Train Hard Fight Easy or how to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine Part 2

This is the second part of guest-blogger Adam Bantick’s post on the impact of stress on educational performance. He would be delighted to hear others’ thoughts on this, and can be reached via the comments page of this post.

In Part 1 we looked at how stress affects us both in general and with exams, and now we deal with what to do about it.

According to Crum/ Akinola/ Martin and Fath (2017), how we perceive the stress threat is important in dealing with it, calling it the Stress Mindset. When encountering a new stressful situation, we do the following things. We have a Primary Appraisal, where we work out whether we can deal with it. Then a Secondary Appraisal, thinking what resources we have to deal with it. If we fear our resources cannot deal with it, we see it as a Serious Threat. Thus, if we can use our resources to deal with it, it is a Challenge ‘The mountain is big, but I have climbed mountains before, so I can climb this one’. If we cannot deal with it with our resources, it is a Threat ‘The mountain is big, and I have never climbed a mountain before, so I will fall off it and die’. Thus, we need stress to live.

With the meta-cognitive Stress Mindset, if we can think about stress the right way, we can turn a disadvantage into an advantage. A Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset is constructive, because it gives us a push to do something; a Stress-Is-Debilitating mindset is destructive, because if we think we will fail, we will not do something. We use a Stress Mindset every day, although we may not realise it. When we cross a busy road, our brains perceive the traffic as a threat (we could get hit by a car), and produce stress hormones to keep us alert. As we have crossed busy roads many times before, however, we know that we can cross this one. Using our resources to deal with the threat (judging traffic), we can cross the road – we use a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset to get us across. We get the usual stress hormones in our brains, but as we see crossing the road as only a challenge, we can do it.

Our Stress Mindset for exams is ‘Exams are stressful, but by adopting a Stress-Is-Enhancing way of thinking, the exam is a challenge, and can be overcome’. The Stress Mindset is a long-term thought process, because it governs how we see ALL exams, not just the paper in front of us. It is also essential, because the other ways of dealing with exam stresses are merely avoidance strategies, e.g. small rooms, extra time, coursework – the exam will not go away. Thus, we must change the way we think about exams if we are to overcome them.

Now, we return to the stress-confronting professionals who deal with danger every day. Every soldier, fire-fighter etc has been trained to do their job, and the longer, more realistic their training is, the more they will be able to do their job no matter what the difficulty. The Armed Forces, in particular, maintain a ‘Can-Do’ attitude, which means that whatever the obstacle, it can be overcome through training and practice; in other words, the Stress Mindset. They do not simply expose their personnel to repeated stresses, however, since that will only magnify the stress, but train them how to cope with it through Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). Firefighter trainer David Werner (‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ 4.8.13.), uses examples from the US Marine Corps (‘Warfighting: the US Marine Corps Book of Strategy’ 1989) in identifying and overcoming real-world stressors for his fire service. Here is Werner’s list of problems with my exam example: ‘Friction’ -things that if they can go wrong, will go wrong e.g. arriving late to the exam; ‘Uncertainty’ -not knowing what to expect e.g. the topic that you *knew* was not going to come up; ‘Fluidity’ -having to think on your feet e.g. the poorly-worded, random question; ‘Disorder’ -where our plans have been thwarted, and we must ‘re-order’ what we do e.g. supposedly memorising an answer that we cannot remember; the ‘Human dimension’ -our mental and physical state at the time e.g. having a bad cold in the exam; and finally, ‘Moral Forces’ -our mental preparedness for a hard task e.g. being confident of success due to proper preparation.

SIT was developed to condition personnel for these problems, and for the US Navy Seals, these are: Goal-setting and segmenting (working out what you intend to do, then break that goal into smaller/ more manageable tasks); Tactical Visualisation, (mentally rehearse what to do in any situation); Arousal Control, (controlling the physical effects of stress with deep-breathing etc); Self-Talk (talk yourself through how you feel and what to do); Focus Training (tuning out distractions and focusing on essentials); and Compartmentalisation (breaking thoughts into sections in order to deal with them).

A final observation from Murray is about ‘Weapon Push’. This is where soldiers believe that their weapon is better than their enemy’s (it doesn’t matter if it is), and so this confidence in their resources gives them an edge. In exam terms, our Weapon Push is the excellent subject knowledge and exam skills we have that enables us to take on the challenge of the exam; effectively our ‘secret weapon’.

Finally, to Marshal Zhukov (Soviet commander in World War II) and ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’. He realised that new recruits were being slaughtered on the battlefield because their training was inadequate. He popularised the dictum of ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ by making training as realistic as possible (train hard), so that when soldiers got into battle it was just like training, and they could cope (fight easy). Thus, all training must reflect the real problem to be encountered, and must be so effective that training routines become second nature.

We have looked at the nature of the exam stress problem, and how important realistic training is to overcome Stress Threats. Now we need to see what to do to become an Exam Machine:

1 – Understand how our bodies perceive and react to stress. We have neurological, emotional and physiological reactions, which can inhibit our performance.

2– Acknowledge exams are Stress Creators. Exams create stress because they are tests with value-outcomes, such as grades. Our body’s reactions to stress can inhibit our performance in exams, so we must acknowledge exams are stressful.

3 – Adopt the Stress Mindset. Stress can be a destructive or a constructive thing – pre-exam nerves are essential to keep us alert. Stresses are challenges to overcome, not threats to kill us; exams are only a measure of our knowledge and understanding, not a judgement upon us personally. Do not catastrophise; even if we do fail, it will not ultimately make a huge difference in our lives. We are motivated to do well, because we could get high grades in the exam. Therefore, exams are a challenge, high grades are possible, we will use our body’s reactions to stress e.g. adrenaline, to work to our advantage and keep us focused.

4 – Train for the exam. We know the subject knowledge and exam skills inside out, which is our Weapon Push/ ‘secret weapon’. We will feel confident going into the exam, as no matter what the exam throws at us, we have prepared for it.
We have done our own Stress Inoculation Training through past-papers, revision sessions, mark-schemes etc. We have:
-Goal-setting and Segmenting- worked out what we intend to do in the exam, breaking the goal up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
-Tactical visualisation- mentally rehearsed what we intend to do in a given situation in the exam.
-Arousal control- controlling the physical effects of stress e.g. deep-breathing, drinking water etc.
-Self-talk -talked ourselves through why we feel the way we do and what we will do about it.
-Focus training -tune out distractions to focus on essentials in the exam.
-Compartmentalisation -break our thoughts into sections to deal with things when they go wrong. We are prepared for these problems:
-Friction – our physical preparations are good e.g. know our exam timetable, transport route, brought the right equipment
-Uncertainty – we prepared for all questions, revised properly
-Fluidity – we looked at all past papers, thought how our teacher would answer that question, and can plan it
-Disorder – we don’t rely on pre-prepared answers, don’t assume certain questions will/ will not come up
-Human Dimension -we sleep well, eat well etc
-Moral Forces – we have prepared as best we can, but keep a sense of perspective
Our brains use Cold Cognition in the exam, the Hypothalamus produces hormone to keep us alert and focused, but the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Hippocampus operate as normal. We feel confident because we have trained for the exam.

5 – Train Hard, Fight Easy. We have trained for a long time, and not just crammed for a while. We have done so many past papers that we can eat exams for breakfast.
Our exam training has been in proper exam conditions (timed, in an exam room, marked to exam standards). This exam will be just like a ‘normal day at the office’. We will show what we can do, but don’t worry much about the result. If there is a question we have not seen before, we think our way around it, using our secret weapon of knowledge and skills. We have been trained like this from the beginning of our course and everything is second nature. It will run like clockwork. We are Exam Machines. Our training will kick in.

And now for the teacher…
You probably prepare your classes using many of these ideas or methods already, but training for exams clearly takes a long time. Some students will have been preparing for exams from SATs onwards, but many children do not think about exams the right way. If we can equip our students with the right frame of mind and the right tools for the job, they should be better prepared for exams than ever before. How you do that bit is up to you. As any fire-fighter will tell you, heroes are not born, but trained.

Adam Bantick teaches History at The Sixth Form College, Colchester.

‘Brains and Bullets’ Leo Murray 2013 Biteback publishers
‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ David Werner 4.8.2013
‘Mind Blanks in Exams’ Jared Cooney Horvath and Jason M Lodge Straits Times 31.10.2016
‘Exam Stress and Psychology’ Dave Putwain The Psychologist Journal December 2008
‘The role of Stress Mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and psychological responses to challenging and threatening stress’ Alia J Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin, Sean Fath Anxiety, Stress Coping 2017

The Sound of Silence


“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and everything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is perceived as less need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove from us the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing wall-to-wall conveyor of equally pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell, I am certain, knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfilment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. To deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfil. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students from giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than our insisting on doing it for them. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.


Guest post: ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ or How to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine – Part 1

Stress seems to be a problem that is everywhere these days. Its implications for individuals are widely appreciated, but perhaps less well-understood. In this guest post, Adam Bantick discusses the causes of exam stress, and in part 2 he will examine strategies for addressing it.

He would like to hear the thoughts and experiences of others on this subject and can be reached via the comments column.

Adam teaches History at Colchester Sixth Form College.

We all know that exams are stressful, and so if we can find ways to overcome these stresses, then we should be able to train our students to become better at exams. A frequent comment from those tasked with dealing with the stress of life-or-death situations, from the police to the armed forces, is that ‘and then my training kicked in’. This article aims to explain what Exam Stress is, how it can be dealt with, and how to train our students to become Exam Machines. Part 1 explains what Exam Stress is, and Part 2 explains how to deal with it.

The problem is that exams are stressful situations, and the human body reacts to stressful situations in particular ways. Although much has been written about students feeling stressed before exams, and how teachers can help their students to deal with these stresses, these are mostly about mental health or a ‘how to revise’ strategy. Little has been written about what actually happens during an exam and how these stresses impact on student performance. Sometimes students remember enough to tell us afterwards, but other times they appear shell-shocked and unable to remember anything about the exam.

We need to understand what exams are, as well as what happens when we take them. Exams can be defined as time-limited, high stakes (pass/ fail/ graded), and taken solo. For these reasons, they are usually stressful – which manifests itself in a number of ways such as feeling sick, sweaty palms, needing the toilet, being thirsty, unable to concentrate, unable to remember…

Our brains have evolved to deal with stressful situations, but with the consequences listed above. A simplified explanation (Horvath and Lodge 2016), is that the brain has three parts which interact together. The Hypothalamus bridges the emotions and physical senses, and connects to the endocrine system controlling the flow of hormones in the body.

The Hippocampus stores information, and is very important for learning and retrieval of facts and concepts. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain. It includes Working Memory (holding and using information in the brain), Impulse Control (controlling outward physical behaviour), and Decision Making (choosing which response to give).

When a Threat is identified, two kinds of thinking are used, depending on the threat level. If a Mild Threat is encountered e.g. crossing a busy road, the brain uses Cold Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be low. The Hypothalamus produces small amounts of stress hormones, but the Hippocampus and Pre-Frontal Cortex operate as normal. If a Serious Threat is encountered e.g. driving test, the brain uses Hot Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be high. The Hypothalamus floods the body with the stress hormones Cortisol and Norepinephrine. Cortisol in the Hippocampus stops the neurons in the brain from communicating with each other, stopping memory retrieval. Norepinephrine in the Pre-Frontal Cortex prevents the neurons from working together, and affecting the ability to speak, write etc. The brain is shutting down non-essential functions in order to meet the Serious Threat. The Cold Cognition-driven Pre-Frontal Cortex has been supplanted by the Hot Cognition-driven Hypothalamus, affecting the ability to think straight, recall information, and write it down accurately – thus, poor exam performance.

The effects of Cognitive Stress are widely known, with most people familiar with the idea of ‘Fight or Flight’, where we either physically deal with the Serious Threat or run for our lives from it. As fighting a battle is about as stressful as it gets, soldiers have to confront this situation in their day jobs.

Military psychologist Leo Murray (‘Brains and Bullets’ 2013) identified not just Fight or Flight, but two other conditions as well – the ‘Four F’s’. Fight is where the body prepares for a physical encounter by using adrenaline to prime the muscles for action, by giving the feeling of extra strength and damping pain by narrowing blood vessels. Flight is where the adrenaline prepares the muscles to flee. In both cases, the body shuts down non-essential functions, such as food digestion, by re-directing blood flow to essential organs such as the lungs – sufferers feel ‘butterflies’ or nausea in their stomachs. Freeze is where the brain cannot decide whether to fight or flee, and sufferers are ‘caught like a rabbit in the headlights’, and do nothing – often appearing zombiefied. Fussing is where the brain moves on from Freeze, but not enough to do anything. The sufferer will ‘fuss’ over things that are trivial but well-learnt, such as re-checking equipment that does not need checking (micro-managing).

In addition to the Four Fs, Murray also identified Thinking Straight and Seeing Straight as problems. Thinking Straight is where the brain prevents rational thinking by cutting out new information/ short-term memory, and reverting back to older, long-term memory. In Murray’s observations, sufferers would blank out new instructions and follow older plans, despite the fact that they had been told of changes to the plan. Seeing Straight is where stress produced shut-downs of perception and senses, such as blurred vision, time speeding up or slowing down, or decrease in motor-skills. Depending on the gravity of the Stress Threat we face, we all respond in some form of the Four Fs and Thinking/ Seeing Straight, and we can see how that would play out in an exam that we found particularly stressful, with faster heart rate, feeling sick, sweating, time-speeding up, inability to remember ‘known’ facts, reversion to pre-prepared answers, going blank, doodling on the paper…

As well as the ways that stress affects our thoughts and behaviour, there are other, more education/ exam focused issues for us to consider. Dave Putwain (2008) has discussed Test Anxiety and Exam Stress, although there are similarities between them. Test Anxiety can be described as the way that we feel about the idea of exams in general.

A Test Anxious person will see exams as a Serious Stress Threat. The sufferer will fear failure, and being judged by others as a failure. This fear of failure will transmit to fear for the future, where no exam passes = no job. This fear will result in a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the sufferer will procrastinate to put off the inevitable failure. Exam Stress can be described as the way we feel about the current exam or round of exams.

The Exam Stress sufferer will face having to do lots of exams in a short space of time, exam season will impact on social life/ eating and sleeping patterns, this particular high-stakes exam fear (‘If I fail this exam I will be thrown out of 6th Form’), and judgements from peers, teachers and parents. Putwain says that Test Anxiety and Exam Stress have particular effects on individuals.

‘Catastrophising’ is where the sufferer cannot get a sense of perspective about exams, and the slightest problem is seen as a catastrophe e.g. ‘I cannot answer Question 2, so I will fail this exam, then I will not get a job and I will die in a ditch’. ‘Selective Abstraction’ is where the sufferer focuses only on the negative things, and ignores what has gone well e.g. ‘I may have done Question 1 ok, but I’ll fail Question 2’. ‘Behavioural problems’ are where the Hot Cognition problems kick in, and ‘Personalising’ is where the sufferer feels that failing exams is just another thing that they fail at in life e.g. ‘I am the most stupid person in the world’.

So far, we have discussed why exams are stressful and how they affect our performance. In Part 2 we will discuss what we can do about these stresses and even turn them to our advantage to perform better.

Still standing…

Some weeks ago, I was asked to stand in for an ‘A’ Level Politics teacher who was having an operation. It felt like a huge step, particularly as I had vowed I would not go back into teaching.

Two weeks – which felt like two months (in a good way) – further on…

The new chapter of my career in education is written: no longer is the ending that ignominious crash, but a successful (if brief) return to the classroom three years later. I apologise if this seems over-dramatic, but it is an important matter for someone who always took his profession seriously and with a degree of pride.

I suppose I should be less surprised at how easily I dropped back into the classroom routine – but I am no less delighted, having been given the opportunity to prove, if only to myself, that I am still an effective practitioner – and that the questions raised three years ago were as groundless as I believed.

Does mental illness change people permanently? Perhaps. I found the daily ‘cognitive load’ greater than it used to be – but that may equally be a simple lack of practice (and it certainly got easier). I was wary of the fact that I seem to have a somewhat shorter fuse these days – but thankfully the students were so docile that it was never an issue. I think I am also more inclined to optimism, having been in a position where I was simply unable to experience positive feelings about anything for months on end. And I think I am also more understanding of other people’s imperfections and weaknesses too.

Equally, an important practical point has been made – it is possible to get back into work and cope. Until now, this has felt like an impossibly huge step. Indeed, it felt strange this morning not to be going to work again. I previously felt that I would never go back to the world of education – but now that is much less certain.

Having watched the other staff dealing with the usual heavy marking and administrative load, I don’t think I want to go back full-time: there are too many other things I am now involved with, that I want to keep up. It is true that work robs us of the possibility to have wider lives.

But the chance to go back into the classroom and just teach has reminded me that I really do enjoy doing this, and I seem to get results. The positive reactions of the students (seen not least in several leaving cards after just two weeks with them) suggests I am not wrong about this. And yet I still hesitate on such matters: the legacy of years of working in a place where one’s competence was implicitly and perpetually called into doubt runs deep. There again, a (small) amount of professional self-doubt may not be a bad thing…

The question is how, if at all, it can be done on something approaching acceptable terms.

But most of all, it felt good to work in a place where the vibe is positive, and where my colleagues were friendly and supportive – and who clearly retain views, qualities and practices that have gone a good way to restoring my faith in the profession. Thank you all.

Never say never again

When I awoke on Wednesday last week, I had not the slightest thought that by the end of the day, the profession that had so unceremoniously ejected me in 2016 might have called on me again. The view from the ‘outside’ has showed me just how much of a person’s life teaching steals, and I had decided that it has already had quite enough of mine. It was never that I disliked the actual teaching; in fact quite the contrary – but the whole package of what is these days imposed on the profession has tipped the balance too far to the negative, and its impact on my mental health had made that all too evident.

Over the past three years, I have found plenty of other rewarding and varied things to do with my life; since I managed to shake off the worst of the mental health issues that were the profession’s most immediate legacy, there has rarely been a dull day.

So the call from a former colleague, in need of someone to cover for a medical absence put me in something of a quandary. The local sixth form college is one of the few places that would still attract me; sixth form work was always my first preference. Such places also tend to be rather more grown-up in their outlook, and perhaps less condescending to those who work for them.

Despite the jangling of background nerves, I paid them a visit on Friday, and found the experience surprisingly comfortable. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess, and there was certainly none of the feeling of strangeness that accompanied the interviews I have had in other workplaces in the past couple of years.

So, if all goes according to plan, I will begin work on 5th November, just a week short of three years since my last time in the classroom – reincarnated as a teacher of ‘A’ Level Government & Politics, albeit just for a short while. We’ve been able to settle on some subject matter that is very comfortable too, and I’m actually quite looking forward to getting on with it.

I have no expectation of this leading anywhere; in any case I don’t want to return to the long hours of full-time teaching. But it has since occurred to me that this is nonetheless quite important: even if I never go near a school again, it will provide a different ‘ending’ to a story that so far finishes with my ignominious crashing out of my chosen profession in 2016. And that can only be good.

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

Tonic for Teachers introductory offer!

Now that the new school year is well underway, time to think about professional development? Tonic for Teachers is a programme of fifty short audio commentaries (and associated downloads) on issues pertinent in education in the widest sense. Developed in the U.K. from a successful series of delivered CPD sessions, it discusses the nature of the teacher’s craft and sets it in a wider philosophical, psychological and social setting.

Available for a short time only at an introductory rate of approx. £10.00 (charged in Aus$) for unlimited access.

Find out more at or enroll directly at Open Learning 

Introducing Tonic for Teachers



What separates an expert from a novice is not purely technical procedure. It is insight and interpretation – the refinement that allows the expert to ‘read’ a situation more fully and to respond in more nuanced ways.

There is little available in the world of teacher professional development to cater for this need.

Tonic for Teachers is the new online resource that I have created to address this need, using materials from popular and successful CPD sessions and developing many of the ideas proposed in my book The Great Exception.

For a modest one-off payment, it gives access to fifty short short audio commentaries totalling over five hours of material, together with downloadable hard copy, other resources, video links and more, aimed to make it as accessible as possible for busy working teachers. The aim is not to provide quick-fix classroom tricks, but to promote growing insight and increased resilience in classroom practice.

Find out more at or enroll directly at Open Learning  and please share!

You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.

To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.