An optimistic education

An optimistic education: rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress

Our students are growing up in unsettling times: climate change, plastic pollution, political polarisation, isolationism, social atomisation and anxiety are just some contemporary challenges.  Some environmental challenges are shown below:

Future earth Fig 2

Figure 2: Some earth system trends, 1750-2010


However, there is a compelling case to make for a rebalancing of the curriculum towards a more positive outlook, and I offer some suggestions for how this might be achieved.

Justifications – a summary of recent global progress

I do not belittle these valid and significant concerns.  In fact, I believe that a more optimistic approach to education will provide a way in which we can make great strides to combat these scourges.

However, it is incumbent on us as educators of citizens of tomorrow to put these worries in the context of a world where there have been undeniable strides in a wide variety of social and economic respects, and in many environmental areas too.  On balance, in many respects, whilst the pace is varied and the distribution is uneven, life is improving for most of humankind.

For example:

  • In 1800, global life expectancy was 31; by 2017 it was 72
  • In 1800, 85% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (less than $2/day, adjusted for inflation); by 2017 this had fallen to 9%
  • In 1800, child mortality (the percentage of children dying before their fifth birthday) was 44%; by 2016 it was 4%
  • In the 1930s there were an average of 971,000 deaths a year from disasters; by the 2010s this had fallen to 72,000
  • In 1970, 38kg of SO₂ particles were emitted per person; by 2010 this had declined to 14kg
  • In 1970, 1,663,000 tons of ozone-depleting substances were used; by 2016 this was 22,000 tons

Sources: full references given in Rosling et al, 2018

So yes, extremely significant challenges to humanity, and to the environment in particular, do remain, and we should not be complacent about these – in fact, I believe that teachers play a crucial role in educating students about them.  Nevertheless, I argue that we should also be aware of these hard-won gains (see Figure 3).

Rosling Fig 3

Figure 3: Some positive trends in the world

Source: Rosling et al, 2018

Misperceptions, ignorance, and the ‘new optimists’

However, many people are unaware of these gains, thanks to a combination of misperceptions and ignorance about the world (Rosling et al, 2018; Duffy, 2018).  But some commentators are becoming more vocal in publicising a more fact-based and level-headed view of the world [see information box].  Whilst they are by no means a coherent entity, these writers hold an optimistic – or at least, in the words of Hans Rosling, a ‘possibilistic’, view of the world.

Some key writers who inform a more optimistic education:

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and author of Enlightenment Now (2018)

Max Roser is Programme Director, Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development and runs

Bobby Duffy is a Global Director of Ipsos Social Research Institute and Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London; he wrote The Perils of Perception (2018)

Hans Rosling was Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and he founded the Gapminder Foundation.  Together with Ola and Anna Rosling he wrote Factfulness (2018)

Why should educators care about misperceptions and ignorance about the state of the world?

The primary reason is that we are educating global citizens.  Students may identify strongly with their neighbourhood, city, region or country, but their future is intimately tied up with global trends.

Secondly, negativity can be dangerous – it can make students fearful and more willing to think that things are out of their control: it can therefore threaten students’ mental health and resilience.  Suggestions have been made that negativity promotes fatalism and an unwillingness to act on some of the most important issues facing society (Pinker, 2018), although the recent climate strike movement may contradict this argument.

We may also reinvigorate education in the public’s consciousness: Dan Ariely suggests that we should link curricula with “the social goals, technological goals and medical goals that we care about as a society.  This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it” (2009: 45-46).

What are the barriers for educators and our students which are preventing us from achieving a more optimistic education?

When trying to make sense of the world, humans fall foul of what psychologist and social researcher Bobby Duffy calls the “mistakes and shortcuts made by the human mind” (2018: 12).  Some of the main heuristics (psychological biases) which affect our perceptions of the world are:

  • We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
  • We focus on negative information
  • We are susceptible to stereotyping
  • We like to imitate the majority

Moreover, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s research finds that our judgements are typically the result of ‘fast thinking’, unless or until they are modified or overridden by slow, deliberate reasoning (see, for example, Kahneman, 2012).  Our students will take on board the beliefs and misperceptions of their peers and parents; they will also absorb the overwhelmingly negative output of the mass media.

Some practical suggestions for the humanities

Duffy is keen to stress that “there is no magic formula to deal with our misperceptions” (2018: 248), but also asserts that there are practical things that we can do.  Inspired by Duffy, I propose the following strategies in the humanities:

  1. Stay up-to-date. It is extremely difficult to stay on top of what is happening in this changing world, but as educators we have an imperative to try to do so.  Geography and Politics are amongst the school subjects which feel this challenge the most keenly: time-pressed Geography teachers (including the author) can fall into the trap of teaching statistics and generalisations that are years out of date.
  2. Cultivate deeper and more critical thinking. Scepticism, as opposed to cynicism, is a useful skill to cultivate – we should constantly question the veracity of the information we receive and encourage our students to do so to.  I commonly use ‘layers of inference’ interpretation activities: placing a photograph/video/artefact in centre stage, I lead the class to consider what the source definitely tells us, what can we infer from it, and what does it omit that we would like to know more about?
  3. Facts still count. It may sound trite, but facts should be used carefully to back up arguments.  I say carefully, because, as Duffy points out, the academic literature on the use of facts to correct misperceptions shows mixed results.  In the classroom and in assemblies, I refer to a welter of facts and graphs, many of them gleaned from  The optimist in me still likes to think that these facts will do the trick, but I am also aware that humans naturally look for confirming information, and discount disconfirming information.
  4. Promote a ‘Futures Education’ approach. Significant work has been done within the past decade or so to promote ‘futures education’.  David Hicks has led many geographers to adopt the notion of ‘alternative futures’ in their teaching – for instance, by using timelines which split into ‘probable’ and ‘preferable’ futures.   More of his ideas can be found in Hicks (2014a, 2014b, 2018) and at
  5. Using lessons and schemes of work developed by, or inspired by, ‘Factfulness’ (Rosling et al, 2018). I have set the ‘Ignorance test’ from Gapminder to my students. I begin my teaching of hazards by discussing graphs which show deaths from hazards decreasing (but costs rising).  Infographics such as Figure 2 could be handed out to students at the start of a unit on development – and then discussed.  I have also shown all or part of the documentaries on the Gapminder website, as well as some of their thought-provoking videos and TED talks.

Beyond the humanities – whole-school approaches

A wide range of subjects have a role to play in this rebalancing of the curriculum: for instance, how effective can citizenship education be if we have an outdated world view?  How can we be truly critical thinkers if we are not aware of our psychological quirks?  Does too much historical education focus on crises and wars and not enough on the incremental progress made by most societies, most of the time?

Here are two broad areas which could be considered:

  • Critical, statistical and news literacy should be cross-curricular priorities. Duffy (2018) admits that “we won’t be able to teach the human out of our kids, and critical thinking is not a universal guard against misconceptions” (p.244) – but just because a task is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted.  Might we start early – at primary school – in the task of instilling critical thinking in our students?  Later in a child’s education, could we increase the proportion of their time dedicated to critical thinking, psychology, and the study of statistics?  Within existing subjects, we should expand the opportunity for ‘criticality’ to be taught – for instance in source analysis in History.  The breadth of subjects our students follow could also be widened:
  • Critical thinking qualifications could be resurrected at Key Stage 4
  • We could encourage the growth of Extended Project Qualifications and the like
  • Schools and colleges should look again at offering Critical Thinking at A Level
  • The International Baccalaureate is another way of encouraging students to develop their critical faculties, via its Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components
  • Assemblies and beyond! Pastoral staff, headteachers, and those who deliver personal development all should be aware of human progress, so that young people may be given the hope needed to thrive in our changing world.  More informed deliberation could help to shift misperceptions and reduce ignorance.  I have tried a ‘light touch’ approach, which is to hold an assembly on ‘positive trends in the world’ and then to encourage follow-up discussions within tutor groups.  A more radical idea is a whole-school ‘deliberation day’.  Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) came up with the idea of holding such days, where citizens would be invited to participate in community discussions and ask questions of experts or representatives.  Could schools adapt this idea and have ‘deliberation days’ on current and global affairs, rather than leaving debating to a self-selecting crowd of confident students?

Much good practice exists, but it is too disparate, and it often occurs in optional subjects, and too late in students’ educations (and therefore, for many learners, not at all).  Intentionally or unintentionally, most politicians, school leaders, teachers and producers of educational resources all play their part in continuing with the status quo in terms of the systemic barriers to a more optimistic approach to education.

Final thoughts

By rebalancing the curriculum in some of the ways outlined above, educators can play their part in raising resilient, confident, well-balanced, engaged citizens.  It will be hard to counter the psychological and external forces which are giving our students an outdated and inaccurate worldview, but I believe that fighting such forces is crucial.  I am putting together a manifesto for a more optimistic education, and I would like to hear your suggestions: please get in touch.

David is a Geography teacher at Bradford Grammar School, UK.  He is also a writer and presenter, with key themes of optimism in education and cross-curricular outdoor learning.  He blogs at and is on Twitter: @DavidAlcock1

The original version of this article appeared in Impact: The Journal of the Chartered College of Education:


Ackerman, B and Fishkin, J (2005) Deliberation Day (Yale, 2005)

Ariely, D (2009) Predictably Irrational (Revised and Expanded Edition) (HarperCollins)

Duffy, B (2018) The Perils of Perception (Atlantic)

Hicks, D (2014a) ‘A geography of hope’, Geography, 99, 1, pp. 5-12

Hicks, D (2014b) Educating for Hope: Climate change, peak oil and the transition to a post-carbon future. London: Trentham Books/Institute of Education Press

Hicks, D (2018) ‘Why we still need a geography of hope’, Geography 103, 2, pp. 78-85

Kahneman, D (2012) Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Roser et al (2019) (accessed 1 March 2019)

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)


Learning Lucky Dip

As we approach the end of another academic year, what better time to celebrate what went well? We’re lucky to have staff members who are willing to share tips and tricks, so the Teaching and Learning Champions thought we’d add a thank you into the mix and introduce the element of a mystery prize! Teaching Tombola didn’t work, apparently it doesn’t count if you don’t give out tickets, so it was a Learning Lucky Dip – and even with the odd distraction (it’s hard not to spend a few minutes marvelling at dried peas) we still came away with a selection of ideas to sample.


Firstly, we went over to Team Biology for some consolidation ideas; Retrieval Grids, colour coded based on how long ago the content was covered – extra points for answering questions taught last year. Simple but effective, particularly in subjects with reams of content to cover. Answers are jotted down on a whiteboard and peer marked. Mr Livesey claims it takes just a few minutes at the start of a lesson. Another retrieval idea from Team Bio was a simple exercise in dividing a piece of paper into four, and heading each quarter ‘LAST LESSON’, ‘LAST WEEK’, LAST TOPIC’ and ‘LAST YEAR’ respectively. The teacher then put a similar grid on the board, with their questions entered into each quarter – students then answer on their paper. Reinforcing the idea to students that ‘revision’ doesn’t just happen once in the summer term, but continually through the year.

Our outdoor learning focus this year, championed by David Alcock – he’ll be thrilled!, has been thoroughly embraced by the D.T. department. They’ve been using BGS’ fantastic outdoor spaces to present work to each other, auditorium style on our quad steps, and working with the National Trust Tree ID app to encourage students to recognise the different trees and wood types around them. Apparently this will be invaluable for the Biology Year 7 A-Z treasure hunt, so watch this space for acorns, birches etc…


Live marking was suggested as a real success from the year from Team R.S. – demystifying the exam marking process and talking students through an examiner’s thought process when awarding marks. The ability to take images of work before and after seemed to appeal to the group. Maths seem to have been targeting quick starters to minimise lower KS3 years fussing upon entry, and there were a variety of starters involving working out loose change that Year 7s can compete to complete first. Minimising fuss seemed to be a common theme, with team English promoting an online resource that allows you to create two seating plans per class – Home and Away positions (a hit with football fans in Year 10!) This allows for a wider variety of conversations in group work, whilst ensuring optimum behaviour for learning. 

Independent Learning has been a real focus for BGS staff this year, so unsurprisingly there were numerous activities that sought to promote student autonomy and withdraw the reliance on staff. To start us off, three different subjects outlined how they minimised teacher talk and handed time over to the students to speak to and teach each other.

Modern Languages focused on promoting peer talk; pupils are given 3 strips of paper and they write 1 sentence per strip (1 x past, 1 x present, 1 x future tense). They then move around the room to work with other pupils, each time saying a different sentence from the Sentence Builder displayed on the white board. If a pupil says one of the sentences written by the person they’re “interviewing”, they take the strip. Play for 7 minutes – winner is the person with most strips. Extension: remove the Sentence Builder from display and repeat the exercise. Pupils are now working from memory to recreate the sentences.

Source: Active Learn.


In a similar less-teacher-talk vein, another science idea involved the use of a picture story. Students must describe the process in front of them, using the key terminology listed at the side (adaptable via differentiation). The other student in their pair has a separate list of ‘ingredients’ student 1 should cover, and they tick them off as their partner explains. They then swap roles and perform the same activity again, hopefully with even more success now they’ve seen the listed questions etc.

English suggested withdrawing any teacher talk at all for a period of 15 minutes – providing a small section of text (maybe a stanza of a poem) with some structured questions, and ‘refusing’ to comment with ideas. This way, students are encouraged to provide a personal response that might not necessarily match what their neighbour might put.

Of course, as always, there were a few not-for-every-lesson ideas! Team R.S., evidently big fans of Only Connect, had found an online version of the popular T.V. show where students are asked to group similar topics, figures, ideas, numbers into four categories – and most importantly, they need to have a justification ready. Apparently the trick to this one if to make it fiendishly difficult, with potentially more than one ‘correct’ answer and use as a revision activity!


Perhaps the award for the most adventurous and engaging idea came from the Classics Department – Mr Reeson, in an effort to spice up his summer exam feedback lessons – created a series of Escape Room esque lateral thinking puzzles. Yes, really. These involved no instruction sheets, only the students’ common sense, and required translation of commonly misspelt words to unlock number puzzles etc. There were UV torches, and a safe to unlock at the end.



Everyone who shared an idea came away with a small token, usually loosely linked to teaching (!), and a selection of ideas to maybe take for a spin next year. It’s fantastic to see so many practicioners within school experimenting and on the look out for new ideas to trial – hopefully a trend we can continue into 2019-20.


If you’d like more information on any of the ideas outlined here, drop us an email on


Holding Ideas Lightly


By David Alcock

First posted to on 17 May 2019

holding 1

Lightly drawn ideas (Source: Author)


Modern life is increasingly complex, and so are the issues which students are expected to understand and expand upon.  Synopticity (the ability to draw threads together from a variety of sources) and flexible thinking are therefore increasingly valued skills both in education and in the wider world.

Our world no longer needs as many people who can remember vast amounts of information as it once did – as Yuval Noah Harari (2018) writes:

“In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.”

I would add to Harari’s insight that there is much greater value in those who can see more than one point of view than in those who are blinkered to only see their own.  I also believe that our fast- moving society is increasingly in need of people who are willing to change their mind in the face of facts.

Even when boiled down to the irksome necessities of the education system – examinations and other forms of external assessment – there is a need for candidates to be flexible in their thinking.  Writing as a Geography teacher and examiner, I know the value that exam boards place on the ability for candidates to ‘hold their ideas lightly’.

Holding ideas lightly

What do I take to be the meaning of this phrase?  I can sum it up as being willing to entertain a wide variety of ideas and being able to change one’s mind in the face of evidence.

Here are three illustrations where encouraging students to their ideas lightly has direct relevance to my secondary school Geography practice:

  • At GCSE, Edexcel Paper 3 is People and Environment Issues – Making Geographical Decisions – and to reach the highest levels in the crux 16-mark question at the end, candidates must consider the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen option and those of two other options they rejected.
  • Even in the apparently logical realm of multiple-choice questions, which appear at GCSE Geography, candidates need to be able to change their minds from what might at first be the more obvious choice(s).
  • At A Level Geography, across all examination boards, up to 70% of the marks come from Assessment Objectives 2 and 3, which relate to interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and construction of arguments – see Figure 1:

Figure 1: AS and A Level Geography Assessment Objectives

I am not advocating ‘holding your ideas lightly’ as a justification for sitting on the fence – but rather as a bulwark simultaneously against rash ‘fast thinking’ and also against the stubbornness which holds back broader human progress.

So how could practitioners take on board this philosophy in their teaching?

Think twice, and think carefully

When faced with a multiple-choice question, contrary to much received thinking, candidates should be encouraged to think twice and think carefully, and not necessarily go with their first instinct.  The justification for this is can be found in this recent discussion from the FT’s ‘undercover economist’ Tim Harford.

A hands down winner

I have written on how to cope with the ‘forest of hands’ which is sometimes faced when students find a task difficult and they seek immediate help from a teacher.   But sometimes the ‘forest of hands’ springs up when a question is set and pupils rush to give their first idea that comes to their head.  To avoid this, many schools have adopted a ‘hands-down’ policy, which means that students must contemplate their response, so they have an equal chance of being picked by the teacher.  When combined with a chance to share their idea with a partner, and when told to be willing to change their response, a more reasoned discussion usually follows.

Scrap that!


holding 2

Figure 2: NoToshLAB Source:


Many students that I teach, across the KS3-5 spectrum, are wary or even unwilling to write their ideas down, even in the back of their books, for fear that they might ‘get it wrong’.  To overcome this, I often issue separate pieces of scrap paper or sticky notes (for later use in a ‘post it/pile it’ activity on a desk or a stretch of wall).  Another way is to use mini-whiteboard sets (complete with a board pen and a wipe), then students will be much more willing to write their ideas down and adjust them – especially if this is done in partnership with another student.  This idea is covered in more detail by my colleague Kerry Smith here. Ewan McIntosh has some more great ideas for low-tech ‘ideation’ (idea generation) on his website .

Changing places

The outdoors can be a great place to generate ideas, discuss them, and even to jot them down.  Firstly, even apparently humdrum environments such as school playgrounds or parks can be inspiring and invigorating.  Secondly, it has been shown that some conversations flow more freely between passengers on car journeys thanks to ‘sideways listening’ – where both participants are facing forwards and are therefore less likely to hold back from what they want to say as the complications of eye contact and subliminal physical cues are largely absent – see Laurier et al (2010) and Mc Fadden (2017).  This philosophy can be transferred to outdoor learning, where students are paired and asked to complete a short and simple journey whilst discussing ideas with each other.  Thirdly, and related to the ‘scrap that!’ principle, why not issue students with chalks and get them to write down ideas, or have first sketches of art projects, on the playground – knowing that the best ideas can be shared and photographed but that the rain will one day come to wash away everyone’s jottings!

Computer aids

holding 3

Figure 3: The Post-It Note app

There exists a wide range of ‘ideation’ apps and software, some of which allow users to write down ideas and shift them around (Post-It make an app which allows users to move virtual sticky notes around, change their colour, and merge them – thank you to Dominic Tremblay for drawing this to my attention).  Other websites allow users to write some words down, and then the programme will combine them with others to create almost endless outcomes.  Many of these will be ridiculous, but as Ewan McIntosh Pointed out in a session at Practical Pedagogies (2016), sometimes students will need to go through dozens, or even a hundred or so, iterations of ideas before hitting on the right one for them.  This could be in the realm of coming up with a title for an independent investigation, an Extended Project, or a theme for Design and Technology.  Ewan’s website No Tosh has a section called ‘The LAB’, which helpfully provides links to help you and your students ‘play around with ideas’.  Other idea generation methods can be found here.

Social media literacy

Chat rooms, comment pages, Twitter threads, online forums and so on are often used to share and generate ideas – but students should be urged to use them with care, as often the most outspoken users are those with the most extreme and hard-set ideas.  The well-publicised ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble’ effects should also be discussed with students.  One idea that could be tried with older and more internet-savvy students is to engage individual forum users with differing views from them in a moderate discussion.  I have tried this myself after reading some comments posted on Twitter following David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – the Facts’ documentary – and with the right approach, common ground can be found.

Discussion forums

Pupil councils, tutor periods, debating societies and other more innovative forums could be utilised by practitioners to enable students to air, discuss, and test out their opinions.  Going the full hog, whole-year or whole-school ‘deliberation days’ could be trialled, much like those promoted by Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin (2005) . (I have written more about this here.)

Light by name, serious by intent

In a fast-moving age where extreme views are easily accessed, media and news literacy are crucial, and where flexible thinking is needed in industry and in society, it would make sense to ‘hold your ideas lightly’ – and to encourage your students to do so too.


Ackerman, B. and Fishkin, J. (2005) Deliberation Day (Yale)

Harari, YN (2018) ‘Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind’ – Wired, 12 August 2018 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Harford, T (2019) ‘Our first instinct is far too often wrong’ – Financial Times, 10 May 2019 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Eric Laurier, Hayden Lorimer, Barry Brown, Owain Jones, Oskar Juhlin, Allyson Noble, Mark Perry, Daniele Pica, Philippe Sormani, Ignaz Strebel, Laurel Swan, Alex S. Taylor, Laura Watts & Alexandra Weilenmann (2008) Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the Ordinary Organization of Car Travel, Mobilities, 3:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/17450100701797273

McFadden, J (2017) ‘The power of talking sideways to children’ – The Guardian, 14 January 2017 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Further reading
Barrett, T (2015) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in Tom Barrett’s Blog, 10 February 2015 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Coutts, N (2016) ‘Hold your ideas lightly’ in The Learner’s Way, 21 February 2016 (accessed 17 May 2019):

Tennis Terror

tennis 1

It has taken the P.E. department a number of weeks to gain a grip on the ever-exciting sport of Year 10 tennis. Exciting not only in the sense of close matches and excellent play, but also in the challenge of managing a class of 50 with one quarter of that class intent (at least initially) on mischievous, ‘extraneous’ activities shall we say! There is always going to be a small group of students in P.E. lessons of any kind who are more interested in having a muck around (and some time off) than engaging in the exercises and drills. However this year, Year 10 took ‘muck around’ up a notch to a level where we just weren’t satisfied. Put a tennis racket in one of these Year 10s’ hands and far from delivering a flawless serve, it often sent balls flying into the roof, outside of our lovely new barn, and at each other. But we were not deterred, and with a combined effort from both the students involved and staff from across the P.E. department, by half term we managed some remarkably decent tennis.


How? Out of our disenchanted group of Year 10s we managed to bring out an inner competitiveness which led to them playing an acceptable level of tennis against each other. We had to get them caring about whether they won or lost. We also realised that if there was a slight dip in energy brought by the staff, the students reverted back to smacking balls into the rafters and having a laugh (who wouldn’t? Head shots are hilarious). When the students didn’t feel challenged, that’s when low-level disruptive behaviours started to emerge. Therefore it was imperative that if we wanted the lesson to go as planned, this group needed to be playing a competitive game of tennis (or variation) continuously from the moment they entered the court.


So that is exactly what we did. Instead of separating the group, we kept them together, kept them moving and kept them competing. And the end result was a group of around 10 previously fairly disinterested students who really stepped up to the challenge, managing to keep rallies going of up to eight or nine shots (an excellent achievement considering starting level and attitude). Competition and focus was the key to that, and whilst the P.E. team led by example it is really the resilience of our Year 10 students that deserves acknowledgment here. Their willingness to embrace challenge turned apathy into tangible success.


The need for challenge doesn’t stop; if we don’t keep the energy and the vigilance at 100%, the students will revert back to their old ways (as is human nature). That’s the thing with behaviour management; often it goes hand in hand with engagement, and it’s easy to get discouraged with one if the other isn’t playing ball (pardon the pun). We now have our Year 10s playing some decent tennis that includes minimal body shots, and we consider that a big win for the PE department, and Head of Year 10.


Observations from observations!

observationOver the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to observe some fantastic colleagues at BGS. During these observations, it has been great to see the excellent teaching that goes on every day at the school. We can often fall into the trap when preparing for an ‘observation lesson’ of thinking that the lesson needs to be ‘exciting’ , ‘fun’ and ‘interactive’ to make the observer go ‘wow’! I have certainly been guilty of this in the past; coming up with exciting new activities simply so that it looks like I can plan ‘whizz-bang’ lessons. On reflection, these lessons often do end up being ‘exciting’ ‘fun’ and ‘interactive’ but this all too often can actually be at the expense of students’ learning, rather than enhancing it.

triangle obs

Having observed a variety of lessons at BGS recently, I have been reminded of how effective it is to have a well qualified, knowledgable teacher in the lesson and simply imparting their knowledge and challenging students to analyse their thinking is really fundamental in student progress.

I know many teachers in other schools who are often criticised for too much ‘teacher talk’ in their lessons but this week I have seen ‘teacher talk’ done very effectively and in a way which promoted student engagement and interest.

I have been reminded that when planning activities we should always measure the success of them by student progress and learning rather than how ‘fun’ they are. This is not to denigrate ‘exciting’ and ‘interactive’ activities per se but we need to make sure that we are discerning between these kinds of activities and gimmicks.



Quick Quizzes: How and Why I use them


Over the last few years I have become a big fan of low stakes, quick quizzes. They can be used in a variety of different ways and in my opinion they can be a fantastic assessment tool.


quiz 1

Quick quizzes do exactly what their name suggests. They are quick to write, quick to complete and quick to mark. In fact they are a worthwhile activity whether I mark them, use peer assessment or whether they mark their own.

I have also seen them help to develop independence in my students and it has enabled me to give specific and timely feedback to both students and parents. I want to create an environment where students are willing to take responsibility for their own progress, can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and then be proactive in overcoming them. I want my students not to be afraid to get something wrong and then learn from their mistakes. FAIL should stand for First Attempt In Learning.

Name MRS GREN (/12) Animal Cells Plant Cells Bacteria Specialised Cells Organs Organ Systems
1 11 away 9 9 3 6.5 6.5
2 9 4 8 7 6 9 7
3 8 4 9 9 4.5 5 4
4 10 4 4 6 6 5 9
5 9 2 3


1 6.5 6
6 12 7 10 10 7.5 10 9
7 10.5 1 3 1.5 0 3.5 6.5
8 10 5 10 7.5 3 8 8.5
9 11 6 10 9 8.5 9 10
10 10 4 7 9 8.5 8 9
11 11 5 10 10 8 6.5 7.5
12 7 0 4 8 0 4.5 2.5

How and Why I use them:

    • As surprise quizzes at the start of the lesson: this can encourage the students to pick up their books between lessons independently. I have found that students dislike getting a poor mark, so giving these on a regular basis encourages students to consolidate between lessons without having to be asked.
    • To assess consolidation and prevent cheating on homework: often students cheat and copy homework, making the whole task (setting, completing and marking!) pointless. I often set revision for homework to be tested using a quick quiz.
    • To assess understanding: doing regular quick quizzes enables both the students and myself to map the progress and understanding of specific lesson topics. This way it highlights for both the students and the teachers which topics require revision in the run up to exams.
    • Gives parents a readymade list of questions and answers to help their child revise.
    • As a data source: as a Biology teacher I also teach the students to draw graphs. They are a fantastic data source for the students to learn how to draw graphs from and the resulting graph is a fantastic visual diagnostic tool.
    • To create opportunities for low stakes testing. By making these a regular part of lessons you are creating a tool where the students are not afraid to have ago and with consistent reassurance they will have a guess even if they are not sure. This will enable them to discover for themselves what they do and do not understand.




Shaking it up – enthusiasm and engagement in secondary schools

ent 1

Uncork their enthusiasm!


  • Springy pavements generating electricity from pedestrians!
  • Office blocks retrofitted with living roofs and walls!
  • Hydrogen powered buses!
  • Free public transport for all!
  • Monthly cycle to work and litter picking days!

It’s hard not to be buoyed up about the future when you come across ideas like these.  And this effect is heightened by the fact that they came from people who will be responsible for shaping what the future of humankind will look like – our young people.

Fizzing with ideas

I recently marked a Year 8 class set of designs for a sustainable city.  They researched their ideas independently, drew up plans in pairs, then justified their plans individually in a ‘books-open’ in-class report.  I often marvel at students’ ingenuity and depth of research, and I know it might sound corny, but whilst marking this piece of work, I found myself breaking off every now and again to wistfully consider their enthusiasm – and what happens to it in the remainder of their years of secondary education.

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I was reminded of my childhood, when I had fantastical thoughts about designing buildings and cities, which I expressed in cartoons and occasionally in Lego.  You might be thinking ‘No wonder he became a Geography teacher!’ – but looking at the imagination and creativity shown by students year after year, I think that this enthusiasm is common among a very large number of younger students, not all of whom will go on to become geographers, architects or planners.

In primary school and in the early years of secondary school, teachers of all subjects find that most students fizz with ideas and positivity.  The almost palpable feeling of energy is part of why a career in education appeals to many people.  But teachers will recognise a slide in the levels of enthusiasm of their charges as the secondary school years progress.

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

This trend can be illustrated by the rigidly scientifically researched ‘Enthusiasm Transition Model’ (ETM).  How many teachers (or parents) recognise the stages shown below?:

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The ETM and the secondary school years

Year 7, and, with a following wind, Year 8 too: Most pupils are keen to take part in discussions and many of them even like to perform tasks like handing out books.  Many pupils are even sorely disappointed if they are not chosen!

Year 9: A scattering of pupils volunteer their thoughts, but almost no-one is bothered if they are not chosen.  The enthusiasts fight to keep their keenness hidden.

Years 10 and 11: A couple of students half-heartedly volunteer, and there is no need to implement a ‘hands down’ policy in most classes because it’s de facto in operation anyway!

Years 12 and 13: Students have actively chosen your subject, so there is a slight resurgence in classroom engagement, if you are lucky.   However, it can be hard to keep students’ attention at such a busy time of their lives.

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Letting the champagne go flat

So what explains this gradual decline in most children’s enthusiasm in their time at secondary school?

Some of it may be lost as pupils are exposed to more of the realities of their personal life – the creeping realisation that they will not always be able to get what they want.

Similarly, as they escape from the protective bubble of their carers, children will see at first hand some of the more challenging aspects of the world: the homeless person they see under the arches at the railway station; the incident of road rage on the way to school; conflicts amongst family members which were kept under control in the pupils’ early childhood.

Some enthusiasm may be displaced by the increasing responsibilities of youth and adulthood – when you have momentous decisions to make about future careers, relationships, driving, and so on, there is not enough time to dwell on ideas, let alone ideals.

Some of it is swallowed up internally as young people succumb to peer pressure.  The pressure to ‘fit in’ with the norms of their chosen group(s) is often overwhelming.  This impetus to impress their friends over their parents and teachers is reinforced by subtle glances and under-the-breath comments in classroom discussions whenever someone forgets where they are for a moment and dares to volunteer.

Still more of it will surely be eroded by exposure to the negative tone, not only of the ‘mainstream media’, but also of many of the ‘clickbait’ stories used by some news websites to hook in readers.

But some of it, I argue, is attributable to various aspects of the educational system.  Yes, we have come a long way from the days of ruling by fear, the crushing of individuality and corporal punishment which featured in some pupils’ lives in relatively recent decades (although some draconian approaches have made a comeback – see the debate about ‘flattening the grass’ (Smith, 2019)).  Nevertheless, students are still held back, in different degrees in different contexts, whether this be by regimentation, institutionalisation, momentum and paucity of imagination in our education system (I write from a UK context), let alone financial threats to the curricular and extra-curricular existence of ‘creative’ subjects and sports.

Bubbling over

Before going any further, I realise that a burst of enthusiasm is not going to be an educational panacea: a certain degree of structure is required to allow our current education system to work.  I also realise that some readers will question the need to (re)enthuse our youth – there are benefits for young people and their educators from the former being calmed and directed at times!

Furthermore, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, enthusiasm in the absence of facts and carefully considered analysis can be deleterious to the advancement of the populace, particularly in terms of politics and the economy: he believed that educated people are “less liable… to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition”.  To put my head above the parapet, I can see some validity in this point of view in the context of the Brexit debate.  Finally, as I write elsewhere, and inspired by Hans Rosling et al (2018), a fact-based worldview is essential for us to make the right decisions for the future of humankind and our planet.

But all this notwithstanding, I don’t think that more engagement and ‘buzz’ will lead our students astray – rather, it should re-energise them with education and the wider world.


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Uncorking students’ enthusiasm!

In my customary search for a solution, I hereby volunteer some thoughts for how educators could try to keep young people keener for longer:

  • The only time that pupils may go outside in the school day might be during lunch or breaktime. This runs counter to the needs of childhood development.  Why not embrace the outdoors?  You can read some of my musings on this subject here, but the YHA has launched a powerful video on ‘the adventure effect’ ( which draws upon research showing that the outdoors is not only beneficial to young peoples’ physical health, but also their mental well-being too
  • Think how you could give opportunities to young people to express their enthusiasm outside of lessons, perhaps by holding lunchtime clubs, or competitions. To this end you could keep an eye on your subject association, many of which will run several such competitions a year – see, for example, the Geographical Association’s World Wise Quizzes:
  • Reward ‘below the radar’ enthusiasm – such as students writing in extra depth in certain homework tasks – by writing positive comments (and giving commendations/merits) to demonstrate that you recognise and celebrate initiative and keenness
  • Be a role model in the classroom – show the class that you care about the subject and your enthusiasm might become infectious. Fair enough, this is tough to achieve, and I am acutely aware that my enthusiasm can come across as being too eager to please, but combined with humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation, this approach can work
  • School and year-group assemblies can play an important role in celebrating achievements and inspiring students to follow their dreams and interests
  • School or personal subscriptions to news outlets dedicated to young people can help to redress the negativity of adult-orientated media. Examples of these outlets include The Day (which my school subscribes to and which every form tutor receives by email every morning) and children’s weekly newspapers such as First News
  • Finally, in terms of day-to-day and week-to-week pedagogy, consider the tasks that you set pupils – do they allow students a free enough rein to follow their interests within the task? For instance, could you give…
    • a choice of case studies (offer the choices then see how enthusiastic the students are when they are told it is first come, first served!)?
    • a choice of websites for research?
    • a choice of websites, articles, or TED talks for students to consume and feedback on (I tried the TED talk choice for a recent A Level theme of gender equality in education)?
    • a choice of presentation medium and/or group size? For example, in one task we allowed students to either plan and deliver a form assembly as a group, create a website and social media campaign as a pair, or to write to their MP individually
    • more time during which pupils could generate ideas (‘ideation’). Ewan McIntosh introduced delegates to methods to facilitate this at the 2016 Practical Pedagogies Conference – these include using randomiser websites such as to mix up unlikely concepts and end users.  I have used these techniques to try to break deadlocks when students struggle to think of ideas for projects such as EPQs.  More ideation techniques are available here:


As always, I welcome your feedback.  Don’t be afraid of curbing my enthusiasm!

David @DavidAlcock1


Hazell, W. (2019) Teaching at ’flattening the grass’ school ‘felt like being a prison warden’ – TES, 14 February 2019 (accessed 24 February 2019):

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

Smith, A. (1789) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (5th edn: Methuen and Co, Ltd – as reproduced at

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