Books Personal

My Favourite Quotes

Over the last few years I have been collecting quotes that I help me reflect and think about my thoughts, emotions and judgements in particular situations.

Acknowledging uncertainty

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken” Oliver Cromwell

I first came across this quote in the Ascent of Man – quite possibly one of the best television series ever made – and again recently while reading. Not only does this quote help me temper some of my own thinking about situations I encounter but it also helps me to evaluate my own claims about things I think I know.

I now think about knowledge in terms of certainty and uncertainty – for everything I claim to know I like to ask myself how certain I am that this is true, with the maximum being 95% – even the claims we think are completely true, could, ultimately turn out to be false.

The power of curiosity

“Be curious, not judgmental” Walt Whitman

I first encountered this quote as the desktop image for a colleague. I think it is safe to say that this colleague is one of two educators that have had a profound and lasting impact on my engagement with and thinking about teaching as a profession.

For me this quote challenges me to ask questions and hold back from arriving at conclusions. When we reach a conclusion about anything, we tend to close a door on that something and therefore lose some of the potential it may hold. For example, an idea I meet a lot when talking to families goes something along the lines of “the only universities worth attending are the Russell Group or the Ivy League” This is a value judgement but is this really true? How do we know this?

Killing my paranoia

“Never assume malice, when stupidity will suffice” Hanlon’s Razor

This is a new one for me and I came across it in Julian Baggini’s “How the World Thinks”. It went straight up on the IBDP common room wall (although I changed stupidity to ignorance). A great way to check one’s paranoia and emotional response to stressful situations life throws your way!

Confidence check

“The less someone knows, the more they think they know, and the more someone knows, the less they think they know” The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Are you over confident?

A a senior colleague once attended a conference on university admissions and guidance with me. They had said prior to going that this was an area they knew they wanted to improve in because they knew so little about it. A fine thing to admit. Admitting to gaps in our knowledge opens us up to new learning.

After our first meeting with parents where we discussed the generation of predicted grades, this colleague turned to me and remarked how much more confident they felt in dealing with parents about these issues.

Classic Dunning-Kruger.

Just a little extra knowledge (how much can someone glean from a day and a half professional conference) lead this colleague to immediately over estimate their own knowledge of the issues.

Beware your own confidence – if you think you are an expert on something or just think you know a lot about something, it is probably an indication that you don’t know that much at all and you need to keep learning!

Note to school leaders: you don’t need to know everything – in-fact admit what you don’t know – you will gain more respect and open yourself up to the possibility of learning.

What are the quotes that got you thinking?


The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s the Righteous Mind, at a time that I was considering adding an extra dimension to my blog about my experiences growing up in a super conservative, evangelical family. I was partly inspired to do this by Tara Westover’s fabulous work “educated” about her experiences growing in a fundamentalist mormon family.

The Righteous mind outlines the basics of moral psychology and the differences between those who identify on the political right and those on the political left. It provides an interesting, modern critique of pure reason and society’s obsession with it.

Humans are not rational and rely on intuitions followed by post-hoc rationalisation, Haidt argues. The book goes on to provide a scaffold to potentially reducing misunderstanding and miscommunication across partisan divides. Haidt argues that there are six foundations to morality and liberals and conservatives give emphasis to different ones. This is based on the work that he and other researchers have been carrying out in this areas since the 1990s.

I found it’s defence of intuition and arguments against reason enlightening and thought provoking, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in morality, religion, politics and the division they cause. I would also strongly recommend it to anyone teaching International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge.

It reminded me of the following resources that I have used in teaching TOK:

The following are quotes from the book that I enjoyed.

Page 6 1. Where does Morality come from?

“In other words the understanding of the conservation of volume wasn’t innate, and it wasn’t learned from adults. Kids figure it out for themselves, but only when their minds are ready and  they are given the right kids of experience.” Comment – Piaget’s reasoning makes sense but his studies were only of small children. If he was right surely mankind would have figured out the laws of the universe much sooner. His model cant apply in all adult learning and is inefficient.”

” If you want kids to learn about the social world…don’t force them to obey God or their teachers or you. That will only freeze them at the conventional level.”

I felt this one above provides some clue into understanding members of my family….that’s another story.

“These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning to support their emotional reactions.”

This is a good reminder of the difference between exploratory and confirmatory reasoning. I would argue that an important part of education is concerned with trying to help others develop ways to consider arguments from multiple perspectives.

The intuitive dog and its rational tail

“The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal”.

Many christians will claim that something is wrong because God says it is wrong. Evangelicals claim supreme knowledge – they just know. I have been having arguments, with my siblings, about our faith and Brexit, that can be summed up by this quote.

“Yet moral judgements are not subjective statements; they are claims that somebody did something wrong. I can’t call for the community to punish you simply because I don’t like what you are doing. I have to point to something outside of my own preferences, and that pointing is moral reasoning”

All too often, people I regularly engage in discussion with, are making judgements and not offering anything more than their subjective preferences and they think that that is OK. Many Christians I know interpret the bible in whatever way pleases them at the time.

“The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favour, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.”

“But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephants leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments”.

“The first principle of moral psychology is intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

“If thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in these dry and easy cases, then what chance is there that people with think in an open-minded, exploratory way when self-interest, social identity and strong emotions makes them want or even need to reach a pre-ordained conclusion”

“The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.”

“As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion”.

“Expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behaviour, and it might make it worse….Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason….motivated reasoning (confirmatory reasoning vs exploratory)….depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people”.

“How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favoured view? Yet, in fact, its very hard and nobody has found a way to do it.”

“Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgements, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of an individuals ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neurone. A neurone is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to “decide” whether to fire an impulse along its axon.”

“I concluded by warning that the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist.”

“The ethic of divinity is sometimes incompatible with compassion, egalitarianism, and basic human rights”.

“The Authority foundation, as I describe it, is borrowed directly from Fiske. It is more complex that the other foundations because its modules must look in two directions – up towards superiors and down towards subordinates”

Her Haidt provides an argument in support for the traditional teacher student relationships but also for leadership.

“Emphasising differences makes many people more racist, not less”

This quote reminds me of my twitter discussion with Alom Shah. I picked up on a statement he made about “all white people” and was promptly ridiculed by several of his followers. I still think that it is unhelpful to draw such lines in discussions of race. At the very least the work of Haidt shows that it is self defeating. If you are trying to reduce racism, you need to reduce division.


Thoughts from Mary Myatt’s Curriculum

At Easter this year I read Mary Myatt’s little book, Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence.

This is an excellent book, full of short, sharply written chapters that are bound to get you thinking about the wider narrative of your school curriculum. Now that the International Baccalaureate‘s Standard’s and Practice’s explicitly mention curriculum coherence, this would be recommended reading for any IB coordinator.

These are some of the questions that I asked myself, thoughts I had, or sections I highlighted as I read through the book:

  • Why is a rounded education good?
  • What is the aim of education?
  • Why is important to build links to TOK?
  • Where does my subject fit into the bigger picture of the curriculum?
  • What is the story of the school curriculum?
  • We need to avoid curriculum bittiness by thinking about the big picture – what is the essential ideas of what is being taught in lessons/units? e.g. biblical underpinnings of Macbeth taught in KS3 to inform the learning in KS4 of Macbeth
  • The primary purpose of CPD should be to ensure that teachers can hone their subject knowledge and their pedagogical content knowledge.
  • Schools should prioritise their teachers subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge development: school’s that don’t are like restaurant owners that don’t pay attention to their chef’s ingredients quality.
  • Skills are not separate to knowledge. Comprehension of one text does not guarantee comprehension of another.
  • What are the unifying ideas of each curriculum? – these are the ideas that come up again and again within subjects and between subjects.
  • Curriculum is a narrative, we need to get teachers out of their silo so that they can help students see how their subject learning fits in with others.
  • Structuring units via questions might be the right track to do this?
  • What is it that kids need to know in order to access the stuff we are teaching? This needs to be the focus of the vertical curriculum alignment.
  • During INSET time can we set objectives of what we wish depts to achieve in their planning time together?
  • Reducing workload isn’t about reducing work, it is about efficiency and time allocation. Work load is reduced so less is done with higher quality.
  • While I was reading I tweeted the question: “What is source material in the sciences?” and I got this reply:
  • This thinking about source material has made me think again about my approach to teaching IB Biology, but the question I was then struggling with was how to get students to effectively engage with that source material?
  • I got an idea to answer this question during my philosophy for children training. So now I think that while focusing on curriculum is good, and focussing on concepts and ideas is good we need to ensure that teachers are effectively trained to do this.
  • Learning happens when students are made to think about and with the material. This idea is repeated in the work of Daniel Willingham.
  • Observations of teaching – do I know where the best practice is?
  • Feedback is actionable, Grading is summative – both can be marking so long as we understand the point of the marking.
  • Class blog – when we start a topic, students write notes on what they already know about that topic. They can then identify what they are unsure of and finally what questions they have about the topic. The posts can be updated and revisited as students move through the unit/course.
  • There has been a lot of time wasted on differentiation. It labels and limits what students can do and narrows the achievement gap.
  • LOs as ticks on a checklist. Teacher ticks them off as they move through the syllabus. Instead we need to provide time for repetition. I would also add that a way to do this is move from learning objective to learning questions.
  • What is being taught and how to teach it well should be the focus of meetings. SLT to communicate expectations to middle leaders.
  • Learning should be authentic and link to real world issues and problems, and have some real world outcome if possible. Students work should be honoured, for the time and effort that they put into it.
Books Education

Notes on Trivium 21c

Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c was an absolute delight to read. Thought provoking and enlightening it presents an eloquently articulated history of the educational ideas and, through this radical history, a persuasive argument for the great synthesis of traditional and progressive teaching methods, united via the ancient arts of the trivium.

The trivium in teaching

The trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, originally used as the basis of the school curriculum in the middle ages are explored from a variety of different paradigms and meanings for Robinson to final expound his view of how this mantra could be utilised in modern schooling.

Grammar, Robinson argues, is not only the teaching of the rules of the language arts but is equivalent to the transmission of all of the basic facts and building blocks of knowledge that make up a particular discipline or subject. Grammar is also the transmission of the structure and rules of culture, which, of course, encompasses all the academic disciplines as well as other elements. To Robinson, modern grammarians are those of us on the traditionalist side of the great education debate on methods. Grammarians value knowledge and the methods best shown to help students gain this knowledge.

Dialectic, to Robinson, is the art of critiscm, skeptiscim and questioning of grammar. It is an art that needs to be taught in order to enable future adults to be able to think clearly about and with knowledge, in order to not simply be absorbers of knowledge but users and producers of it. Dialectic is important as it allows students to manipulate and use the knowledge acquired through grammar, by questioning it, reflecting on it and potentially rejecting or changing it. If grammar represents tradition, then dialectic represents progression; the dialecticians are those of us in education who aspire to the more progressive methods in the great educational debate.

The third art of the trivium, rhetoric, is the art of communication. Not only should learners be taught to acquire knowledge through grammar, taught to question it through dialectics but they should also be taught to communicate their thoughts through the arts of rhetoric.

Should the purpose of education serve the common good or enable someone to live a good life?

As someone who has moved from being deeply religious to being so no longer, I found myself agreeing with Robinson’s sentiments that curiosity is not best served by prejudice and that teachers must not model the closed mind of someone who thinks there is only one path that leads to meaning or, I guess, truth. In this vein he asks us to attempt to live, as teachers, with the uncertain position of holding the traditional and the progressive together, investigating ideas from across the range of opinion.

Robinson asks if all teachers in any given school understand the narrative of a the curriculum? He argues that only by seeing how their part fits into the wider curriculum can teachers deliver an education to students that allows them to be knowledgable, critical and reflective. He claims that students must learn the unifying concepts, the concepts that come up again and again, of each discipline again and again. This put me in mind of Thomas Khun who claimed that expertise as a scientist only arrives through exposure to many examples. Scientists are experts because they have been able to generalise from the many specific examples and they apply this knowledge in new scenarios.

Robinson also claims that teachers must move away from omniscience, which reminded me of an early career conversation a chemistry teacher who claimed that not knowing in a teacher is a sign of weakness, and that students don’t like it. I agree with Robinson that all teachers need to honest about what society doesn’t know, they need to embrace the uncertainty in their discipline.

A good teacher has mastered the core knowledge and more of their discipline as well as holding an appreciation of what society doesn’t yet know in their field.

We need to understand that teachers should have the authority to teach but recognise that all knowledge is probable and uncertain.

Teachers should use language in such a way that ensures uncertainty has its place.

Robinson’s book draws on many sources and aside from his main argument is highly informative of the history of educational ideas. His arguments are compelling and interesting but the book is worth reading not only for this but also for your education in the history of educational ideas that it draws upon. This book has helped me begin to see the synthesis of the progressive and traditional narratives and has got me wondering about how I can go about making argumentation an important part of my biology classroom in the second stage of the trivium. How can I use debate to really challenge kids to think and learn all sides of an argument? How can I introduce students to the, Dissoi Logoi in science, the art of seeing both sides of an argument as true within their contexts. Instead of dialectic argument as being right vs wrong we can make both as right. Dual thinking explores the possibility that both sides can be right.


Notes on making good progress?: Chapter 9

In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.

An integrated assessment system

An accurate and useful progression model is the foundation of any assessment system because it explains how pupils make progress. SoWs and lesson plans and the curriculum can all be based on this progression model. Textbooks would be the most efficient way to bring all of these items together.

The first item in a progression model is a collection of formative questions which match up to the curriculum. The bank should be online so that pupils can access it at home or at school. Pupils should have formatives at the end of lessons or chapters and these would contain questions on new material and also on material previously taught. It could be linked up to question level analysis and if it was automated could point pupils straight back to a relevant video or worksheet on what the students had just got wrong.

Next we should have summative item banks. For difficulty model assessments this could be whole past papers or if online a computer adaptive system that makes testing shorter and more accurate. For quality based model we could use a comparative judgement system.

Finally a standardised test bank would contain be non-curriculum linked questions like the CEM tests. These are useful for setting targets.

Such a system would be beneficial because it would be coherent: a clear structure of progressing to novice to expert. It has the ability to give pupils ownership of the curriculum. It could also be self improving.