Make No Assumptions

Merlin Mann (Back to Work; Roderick on the Line; Reconcilable Differences) often quotes the following line:

“Every day, somebody’s born who’s never seen The Flintstones

He recently revealed the origin of the quotation and why he thinks it is important:

This simple and somewhat obvious line is so important, particularly for educators. Far too often, I hear colleagues exclaim their disbelief about a child’s lack of general knowledge. I have been guilty of this too. However, what I have come to realise is that we should not make assumptions when it comes to educating young people.

For my primary colleagues the application here is fairly obvious, not least for those brave individuals who teach ‘reception’. Everything is new for their students. But I would ask that my secondary colleagues also take heed of the underlying message of Merlin’s oft-quoted line. Assume nothing. Borrow from ‘Make it Stick’ and use a low stakes quiz at the start of a unit to evaluate the existing knowledge of your students. And don’t be surprised if at least one of them has no prior knowledge of the references, ideas, events or skills that you are about to teach/develop.

As an English teacher this is brought home loud and clear when teaching literature. All too often, students at both GCSE and A-Level struggle to recognise religious, cultural or literary references within the texts that we are studying. The first time that I taught the poem ‘Hour’ by Carol Ann Duffy I was shocked that half of my top set class did not recognise the references to the Greek Myth of King Midas or the Fairy Tale of Rumpelstiltskin. Even more appaling was the fact that once pointed out at least half of them had never even read the stories to which Duffy was making reference. Both of these tales, among many others were read to me by my parents and re-read by me many times as a small child. I can still see the illustrated covers of my ladybird books sitting atop my bookshelf in my bedroom.

Ladybird Rumpelstiltskin

It would be easy to bemoan this lack of knowledge and experience. It would be easy to spend hours debating the causes. However, I believe it is better to accept it and plan accordingly. Look at what you are teaching and assume nothing. Where you feel that your students should have prior knowledge, test this early on and plan to plug the gaps. You and they will make far greater progress this way, as for one student in your class they are encountering ‘The Crimean War’; coming face to face with the challenges of algebra; or picking up and learning how to use a hand plane for the first time.


“Every day, somebody’s born who’s never seen The Flintstones

Image CC: Ladybird Books via Nicole’s Collector’s Site

Ask For Help

Kirk_Spock_BonesThis article by Kevin Gannon has been ruminating around my mind since I first read it. Not only do the four lessons that Kevin shares chime with my experiences as an Assistant Principal, but they can be applied by anyone to any situation: work, relationships or life in general.

  • Not every disagreement is a call to arms.
  • How and when I use my voice matters.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Be good to people (including yourself).

If one of the above lessons speaks to me the most, it is the third. Whenever I mentor someone new it is the first piece of advice I offer. On the surface, asking for help, seems both obvious and simple. However, when you are placed in a position of authority it can feel far from simple. Asking for help requires the individual to remove their ego from the equation. Fear and/or arrogance are powerful character-traits but they will only hamper long-term success.

Appearing to have all the answers and can help you to demonstrate confidence, which is a much-needed trait in leadership. However, you will ultimately be judged on the success of your projects or areas of responsibility, and if you do not deliver as expected questions will be asked. It is here that cracks will appear and mistakes will be recognised. What often comes out in these situations is that you could have asked for help. Instead, you chose to see such an action as a sign of weakness and were willing to risk the success of the project to massage your ego.

In Gannon’s article, he contextualises this by considering the following common classroom conundrum. Should I admit to my students when I do not know something?

As a teacher, one of the most powerful things I can say to my students is “I don’t know,” because it shows them that I’m still learning, and it usually leads to us saying “let’s find out.” ~ Gannon, 2016.

I have long evangelised the need for educators to free themselves of the title of ‘teacher’ and to be open about their shortcomings. It is folly to present yourself as the fountain of all knowledge, and far more rewarding to experience your students’ learning journey as a collaborator. Learning is ‘interdependent’. It requires constant inquiry and is not nor should not be viewed as a one-way flow of information between educator and learner. When defining ‘connectivism’ in 2007, Stephen Downes stated:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

In very simple terms, learning happens through the connections we make with a number of different individuals across a number of different networks. Combining and connecting these various sources of information enrich our understanding of a topic or idea and free us of the belief that knowledge is derived from one single authorative source.

Within leadership this approach can be applied to the notion of asking for help. Effective administrators and leaders understand that ‘asking for help’ is not a sign of weakness but is rather a sign of strength. Great leaders surround themselves with trusted advisors. Similarly, students writing their Masters or Doctoral theses are encouraged to have a critical friend. We all need a network of people who we can turn to for help; people whose views we trust and value. Even better, people who are prepared to challenge us and ask difficult questions.

Weak leaders surround themselves with yes men who are afraid to argue with them. ~ Knapp, 2012.

Strong leaders do the opposite. They look to those whose views differ from their own in order to fully appreciate the implications that surround a decision that needs to be made, or better define the pros and cons of moving a project forward in a paricular way.

In essence, asking for help is an acknowedgement that before a decision is made or an action is taken, due consideration is required. It is not a weakness. It is a necessary step in ensuring that the decisions you make are well-informed. A decision made in this way is one that you can justify and explain with clarity. Fear and arrogance have no place in such an approach and like the educator who is prepared to say “I don’t know”, an effective leader is prepared to do the same.

Image via: TOR.COM.

A Singular Gift

Like many students in England, I first encountered ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ as an assigned text during my GCSEs. Many of the novels and plays that I have read since have had a significant impact on me but none struck a chord in quite the same way as Harper Lee’s opus.

Her singular gift provided ‘life lessons’ that I return to time and again; not least in my own practice as a teacher. Having travelled full circle and taught the text to my own classes, there can be no doubt that Lee understood children and their unique view of the world.

While she may have left us, her words remain and will continue to enlighten young (and older) minds to the nature of life, including that which is unfair and unjust. Each time a character faces or suffers defeat, Scout’s (and our) eyes are opened a little further.

There is much to be learned from the experiences and perspectives of others; not least the importance of reason and compassion.

I learned a lot from Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, Tom and Boo Radley.

Rest in peace Harper Lee.

Connected Courses (#ccourses)

Neon Open

I’m all signed up for Connected Courses, a MOOC seeking to connect educators interested in “developing online, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web.”

Having already ran a small open online course as part of my M.Ed., I am excited to explore this model of learning further; drawing on the experience of educators who have played a direct role in its development pedagogically and technically.

(Image cc. Matt Katzenberger)

TSA – KS3 @ CCC (Slides)

Ever since I began working at Chalfonts Community College I have been impressed by the role the school plays in teacher development. Currently, we offer teacher training placements for ITT students; an impressive middle-leader programme; funding and support for teachers who wish to complete Masters level study; and this year we were invited to be a pert of the Hearts and Bucks Teaching School Alliance.

On Monday, we will be convening with St Clement Danes School and Parmiter’s School for our first TSA Conference. During the morning we will be working in departmental teams, sharing best practice and forging links for the future. I am really looking forward to working with the other English departments and I hope that my team get a lot out of the day.

Our time together begins with an opportunity to present our vision for Key Stage Three, following the introduction of the new National Curriculum. In all honesty, we have not made significant changes to what we have been doing over the last two years. Many of the key areas of learning that have been emphasised in the new NC were already priorities in our programme of study, having sought to create a greater degree of continuity between Key Stage Three and Four.

However, putting this presentation together has been a useful process. And I am looking forward to presenting it, along side Joanna Green (Deputy Leader for English), tomorrow.

*The slides can be viewed in full screen and you can access speaker notes by clicking on the cog. If you have any questions please leave a comment.