Archive for November, 2015

Teaching effectively and with integrity in a time of educational climate change

23 Nov


As we embarked upon a new school year, I found myself surveying the landscape of a teacher’s world with the degree of objectivity that only viewing against the backdrop of a few weeks of holiday can bring.  As always, it is the extraordinary value of the work that stands out, alongside its peculiar pressures.


To understand why this is so, we need only contemplate the fact that our youngest learners, joining Nursery or Kindergarten this term, will probably enter the world of work, if they choose to go to university, in approximately 2033.


And it is our challenge – and privilege – as professionals in school communities across the country  to prepare them for that world.

But what will it look like?  That is, surely, very hard to say.  All we know is that it will be very different from today’s world.  To give us an idea of how different it will be, let’s go back an equivalent number of years.  That will take us to, say, 1997. Or, in other words, to the year when the domain name for Google was first registered and  Apple had just appointed Steve Jobs as its CEO. It was years before Facebook was thought of (Mark Zuckerberg was 13.) In 1997,  the pay gap between men and women stood at 27.5%. It is now down to 9.4%.  The gap should be zero, of course, so the work of educating for gender equality remains a work-in-progress.


The scale and speed of changes in the context in which education is now taking place – what I would describe as ‘educational climate change’ – mean that our work as educators matters more than ever before. Working, as we do,  in a more dynamic and volatile environment than ever before means that the young people in our care, and their families, need us more than ever before.



This ‘educational climate change’ derives from four main sources, all interacting upon each other.

First of all, we are working through a period of permanent revolution in the sphere of emerging technology.  How do we help young people navigate through the temptations and torments which they encounter in their social media-saturated universe?  How do we as teachers, many of whom have scarcely left the nursery slopes of the soon-to-be-obsolete interactive whiteboard, navigate its rapids ourselves without losing confidence or competence?


Allied to this, we are working in a context of societal fragmentation as increasing geographical mobility and time impoverishment accentuate inter-generational divides. How should we advise parents who are struggling to connect with their daughters, and support girls who are struggling to connect with their parents in an increasingly atomised social landscape where youth culture has an all-consuming life of its own?

In many cases,  families are dealing with the additional strains that the aftershocks of an economic recession have imposed on top of the routine pressures of modern life.


Third, we are working in a context of rapid globalisation in both the higher education scene and in employment markets.  Our students are now competing with the best from the rest of the world for places at the most prestigious UK universities and our programmes of support and guidance for them must be able to compete on a global scale.  Moreover, schools must master not only the intricacies of a whole raft of additional threshold testing systems (BMAT, UKCAT, LNAT, HAT etc etc) introduced to discriminate among a plethora of A* candidates but also to get up to speed on the applications regimes of US and Canadian colleges and English-language universities in Europe as our students set their sights on courses overseas.  Careers advisors can no longer rely on the eternal verities of the professions and the milk round but must advise for an era of graduate unemployment, the multi-phased career and the emergence of new jobs in previously non-existent fields.


Finally, we are working in a time of tumultuous curriculum reform, with an overhaul of both GCSE and A Level courses and exams taking place over a three-year period.  How can we ensure that none of our pupils becomes an unhappy statistic in a guinea pig generation during a time of rapid change in the national education system whose expressed aim is paradigm shift?


Faced with such a barrage of competing pressures, it is tempting to withdraw into convergent thinking, focusing on box ticking and prioritising the measurable and examinable.  However, for the current and coming generations of students, the truth of  Martin Luther King Jr’s maxim, that ‘intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,’ is as compelling as ever, perhaps even more so.


The challenge for the teacher in a time of educational climate change, then,  is to equip young women for success in the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-will-be without creating a generation of anxious perfectionists who are afraid to put a foot wrong or  social media junkies who lose sight of the things that matter in life or utilitarian careerists who never remember to look left and right to see how other people are getting along in their ascent of the ‘greasy pole’?


Will the reality of educational climate change, with its implications for our current thinking and future practice, receive more unanimous acknowledgement than its ecological counterpart has among those with the ability to shape opinion?  We can only hope so.


Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress

Can children be too happy at school?

20 Nov

img_0011lr-300x200 It is very easy to judge a good lesson in a School by how happy the pupils are during and after the content has been delivered. However, following a recent training course I am now aiming, believe it or not, to make children unhappy in class, to take them out of their comfort zone. The fact of the matter is that most children, and girls especially, are desperate to be good and to receive praise from their teacher for getting questions right. From a very early age children learn that the easier the task is the higher the likelihood that they will be able to demonstrate their intelligence with a correct answer and get that positive feeling when they are told that they are right or that they are clever. This feeling is a nice one, it makes them happy and therefore it is addictive and can be desired throughout our classrooms. The problem of course is that it can make children reluctant to tackle more complex tasks for fear that they will be unable to receive the praise that they crave; this is what we would commonly refer to as ‘coasting’.  There is also a tendency for coasting children to shy away from tasks where there is more than one possible answer or problems which can be tackled with a variety of methods. 



The aim, of course, is to ensure that there is sufficient challenge for all pupils at all times in our lessons. Just as it is wrong to make work too easy it is also wrong to make it too hard. If children cannot understand a concept initially they are going to be de-motivated and the end product will be unsatisfactory. This where the concept of ‘Learning Pit Theory’ comes in and allows us to encourage our pupils to demand suitably challenging tasks which will allow them to be stretched intellectually and seek the self-satisfaction that comes from being able to do something that was previously beyond them. 


If the level of challenge is judged correctly a ‘cognitive wobble’ will be introduced which means that new questions will be asked of the individual and they will not be able to complete the task easily or straight away. This is when they enter the ‘Learning Pit’ and have to discover/practice new skills, undertake research, work as a team, ask appropriate questions to allow them to progress through the task. Greater clarity of understanding will gradually be realized as 

they start to climb out of the pit and there is likely to be a EUREKA moment when the activity is completed or they have achieved something for the first time.  This eureka moment brings with it some extremely strong and valuable emotions, such as pride, joy and satisfaction, which can be equally addictive and far better in the long run. 


The aim of this theory is that pupils will demand suitably challenging work from their teachers and not be content with tasks that do not stimulate them intellectually- asking for harder work because they want to have the eureka moment again and again and again. Those are children that I would like to have in my classroom! There is a reason why the word eureka is used to describe the sensation that is felt when a pupil climbs out of the learning pit- eureka in Greek means, ‘I found it!’ which is much better than my teacher or peers found it and gave it to me. 

Of course I do not want my classes full of unhappy children but I do want children who are receptive to challenge and who have the confidence to try new things, to persevere, to apply thinking skills and demonstrate resilience in pursuit of EUREKA. 

The Learning Pit Theory was devised by James Nottingham and more information can be found at

Ross Urquhart, Head of Junior School

Teaching Maths: it doesn’t change does it?

4 Nov

kco Well actually it has changed a lot since the day when I started teaching in 1978. Back then the basic equipment needed by any teacher was a box of sticks of chalk, a red pen, and your mark book.













The chalk we carried around in order to remove any chance that the students might have had to tamper with them in any way. This was a popular trick and one to be avoided wherever possible.



The chalk created clouds of dust which got into my hair and clothes and seemed almost to permeate my skin. Cleaning the board rubber was not a job that I enjoyed and I welcomed any offer to help from an eager year 7 pupil to clean the rubber which usually involved making clouds of dust.




In addition to the basic equipment I had board protractor and compasses which were so difficult to operate. They were large and difficult to hold still on the blackboard and too often the chalk fell out. It also didn’t help that when I was using the equipment I stood with my back to the class obscuring their view. No wonder my pupils found using a protractor so difficult.


Some topics in Mathematics have changed little over the years. The trigonometry that we teach is basically the same as that which was taught 300 years ago. I am sure that the problem shown in a textbook from 1725 would be familiar to the girls now. However the techniques used to calculate the solution will now be very different.


kathy-logarithms-300x159 Before 1984 there were no calculators allowed in public examinations and we had none in school. In order to calculate the answer to tricky problems the basic method involved the use of log tables. Many lessons were spent teaching the students how to manage the tables before the skill could be used in any application.






If you were very lucky you might have a slide rule. This was a very sophisticated piece of equipment and students in the top sets were encouraged to have one and displayed them proudly in class. The scales on the rule were logarithmic and the way that they worked depended on the laws of logarithms. The students were not really aware of this. The magic was that it worked more quickly than using their tables.







kathy-blog-venn-diagramspng-232x300 In the 1960s a move was made to modernise the Mathematics syllabus and in the 1970s  we found ourselves teaching what became known as modern or new maths. The new topics that were taught included Venn diagrams, number bases, topology and matrices. Some of these are still taught in schools today but topology or “rubber-sheet geometry” has yet to make a come-back.











I also taught computing without sight of a computer in the classroom! The students had to enter coded instructions onto cards in pencil. I would then take the cards to the university centre whey they would be encoded onto paper tape and the program would be run with a printout of the results. The following week I would collect the tape and print-outs and take them to my class where they would try to de-bug the program that they had written and write fresh instructions on new cards.

The process took several weeks before the students could finish their program and complete the set task.




In preparing this I was amazed to find out how much has changed since I first started teaching. The use of calculators has enabled students to tackle much harder calculations which means that now we can and do teach a lot more statistics that before. However their algebraic and geometric skills today are less well developed as the curriculum includes more varied topics which take time away from the more traditional teaching. There are plenty of changes to the GCSE that are going on now and new A Level courses set to start in two years’ time. But I am sure that the teaching of Mathematics will continue to evolve. What will it be like in another forty years?


Mrs Cowell, Head of Faculty Mathematics