The Way We Live Now

QualificationI came out of the Old Street Tube on my way to a meeting when I was stopped by a young girl asking for money. Something in the look of despair in her eyes made me stop.  ‘I’ve only got a fiver.  Have you got a couple of quid change?’  She had and handed it over.  So, curious, I asked her what brought her to pan-handling outside a tube station in London.

Over two minutes I got the story. She was 21 and had left home because her mother was impossible in some unspecified way.  Her sister was in care and her brother had run off.  So she, — Annie was her name – had got on a train without a ticket and fled to London a week ago.  Since then she had been trying to get a job doing anything and had been living in a grave yard at night.  The problem was that without a residence Annie could not get a job very easily and nor could she get any benefits to enable her to get somewhere to live.

The people at a London Job Centre had told Annie that because she was homeless she was deemed to have no living costs so therefore was not entitled to any payments.  It was a classic Catch 22.  She now was trying to raise £22-50 to buy a week’s accommodation in a London shelter.  It didn’t seem a lot of money.

‘What can you do?’ I asked.  She replied that she could do horse training and riding although we both agreed there wasn’t a lot of demand for that in London. Annie was prepared to do any menial job and GCSEs I asked?  Yes eight all A*-Cs but she couldn’t stay in school because of her family circumstances.

After all this I gave her some money.  Maybe she was not what she seemed and I had been conned.  But she had seemed genuine and not an addict.  It was I reflected the face of England in 2013 where nearly a million 16 to 24 year olds are unemployed.  Many of them are doubtless complex cases like Annie’s.  And like Annie they have qualifications and want to work.  Yet either there are no jobs or where there are we prefer to make their lives difficult by withholding small amounts of money that would actually help them gain work.

More significantly Annie’s case speaks to the broader shape of the educational landscape.  How does it prepare young people for their complex lives?  A focus on skills of self-management and grit would help as would the possibility of job creation for the young in order that they might experience work and not end up on the streets.  More generally is it not time to reassess our Victorian attitudes to schooling?  What we teach should reflect the realities of modern life.  Instead we are still hanging on to notional subjects that have vastly changed since Victorian times.  Where are the new subjects reflecting areas of research at university?  Only computer science has made it onto the curriculum in recent years, whilst practical vocational subjects have been elbowed out as being too easy.  Yet for many thousands of our students these areas of study relate directly to work.  Once again the academic has triumphed in England over the vocational.

Why not have a curriculum divided into units or credits that could be earned and might reflect individual student interest and choice?  Out would go the terminal assessment and in would come the need for a number of credits to graduate from high school at the age of eighteen.  Those seeking to go to university might study advanced courses in their area of interest and undertake additional examinations and course work.

Within this model we would see English schools begin to shift away from the factory model of production as at present and move towards greater individualisation and choice.  It would see a thousand flowers bloom.  But perhaps too much for today’s politicians whatever their persuasion.

Whether such a model might have helped Annie is a moot point given the complexities of her home situation, but it might have provided a richer set of skills on which to build.

School Change: Culture First!

CultureMy last blog talked about the comparative paucity of change over the last twenty years, across the millions of schools that exist. Yes we have seen teaching improve, yes there is more use of technology, yes we have some more modern environments.  But mostly the factory school: one teacher directing the work of 30, 40, 50 or more pupils remains.  The question is how do we move towards an environment where students are more in charge of their own learning and able to use modern technologies in more modern surroundings?

The first stance on this is to think about culture.  Culture is a weasel word and seems to mean everything and nothing.  Perhaps the best way of understanding it is as a framework or vessel within which our lives are situated.  As Glifford Geertz famously put it, ‘It’s the way we do things around here.’ And when we want to change ‘the way we do things’ the first issue is mostly that ‘we’ are not consulted very much. Somebody else has an idea about what we should be doing and decides to do it and then strategize how to get people on board.  The problem as school leaders often see it is that people don’t want to change.  Indeed this seems hard wired into our psychology and perhaps is there as a throwback to previous eras when our very survival depended on leaders making wise decisions.  The route to changing how people respond is to think about the moral purpose of what we are trying to achieve.  Second it helps if we see the culture of the school as a whole: not one culture for staff and another for pupils.

Moral purpose leads quickly to us considering the principles under which the school operates.  Most efforts end up with lines of worthy if often slightly opaque reasoning that rarely resonates with anyone.   The KIPP schools in the United States sum up their beliefs very succinctly in their slogan of ‘Work hard. Be Nice.’  These four words can become live rallying points and can be applied to both students and teachers equally.

As significant however as any slogan is the attitudes of the principal and senior managers within the school.  Bullying and hectoring behaviour quickly destroys any culture.  Wisdom is being open to people, thinking  about how to develop them and above all  not feeling threatened and remaining curious about the world.  Many principals and senior managers simply lack these skills and are unaware of their deficits.  But these skills can be learned and they should be vigorously promulgated within schools by making sure that the mundane but urgent does not crowd out the wider issues of principles, direction and meaning.

But culture is also about not simply beliefs but beliefs in action.  So leaders have to think about what actions they might undertake to  reinforce the kinds of values they stand for.  It is in the myriad little things that we do for one another that helps shape our perceptions.  Some of these are obvious when we think about it and some of them are counter intuitive.  Culture is about messaging and the environment: furniture and general layout of buildings all send messages.  An isolated display of a pupil’s work from 1993 still displayed in 2005 sent a message.  One needs fresh eyes to look at the environment and ask the question what message does it send and how can we improve it?

Can we supply coffee, tea and water for staff in industrial quantities?  Most schools would say no, yet this simple action  of giving something needed is a good example of how to build a modern culture and how to demonstrate the values of care.  I well remember a principal in a German school telling me that even a cup of coffee for a guest would have to be paid for personally by him (1 euro).  Mad but true.   And the provision of  high quality food for staff on training days is another aspect of this simple issue of care through giving.

The artist Candy Chang set up a wall in a poor part of San Francisco with the words ‘The one thing I would like to do before I die….’  inscribed and space for people to write something.  This is a great way of generating engagement from everyone.  A school might like to vary this by having a wall with ‘We could learn better here if…’ or ‘I want our curriculum to be …’ Cynicism will prompt caution but negative commentary should not put off school leaders from being brave.  Indeed such approaches chime well with the zeitgeist of today which is an egalitarian, democratic and crowd sourced approach to change.    In fact harnessing ideas from everyone both reinforces culture and often provides solutions to difficult problems.  It says loudly that in this place our views are valued and we all have a chance to play an active role.

Of course there is much more to culture than an 800 word blog.  But the key is driving out fear, being open and being fun.  School leaders have to practice being brave and when things don’t work out simply admit the error and move on.


Chris Gerry

February 2013


It’s Been Twenty Years So Where is the Change?

I suppose I must have sat through dozens of talks over the years suggesting that schools need to change, have to change, or must change.  There have been various waves of concern such as the lack of computers in schools, then the need for personalisation and latterly the switch to an on line world where empowered independent learners take full advantage of the best that the web can offer.  Allied to these exhortations have been economic concerns about international competition, the rise of the Asian economies and the need to modernise.  Faced with this blizzard of activity from politicians, pundits, technology companies and education gurus, what is remarkable is how little has actually changed.  A fortune has been spent but why have we seen only quite modest changes in schools around the world?  Yes the factory school needs to be replaced but when will this happen at scale?

There are many answers to this thorny question.  First most punditry operates at the uber global level and talks about changes to systems rather than focusing on change at the actual school level.  Understanding ‘system wide reform’ focusses educational bureaucracies on the design of various rewards and punishments to corral schools to make a variety of changes deemed necessary to improve the exam performance of pupils.  Such multiplicity of agendas and targets only serve to confuse people running schools.  One reform effort is quickly overtaken by another so the best strategy maybe to only commit to some new approaches in a modest way as it is well known that politicians are fickle and short lived in their evident quest to make a difference.  Most of these approaches are piecemeal at best.  No one seems to talk about a more joined up approach to remodelling the work of schools fit for the twenty-first century. Of which more later.

The second reason for comparative lack of change is that  organisations only change for very distinctive reasons.  These tend to be one of three: economic reasons (less cash around),  legal reasons (increasing the age of school leaving or mandating a curriculum), or technological reasons  (the arrival of computers).  Steven Pinker puts this well in The Better Angels of Our Nature :   ‘People are embedded in a culture and find meaning in its myths, symbols and epics.  Truth does not reside in propositions in the sky, there for everyone to see, but in situated narratives and archetypes that are particular to the history of a place and give meaning to the lives of its inhabitants.’  (page 186)

Whilst Pinker was not thinking about schools the analogy holds as schools exist pretty much on their own as isolated institutions who find meaning and purpose in their daily activities.  Consequently any approach to change within schools needs to understand this and consider how local meaning and culture might be adapted and changed to meet a new agenda.  More significantly perhaps advocates of change either suggest rather breezily the advantages of some total system and school redesign without giving much in the way of specifics, or they advocate something rather smaller which may be equally difficult to integrate into the life of the school.

A third difficulty for schools globally is that few of them are masters of their own destiny.  Most do not manage their own budgets but depend on an educational bureaucracy to do this for them.  Bureaucracies are naturally slow and have complex rule structures that ensure their own existence.  They are anything but agile. In one country I know of the decision to take a demountable wall down to create a larger space has taken over a year and went to the minister at one stage for deliberation.  The issue remains unsettled.

A Better Way?

We have to stop people talking about ‘propositions in the sky’ and focus on how individual schools can make changes.  But it is not institutions that make change: it is people.  The steps necessary for such change are not impossible but they are rarely spoken of.   The three components of change are the nature of the work that schools do – that is how teachers work and how students work;  the use of space within schools – perhaps not small classrooms but larger more flexible spaces; and the use of technology.    Underlying all of this has got to be an economic model whereby the school manages its own finances. To embrace the large scale changes here  schools will need to look at how they can stop doing some things and start doing others.   We can enable the whole organisation to be much smarter by incorporating technology to measure and manage the work of the school.  Additionally we need to develop these ideas alongside those who work in schools and show the advantages of embracing new technologies for learning and ensure that the whole enterprise is properly supported.

My next three blogs will show how change at the school level can happen.


Chris Gerry

February 2013


How can psychology help improve teaching and learning?

Pupil not enjoying schoolDespite huge advances in neuroscience over the past twenty years not much has seeped through to impact day to day learning in classrooms.  This is the problem that Daniel T Willingham Why Don’t Students Like School: A  Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom starts with in his  intriguing  new book.  He explains that the main issue is learning is memory and short term memory at that.  People just don’t have a lot of capacity in their short term memories so all learning should keep this in mind.  To overcome this teachers need to ‘chunk’ information together into pieces that can then reside in the students’ long term memories and then be called on when needed.  Chunking means combining several separate things into a single unit: so a whole word takes up the same amount of space in working memory as one letter or number.  Chunking therefore allows us to have more capacity in are working memory to use for problem solving.  The example that Willingham uses is learning the following letters:

  • XCN
  • NPH
  • DFB
  • ICI
  • ANC
  • AAX

When the same letters are reorganised to this format:

  • X
  • CNN
  • PHD
  • FBI
  • CIA
  • NCAA
  • X

All of the initials in the second list refer to organisations that American children might recognise. So their memory of the list would be much easier as they can simply rely on information already stored in their long term memories.  How we present things therefore helps understanding by helping children’s cognitive functions related to the structure of their short term memories.

The other over riding issue that teachers should be aware of is that human beings are not naturally interested in learning information that is not related to a problem they are trying to solve.  People tend to be interested in new things in the context of what they already know.  Building broad contextual knowledge is therefore a key issue for teachers and in many ways the difficulties for children are that they simply do not have much in the way of wider knowledge to draw upon.  So lessons need to be problem focused and learning should take place within the context of trying to solve a problem.  But to make this effective, first build the broader knowledge base.

Next Willingham tackles the issue of teaching  pupils skills and makes the point that skills cannot be taught in a vacuum.  They must be related to problem solving and knowledge content.  Here shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge and encouraging students to read is an essential part of all of this.  Of course student retention (memory) is always an issue.  Students remember best when there is an emotional element as well as cognitive problem solving involved, so teachers need to think about using attention grabbing techniques and to try to enable students to focus on the wider (meta cognitive) meaning of what is being taught.

Learning  can also be enhanced by using curiosity, conflict, complications and character all within the context of a story to enhance understanding.  People respond powerfully to stories, so if we use lessons as opportunities for story telling we normally see better understanding taking place.  Teachers should encourage students to become expert by simply getting them to focus on the subject nd to practice their understandings.   An expert is simply someone who has invested a great deal of time in learning about something.  We should encourage habits of work amongst students to promote expertise.

Students find abstract ideas difficult to grasp so teachers should provide concrete examples to illustrate the concept. Next teachers need to adjust their questioning techniques to encourage students to think about abstract concepts.  Too much teacher questioning is often superficial and confined to factual recall.  Yet this does not indicate if students have understood conceptually.

Somewhat controversially perhaps, Willingham argues that practising the gaining of information by drilling (repeating it) is not such a bad idea for some basic information like language sounds and number tables.

Most teachers are aware of multiple intelligence ideas and the literature about preferred learning styles (auditory, kinaesthetic and visual).  Willingham dismisses most of this as illusory and notes that ‘Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.’  So when thinking of learning styles teachers should focus on content not the students: it may help students better understand if information is presented in multiple ways such as visual and auditory.  Linked with this is the idea that intelligence is difficult to define.  There is no evidence of Gardener’s eight intelligences as being separate and distinct.  But there is growing evidence that intelligence is malleable and can change over time.  We should tell both teachers and students this fact.  However this is not the same as telling a student that they are smart. Evidence suggests that when children are told about their ability, it immediately declines.  It is far better to compliment children on  the efforts they are making.

The book contains a lot more information than has been covered here. It is the first from a research scientist that demonstrates why teaching in certain ways actually helps understanding and learning.


Chris Gerry

December 2012


It’s Character That Matters

SuccessA new American book by Paul Tough How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is turning the education world upside down by arguing that the endless pursuit of better test scores for children is in fact a false God.  Across the US it has been noticed that many students who have good test scores and get a university place don’t actually finish their degree.  They drop out.  In fact drop out rates make the US the second worst performer within the OECD, just ahead of Italy.

So what is going on?  The backdrop to all of this is a changing view of poverty and how to deal with it.  Capitalist nations vary with regards to income inequalities and the extent of poverty within their societies.  The National Centre for Children in Poverty estimates:

‘ Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,350 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 44% of children live in low-income families.’

In recent years in the US and other OECD countries there has been a shift away from remediation of influences of poverty via income redistribution towards a view that where children achieve good exam results they appear to do better in terms of life chances.  It had been noticed that some schools had achieved high test scores with poor children. So, the logic went, if the whole school system could be transformed in terms of test scores, then the effects of poverty could be eliminated. All those people who had been poor would go on and get decent jobs and make their contributions as citizens.  Hence the new political mantra of all parties in the West that poverty is not an inhibitor of social mobility.

If only things were so simple.  New research paints a more complex picture.  Poor children with good test scores do not go on and do especially well.  Only twelve per cent of KIPP* schools’ graduates actually completed their degree courses.  Most dropped out and took rather mundane jobs.  This suggests that there is something else that is crucial to long term success.  It is best described as character.

Non cognitive skills are critical for doing well both academically and intellectually.  These are best  described as self control, empathy, and the ability to stick at things despite adversity.  This has been variously described as work ethic or, more recently by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, as ‘grit.’  Riding on the back of these ideas are concepts like emotional intelligence and  resilience.  The problem for children from poor families is that their ability to develop these character traits has often been impaired by Adverse Childhood Experiences.   The situation of being the child in a poor family likely increases stress levels for all family members.  However the effect on children can be catastrophic and this has been described at the neurological level through the workings of the HPA Axis.

HPA stands for Hypothalamus, Pituitary,  and Adrenal.  During stressful situations the hypothalamus triggers hormonal responses from the pituitary and adrenal glands to prime the body for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.  The evolution of this response was well suited to our species when we had to run for our lives from wild animals intent on eating us, but is far less effective today when the level of challenge is less threatening.   The continuous production of glucocorticoids can have  a devastating  impact on the  developing pre frontal cortex – that part of the brain responsible for self control  and higher order functions.  Children from these contexts may never develop the necessary skills for life and learning unless they are taught.  Such children suffer from what has been termed,  high Allostatic load where their brains are continuously subjected to the chemical impact of acute stress.  From this we learn that poor behaviour is a product of neuro chemistry that has gone awry.  Good parenting during the first year of childhood that de stresses children is critical for future development.

So what can educators do?  First, pay attention to non cognitive skills and think about ways that these can be strengthened.  If you tell children that their skills can improve – both cognitive and non cognitive – they actually do.  This is a point made by Carol Dweck at Stanford University – just telling people they can improve makes it so.  However we need to encourage teachers to see their students as possibilities not as already pre moulded indivduals.

Second, there are now tests that can identify which children suffer most from ACE (adverse childhood experiences).  So we can identify these children in our schools and build additional programmes around them.  Such programmes might focus on self control and children working in groups or teams.

New scientific research now leads us to understand that character skills are critical and that schools really can make a difference in this area.


Chris Gerry

November 2012

*KIPP – Knowledge is Power Schools.  American independent ‘charter’ schools that cater for poor urban children and achieve very high test scores with such children.

Classroom Practice in Brief – The Importance of Character

Personal attributesOnce teachers have grasped the idea that academic success is dependent upon non cognitive skills the next question is how can we influence these.  A recent paper by James Heckman implicity makes the point that most successful interventions have been with younger, primary aged pupils and not older ones.  However the problem with such programs in the US – and elsewhere – has been their sustainability.   Culturally – in the west at least – we seem eager to start new ventures but less keen to sustain them.  There is a consequent need therefore to do something for secondary age pupils – but what?  Emotional intelligence and resilience programmes have come and gone and again suffered from sustainability. Ahost of more modest local attempts at improving pupil skills comprising nurture groups, motivational programs and the like have likewise swept through our schools. So, it is not as if such approaches have not been tried.  They have.  But what is missing is evidence of a programme that works consistently with challenged adolescents.

There are broadly three reasons I think for this which need to be addressed if we wish to make a difference and begin to teach character skills in an effective way.  These are school culture,  school data and curriculum. 

School Culture

School cultures are complex. Teachers lead very busy lives and operate mostly in their own in classrooms.  Introducing new ideas to 60, 70 or 80 or more people and expecting them to implement these successfully on their own is difficult.  We are probably expecting too much in continuing to believe in this model.  In most places work is a group activity so change can be implemented more easily when a team of people try something new.  They can support one another and problem solve difficulties more easily.  Less so teachers working in isolation.

So to generate the change we are seeking we need to establish a  team of teachers who want to do this and set them up as work group. In an ideal world the school principal would lead this and generate the kind of team culture that is needed by developing a team approach across a school.  The first thing the team needs to believe in is the point made by Carol Dwek (see Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential),namely to act upon the belief that intelligence (both cognitive and non cognitive) is plastic and open to change.  Dispersing this idea consistently to adults and students in a school provides a framework within which we can start developing a character model of learning.

School Data

In many ways schools are quite data light.  Descriptions of schools tend to focus on the age and sex of the students and perhaps a statement about how many of them have special educational needs of one sort or another. But within a group of 1000 or more there must be many sub groups but at present the use of business intelligence techniques to understand these groups remains limited.  Businesses are able to describe their customers in quite sophisticated ways.  Less so schools.  It is not a matter of software but it is a matter of building a culture that asks questions rather than relies on simple judgements.  This is a vast topic but within the realm of character development teachers could use the Angela Duckworth ‘grit’ survey as a means  of finding out which students in a year group may suffer from difficulties with work ethic – a key social and academic skill.

This simple technique is one starting point for developing an inquiring approach to student skills and results in a schema of different groups.  Rather than focus on a long list of social skills which is largely unmanageable, I suggest focusing on building skills with regards to work ethic (grit and resilience), self management and ability to work with others.

Talk to students about their Grit scores and suggest the need to improve.  A remediation program outside of the classroom might focus on habit formation through sports or any activity (cooking, acting) that requires effort and consistency.  There is evidence that skills learnt in one area have a positive impact more generally.  To reinforce the program think of providing feedback to students every lesson.  In each lesson a student receives a default of one point for each of our three domains (grit, self management and working with others).  This is itemised in a spread sheet.  Those students who default in one of those areas lose a point in whatever domain they are deficient in.  From this we can then calculate the class average and feedback to those who have not achieved it their own average.  If information is collected across all classes then a profile of students’ social skills can be built up over time and it gives the teacher an objective way of talking to students causing concern.  In an ideal world feedback would be provided privately on line and this is something that might be worked towards.


Social skills are obviously best taught within an embedded curriculum model.  This requires attention to be paid to the skills that are being learnt in any one topic and ensuring that students work together as appropriate.  Key is the providing of feedback and assessment regarding skills.  A useful starting point might be departments agreeing on their approach to this important topic.   The best advice is start small  but think big. Writing reports that include our three skills will naturally generate a student culture that begins to regard them as important.  In schools it really is all about the language of expectation that we use.


This topic is vast and I have only skimmed the surface in suggesting ways forward for class room practitioners.  Mostly my own work is with whole schools in designing approaches to skills development.  If you would like more help please email me at:


Chris Gerry

January 2013