Motivating students to think hard and challenge themselves whilst learning away from school

‘If you believe with absolute honesty that you are doing everything you can, -do more.’ Shane Koyczan

It’s a busy and exciting week at MCA. Not only have staff and students been participating in challenges as part of National Schools Sports Week, we have also seen the launch of the Creative Arts Festival of Diversity. Throughout the festival – which is all virtual, of course – our community is challenged to engage in a number of Arts activities. These include photography projects of an arrangement of objects that reflect your identity to performing spoken word. One example of this was the poem by Shane Kyczan that was shared by our Performing Arts Department on social media this week, from which the quotation in the title of this blog was sourced.

This is an inspiring sentiment and could be highly motivational for many people – myself included. Reading this also made me think and reflect on the idea of motivation in a wider sense. As has been previously written about in our blogs, the focus of developing metacognition and the skills of self-regulation for our students is the focus of our professional development programme this year. Key characteristics of those students who are able to self-regulate and achieve more success as learners, are motivation towards a specific goal while monitoring and evaluating the progress towards this goal in a non-linear and flexible way. If we look a little closer at motivation, we can distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Those who are able to be influenced by intrinsic motivating factors are likely to be more autonomous and therefore potentially more successful over time.

There is no doubt that many young people rely on the influence from extrinsic motivational factors – such as rewards from teachers, peer comparisons and school-based routines and expectations. However, during a global pandemic where students are learning remotely, these extrinsic motivational factors can be much more difficult to establish.

Like many schools, MCA teachers and support colleagues have been working incredibly hard to engage students in learning.  At the start, this was our number one priority – let’s get students online or completing workbooks as much as possible. We need to engage them first and foremost.

Using the EEF guidance on remote learning, we adapted a teaching model that incorporated many of the elements that would provide high-quality learning and encourage students to engage in learning, whether that be online or with our structured subject specific workbooks. Features included facilitating peer collaboration through deconstructing model answers; using Google forms for low stakes quizzes of prior learning; supporting parents in establishing routines and maintaining our focus on reading and literacy development. This has been hugely successful and we are so proud of our students who have maintained an exceptional level of remote learning.

As time passed, it became clear that students would be learning from home for a sustained and significant time. We knew that students were engaging with learning in a number of different ways but our next challenge was to provide challenge and opportunities for deep thinking whilst still maintaining their interest. If it was too hard we could lose their engagement but if it was not challenging enough then we would effectively be wasting time and ultimately influencing their levels of motivation. We return to Bjork’s concept of desirable difficulty! We were clear that challenge is not more of the same and if this was considered, then this could have a detrimental effect on engagement and motivation.

Here are some of the ways that teachers are now providing opportunities for challenge whilst still engaging students in learning and providing some extrinsic influences of motivation:

  • Flipped learning – students arrive to the lesson with their own questions.  this provides pre-reading and then Google forms is used provide multiple choice questions for students to explore an idea independently, before arriving at the lesson. This means the online lessons can then stretch individual initial ideas and responses
  • Use Google forms to provide some options for an interpretation to a text that has not yet been addressed in lesson, to prompt individual responses ready for greater in-depth discussions
  • Use diagnostic questions in multiple choice quizzes that include ore nuanced misconceptions and using these to probe and further develop understanding
  • Use ‘Wait questions’ via the chat function on online lessons – everyone has to prepare an answer and can only post when told to do so, providing wait time and a no-opt-out structure
  • Use 1-1 or small group tutorials to provide feedback whilst the rest of the class work independently through a task
  • Use shared documents to collaborate on a response as a class to create a ‘perfect’ response with prompting and immediate feedback from the teacher

With these activities, we have endeavoured to combine the guidance on motivation and metacognition, along with our understanding of activities that promote deeper thinking. We are excited to see how we can incorporate these, perhaps using technology more as we welcome more and more students back to school.



What has the Coronavirus taught us about physical school communities?

Across the country, and indeed the world, teachers are adapting to new ways of teaching their students. Many are developing their confidence and expertise in IT as they navigate through virtual worlds of Google, Zoom, Skype and other similar platforms. At the same time, non-teaching teams are working so hard to ensure that we maintain our duty of care and our moral duty to keep children safe, to make sure they are accessing food, to continue with essential services. Also ensuring that staff, students and their families stay protected, remain healthy and follow government advice.

At MCA, we have been overwhelmed by the efforts of staff and students to adapt to these new ways of working. Google Meet is now where we see our KS4 classes in line with a learning schedule. KS3 classes are set regular assignments on Google classroom, receiving frequent feedback and support. Our SEN team have joined the classrooms of our SEND students and are making contact with them to see if they need any additional support to access the learning. Some teachers have scheduled reading time with their classes in line with our daily reading time, emphasising the shared value we have on reading together. Students are filling teacher inboxes with questions and completed assignments. Our Year 11 students, who have been left in a state of uncertainty about their future, are still logging into the Google Meets and accessing learning. Staff are volunteering to support in school where necessary, offering to help with distributing food to our most vulnerable and generally coming together in a way that only continues to make us proud of the very special school we work in.

All of this is truly fantastic. I feel confident that for as long as this situation continues, we will continue to come together as a community and make sure our students get the very best we can offer. It has, however, made me think about why this has worked so well. If online working can be successful, is this the future of education? Is there a possibility that IT could replace teachers and classrooms? Can we possibly move to a paperless education system?

Personally, I think this works only because of the foundations that have already been put in place; the leadership of these projects which has provided staff with training, communicated regularly, offered support, and the means to do the job well; the culture of a school that has been created and nurtured to ensure that everyone is genuinely committed to always improving and continually developing. Perhaps most interestingly it works because of the foundations we have built as a result of being a physical school community.

Here are the elements that I believe have been essential to the effectiveness we have seen as our school closed down last week:

1. Relationships are the bedrock to essential learning

Students are logging in to Google Meets and Classrooms because they trust that they are going to get high quality learning. They have a relationship with their teacher that means they value that contact. There has been laughter, concern, sharing worries that can only be done once a relationship has been established. These relationships can’t be replicated virtually.

2.Effective students are motivated to learn and can therefore adapt to new ways of learning.

The EEF Guidance on effective learners as outlined in the Metacognition and Self-regulated Learners guidance report is that students who are most successful are able to set goals and are motivated to achieve them. A common misconception around motivation is that it is somehow innate; you either have it or you don’t. The reality is that we can provide the conditions and opportunities to help develop motivation in our young people. Whilst I’m not saying this can’t possibly be done virtually, it is much easier and more valuable for young people-especially our most disadvantaged-to do this in person, with daily reminders and genuine praise that relies on body language and gestures.

3.Schools are about more than learning for exams

In this current climate, I know that our students are being offered quality learning experiences, in line with a timetable and with regular tracking and follow up. However, what we cannot offer online is the opportunity to develop skills of listening and responding, the hands on enrichment activities that we offer every day, the chance for students to demonstrate leadership skills, assemblies that explore values and morals but also provide a sense of community as we come together, formally. We are finding new ways to show them we care, but nothing replaces a warm, in person ‘hello’ every morning when you walk into school.

Ultimately, what has become even clearer during these times, is that human connection cannot and never will be replaced by technology. Technology has its place and thank goodness we live in a world that means we are able to continue to teach remotely. I know I’m not alone in hoping we can get back to school soon. I can’t wait to greet them on their first morning back and every day thereafter. Teachers everywhere should know that just that sense of truly belonging to a school community, in person, is one of the greatest things we can offer to our young people.

Everyone at MCA wishes you are your family well in these challenging times.

Susie Fraser

Vice Principal and Director of Manchester Communication Research School



Supporting SEN Students in the Classroom

By Stephanie McCabe, Teacher of Food and Research Facilitator at Manchester Communication Academy

Students with special educational needs bring their own unique strengths and abilities to a classroom, although they may be unable to reach their full potential if not properly supported during their time in education. It is our job as teachers to minimise the barriers that these students may face when accessing the curriculum and to support individual needs. It starts by being consistently mindful about the range of needs that may be in your class and then adopting specific strategies to help individuals. SEN needs themselves can be fluid, 44% of students currently in UK education have been “classed” as SEN at one point during their time in school but on average only 14% of students are SEN at any one particular time. This means we need to continually monitor the needs in our classes and adapt our teaching strategies to meet these needs and build on prior learning.

Planning lessons 

Whilst there is little evidence into the effectiveness of use of fonts  such as comic sans,  there are thoughts that fonts like this do improve readability. If you students like it and you like using it, there is certainly no harm in opting for these choices.

Making keywords bold and using colours such as light blue, light green and cream as backgrounds on powerpoints can also make it easier for students to read information. Incorporating a ‘strategy for time’ is important when planning in order to allow students enough thinking time as well as giving a warning for upcoming tasks for example “in a minute I am going to ask you….”

The fundamentals of Cognitive Load Theory are also worth consideration here. Minimising the extraneous load when planning for how subject material is presented. According the cognitive load theory, this increases the possiblity for students for engage with new material and support is transition into working memory.

Praise is something I have found to be incredibly important, particularly with SEN students. Often they lack confidence in their ability and don’t have high expectations of what they can achieve. Giving both private and public praise has not only improved the confidence and attitude to learning but students are very engaged in class and motivated to do well. I have given students high target grades and have consistently high expectations for the standard of their work and detail in their answers both verbally in class and written in their books.

Delivering lessons

Evidence based teaching and learning strategies ensure teaching is of a  high quality. Having previously taught mainly high prior attaining students at KS4 who usually absorb and retain information easily, this year I have a KS4 class with a range of SEN needs and it was a learning curve at first to see how some students struggled to retain information. I had to stop and think about the approaches I was using and made some big changes in the way that I delivered my lessons for this class. I have tried various approaches and have summarised the two most successful:

Scaffolding: The KS4 exam in food includes a section of long answer questions which contribute to over 50% of the mark allocation in the paper. These questions are usually 6 marks or more and these are the questions which students often leave blank as seeing a large space puts them off and is daunting to them because of the amount of writing and structure required. Scaffolding has been essential to support and show them how to successfully approach these questions. We have used the ‘fishbowl activity’ where students who are confident in how to approach an answer explain how they do it and write it down with the rest of the class around them watching being modelled to them. I have used ‘think alouds’ where I attempt an answer and model my thought processes as I go to improve critical thinking. Kagan strategies such as Think Pair Share have also been weaved into scaffolding tasks but then I have been aware of ensuring that enough is left for self scaffolding, giving students enough independence and only removing the scaffolding gradually when they are secure in their prior knowledge and confident in strategies for breaking the question up and knowing how to achieve all the marks.

Multisensory: Research has shown that a  sensory based approach is effective for students with a range of difficulties. Having an active learning environment has improved engagement with SEN students and I have found that students are retaining information well, showing that it is embedding into the long term memory. Some multisensory activities have included:

  • Role play for specific topics where willing students are given a role and stand up in front of the class to act out a scenario linked to a topic we are learning

  • Air writing and verbally saying out loud new complex vocabulary as they write it down.

  • Using ingredients in practicals such as flour and rice to write answers to the questions I ask instead of using whiteboards

  • Using glitter glue on flashcards and tracing over the words when recapping information

  • Making specific links to out of school examples which students relate to.

Teaching SEN students is complex due to the number of different specific needs that children can have in our classrooms. As well as this, two students with the same SEN need may have different barriers to learning which we need to be aware of. To further add, we know that needs of students aren’t necessarily going to be fixed and may change over time. However, while we can’t be experts in every specific special need, we can become confident in a range of strategies we know is helpful for these students and then choose the most appropriate ones when planning and delivering lessons, monitoring how well these help and then reviewing our future planning.

Building a Successful Foundation for Reintegration

Chris Cotter, English Teacher and Research Facilitator, Manchester Communication Research School

Time and time again we’re faced with students who, for one reason or another, consistently fail to reach the necessary expectations of the classroom. Often with behaviour programmes a student is subjected to a prolonged fixed term exclusion or lengthy stint at an alternative provision. Then, before we know it, they are placed back into the school system and within a relatively short space of time inevitably fail all over again.

How then can we best ensure that our behaviour interventions are both appropriately punitive but still restorative at the same time? And when we eventually decide that it is time for reintegration, how can we provide appropriate support to give a child the best opportunity for success?

Reintegrating Jane

For instance, let’s take a look at a student called Jane1: a disengaged learner who has become completely disillusioned by the negative outcomes of her education so far.

Whenever Jane is faced with a new barrier, or challenge, she stumbles and falls. But if we support Jane and provide her with a catalogue of small wins, shower her with constructive praise, and instil within her a belief in her ability to succeed, then along with some close monitoring and supportive reflection, the possibilities are endless.

Her timetable was adapted and personalised – a provision for which Jane was heavily involved, which encouraged her to be reflective on her past educational experiences and allowed for an honest discussion about what had gone wrong in the past. Restorative conversations were arranged with specific members of staff that according to Jane “just don’t like me”. It was imperative for classroom teachers to have this informal discussion with Jane outside of the classroom environment in order to empathise with her position and build on their working relationship.

Evidence suggested by the EMR model within the EEF’s ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’ guidance report highlights how significant the impact of maintaining a positive relationship without compromising on boundaries and expectations can not only lead to improved behaviour but also improved academic outcomes.

  • EMR Behaviour GR
    From ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’, page 10

Teenagers by their very nature throughout high school are beginning to self-conceptualise their own identities and this perception is largely formed by the everyday social interactions that we have with those around us. We internalise and react to the labels given to us by others: family, friend, teacher, etc. and it’s no surprise to realise that many of our most disengaged and troubled learners allow these negative stereotypes to influence their actions.

Put simply, negative interactions lead to negative feelings, negative feelings lead to negative thoughts and negative thoughts lead to negative behaviours. So, if we removed the negative influence at play here and replaced it with a more positive approach surely this would improve the behaviour of those we are reintroducing to mainstream learning and increase their opportunities for success.

As stated in recommendation one of the guidance report, by increasing the number of positive influences during a student’s time at school we can pro-actively mitigate the risk of negative incidents reoccurring.

The power of positive interactions

Positive social interactions are key to cognitive, social and emotional development. As educators and professional adults, it is we who should set the standard and model these desirable behaviours for those most at risk of permanent exclusion. Far too often there can be an avoidable breakdown in relationship between teacher and student, generally caused by an overzealous use of school behaviour policies or inconsistencies when managing behavioural incidents in an effective way.

The most essential step when challenging misbehaviour is the restorative conversation that takes place post incident and it’s no surprise that the quality of relationship between adult and child is an imperative component when assessing how receptive a student is to this type of regulatory discussion.

Ultimately, we’re all facilitators of learning and as such must remember to provide students with an element of independence, trust and ownership over their learning experiences. Yes, it’s important to establish a set of expectations within any learning environment, though it’s also our responsibility to make sure these behavioural expectations are personalised and attainable for all.

Changing a child’s way of thinking or revolutionising their perception of themselves is no simple task, but with ongoing collaboration, opportunities for guided reflection and segmented reintegration the potential for success stands within our grasp.


1 Jane is an anonymised student

Applying the Principles of Metacognition to Teacher Development

How well do the principles of metacognition apply to teachers as well as to learners?

At Manchester Communication Academy, our main focus for professional development this year is ‘Empowering Learners through Metacognition.’ Each half term, we look at a different strand of the EEF Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report.  Faculty areas have an opportunity to adapt to their subject and then, within learning communities, teachers are given time to plan and evaluate for effective implementation. This half term, we are focusing on providing opportunities for reflection so that students can monitor and evaluate their progress towards their learning destination (we’re going big on the road map analogy!)


This coincides with a leadership focus on the quality of education across the Academy and fundamentally, what needs to change or develop to ensure we continue to move forward? Alongside this, we have a number of trainee teachers, NQTs and early career teachers who are also on a journey to developing expertise. Both of these priorities require a degree of high quality and effective reflection. So do the recommendations in the guidance report, also apply to our development as teachers?

Simplistically, we understand that students who are successful at self-regulating and regularly put to use metacognitive strategies, are more likely to be successful in terms of educational outcomes, as they have a secure knowledge of themselves as learners. As teachers develop from novice to expert, they too develop a greater consciousness of themselves as teachers. In line with the three main strands of metacognition; plan, monitor and evaluate, effective and successful teachers dedicate time to all 3 strands. However, in the busy and demanding day to day schedule of a teacher, how much time is genuinely dedicated to monitoring and evaluating? For those who are not yet expert and who do not autonomously reflect during these three different stages, how do we as leaders facilitate and support this for them?

So I referred back to the main recommendations from the guidance report which can be found here: to see if these should and can be built into our approach to developing teachers at MCA.

Recommendation 2 refers to ‘ending in structured reflection.’ At MCA, we have a number of trained coaches who use an instructional coaching model to help facilitate this for teachers who wish to refine their expertise-development is not just for the novice! However, this is quite a small group and I would like this to be more common across the Academy. Through my recent work with our Modern Foreign Language department, we have created a structure through a series of questions, where planning partners can be ‘critical friends’ to supportively interrogate the planning process:

  1. How does this link to previous learning? How will you make this clear to the students?
  2. How do the activities support the learning intention? How will you make this clear to the students?
  3. Why are the activities sequenced in this way?
  4. How and at what point will you check learning? What will you do in response? How are you addressing previous misconceptions?
  5. What will students find most challenging? How do you know? What will you do to support?
  6. What will students know/be able to do by the end of the lesson that they couldn’t at the start? How does this link to the MCA steps/GCSE criteria?

This will be done verbally, during departmental development time to allow for structured reflection. Recommendation 3 in the guidance report suggest that ‘teachers should verbalise their metacognitive thinking’ and hopefully this structure will allow for this too.

Our aim is that, not only will this allow for structured reflection which in turn should lead to more purposeful and considerate planning, it also strengthens the structures for collaborative planning. There is a body of evidence that highlights the potential benefits to student achievement through well-structured collaborative planning and it is an approach that we embrace at MCA, however the need for structure and adaptation for different subject areas is crucial.

Recommendation 5 of the guidance report is about promoting and developing metacognitive talk. During learning community time at MCA, teachers are encouraged to share with colleagues from other subject areas, how Academy wide approaches will be implemented in their own classrooms. Again, there are opportunities here to develop metacognitive talk but this will need a clear structure and some examples that are modelled by our learning community facilitators. Done well, this will allow teachers to think purposefully about the lesson ingredients and make connections to prior training.

Finally, recommendation 6 highlights the importance of guided practice leading to independent practice. Over the past year, we have been developing our use of deliberate practice in small group teacher training. The principles of deliberate practice include modelling, agreeing success criteria, independent practice and feedback. More on this can be found here:

Fundamentally, deliberate practice is a structured approach from guided practice to independent practice in classrooms and often professional development can skip this important step. This needs to be more of a focus for our training, especially for those early career teachers who will benefit from seeing the transfer from a model to their own practice. It is something that we are trialling and refining.

In summary, it seems that the guidance on metacognition and self-regulation applies to us as teachers too. Our role as leaders is to facilitate and structure these strategies in the same way we would for the students to support the shift to greater autonomy and expertise.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu

The start of a new school year is filled with emotion and activity; nostalgia for a long and hopefully restful summer but excitement for the year ahead. New diaries and planners adorn desks, wall planners are primed for being decorated with signs of organisation, classrooms are tidy and everyone is ready to make the year brilliant. After two weeks of term, does that rigour and vigour still exist and if not, how do we get it back?

Last Saturday, I went to ResearchEd. A 06.55 train from Manchester to London, a scurry through the underground and a day filled with speakers and workshops could seem like the last thing one would choose to do the weekend after the first full week back at school. Yet I was there, filled with enthusiasm and it also didn’t deter the other 1,500 teachers who also gave up a Saturday for their own professional development. That is incredible and not only a credit to the quality of the event but also a representation of the brilliant and committed teachers who work in our schools. However, it did make me wonder, if the event had been scheduled for a Saturday in mid-November, when the start of a new school year is a distant memory, would the attendance be the same and if not, what is it about the power of new term that gets us motivated?

The CPD theme at MCA for 2019/2020 is ‘Empowering student learning through metacognition and self-regulation’. Each half term we will focus on a different element of this, as shown below:

Autumn 1 Autumn 2 Spring 1 Spring 2
Empowering pupils through motivation and goal setting Empowering pupils with an understanding of cognitive and metacognitive strategies Empowering pupils through modelling of thinking Empowering pupils through their talk

In preparation for this, teachers read the EEF guidance report on metacognition over the summer and a common idea continued to emerge through reflections: Is it possible to teach motivation? Our research here has looked at the importance of building competence but like most teachers, I have noticed with my own students that they currently seem very motivated. We are all striving towards our mantra to Be Brilliant. That is great! But how do I maintain that motivation when the freshness of a new school term has worn off and what is it about these temporal landmarks that get us so motivated in the first place?

Dai, Milkman and Riss (2014) discuss the significance of these temporal landmarks in their article ‘The Fresh Start Effect’. They propose that time markers, such as birthdays, new school terms, new months and weeks, make people feel disconnected from the past-often imperfect-self and interrupt and disrupt the day-to-day minutiae, promoting a big picture view of life. It is therefore at these points that we feel greater motivation to pursue new goals. However, effects weaken as people perceive themselves to be further from a temporal landmark. What their research also explored was the importance of self-perception. They make the point that ‘If people perceive themselves as moral they are more likely to pursue moral actions’. So if this is the case, if our students perceive themselves to be brilliant young people and brilliant academics, are they more likely to pursue the actions to help them fulfil this self-perception? Taking all this into account, it seems clear here that the combination of these things could lead to success: Positively reaffirming with students that they are brilliant and they are academics, acknowledging temporal landmarks, and providing them with the skills and competence to be these things will go a long way to supporting students in maintaining their motivation and commitment to long term goals.

Part of this pursuit of brilliance for the students is the importance of working hard and of having ‘grit’. I’m about to deliver an assembly to Year 11 on some key elements of the science of learning and this concludes with a discussion of grit, linked to the idea of revisiting learning, doing something with what they have been taught. But is grit really what I mean?

The concept of grit has been widely discussed in schools since Angela Duckworth defined this as ‘the passion and perseverance of long-term goals’  and suggested that those who demonstrated grit were more likely to achieve academic success. What I found interesting from Duckworth was her recognition that at those times where we hear that self-talk of failure or weakness then this is completely normal. A metacognitive understanding of that can help us to nod to the self-talk but refocus our behaviours to move past it.

In 2016, Daniel Willingham in his article ‘Grit is trendy but can it be taught?’ posed the question does grit differ from motivation and if so how? Willingham makes the point that the characteristic of conscientiousness is similar to grit; both encompass orderly and industrious behaviours and alongside the possession of self-control it is actually this which is likely to lead to greater academic success. No teacher would argue that passion is important but is this going to get the job done? Reassuringly, whilst we can exemplify passion in our roles as teachers, it is much more difficult to teach this as it is to teach the composite elements of conscientiousness and self-control.

So as the new school year becomes less new, and the motivation of our students and our own motivation to pursue personal and professional goals begins to dwindle, let’s see every new week, or new day as a fresh start. Let’s keep our eyes on the long-term goal of achieving the best outcomes yet for the students in our care and practise the behaviours that will get us-and them-there.

As the novelist Arnold Bennett said ‘You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose’.




How do we know when students are really thinking hard?

In the world of education, I have always thought challenge to be a bit of an abstract concept; How can we really know if students are thinking hard? How do we know what the level of difficulty is for each individual student? As a teacher, I want to support my students so that they feel success. I didn’t like the thought of students struggling, or feeling like they couldn’t do something. My job was and is to make learning accessible for them.  Shouldn’t I remove the struggle? This has always been particularly pertinent for my work developing and improving the provision for SEN students. Is there enough scaffolding? Have they got the right sentence starters? Is the learning chunked and broken down for them?

However, over recent months I’ve been looking more closely at the research and evidence surrounding stretch and challenge, in particular the work by Robert A Bjork on ‘desirable difficulty’ and the paradox of ‘learning vs. performance’. As Bjork outlines ‘Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training. Learning—that is, the more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction—is something we must try to infer, and current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether learning has occurred.’

This is all well and good but for a teacher, it poses the question of how do we know that students are really learning and are really challenged? Bjork puts forward a number of strategies that promote deeper processing of learning and so at MCA, we are using this research to inform the following approaches to providing appropriate challenge that increases the efficacy of learning:

  1. Through a challenging curriculum that exposes students to content that goes above and beyond the national curriculum and specifications
  2. Through carefully planned retrieval that is demanding and requires deeper thinking alongside low stakes testing
  3. Through the development of multiple paragraph extended responses, inspired and informed by Doug Lemov’s Writing Revolution


In previous blogs I have shared our approach to daily reading time and how this facilitates opportunities for students to think big about topics and ideas that are not part of a scheme of learning or exam requirement. This had led to some brilliant discussions with and amongst students, it’s wonderful to hear them asking questions and hypothesising.

Low stakes testing and retrieval practice is a common feature of all lessons. We use retrieval grids that include questions and tasks that require varying levels of thinking; there will usually be something that the students are really familiar with so that they still get that taste for success but increasingly, the students are rising to the challenges. Furthermore, as a result of a series of assembles that has explained to students some of the main principles of the science of learning, they understand the importance of thinking hard.

Finally, The Writing Revolution has recently informed our professional development workshops and consequently, students now have the opportunity to construct thesis statements and then apply their learning and thinking about a topic in a cohesive and critical way. For me, this is a way that students can really engage with knowledge, make connections, fully explore a topic in depth, but then also link that to their lives and context.

So what’s next? Our goal is to ensure that students become better at self-regulation so that they are able to seek out challenge and set their own challenges.  So we might not always know the exact extent to which students are thinking hard, but if we know that they value seek to challenge themselves, desiring the difficulty, then perhaps the potential guilt we may feel when students struggle will become the will to push them hard and see how far they can go.

“A word after a word after a word is power”  Margaret Atwood 


Like many other schools up and down the country, we have been focusing our efforts on developing the vocabulary of our students. Following the inspiration of Alex Quigley’s book, we are ‘Closing The Vocabulary Gap’. Alex’s theory has been fundamental in helping us to appreciate the impact of being ‘word poor’. He explains how the curse of the expert can sometimes mean that we fail to appreciate the gaps that students have in their vocabulary. As a result, we unintentionally fail to explicitly teach the meaning of some of the language that we assume is a common vernacular. So, after getting stuck in to some of the research and thinking about what’s most important for our students, we knew that this had to be a priority. As a result, it is an integral strand of one of our Academy goals to design and embed a text rich curriculum. The evidence not only highlighted the connections between word knowledge and academic achievement and the importance of vocabulary in reading comprehension but also reminded us of the moral imperative. As Geoff Barton points out, ‘words lie at the heart of our quest to narrow gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged, to address social mobility’.  Now, 10 weeks into this academic year, here are just some of the approaches we’ve taken as a team at MCA to improve word wealth and close the vocabulary gap:

  • Daily reading time in all subject areas followed by a focused discussion and understanding of tier 2 vocabulary, providing wider and frequent exposure as well as explicit instruction
  • Explicit identification and delivery of tier 2 vocabulary in medium-term plans across all subjects
  • A thinking and oracy curriculum in Year 7 for students struggling with literacy. This includes becoming familiar with new vocabulary by saying the words using different accents and volumes before applying in context to a written task
  • Scripting teacher explanations to include appropriate tier 2 vocabulary that is then unpicked and understood
  • Retrieval practice of useful terminology across subject areas within faculty groups
  • The deconstruction of WAGOLLs (What a Good One Looks Like) with a focus on tier 2 vocabulary
  • Talk of the Town events where students present speeches to peers, teachers and parents
  • Vocabulary buster bingo cards for students to gain experience of application of common tier 2 vocabulary
  • A weekly Words and Music celebration for students to perform spoken word
  • Interactive displays and word walls to prompt and support the familiar use of new vocabulary

Experience has taught me that trying to develop a whole school approach to literacy can often be a challenge. In some schools, it can still appear to be the domain of the English department. This is not the case at MCA.

That could be down to the fact that the approach has been evidence and research informed. It could be because the majority of our CPD this year is tied together by the golden thread of a text rich curriculum. It could also be that the strategies are fairly simple to implement, and colleagues have been given time to do so. Likewise, it could have something to do with the fact that we are relentless as leaders in our quest to make this happen. However, it wouldn’t happen without a fantastic team of middle leaders who transform the evidence and vision into something that is relevant and purposeful for their department. It also wouldn’t happen without the amazing teachers who are committed to doing whatever it takes to give our students the greatest chance to be the best version of themselves. As my favourite author, Margaret Atwood, said: “A word after a word after a word is power.” We believe a team brings those words to action and makes change happen. Change is happening here.


‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’ (Helen Keller, Author and Activist)

Mr Daniel, Assistant Principal, proud Welshman and all round creative genius, signs off all of his emails with #togetherstronger. I’m sure we all recognise that this is Mr Daniel’s way of persuading us to do something but no one could argue that he embodies this hashtag daily; with colleagues, with governors, with parents and most importantly, with students. I don’t think there is any coincidence that the creative subjects which he leads have achieved the highest progress 8 scores across the Academy for the past 3 years. He wouldn’t claim this (of course) and quite rightly attributes it to a team effort. Our creative team are amazing and also a very strong team, no one works alone. Mr Daniel and his team have made me reflect on the importance of partnerships.

I am proud to say that at MCA we are a very outward facing school. We are part of the Manchester Collaborative where colleagues from different subject areas and with different responsibilities meet with similar colleagues from other schools to share ideas and provide support. We are also working closely with the Institute for Teaching with colleagues working through the Transforming Teaching programme and I am lucky enough to be on the Fellowship programme. We have built effective relationships with OLEVI and are now proud facilitators of the Outstanding Teacher Programme. Their recent QA visit praised our ‘open culture’ and the fact we ‘recognise the benefits of engaging with external partners.’ Our links with the Research Schools network inspired our Disciplined Inquiry approach where all colleagues conduct an action research project. We are currently signed up to two EEF trials so that we can be at the forefront of learning from large scale research projects. If we are going to be a true learning community, then we have to believe that we can learn from others and seek out opportunities for that learning as much as possible.

However, those external partnerships can only go so far if we do not have a culture of collaboration, teamwork and an openness to feedback and learning within the Academy. Our timetable is structured to allow planning teams to have protected time to meet and plan on a weekly basis. This opportunity for collaboration has definitely made me a better teacher. Not only do we share resources and ideas but it provides an opportunity to reflect and compare how well students have learnt.  This year, we have set up coaching triads as part of our learning communities to support professional development. Whilst coaching is still in its infancy here, the opportunity to discuss ideas and share the evaluation process of strategies, further supports the belief that working together in a non-threatening and non-judgemental way can be really powerful.

Of course, what we want above all else, is for our students to believe that they are not alone on this journey. We want our students to experience collaborative learning and to develop these skills that transform them into good listeners, good friends and good team players. We want them to feel proud to be part of our MCA community and proud of the community and the city in which they live. We want them to believe that as a generation they can change the world. Together, everything is possible. It is our job to model that and to demonstrate that commitment to all of the partnerships we are a part of. Through these partnerships and teams, we show them that it is ok to reach out and ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness. Because together we are stronger.



Trust the Magic of New Beginnings

‘Trust the Magic of New Beginnings’

Just like that, the summer was over. It’s now time for a confession that could possible alienate me from many teachers up and down the country; I was itching to get back. That’s not to say that my summer holidays were not wonderful. I savoured every special moment spent with friends and loved ones, to travel, to cook, to read, to eat (excessively!). Those times are so important and we are so lucky as a profession that we get that time but isn’t there something exciting about the opportunity for a new beginning?

This eagerness and urgency really hit home on GCSE results day. I don’t think it matters how many years you have been a teacher, every year there are the sleepless nights filled with anxiety, worry, overthinking and often underestimating the wonder of this day. At MCA, we couldn’t have been prouder. Our morning started over sausage butties with a genuine celebration with our middle leaders of the overwhelming hard work, effort, commitment and determination that culminated in a truly reflective set of results. The message from our principal was clear. This day was not about the numbers and the data, it was not the time to scrutinise and, as we typically do, feel disappointed if there was a result that was not what we were expecting. This day was about our young people and sharing in that moment that will last with them forever.

What a day! Happy tears (students and staff, including me) shouts and squeals, hugs and so much shared joy. And then they were gone. Off into the big, wide world with all the potential to make a difference and be the best version of themselves. Why would we not want to get back to the business of making that happen and being a part of a moment that those young people will hold in their memories for a lifetime?

So, back to business and the time for those new beginnings. New priorities, new staff and new students. There have been some exciting developments at MCA which mark the start of 2018-2019. Here are just a few of them:

Walls: When MCA was first built more than eight years ago, the building was designed with open-plan learning spaces. Over time, teachers have felt that the opportunity to have a more private classroom space, which allows for greater opportunities for discussion and group work, would be beneficial to our learning environment. We now have walls. We have still maintained the option for more open-plan learning bases but traditional classrooms are much more of a feature across the Academy. I’m excited to see how the dynamics of learning are transformed to provide even more engaging learning experiences.

A Library: Our drive for CPD, teaching and learning and curriculum is to flood the environment with as much exposure as possible to a text-rich culture. This starts with our new library. This was launched by our student leaders during our INSET day when they led book clubs with staff on Matt Haig’s book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, which everyone was given to read over the summer. The discussions that were led by our students on mental health and the joy of life were astounding (cue more tears) and seeing our students arrive at school on a day when they could still be enjoying their summer, clutching a book and talking about it, magically defined the start of my year.

Reading Time: Every afternoon, at the end of lunch and before the start of the final lesson of the day, students now have 15 minutes which is dedicated reading time. They arrive to their learning areas to the sound of classical music and have the option to read a book of their choice or they are provided with an article or extract that has been chosen by the teacher. This culminates in a short discussion or reflection. Not only does this facilitate more reading time for our young people, it also provides a calm moment in the middle of the day. Maybe next year we will include breathing and meditation, too. Watch this space.

Shorter Lessons: Our school day used to be structured about three x 1 hour-50-minute lessons. This year we have modified this to four x 1 hour-20-minute lessons. Why? We recognised, with the help of student voices, that many struggled to concentrate for the longer lesson period and in some cases the time meant that pace was compromised. Already, the students are reporting greater levels of engagement and pace is much more conducive to learning. We value the slightly longer than traditional lesson times as it allows for extended writing (part of our text rich curriculum) and valuable reflection to support the metacognitive processes that allow for better learning and greater development of learning behaviours.

The list could go on (jumpers, assemblies, assistant heads of year, more Mandarin). Whilst there are many new things to revel in, monitor, evaluate and hopefully enjoy, the fundamentals here at MCA still firmly remain: A commitment to the well-being of students and staff, a relentless focus on mitigating the effects of disadvantage, a world-class service to our community and many, many magic moments.