Category: top tips

#TMCOOP presentation – Raising attainment at KS4.

On Thursday 22nd May I presented some ideas at #TMCOOP about how to raise attainment at KS4. Below is a summary of my presentation.

Raising attainment at KS4.

I’ve noticed in my relatively short time of being a teacher that one of the overwhelmingly strongest indicators of how well a student achieves is effort. This may sound obvious. It is. Angela Duckworth discovered this in her research on GRIT (persistant effort towards a long term goal). If we want to do well at something that’s difficult it will require a huge amount of effort. How often do students not realise this until it is too late… “I wish I’d put more effort into revising.” When I look back over the past few years and analyse why some students have performed well at KS4 and some didn’t, the main differentiator is effort.


During last two terms I have attempted to build an ‘ethic of excellence’ in my classroom. I want all students to aspire to achieve the very top grades and I want them to know it will take a huge amount effort. I also want them to know that I will match their effort by supporting them through rigorous marking and feedback. Students aren’t always the best at following instructions from adults but they can be extremely good at mimicking behaviours.

An ethic of excellence.

Having read Ron Berger’s remarkable book ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ I was motivated to get my students working their socks off. In the book Berger talks about how he spends a lot of time ensuring that the work he asks his students to do is as close to a ‘real life’ as possible. He also discusses how he built a culture in his classroom whereby students only received one of two grades for their work – ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ What a powerful system. I decided to give it a try with a GCSE class that were about to start a 10 week coursework project. Target grades ranged from A to E.

An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger

High expectations.

Do target grades have an adverse effect on effort? If a student is targeted a D/E grade, is it possible that they might see that as an opportunity to adjust their effort to reflect the low target, i.e. not try very hard. To test this hypothesis I started by setting a default expectation of all students in the class: A*. Was I confident that all students would achieve this? Realistically, probably not as there are many factors out of my control (attendance being one of them). But I was confident that this strategy would help everyone achieve or exceed their target grade (something that I hadn’t managed to do in the past).

Slide used in lessons.

Slide used in lessons.

Talent isn’t born.

I spent sometime explaining to students about the David Beckham’s and Jonny Wilkinson’s of this world and how much effort they put into practising. At the beginning of most lessons we would watch a short clip that actively demonstrated how high levels of effort matched with deliberate practice can lead to very impressive results. I found the work of Daniel Coyle (and his book ‘The Talent Code’) particularly helpful in shaping my thinking around this.  In his book, Coyle explains how he spent almost two years scouring the world researching groups of talented people – from teenage Brazilian football players to young musical prodigies. A recurring theme was shared amongst all these successful groups. Lots of effort coupled with deliberate practice that was guided by a master coach.

'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle.

‘The Talent Code’ by Daniel Coyle.

Students were beginning to understand that the more effort they put in, the more they asked for my advice, the more they thought about their work the better the chance they had at achieving an A*.


This is where the effort manifested itself in the classroom. I introduced Berger’s idea of grading work as either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Not finished yet.’ Berger describes the art of re-drafting brilliantly in the video ‘Austin’s butterfly’ which is about a young boy who is asked to draw a butterfly by copying a photograph. You can see the difference in quality from the first attempt to the final attempt.

Austin's butterfly.

Austin’s butterfly.


I attempted to build a culture in the classroom where it was typicality that all students would re-draft their work. Students were asked to re-draft their work several times which often led to a small incremental increase in marks between drafts but a huge difference by the time the final draft was submitted. Students also learnt to take a bit more pride in their work which appeared to come about because they had put so much effort into the redrafting that when it came time to submit a final copy they wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.

Feedback – no grades.

The re-drafting was helped along by precise feedback in which I gave no grades. Instead I opted to simply tell students how many marks they were away from an A*. I then broke the mark scheme down into very small specific chunks which when added up would give full marks. This helped me move away from phrases like “Explain more” and enabled me to give really precise feedback to students. If a student was 15 marks from an A* they were able to tangibly see where they could add those marks to their work. With a potential A* on the line they were happy to continue to re-draft.

Feedback form.

Feedback form (page 1 of 2)


I’d like to say a class full of A* grades but that was not the case. However all students did either achieve or exceed their target grade with no student scoring below a C and four students securing an A*. It wasn’t just the grades that pleased me but also the students attitudes towards their work. In class they were more focused and keen to give me work to mark. The students were proud of what they had achieved and I was extremely proud of them.



What I have described in this post is by no means an exact science and I’m certainly not telling you to change what you’re doing, but this worked for these students.

And remember… “Don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get from the work you didn’t do.” I think this applies to us all.



Shifting gears

Image via @gapingvoid -

Image via @gapingvoid –

Inspired by Zoe Elder’s post – ‘Why we continue to accept the challenge’ and Mark Anderson’s post ‘Be happy,’ here is a quick post with the start of a new term in mind.

2013 was a remarkable year. 2014 will be better. It’s time to shift gears.

Four tips to help you make this year even better:

1. Keep exploring.

2. Connect with others.

3. Share your discoveries.

4. Deepen your understanding.

Remember, you’re only human but you make an incredible difference.


Quick wins #1 – Question tokens

First in a series of posts about quick wins in the classroom. The aim of these posts is to provide teachers with ideas that can be tried in their classroom with minimal preparation time.

photo (11)

Why? I wanted students to become more independent and rely less on me for help. Quite often I see students giving up too easily and going to the teacher for help rather than persevering with a problem. I’ve also noticed that students ask a lot of lazy questions (when they can ask an unlimited amount of questions) without any real thought behind them.

Possible solution? Question tokens. I gave each student three question tokens and set 2 rules for the entirety of the lesson:

1. You can only ask the teacher 3 questions throughout today’s lesson.

2. You can ask each other as many questions as you like.


Question tokens (Download for free – please share with colleagues)

Outcome. I tried this with a year 11 GCSE Computing class who were working through some programming challenges. The question tokens encouraged students to seek advice from their peers and if this led to a dead end, they had to research a possible answer using the Internet or come up with a well thought out question to ask me. I witnessed the students demonstrating more GRIT then in previous lessons as they appeared to be quite precious of the question tokens – they would rather struggle through a problem and find a solution themselves then ask me for help. Quite remarkable!


The network is more powerful than the node.

If you are reading this post there is a good chance you came across it on Twitter. There’s also a good chance that this post may fall into the category of ‘teaching you to suck eggs’ or ‘preaching to the converted.’ If however you are a teacher and new to Twitter / blogging then this post may we’ll be worth the next 5 minutes of your life*.


Picture by @gapingvoid

What’s Twitter all about then?
Twitter is a social network used by millions to spread ideas and start debate. It allows people to interact with current news and create news. In the world of education it is used to share good practice / resources and start conversations about topical issues when generally enables people to become even more reflective in their own practice. Granted, there is no ‘trash’ filter, but for every 10 ‘beans on toast tonight then’ style post you are likely to come across some extremely intriguing posts that will lead you down a path of discovery.

Twitter basics for teachers:


The power of Twitter – an example.
Just over a year ago at the beginning of the summer holidays I began the first of my many summer projects, creating a baseline assessment for KS3 ICT / Computing groups. With the hope of speeding up this process I sent out a lone tweet into the twitter sphere…


This tweet was picked up my Mr Webber (a Computing teacher / developer based in Somerset) and led to the creation of an online KS3 baseline assessment tool. It started with just my school and Mr Webber’s school using it. Then last week I saw this tweet…


Highly unlikely to have happened without the connective powers of Twitter. Twitter is fantastic for connecting with like minded (and non-like-minded(always good to have a good debate)) souls because it makes it so easy to do so! Read more about the project at Mr Webber’s blog here.

Using Twitter to grow your Professional Learning Network (PLN):

Twitter is an excellent tool for growing your Personal Learning Network. The intuitive nature of Twitter makes it easy to search for like minded people, follow trends and stay up to date with the latest developments in education and pedagogy. It will not happen over night though. Patience and perseverance are key to building an effective PLN. Over time you will begin to build your tribe and see your influence spread and grow. The art of gift giving is what makes Twitter so special. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have used resources in my lessons direct from fellow teachers on Twitter who have felt compelled to share their outstanding practice. It’s the generosity of the network (the people) that makes Twitter an excellent platform for sharing and sourcing ideas – “The network is more powerful then the node.”

Tips for getting started:

1. Sign up and create a account. At this stage you may wish to think about branding. Who are likely to see your twitter account? Teachers, students, parents. How do you want to be perceived by these people? Some people come up with interesting learning related names such as ‘learningspy’ or ‘lessonhacker.’ Quite alot of people (myself included) have used their real ‘teacher name’ and added a suffix e.g. Mr O’Callaghan Edu or Mr Gill English. Be careful when choosing your profile picture – remember your audience and who may be looking at your profile.

twitter profile

2. Search for people / topics using the Twitter search tool.

search twitter

3. Organise your twitter feeds using the ‘Lists’ function:


4. Little and often. Twitter could quite easily take over your life! My advice would be to dip into it, little and often. You will never see every tweet or keep up with every conversation.

5. Take part and share. Don’t be afraid to make a point, share a blog post or resource – you have just as much right to do so as anyone else on Twitter. The key here is quality over quantity.

Some people worth following to get your started (remember, have a look at their followers and follow more people):













Safe is risky. Be remarkable and don’t be afraid to share it!


*Sorry – life non-refundable.

Extended Guardian post: Teaching Computing for the first time

Below is a piece written for the Guardian Teacher Network , before being edited down to size. I’d really like to hear from other teachers who have recently started teaching computing or are planning to in the near future and share experiences (please leave a comment below).

A reflection on teaching computing for the first time.
It was around this time last year I began to fret a little. The novelty of the summer holidays had started to wear off and ‘the fear’ began to settle in. After a couple of years of teaching ICT, I was getting a little bored of churning out coursework and was looking for a new challenge that would really make my students think. Don’t get me wrong, ICT has its place but I felt like students were missing out by not getting a mix of computer science(CS) and ICT. So I made a bold decision and came up with a plan to start delivering Computing from September (2012). My decision to do this was made somewhat easier a few months before, after listening to Dr Tom Crick (@drtomcrick) speak passionately about the merits of a curriculum that combined CS, IT and Digital Literacy.

Starting point
Having previously studied Internet Technology at university, taught ICT for almost 4 years and being a bit of a geek, I felt quite secure in my subject knowledge for Computing (networks, the Internet, data representation, hardware, software, e.t.c.) but was not feeling confident with my my programming skills. The first thing thing I did was sign up to code academy ( and began working through the Python exercises. I decided to choose Python as my language of choice because it is quite close to written English and there were plenty of support materials online.

After a few weeks of spending 30-45 minutes a day working through the Python tutorials (little and often) I decided to attempt one of the GCSE programming projects and immediately became stuck! Online tutorial sites are great for learning the syntax of a programming language but don’t necessarily teach you to solve problems. This is where computational thinking comes in. After a call for help on Twitter I quickly found myself being tutored through the problem solving side of things via Skype and email by two amazing computer scientists (@codeboom and @colinthemathmo). Problem solving is the essence of computer science, using a computer as a tool to solve real world problems. The only to get good at problem solving is practice.
In terms of planning for the new school year (2012/2013) I had decided to shrink the change to allow myself time to develop my programming skills further. I incorporated some new units at KS3 looking at hardware and how computers operate and process instructions, computational thinking and an introduction to programming in Python. I also sought to explicitly raise awareness in lessons and across the school of the differences between computer science and ICT, with the latter having a little bit of a negative stigma attached to it. At KS4 I offered OCR GCSE Computing and managed to get 14 students signed up. I roughly planned out the year against the spec and used lots of the many outstanding resources already available on the Computing at Schools website.

Teaching Computing
Returning to school in September with the annual ‘fear’ instilled after 6 weeks off I was actually quite excited to get started. Teaching the problem solving / programming side of things provided a really interesting contrast to the ICT I had taught previously. Lower ability students were feeling success quicker and gaining in confidence by solving relatively simple problems whereas the higher ability students had come across something that they weren’t getting right first time. The problem solving lessons provided a great platform for differentiation by task and it was amazing to see the students take a step back and really think about the problem and plan out a solution. When I got the level of challenge just right, sessions had ,a really nice flow to them and a 100 minutes flew by. There were plenty of times when students got stuck and I didn’t know the answer so I advised them to do what I did when I didn’t know how to do something – use the Internet. Students started becoming quite proficient at searching blogs and forums to seek out the bit of code that would help them.

In hindsight I think I focused a little to much on students learning the syntax of particular language rather than embedding wider programming concepts, something I’m going to change in my approach for the upcoming school year. I’m also going to give students more open ended problems to solve rather than step by step guides. I found that students really responded well to challenge of solving problems rather than just following step by step guides. Obviously they need a starting point, and tutorial sites / syntax guides will give students that. What I will do differently from September is start getting students thinking about problem solving sooner and try and get them to see programming as a tool for solving problems rather than an exercise that they must get right at all costs.

Computing club
Computing club was a real success this year and has gone from strength to strength. I initially set it up as an informal laboratory for me to try out some ideas for lessons on a group of extremely keen students wanting to find out more about Computing and specifically programming. If you haven’t already set one up – do so as soon as you get back to school! It was through this club that culture quick grew of students sharing things that they had been working on at home, outside of lessons. One student had been making apps online and had already tried out a number of sites and was able to give me a comprehensive review of each which helped me choose one to use in class. Andover student had been making text based adventure games in notepad++ and running them in a command prompt – an excellent idea for a KS3 project! In the final term I managed to secure some funding to buy a class set of Raspberry Pi’s, and who better to test them out but Computing club! It’s a great way to get confidence with new technologies before introducing them into a formal lesson.

Department CPD
This is potentially the trickiest obstacle to change. Thankfully I work in a great department with teachers willing to learn new things (our mission statement is ‘never stop learning’). I provided a number of after school sessions and helped staff with planning lessons whilst always returning to our moral purpose of WHY we were implenting change – trying to provide a more enriching and challenging experience for the students we teach. We reviewed things every few weeks in department meetings to find out what worked well and what needed tweaking for next year. It has been hard work but extremely rewarding to see both staff and students develop.

Final thoughts
I’m really glad I decided to ‘dive in at the deep end’ with Computing. I believe the students have benefitted from much more challenging and engaging lessons which the subject matter of computing tends to lends itself to. With computer science all around us it’s easy to make links to ‘real world’ scenarios that students can relate to. An example of this was a starter I created for a lesson on the Internet where students had to use Google street view to go inside of a data center and locate a stormtrooper (yes a stormtrooper!) that Google had placed in one of their server rooms.

I will continue to develop my knowledge base and schemes of work to ensure students at KS3 get a balanced mix of computer science, IT and digital literacy to enable them to manipulate the digital world in which they live. Above all I want students to be challenged in lessons and enjoy them. I think Computing provides us with a great platform to achieve this. As Dr Sue Black (a senior research associate in computer science at the University College London) said in a recent tweet to students considering Computing as a GCSE, “Knowledge of computer science gives you access to and control over your future. Everything we do is depending more and more on technology and understanding computer science gives you the key to unlock its potential.”


Guardian Teacher Network articles

Here’s a link to my first two articles for the Guardian Teacher Network about teaching Computing for the first time.

Teaching computing for the first time – learning to code and getting started.

The best websites for computing resources and lessons



Tips for teaching Computing for the first time (list of resources included)

Influenced by a strong moral purpose to give students exciting, challenging lessons and a balance of computer science, IT & digital literacy, this time last year I started planning to deliver Computing. The first thing my lizard brain (see Seth Godin’s post) shouted out was “Ahhhhh coding, coding, codinggggg!!!” At this point it would have been quite easy to not make the change, but returning to my moral purpose of improving the experience for the students I teach, I decided to carry on. Over the last year I have learnt a lot (blog post reflecting on my first year teaching Computing is coming soon!) about Computing and engagement / challenge for students is up in lessons.

If you are reading this post there is a good chance you are either considering introducing, in the midst of planning or have already been teaching Computing. Below are some things I’ve learnt (loosely resemble ‘top tips’ – sounds a bit cheesy and I’m by no means an expert!) over the last year that I thought I’d share.

1. Practice makes better. Don’t put off learning to program, start now, right now after reading this. Go to code academy ( or Khan Academy ( or one of the other many online tutorial sites.

2. Do ‘little and often’ to ensure you remember what you learnt previously.

3. Accept failure as part of the journey to success. It’s unlikely you’ll get everything right first time, but be courageous and give it a go. Learn from your mistakes, that’s what we keep telling the students isn’t it?!

4. Start a Computing Club and use it as a laboratory to road test new technologies, activities , e.t.c. before trying them in class.

5. Join Computing at School ( CAS’s online community hosts 100’s of free resources for teaching Computing. They also have a number of ‘Master Teachers’ who are hand to answer questions and offer support, forum’s, CPD events and regular Hub meetings around the country.

6. Use Twitter to extend your PLN. I received help from a number of people on twitter who checked my program’s and tutored me through some of the GCSE level programming problems.

7. Make use of student guru’s. If you have students in your class that are already quite competent programmers, use them. Ask them to explain who they solved a problem and peer teach others.

8. Be honest. If you don’t know they answer to a question, be honest and say so. Turn it into an activity to find the answer. Take part in the learning journey with your students.

9. Shrink the change. Try focusing on one thing at a time. Introduce a couple of Computing modules at KS3 first and get use to teaching programming to solve problems. Then think about introducing a GCSE option the following September.

10. Accept that students have more time to spend becoming an expert then you do!

11. Continue being remarkable.


You can find a list of resources I have built up over the last year HERE. I will be adding to this list regularly and if you would like to share an online resource (video, website, blog, e.t.c.) please leave a comment on the Google Doc and I’ll add it in.

If you have found this post useful please pass it on, re-tweet, leave a comment below…