact or two? I also wonder how you can claim that the number of highly qualified teachers is up when your government has removed the requirement for them to be qualified at all. Perhaps we have different interpretations of what the word ‘qualified’ means.

On to the matter of pedagogy. There are certain times when direct instruction is by far and away the most efficient way of achieving your objective in a classroom. And there are times when it is not. A highly trained and experienced teacher will know when to use it and when to choose another. You are not a highly trained and experienced teacher and so it might be better not to meddle in the craft of teaching. It was also somewhat surprising to see your description of Peter Hyman and Oli De Botton as heroes. Their rationale for setting up their free school was to escape exactly the kind of curriculum and pedagogy you seek to impose on the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong – their school sounds great, but I suspect that your praise reveals that it matters more to you that people buy into your systematic dismantling of the school system than what or how they teach.

Don’t despair. I come to the elements of your speech which make perfect sense. Ofsted has no place dictating to teachers which activities children should be engaged in when observations are taking place. I agree with you and ‘Andrew Old’ on this matter. The emphasis should always be on the effectiveness of whichever approach the teacher, in their professional judgement, has chosen to take. I concur.

And this bit was good…

“Great teaching involves empathy and energy, authority and resilience; detailed planning; constant self-improvement. A great teacher has the ability to ‘read’ a classroom and understand its dynamics, instantly; shows inspirational leadership, exciting and motivating pupils to help them achieve their full potential. But common to all the great teachers I know is a love of children and a love of knowledge.” Bravo. However I would caution that a love of knowledge alone will not do. And I would add that a teacher needs to KNOW as well as love children – to know how much they need and how much they can take. To know how best to explore all this amazing knowledge; to make it memorable, engaging and purposeful. To make it matter. And this involves talking to them and listening to them. In addition, if you love children and you are a teacher, you cannot help but be alarmed at the changes you are making to the examination system. But I’m going to write about all that another time, because it’s just too huge for this letter.

I could go on, but I think this is enough for now. Perhaps it will give you some new material.

Yours very sincerely,

Debra Kidd

P.S It was funny of you to belittle classroom talk in a speech. I hope everyone else got the joke though.