The Art of Leading a Department: Know Your Students

Identification is not the same as knowing someone through and through.

Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

The matrix

I loved The Matrix. I’m not quite nerdy enough to get completely into it, but I’m geeky enough to understand the principles behind the concept and to cringe a little when the pseudo-existentialist clap-trap spews forth, but as a visual spectacle, it’s a great film.

The sequels though? My word. Terrible, terrible films. Acting more wooden than a mahogany table and as convincing as my attempts at exercise. But, there’s a scene, involving ‘The Architect’, who basically says that Neo is the result of an imbalance in the grand set of equations that constitutes the Matrix, and every so often, the Architect comes to some means of restarting the whole affair, unbeknownst to those who think that Zion is sanctuary from the big horrible machines.

Back to reality

The thing is, it’s easy to get trapped as a leader into the mentality that basically, you’re dealing with numbers. From KS2 starting points to FFT data to Pupil Premium students to LAC… you’re dealing with one big set of numbers.

Now, we’d all love to boil them all down to one equation, compute the figures and come up with a means of managing everything. But the fact of the matter is, that’s simply not going to happen, because just like Neo in The Matrix, there is an imbalance.

The students you teach are human beings. Let’s just remember that for a second, because – and I wholeheartedly mean this – I think this case is regularly forgotten. There is this intangible quality of students that means that it doesn’t necessarily matter how or what you teach, the interventions you put in place or the personality that you bring into the classroom, ultimately, it’s down to them to perform. Continue reading

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The Art of Leading a Department: Listening to Those Above and Below

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Will Rogers

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

Listening is different from hearing. Listening is an act. Hearing is a physiological process. Listening means taking what you hear, and deciphering it to create meaning.

My name is Amir, and I’m a terrible listener. I’ll hold my hands up, I’m awful at it, as I’ve explained before. But there are ways that I deal with this issue, but let’s start with why we need to listen to those above and below our station as leaders.


It’s plain obvious that we need to listen to our superiors. They, after all, are calling the shots. It’s remarkable how much of our time as leaders is spent in the company of those who lead us, and as such there has to be constructive dialogue. In my early years as a leader, I was a very defensive listener. I’d listen to what my superiors said from the viewpoint of someone being judged. Consequently, a much of my contribution to a discussion would have a significant emotive element, even when most of the time all I had to do was just take on board what’s being said and deal with it. Continue reading

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Rebloggable: 5th December 2014

Spreading the love for brilliant content, every week…


Apparently it’s Christmas soon. Mr Taylor gets into the festive spirit with some seasonal starters.

Maths Teaching

FMaths reaffirming my and Tom Bennett’s belief that the best teachers have great subject knowledge.

General Education 

Mental health is still seen as an issue that can be swept under the carpet in all walks of life. The Guardian Teacher Network looks into how this can be challenged.


Just like the little ones, we obsess about grades rather than constructive feedback. Here’s Ross Morrison McGill on that strange dichotomy that we face…

And Finally…

Mr McCourt provokes thoughts… (does that rhyme? I think it does!).

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Interventions AKA Helping Students

Proper intervention advice.

Class Teaching

At our INSET day on Friday, Andy Tharby and I spoke about interventions.  We wanted to clarify what we understood by the term intervention.  The most important point we wanted to stress was that interventions are not an add on – it’s what we do to support students who are getting really stuck with their learning i.e. it’s about great teaching.  We could have just as easily called the presentation:

Responsive teaching


Knowing your students


Noticing Students


Helping Students

So it’s about noticing when students are stuck and making some adjustments to our  teaching, to address this….and unstick them.

iv1This diagram sums it up.  We have adapted the idea of ‘waves of intervention’ to help teachers scaffold and plan their support for students.  When thought of in this way, the majority of intervention will take place through high quality, responsive teaching that makes up our day to day practice.  Following this, you might…

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Thinking Aloud: Textbooks, etc

To be better equipped for the tests that the year will bring — read a textbook. To prepare for the tests that life will bring — read a book.

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

This is a kind of follow-up to @srcav’s recent blog post on textbooks, but it’s also a consideration of other things.

Automatic obsolescence

Since I started teaching around 10 years ago, there has been at least 1 change to the GCSE curriculum or examinations every year. Compare this to say, computing, where average processing speed of CPUs has roughly doubled year on year (Moore’s Law), or in cars, where new innovations and technology is introduced yearly.

This means that as soon as a computer or car is built and purchased, it’s obsolete. Likewise, because of the frequency of changes to curricula in schools, this means there’s a belief that a textbook is obsolete as soon as it is bought.

There is a shift towards ‘e-books’, but in the majority of cases these are simply print books in electronic form, with some bolt-on interactivity to make it look a bit more swish. Rarely have I seen adaptive materials, because they’re so hard and time-consuming to create that their cost would be prohibitive. There are moves to address this – Complete Mathematics for one – but this is an emerging situation in a market that tends to stick to what it knows.

The trouble with textbooks today

Even in my relatively short life as a teacher, I’ve come across a vast variety of textbooks, even though we have relatively few core publishers on the scene. The thing is, the idea of a textbook isn’t a problem. I actually use textbooks in lessons, just not all the time, as a) I don’t think many of them are any good and b) I like flexibility in my resources. My major bugbears with textbooks are:

  • Poor design
  • Lack of opportunity for consolidation
  • Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems
  • Price
  • Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

Let’s go into more detail for these points:

Poor design

As someone versed in the principles of design, many textbooks make my blood boil. First of all, font choice. The readability of a piece of text is a function of the typeface used to display it. Serif typefaces (funnily enough, like the one this very blog uses) are a nightmare in books for students. Type-setting is also a problem. I cannot emphasise the importance for good use of whitespace and line-spacing to simplify readability.

OUP Framework Maths is a notoriously poorly set out textbook series.

Colour choice is also one to be aware of. Why textbooks for children, sorry, young people are coloured in a way that makes one think of a print-version LSD trip is beyond me. Often the choice of colour is distracting, clashing and ultimately pointless.

Formula One Maths – a colour explosion

There’s a philosophy that colour is important in textbooks. I wholeheartedly disagree. When it comes to colour in any printwork, it is almost always the case that less is more, unless it is art or graphic design book itself.

Lack of opportunity for consolidation

The name of this textbook shall name anonymous. But seriously, look at it...

The name of this textbook shall be anonymous. But seriously, look at it…

How do you get better at Mathematics? By doing lots of it. It’s remarkably simple. So why do we have so many textbooks that avoid consolidation exercises and emphasise the visuals? By consolidation I don’t necessarily mean just lots of repetitive sums. I mean lots of opportunity for practice, application and extension.

This also fits in with the present trends for mastery and fluency. Many textbooks avoid extensive practice tasks because they don’t look visually appetising. But what are we trying to do here, entertain or educate? Plus I’d bet my house on the idea that to many students it doesn’t really matter what textbook they have in front of them.

Pseudo-‘Real Life’ problems


Please guys – leave the real-life context to us. As Dan Meyer is always quick to point out, you almost always get it so very wrong.


Want some real-life context? Lay your hands on the Maths4Real videos. They’re a bit dated but the contexts used are timeless.


Many textbooks are the best part of £20 a piece. Before you’ve even got into the ‘exciting’ things like e-books, test builders, homework generators and the like – all of which apart from the e-books you can get similar systems that are much cheaper, simpler and more flexible to use – you’ve looking at upwards of £4000 for a decent set of GCSE books, and probably the same for lower school.

What is it you’re actually paying for though? Many, many publishers don’t actually re-write the whole textbook if a specification changes. So you’re not paying for a brand-new book. What you’re doing is subsidising the electronic bolt-ons that are sold at a cut down price, but are actually the most time-consuming to make. That’s why publishers push the electronic resources: they’ve got to justify the investment in creating them.

Where’s my evidence? Look at the price of Elmwood Press and CGP textbooks. They cover the whole GCSE syllabus, just like the fancy Collins, Pearson or OUP books, but are nearly £10 cheaper. They’re not as colourful, or linked to whizz-bang electronic stuff, but they do the job. Which is what a textbook should do. It’s not an entertainment piece, it’s a source of mathematical practice.

The Elmwood Press books are particularly of note because they’re not constantly republished. They cover the GCSE specifications and more. Which leads me to…

Focus on exam spec, rather than concepts

This is particularly a concern of mine at the moment. Textbooks are often sold on being ‘ready for the new GCSE specifications’ or ‘includes more functionality’ or whatever. Lies, lies and lies. As I say before, most textbooks are simply tweaked reprints, either reordered or with a few extra bits in. So when they’re ‘ready for the new GCSE specification’ what’s happened is that the publisher has taken all the chapters, put them in line with whatever modules or specifications are now in place, and maybe placed or taken away some calculator signs next to questions.

Why waste time on this? Get the textbook right in the first place. The basic concepts in Secondary Mathematics don’t change that much – if anything what changes is the difficulty – as we’ve seen with 2015 spec. What CGP have done is make sure there’s an overlap with A-Level to support this extension and the introduction of the Level 2 Further Maths Certificate. I know they’re relatively new to the textbook game, but they’ve been doing revision resources for so long they know the curriculum well enough.

It is worrying that new specifications are used as an excuse to invest £1000s in new textbooks. The only time that textbooks should be bought is either because they’re physically falling apart or they’re over 10 years old.

One area that nearly all publishers fall into is the idea of different textbooks for different specifications. This needs to be knocked on the head. There is one GCSE programme of study, and all examination boards follow this. But no – there’s an ‘Edexcel version’, and ‘AQA version’, etc. Why? Money. As Lester Freamon constantly says in The Wire – follow the money.

And yet, and yet…

I actually quite like a good textbook. A good textbook. I’m still gutted about giving away an original GCSE textbook that covered sets and matrices. It was comprehensive to say the least. You’ve probably seen by now that I rate Elmwood Press and CGP books, but I’m not on a commission: they’re good textbooks, plain and simple. They’re cheap, well written, have plenty of practice and are simple and clear in design. The Elmwood Press books have plenty of problem solving opportunities too. I also rate the SMP Interact series, although they’re a little more pricey.

Much of what is out there textbook wise is simply practice packaged in a way to mask the Mathematics in ‘fun’ and pretty pictures. It distracts from what’s important. Stop the distractions. Focus on what matters – the exercises. That’s what my recommended publishers do.

And breathe!

Textbooks are useful, but as part of a repertoire of resources. They don’t make great teaching. Great teachers use them effectively. The best textbooks are simply designed, clear to read, cheap (by this I mean good value, rather than their quality) and focused on practicing concepts rather than looking ‘fun’. They also avoid tacked-on ‘real life’ problems and focus on the connections between concepts rather than treating Mathematics as a ticklist of topics to cover. Often, they don’t need to be ‘updated’ for new specifications because they’re so comprehensive in the first place.

The government agenda of placing textbooks as a central part of learning is not necessarily a bad one, but it does need caveats. One is that they’re not a panacea, and the other is that the bigger publishers drive form over function, which is counter to the whole principle those in charge want to work towards in the first place.

It’s once again a case where those in the know – teachers – need to have their voices heard. Will that happen? Who knows???

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Edublog Awards 2014

Woohoo! My first award! I’m so pleased!


My timehop today informed my that it’s a year since I posted my nominations for the Edublog Awards 2013. I had forgotten they existed and thought I would enter some nominations. Unfortunately, nominations have closed. So this post is who I would have nominated!

Best Individual Blog

This is a tricky category for me, as I love loads and loads of blogs. But after thinking long and hard about it I have decided my nomination for “Best Individual Blog 2015” goes to Colin Beveridge’s (@icecolbeveridge ) “Flying Colours Maths“. The blog is, for me, the perfect mix of maths curiosities and maths teaching ideas, all of which Colin purveys with great humour. He is always interesting and entertaining, although on occasion he is wrong.

Best Group Blog

A blog I’ve discovered recently which brightens my day is “One good thing“. It’s run by…

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The Art of Leading a Department: Be a Reflective Practitioner

Even if you think you’re doing well and have it all figured out, there is a voice you will always inevitably hear at some point which nags at you and says “but wait…” Don’t ever dismiss it, listen to what it has to say. Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.

Ashly Lorenzana

If you’ve missed any of the series so far, click here for all of the previous parts of this series.

Just a bit of a warning, this is the first ‘EPIC POST’ that I’ve wrote. My posts are usually quite long for blogs, normally about 1000 words. This goes well beyond that. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

My Core Belief

I have been through a few interviews in my teaching career and one of the questions I am most asked is:

“What makes a good teacher?”

Now there’s some stock answers. Good subject knowledge; excellent planning; placing the students first; developing positive relationships. All those sorts of things. But in my mind these are all results of being a good teacher. They’re actions, in a sense, rather than a character, or ethic.

My answer would be: A good teacher is someone who is a reflective practitioner. That’s it. Everything else, to quote my great university lecturer John Slater, is ‘bean counting’ – the extra layers around the central, all-powerful kernel.
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