CEO’s Blog: November 2023: 400 years – and counting.

As I have stated previously in my blogs, I came to reading for pleasure relatively late in life.  Certainly, as a child, I was not an avid reader. My family home was not one in which there was a regularity to reading, beyond perhaps meal recipes and the day’s TV listings in “Radio Times”.  At school, reading was encouraged of course but never with real vigour or conviction, and certainly unlike the amazing approaches we see across our schools – where every day can feel like World Book Day. 

As a result, my only exposure to the work of William Shakespeare came through “O” Level English Literature, within which a Shakespeare play formed a compulsory component (and the fact that we were frequently reminded of its compulsory nature was itself telling!).  My class read “Julius Caesar” – the school’s choice of play for that year.  I engaged with it relatively well, not least because History was my favourite subject at school and the story was one that I connected with.  But, looking back, I wish we had had the opportunity to study Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet.  Only later in life did I read some of Shakespeare’s greatest works.  On the positive side, later in life I was able to truly connect with the themes and characters contained within those pages.  The fact that my reading of his work as an adult was not a “compulsory component” also helped, I’m sure!

This year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the production of the “First Folio” of Shakespeare’s collective works, produced in 1623 – some seven years after his death in 1616.  The folio itself has been on display in Stratford throughout much of the year.

Understanding Shakespeare’s influence on British culture and language is an essential component of what has become known as “cultural capital” for our young people.  Phrases we take for granted, from “break the ice” through “heart of gold” to “cruel to be kind” all emanate from his work, and are best understood with reference to it. Beyond that, the messages and lessons in his plays and sonnets still resonate, given the human condition remains unaltered by the centuries.  How many of us as teachers have worked with children, and adults, for whom this line in Measure for Measure rings true:

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Finally, I’ll close with sharing another quotation from Shakespeare.  This time, a line from Hamlet that exemplifies why so many of us work with young people and in education.  John Taylor MAT’s mission statement, that “We believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world” was constructed on the foundations of the sentiment here:

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Our work should be driven by us giving our every endeavour that what each child “may be” is someone truly wonderful.

Thanks, as always, for reading. 


CEO’s Blog: October 2023: Not enough crosses!

When my children were growing up I, like many parents, would often take the opportunity to look at their exercise books from school.  I’d thumb through them with several questions I’d hope to answer. 

“What work are they doing?”  That’s not always straightforward, I appreciate.  If my sons’ music books contained extensive written work, I’d be concerned that they weren’t having sufficient opportunities for practical exposure to the subject.  Likewise, in PE there would be no book at all.  Our clues as parents to the content of PE lessons would be the kit required (“indoor” or “outdoor”), the state that it was returned to us in (from “near pristine” to what can only be described as “irreparably muddied”) and the sometimes brief, closed answers to the clearly-tiresome question of “what did you do at school today?”

A next line of enquiry would be “how hard are they working?” Now we all know that quantity does not necessarily denote effort.  It would be easy to fill page after page with copied notes.  So here, what was more important to us was any work that was clearly left unfinished, or work that was patently below their best work (as appraised either by the teacher through feedback, by looking back at previous output that was distinctly superior or by comparison with their work contained in other books).  Other tell-tale signs?  Well, dog-eared page corners, and presentation rules not followed. Often the start of the year would see titles and dates proudly underlined with a ruler only for these standards to sometimes wither on the vine as the term wore on and the pledges of neatness made to the empty pages were reneged upon.  Graffiti, rare as it was, generated a separate – and terse – conversation.

Then perhaps the most important question of all: “What are they learning?” Sometimes it is truly inspiring to look at a pupil’s work over time and see the learning and progress captured on the pages.  We see misconceptions addressed, skills developed (looking at an art portfolio can be truly astounding!), techniques improved, and confidence gained.  For my own children, some of the best examples of this were found in the work in mathematics.  By their own admission, neither of my children would be considered particularly able mathematicians any more than I would have been when I was at school.  To see exercises undertaken and calculations made, with the consequent “ticks” and “crosses” administered, then to see feedback given – perhaps a worked example or an alternative method – and the resultant success of further exercises was a terrific sight.  Whilst it always seemed a bit churlish, and became something of an in-house joke, as parents we were always concerned if we saw pages of activity marked only with ticks.  We learn from error which comes from challenge, and we practise our skills with different examples and with added complexity to embed the learning and make the learning weatherproof.  Once we have overcome the mistakes and misconceptions, we then engage in repetition to make the learning “sticky”.

I was struck by a tweet (I’ve been advised that we can still refer to posts on “X” as such) by educationalist Dylan Wiliam.  In reply to a question about the importance of practice, he wrote “…Or as my nephew, a professional drummer, puts it, “Don’t practise until you can get it right.  Practise until you can’t get it wrong.” I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard this expression before, but it makes an enormous amount of sense in relation to so many pursuits.  “Tenacity and resilience” are enshrined in the core values of John Taylor MAT for a reason.

A phrase that I have heard, typically from sportsmen and women is that “practice makes permanent.” Here, the role of the teacher or coach to ensure that what is repeated is the correct method is paramount.  Without that, bad habits become hardwired and much harder to jettison.  In my last blog, I extolled the importance of teachers to the learning experience – and here I am concluding another blog with the same sentiment.  I’m pleased, on this at least, to be consistent even at the risk of accusations of predictability.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


CEO’s Blog: September 2023: “Chauffeur Learning”

Upon the recommendation of my coach, I have recently read Caroline Goyder’s “Gravitas”.  In what is quite an expansive work, she articulates numerous examples and testimonies where individuals have demonstrated their “gravitas” – a quality that studies show is regarded as highly as any attribute a leader may possess. 

One specific example Goyder cites relates to the German Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck.  The story, which may be apocryphal, relates to Planck’s 1918 tour of European universities to lecture on his findings.  Apparently bored by the constantly consistent content of the lectures, Planck’s chauffeur for the tour quipped that he was now in as good a position as the eminent physicist to give the lecture, having heard it so many times it was now committed to memory verbatim.  Consequently, in Munich the lecture was presented by Planck’s chauffeur, with Planck himself on the front row wearing the chauffeur’s uniform and cap.  The lecture went well, until the question-and-answer session at the end.  Upon being asked a searching question about the contents of the lecture, Planck’s chauffeur allegedly chastised the questioner for asking something so mundane that “even my chauffeur could answer that”, and thus Planck himself – in the guise of the chauffeur – presented an answer to the question.

The purpose of the story in Goyder’s work was to illustrate the difference between true knowledge and understanding and “chauffeur learning”.  To attain a level of gravitas, Goyder argues that one must fulfil the requirements of the following formula:

Gravitas = knowledge + purpose + passion – anxiety

Our knowledge (or as the Greeks would describe, our logos) is from where our authority and stature begins.  Only when this is combined with a sense of purpose (our ethos) and passion (our pathos), and we suppress or manage our anxiety, do we act with gravitas.  The chauffeur’s superficiality was his undoing, and it was exposed when the “scripted” element of delivery was concluded. 

My eldest son began his teaching career this term.  I didn’t want to give him too much advice – after all, he has a head of department, a mentor and a whole team of staff at his school and his trust for that – but I did advise him to always make sure that he as the teacher adds value to the learning experience of the students.  The textbook, the online package are the equivalent of Planck’s lecture.  Anyone can instruct the students to open the text, or log on.  But only someone with “Planck learning” not “chauffeur learning” can satisfy the curious questioner, or stretch the most able.  Here, the role of the teacher in the learning process should always be secure. 

One of John  Taylor MAT’s core values is “to keep the main thing the main thing” – and here we’re reminded that it is the knowledge to be instilled, which has to emanate from a credible and reliable source, that is so important to our schools and their children.

The above sentiment is not lost outside education either.  Elon Musk apparently asks candidates for employment to explain how they solved a problem that they highlighted in their application: 

“If someone was really the person that solved it, they will be able to answer at multiple levels — they will be able to go down to the brass tacks. And if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck.”

Thanks, as always, for reading.