Fail Better

After three days of an SSAT Conference you left bruised. Keynotes poke and prod at your leadership thinking, some more aggressively than others. Workshops leave you eager to walk a different path and for ‘green, aspirational leaders,’ like myself, the conversations around and about the conference, provide numerous opportunities to observe experienced leaders ‘at work.’ (You can learn a lot by just watching).

Whilst ‘Excellence for All’ was clearly evident, ‘Failure as Fertiliser’ could well have been an undercurrent. From

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better – Samuel Beckett


Without stones there is no arch – Marco Polo

To the freedom to fail / explore through ‘non-commissioned work’ – Daniel Pink and Sir Bob Geldof quoting Goethe

Whatever you would do. Or dream of doing, begin it! Boldness has power, genius, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Excellence is the aspiration, but success seems largely to do with how we handle and perceive failure. This psychological dilemma has long been a coaching dilemma for me, but more recently it has become a leadership conundrum.

Fedex Day or Google Time

Ask yourself, is there one thing I can do, tomorrow or next week, to inject some more autonomy, to provide a little space for non-commissioned work (in your classroom or your organisation). Daniel Pink

It is an old article, but a good indicator of what non-commissioned or 20% Google work time is all about. If you want more of the Daniel Pink keynote you can find it on the SSAT Conference website or animated, courtesy of RSAnimate.

SSAT Day 1 #NC10

Registration was simple and #NC10 customary recycled mini ‘potato’ gift sack gratefully received it I made my way over to Prof Dylan Williams presentation.

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You can’t use 21st skills without a good dose of 19th century content.

Dylan Williams knowledgeable, researched based delivery was both convincing and challenging. Later on in the presentation, via a Tweet, I was asked if the presentation was any good? IMHO and from the response of the audience, every educator was able to take at least one or two educational gems to adapt, adopt or were at least reminded of a technique they had not used for a while. If this were available on video, I would have insisted it be made available to staff and certainly showcased as part of our NGT programme.


Teaching and learning is therefore the movement of IQ, whether teachers like the term IQ or not. The strongest predictor or GCSE performance  at 11 is an IQ test, predicting 80% of attainment. It is therefore important that as teachers we create the most effective learning environments. Prof Dylan defined that environment.

When you get high challenge and high capability, you get engagement.


Assessment is the at the heart of teaching and the first step is to know what the students know already. Within subject pre-testing is not common practice at our school, is it at yours?

Key processes: Where the learner is going

Clarifying and share learning intentions

Understand and share learning intentions

Understand learning intentions

(According to Prof Williams, often a requirement for our lessons, often transferred to exercise books, but thereafter, rarely revisited, but there just in case an Assistant Head walks in.)

Key processes: Where the learner is

Engineering effective discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning

Key processes: How the learner gets there

Activating students as learning resources for one another, as owners of their own learning.

Read more (William & Thompson 2007)

His parting comment. Make students accountable for their learning, decisions and outcomes. The BIG idea is you use what the students feedback, to inform your delivery. Feedback should ask more of the student then it does of you the teacher.

Prof Williams also touched on what feedback should look like, comments not scores, when and where it is most effective but at this point, there was so much to take in, visually, verbally, I didn’t get many notes.

Getting students (or 400 strong auditorium)

When I raise my hand, I want you to do 2 things, one easy, one hard.

First the easy task, raise your hand, the hard, to stop talking. In this environment, Prof Williams got the audience. That was why, IMHO, he is such a potent educational speaker. Do we get our students?

Asking Good Questions

There are two good reasons to ask questions, one is to cause thinking and the other is providing data that informs teaching. Only 10% of questions lead to students thinking, the rest were either revisiting learning or managerial. That facts was somewhat disappointing.

When was the last time you planned 3 key questions to deliver in your lesson? Ask a high level question and give the students time to think.

Currently, we do not require key questions to be listed on our lessons plans. Should we?

Can We Randomly Select Students to Answer Questions

Randomiser, names on lollipop sticks, (of course you can always add the name of a particular student to an extra 10 additional lollipop sticks). If the students answers with ‘I dunno,’ what now?

  • Offer to come back in a moment after some thinking time.
  • Move to pair, share, return.
  • Ask students to select someone they think will know the answer, if they do not. Always get the answer repeated.
  • Poll an answer, ABC cards (also used as Add to the previous answer, Back up the answer, Contest the answer. Can students hold up more than 1 card?
  • Find someone with the same answer as you?
  • Mini whiteboards (the most inspirational product development since the slate).

The simple point Prof Williams made was that students are to be made accountable in lessons. Students should expected to be involved, to think, to actively participate and loafing is not an option in his educational thinking.

Do Students Answers, Show there Understanding or Thinking?

Poll a question, but then find out the thinking behind the answers. Or, offer questions with more than one answer. Even more powerful, don’t tell the students how many correct answers are available.

How many teachers keep on teaching, after the students have already learnt the answer?

Teachers need to reveal the thinking behind the answer and not merely accept the answer. Teachers often listen for the right answer, teachers should be encouraged to listen to what the students is saying rather than merely evaluating the answer as either right or wrong.

The answers provided by students, must showing their thinking. Second, the possible answers should be distinctly different to help define if learning has been positive.

Hinge Questions

A second point where I could not keep up the teaching hurricane coming my way, I realised that ‘Hinge Questions’ were important enough to note but I will have to come back to them, I was still thinking about the multi-answer questions being presented as examples.


There are 8 possible outcomes for feedback and 6 are negative. Be careful with feedback.

Using – or + or = – as a marking scheme. students work is better than the last time, not as good as the last, at the same level. Mark for progress.

Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the teacher. This was the second time Prof Williams had made this point, personally, I shall take note.

Feedback written on strips of paper. A group of four get their essays returned and four feedback strips. Find the feedback that goes with your essay?

Given the opportunity I would watch this presentation again, I will certainly track down the slides. In my own practice, to date, I have given more time to the planning of the learning activities than the planning of the assessment of learning. My personal pledge is to plan and deliver 2 Key Questions in our lessons and second to try and use the ‘essay feedback’ for our next essay assessments.

Well done SSAT – definitely a presenter I would like to see again next year.