Understanding How We Learn, by Dr Yana Weinstein, Dr Megan Sumeracki, with Oliver Caviglioli

Why I read it:

I’ve always been fascinated by how we learn and the ways in which I can apply that knowledge to my teaching practice. I’ve read several books on these ideas, but this was the first that tied a lot of the evidence together in one place; the addition of Caviglioli’s visuals made it a must read.

In summary

The book explores how we learn in various ways: from human cognitive processes (perception, attention and memory) in general, to strategies for effective learning. The latter includes spaced learning, interleaving, using concrete examples to help learn abstract concepts, and converting to long-term memory through retrieval practice and the testing effect.

Understanding How We Learn is as evidence-informed as they come, yet the explanations are accessible, and Caviglioli’s illustrations and headings make the book a joy to read and navigate. As geeks, we’d likely enjoy the content regardless; but the attention to the aesthetics make this a really pleasurable experience, and encourages the reader to dip back in when needed.

Key takeaways

There are too many insights to mention, so I’ve picked out three that taught me something. If you like these, there are plenty more to find in the book!

  1. Multitasking is a myth – evidence suggests that it is almost impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at the exact same time. The authors are sorry to disappoint us, but they reveal that our intuitions are wrong on this one, despite our protests that we can do two things at once! What we can do, is switch back and forth between two tasks very quickly, which is actually what you’re doing when you think you are ‘multitasking’. Switching comes at a cost, though: it decreases efficiency and slows down reaction speeds in both tasks (so turn the TV off while you’re reading this!).
  2. Spaced practice works with a test delay – spaced practice, that is, spacing learning of something over time, and not cramming into a short period, has shown to be an effective method of learning. However, the benefits only ring true when there is a delay between study and test. An example they give is that, if a student reads or studies twice for an immediate test, they may outperform the spaced learners; but even when the test was two days away, it was those who spaced their learning by doing it once a week who did better, and that gap widens with further test delay.
  3. Multiple concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts – the authors use the example of teaching the concept of scarcity. Let’s say you use an example of airline tickets that quickly get booked up, as an example to go with your explanation. The students may only understand the concept of scarcity in relation to the airline ticket example; more concrete examples are needed. You could link to sports game ticket sales to offer another similar example; even better, then add the idea of water scarcity in a time of drought. Now the students have diverse concrete examples, and have more chance of looking beyond the surface details to better understand the abstract concept.

Favourite quote:

In the chapter named ‘Is intuition the enemy of teaching and learning?’ Weinstein and Sumeracki sympathise with the notion that some things feel good, like re-reading notes. But they often don’t translate to performance.

‘When college students are asked to predict how much they think they are learning from repeated reading, many are extremely overconfident. On the other hand, predictions made after engaging in more effective strategies – like answering practice questions or writing down everything you know about a topic – tend to be too low.’

This quote summarises the focus of the entire book: it’s not enough to rely on how things feel. We have access to better research than ever, and we must engage with what has been proven to be the best ways for people to learn.

Favourite moment:

 The opening chapters of Understanding How We Learn are dedicated to examining the education sector’s relationship with research, and the frequent pitfalls that the teaching profession has fallen into, such as teaching based on intuition, not evidence. They then discuss different types of research and studies we might look out for, and also warn us that ‘people are more likely to look at confirmatory than contradictory evidence when examining their beliefs.’

Rather than feed us their own narrative, the authors choose to help us become critical readers of educational research, before introducing the various concepts in the book.

Question and reflect

  • Do you have a secure understanding of the main principles of how we learn? If, like me, you have been reading about this for years, then trust me, there is still much more to learn!
  • How can we apply these principles to our curriculum design, and lesson delivery? For example, it would be a good idea to revisit our trickiest concepts and think about how we could add multiple concrete examples to help contextualise them

Read this if…

You are a teacher or student

You are interested in how we learn things

Find the book here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #5: Eye Contact

Having recently acquired a beautiful Huntaway puppy, I’ve thrown myself into the perplexing world of dog training. Unlike education, I can report that canine trainers are not, on the whole, experiencing a renaissance period of evidence-based pedagogy, and a quick search on YouTube will unearth multiple dog ‘behaviour experts’ who inevitably contradict each other’s attempts to explain the science behind how dogs act.

Nonetheless, I’ve found a few things that work for me and Indy (my dog Indiana. Yes, Jones). The most effective has, much to my surprise, been the ‘look at me’ command, as recommended by Zak George. Whether Indy has become distracted by horse dung, found solace in chewing a table leg, or if I want him to make eye contact to convey a gesture, ‘look at me’ helps him focus and regroup. We’ve built it up to the point where he will hold my gaze for a sustained period of time, eagerly awaiting my next move.

The impact of this command on my training regime has made me reconsider the power of eye contact among people. As a sign of the times, we are adorned in masks that nullify the ability to use our mouth to express emotion, in turn putting enormous strain on our (under practised) eyebrow game. And now interactions revolve around catching someone’s eye, and assessing their feelings and reactions through the lone visual stimuli of the eyes.

Our natural inclination as adults can be to make judgments on those who do not make sustained eye contact; perhaps we perceive those who avoid it as being less confident, or disinterested. Children, in particular, can find eye contact difficult. Studies have shown that eye contact can trigger feelings of shame or negative self-evaluation, and some children who find it difficult to read emotions in others can interpret negative emotions in those who are looking at them.

However, as part of fostering healthy relationships, eye contact can be a brilliant tool in building trust, warmth and honesty. Your eyes do not lie. I was once speaking to a student when I was their Head of Year, after they had made a few choice mistakes, and when I had calmly explained why it was wrong, and what consequences would need to be applied, he made an observation. ‘Sir, I can always tell when you are disappointed from your eyes’. In my head, I was projecting an expression of tranquillity – being neutral yet supportive. I was quite shocked that my eyes had betrayed my true feelings, and yet equally I could see that he had taken comfort in being able to read that expression, and could tell I was going out of my way not to project that feeling into my words. In other words, my eyes conveyed a sense of authenticity that showed, despite my disappointment in his actions, that I have feelings and that I was invested in him.

It’s important when making eye contact with someone, especially a child, that we do so as part of a process of building relationship and confidence. Studies have shown that eye contact can build rapport between people, and help us behave more altruistically, given that the knowledge that we are being watched makes us more conscious of our behaviour. I think the combination of both factors helps build authentic relationships – prolonged eye contact can be a meeting of minds and feelings and help to evoke a sense of mutual understanding.

Indeed, Psychologist Paul Ekman argues that you can tell the authenticity of a smile by looking at the eyes; while we wear masks, perhaps our eyes can do all of the heavy lifting. When forming real smiles, the eyes narrow and create lines, or crow’s feet, at the outer corners, which we can pick up on as a cue for what’s lurking beneath the surgical veil. Likewise, when we are interested in something or someone our pupils will dilate.

Eye contact also triggers the limbic mirror system, a set of brain areas that are active both when we move our eyes (or any body part) and when we see someone else doing the same. The limbic system helps us recognise and understand emotion, too, and can be critical in establishing empathy. Making eye contact with someone, therefore, is a natural way to build understanding and empathy, as the eyes begin to mirror each other, and we start to become conscious of ourselves and the other person as they hold our gaze.

Walking around school, I pass thousands of students and adults each day, all wearing masks. Some may be smiling underneath, others won’t be. More than ever, I’m consciously using my gaze to catch their attention, trying to will feeling and welcome into my eyes, or from a distance settling for a nod of the head or another gesture. But, amidst the frustration at the deprivation of the rest of our faces, it strikes me that there are opportunities, here:

Let’s capitalise on eye contact: being forced to use eye contact as a primary method of communication (I’m aware our voice is an option, too!) is an opportunity. Children, especially during two remote-learning lockdowns, have spent less time having to make prolonged eye contact with peers and adults. During this period of mask wearing, we can normalise eye contact as a tool to gain attention, sustain concentration, convey emotion, and to build trust.

Teach and model eye contact: we should also take the opportunity to verbalise that eye contact is positive and worth practising. Consider talking to the children about how we are currently relying on eye contact as a form of communication; explain that we will be seeking out their focus through their eye contact, and acknowledge that it will take some time getting used to. We can teach children the aforementioned benefits of making eye contact in 1:1 situations or in groups, and show them how it can be a positive tool to build relationships. They will adapt and feel more confident if we talk about it, model it, and give feedback on it.

Better understanding different needs: only being able to get a read of a student from their eyes could be a good opportunity for us to better understand which students are more or less comfortable with making eye contact. There are many reasons why some people might not be able to hold our gaze, and I believe that we can use the mask wearing to better understand our students and colleagues. It’s now much more obvious when a crowd of students walks past, or when they are facing you in a queue or classroom, which of them do not wish to catch your eye. My aim isn’t to enforce eye contact upon anyone, but to use this as a time to increase our understanding.

Brushing up on our own non-verbals: during a lesson we utilise a range of techniques to keep children focused, working hard, or quiet. Often, words are not the correct choice if we want to maintain the silence, and so we might call upon the use of a hand, silently mouth something, or just use our mouth to make an expression of affirmation or encouragement. Without the latter, we have an opportunity to consider how we use our eyes as a form of communication. For example, without being able to see our mouth, or smile, it is more important to cover all the students in the room with eye contact more regularly. We can convey sincerity, interest, and support through our eyes alone, and it’s worth improving this if you are teaching with a mask on, or communicating at any point of the day with your face covered.

I wonder how others have found the heightened demand on our eyes over the last few months; are you more conscious of it? Are you noticing those who are not as comfortable with making eye contact? How can we support and not alienate them? Can we turn this into a positive for the long term and re-establish this skill? Have you got Jedi-esque eye and eyebrow skills you could share?

Whatever we’ve learnt, it’s another example of COVID providing something to reflect upon and discuss.

Thanks for reading.


Think Again, by Adam Grant

Why I read it:

I enjoy reading books about psychology and behaviour, so that I can understand the mind better, and then try to transfer some of that learning to my professional and personal life. I’d heard Adam Grant speak at various events and on podcasts, and like his personable and articulate style, coupled with his clear expertise. Several books that I’ve read recently had touched upon knowledge, confidence, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I wanted to find out more about how we can realise, embrace and utilise what we don’t know.

In summary

The book is split into three main parts (plus a conclusion): individual rethinking, which is about our own views; interpersonal rethinking, or the opening of other people’s minds; collective rethinking, which entails organisations or groups adapting together. Each part includes numerous studies, anecdotes, and crisp explanations from Grant, who makes the science behind each idea accessible and enjoyable for the reader.

Think Again uses compelling arguments for how we get stuck in our views and fall into traps such as biases, or not seeking out the right feedback. The premise is essentially that to make good decisions, we need to ‘think like a scientist’, in other words be objective, gather as much evidence as possible, and then be open to adapt or change based on those things. The book outlines some challenges we have as humans to following this approach, along with solutions to help us through this self sabotage!

Key takeaways

I could do this reflection again and come up with 10 more takeaways, for example Grant’s views on imposter syndrome, how we approach conflict by viewing a disagreement as a dance and not a battle, and finally how we use the principles of rethinking to benefit our future plans. My advice is to read the book!

  1. Preacher, prosecutor, politician – think like a scientist – Grant contests that we often take on three roles when promoting a view or idea: preacher, when we deliver sermons to protect or promote our ideas; prosecutor, when we find flaws in other people’s ideas and look to prove them wrong; and politician, where we seek to win over an audience. He advises us to think more objectively, to weigh up circumstances and facts, and to be more like a scientist. He uses various studies and examples to show the difference it can make when you follow sound, logical advice and evidence, over our tendencies to follow gut or emotion. For each situation we are in, it might be worth thinking about whether we have fallen into one of those three roles that might cloud our ability to make the best decision.
  2. Embrace the joy of being wrong – to think like a scientist, Grant discusses how we should embrace the joy of being wrong by learning to detach from our ideas, and detach our opinions from our beliefs. It takes humility to admit to ourselves and others that we are wrong, but scientists find that it doesn’t make others view us as less competent; in fact, their view becomes more favourable if we welcome new ideas or evidence, rather than reject them.
  3. Seek out information that goes against your views – studies of people who were asked to imagine the perspectives of their political opposites showed no greater appreciation of their views. What the research did find, was that seeking people out with different views, and talking to them directly about their perspectives, had a big impact. Grant discusses how we must use as many clues as possible when making decisions, and that it’s not enough to imagine arguments or ideas that diverge from our own, but to address them directly to find out as much as we can. Other research shows that if we talk to someone about their views, no matter how extreme, if we see their strong belief in something first-hand, it builds respect of them as a person, regardless of what we think of their view.
  4. Psychological safety – in performance cultures, the drive for results means workers often don’t question their superiors, try out new ideas, or work collaboratively. Grant discusses the need to create more of an open culture to question, with his favourite being ‘how do you know?’ as a tool for asking a non-judgmental question that mixes curiosity with a desire to know more. Grant conducted experiments in several organisations to improve psychological safety by asking managers to request feedback and criticism from their staff; that on its own didn’t have a high impact, so they tweaked it and instead asked managers to share with their teams some anecdotes about when they had received feedback and been able to act on it or improve. Having their managers admit they were fallible, and admit they benefited from the critique, fostered a culture of staff feeling safer to speak up and contribute. There is a great anecdote about introducing more psychological safety at the Gates Foundation, and the huge relief of employees when Melinda, who staff couldn’t usually get an emotional read from, announced that she goes into a lot of meetings where there are things she doesn’t know. The staff felt safer in the knowledge that their seemingly perfect leader had gaps in her knowledge, and was brave enough to admit it.

Favourite quote:

Humility and confidence:

‘Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means ‘from the earth’. It’s about being grounded – recognising that we’re flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present’

Favourite moment:

Grant explores three biases that can ultimately undo our ability to think like a scientist.  

Confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see.

Desirability bias – seeing what we want to see.

I’m not biased bias – believing you are more objective than others. Grant argues that smart, bright thinkers often fall into this trap, which makes it harder to rethink and adapt.

These biases may sound obvious and simple, but here’s what I did. I retraced my steps for a day, and tried to retrospectively apply them to my decisions and actions. When had I simply looked for confirmation of something to validate my existing view, rather than doing the digging to see if that was actually right? When had I seen bias present itself in someone else, and made a judgment without weighing up the possibility of my own bias?

Question and reflect

The book taught me a lot about seeking out evidence and perspectives to ensure that my own ideology isn’t clouding my judgment – what steps can we put into our decision-making process so that this desire for evidence becomes something we always follow?

What circumstances would need to exist for you to admit you were wrong, or change a plan that you’d invested a lot of energy into? Someone’s view? Data? The book is about rethinking and adapting, and that’s something I found challenging at first, but Grant makes a compelling case for how pride doesn’t serve us well!

Read this if…

You are interested in human behaviour

You are a leader or someone who has to make decisions and want to gain a better understanding of how we might behave, versus how we could behave!

Find the book here or here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #4: Words create worlds, and the joy of coaching

‘Without autonomy, you leave your brain at home’, Dr Kulvarn Atwal told me at his school in 2019, when explaining how all staff have a coach and use the process to improve their sense of autonomy, and to be solution-focused in the way they approach challenges at work. That sounded powerful. But coaching… isn’t that just being a mentor? I am ashamed to say that the conflation of these terms does indeed exist, and contributes to my late discovery of what feels like a turning point in the way I work and lead.

We lead busy lives at work and at home, when in lockdown or normal times. Barriers to success occur, or many opportunities present themselves at once, and inevitably, we have to do some thinking. And yet, making time to reflect can be the easiest thing to strike from our to-do list. Other tasks become more urgent, perhaps because they have a deadline or we are accountable to someone else, leaving our mind restless while we attend to other things.

But what happens when we do reflect on our thoughts? It can be empowering and refreshing to cast technology or tasks aside and consider what’s ahead. But is doing this by ourselves the most efficient way of moving towards our goals?

In his book Chatter, Psychologist and Neuroscientist Ethan Kross (2021) discusses how introspection can actually be counterproductive, as our inner voice often ruminates and dwells on problems and creates a harmful, negative cycle; likewise, using others to vent can be problematic as it pushes them away, or invites them to collude in our negativity rather than helping us through the issue. The book is much more nuanced than those examples alone, but I’m certainly more aware of the possible pitfalls of my inner ‘chatter’.

Enter coaching. If, like I was for years, you are unaware of what coaching is defined as, Sir John Whitmore (2017) says skilled coaching involves ‘unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance’. Coaches listen, ask deliberate and purposeful questions, and usually lead the conversation with a coaching model, such as the GROW method (goals, reality, opportunities, what will you do). Coaching sessions prompt the coachee to think through their ideas, challenges or views, with the questions from their coach helping them to find a new perspective, always focused on solutions.

Sometimes, our best thinking happens out loud, when we articulate beyond our internal machinations. Once spoken, the thought becomes more real, more tangible. More actionable, perhaps. We can then reshape it with other words. And then think it through again. Everyone is different, but I have seen in myself, and others, how the process of coaching, and verbally articulating your thought process, begins to unlock doors in your mind. When you combine that with a skilled, disciplined coach who asks open questions without attempting to influence, you have the potential to do great things.

Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2016), coaching expert and author, cites several studies that identify benefits of coaching: increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence, improved interpersonal skills leading to better relationships, increased self-confidence, improved leadership skills, increased loyalty to the organisation, renewed passion to support the development of others, and better work-life balance. In short, there is a large body of research that advocates coaching as a process to develop and empower both coach and coachee.

I will write future blog posts about the practicalities of setting up coaching in schools, both the form of coaching I have outlined so far, and instructional coaching, and some of the research base behind the approaches. In fact, as I planned this post, I spent a few evenings re-reading books, academic papers and web articles to look at a wide-range of evidence about the pros and cons of coaching, and the references are awaiting my attention in a word document.

But, what I realised is that coaching, thus far, brings me learning, enjoyment and empowerment, and that’s what I want to impart in today’s takeaways… The joy of coaching, and how words create worlds:

‘Oh, you know what…’

I love this phrase, or variations of it. This is the moment where your coachee thought they might be at a dead end, before discovering another avenue to explore. Or perhaps their thinking or perspective shifted during the conversation. The analogy I am drawn to, here, is being in a dark room and only being able to see one door. The door isn’t the ideal option for the intended outcome. The coaching conversation, though, can shine a light on other doors that were always there, always possible, but not illuminated before – allowing your coachee the time and space to think this through can create those wonderful ‘oh, you know what…’ moments.

‘I came to talk about this, but actually…’

As Andy Buck (2020) says in his book BASIC Coaching, it’s possible to get hung up on something, and in our minds it becomes the main thing. But what if it isn’t? Coaching conversations often establish how we really feel about an issue; after some deliberation and discussion, it can become apparent that the background to a challenge might not have been the root cause, and the intended course of the conversation needs to change. It’s vital that, before setting goals, the coachee has really considered what is going on, and what the main thing actually is.

‘And what else?’

It’s important as a coach not to lead your coachee to certain realisations or judgements that you want them to make. You don’t know as much as you think! Questions such as ‘and what else?’ are a fantastic tool. They prompt further thinking, without judgment, bias or agenda. Sure, you might have to endure a bit of silence, but the space allows independent thought and the cogs really start to turn. It’s wonderful to observe and be part of.

Teamwork and trust

The bedrock of a coaching relationship is trust and rapport. The coachee must feel completely at ease during a conversation in which they put themselves in a position of vulnerability, as they evaluate options and discuss their feelings towards an array of issues. The coach must maintain discipline and rigor with their methods as the relationship flourishes, but it can become a truly special partnership.

Don’t leave your brain at home

We’ve all gained satisfaction from mentoring someone: giving them advice and offering our wisdom or experience. It’s the right model for some relationships, for example with an inexperienced staff member, but also can be used effectively in other contexts, as I outlined in a previous post. But the aim of coaching is for the coachee to find their solution. When I watch a coachee experience their epiphany moments, that flash of realisation that they have hit on something previously unconsidered, the sense of empowerment is palpable. You may have guided them, in a sense, with your questions and by replaying their thoughts back to them, but they did the heavy lifting. This was their win, their sense of pride, and their autonomy. You facilitated their innate brilliance. That’s what really brings me joy in a coaching relationship.

Learning together

It’s easy to assume that the coach is the guru and that the relationship is one-sided in terms of its outcomes and uses. I would disagree. The coachee may feel indebted to the coach, but so far I’ve found the coach to be a huge beneficiary of the relationship; watching someone find their way to solutions and new ideas gives me the confidence and inspiration to do it myself. Coachees inspire coaches! Both parties will learn something from the process.

If you are reading this and aren’t yet a coach, or haven’t been coached, I hope my moments of joy and inspiration have nudged you in its direction. I am a year into my coaching journey, and have so much to learn and more experience to gain; I’m starting an accredited course with Growth Coaching International, and also looking to take on more coachees via Zoom (free of charge, contact me if you’re interested!). I believe wholeheartedly in coaching as a form of development and empowerment for both coach and coachee, and am thrilled that it is taking root in more schools across the country. The challenge now is to ensure that the proper time and expertise is dedicated to the initial and ongoing training of coaches, in addition to the right environment for coaching to thrive on a whole-school or organisational level.

But, for those ‘oh, you know what…’ moments, creating a coaching culture could be one of the best things you do for your workplace.


Buck, A (2020) The Basic Coaching Method. Cadogan Press.

Kross, E (2021) Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. Ebury.

Van Nieuwerburgh, C (2016) Coaching in Professional Contexts. Sage

Whitmore, J (2017) Coaching for Performance, 5th edition. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, by John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Why I read it:

After doing two coaching courses and taking on some coachees, I started to ponder the role of 1) leadership coaching, and 2) leading a coaching culture in an organisation. I already knew about the work of John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, so this book was a natural and worthy choice. I enjoyed it so much that I contacted both authors and they were generous with their advice, which lead to my enrolment on the GCI Coaching Accreditation Programme.

In summary:

This book is aimed at introducing coaching in schools (although could be transferred to any organisation), reviewing the concept of leadership coaching, exploring the GROWTH coaching model, examining plenty of research regarding the benefits of coaching, and providing practical tips about how to implement coaching effectively.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools is evidence-based, comprehensive, but also readable and formatted in a way that makes it inviting to access the demanding content.

Key takeaways:

This is one of those occasions where I cannot possibly outline all of the book’s main takeaways, but here are a select few that are concisely summarised – each one has far greater explanation in the book.

Coaching vs a coaching approach – coaching might typically exist within a formal, arranged meeting between two people. However, the authors suggest that a coaching approach, in which the transferable elements of coaching can be applied to other contexts, e.g. unplanned conversations with colleagues, can really enhance outcomes. For example, coaching-approach conversations will still focus on helping the recipient identify resources, options, strategies in order to clarify a possible outcome, but in a less formal manner, such as a chat in the corridor. This has helped me consider how I work with staff in non-coaching meetings, or in other spontaneous contexts, where I can still employ some of my skills as a coach.

8 key coaching skills building trust, being present, listening actively, clarifying, empathising, being succinct, asking the best questions, and giving feedback. The authors explore each of these in detail, linking them to the GROWTH model of coaching.

Benefits of leaders becoming coaches – these can include: leaders becoming more reflective; coaching approaches can be transferable to other leadership practices, including giving feedback, leading meetings, etc.; leaders can coach each other; leaders can set the tone for a coaching culture in the organisation. The authors also discuss how peer leadership coaching can be useful as there is no hierarchal barrier between coach and coachee.

Feedback and performance management – there are lengthy sections dedicated to how to use coaching as a tool to give feedback or even develop performance management processes – the advice is specific, considered and evaluative – if you are thinking about how to introduce coaching in this form, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

How to create a coaching culture – many organisations are implementing a culture in which coaching is an integral part of staff development, be that through traditional coaching, or instructional coaching regarding teaching or other practices. The authors celebrate the notion of creating a coaching culture, but are also realistic about the commitment it takes to implement successfully; their seven steps are: recruit external coaches to train initial coaches; create internal coaching capacity; ensure leadership support of coaching; enable organisation learning from coaching initiatives; include coaching within performance management process; adopt a coaching style of leadership; use a coaching approach throughout the organisation.

Favourite moment:

Throughout the book, there are QR codes to scan for a link to a video of a certain coaching approach or method being modelled. These are fantastic in quality, and I found it so useful to be able to see a conversation play out in practice.

Favourite quote:

‘Words create worlds’

Citing the work of David Cooperider, who argues: ‘people live in the worlds our questions create’, the authors state: ‘As coaches, we want our coachees to live in resourceful worlds and to be more intentional about the words used to describe the world they inhabit. It is particularly important that they imagine the positive future world they wish to move towards.’

Question and reflect:

After we train in something, in this instance, coaching, we often feel confident in our ability and knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger effect takes hold, and we overestimate our competence. This book is a brilliant reminder for a coach of any level to explore more perspectives, research and ideas. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, until I read this book.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools explores some of the principles upon which coaching could be effective, and explores models such as Self Determination Theory; it reminded me of the importance of trying to find out the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind the things I train or take interest in, and to always remain curious and question what I’m learning about.

Read this if:

You want to increase your knowledge and understanding of how to be a coach

You are researching how to introduce coaching within your organisation

You are interested in how to build coaching for leaders

Find the book here

The BASIC Coaching Method, by Andy Buck

Why I read it:

During the staff wellbeing research project that I conducted in 2019-20, I read many academic papers pointing towards coaching as a tool to improve staff efficacy, autonomy, and so much more. I was intrigued. My experience of ‘coaching’ over the years had been to misunderstand its principles: when I’d spoken to people about it, they were often talking about mentoring, and therefore I (and they, it seems) had conflated the two. But then I started to read and engage with actual coaching, and it sounded wonderful. I read Coaching for Performance, and, as I was about to enrol on a course, I saw that one of my leadership heroes, Andy Buck, had devised his own coaching model. I devoured the book, completed Andy’s online course, then a subsequent GROW course, and now I coach staff and am about to embark on the GCI Coaching Accreditation Programme. What an 18 months! At this point I’d like to say: the book is brilliant, Andy is an absolute gent, and his online coaching course is a fantastic guide to the book, and for me, the first step in my coaching journey – I’m very grateful.

In summary:

Andy Buck has created the BASIC model for coaching conversations, which is structured as: Background, Aims, Strategy, Implementation, Commitment. Each letter or section of the coaching conversation has a dedicated chapter, and includes explanations about why it is used, and how we can implement it. Buck also dedicates much of the book to the qualities and traits of a good coach, so that we are informed and empowered beyond the structure of a single conversation.

This is a practical guide that takes you through the whole process of a coaching conversation, but also teaches you enough about coaching in a wider sense, that helps provide flexibility based on your style, and your coachee’s needs. It’s difficult to convey in this post how much advice, and how many examples, Buck includes in the book, but if you are looking to learn more about coaching, you will get plenty from Basic Coaching.

Key takeaways:

The overall takeaway from this book is your comprehensive knowledge of, and confidence in, an excellent new coaching model! Which I can’t do justice to in this short space. But here are some other key takeaways:

  1. Get to the root cause first – unlike some coaching models, Buck begins with ‘background’, rather than aims/goals, as a deliberate chance to see what’s going on before the goals are established. He argues that often, someone’s first thought isn’t the real issue, and that’s why the background needs to be probed before setting goals; talking things through can clarify the situation, and often adapts the goal that they came to the session with.
  2. Strategy vs tactics – quoting Alistair Campbell’s Winners (a great read), Buck outlines the OST model: objective, strategy, tactics. Campbell proposes that we should have an overall strategy to meet our aim, and under that strategy, multiple tactics to execute it. Buck links this to coaching, and how a coach should encourage a strategy, which then implements various tactics.
  3. Unconscious bias – being a coach requires self awareness, but also an understanding of the biases that we aren’t necessarily in control of – being aware of these helps us steer a coachee away from potentially unproductive thinking, but also means that the coach is less likely to inflict their own bias. Buck outlines some of these, such as the anchor effect, sunk-cost fallacy, and more.
  4. Empathy not sympathy, and not colluding in negativity I’d argue that coaches enjoy their work because ultimately they are helping others, yet it takes a lot of restraint and deliberate phrasing to make sure we aren’t sympathising with a difficult situation, which runs into the danger of making the problem seem insurmountable. Rather, we should show empathy, and always stay solution focused. Andy has some great thinking in this area.

Favourite Moment:

At the end of each chapter, Buck includes a list of questions you could ask your coachee at that point of the conversation. I wrote all of these out, and then started adapting the language slightly based on my own style and vocabulary. You don’t want to feel restricted to certain questions, but when becoming a coach, it’s important to feel armed with enough knowledge and material to select at the right moment.

Favourite Quote:

‘And what else?’

Buck references the work of Michael Bungay Stanier, who regards this as one of coaching’s most powerful questions. Prompting your coachee to deliberate further with this question, which lacks judgment or specific direction, can be a brilliant way to diversify strategy, tactics, or aims. This one might test your ability to hold silence, but it can unlock more than you might anticipate.

Read this if…

You are thinking about getting into coaching – this will encourage and inspire you to do it

You have used other coaching models and you want to diversify – I’m trained in the BASIC and GROW models and I find it really useful to adopt principles of both

Find the book here

Running the Room, by Tom Bennett

Why I read it:

I’ve been in pastoral roles for six years now, and as I said when I reviewed ‘Beyond Wiping Noses’, I felt that I’d always acted on instinct. I engage with research and many voices when it comes to curriculum and pedagogy, but hadn’t necessarily had access to an evidence base or evaluations of behaviour and pastoral matters. Tom Bennett is a well-known voice in the sector, and the government’s behaviour adviser, as well as being at the heart of ResearchEd, which is how I knew that this book would be well informed and balanced.

In summary:

The title of the book implies a practical guide for how teachers could run their classroom. Indeed, it delivers on that front. However, practical tips could be summarised in a concise 100-pager. Bennett is more ambitious, including plenty of research, theories, and the ‘why’ – not just the how. This amount of background reading and pondering helps us as teachers or leaders not to merely apply the methods blindly, but to think them through and adapt as necessary.

Care for children is at the heart of this book. Bennett explores how to nurture and include children, how to make sure they are well nourished and how we can provide the circumstances for them to thrive, covering sleep, ventilated rooms, how to make them feel safe, and rewards. A large proportion of the book is, of course, about how to create frameworks to help students make the right choices and to create focused learning environments, but it is not all sanction, sanction, sanction – there are a wide range of ideas and tools that are weighed up and discussed.

Key takeaways:

Culture: belonging and high expectations – classrooms should have a deliberate culture that is created by the teacher, but this doesn’t need to be framed in a punitive way, but as something positive that benefits everyone. To create the right culture, teachers needs to convince the class that: learning is important; everyone in the room matters; good behaviour is the best way everyone can get what they need.

Routines – Doug Lemov states that ‘perhaps the single most powerful way to bring efficiency, focus and rigor to a classroom, is by installing strong procedures and routines. You define a right way to do recurring tasks; you practice doing them with students so they roll like clockwork.’ Routines are vital. They help students feel they are walking into a safe, predictable environment – they know how to follow a routine – it’s comfortable and means they can use their brain power on what they are learning. But implementing and upholding routines isn’t as easy as reading a list about how to enter or exit the room – Bennett dedicates a comprehensive chapter to how to communicate and uphold routines and rules.

Motivation – Bennett examines a range of factors that could influence motivation, from the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic, to how a good meal at breakfast time can improve student learning.  To motivate students to behave well, Bennett explores how we can help them to feel / be successful at school, teach them how to focus and work hard, teach them that school is an important place for them to feel valued and be noticed, and help them discover ways to find satisfaction in behaving well. It’s a lengthy chapter, so if one of those areas sounds like something you want to understand more, have a read.

Parents – it’s towards the end of the book, but one of the chapters I’ve enjoyed using with staff at school is about working with parents. Bennett uses ‘build bridges before you need to cross the river’ in regard to building positive relationships with parents from day one, rather than waiting until something has gone wrong to expect support from them. Some of the most practical tips in the book are in this section, from scripting phone calls to help with confidence, to looking at the Benjamin Franklin effect of asking for their help to increase the chances of their support. Really worth reading!

Favourite moment:

Correcting behaviour when it’s going well, or in Bennett’s words ‘fences not ambulances.’

I suppose this is a similar adage to elite sports teams, or high-performing businesses, reviewing their practice when they are at the peak of success. That is the time to tweak, refine, evaluate. Bennett discusses how, once a class is behaving well or meeting your expectations, it is a great time to praise, reinforce that behaviour, and discuss your expectations. He suggests, for example when a class have come in really well, or completed a task exactly the way you asked them to, to discuss as a group what was good about it, and how that benefited their learning. It’s a powerful idea that I haven’t articulated before.

If we wait until something has gone wrong to reflect on the behaviour of the group, teachers risk only reinforcing the cultural norms or expectations of the classroom during periods of disruption or misbehaviour, creating a potentially negative cycle.

Favourite quote:

‘After a while, you could get used to anything’

Albert Camus – The Stranger

Well, I’m a sucker for a literary quote in a teaching book. But, one of the benefits of the lockdown has been a chance to break from our routines and take stock. What had we ‘got used to’ in our former working lives? Too many meetings? Too much marking? Behaviour not being exactly as we wanted it? But in the hustle and bustle, we can put up with things, and then all of a sudden, we’ve got used to them and, then, later and even worse ‘we’ve always done it that way’.

This book encourages us to reflect on what we want from our classroom culture, and then provides the means to cultivate that into whatever we desire.

Question and reflect

  • Are we deliberate enough in the way we plan and articulate expectations and culture in our classroom? Do we spend enough time reflecting on behaviour and motivation, compared with our efforts on curriculum and content planning?
  • None of us have ever truly mastered the behaviour of children – with that in mind, which areas could you reflect on and improve in your own teaching?

Read this if:

You are a teacher and you want to delve further into how and why students behave in different ways

You want to move beyond instinct or the context of your school, and look at further studies and perspectives about behaviour management

You want to read beyond just rules and routines into something more holistic

Buy the book here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #3: Building Belonging

You never quite know where your values and traits originate, or how they evolve over time. Nature vs nurture. Life experiences. Social norms. It seems impossible to attribute our sense of self with clarity. I was adopted as a baby, and welcomed into a loving home, but I’ve always wondered about the possible effects: how has it shaped me? Well, I believe, or at least my perception is, that it has had a profound impact on the way I view social mobility, opportunity, and belonging. My wife would argue, in jest, that being adopted has left me with a whole load of other issues, but that’s for another post!

Perhaps I am attributing a cause and effect that simply doesn’t exist, but in my formative struggle with belonging, the books or films that hit me hardest were those about rejection, not fitting in, or losing one’s way. And now, making others feel as though they belong is one of my drivers: whether that’s a student in class, working with colleagues, or greeting someone in a social setting. My view is that you get the best out of people when they feel at ease, or accepted. In my professional life, I’m curious to see if a strong sense of belonging could benefit workplace culture, productivity, and learning.

Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed that to ‘belong’, individuals need (and they state it as a need, not a desire) frequent positive interactions with at least a few other people, and secondly these interactions must have a sense of long-term care for each other’s welfare. Failure to satisfy both of these factors could lead to distress and long-term consequences given that it is an unfulfilled need, and not merely an unfulfilled desire. Many people will cross that threshold at home, but workplaces can be another story.

I imagine that most of us desire a strong sense of belonging among our colleagues; we want them to feel safe and included, just as we do ourselves. But there are tangible benefits for the organisation, too. Harvard Business Review (2019) revealed, in an article written with behavioural insight experts Better Up, that a high sense of belonging, or in their words, those who feel ‘included’, can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, 75% reduction in sick days, and also leads to more promotions for those staff.

Better Up’s experts decided to experiment with how ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ employees performed, setting up a programme where they played a virtual game of catch – unbeknown to them, they were playing with bots, with some employees being ‘excluded’ from the game, i.e. they were thrown the ball less often, and some ‘included’ and therefore given more turns. Following this, the employees were placed in an individual task where, the better they performed, the more money they could ‘earn’; however, the money would be split evenly across the team. Those who were excluded in the ball toss game worked less hard than those included, even though they were sacrificing their own earnings. Researchers replicated this across four separate studies and found that feeling excluded causes us to give less effort to the team.

As the studies continued, they attempted (and succeeded) to mitigate feelings of being excluded through three measures:

  • Gaining perspective – speaking with previous participants about exclusion and how they coped
  • Mentorship: participants imagined how they could coach or mentor someone through being excluded
  • Empowerment: participants planned how they would adapt this team process to make it more inclusive and enjoyable

In Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code (2018), a section of the book (which I recommend highly) is dedicated to how different organisations nurture belonging. Greg Popovich, a slightly maverick NBA coach with a reputation for his volcanic temper, is cited for having sky-high expectations of his players, whilst building excellent relationships with them. He uses deliberately close physical proximity when giving them feedback, takes an interest in their lives, and fascinatingly, uses team meetings (usually for basketball strategy and tactics) to teach and discuss other topical issues, in order to educate his players and promote wider interests. Coyle then links Popovich’s feedback style to an evidence-based approach, which includes 3 powerful ideas to include when developing people: ‘you belong to this group’, ‘this group is special’, and ‘I have high standards that I believe you can reach’. Belonging in tandem with high expectations.

When it comes to students in our schools, feelings of belonging and inclusion are equally important. It sounds obvious, but studies have shown that students who ‘feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow 1993) are likely to perform better in school and show more favourable motivational, social-emotional and behavioural outcomes. Also unsurprising, is the link found between a sense of belonging and absence and dropout rates (Hascher and Hagenauer 2010).

Romero (2015) explores studies regarding how students could improve their sense of belonging in an educational setting, with a particular focus on students from minority groups who may not feel an innate sense of belonging in their school community. She found that ‘belonging programmes’ that acknowledge how difficult it can be to feel a sense of belonging, provided improvements in their feelings and attainment. Similar to the HBR study mentioned earlier, one method used was to read survey results and comments from previous students who acknowledged their lack of belonging in a new school, and coping strategies for those feelings.

Another study was conducted to see the potential impact a teacher can have on a student’s sense of belonging through their feedback. When feedback on work was accompanied by a message that conveyed high standards and assurances that they were confident the student could meet those standards, students were over four times as likely to revise and resubmit the essay than if they received the criticism alone; this type of feedback also improved the quality of students’ revisions. I don’t advocate onerous marking policies (!), but this reminded me of the Greg Popovich model of building belonging: ‘you are special and therefore I have high expectations of you’. Interestingly, follow-up on these same students showed that those who received a personal note that built trust with a teacher in 7th grade were more likely to enrol in university immediately after graduating from high school compared to those who did not receive the note.

So, what can we learn as colleagues, friends, leaders, teachers about building belonging?

Acknowledge exclusion: as discussed, studies of children and adults found that when others spoke to them about their own initial struggle to ‘belong’, and shared coping strategies, this improved the recipients’ sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Rather than hoping for the best, perhaps we should communicate how natural it is to feel excluded, and to take the lead with helping our students and staff acknowledge this feeling and convert it into something positive. Looking back, I would have loved to speak to fellow adoptees about how they eventually found their place.

Team dynamics have a big impact on belonging and productivity: the studies I have mentioned in the blog attest to how group belonging brings the best out of people. In The Culture Code, Coyle also links to studies where ‘bad apples’, or less motivated employees, also have a profoundly negative impact on a whole team. It works both ways. Harmonious, productive teams foster a sense of belonging and togetherness – that could be a personal togetherness, or simply unity regarding the aim of their work.

It only takes one person to increase sense of belonging: one of the HBR studies found that if just one member of the team began to include a participant, it fostered a sense of inclusion, which surely advocates coaching or mentoring in the work place. We know that coaching has a huge impact on wellbeing, belonging, self-efficacy and productivity, and with a wave of schools and workplaces now using 1:1 instructional coaching as a form of long-term, personalised CPD, it’s no surprise that this links with people’s sense of belonging and relatedness.

Belonging and high expectations:  a sense of belonging doesn’t have to be a fluffy, intangible arm around the shoulder. Having high expectations of someone, and telling them that they can do brilliant things, is an excellent way to demonstrate your belief in them, and nurture their sense of inclusion. Both the Greg Popovich case study, and the research into teacher feedback, implies that belonging and belief go hand-in-hand, and that challenge and inclusion aren’t mutually exclusive.

Researching this blog began with a deep breath, as I wondered how my past feelings of who I am, where I come from and where I belong might push to the surface or manifest themselves. But, like my blog last week on Expertise, this post has left me with a similar feeling of awe at how much more there is to read and understand. While I am reading Think Again by Adam Grant, I can appreciate that there are potentially hundreds of studies which draw very different conclusions to those I’ve cited. But this much I know: as someone who started life with an uncertain grip on how they fit in, and who now feels a secure sense of self and purpose, I truly wish the latter for everyone else. As people, we don’t have to be perfect, or visionary, or on top of our game every single day. But we do need to help others belong, so that they can thrive for themselves, and for the groups that they are part of.



Baumeister RF, Leary MR (1995) The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivationPsychol. Bull. 117, 497–529.

Coyle, D (2018) The Culture Code. Random House, London.

Goodenow, C (1993) The Psychological Sense of School Membership among Adolescents: Scale Development and Educational Correlates. Psychology in the Schools 30: 79–90.

Harvard Business Review and Better Up (2019) The Value of Belonging at Work. https://hbr.org/2019/12/the-value-of-belonging-at-work

Hascher, T. , and G.Hagenauer (2010) Alienation from School. International Journal of Educational Research 49: 220–232

Romero, C (2015) What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research. http://studentexperiencenetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/What-We-Know-About-Belonging.pdf

Education Exposed 2, by Samuel Strickland

Why I read it 

I read the first Education Exposed book by Sam Strickland, and it resonated with me for being sensible, considered, and full of wisdom and integrity. I reflected on it here. When I heard there was a sequel, I was pleased – but would it be Terminator 2 or Speed 2?

In summary    

Well, it’s more of the same first-rate stuff from Strickland. The chapters of the two books are quite similar, and at first you could be mistaken for assuming that familiar ground is being covered. However, while values and ethos were clearly conveyed in the first book, the second builds on those, with even more detail and examples, and the same forthright views without the waffle that make Sam’s style so compelling.

Regarding the greater depth, for instance, in the theory chapter, he covers pedagogical models in detail, with examples and strategies; in the curriculum tools chapter, a variety of methods are discussed, e.g. knowledge organisers, retrieval practice.

Key takeaways

1. Teacher subject knowledge – the growing movement for teacher subject knowledge, development, and curriculum being at the heart of what we do is gathering apace, and what a time to be involved in teaching! Sam discusses the importance of teachers being treated like experts, but what I most enjoyed was him referring to subject departments as ‘communities’ who should be trusted to make decisions about their curriculum, and given every opportunity to learn and collaborate.

2. Poor behaviour is kryptonite –Sam has a pragmatic approach to behaviour in schools – cultures of high expectations don’t exist to be punitive towards children, but because having the right behaviour culture is ‘critical to the overall success of your curriculum’. Every aspect of teacher development, wellbeing, student progress (and many others) are undone in an instant if the behavioural culture within the school isn’t right. Kryptonite is the correct term. This is a must-read chapter for leaders regarding how and why to create the right culture.

3. Behaviour strategies for teachers – for teachers, Sam offers advice about cultivating excellent behaviour in the classroom. He advises teachers to think carefully about what their expectations are, then to define routines and rules, and then how to calmly deal with infractions. There are plenty of strategies and tools in this chapter – very empowering.

4. Curriculum and pedagogical tools – this sequel has more Teaching and Learning strategies for teachers and leaders regarding how they can plan and deliver the curriculum. Despite being just over 90 pages in length, it’s impressive how much is packed into the book; if you’re a middle or senior leader thinking about your curriculum or whole-school teaching and learning, Sam’s chapters are a great starting point to prompt some precise reflections, before you delve further. For example, his heading on retrieval practice is engaging, and may be the trigger for you to read Kate Jones’ excellent book on the subject.

Favourite quote

‘Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance’

In the first book, I liked ‘We permit what we promote, and we promote what we permit’, so I was hopeful for another catchy phrase to commit to my own practice in the sequel.

The quote relates to the long-term planning we need to engage in for our curriculum. We aren’t just teaching half-term to half-term, but over 5 to 7 years. Sam advocates moving away from the tired habits of short-term planning, or preparing for examinations only, and instead promotes careful thought about the way we shape and sequence the curriculum.

Favourite moment

While I have a keen interest in curriculum and behaviour, the leadership chapter at the end was what I really stumped up my cash for. Sam proposes leadership that is reflective, based on your specific school context, and puts staff development and support at the heart of what we do. One of his concluding thoughts is that leaders should ‘never lose sight of what it is to be a full time class teacher’. I’ve tried to keep this in my mind over the years, but once I read this I actually printed out a teacher’s timetable, blanked out the name, and now keep it in my office. The visual reminder of how teachers navigate their day with their classes, let alone with other things our leadership team might ask them to do, is humbling and powerful.

Read this if…

You are interested in the development of your school, particularly regarding curriculum, culture, behaviour, and staff development

You want a concise read that will stoke your enthusiasm and prompt you to reflect on your own values and ideas, in whichever role you hold

Buy Education Exposed 2

Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, by Ilona Boniwell

Why I read it 

My aim this year (and beyond) is to broaden my reading and to plough energy into what I can do as a person and leader to better understand what motivates people and helps them to thrive. Everything is on the table, and when I saw this book was recommended by some coaches that I follow, I thought I’d give it a go. The clincher for me was that Positive Psychology in a Nutshell was said to take an evidence-based approach, looking at the subject through the lens of studies and critical viewpoints.

In summary    

Positive psychology is a science of positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, wellbeing and flourishing, or in the words of its founder, Martin Seligman, the scientific study of ‘optimal human functioning’. Boniwell suggests that it was perhaps conceived because traditional psychology models focused on negative rather than positive. The book seeks to explore the different models and theories behind positive psychology, and discusses its benefits, how it can be applied to real life, and also reviews its potential limitations. The below reflection barely scratches the surface, I’m afraid, and I fear I cannot do it justice in this format. It is a fascinating book packed with studies, theorists and evaluation – I’ll certainly be re-reading.

Key takeaways

  1. Positive emotions lead to more – the ‘broaden and build’ model by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive experiences can have long-lasting effects on our growth and development. In summary, it proposes that positive emotions: lead to more, and a greater variety of them; improve our creativity; help us see opportunities; undo negative emotions; enhance resilience. The model suggests that positive emotions are not an end point, but a means of leading a better life.
  2. We shouldn’t dismiss negative emotions – negative emotions or events can be a trigger to facilitate learning and understanding of ourselves and the wider world. Additionally, experiencing and coping with negative experiences can have positive consequences, such as modesty, moral consideration, care, and empathy.
  3. Factors that can influence wellbeing – interestingly, research suggests some factors that can influence wellbeing include social connections, optimism, leisure activities, being married, religion, meaningful work, good sleep and exercise, and your subjective health; conversely, subjective wellbeing may not be influenced by age, physical attractiveness, money,education level, housing. It’s interesting that many things we deem important in society, have little bearing over our happiness.
  4. Wellbeing linked to goals: Lyubominsky suggests that wellbeing is enhanced when people choose to pursue goals that are: feasible, personally meaningful, intrinsic, valued by one’s culture, being progressed towards, and linked to community, intimacy and growth. Clearly, if we are pursuing things in our personal or professional lives, having meaningful goals is vital, and if they are absent, it can affect our wellbeing. This part of the book really spoke to me as someone who wants to make an impact on the development of staff.

Favourite quote

This is a good opportunity to include some other interesting facts about wellbeing:

  • While real income in prosperous nations has increased dramatically over last 50 years, wellbeing levels have remained flat
  • Desiring wealth leaves one less happy
  • Watching soap operas enhances wellbeing (allegedly!)
  • Spending money on others increases your happiness

Favourite moment

What I enjoyed was that, once the reader is giddy with positivity at the end of the book, Boniwell then includes a chapter that evaluates the possible shortcomings of positive psychology. These include drawing ‘big conclusions from weak findings’, the danger of it becoming an ideological movement, and also that if positivity becomes a societal expectation, it could trivialise or belittle the idea of people experiencing negative emotions. For a novice, it was really useful to be offered counter arguments against a subject that I had warmed to, helping me to become critical and balanced in the way I interpret positive psychology in the future.

Question and reflect

As leaders, is it useful to study psychology? Should we be delving into various models and theories about behaviour and emotions, or are we over thinking? Playing devil’s advocate, here.

What do you want to understand better about people? For instance, I found the chapter on goals (Takeaway 4) the most interesting, and one that I will go over again. For me, I can help people with their goals and development – it’s a factor I can help to influence, therefore it seems worth investing in as a subject. How about you?

Read this if…

You want to understand what positive psychology is, and a range of perspectives on the subject

You’d like to reflect on some of the causes of people’s emotions

Support bookshops and find it here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #2: Expertise

Wednesday’s Wisdom is a weekly blog post about learning and leading, using the half-way point to assess what has come before, and to reflect on what to pursue and improve.

It whirs noisily all day, but never springs into life. My boiler, that is. It has malfunctioned again, an annual tradition that mocks the combination of cold weather and young children. Our ‘protection plan’ means that we are entitled to engineer call outs, and they arrive and leave, with an attempted fix that rarely yields success. ‘I don’t know that error code, it’s not in the manual’ is the fateful utterance that pushes my panic button, as the engineer picks up the phone and calls what I imagine to be the promised land of boiler troubleshooting, manned by an ancient sensei who has knowledge stretching far beyond the realms of the manual.

And that’s the business model. They save money by hiring cheap, inexperienced engineers who are trained to read the manual and call boiler Yoda, a lone saviour who fends off thousands of daily queries from their panic-stricken charges. Somehow, I don’t think ‘it’s not in the manual’ would work if my Year 11 class asked me about a Macbeth essay question that hadn’t appeared in a past paper. I suppose I could call Stuart Pryke or Amy Staniforth?

Aside from my shivering children, what are the bigger issues at stake, here? Well, I empathise with the engineers of said company. Is there a way to feel less empowered than to have low domain expertise in your role? Or to have to defer to a gatekeeper’s advice for most tasks that you do? Where is the incentive to learn more, develop practice, and expand knowledge, if one person is hording expertise?

Developing expertise in a subject is a truly remarkable and empowering journey, and I use the latter term as I’m not sure we become a ‘complete’ expert. I don’t believe there to be an endgame, and indeed, why would one want to finish learning? Developing expertise empowers you to draw upon background knowledge to think around challenges, apply a range of ideas to find a solution, and trust the processes that you have cultivated through your experience.

When I revisit Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students like School?, my mind is urging the boiler engineers to have a better grasp of their field. Willingham (p131-132, 2009) uses the analogy of Hugh Laurie’s House, the expert doctor with a mercurial style, to highlight what experts possess, such as retrieving precise memories with speed and accuracy, following the right processes even if they lead to mistakes (which often, in turn, lead to the correct answer), and applying their knowledge and experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. Greg Ashman’s recent blog about critical thinking proposes, similar to Willingham’s view, that critical thinking is not a ‘general capability’ that can be practised, and rather ‘it requires underpinning knowledge to that particular context in which thinking is to be deployed’. My engineer can’t fiddle with the boiler, or experiment beyond protocol to try to understand the nuances of the issue, without the underpinning knowledge.

Returning to the point of this post, my first question is to ask whether or not, in education and beyond, we place enough stock in subject experts? In a recent blog, David Preece queries how there is often little in the way of progression routes or status for those honing their subject expertise; he applies the term ‘hobby activities’ to describe how exam marking, attending conferences, or working with subject associations, can be perceived in schools. Do teachers have to detach themselves from the ‘identity’, as he puts it, of their subject, in order to progress?

Anecdotally, a friend of mine in the fitness industry explained that with greater expertise comes greater autonomy and status in his company, creating (healthy) competition among staff to learn more. Another friend, an affable point of contact for large accounts at an IT security firm, said that the IT experts were almost derided as ethereal beings on a different floor of the office. ‘They’ll sort it, they know everything’. Respected but not revered. Perhaps every industry has a different take on the role or value of expertise. Ask my boiler.

Secondly, we need subject specialists, but we don’t all need to be one. When I was a Head of English looking to introduce Paradise Lost Books 9 and 10, with the new A-Level specification on the horizon, I gave myself two years of preparation time. I lived and breathed that text, and Milton’s life, before I felt that I’d acquired the necessary amount of knowledge to plan the unit.  That was quite a feeling, and while my knowledge is diminishing now that I don’t teach Milton (I haven’t fully come to terms with this yet), it was one of my most empowering experiences as an English teacher. Roles change, and I moved into a Leadership Team position. It took me time to acclimatise to not being an expert in every area that I was responsible for. I am learning to ask the right questions, take an active interest, and put trust in the work of experts, be that a SENCO, ELSA, or Head of Maths. But it’s not always easy to acknowledge that you don’t know things, or to make decisions about areas in which you can’t match someone else’s knowledge.

Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool FC, has a healthy attitude regarding the expertise of those around him. ‘My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, that’s no problem. I need experts around me. That’s what leadership is – you have strong people around you with better knowledge than you; you don’t act like you know everything; be ready to admit, “I have no clue in the moment, give me a couple of minutes and then I will have a clue probably.”’

In Maria Konnikova’s excellent The Biggest Bluff, she learns how to play poker at an elite level, spending thousands of hours reading, watching, and playing; yet, in the early stages of her career she is overwhelmed by how often her lack of knowledge and experience are exposed. She also suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect when she had some success; it’s tempting to get carried away with how much we think we know, and often we don’t realise how little we know or understand until we are tested or make a mistake. I’m not foolish enough to think I can avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect myself, and nor should you be, but my mantra is to assume I know virtually nothing, and keep asking questions and reading and thinking, until… well, there’s no endgame, as I mentioned earlier. I nearly didn’t publish this blog due to the sheer vastness of what I don’t know about knowledge and expertise. I think that’s a good sign.

To avoid becoming aimless in my desert wanderings, here are two takeaways prompted by my boiler saga:

  1. Developing expertise is an empowering, fascinating, addictive and thoroughly laudable exploit, and should be celebrated and given the status it deserves. Graham Chisnell’s Talent Pathways article in Impact, outlines how his multi-academy trust created progression pathways for staff, so that they can specialise in different areas, from subject development, research, leadership, and many others. The challenge for us is how we take action so that celebration of expertise isn’t a gesture, but embedded into organisational culture and progression.
  2. We need to put trust in experts around us, encourage their growing knowledge, and invest in them. Firstly, don’t let fledgling or seasoned experts stand still – provide time and resources to continue developing their expertise. But above all, give them the prominence to feel valued and utilised in a manner befitting their expertise. If leaders like Jurgen Klopp are open to the input from experts around them, they are more likely to be given advice and information that is not filtered through a lens of fear, doubt, or inhibition. What a waste of expertise that would be.

Before I leave you, fear not, for the engineer is returning on Friday. The process of writing this blog has turned my frustration towards them into empathy, while previous admiration for the mysterious boiler Jedi at technical support has descended into condemnation for straitjacketing their staff. So, here’s to investing in expertise, sharing knowledge, and growing together. No gatekeepers, just open gates.



Ashman, G (2021) Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking – Quillette

Chisnell, G (2021) Talent Pathways, Impact Journal (Chartered College of Teaching), Spring 2021, Pages 33-36

Konnikova, M (2020) The Biggest Bluff. 4th Estate, London

Preece, D (2021) The Great Divergence: or how subject specialism could be an interesting strand of retention for teachers. | (home.blog)

Willingham, D T (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Endure, by Alex Hutchinson

Why I read it – as an amateur runner, I’ve always been intrigued to understand more about the relationship between my body and mind. Some runs I glide, sometimes I trudge in treacle. Is that physiological or psychological? I can’t get under 20 minutes for my 5k personal best – is that a fitness issue, or am I just not pushing hard enough in the run? Gazing far beyond to the world of elite running, and inspired by the books of Adharanand Finn, I wanted to explore how elite runners utilise every marginal gain possible to outperform their rivals and improve their performance. I chose Endure as I’d read that Alex Hutchinson followed the science carefully and thoroughly; firstly, I wanted to see the research behind elite performance, and secondly I was intrigued about whether these principles could be transferred to other areas of life, which is what I’ll attempt to do in this blog post.

In summary    

Why do we have the energy to bomb it down the last half mile of a 10K, when we were on death’s door half way through the race? How are some people able to push through pain while others are consumed by it? What techniques can you practice in order to improve the way you endure fatigue and pain? How far can humans really push themselves?

Alex Hutchinson explores a huge wealth of studies and examples from elite sport when considering the above questions and a range of others. Endure explains a lot about our bodies and the biology behind what we can do, while also detailing our brain’s relationship with the body. This is not one of those quick reference books with sub-headings, bullet point lists or charts. Hutchinson perhaps felt that a more concise style would dilute the complexity of the issues, and that the range of evidence he evaluates may unwittingly be summarised into a list of unhelpful catchphrases. Instead, the prose flows as Hutchinson navigates through the content, comparing studies and research and acknowledging any contentious issues. It is detailed, evidence-informed, and fascinating.

Key takeaways:

  1. Self-talk to push through difficulties – Studies conclude that it is better to consider pain non-judgmentally and non-emotionally and rather to view it as information – something that we can override. Hutchinson cites Samuele Marcora, who created a study where 24 volunteers were asked to cycle until point of exhaustion, with their cycling time recorded. They were then divided into two groups, and one was given some tips for ‘self talk’, that is, phrases to say during the task to help them push through, including “feeling good!” and “push through this!”. In the second cycling test, two weeks later, that group lasted 18% longer when they applied this positive self-talk to their exercise. Hutchinson also mentions the now infamous line that Jens Voight (cyclist) attributes to his ability to break away from the peloton when he is seemingly exhausted: “Shut up, legs!”.
  2. Pain and fatigue = information, not limitation – there is a lengthy chapter on pain and fatigue, and Hutchinson includes a number of studies about how our mind influences our decisions when we feel pain or fatigue. Essentially, feeling pain or extreme fatigue during exercise doesn’t mean your body is at its limit. Hutchinson likens it to a light coming up on your dashboard; a warning, information, but not a limit. Not yet. One example is how can we explain the fact that, no matter how fatigued we feel in the middle of a run, let’s say a half marathon, we find energy to unload in the final half mile? We burst to the finish line. The brain holds us back, or suggests we hold back, as a warning system. It does this with pain, too. We feel it, and feel the instruction to slow or stop. But elite athletes, especially, find a way to ignore these instructions, for a time at least, until they reach their actual limit.  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t got any elite-level sporting activities coming up. But we place limits on ourselves; when adversity arrives, it’s easy to think ‘well, I don’t want to feel like this any longer’. Like the self talk idea, can we reframe the dashboard light, and rather than stop the difficult task in front of us, use the warning system as information to reframe our plan and actions?
  3. Placebos can work – Hutchinson’s presents research showing that swishing a carbohydrate / energy drink around your mouth then spitting it out can offer a performance boost, without ever ‘consuming’ it. The brain relaxes its safety margin when it knows (or is tricked into believing, in this case) that more fuel is coming. Athletes don’t necessarily need take on the liquid, but simulate it; the sensors in the mouth seem to instantly recognise carbohydrate is on the way, and the performance boost is instantaneous. Of course, the research is more nuanced than that simple explanation, but it is fascinating that when the brain knows something good is coming, it can immediately up your level of performance. I’m now considering what other placebo effects I can utilise in my various guises as a teacher, dad, amateur runner!

Favourite quote

‘Science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there’s more in there – if you’re willing to believe it.’         

Favourite moment

Cyclists took part in a study on a stationary bike, with the aim of cycling for as long as they could. They pedalled in front of a screen which projected images – the cyclists who saw sad faces on the screen, on average cycled for three minutes fewer than those who saw happy faces. Those who saw the happy faces commented on the feelings of ease that were evoked during their effort.

This was the study that eventually evolved into the ‘self-talk’ research from takeaway 1. But I wanted to mention the visual side of this study. It made me think: are we as people, aware of how non-verbal cues could make others feel? Perhaps the right facial expressions or body language could not only sustain someone’s effort, but also make them feel more ‘at ease’ to quote the study, to perform with freedom and creativity.

Question and reflect

  • The science confirms that positivity and positive self-talk can improve performance: do we practise this enough, or encourage it in others?
  • If pain or discomfort is merely a dashboard light, and not our final limit, what steps can we take once it appears?

Read this if…

You are interested in elite performance and the potential of the human body and mind

You want to consider how to transfer the potential of the mind into other areas of life

Support bookshops and find it here

No Rules Rules, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

Why I read it:

Aside from my Netflix addiction (closing in on 10 years now, reader), I’ve been fascinated by the platform’s business model and inner workings. Directors and producers have often commented on the freedom they have to create high-quality content with Netflix, who aren’t chasing traditional ‘ratings’ but are looking to innovate and provide their users with a fantastic experience. I’ve been amazed over the years at how often I watch something that’s not usually ‘my thing’ on Netflix, only to be dumbfounded by the creativity and quality. I had to know what went into this melting pot of global proportions.

I knew of Erin Meyer, too, as her book The Culture Map is in my Amazon Wishlist (I promise I’ll read it soon!), and was intrigued at how an ‘outsider’ would work with CEO Reed Hastings to write a book about the company.

In summary:

Reed Hastings takes the reader on a journey that begins with his sale of Pure Software, to the creation of Netflix, originally a DVD rental service via post, and then progresses through the company’s progress to present day.

The book centres around three pillars of the Netflix model: talent density (high quality staff), candour (honest feedback culture) and reducing controls (fewer policies, more creativity). 

Hastings is open about their successes and failures. I was often remarking aloud regarding the level of candour he embraces, from admitting his own mistakes, to publishing some of his less than positive 360 comments from Netflix staff. Meyer is a vital partner in this exploration; having interviewed hundreds of staff to see what their experiences were like, she is in a perfect position to respond to Hastings’ assertions, offering insights into what the staff think, and adding her own perspectives and drawing upon research and other anecdotal evidence.

This book is a detailed, practical, and specific guide to how Netflix created, tweaked, and maintained the culture and success it has today. I found it refreshing, energising, and candid throughout, as if Hastings and Meyer had let us join them while they discussed the real way that Netflix operates.

Key takeaways:

1. Performance is contagious – when Netflix laid off staff at the early stage of their journey, Hastings learnt a lot. The best staff performed even better once the average staff had left.Netflix committed to then only hiring the most talented (and paying top market price for them) in order to drive their performance forward. Meyer quotes the Dr Felps study in which groups who were asked to do a task, had an actor planted in the groups, taking on a different role, e.g. slacker, dissenter, etc. The most talented groups would perform much less effectively with just one member not pulling in the same direction.

2.  Candour and feedback – Netflix has a very clear view about feedback: ‘say what you really think’, in summary. The idea is that staff will offer feedback to each other without taking offence; it’s part of the company culture, and this includes staff feeding back to more senior members of the team.Much to Erin Meyer’s surprise, she was receiving feedback on her own performance, while interviewing and speaking to Netflix employees, such is the normality of this practice. They have a simple guide for giving and receiving feedback called 4A. When giving feedback it must: Aim to Assist, and be Actionable. And for Receiving, you must Appreciate the feedback, and then Accept or Discard. This chapter is brilliant and really made me consider how we can embrace, and lead, cultures of open feedback for all staff.

3. Leadership modelling – Netflix attempts to run a global company with as few arbitrary policies as possible. For example, there is no holiday (vacation) policy. You take it when you want it; no one counts the days.  There are nuances, of course, but Hastings and other leaders must model the expectation so that it doesn’t become a ‘No holiday’ policy! Reading about the way leaders at Netflix model the behaviours they accept in others was a welcome reminder about how leaders must not just set policies, but walk the walk.

4. Innovation cycle

Netflix prides itself on creativity and innovation – staff are encouraged above all else to produce stunning, original work. In brief, their innovation cycle comprises: 1) Farm for dissent, or socialise the idea, to get feedback from others about its viability. 2) Test out the idea. 3) As the informed captain, or leader, make the bet – will you pursue it? 4) If it succeeds, celebrate, if it fails, sunshine it. For the latter, there is an excellent process to follow to reflect upon and discuss (‘sunshine it’ – discuss as publicly as possible) why an idea might not have worked. There are plenty of good examples and anecdotes about innovation processes in this chapter.

Favourite quote:

‘Culture isn’t something you can build up and then ignore. At Netflix, we are constantly debating our culture and expecting it will continually evolve. To build a team that is innovative, fast, and flexible, keep things a little bit loose. Welcome constant change. Operate a little closer toward the edge of chaos.’

Favourite moment:

Hastings admits to a decision that almost cost Netflix everything in 2007, when they were looking to offer streaming and DVD rentals. He decided to create Qwikster, a new platform solely for DVD rentals, and to position Netflix as streaming only, thus making customers who wanted both services to subscribe and pay twice. The move cost them millions of subscribers and was a disaster. Afterwards, plenty of staff came to tell Reed that they thought it was a terrible idea from the start. He was upset that they never felt able to correct him beforehand, in a similar vein to the famous studies behind co-pilots or nurses feeling unable to correct the impending mistakes of pilots or surgeons, respectively.

Out of the ashes of this defeat (I’m not just revelling in the crisis), came a determination to foster candour and feedback for any staff member. One method they used to ensure that feedback culture wasn’t in name only, was to create an idea proposal policy, whereby staff create a live, shared memo for their ideas and receive feedback from other staff.

There are other fascinating moments about learning from feedback, for example when they considered adding ‘Downloads’ to Netflix, as well as when kids’ content was being considered for investment.

Question and reflect:

  • We can’t all pay the big bucks for the ‘best’ staff, but the ‘performance is contagious’ ideas and studies are a reminder to us that we must invest all we can in staff, and staff development, to ensure that teams are filled with purpose and expertise.
  • Some of us like to think we give and receive feedback well, but have we really fostered this culture in our organisation? How much time and inefficiency could we save if we were a little more open to shared, constructive feedback? This seems to be modelled well at Netflix.
  • Which ‘policies’ and ‘rules’ can we let go of, to create the right balance of organisation and creativity…consistency and innovation?

Read this if:

You are interested in how a small company turned into a global phenomenon, with step-by-step events and reflections

You are interested in how to build and maintain a distinguishable and purposeful work culture

You want to read about a ‘warts and all’ approach to running an organisation.

Support bookshops and find it here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #1: Mentors

Wednesday’s Wisdom is a weekly blog post about learning and leading. Like our own development journey, Wednesdays are an opportunity to assess what has come before, and to reflect on what to pursue and improve.

Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker was hit by a classic pincer movement of contrasting styles. While Obi Wan Kenobi effused a calm, at times ethereal approach towards the young Jedi, master Yoda’s training methods were blunt, often critical. His advice was direct: ‘Do or do not. There is no try’. In the Matrix, Morpheus took an enlightened tack with his charge, Neo, summarising his role with ‘all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more’. All three figures had a profound impact on their protégé through a combination of encouragement, knowledge, feedback, and truth. Optional style and aura included.

As a teenager, I would watch, or read about, mentor figures with envy, especially when preparing to experience the ‘real world’. But was it fantasy to expect someone to invest in me and help me walk the path? My favourite mentor was literary: Abbe Faria in the wonderful Count of Monte Cristo, who nurtures young Dantes (while in prison together) to become learned and shrewd, before giving him the tools to escape and find a fortune. But, unlike Dantes, I didn’t want to wait until crises hit before finding a mentor.

By definition, a mentor is a more experienced and knowledgeable person who teaches and nurtures the development of one less experienced and knowledgeable. Someone who has the know-how, wisdom, and emotional investment to guide your journey. This post explores the benefits of having and being a mentor in personal or professional scenarios; what it does not do is engage with strengths and weaknesses of formal mentor programmes at work, or occasions where you might be allocated a mentor, for example if in a new post.

What do studies say about the impact of being mentored?

Research suggests that mentoring can have a profound impact on both members of the relationship. For employees, being mentored has been cited as causing improved motivation, engagement, effectiveness in role, creativity, empowerment, and retention. In one study, 89% of those with mentors believed their colleagues valued their work, compared with 75% who did not have mentors, while 87% of mentors and mentees felt empowered by their mentoring relationships and had developed greater confidence.

Beyond emotive response, there seems to be some tangible benefits to mentoring: some research found that both mentors and mentees were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in the mentoring program. Similarly, in one study, employees who received mentoring were promoted five times more often than people who didn’t have mentors.

There is a wealth of research out there that seems to unanimously state that being part of a mentoring relationship will add value, yet Forbes have estimated that only 37% of people have a mentor figure.

My mentor experiences

Determined to improve on the dearth of mentors I had at my disposal as a young adult, I sought out guidance in my teaching career. Early on, I became Acting Head of English, and was woefully out of my depth. But I asked a friend who was a Head of English if she would talk things through with me, visit the school regularly, and help me walk the walk. This was a role-specific mentor, and one that I found useful and empowering; thanks to her, I got the job permanently. But, beyond being mentored for my individual post at school, what I really craved was a long-term guide, someone who was mentoring me, Sam, and not the particular role I held at that moment. I desired a relationship in which my adviser knew me well enough to provide input not just on my day-to-day tasks, but my long-term direction. My big picture.

It is a quest that I have had some success with; along the way, both colleagues and those outside of education have been willing to guide and mentor me. As a leader for the last few years, I’ve gained even more insight and pleasure from beginning to mentor others. I’d like to share what I’ve found valuable, and hope you can use these ideas for your own relationships, either as mentor or mentee.

My tips for having a productive mentor relationship:

  • Safety in honesty

The relationship needs to be close enough so that you can speak freely and openly with one another. This means a basis of trust. But also having the transparency to give and receive honest, constructive feedback. At the outset of the relationship, it is worth establishing what you expect from one another, and right at the top should be the ability to speak as honestly as possible. If you are making some naïve choices, you want your mentor to call you on it and tell you straight.

  • ‘Why?’

As a coach, we often avoid the word ‘why’ due to its connotations of judgment. However, in a mentor relationship, one which includes more explicit advice, ‘why’ is probably the most powerful tool. One of my mentors has an unnerving knack of nodding along with my ideas and plans, seemingly in the affirmative. And then it comes out of nowhere: ‘So, why are you doing that?’. This question can evoke a lot of thinking from the recipient, but also emotion. I’ve felt the range from defensiveness, to vulnerability, to excitement. Sometimes we don’t pause to articulate why, but your mentor should prompt you to.

  • Beyond industry

There are many occasions, such as when I was Acting Head of English, where domain-specific expertise is vital in a mentoring relationship. I needed to be told how things work and to be given specific feedback about my ideas for the department. But, in my view, it is essential to have a developmental mentor who operates outside of your industry or job role. My father-in-law, formerly a director at the global ad agency Ogilvy and Mather, asks the most fascinating questions about education and how / why we do things. His questions and suggestions don’t hit the mark every time, because he isn’t a teacher, but that’s the beauty of the relationship: his diverse perspectives help me from becoming shackled by a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality, and instead replacing them with frequent ‘hey, that could actually work’ moments.

  • Anchoring Values

When you foster a close mentoring relationship, you will understand what each other’s values are. Just as you will set out your expectations of each other in the initial meeting, so should time be set aside to discuss your values, beliefs, aims, and perspectives. That way, when you’re snowed under with hundreds of jobs that pull you in different directions, your mentor will get a sense of whether or not you are making choices that are true to your values. We all evolve with experiences and age, but your mentor can be the one to anchor you to your values, questioning how your decisions align with them and reminding you of what you set out to do.

Go find your mentor!

Being in a mentoring relationship, whether you are the mentor or mentee, is a rewarding and empowering experience. As I have discussed, research suggests that you are likely to feel better about your role and development, and may even experience greater career success. But beyond those metrics, you will be part of a relationship built on trust, mutual respect and growth. This is a partnership that will reap benefits for both members over the course of years, perhaps a lifetime.

If you haven’t sought out a mentor thus far, or recently, I’d urge you to consider who you could line up to fill this position. In December, before lockdown, I contacted someone whose work I’d admired for years; we had a long walk and a coffee, I gleaned as much wisdom as I could, and now I’m hoping to make that a regular meet up or call. Reach out to those you admire – the chances are they’d be as delighted to mentor you as you would be to gain their wisdom and experience.

Ultimately, as our friend Morpheus reflects, ‘there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path’. It is still your path to walk, but having the right mentor(s) may help you take the first, second, and third steps with intent, confidence and renewed vigour.


How becoming a mentor can boost your career (Forbes)

Mentoring Statistics

Only 37% of people have a mentor (Forbes)

The Benefits of Mentoring

Why Mentoring Matters


Beyond Wiping Noses, by Stephen Lane

Why I read it – I’ve been a Head of Year, Head of Sixth Form, and now lead the pastoral teams at my school as a Deputy Headteacher. As a Head of Year, I felt that I was good at the role: I built productive relationships with students and parents, was reliable for staff, and was committed to developing a culture of respect and high aspirations for the year group; my ‘themes’ included the ferocious, fear-free honey badger, and the following year, a tribute to the pillars of Ancient Greek culture and wisdom (I recommend both!). But everything I did was based on instinct, and, while I was used to reading about curriculum and assessment previously as a Head of English, I was suddenly thrown into a role where not much was being written about pastoral roles, especially ideas with an evidence base. But when I saw Stephen Lane (@Sputnik Steve) approaching pastoral roles with a research-informed view, I had to take a look.

In summary    

Stephen Lane sets out to write a book that encompasses all aspects of pastoral roles, and approaches this area of our work with a wide perspective. It’s easy to think of pastoral and immediately be drawn only to student behaviour, safeguarding and emotional support. It’s tempting to think our work as pastoral staff members or leaders is mainly reactive. Something occurs, and we use our experience to respond appropriately.

But Lane sets out to explore how pastoral care is indeed ‘beyond wiping noses’, from exploring a range of research that can help illuminate how we approach our work, to looking at how we can build a pastoral ‘curriculum’ that is at the heart of what the school does, and not in isolation.

Key takeaways

  1. Research-informed pastoral work – many of us have read studies on Cognitive Load Theory or Direct Instruction in our work as teachers or subject leads; here, though, Lane explores how we should consider research in a variety of ways for our pastoral work. Whether that’s understanding how students learn when we need to motivate them or develop meaningful form-time activities, or when we need to understand an evidence-base to address mental health or wellbeing issues. The book is packed with useful citations of studies.
  2. Hidden curriculum – this was the big one for me. Admittedly, I’ve rarely thought about pastoral work as a type of curriculum. But, of course it is! Lane proposes that we need to view assemblies, form time, PSHE, citizenship, etc. as one curriculum that is designed with purpose, cohesion and continuity – so that our students receive consistent and purposeful pastoral experiences that run throughout their education. I’ve omitted a lot of detail, so please read it.
  3. Every sanction is a learning experience – I’m going to sidestep any debates around differing views on behaviour and sanctioning, as Lane explores approaches that one may describe as ‘progressive’ or ‘traditionalist’. But what I liked was his view that, whichever type of approach you take, whether it’s Lemov’s ‘warmstrict’ or something different, every event that leads to a sanction should also be framed as a learning experience. It is our duty to educate children about the consequences of actions, to help build their empathy and understanding for future occasions, and Lane gives a couple of nice examples of this in the ‘bullying’ chapter.

Favourite quote

I loved being a form tutor, as I’m sure many of us do, and Lane dedicates a couple of pages to discuss the importance of this wonderful role, but also pauses to reflect on the lack of time and space tutors are given to operate effectively.

Here’s my favourite quote about being a form tutor:

‘Fostering a supportive, relaxed and warm atmosphere in form time, one which is also conducive to establishing a sense of preparedness for learning, can be as contradictory as trying to perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy as a comedic mime. My solution, as a form tutor was essentially to treat form time as a lesson, albeit a slightly more relaxed one.’

Favourite moment

To return to a point I made earlier, it is easy for schools to play ‘whack a mole’ with pastoral issues, reacting to mental health concerns, student wellbeing or behavioural incidents by implementing the school policy and closing the loop. But throughout Beyond Wiping Noses, Lane discusses how we can be more proactive. In the chapter Mental Health, Wellbeing and Attachment, he not only cites several studies that can help us become more informed, but he also presents diverse perspectives on these issues, so we can think them through and come to an informed conclusion, and put in place what is correct for our context. For example, I enjoyed the comparison of studies regarding attachment theory; despite working in a pastoral role for years, and being adopted as a baby, this was the most time I’d spent reflecting on different expert views of attachment theory. And that’s just one area!

It is these tools that we can use to develop long-term strategies and values about our pastoral work; the notion that we read, engage, and discuss these topics, and plan ahead of time, feels more like a departmental role, but of course that thinking narrows and devalues pastoral work, and admittedly I’ve been guilty of it.

Question and reflect

As pastoral staff or leaders, do we spend enough time planning and thinking for the long term?

Have we attempted to develop a ‘curriculum’ for our pastoral work; a curriculum that ties into many aspects of the students’ school life, and not just an assembly or form time in isolation.

Do we spend enough time reflecting upon an evidence base and evaluating different views held about pastoral work? Or do we adhere to our own policies without further thought?

Read this if…

You are form tutor, Assistant Head of Year, Head of Year or pastoral worker / leader in a school.

You want to consider how research-informed practice can be applied to pastoral work.

Find the book here