The Gift of Knowledge and the Challenge of Using It

It has felt like a long time coming, but with the introduction of the ITT Core Framework, the Early Career Framework and the new suite of reformed NPQs, we finally have standardised bodies of knowledge in education. This means that teachers entering the profession, and those progressing through their careers, have a much better chance of encountering high quality domain-specific knowledge than ever before. The ‘golden thread’ running through the ITT, ECF and NPQs is designed to ground teacher learning in knowledge generated by the best available evidence and the collective wisdom of the profession. This is something to celebrate.

And that’s not the only thing worth celebrating. More and more teachers are now actively engaging with that best available evidence and collective wisdom; it’s no longer alien, obtuse or inaccessible.  Coe and Kime (2021) describe this as ‘new, important and exciting’ in their article ‘An Evidence-based Approach to CPD’. They go on to say, ‘class teachers.. are engaging with research, applying it to practical questions, developing high levels of expertise… and effectively sharing their reflections and insights.’ We’ve come a long way since the dark days of the early 00s, when educational research tended to be held by universities, when there was huge gulf between research and practice, and the only research that did seep its way into the profession was either distorted out of recognition or taken on with little or no criticality.

So we’ve come a long way baby, and I agree that this is exciting, but I’d also assert that merely having this knowledge is not enough. The coupling of the ‘learn that’ and ‘learn how’ descriptors in the ECF and NPQ frameworks point towards this challenge: knowing it and using it are two entirely different things. The descriptors very helpfully distinguish between the knowledge content and what this might look like via school-based scenarios or case studies, but even the best-written scenarios can’t truly tell us how best to apply the knowledge in our own contexts. And our own individual context is key.

Just reading or seeing what works for someone else’s school doesn’t mean it will work for your school. Coe and Kime make the pertinent point that ‘a description of what worked for you should not be mistaken for advice about what will work for someone else’.  They go to say that the reader of the research, not the writer, must make the judgement about applicability. Yet time-poor teachers often ‘magpie’ ideas from blogs they’ve read or ideas they have heard about or have seen in other schools without recognising the invisible layers of work that went into making them successful, or thinking hard about whether the idea would work in their own context. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a great idea there, could result in great outcomes here.

So why is this? Why do we fall so easily into this trap? It could be because ‘research’ and ‘evidence’ have become the zeitgeist, but it could also be because we’re quick – as advocates of research – to attribute success too readily. Teachers who have invested in implemented something new based on research evidence are very likely to feel it has been transformative, the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy. Coe and Kime helpfully remind us that there could be other explanations; whilst a teacher who has used an evidence-based strategy might hold the perception that their teaching is now radically different, ‘it is possible that an observer would see no difference’. They also suggest that even if a teacher’s practice has changed as a result of an evidence-based strategy, it’s possible that, ‘its impact on their students’ outcomes has not”. Although the teacher might attribute the change to reading research or applying the evidence-informed strategy, the change could be a result of other reasons like school culture, or feedback from a critical friend. Coe & Kime remind us that ‘our own perceptions of our behaviour, and its causes, are not always trustworthy’, so proceed with caution.

So how can we engage with knowledge, evidence and research, and benefit from success stories in other schools while still exercising some caution? In ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice’ (2014) Young et al remind us that ‘knowledge is powerful if it predicts, explains, if it enables you to envisage alternatives.’ So rather than seeing knowledge as something that exists as an end in itself, and investing huge amounts of time reading the research, maybe we should spend a lot more time thinking hard about how best to diffuse and assimilate that knowledge in our own contexts.

We might think this is something we do already. We already share knowledge in our schools through staff meetings, teaching and learning groups, presentations, online platforms, etc, but it is the diffusion, enactment and evaluation of this knowledge that is most important. How often do we spend time exploring interpretations of the literature or considering the nuances of applying research in our own contexts? How much time do we create to engage in collective sensemaking with our staff about what this means for them, in their classrooms, on this day? How much confidence do we have to question and adapt the research evidence to suit our contexts? With all the fear around lethal mutations and loss of fidelity, are we just a little too scared to put our own contexts front and centre?

We’ve perhaps become a little precious about research, and the knowledge it has produced; assuming wrongly that we can’t tinker with it or kick it around. But why can’t we? Isn’t the knowledge we have of our own contexts just as important? Isn’t the intersection between the research knowledge and the context knowledge the site of most interest? Well perhaps, but there is another reason why context gets kicked to the back of the queue: pressure.

We exist in a profession where accountability compels us to jump to solutions. We’re forced to work with a sense of urgency to design solutions before really understanding the problems we are facing, or considering what implementation really looks like. We might have governors or trustees to report to; we might have limited time frames to work to before the next Ofsted visit. As school leaders, we often feel that the pressure to move things forward at pace and I wonder if that sometimes stops us from applying the brakes and asking the important questions.

The important questions must be focused on the site of most interest: classrooms. In ‘Tight but Loose. A Conceptual Framework for Scaling Up Social Reforms’ (2007) Wiliam tells us that ‘learning… does not take place in schools. It takes place in classrooms, as a result of the daily, minute to minute interactions… between teachers and students and the subjects they study.’

But professional learning based on research evidence still tends to bypass the classroom. Kennedy (2016) says, ‘PD programmes typically meet with teachers outside of their classrooms to talk about teaching, yet they expect their words to alter teachers’ behaviours inside the classroom.’ She calls this ‘the problem of enactment’ – a phenomenon in which teachers can learn and espouse one idea, yet continue enacting a different idea out of habit, without even noticing the contradiction. Why is this? Could it be that when teachers are asked to apply research informed knowledge or evidence-based strategies in their classrooms it is to solve a problem that someone has identified for them? Not one they have identified themselves? Has the amount of time and money spent on INSET explaining Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction had commensurate impact on teacher’s practice? I doubt it.

So how can we design PD experiences that will be truly meaningful for teachers? Experiences that yes, focus on applying research to their classroom contexts, but do so in a way that solves the specific problems the teacher faces as opposed to a generalised problem that a school leader thinks exists? In her paper ‘How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching?’(2016) Kennedy argues that some types of professional development are better than others. She identified that ‘prescribing’ and ‘presenting’ were weaker forms of professional learning, and that using ‘strategy’ and ‘insight’ were the most likely to increase student learning. Kennedy’s research found that PD has the greatest impact on pupil and teacher learning when colleagues are given structured time to sense-make with others, generate insights and then enact the ideas most pertinent to their classrooms.

In ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching (2015) Kennedy suggests that we should design professional development that helps teachers articulate their specific problems using the framework of five persistent challenges that are intrinsic to teaching. They are:

  1. Portraying the curriculum
  2. Enlisting student participation
  3. Exposing student thinking
  4. Containing student behaviour
  5. Addressing the preceding challenges

She tells us that by focusing on challenges rather than solutions, we help teachers ‘think strategically about how their actions address a larger purpose, rather than focusing on how to mimic a set of actions that they observe’. When we unquestioningly ‘magpie’ ideas from other schools, no matter how evidence-informed they are, we fail to recognise the invisible layers that sit underneath successful implementation. All we are doing is mimicking the visible elements.  

We need to be creating conditions for staff to explore the specific problems they are facing, and consider the complexities and the nuances of the challenges in their own unique context. Approaching CPD through the lens of Kennedy’s Persistent Problems does not imply a pre-specified way of doing things. In fact, she acknowledges that there are many ways of going about it and that those ways, ‘entail a lot of personal and professional judgement’. Kennedy tells us that ‘many portraits are possible’ and that it is our job as leaders of PD to make sure that teachers ‘learn relevant criteria for evaluating different portraits so that they can flexibly design their own portraits over time.’  It is the ongoing process of questioning, predicting and explaining then that will help teachers work out what evidence-informed knowledge is likely to have the most impact in their context.

As Vice Principal in charge of professional learning in a school that I just joined after Easter, I want to hold firm to the ideas shared in this blog. Signposting research and prescribing ways of doing things simply isn’t going to work. Instead, I want to meet people where they are and privilege the journey they have already been on. In their work, Coe and Kime adopt the position that every teacher is a learner. They say, ‘helping teachers to gain new knowledge, to develop insights and understandings of relevant underpinning theory, to build skills and techniques and to acquire and embed new habits, can all be thought of as a learning process.’ By thinking about this learning process, and teachers as learners, hopefully we can begin to focus on not just having knowledge but knowing how to use it.


Coe, R. & Kime, S. (2021) An Evidence-based Approach to CPD. Impact, issue 13. Available at:

Kennedy, M (2016) How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching? Review of Educational Research.

Kennedy, M (2015) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Available at:

Wiliam, D. (2007) Tight But Loose: A Conceptual Framework For Scaling Up School Reforms. Available at:


Motivational Messaging: Talk and Action

In a recent blog, I reflected on the idea that sometimes we miss a step when trying to motivate our students. We think about what we can do as teachers to set the conditions for motivated learning but maybe we need to think more carefully about students’ emotional starting points.

Being aware of student feelings and emotions can help us to plan and deliver better lessons, particularly when managing success and failure. As Mccrea (2020) says in Motivated Teaching “Expectancy is heavily shaped by prior success rate. The more successful we have been in the past, the more likely we are to invest in similar opportunities in the future”.

Students are more motivated when they feel competent to do what is expected of them.  Boekaerts (2010) said that students who feel likely to succeed tend to “choose more challenging problems, invest more effort, persist for longer”. I recognise this in my own six-year-old son, who believes he is good at everything. At that age, it doesn’t occur to him that he has strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others; he believes he is clever, and that message is reinforced at home and at school.

Wigfield and Eccles (2002) found that children’s sense of competence generally declines as they get older. Older children compare themselves to peers and become accustomed to grading and evaluation procedures. While successful learners tend to use this information to work harder, students who are less successful find themselves lacking motivation without really understanding why. They switch off and, often, no one really notices when this happens.

So at some point my son will realise that he isn’t good at everything but I hope that the realisation doesn’t come as too much of a blow to him. I hope that between school and home, we can work together on the messaging that it is good to have talents in particular areas and to work hard at the things we struggle with. Most importantly, I hope we stop to notice how this realisation makes him feel.

Getting the Right Messages Across

The messaging we receive and the stories we tell ourselves are vital. When I was a student at school, I was surrounded by messaging that said I was clever; I was good at English and would do well. The messaging I received from the maths department, however, was that I couldn’t do it and I had no hope of passing my exams. The messaging from the maths set I was in told me that behaviour would dominate lessons and there would be very little maths covered.  The messaging from my teacher came from the roll of his eyes every time I asked him to explain something to me for the second or third or fourth time. So, when I failed Maths GCSE, it was no surprise to anyone.

So how can we ensure that our messaging is on point? For me, this is about teachers knowing that everything they do, everything they say, communicates something to the students they teach. The way we speak to students, the way we frame activities, they way we present difficulty, all this matters.

As Boekaerts (2010) puts it:

“Teachers need to be aware that the motivational messages are embedded in their own discourse, their selection of learning tasks, and in their teaching practices. Students pick up on these unintended messages and appraise the climate as either favourable or unfavourable for learning.”

Maybe by being more mindful of the approaches we take as teachers, we can help our students to perceive the climate as favourable and beneficial.

Some of the ways I have done this recently are by:

  • Dwelling on success
  • Attributing Success
  • Breaking it down
  • Slowing it down

Dwelling on Success

We need to ensure our students experience the sweet taste of success. We shouldn’t give empty praise or ply students with messages that their achievements will be limitless, but we have it in our power to signpost successful behaviours and to celebrate good work. I think we need to be explicit as we go along about when students have been successful and let them bask in it. We need to dwell on that success with them, encouraging them to savour that feeling so that they can develop an appetite for success over time.

We shouldn’t just think about success as something we experience individually; we can also think about the collective endeavour of striving for success as a group. This might involve using some reflective questions at the end of the lesson or as part of an exit ticket that asks: what did we get right today? How did you contribute to the success of the lesson? What did you do well? What did others do well? What were the strengths of today’s lesson? Asking about how we have been successful together is an important nuance.

Attributing Success

As well as helping our students to feel good about their achievements, we also need to help students build positive associations over time so they can recall and make links to prior successes. We need to help students attribute success and failure correctly. If students feel that doing well was a fluke (they were just lucky this time) they are unlikely to be motivated by that achievement. They must own their successes and know why they did well otherwise they might not be able to use that experience as a milestone for future goals and aspirations.

Mccrea (2020) says that “only when pupils believe they were successful themselves and they attribute the cause to themselves – their own effort, ability and approach – will their expectancy increase” and that teachers can influence expectancy by “repeatedly messaging, through both our talk and action”.

One way we might go about doing this is by reminding students about the excellent work they did today, last week, last month, etc. The way we use our language can help make this explicit for students: “Remember that excellent point that Jacob made last lesson…”; “lets return to that model paragraph that Alice produced last week…”; “let’s revisit why Adiel’s answer was so good last month…”. This makes the success they experienced memorable and motivates them to work hard for it again.

Another way we can do this is by using the visualiser to look at a piece of student’s work, asking, ‘what makes this so good?’. By linking what is good in the model answer to successes students have had, they are likely to feel that improvement is possible. We might say something like “This is a brilliant example of using explanations and this is also something I saw in Emily, Mohammed and James’ essays”.

As Mccrea says, we need to influence expectancy through our talk and action. We need to make those successes feel current and relevant. Talking out loud and naming these achievements help students attribute success to their own effort. 

Breaking it Down

As teachers, we need to make connections between what students feel they can’t do and what they do well already. In his book ‘Habits of Success’, Harry Fletcher Wood (2021) talks about the importance of breaking big tasks into bitesize chunks. He recommends we either break tasks down in advance of setting a task, or when students are doing the task and hit a bit of a wall. By breaking tasks down into the steps which will hopefully become automatic later, we put a spotlight on the process and point out the parts that students have mastered already.

When planning a scheme of learning on discursive writing recently, I predicted that at least one child wouldn’t know where to start. English teachers will know that this is a common problem with writing tasks! Realising that emotional starting points could be a bit of a barrier, I broke my teaching down into the following steps:

  1. Frontloading the thinking and planning. 
  2. Taking a viewpoint and not sitting on the fence.
  3. Developing an argument through several different lenses.
  4. Planning the structure and sequence of the argument to include a main argument, a few supporting mini-arguments and a counter argument.
  5. Using a range of linguistic devices to engage their audience, enabling them to write with conviction.

We spent quite some time on points 1 and 2 above which focus primarily on thinking. I provided a lot of scaffolding about how students might go about planning ideas before even starting to consider writing. With point 3, I began to take the scaffolds away, asking students to identify the ‘big ideas’ they could draw on more independently.

I planned this sequence knowing that students needed to experience success early, something I also talked about in my Educating Northants talk back in March. By investing time in the pre-writing stages, students were able to experience success before beginning to compose a piece themselves.  

Slowing it Down

In Mary Kennedy’s paper ‘Parsing the Practice of Teaching (2015) she makes the excellent point that “education is mandatory, but learning is not”. For students to engage with learning, they need to concentrate hard on challenging material. She tells us:

“School learning requires what Kahneman (2011) calls “slow thinking” the kind of thinking that requires concentration and effort. In contrast, most of life outside the classroom calls for “fast thinking” thinking that is reflexive and that allows us to jump to conclusions, rely on rules of thumb or re-use a habit we used in the past”.

I think it is our duty as teachers to recognise this tension and to present challenging material with an acknowledgement that students will struggle with it. Simply reciting knowledge or walking through a maths problem on the board is not going to cut it. Understanding that students need to think about something in order to understand it (Willingham, 2009), Kennedy recommends that teachers ask students to make a prediction or explain why something happened to help them see the causal relationships:

“These questions and prods are intended to help students to think about the underlying relationships and concepts that the teacher is addressing and increase the chances that students will see and understand those relationships.”

When I teach William Blake’s poem ‘London’, which students find incredibly difficult, I usually spend several lessons introducing and exploring some key concepts first, including ideology, hegemony and consent. These are difficult concepts to grasp so I take my time, give them space to explore the meanings of the words and help them make connections to knowledge they have encountered elsewhere in the curriculum.

This means that when we come across the phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” in stanza 2, students are already comfortable with the notion of the hypocrisy Blake was challenging in the social institutions of his time.  In the past, when I tried to explain the meaning of this line as I read the poem aloud, I found it difficult. It is not the sort of thing you can explain in a nutshell or write in a glossary; it takes much more unpicking than that. Slowing down and giving time to do the unpicking has made all the difference when studying poems with difficult concepts like this.

The four approaches discussed here are by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope they help to illustrate the importance of using students’ emotional starting points. Perhaps this is the kind of data that we should be looking at more in schools.


Boekaerts, M (2010) The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning. Available to access at: The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning | The Nature of Learning : Using Research to Inspire Practice | OECD iLibrary (

Fletcher-Wood, H (2021) Habits of Success. Routledge.

Kennedy, M (2015) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education. Available to access at: (PDF) Parsing the Practice of Teaching (

Mccrea, P (2020) Motivated Teaching. Peps Mccrea.

Wigfield and Eccles (2002) Motivational Beliefs, Values and Goals. Annual Review of Psychology Vol.53. Available to access at: eccles-wigfield-2002-motivational-beliefs-values-and-goals.pdf (

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


Emotion in Motivation – The Missing Piece?

There is still a lot we don’t know about motivation. In his book ‘Motivated Teaching’, Peps Mccrea reminds us that “the mechanics of motivation are not only highly complex, they are also largely invisible” and he urges us to do all we can as teachers to tease out the most powerful insights that persist across the field and codify them in ways that we can use in schools “on a hot Friday afternoon”.

Mccrea describes motivation in a way that helps us begin to codify what it is. He says that to understand motivation, we must first understand attention, and he explains that “attention is the gatekeeper of learning” and that “what we attend to is ultimately what we learn”. So, if motivation is a system for allocating attention, then it becomes something tangible – something we can influence as teachers. We can use the curriculum, lesson planning or activities to ensure that our students attend to the right things in the right way.

He goes on to say that allocating attention is a largely unconscious process. Students aren’t aware they are making decisions about what they give their attention to because they typically use short cuts, or heuristics, like deferring to previous success rates or by looking at what others are doing.

Mccrea describes motivation as being like an investment engine. Students will decide whether the task in hand is worth their time based on three things: 1) the value they put on the task; 2) their chance of success; 3) the time and effort they will have to invest to be successful. Students will probably take a few seconds to make these judgements so no matter what we try to do to secure their attention, it is possible that they might have already made up their minds.

In his book, Mccrea goes on to introduce five drivers which help us to think about how we can build motivation in our students. These drivers are brilliant and I based my Educating Northants presentation on how I used them to create the conditions for motivated teaching in my own classroom.

Core Drivers
Secure success Get pupils to a high success rate to look back on; frame what success means and help them attribute it accurately; pre-empt failure.
Run routines Make the process of learning easy, whilst keeping the content of learning challenging; script chains and cues; stick to it.
Nudge norms Elevate the visibility of desirable norms; amplify peer approval; emphasise what you want to happen, not what you don’t.
Build belonging Signal the status of all pupils in your class; develop a unifying purpose and identify common ground; earn and keep trust.
Boost buy-in Expose the benfits of the choice you make for your pupils; provide opportunities for them to opt in; invest in building metamotivation.
From Motivated Teaching by Peps Mccrea (2020)

But now I find myself taking a step back and thinking more about what it is that makes students reach those decisions about effort and ability. Those attitudes like I can’t do maths; I am useless at spelling; I have no chance of passing that exam can become so deeply ingrained in students’ minds, that it becomes very difficult for teachers to do anything about them. Mccrea says that as humans our decision making is fuelled by emotions, and it is this connection between motivation and emotion that I wish we talked about more.

In  The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning (2010) Boekaerts begins her paper by explaining why motivation and emotion are essential to education: “because, together they ensure that students acquire new knowledge and skills in a meaningful way”.  She tells us that students will inevitably encounter situations in the classroom that they find hard or boring and it us up to teachers to adapt the curriculum so that students feel the learning is worth their attention.

She also explains that many theories of learning and instruction give a hat tip to motivation, but rarely do they integrate motivational constructs

“Competence models mainly focus on the domain-specific process that they need to acquire, and cognitive and metacognitive processes that they need to access in order to become strategic learners.”

What this doesn’t account for, she suggests, is the fact that all students come to learning differently. “Not all students acquire knowledge in the same way, and they differ in the value they attach to new knowledge and newly-acquired strategies”. She goes on to say that if students’ cognitions and emotions about learning are not factored in, these models will not be able to adequately represent the dynamics of the learning process.

Motivational Beliefs

Motivational beliefs are the feelings that students hold about themselves as learners. Students often come to us with pre-conceived ideas about how good they are or how likely they are to succeed. This is crucial because students use these motivational beliefs to give meaning to learning tasks. These beliefs fall into 5 categories:

1Self-efficacy The beliefs they hold about their own capability to do something.
2Outcome expectationThat certain actions will lead to success and others will lead to failure.
3Goal orientationThe purpose of the learning activity.
4Value judgementsHow interesting or boring activities are.
5AttributionsPerceived causes of success and failure.
From ‘The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning’ By Monique Boekaerts (2010)

Motivational beliefs can be positive or negative. Students are influenced by the climate for learning and the behaviours of others; these things shape the choices they make as well as how much effort they will invest and how long they will persist in the face of difficulties.

While we often think about students’ starting points from a cognitive or academic point of view, how often do we stop to consider their emotional starting points or their readiness to learn? As teachers, how can we pre-empt these beliefs and plan learning to challenge some of the notions that students hold about their ability or likelihood of success?

Managing Emotions

Boakaerts tells us that he word “emotion” refers to a wide range of affective processes. There are six primary emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. Others have identified secondary emotions such as envy, hope, sympathy, gratitude, regret, pride, disappointment, relief, hopelessness, shame, guilt, embarrassment and jealousy.

Fridja (1986) argued that emotions have two major functions. Firstly, to give warning signals that tell us we are facing either a highly valuable situation or a threatening one. This creates a sense of urgency as we know that the situation needs our immediate attention. The second function is to prepare us to act swiftly in response. These emotions create physical hormonal responses like the heart beating faster, breathing heavier, or hands feeling clammy, etc.

Some emotions, such as anger, relief and joy, are short lived and have little significance for future learning. Other emotions, such as shame and hopelessness, have enduring relevance to classroom learning because they are tagged to previous situations and can be activated when a student is confronted with a similar task in the future. I can think of many students I have taught across the years who fit this profile: students who felt they couldn’t face lessons because they had a bad experience in the past.

This makes me wonder, as teachers, how tuned in are we to the previous experiences that our students have had? Are we aware that the success and failure they experience in their lessons has the power to make or break their confidence and perception of self? Do we create the conditions for students to tell us about these experiences or do we leave them to take root in the student’s mind where they can sit dangerously invisible?

Coming to Learning

When students are faced with a new learning task, Boekaerts suggests that they do three things in the following order:

  1. Observe specific features of the task and its educational context: how relevant or interesting is the task? What outcome sis expected? What is the purpose? Is it worth my time? What will help me to succeed or fail in this task?
  2. They activate domain specific knowledge and relative metacognitive strategies: this will make me better at this? Will I feel more confident than before? Will I be more competent as a result?
  3. They activate motivational beliefs and regulation strategies: Am I interested in this? Will it be hard? Can I adapt as the demands of learning change? Is it worth it?

This approach quickly helps students to determine how they feel about the learning task; how committed they are to dealing with it and how they will regulate their motivation throughout learning. But what if their emotional responses are:

  1. This is pointless.
  2. There is no use in trying.
  3. I am not clever enough.

Should we be considering what mechanisms we have in school to either pre-empt these negative responses or deal with them sensitively as soon as they happen? How often do we mistake these emotional reactions for poor attitudes or bad behaviour?

My Takeaways

So where does that leave us? For me, the following points provide a summary:

As teachers, we have it in our power to make learning meaningful. The way we plan the curriculum, deliver lessons and engage students in learning tasks is crucial to the way they perceive themselves as learners. For me, this is a hopeful message and reminds us that we can influence motivation in our classrooms to some extent.

When it comes to understanding motivation, we have barely begun to scratch the surface. This is a complex topic and while many models of instruction allude to motivation, even within these models, there isn’t enough of a spotlight on how emotions influence motivation. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach because all students come to learning in different ways.

Students’ perceptions of themselves as learners are crucial. The meaning they attach to their classroom experiences – their successes and failures – can change how they feel about future learning encounters.

The learning process is social. Students observe their teachers and peers and what they see or hear them saying about the learning can also have a significant impact. See Mccrea’s work on nudging norms for more on this.

All learning is a personal and emotional experience. Some emotions can be fleeting or short-lived and others can stay with students long after the event. Lingering feelings of success can be great, but a lot of unspoken damage can be done when failure stays as the overriding memory.

Writing this blog has helped me get some of my thinking in order, at least for now. I plan to write a follow up post where I’ll suggest some strategies to address the questions raised here. Hopefully, this is a way of getting the conversation started.


Boekaerts, M (2010) The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in Classroom Learning’ OECD. Available at:

Frijda, N. H, Mesquita, B. (2000) Beliefs Through Emotions. Available at:

Mccrea (2020) Motivated Teaching. Peps Mccrea.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Life of Learners. NZCER Press.


Educating Northants and the Power of Paying it Forward

After weeks of planning, the Educating Northants 21 conference is over and as a member of the steering group, I thought I would feel a great sense of anti-climax. However, to my surprise, that has not happened. It actually feels like I am still riding the wave of how brilliant it was – probably because I keep dipping into the online presentations, some for the second or third time. Maybe this is one of the instances that Nefe referred to in the afternoon tea panel: maybe the pandemic has shown us new and more efficient ways of working. Maybe we should have been doing conferences this way all along!

I feel like what we achieved this time, a happy by-product if you will, is making the learning last for longer. A conference is always an event, and we know the dangers of seeing professional learning as an event. It feels so intense at the time; you feel fired up and raring to go, but that feeling always fades by the time you return to school on Monday morning. With the daily challenges we face as teachers and leaders, how do we make professional learning stick?

Vivienne Porritt has long promoted the idea of professional learning and development (PLD) cycles. She says “Learning needs to shift from a model of knowledge transmission to a model where knowledge gained is applied and tested…where subsequent new knowledge leads to improved practice which is embedded over time”. This resonates with me. Like all good school improvement, quality professional learning is a process and takes time to bed in. When I attend good CPD, I like to mull it over, chew the fat for a bit; only then can I think strategically about how it might influence the next steps I take.

Nearly a week on from the conference, and I am still reflecting on the learning. I am still dipping into the videos: to check my understanding; to pick out a quote I like; to write some notes in my professional learning journal. The day went by so quickly, but I am relishing the opportunity to savour the detail and focus on the nuances of the presentations.

Watching the videos is like being given a window into the world of other schools. It feels such a privilege that people wanted to share their stories with us. It is humbling that so many people were being honest about where they were on their journeys. There were no presentations claiming to be ‘the finished article’ and no one saying, ‘we’ve cracked it in our school’. Instead, we saw professional voices coming together, opening arms and opening doors. I felt emotional on the day and I continue to feel incredibly moved by the power of our collective voice and the hope this brings for the future.

There is no doubt about it, the young people were the star performers of the day. The Silhouette Theatre Group performance opened the conference with aplomb, almost taking my breath away. It made me realise that we have not seen young people perform like this in such a long time. Unless we see them like this, doing what they love, we are missing the point; we are not seeing them fully. I am mad at myself for not realising this earlier. I am also mad at myself that I hadn’t noticed the absence of the joy that seeing kids perform brings.

In the panel conversations, Kamron and Nefe both articulated the student perspective eloquently. It makes me realise we don’t include them enough. We champion young people and advocate for them, but do we ask them what they are really thinking and how they see the world? Do we invite them to reflect on the things that matter most? Another learning point for me – noted!

After all this reflection, I am left with an overwhelming feeling of pride about what we achieved together and about the potential of what might happen next. The generosity of so many people giving their time for free, coming together for a common cause, is astounding. Why do we do this – why do we give our time? Why do we coach, why do we present, why do we share our resources? We do this because we pay it forward in education. We know that sharing our work, and amplifying each other’s voices, enables more people to benefit. We might not know where the contribution we make ends up, but we know we made it – we contributed – we took part in the conversation. For me, that is all that matters.


The Importance of Pastoral Care

Amidst all the anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is refreshing to hear so much talk about the importance of pastoral care. We’ve always talked about it alongside our core business of teaching and learning, but it feels good that we are giving it priority in our discourse.

Step forward our pastoral leaders – those who have been working tirelessly in the background all these years. Their ‘bread and butter’ has always been about positioning relationships and student welfare at the heart of the school experience. This new focus for the rest of us, then, is perhaps nothing new for them.

When we consider the challenges ahead of us as a profession, perhaps we should be looking to our Heads of Year and pastoral leaders for guidance.  The role pastoral leaders could play in post-COVID recovery should not be underestimated: they are expert at providing practical and emotional support. They are used to working with the most vulnerable; they are used to connecting with the local community; they understand that every child’s unique set of circumstances determines the kind of experience they have at school. This is the very fabric of the stuff that they spend all their time doing in the background. It’s a wealth of knowledge that is now more important than ever.

Although no one would argue that pastoral leadership was unimportant, now is the time to acknowledge that Heads of Year/House (or whatever you call them) have been dealt a bit of a bad hand in the past. We talk about ‘middle leadership’ as a catch-all for both academic and pastoral leaders: we assume that Heads of Department and Heads of Year have similar roles and operate on the same level. And yet, when we look closely, it is clear to see that this is rarely the case.

Having done both roles in my teaching career, I talk from first-hand experience. As a Head of Department, I loved the satisfaction of striking off the jobs on my daily ‘to do’ list – a luxury that I wasn’t afforded as a pastoral leader. As a Head of Year, the job is never done; kids and families are never ‘sorted’.  As a Head of Department, all my work on curriculum planning and student feedback was put in place and shared with my team. The work of a pastoral leader is often invisible and therefore much harder to evidence.  As a Head of Department, I was always focused on the quality of learning, never really thinking about the groundwork pastoral leaders were doing to ensure that students arrived at lessons ready to learn.

It strikes me that although we liken Heads of Year to Heads of Department under the banner of ‘middle leadership’, the two roles are so completely different. If anything, I would say that the pastoral leader’s role is more akin to that of the leadership team because day-in day-out they are dealing with safeguarding.

So, I think it is worth exploring the following two contradictions:

  1. Pastoral leadership is important but there is hardly any educational research on it.
  2. Pastoral leadership is important but the debate about middle leadership concentrates almost exclusively on Heads of Department.

I think the implications of this are quite serious.  The growth of research-informed practice in education is fantastic, but it tends to focus on instruction, cognition, curriculum or assessment. Pastoral leaders have nothing equivalent to draw upon. This means that all they can do is their best, using their judgement and hoping that it works out well. At best, this is a really noble thing to do; at worst, this is a massive risk for the school and the community it serves.

The second implication is equally worrying. Middle leadership courses are always designed with the Head of Department or curriculum leader in mind. If you have a look at the modules in the NPQML for example, they are all geared towards the subject leader: focusing on leadership of the curriculum, research on teaching, etc. There are some elements of the course that pastoral leaders might find useful like the analysis of data, building partnerships, considering communication strategies, etc; but the assessment brief says that the school improvement project must aim to improve student outcomes. Although the work of the pastoral team undoubtedly improves student outcomes, there is no way to measurably prove this.

So, while pastoral leaders may complete middle leadership courses to ‘get the badge,’ they don’t represent meaningful professional learning experiences for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they are actually excluded from the debate about educational leadership because of this. How do we expect our pastoral leaders to become more evidence-informed if there is very little evidence to consider? How do we expect them to develop their knowledge and understanding if middle leadership courses are designed with a different audience in mind?

Despite the lack of research and the dearth of domain-specific professional development opportunities, pastoral leaders have a great deal to teach us – particularly at a time like this.

First of all, pastoral leaders show us the importance of context and knowing your school really well. In his book ‘Leaders with Substance’ Headteacher Matthew Evans urges school leaders to:

Be a student of your school. Come to know its people, ethos, foibles, peculiarities, cultural norms, hidden spaces, dark secrets, harboured dreams, storage cupboards, social dynamics, potted history, defining moments, reputation, uniqueness and dullness. Let your leadership grow in the rich soil of the school.

I can honestly say that in my experience of over a decade of senior leadership, the people who really understood what it was like to be a student of the school were the pastoral leaders. While SLT were writing the SIP and preparing for governors’ meetings,  the Heads of Year were talking to kids, contacting parents, dealing with outside agencies, managing behaviour, taking witness statements and regularly going above and beyond the call of duty. The Heads of Year knew the school and saw it through the eyes of the students.

The second thing we can learn is how mental models work in action. In their work at Ambition Institute, Tom Rees and colleagues have developed a refreshingly new perspective on school leadership which focuses on the domain-specific knowledge of school leaders and less on generic leadership concepts. He explains that there needs to be ‘more emphasis on what educational leaders know and are able to do (their mental model), and less emphasis on the style in which they operate or generic concepts such as leadership ‘styles’, vision or change.’

In a blog for Ambition, Matthew Evans provides a helpful definition, ‘when confronted with a problem, it is helpful if we have experienced similar situations. Our minds will learn from these experiences and build abstract mental models (or schemata) to guide future decision making. These ‘problem states’ exist in the mind as reference points and are the basis of leadership expertise.’

I really like this focus on specificity over genericism and on people rather than concepts. Again, it calls to mind what pastoral leaders do instinctively. They have become expert at building and using mental models to solve the problems they face. But how? Other than in the NAPCE journal which publishes a range of articles which might be relevant to school contexts, there is very little research or evidence to consult. Instead, pastoral leaders have built their expert mental-models from doing the job. The framework they consult when they are looking for guidance is based on their lived experience of dealing with the “rich soil of the school”.

The third thing we can learn from them is how to be responsive. In Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership Revisited, Leithwood et al, stress the importance of leaders demonstrating responsiveness to their context. They say, “a leader’s main question should always be ‘under these conditions, what should I do?’” Again, when reading this, I think of the pastoral leaders in my school – who created a kind of triage system to respond to the problems that came to their door. Because they understood all those things Evans lists in the first quote above, they were able to respond in the right way, fluently making judicious selections from their mental models to plan the right course of action.

As a caveat, I want to be clear that I am not saying that other leaders in school don’t do these things; they do – of course they do. However, I think it is important to acknowledge, perhaps now more than ever, the complexity of the pastoral leader’s role particularly when they have little research to draw on and very limited professional development with which to engage.

In our current situation, as we await news about how schools might begin to transition to some kind of normality, it is interesting to see what the profession is thinking and feeling. From looking at Twitter over the last week, the keywords and phrases that come up time and time again are: relationships, connection, trust, healing, community, support, wellbeing. These are the knowledge-domains of the pastoral leader, so putting your Heads of Year at the centre of your ‘return to school’ plan would be a good move.

So, my message to pastoral leaders is this: you do an amazing job; even if people cannot see it, students and families will feel the difference it makes. It also strikes me that when we do return to school, the sands will have shifted and colleagues will be coming to you for guidance and support. So, see this as a golden opportunity: suddenly, all the stuff that was hidden will become visible. Evidence of your work will be everywhere as all teachers and leaders in school will become pastoral carers, for the students and each other. Observe this, capture it, write case studies, keep a journal and then peer review your findings – perhaps then we can begin to work towards a more evidence-informed approach.

I also think that it is time to insist upon more domain-specific leadership training experiences. The NPQs are currently being overhauled so let’s hope that we see more bespoke professional learning routes for pastoral leaders. If not, we need to demand that they are created and even design them ourselves if we have to. Pastoral leaders have as much right to be part of the educational debate about leadership as everyone else.

And finally, my message to those of you who aren’t pastoral leaders: I urge you to look afresh at the pastoral teams in your school and acknowledge all the great work they are doing. Recognise the complexity of the job and understand that it isn’t always visible.

Let me end with an anecdote: In my role as a Deputy Head of a large secondary school, my SLT colleague who was in charge of pastoral care, and oversaw all the individual Heads of House, was always fighting for time and having to defend her team. Their work always came second to curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning. At times, she would get angry and become defensive and this would sometimes create tension for the rest of us.

Since leaving that job, I have reflected deeply on the role she played in our SLT. She was the one who challenged our ‘group think’; she was the one who understood the ‘rich soil’ of our school’; she was the one who could look at things from the student or family or community’s perspective.  Her leadership and patience were second to none and I wish I had valued those things more at the time.

Esther is presenting on Pastoral Leadership at the #UkEdChat online conference 9-11 June 2020, for more details visit 


Evans, M (2019) Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism, John Catt Educational Ltd.

Rees, T. 2020: a new Perspective for School Leadership. Ambition Institute.

Evans, M. (2019) The School Leader: Using Mental models Effectively. Ambition Institute.

Kenneth Leithwood, Alma Harris & David Hopkins (2020) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited, School Leadership & Management, 40:1, 5-22, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077

Further Reading (and strong influences on my thinking)

Sputnik Steve. Towards Pastorality – Developing a Research-Informed Approach to be a head of Year.