Nick Dennis' Blog

History, Technology, Education, Leadership

#TLAB15 tickets now on sale!

'Multipliers' workshop at #TLAB14

‘Multipliers’ workshop at #TLAB14

Tickets for the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted, are now on sale! You can book you place by clicking on this link.

The price remains at £50 as we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to hear two world-class speakers and three excellent teachers for a quarter of the cost you might pay for a day’s inset training with one speaker. Lunch and refreshments are also included and we are able to do this because:

  • The conference is non-profit;
  • Workshop leaders and speakers give their time freely (we do pay for travel expenses and a room for the night in recognition of their effort);
  • We focus on what matters.

As of 10.00am this morning, a quarter of the allocated tickets had been sold. The last two events were fully booked. What is particularly encouraging this year is the fact that schools are bringing five or six colleagues along so there is genuine dialogue about what is heard/experienced.

Last year’s conference iBook is available on the iTunes Store and you can watch some of the video from #TLAB14 here.

You can see what is being said on Twitter about the day here.

We look forward to welcoming you to the conference where we will be announcing exciting plans about its future!

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LegacyWhat is your legacy as a leader/teacher?

I have been thinking about this question carefully since reading James Kerr’s ‘Legacy – what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life‘. In the book, Kerr charts the ethos that makes the All Blacks a special rugby team and outlines the following key points on leadership:

  • Character – humility is a key focus. The All Blacks put a great deal of emphasis on values going so far as to select people on character over talent. For the All Blacks, this means being never too big to do the small things that need to be done (such as cleaning the changing rooms themselves rather than letting someone else do it);
  • Adaptation – possessing the wisdom to reinvent your strategy and also to make it happen;
  • Purpose – asking the foundational question and connecting everyone through personal meaning to the purpose of the organisation;
  • Responsibility -instead of reinforcing the leader/follower dichotomy, leaders create leaders. By using devolved leadership structures, leaders create ownership, autonomy and initiative (being a ‘Multiplier’);
  • Learn – great leaders are great teachers. They create great learning environments and they are great learners too by continually deepening their understanding;
  • No dickheads – no one is bigger than the team and individual talent does not lead to automatically outstanding results. One selfish mindset will infect a collective culture and weaken it;
  • High Expectations – embrace the challenge of doing well and then work towards meeting the expectations and surpassing them;
  • Preparation – you prepare under pressure with increasing intensity. This means that when it comes to the crunch, you are able to perform at the highest level;
  • Authentic – that you are true to yourself and your deepest values. You act with honesty and have integrity (you do what you say you are going to do with clarity);
  • Sacrifice – that champions do extra. They go that extra mile when no one else is around and make sacrifices to be the best;
  • Language – that the words you use and they way you speak embody your goals and values;
  • Ritual – that to make something ‘stick’, you create the rituals, the structure, to maintain the values or story. Rituals tell a story and create a legacy. Rituals make the intangible real;
  • Legacy – great leaders are stewards for the future. They aim to leave behind a better organisation than they found it. They honour those who have gone before them and those who will come after.

As a leader/teacher, what will be your legacy?

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What makes great teaching? A response to the Sutton Trust report

I was asked to give my views on the Sutton Trust’s report ‘What makes great teaching?’ for a newspaper this week. This is the original text:

It is a useful summary if you are interested in teacher professional development and have not come across the research before. The six components of ‘great teaching’ highlighted should not be surprising yet I cannot help but feel that the nuance will get lost and the paper makes this mistake amid all its careful considerations. It cites Deborah Stipek’s research on grouping students by ability and states that such practices are ineffective. Yet, when examined in detail, Stipek’s paper does not suggest that grouping by ability is wrong but rather it is the teacher’s perception of the group that leads to varied results, especially for students in low ability groups. If the professional training suggested at the end of the paper is adopted, it would disturb teacher perceptions and therefore the students in these ability grouped classes would be taught appropriately and make expected progress.

This inconsistency does not mean a rejection of the recommendations. On the contrary, I hope it is rightly received as a mechanism to ask some serious questions about student learning and teacher professional development in all schools. My challenge to the Sutton Trust and the academic contributors is to be better ‘choice architects’. Yes, they do indeed point to ways forward for schools and leadership teams yet why not go one step further by making the research base of the paper available for free so schools can improve their professional development programmes? If they did this, they would remove a substantive barrier to teacher professional development in schools and fulfil the ‘quick win’ they identify at the end on the necessity to spread awareness of research on effective pedagogy. I am sure that this action would go some way to reducing the Sutton Trust’s identified gap of a year’s learning between poorer students with effective teachers and those with poorly performing teachers.

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Research notes

I mentioned earlier this year that I was slightly frustrated by talk about educational research in schools. So I decided to do something about it and applied to do a Masters at the University of Oxford. My original plan was to write about the research once it was completed, yet  a wonderful opportunity to discuss some of the issues in relation to History teaching specifically has changed my mind. From November, I will be posting a monthly blog on the Schools History Project website based on the readings/tasks I have been set alongside questions about how the generic/specific educational research used throughout the course might be applicable to a History classroom.  The purpose is not to tell you how to use the research but to engage in a conversation about what it might mean.

If you have any topics you would like to suggest in terms of discussion, please add them in the comments section below.

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#TLAB15 – All in the Mind – Saturday 21st March 2015

CPD panel at #TLAB14

CPD panel at #TLAB14

Seeing the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted grow since 2013 has been a joy. Hundreds of teachers have been enthused, challenged and engaged by the day and I am pleased that we have a fantastic group of workshop leaders and keynote speakers for the 2015 on the 21st March. The theme for #TLAB15 is ‘All in the Mind’ and we are very fortunate to secure our two main speakers. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL and has been Leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience since 2003. Her group’s research focuses on brain development in human adolescence.

 You can see her TED talk below:

 Our closing speaker is Professor Barbara Oakley. She is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and her research focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behaviour. Described as “revolutionary” by the Wall Street Journal, she is also a former U.S. Army captain and worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers during the Cold War. She is the leader on the Coursera MOOC ‘Learning How To Learn’ and has recently published ‘A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science’.

 You can see her TEDx talk below:

 As usual, there will be a range of subject workshops led by teachers from across a variety of schools and locations. See the draft workshop list below:

The conference, as usual, is non-profit and the price is £50. This includes all refreshments and lunch.

If you would like to attend next March, tickets will be on sale at the end of October from the conference website. Make sure you purchase them as soon as possible – one school is bringing its entire staff!

This will be my last TLAB event. In true ‘Multipliers’ spirit, I will be handing the organisational reins over to three colleagues at Berkhamsted and some new partner schools (announcement to be made at the conference). TLAB was never meant to be exclusive affair and I already know the new team have some very exciting plans for 2016.  Rest assured, the conference will continue to be non-profit and provide a stimulating and collegiate atmosphere as usual.

I do hope you join us on March 21st for what promises to be an inspiring day.

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Digitising Cultural Heritage

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

The amazing Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

Last week I spent a day and a half in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica working with Europeana on digital cultural heritage and education. The Europeana Foundation seeks to create new ways for people to engage with their cultural history, whether it’s for work, learning or pleasure and works with member states of the EU, other countries and cultural heritage institutions across Europe. My brief was simple. I had to make a case to various government officials and cultural institute representatives that allowing the digitising of materials would be of great help to educators (especially History teachers) across Europe.


I started with the view that teachers get blamed for lots of things in society yet what we really want to do (in my view) is to create a sense of connection with the world around us and help students understand people beyond the horizon on their vision.  As a History teacher, I suggested that this is pretty difficult to do when you are limited to source material in your own language and have been provided by the textbook makers. If our job is really to help tell the ‘human’ story, then access to resources from different countries with translations would be incredibly helpful to gain a truly multi-perspective view on significant events such as the First World War. Using Steven Johnson’s idea from ‘Future Perfect’, I suggested that because publishers acted centrally to negotiate rights, the sources available in a ‘home’ language are always limited and ignore the unique and difficult images/texts. If you are brave enough to go beyond this provision in limited time,  you are confronted by an array of problems. Yet if these resources were curated, translated and made free for educators, we would be able to benefit from the ‘distributed’ network of the web. One example of where things worked well was the Europeana site on the First World War. I suggested that the cultural institutions and government departments were ‘choice architects’ in the ‘Nudge‘ mode of thinking and some of the choices they gave us meant that it was very hard to do our jobs (and ultimately what states want).


My second point was much more pragmatic in that it dealt with enabling teachers to access already existing material in collections so we could tell the ‘human’ story. In essence, I asked them to rethink the ‘choice architecture’ they use when working with teachers. I gave the example of the British Museum and its offering of CPD for teachers (£300 for half a day and £500 for a full day). Prices such as these limit the possibility of sharing their cultural heritage expertise and I asked the question whether institutions put funds into outreach with teachers as part of their project budgets. The lack of interaction with teachers also meant that generic learning activities were created, reducing the capacity to educate people about the items museums held. Using the cognitive psychology notion of the illusion of explanatory depth, I asked delegates to turn to the person next to them and explain how a person learns.  The intention was not to embarrass anyone but to show that just because you have an experience of education and think you know it pretty well, your causal knowledge (knowledge about how the world works) about it is poor. An experience of school does not furnish you with complete causal knowledge on learning. Where does retrieval come into it? Research on working memory? Emotional connection and advanced organisers? I used an example of a worksheet from the Smithsonian which was generic in its questions. My point was not to suggest that cultural institutions should neglect learning but to work with people who are steeped in it as the benefits are tangible for all parties. Taking a lesson from ‘Multipliers’, they need to tap into the genius around them. If they worked with educators effectively and provided training, the content knowledge of the institutions would overlap with the pedagogical knowledge of the educators and would create the Pedagogical Content Knowledge that is highly prized. The teachers would also help the institutions devise activities built with a deeper understanding of learning in mind.


My final point was to place the delegates into the context of history and show that the work they were doing started long before they were born. Using Theodor Adorno and Michael Sandel, I suggested that they needed to move away from a limited vision of education and consider the deep roots of the project. Giving examples of Renaissance thinkers and educators, I pointed out that they were part of the cultural ‘gift exchange’ that started in the 1400 and 1500s and this was done without the tools and technology available to delegates today. If we really are interested in ‘cultivating humanity’ through heritage institutions and schools, we really need to move beyond the ‘logic of the market’.

The following day was spent working through draft recommendations and I would like to thank the group that I chaired as they were genial and very efficient!

I would like to thank Jill, Steven, Joke, the Europeana team and our Italian hosts for a very interesting few days.

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Tweaks for the new academic year

R2D2 as the ‘Pomodoro’ master. Image from

This year, I have made a few small adjustments to my teaching. Part of it will link to my research on History teaching and Cognitive Psychology/Behavioural Economics and other aspects are just to ease organisation.

Everyone Starts With An ‘A’

After reading the RSA paper and thinking about the ideas from ‘Nudge‘, I have told all my students that the default grade is an ‘A’. It is their job to maintain it and not to ‘lose’ the grade. Where they submit work below the standard, they are given a ‘not yet’ and then specific help on what they need to do to improve to make an ‘A’ grade.

Short, low-stakes quizzes each week

Again, thinking about repetition and memory retrieval, I have started these quizzes with students from Years 9-12.

Using iTunes U and Google Classroom

I am using iTunes U with my Politics class to organise notes/videos etc. I will also be using Google Classroom with all my students to help with drafting/submission of work as part of the Everyone Starts With An ‘A’ idea.

Email for personal meetings not for questions

After reading this article, I thought the reasoning behind it seemed really sensible. Students in Y9 upwards will only get a reply from me if it is to arrange a meeting to discuss their work (which they must bring along). The benefit will be less time wasted on answering simple questions and more time actually talking to the students about work (which links to Everyone Starts With An ‘A’). My Y7 class is spared this as they think I am scary enough (I am).

Cornell notes

As a student, Cornell notes seemed a really good idea but I never really used the process. After hearing Dale Banham talking about his success with them, I thought I would trial it with my Politics class.

Using the Pomodoro technique

After taking the Coursera Mooc ‘Learning How To Learn‘, I decided to adopt the Pomodoro technique for really focussed work (with the help of my R2D2 timer). I am also suggesting it to students as a way to overcome procrastination.  I do find that I can only use the technique early in the morning before school starts or after students and staff members have gone home at the end of the day.

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Conspicuous consumption

Of the minority of teachers/educators on Twitter, there is even a smaller group who often talk about ‘research in education’  go to  many conferences to reinforce their credentials as knowledgeable teachers.  They retweet, favourite, blog & critique ‘research in education’ and sometimes, they may even use it in their teaching. They appear to be nothing more than conspicuous consumers.

This year, I am starting a graduate research project on how a ‘Mind, Brain & Education’ approach to curriculum planning and teaching in History can help students. Utilising cognitive psychology, behavioural economics & notions of good History teaching, I hope to explore how a subject focused approach can actually raise attainment and support school improvement.

A tall order. Yet, as I am fond of saying to my students, doing is better than just talking.


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CPD 2014-2015


The core principle at Saracens is that we gather talented people together, treat them unbelievably well and in return they try unbelievable hard. That is it.

Edward Griffiths, Chief Executive, Saracens Rugby Club

It is no secret that we have a great set of staff here at the school because we really do try to recruit well. It is not the only measure, but our recent exam results show how hard they work with students and if we would like for that success to continue in exams, on the sports field, on a mountain or on a stage, the professional development programme should help support their growth.

I sent this year’s professional development programme to the staff today.


Much of the programme is being led by colleagues within the school and we have partnered with Dragonfly Training again to supply a few sessions on educational research, literacy and behaviour management. The overall price is very reasonable and it is cheaper than getting high profile speakers to launch ideas at inset days over the course of an academic year.

I want to thank my colleagues for helping to put this programme together. They are the proof that the method for creating cost-effective, varied and engaging CPD lies in utilising the ‘talent’ in front of you.


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And the beat goes on – The Guardian’s Secret Teacher

 In this school the beat of deceit was constant. The emphasis was not on teachers looking out for students, but rather on them protecting the school’s bank account – permission slip not included. Secret Teacher, The Guardian, 2nd August 2014

Reading the ‘Secret Teacher’ series in the Guardian always makes me feel sad and slightly frustrated. Sad because so many of the stories recount poor examples of leadership so that education in this country seems to be driven by incompetent leaders at all levels. I also feel frustration with the lack of context in the pieces due to the anonymity of the writer and the presentation of a universal problem when the writer is talking about their specific context.

I felt both and the ‘beat of deceit’ as I read this recent Secret Teacher piece on independent sector schooling because it perpetuated a great number of half-truths. The first was used in the  advertising of the story as ‘Profit v parents’. The piece itself recounts the experience of the writer in one independent school where they were told to ignore a student’s learning needs so that the school could keep the fees generated by the student. I don’t doubt this situation happened but the sentence ‘I also realised that an independent school, which couldn’t afford special education teachers but did have newly varnished floors, was not the right place for her’ suggested that this was a universal condition rather than a particular story. From my own experience, especially as the line manager for Learning Support in two independent schools, this is not the case especially because ‘Gifted and Talented’  also comes under the umbrella of Learning Support. Significant time and resource is used to help the students and this is one of the reasons why parents do send their children to schools in the independent sector.

The second ‘beat of deceit’ was the transformation of particular ‘difficult parents’ into an unreasonable whole. We ask more questions when we feel that people are not being authentic and truthful with us and if the condition of mistrust was prevalent in the school, then I don’t blame them being awkward. It is also worth remembering that even if we disagree with parents,  the reason why some appear difficult is because they want the best for their child. The job of a good school and good leadership is to remind parents that we also want the best for their child and with our collective experience of raising and educating hundreds if not thousands of children, we have a lot to bring to the discussion. It is only by working together can we effectively support the child and as I always add in such discussions (in both sectors) that one of the reasons why they selected the school over other places is because they thought it was a good place for their child. Being honest about the child’s learning needs helps the school and the parents make the right choice for the child.

The piece also raised again the issue of anonymous blogging and the tension at the heart of it. Writing anonymously does afford the writer to speak out against a powerful opponent without fear of reprisal (legal or loss of job) yet it also allows trolling, the perpetuation of half-truths and a lack human recognition. In a world already coloured by stereotypes, the piece’s pretence to universality is disappointing. By pushing the universal strand and reducing complexity, the ‘beat of deceit’ continues and allows others to march along without question.

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