The Teacher – David Shanks

I had reason to speak about a former colleague recently and was reminded just how exceptional he was by a student who had been taught by him many years ago.

David Shanks taught classics at Selkirk HIgh School for many years where the numbers of students taking Latin and Greek (and succeeding) surpassed the numbers in most of the prestigious independent schools in Scotland.

David was a genius in the classroom – although he would be very unhappy with me for using such a description.

I tried to capture the essence of the man in this poem which I wrote from a child’s perspective.

The Teacher



Steve Munby recently spoke at our East Lothian Learning Festival and told a story about when he swapped roles with a teacher when he was Director of Education for Knowlsley Council, in Merseyside.  The idea appealed to me and I rashly offered a job swap on Twitter – never imagining that anyone would take up the offer.

You can imagine my dismay when my bluff was called and Pam Currie a Depute Headteacher from Law Primary School asked me if I’d like to come and teach her Primary One class of 25 five year olds. Hoist by my own petard I had no option but to agree and so we arranged for me to come to the school last Friday to teach for the morning.

We met the week before and Pam ran through the programme of work that I would be expected to cover: PE, Music, Numeracy, and Storytime.  As we chatted about the Autumn theme that the class are working on I suggested that the PE class could be a dance lesson using actual leaves, and that the numeracy lesson could make use of the same leaves in an outdoor context.

During the week prior to my visit my most important task was to collect enough dried leaves of sufficient variety to provide a stimulus for the lesson.

Now I hadn’t taught a dance lesson for something approaching 17 years – and hadn’t taught a primary class for closer to 30 years – but I suppose teaching is a bit like riding a bike.  It felt great to get back into the classroom and connecting with young people again. The kids responded brilliantly to the leaves and as I tipped the sack out onto the floor they loved the sounds, smells and colours.  We experimented with holding different leaves and letting them fall to the ground – and then trying it again with a different kind of leaf. Then we explored how we might copy the movement of the falling leaf with our own bodies.

Then we looked at how leaves are affected by the wind. Using a fan heater we blew a light breeze towards a pile of leaves and looked at how they rustled – a child came up with a great Scottish word when he said the leaves were “shoogling”. We then tried to copy the rustling leaves while I gently shook a tambourine.

The third stage was to ask the children to blow their own leaf as hard as the could across the floor. Once again we copied that movement with our bodies.

The final stage was to look at how leaves formed piles, where the leaves lay one on top of another in different shapes.  This was the riskiest part of the lesson where children could have been jumping on top of each other but they handled the task superbly and moved into the piles in a very convincing and safe manner.

The last part of the lesson was to put all of these movements together into a final performance.  I think the lesson was recorded so I’d hope to put a link here to youtube whenever it’s put up.

I’d gone into the jobswap with the intention of having fun – and without a doubt that key criterion was satisfied throughout the whole day. But what did I learn?

Firstly, teaching is an exhausting business.  The teacher is constantly having to be attentive – there are no points when you can switch off and let the children get on with things while you do your own work. This is reinforced when the range of needs is as varied as it was in my class.

Secondly, lesson preparation is crucial to engaging the children in the learning process – I’d put a fair bit of work into planning for the morning – but what must it be like planning for an entire week?

Thirdly, the school staff work as a team.  The staged assessment meeting I attended at 8.30, where six teachers talked about a single child’s needs, was hugely impressive and reassuring. The morning break showed that team spirit in a different way where pink cakes were on offer in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness and every member of staff wore pink.

Fourthly, I saw 100 children engaged in a break-time aerobics session being led by P7 pupils – a wonderful example of children being supported and encouraged to do it for themselves!

Fifthly, I saw teachers who cared about learning; who cared about young people; and who cared about each other.  A humbling and inspirational experience which will stay with me for a long time.

Law Primary School – thank you.




Play might be the highest form of research – but does it have a place in secondary education?

“Play is the highest form of research” (attributed to Albert Einstein)

Einstein’s quotation came to mind last week as I watched a four-year-old experiment with sand and water at one of our nursery schools.  He was completely absorbed in his task, trying to build a ring of sand to create a small pond effect.  He came to realize that he needed to wet the sand first to get it to stick together in order to make the walls strong enough and high enough to trap the water.

Time and again he tested his theory until – at last – success!

What struck me was that he was learning so much through the medium of play, where he had set the task, decided upon the success criteria, and established the timescale in which he would address the challenge.  The result? – total and absolute preoccupation and focus.

The father of play psychology Johan Huizinga defined play as follows:

“Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

Over the years I’ve become a complete convert to the early years’ approach, where children are encouraged to learn through play and active learning.  It’s been interesting to watch this approach percolate up through the primary school where play is often used in a productive manner with older children.

Yet when I consider the secondary school curriculum the notion of using play, as an approach to promoting learning is rare – and in some subject areas completely unknown. But rather than criticising my colleagues I would much rather prefer to attempt to understand and explain why this may be the case.

The secondary school curriculum has evolved into a set of formal learning outcomes that often lead the teacher to adopt a methodology where they have complete control over the nature of the learning process, the criteria by which success will be measured, and the duration of the learning experience.

This is driven by a tacit expectation that “good” teaching requires such explicit goals and formalised learning steps. Yet compare that to the learning that took place in the nursery school, where the child was able to create the task in response to the materials provided and encouragement to play.

There are three main obstacles for the adoption of play in the secondary school. Firstly, It has been suggested to me that teenagers don’t naturally respond to opportunities to “play” and that they prefer concrete and explicit learning tasks.  Secondly, the notion of teenagers being set free in a classroom to experiment with a range of available materials is simply a recipe for disaster!

The third, and potentially most compelling objection to adopting a play methodology is simply that teachers do not have the time to spend in such indulgent activities, given the pressure to get “through the course”.

Certainly this latter obstacle was a reality in an over-crowded and time limited S1 – S2 curriculum. But perhaps this is where an advantage can be derived from a properly conceived and delivered broad general education that extends across the first three years of secondary school.

There’s a lot of talk these days about deep learning – where the student has the opportunity to go beyond the typically shallow level of understanding and reasoning which characterised the early years of secondary school education. What can be deeper than to enable young people to create their own experiments and test their own theories about a subject area? I’m not simply talking here about experimentation in the scientific or technical mode.

It’s at this point that we can begin to draw upon the emerging practice where teachers are beginning to use play in a constructive and exciting manner to enhance and liberate the learning process.  Here are three examples I have gathered through an appeal via Twitter:

1. I get Higher pupils to create & act out missing scene (subtext) in novels/plays studied – need to know text to understand sub-text! & can make misssing scene personal to own community/situation – Tennessee Williams on the croft in Gaelic. ‘Play’ can make it relevant, personal and memorable. Seniors like chance to ‘play’ -when relevant- amongst such serious study.  I know when they go into exam hall they remember own interpretation of what is important in the text & they love that they played. @doglaunchers

2. Today I used Geogebra software with S2 for 1st time. I let them play with it for 15 mins rather than teaching them how to use it. They were completely absorbed in exploring what the software could do. I gave them no direction as to what they should be doing. @jonesieboy

3. This week we used  sand trays and water to encourage students to simulate coastal actions. I was very clear that I wasn’t looking for a definitive answer to anything, but I did want students to observe and record their findings before trying to link to actual coastal landscapes. The freedom allowed students to just try things their own way, experiment and probably make some different conclusions from mine, but some similar ones which they will ultimately keep from a memorable lesson. There are so many pieces and links we can pick up from this in future lessons, even if the learning was messy, with a different structure and an unusual way to explore the new topic.  @kenny73

Such powerful examples provide evidence that change is taking place in our schools – and that to certain extent we are seeing teachers “playing” with their pedagogy.  Now Einstein would have been impressed!

Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go

The practice of setting SMART targets in the world of education has become the norm. As ever we see ourselves as being more “professional” by adopting the practice of the technical bureaucrat and lack the confidence to find approaches which more suit our context.

A SMART target is one that satisfies the five criteria associated with the acronym.

“S” represents specific; “M” measurable; “A” attainable; “R” Relevant; and “T” time limited. Local authorities, schools, and teachers are encouraged to adopt this approach – or something like it – when planning their work. Such an approach gives the impression that change and improvement can be controlled and bent to our will – as long as we adopt the technocratic method.

In the space available to me here I’d like to focus on just one of the elements of the SMART methodology and consider whether or not it assists us in our desire to seek improvement.

The notion of “A”, an Attainable target, seems reasonable at first glance. Imagine the outcome for someone who sets him or herself a goal to achieve self-propelled flight. Yet surely there’s a difference between an impossible goal and an inspiring goal? All this came back to me recently when I was listening to someone describe their classroom practice and their use of SMART targets with students. Once again it seems reasonable and logical to adopt this approach with young people. To set an unachievable goal surely means that they will become dispirited and eventually disengaged from the learning process.  Better then to chunk aspirations or goals into small achievable steps on a journey towards eventual success.

Such logic is based upon the premise that failure is to be avoided at all costs. There’s something deep within our psyche that makes us believe that to set a goal and to fail to achieve that goal is bad and deeply damaging. Such thinking permeates not only the classroom but also the Scottish educational establishment, where SMART target setting – in a variety of different forms dominates our practice. This is most evident in local authorities through the comprehensive adoption of project management strategies such as PRINCE, where the acronym translates to Project management IN Controlled Environments. If there’s anything less like a “controlled environment” than education I’d like to see it!

Nevertheless, we appear to have succumbed to the lure of giving into the appearance of being professional through adopting practice from other fields – as opposed to seeking out solutions and ways of behaving that meet our own contexts. Perhaps it has been ever thus?

Arguably then, education has adopted technocratic methodologies and we have, as is our unfortunate habit, slavishly translated and transferred them into areas of work for which they are not only unsuitable – but self-limiting in terms of the effect they have upon our practice and our achievements.

So to return to the notion of setting Attainable SMART targets in the classroom and the school. My problem with this idea is that an attainable target must, by definition, lack aspiration. For if a system is ‘hard wired ” to avoid failure – because failure is “bad” for people – then it must mean that we are always reaching for something which is within our grasp, as opposed to reaching for something just beyond it.

Such a model certainly creates “safe” environments for learning but these are deeply uninspiring places and lacking in any form of innovation and appropriate risk taking.  The best teachers and the best school leaders are not hindered by a fear of failure.  They are prepared to dream (something which doesn’t feature in a SMART target, or a PRoject In A Controlled Environment). They set outrageous expectations for themselves and the people around them. But above all they permit young people to believe that the comfortable boundaries, which they may have placed around themselves, can be escaped.

For me it’s this comfort with failure that marks out the outstanding practitioner. They know that a safe journey might be to set out the way in a logical sequence and achieve them in a nice comfortable steps A, B, C, D, E, etc. – but they prefer to stretch themselves and those around them to consider the final destination. By setting such aspirational goals they know that the final achievement will be far in excess of a goal that is restricted by our personal comfort zones.

From a personal perspective I had a long-term goal from the age of 10 to play rugby for Scotland.  It consumed me and provided a focus for me for the next 13 years.  I spent every moment, training, practicing and thinking about my goal.  As it turned out, although I got close to fulfilling my dream, it never came to pass. So was that time wasted because I failed to achieve my target? Would I have achieved what I did in my rugby career if I hadn’t set myself that logically unachievable goal? I’m convinced that I have benefitted in so many ways from setting an aspirational goal which was possibly beyond my reach but which taught me so many things in terms of how to apply myself, make the most of whatever abilities I had, and ultimately enabled me to transfer that energy and focus to other aspects of my life.

I’ll leave the last word with one of my favourite writers, T.S. Elliot, who had this to say about attainable target setting (if he’d known that’s what it was to be called):

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

The Miracle of Cursive Writing

I visited Windygoul Primary School, Tranent this morning. In the course of a great visit where I met with parents, members of staff and watched a lesson, I bumped into Avril Herriot a P6 teacher who was putting some children’s writing up on the wall.

As we talked she explained to me how her pupils were using cursive writing and was tremendously enthusiastic about the difference it was making to their ability and confidence in writing.

I was impressed by what I saw but as I was walking away form the class she chased after me and showed me how it had impacted upon one particular pupil.  These two pieces of work are 10 months apart. What I witnessed can only be described as a miraculous improvement.

Example one (June 2011)

Example 2 (January 2012)

As difficult as it might be to believe these two pieces of writing were really written by the same person. Wow – now that’s what I call teaching!


My best lesson

Somewhere deep within the memory banks of every teacher there lies a recollection of their best lesson. A lesson where everything went right. A lesson where the traditional distinction between teacher and learner, between content and learning, and between time and space are somehow transcended by the shared experience. That recollection can be triggered by the strangest things and for me it happened on Saturday evening watching a documentary about Puccini’s opera, Tosca.

As a PE teacher, probably better know for my involvement in rugby and team sports, it might be something of a surprise that the memory of my best lesson is triggered by such an unlikely stimulus. The lesson itself took place in February 1994, in a gym at Earlston High School, where I was Principal Teacher of Physical Education. I had returned to the school three years earlier from a secondment to the Scottish Centre for Physical Education, Movement, Sport and Leisure. During that time I had decided that when I went back to school that I was going to try to teach and promote dance for all pupils in the school. Now this was going to be quite a challenge as I had no ability as a dancer, nor was the Scottish Borders the most obvious cultural context for teaching dance ,especially to boys. And so it was that we set about, with my colleagues at that time, attempting to create a culture in the school where dance was just something that everyone did and enjoyed.

Part of my logic had been to challenge the traditonal orthodoxy of rugby for boys and hockey for girls and the simple stereotypes that we as teachers fulfilled in the eyes of the students, i.e. I was a man, I was rugby player, I taught rugby, therefore I was only interested in teaching boys and rugby.  The type of dance I’m referring to here is creative dance. What we would do was give the students a quality movement vocabulary, confidence to move in time with music and then use a dramatic theme to get them to create their own routines.  As you can probably imagine it took a bit of doing but it was probably at this time that I came to understand the power of modelling behaviour, i.e. if I wasn’t prepared to do it (dance) then I couldn’t expect the students to do it.  This led to me attempting to demonstrate, experiment, and in all honesty show myself up in front of the children. On reflection the very fact that I wasn’t an expert was probably in my favour as we learned together and this created an atmosphere where the learners seems to have much more power than in other areas where I was the assumed “expert”.

Anyway back to the lesson, some three years later. By that time we had established dance as an acceptable activity for boys and girls.  We ran an annual school dance festival where over 300 students took part and at least 50% of the participants were boys. In Higher Physical Education we offered an option between dance and tennis and more boys opted for dance than tennis, three of whom also played rugby for Scottish Schools Under 18s. The class I remember was an S4 Standard Grade PE class who were taking their second unit of dance in a two year course. There were 25 in the class and more boys than girls. They were a great bunch of kids and I knew that if ever there was a group to try something different it would have to be them. With that in mind I had popped up to the music department to borrow some classical music.  Ever helpful, my colleague suggested I try Puccini’s Tosca as it was full of “wonderful” themes.  The series of lessons began with us listening to the recording and selecting a piece for us to create a dance.  I stood back as they argued about which one would be the best and eventually settled upon”E Lucevan Le Stelle”. Over the next six weeks we created an incredible piece of work around the theme of the death of two lovers, ending in a funeral ceremony where they are carried and laid to rest by their peers. If you’ve never heard the music I can thoroughly recommend  it but what was amazing how this group of young people came to love and understand the music  for itself – despite having no understanding of the opera itself – in fact I deliberately didn’t explore the themes of the opera in case it compromised their own ideas.

What was so incredible was how the students came to care about the quality of the work, the quality of the movement and expression and their desire to ensure that everyone was included in the piece.  Sure they looked to me for support and I’d occasionally steer them when required but to all intents and purposes the lesson became theirs, and they were proud of that fact.

The culmination came one day when they pulled all the various elements of the dance together.  The two lovers coming together, their death and sense of loss, their friends finding them and expressing their collective grief, and the dignity of the funeral ceremony.  I’m not afraid to admit that I wept – along with many of them –  at that scene.  In fact the music still lifts the hairs on the back of my neck even now.

My best lesson – but it belonged to them – perhaps this is what good teaching should always be?


Unconditional Positive Regard: the heart of teaching

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like” is essentially to display a favourable opinion or disposition. Yet, in conversations with teachers throughout my career, I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. One of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed: “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them.”

If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, that is, the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet, we know that the disposition of teachers towards learners has a major impact on their willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no- nonsense, subject-oriented, results-focused teachers can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly.

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense, our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom, this can take the form of a teacher changing his or her disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.

But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change his or her disposition towards the child, as in “I don’t like that kid”.

The logic that underpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgments about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if, in our classroom, there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour, then we can legitimately express our disfavour through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions.

The problem in such instances is that most children can cope with being told off or punished, as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis. Such a shift is picked up by the child – and, just as importantly, by their peers.

Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard. Regardless of what their child might do, they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard. The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent, and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour, but that they make it clear they still value the child as a person.

I believe a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psycho-babble, it is actually possible to tease out its meaning in a way that translates very well to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream, it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created.

I Am Learner

I am learner.
Just as no one can see the colours I see, just as no one can hear the music I hear, just as no one can feel what I feel when I hold something in my hand, and just as no one can sense the world as I perceive it around me, no one can teach me.

No one can teach me.

I am learner.
I am not taught. I learn. I am human and a social animal, so I learn with others. I do learn from others, but what I learn is rarely, if ever, what is taught to me, and rarely, if ever, what others learn at the same time from the same teachers. Often I learn entirely alone.

I am learner.
I perceive. I use my senses to know the world around me. I discern patterns. I shape my understanding through metaphor and analogy. I seek to create purpose in my life. Sometimes I conceive purpose where there is none; often I accept others’ conceptions of purpose in life, others’ conceptions of purpose in the universe.

I am learner.
I build a universe in my mind and I live there, a universe that changes constantly as I learn. All people, including the people I love, live alongside me in this constantly shifting universe. I see only glimpses of the lives they lead, because, just as they are players in my world, I am a player in all the universes created by every other person alive.

I am learner.
I connect. I connect with people and ideas in the physical and virtual worlds and discern no boundary between the two worlds. I learn in, across, through, with and from the networks in which I live, work, play and interact. I continually extend my own potential through my connections. I make connections between what I have already learned and what the world chooses to present to me through my own interactions with the world and through the interventions and actions of others.

I connect therefore I learn.

I am learner.
I am able to recite facts, echo the opinions of others, assume the attitudes of so-called authorities when urged to do so, but I prefer to seek real knowledge of the changing world in which we live, genuine understanding of the realities of the human condition, authentic insight into our intrinsic dependence on one another. My need to know for myself is stronger than my need to recite from or imitate others.

I am learner.
I imagine. I reach beyond the reality of my senses and there I build my own dreams and visions; sometimes I welcome others’ wishful thinking and create my own place in their fantasies, accepting the values they place before me, filtering and refining them to fit my universe. Often, by accidents of time and place and birth, I am conditioned by those around me to accept their social, moral, religious and political values. In these circumstances, I still create my own truth but I struggle to do so freely, constrained by the strictures imposed on me by others.

I am learner.
I listen to stories from others; I tell my own stories, to myself, to others; I participate in stories, mine and others’. I determine who I am through a prism of dramas, tales, myths, histories, lies, assumed truths, rituals, games and a complex and intricate narrative that I weave around the realities of my life. I live and learn from the drama of the now and I recall and learn from the narratives woven out of past dramas.

I am learner.
I am not taught.

I learn.

by John Connell – originally posted at

A teacher’s primary role?

I was interested in the recent headline from the Scotland on Sunday: 

TEACHERS have been told that their “primary responsibility above all others” is the wellbeing of children, rather than teaching.The comments by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) have been met with disbelief and anger by parents’ groups and teachers, with one union leader saying they defied description.

In the convention’s submission to the McCormac Review into teaching pay and conditions, the authors wrote: “Teachers are part of the children’s services workforce. Their terms and conditions need to stress that a teacher’s primary responsibility above all others is the wellbeing of children within their care, and they have a duty to work in a collegiate way.”

Jim Docherty, depute general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), branded the remarks “stupid”.

He told Scotland on Sunday: “Cosla is so far off the beam it does defy description. The role of a teacher is to teach.

I won’t get drawn into the rights and wrongs of the  CoSLA submission to the McCormac Review into teachers’ pay and conditions and you could argue that its line of argument could have been more nuanced.

However, as a teacher (I still describe myself as that when anyone asks me what I do) I’ve always believed that the job entails so much more than just “teaching”.  I’ve seen too many teachers throughout my career who were masters of  their subject, had a grasp of pedagogy but couldn’t “teach” because the young people in their care knew that their teacher didn’t have an interest in them as human beings.  
For me the care and welfare of the child must always be the priority.  If a child comes to school unfed, sleep deprived and frightened due to domestic violence, unkempt because their parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs – then how can you expect them to learn?  The best teachers – and we have so, so many of them in East Lothian do care about the whole child.  They do work with colleagues in other services, they are sensitive about child protection issues, and above all they are committed to the well being of all of the children in their care.  None of that means that they don’t care deeply about the teaching and learning process.
I’ve always subscribed to the principle of  “in loco parentis” – when I teach I am in place of the parent.  As a parent my prime concern is – always – the well being of my child.  I expected nothing less from the teachers who taught my children – as  its only from that foundation that any productive learning can take place.  I expect nothing less from the teachers who work in East Lothian schools.

Are we adding value?

I met with a couple of colleagues from schools  today (one primary and one secondary) to discuss how we can make better use of the data we collect through our MIDYIS and PIPS assessment system from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring based at Durham University.

We now administer these assessments for all children in P1, P3, P5, P7 and S2.  The S2 results act as very accurate predictors of how students will perform in their formal subject examinations in S4. 

Pauline Sales, our Research Principal Officer has been doing some outstanding work to allow us to make judgements about how groups of children progress against the national averages for reading/verbal skills as they move through our schools system, for example “Do children from one primary school improve, decline or remain the same against the national average after two years of secondary school?”  This data offers huge opportunities for school managers and teachers to better understand the impact they have upon children’s literacy levels.

The basic premise is that if we can develop this system further we can make judgements about how much value we add – or otherwise – throughout a child’s educational experience in East Lothian schools. It’s important to emphasise that this data is most useful for judging the progress of groups of children – rather than individuals.  Obviously the form of assessment that makes the most difference to the individual child is that of a formative kind undertaken by the teacher and used to support the learning process. We will be discussing this further with headteacher colleagues with a view to how we make best use of this data.