Farewell from Rachel Lofthouse

This month I left Newcastle University for a new post at Leeds Beckett University where I am Professor of Teacher Education.  I am thrilled to be given this opportunity to work in my chosen field at a new institution and looking forward to making a contribution to knowledge, practice and the work of teachers, student teachers and educators in that region, as well as (I hope) further afield.  When the job was advertised it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, although my first job application in 17 years was somewhat daunting.  I found myself writing it on New Year’s Day and perhaps that was the clincher, with the hopefulness of a new year, the potential challenges seemed enticing.  There were two additional pull factors. Firstly, I was born in Headingly (where the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University is based), but left when I was two years old, so this felt like a bid to return to a forgotten homeland. Secondly, I had been to the Headingly campus the previous summer, on a warm sunny day when the parkland and redbrick buildings looked at their best, to attend a @WomenEd event.  Perhaps this application was my response to the commitment the women at that conference were making to shaping and sustaining education through their own professional lives.  So, cutting that story short, and via an interview in a box overlooking the cricket ground at Headingly (where the university occupy a stand) I have taken up the post.  Time will tell what this will bring, but I look forward to it.  But in looking forward I also look back.

My academic, professional and much of my social life has revolved around Newcastle University for longer than the nearly 18 years I have worked there. I joined the then School of Education in Joseph Cowen House in 1990, to do my PGCE with the relatively new tutor David Leat. Indeed I was the first candidate he ever interviewed for PGCE.  My PGCE was the best transition to professional and educative life I could imagine, and David should take credit for this.  It was a place where we explored ideas, made mistakes, learned to outgrow our embarrassment and naivety as new teachers, gained lifelong friends, and benefitted from mentoring and university tutoring which was absolutely based on the principles of critical friendship, subject enthusiasm and professional allegiance.  We learned how to reframe our perspectives on teaching and learning, and worked hard to learn to teach our subject (Geography) with both rigour and freshness.  This was pre-national curriculum and pre-QTS standards – a world becoming ever harder to recall!  I had placements in Scotswood and Hexham (thank you to Dave Lockwood and Gordon Whitfield my mentors), and went on to be a ‘probationer’ in Durham (thank you to Ian Short for his pragmatic leadership and support) and later a head of department in Prudhoe (thank you to Bill Graham for his subject wisdom and patience).  Much of my practice development and intellectual curiosity was supported by my work in partnership with the local authority advisors and colleagues from other schools, with particular shout-outs to Mel Rockett, Robert Peers, Anne D’Echavaria, James Nottingham and many others.

I have occasionally found myself in the right place at the right time, and the 1990s was just that for me. As a teacher I kept connected to the university in various guises. I was part of the Thinking Through Geography group, a PGCE mentor and occasional visiting tutor and a teacher-coach participant in a Schools Based Research Consortium project on teaching thinking skills.   I joined the university in 2000, having left behind the beckoning era of teacher performance management, threshold pay and league tables. I was an enthusiastic Geography PGCE tutor, enjoying the buzz that job offered of working with a diverse group of motivated student teachers, helping them make sense of education from their new perspectives and helping to sustain local geography departments where so many of them went on to work. The legacy of the teaching thinking skills work was significant and became a core characteristic of both the Geography and wider secondary PGCE in the 2000s.  My own interest in the work of mentors also provided continuity as I transitioned from that role to the university, and aligned with my experiences as a teacher coach in the research project.  Over time I took the lead in the secondary PGCE and then moved on to look the various part-time Masters programmes.  This gave me multiple opportunities to work with teachers from across the region, at all stages of their careers and in all educational sectors. In the last few years my particular interest has been developing the PGCert in Coaching and Mentoring modules. From my modules, and across the M.Ed and Ed.D programmes a significant learning experience for me has always been listening to teachers talk about their work and supervising their research. I have also enjoyed working more directly with a number of North East schools (including Hermitage, Cardinal Hume and Kelvin Grove) to develop and research approaches to professional learning and development, often through coaching. Thank you to all my Newcastle University students, and to the teachers, coaches and mentors I have worked with in schools. I have gained so much from working with you.

And so to my colleagues, without whom none of my enthusiasms for my work would have translated into practice.  My teaching colleagues in PGCE and Masters programmes and my research colleagues in CfLaT have been the most amazing critical friends, collaborators and co-conspirators. The educational landscapes that we inhabit have changed radically over my 18 years at Newcastle University; initial and continuing teacher exists in a topsy turvy world which maps haphazardly onto the changes in the organisations we used to know simply as schools, but now as academies, MATS, teaching schools, (to name just a few), and both our university and the wider HE sector has been transformed through student loans, the REF and global league tables. Through this my colleagues, who are unfortunately too numerous to name individually, have been a constant source of inspiration and challenge.  They know who they are, some are newly appointed, some have departed and others have worked alongside each other for many years.  They are all people who care deeply that education works for all in society; that it offers individuals ways of making sense of their world and allows communities to thrive.  Thank you to you all, for you have continued to teach me that education is of the people and for the people; wherever they (and we) are.

3 months abroad and how the UK changed my mind

One year ago, the idea of going abroad to a Research Internship was just a wish. Now, I have had an experience working with Pam Woolner, at CfLaT in Newcastle University, that helped me grow as a person and researcher.

My first school visit while in Newcastle was to Churchill Community College, accompanied by Alan Strachan and later helped by Wayne Daley, who were keen to make sure I got all the information I needed for my study. The school was built in the 1960s and renovated about 12 years ago, and visiting it opened my eyes to what the British curriculum has to offer with all the department-division and subjects they have, including music and dance (which have their own space).


The second visit, to Whitburn Academy and its 6th Form building, rebuilt in 2009 and 2015 respectively, confirmed the first impression of education in the UK. Walking around the school along with the solicitous and attentive head teacher, Alan Hardie, and my mentor Pam Woolner, confirmed what I, deep down, already knew: the UK presents a different reality from Brazil, with its different relation regarding school facilities and maintenance and treatment regarding pupils and teaching staff.


In my third visit, to Prudhoe High School (a 2016 building),alongside Pam Woolner, Ulrike Thomas and Karen Laing, the point was understand how CfLaT’s research methods are applied to staff and pupils, besides making a tour around the facilities. One more time, I was dazzled by the possibilities the school offers, with media studios, well-equipped art and science labs and the concern of trying to include the building in the community dynamics.


These schools are, in many respects, traditionally-designed ones, with their own reasons. Churchill more because of the time it was first built and then due to willingness to follow the former architectural style, Whitburn because of the former head teacher ideas and beliefs and Prudhoe due to the governmental programme under which it was built (PSBP). However, they do present, as my investigation pointed out, some innovations in terms of school Design Patterns, which are spread around the buildings – even if still shyly –, noticed and cherished by the users.
Therefore, going to the UK taught me a meaningful lesson that has changed my way of seeing things. Traditional facilities can be well-designed and they do have their value. “Updating” thoughts and attitudes to contemporary ones does not mean tearing down buildings when they do not have the new Design Patterns I advocate schools must have today. These changes and diversities can be added in smaller steps [as long as they really are added], as their importance is felt and their good impact on supporting different ways to teach and learn is noticed more and more.

My name is Larissa Negris, I’m Brazilian and I am an Architect and Urban Designer. Investigating School Architecture has been my passion only quite recently, since I am as yet a second-year Master student at UNICAMP, but has got stronger after broadening my views in the UK. I got a glimpse of what education and its infrastructure can be.

Discourses of Ability We Live By

In some of my work I’ve argued that unless we engage more with progressive conceptualisations of academic ability overall, the concept will, by default, continue to be overly-determined by a narrowly-conceived measure of particular cognitive skills (https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/a-new-direction-for-gifted-education-studies). To this end, I presented a paper recently at the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) Annual Life History and Biography Network Conference, entitled ‘Differing Discourses of Ability We Live By’. This drew on life history narratives to better understand the long-term impact, over the lifecourse, of having failed the 11+ examination taken by some adults in the last year of their primary schooling in England.

Part of my paper, utilising Foucault, focused on how psychological measures such as this and related discourses carry huge authority. The power invested in these discourses then leads to the shaping of academic identities in ways that are surely not warranted by the measures themselves (not to mention issues of socio-cultural bias, unfair access to preparation for tests and yearly variants in cut-off levels for grammar schools determined by fluctuations in the birth cohort). I was interested both in the impact of these dominant discourses of high ability, but also in what might be the potential counter-discourses that individuals draw on. In some of the life histories the 11+ was indeed a momentous event, for some both an ending – of a hoped for education and family aspirations – as much as a beginning of what was then to follow. For all it was a significant turning point in life, but a further interpretation of the life histories is that such failure can set up an ongoing present – one participant speaking about how they were ‘still failing the 11+’ much later in life when something did not work out.

An apparent counter-discourse was that of ‘emotional intelligence’. Recourse to discourses of affect to counter discourses based on cognitive aspects of ability alone were welcome, especially in the form of ‘EQ’, which so closely resembles the altogether more troubling, if largely discredited, ‘IQ’. Life history work itself enabled participants to explore multiple understandings of ability beyond the one dominant discourse and in this sense gave voice to frustrations. However, not withstanding this, there was much evidence of the onerous lifelong impact that resulted from having failed this one examination at such a young age. By not focusing attention on those that fail, and instead talking up the opportunities afforded to the few disadvantaged pupils who pass, we refuse to adequately acknowledge and reflect on such debilitating lifelong ramifications.

The Life History and Biography Network (LHBN) of ESREA is a space and community of researchers that I have for some years now drawn much from – in terms of both the affective and the cognitive dimensions. It is a celebration of European research in this field, with scholars hailing from all parts of the continent and beyond. My paper was presented in a session with colleagues from Italy, who (having presented both in English and French) commented that in Italy such testing and sorting of children so young would be unthinkable and simply not countenanced. It is always sobering to reflect on our own educational values and practices in a cross-cultural light and be reminded that what may at times appear inevitable is in fact highly contingent on a host of specific historical and cultural conditions.

I have argued elsewhere that we need an enriched, varied set of discourses about ability and perhaps even a more nuanced language. In this paper however, it was not necessary to follow this logic as what was being argued – and what appeared so obvious to my European colleagues – was simply that in seeking and hearing the life histories of those failed by this national test at the age of 11, we ourselves cannot fail but to apprehend the ongoing danger inherent in using narrow measures of ability to do far more work than they should ever have been called on to do. Our collective failure to provide challenging, engaging, relevant schooling for all, is turned into the personal failing of a proportion of eleven year old children. Given what we now know about the lack of impact on social mobility, the bias towards those who are coached and the harsh justice of any arbitrary cut-off score, the fact that a new round of grammar schools is once more on the horizon is testament to what happens in education when we divorce affect from cognition, and facts from values.

Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith is Research Excellence Academy Fellow in the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She was previously Senior Research Fellow at the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, University of Warwick. Her research is mainly situated within the sociology of education and she works in a social justice and education cluster.  She is author of a book entitled Families, Education and Giftedness: Case Studies in the Construction of High Achievement (with Professor Jim Campbell). Previous conference presentations at ESREA have resulted in book chapters for Constructing Narratives of Continuity and Change (Eds. Reid, H. and West, L., Routledge) and Stories that Make a Difference (Eds. Formenti, L. and West, L., Pensa Multimedia), available at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Laura_Mazzoli_Smith/publications

Improving Mentoring Practices through Collaborative Conversations


Mentoring beginning teachers is often highlighted as good practice. In this article, Rachel Lofthouse examines the role and processes.

Providing a mentor for beginning teachers means giving them support and ensuring that they build up their professional capacity, knowledge and skills. A mentor is usually a colleague with relevant, school-specific experience. Mentoring also bridges the transition between initial teacher education and full employment. In some situations, mentors make judgements or provide evidence that the new teacher has demonstrated required professional competencies.

While national and cultural expectations of mentoring vary, engaging in mentoring conversations is common. However, in most educational contexts there is limited time for teachers’ professional development. It is therefore critical that where time is assigned for mentoring the professional dialogue is engaging and productive.

‘Targets’ (usually about teaching and learning) are a common part of mentoring or coaching conversations: deliberating over what targets should be prioritised, making targets realistic and measurable, evaluating progress towards them and providing feedback prior to setting new ones can become an all-consuming activity. Add in workload pressures, anxieties about being judged or having to make judgements, and the mentoring conversations can become restrictive. They can go one of two ways: some people experience them as having high stakes, others feel they become relatively superficial.

How can we ensure that mentoring enables genuine learning processes?

Mentoring conversations can be a transformative space where important aspects of professional practice are debated and emerging professional identities, both as a new teacher and a mentor, can be constructed. Creating a genuinely valuable mentoring experience is possible, and much of it comes through conversation.

Trust seems critical, but cannot be assumed. Opportunities to explore problems without fear of punitive judgement need to be created. Respect for the value of the combined expertise offered by the unique mentoring partnership needs to be felt. Even the newest teachers have something to offer their mentor, so mentoring can be a two-way dialogue.

Lessons from research can help teachers conduct better mentoring conversations. Following a UK research project on teacher coaching, we began to understand professional dialogue through what we called coaching dimensions:

First, there is a need to ‘stimulate’. Good mentors know how to initiate thoughtful reflections and stimulate decisions with their mentee. But they also know when hold back and let the beginning teacher take the initiative. They are aware of how to collect and use available learning tools. Some use videos of lessons (their own and their mentees’); some make lesson observation notes focused on agreed aspects of the lesson; sometimes the beginning teacher creates a professional learning journal from which points for discussion are identified.

Secondly, mentors need to ‘scaffold’ the discussion. They can, for example, use critical moments in teaching and learning – or the lesson as a whole – to help the beginning teacher discuss broader themes about teaching and learning, or explore the ‘big ideas’ about relationships between school, individuals and society.

Finally, it is important to ‘sustain’ the learning conversation. Good mentors become aware of their tone of voice, keeping it neutral and curious to encourage open discussions. They create opportunities for their mentee to think back, think ahead and think laterally. The conversation is also sustained through finding meaning and value in it. The mentor and the beginning teacher need to work together to create a dynamic conversation in which there are opportunities to share problems, to pose and respond to questions, to extend thinking, to build solutions.

Mentoring can form part of the social glue between colleagues. It should support the emergence of a network of strong professional relationships which empower the new teacher to play an active role and to meet the needs of the school community. Conversations have a significant role in realising this potential.

Dr RACHEL LOFTHOUSE is Senior Lecturer in Education in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She is also partnership development director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT). She has a specific interest in professional learning for teachers and educators, based on innovative pedagogies and curriculum design and practices for coaching and mentoring. You can follow her on Twitter @DrRLofthouse

Taken from the School Education Gateway blog.

Democracy through Pedagogy: the Mantle of the Expert in Initial Teacher Education

In his powerful speech at the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s (CPRT) conference in November last year, Robin Alexander suggested, in relation to recent electoral outcomes in the UK and the US, that discourses of hatred and derision might be interpreted as ‘education’s failure’. Soon after the CPRT conference, Primary PGCE and School Direct students at Newcastle University were offered two days of training on the Mantle of the Expert. In ‘Mantle’, which was initially developed by Dorothy Heathcote, imaginary contexts for cross-curriculum learning are created through drama and enquiry. In this process pupils take on the role of a team of experts, charged with a specific project outcome (Taylor, 2016). As an HE Initial Teacher Education provider we aim to empower our students critically with a range of pedagogical strategies, including those which are innovative, and we regard Mantle as a powerful and potentially transformative approach. Tim Taylor has provided workshops for our ITE students in Mantle of the Expert for a number of years. However, this year the module was offered at St John’s Primary School in Newcastle, which was recently awarded Mantle of the Expert Training School status.

Mantle has enabled colleagues to make the curriculum meaningful

St John’s is situated in one of the country’s most disadvantagedwards. Many of its pupils live in extreme poverty, and many of them have English as an Additional Language. Despite these challenges and ‘low starting points’, Ofsted has judged pupils’ achievements close to national averages, and described the curriculum at St John’s as of ‘very high quality’. Both the head teacher, Tracey Caffrey, and Ofsted ascribe this to the use of Mantle of the Expert. Children’s enjoyment and sense of responsibility and engagement is palpable, and they are not only keen to talk about their learning, but able to do so with confidence and eloquence. Again, Tracey Caffrey attributes this to the impact of Mantle since its whole-school introduction seven years ago, and the extent to which Mantle has enabled colleagues to make the curriculum meaningful. Mantle at St John’s offers what Smyth and Wrigley (2013) would describe as ‘rich teaching’. St John’s is thus a very powerful context in which to introduce our students to Mantle.

During one of the sessions, Tim worked with a large group of Year 4-6 pupils and 12 student teachers, creating the context of a nineteenth century mine, in which the pupils first took on the task of inspecting the occurrence of child labour, and then the role of miners. The amount of deep learning about Victorian times and social justice that had taken place by the end of the afternoon was profound: it was in the faces and words of the pupils who had ‘lived’ the drama, and in those of our student teachers who had seen the transformation in the pupils. It was on our side too, with the recognition of what can be achieved in Teacher Education when innovative pedagogy is integrated within a university/school partnership and theory and practice become one.

There could, of course, be various explanations for the impact of Mantle: although the experience of a nineteenth century mine was clearly fictional, the events were, it could be argued, real in the cognitive and emotional experience of the pupils. It did not seem unlikely that some of the pupils’ questions related to their own life experiences, and it may be the opportunity to discuss such experiences in a fictional context, which adds to the power of Mantle. On the other hand, as Tracey Caffrey suggested, it may be the opportunity to have experiences that participants would not normally have, which is at the root of the Mantle’s transformative potential. There is a definite need for research into the reasons why, the extent to which, and the circumstances in which Mantle is effective.

It is clear, however, that creating such learning experiences for student teachers is, to return to Alexander’s speech, ‘education in spite of policy’, and provides hope. There is hope for democracy and education in pedagogies such as Mantle, plenty of hope for schools like St John’s, and hope for HE Initial Teacher Education providers, as long as we are able to introduce our students to examples of transformative pedagogy.


SMYTH, J. & WRIGLEY, T. 2013. Living on the Edge – Rethinking Poverty, Class and Schooling, New York, Peter Lang.

TAYLOR, T. 2016. A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert: A Transformative Approach to Education, Norwich, Singular Publishing Limited

Dr Hanneke Jones was born in the Netherlands, but her interest in a career in education was first sparked when she visited schools in Yorkshire’s West Riding. She trained as a teacher at the Hervormde Pedagogische Akademie in Amsterdam, which was largely founded on the principles of the French educator Célestin Freinet. After her return to the UK, Hanneke worked in primary education in Northumberland before taking up her position as a teacher educator at Newcastle University. Her PhD focused on creative thinking in the Community of Enquiry, and her research interests lie in creativity, dialogue, social justice and comparative education.

Taken from the BERA Blogs.

Standards in ITT mentoring: there to be embraced

Ever worked with a teacher trainee mentor who is not up for it? Or, even worse, is not up to it? They might be the colleague with a light timetable that year, or who is looking for professional experience at the cost of their mentee’s development, the class teacher with whom the trainee happens to share a class, or the steadfast acculturator who allows little room for innovation. Even if these mentors do have the requisite people-skills, knowledge, and expertise they can be easily undermined; lacking time, resources, kudos. The mentee can prove a challenge; more often than not it is the system and the implicit expectations therein that sabotage the process. No wonder some claim “school-based mentoring has …failed to realise its full potential” (Hobson and Malderez, 2013).

My thinking in relation to mentoring in the current ITT context was developed when I completed a Master’s module at Newcastle University on improving coaching and mentoring. Since then, the National Standards for school-based initial teacher training (ITT) mentors (2016), a – swiftly expedited – outcome of the Carter Review for ITT (2015) were published. These are a workable set of recommendations with a broad consultation (42 different institutions and groups are acknowledged), poised to create new norms in the field of teacher mentoring: a counter to ‘the way things are done’ and a chance for consistent quality across the myriad routes into teaching. Inevitably, as ITT transitions to a school-led system, we draw finer limits on our knowledge base. It’s a big effort for school-based mentors to extend their workload to keeping up with the latest innovations or research. Furthermore, the bizarre and inconsistent recruitment allocations have led to a new atmosphere of competition among educators who previously collaborated. With former partners now battling it out for the sparse (and getting sparser) numbers of new teachers and their fees, the Standards have the potential to impart cohesion to the diverging ITT Mentor community.

It is not just mentees and mentors who would benefit from a positive outlook. The Standards have it right then when they state that better mentoring can lead to “improved outcomes for children”. It is the “moral imperative” (Timperley, on behalf of the AISTL in Australia (2015) which surely should underline any work in schools, in this case alongside trainee success and wellbeing.

This document places the four brief Standards outside normal performative measures in school (they are non-statutory and merely recommended to Ofsted), lending them a flimsiness. This is surprising given the fullness of the consultation and the holistic intention. But it does represent a so-called “structuration”, a conduit to new norms through repeated practice which can calcify in social arena (Giddens, 1984). It needs the ITT community to start acting on them.

Make no mistake: the standards are welcome and I applaud that they sit outside performative structures. Who knows? This may help to foster compassion and dialogue rather than obsessions with quantitative data and graded lessons. We would do well to work up the practicalities together and learn from home and abroad (such as guidance for professional conversations from Timperley, (2015), international studies on mentoring from Pennanen et. al. (2015), who draw on Kemmis’ work on Theories of Practice Architecture, established frameworks for coaching and mentoring as proposed by CUREE, 2005; and the school guide for coaching offered by Lofthouse, Leat & Towler, 2010) to improve mentoring as a whole. School-based ITT tutors would surely welcome some solidarity where they now shoulder a new level of responsibility and professionalism as the duty of conferring QTS passes to them and the critical eye of Ofsted examines NQT provision

The Standards reify the notion that ITT Mentoring is a skilled “profession within a profession” (Lofthouse & Hall, 2013). Let’s not leave them to be misinterpreted, misappropriated, or ignored. In taking the standards seriously, others will follow. No more will we ever ‘default’ to a mentor, but we can select, train and resource those who have the ability and the disposition.


Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ruth Magee teaches French and German in a secondary school in the North East. She is part of the core Teaching School team for her school’s alliance and leads on Training Development, Subject Knowledge Enhancement and their Primary School Direct. Before teaching Ruth managed regional enrichment and CPD programmes for modern foreign language teaching; she has produced MFL resources for primary and secondary.

Contact: Ruth is on twitter @routesaroo (intermittently but will respond!).

Taken from the BERA website.

Developing critical perspectives of pedagogy: the role of Teaching Thinking

Our Secondary Core and School Direct PGCE and Employer-based PGCE students (based at Newcastle SCITT) started their new term with a busy period at both university and in school.  One aspect of this was the two day conference on Teaching Thinking Skills, which is the taught basis of a Masters module.   Here the students were introduced to thinking skills, metacognitive talk & lesson study, and they will follow this up using Lesson Study to co-plan, teach, observe and co-enquire into this pedagogic approach in their placement schools, as described in a previous blog post. The focus on teaching thinking skills builds on the legacy of former work by tutors and school teachers in the North East of England, in the late 90s and early 2000s which resulted in the ‘Thinking through …’ series of books.


During the conference students had keynote lectures provided by ECLS colleagues Professor David Leat and Dr Rachel Lofthouse and Kirsty Tate (Assistant Headteacher from Park View School), and were also introduced to Project-based learning by a group of their fellow School Direct PGCE students.

In between these session were six workshops.  Each one designed to ‘model’ popular strategies for teaching thinking skills. Each strategy was be briefly modelled so that students could gain an appreciation of Thinking Skills pedagogies from learners’ perspectives. This was followed by discussion which allowed them to think about which approaches they want to plan for in their own subjects and phase for their later lesson study.   Workshops were well received by the students, as one of our Employer-based PGCE students stated, “The sessions on Thinking Skills were very engaging and highly insightful.”  What a relief to know that the legacy of the original research and development work from well over a decade ago lives on! Details of some of the six approaches modelled in the workshops are given below.

Mysteries (Kim Cowie)

Mysteries give students an opportunity to develop thinking skills and work collaboratively. They require students to link information logically into cause and effect and justify their decisions.  They encourage substantive conversations and can create cognitive dissonance which while it can frustrate usually sparks enjoyment and creativity as students start to ‘argue’ and hypothesise’ – great fun as a student and as a teacher!

Living Graphs & Fortune Lines (Jon Haines)

Visualising thinking, and working collaboratively, to plot less conventional information, such as non-dated events, emotions and observations on paper, required trainee teachers to communicate effectively, justify, argue and reason to support their decisions and choices. Within minutes of reading through the statements for the first task, substantive conversation, contextualisation and linking to the real world were all evident alongside an increased depth of engagement and discussion that anyone may have predicted based upon the subject matter!

Map from Memory (Lynne Kay)

The Map from Memory strategy required students to work on their memory, by providing a context in which they became more aware of their memorisation techniques, worked out how to develop some specific strategies, with a view to becoming more effective learners and readers. Students worked in groups of four and tried to memorise chunks of visual information. Individuals came out in turn to look at the map and commit this information to memory before passing it onto others in the group as accurately as possible. In reflecting back, groups discussed some of the skills underpinning a successful approach to interpreting text or diagrams or both. It helped to raise awareness of what is involved in enabling learners to arrive at a ‘global’ or ‘gist’ understanding, establishing the ‘big picture’, and how the ‘big picture’ can help to interpret the meaning of parts of it. Adapting the strategy to different subjects and how it could be used in different ways was also discussed.

Audience and purpose (Roger Knill)

This technique focusses on developing pupil ability to justify choices to meet changing situations. It is a life skill in that it mimics the evolving choices we all make with a range of options but variable demands. How do we choose what to wear when surveying the weather on a daily basis? It teaches pupils that we can make decisions to create valid answers but also that it is a real skill to select different responses when the occasion demands. It is highly adaptable to all subject areas in school – from identifying the appropriate quotes from a novel to exemplify different themes within literature or selecting which equipment to conduct a range of experiments on a fine system in biology. Choosing only 6 options from about c.20-30 possibilities means that pupils can juggle a manageable amount of information and the layered decision making encourages substantive conversation, compromise and justification of conclusions. Great preparation for subsequent writing!

Odd One Out and Symbolic Stories (Rachel Lofthouse)

In this workshop students were first asked to scrutinise three photographs of classrooms, generating responses to the question: which this the Odd One Out and why?  It is a very flexible technique and can be used as a quick starter or plenary, as well as a more substantial activity.  We then practiced Symbolic Stories. An extract of text was read to the students and they individually interpreted this drawing symbols and pictures. Once they had done this they retold the story to a partner, giving an opportunity for them to fill in gaps for each other, compare how they each used symbols for different ideas, and opening up subject related themes through discussion.

Most likely (Steve Humble)

Predicting requires students to state from observations and previous knowledge what is ‘most likely’.  It requires them to look for patterns and trends. With a good prediction activity a teacher needs to clearly define what the prediction is to be about and to identify attributes that help inform the prediction. So a prediction activity is different from a guess because a guess is based solely on experiences that are recalled from the past. Guesses may lead to inaccurate predictions if they fail to be substantiated by data collected over time by the student. Mostly likely activities require students to use their existing knowledge to inform future thinking.


Rethinking a National Curriculum and finding space for the local

On 14 July 2016, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced her new Cabinet, following a significant reshuffle and re-structure of Government. In this context, researchers from all over Newcastle University express their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for the Government in the Ideas for May’s Ministers blog series, considering how individuals, communities and societies can thrive in times of rapid, transformational change. Professor David Leat is Professor of Curriculum Innovation in Newcastle University, and he directs his Idea to Justine Greening. 

From: Professor David Leat, Newcastle School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences

To: Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education

One of the principles of a nation having a National Curriculum is that pupils can move from school to school with some continuity in their education. There is the added attraction to policy makers that they have more control over schools.  However, the social and economic turmoil of the last ten years has moved the political goalposts as both radical right and left wing movements have proved attractive to many who feel that they have been left behind as social inequality grows.  Political elites are rethinking and renegotiating the relationship between the nation and its component parts – regions, cities and communities.  In England, we need our government to give the message to schools and teachers that they should be using ‘the local’ as one of the building blocks of the curriculum to put meaning back into learning.

Community Curriculum

Successive governments, however, have learned that exerting control by detailed specification of  curriculum content has a considerable downside.  They are open to attack from many quarters about too much content or the wrong content. As a result, they have shifted from ‘input regulation’ or the specification of content as a means of control, to ‘output regulation’ or the setting of exam targets as a means of control. The targets-related data has had the added incentive of helping to marketise education as it provides a means of comparing schools and ‘driving up standards’.  However, there are signs of considerable collateral damage from this policy fix:

  • Teachers teach to the test and can lose sight of any wider purpose to education – a message which pupils internalise as education becomes a steeplechase of exam hurdles. This is a dangerous context for adolescent mental health and learning to learn.
  • Teachers are de-professionalised as their role is restricted to delivering content. Teachers who do not develop their own curriculum do NOT develop ownership of the curriculum. It is hardly surprising that so many teachers are leaving the profession. The National Union of Teachers data shows that 50,000 teachers (11% of the workforce) left the profession in 2015.
  • Young people are poorly prepared for further and higher education and indeed for the labour market as demonstrated by the Independent Advisory Group report (Anderson, 2014) commissioned by Pearsons Publishing
  • It tends to make schools look towards the DfE and Ofsted for all their cues and not to their locality and its resources. It is astonishing just how many organisations, businesses and individuals want to help shape the lives of young people and society in the most positive ways – but few get the chance.
  • As a consequence engagement is a serious issue. Across the developed world, there is strong evidence that pupils begin to lose interest in school work from the middle of primary school, even for many who are successful in the exam system (see for example Berliner, 2011). One of the reasons is that the curriculum lacks meaning for them, and they find precious few connections to their lives, despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers.

There are some real advantages in having a locality and community dimension to the curriculum, especially if there is a strong focus, through demanding projects, of going places, meeting people and making and doing things.

Horizons are broadened as pupils encounter people who have interesting jobs (not just professional jobs) and life histories – providing both role models and powerful raw material for developing their own identities.  Pupils can take real pride and find meaning in the things that they make and do, both for and with the community.  It should also be remembered that digital technology is changing the learning landscape as it provides the power to access, analyse and present information and understanding to a wide range of audiences through a variety of media.  A local dimension to the curriculum can provide an element of service learning in which young people are given responsibility and make a contribution. Some of these principles are elucidated in the work of Mimi Ito and colleagues (see http://clrn.dmlhub.net/).

Gemma Parker, a Newcastle University doctoral student, has found that many more recently qualified teachers have no conception of curriculum, equating it to schemes of work or a yearly plan, usually ‘given’ to them to teach. Generally, they do not see themselves as having a role in curriculum development, which undermines their professional standing.

In the last 30 years the voices of government, of ministers, of the DfE and of Ofsted have become the dominant ones for teachers, and their vocabulary around ‘standards’ and ‘targets’ is repeated and relayed by senior leaders in school – ultimately this cramps thinking about what curriculum is possible in school. We need government to usedifferent words, in order to give permission to teachers to take up the opportunities for demanding curriculum projects in their communities, localities and through digital technology. Teachers need to hear that voice.

We need good professional training and support so that there is rigour and challenge in community generated curriculums. In particular, many teachers will need to learn about the process of curriculum development, how best to work with community partners, how to find the balance between guiding work and allowing pupils to take greater responsibility for the pace and direction of their work, how to harness digital technology to its fullest and how to map projects back to important subject questions, methods, concepts and principles.

All across the world there are serious questions being asked about exam driven education. In response, there are also numerous organisations promoting and developing enquiry and project based learning and competence-based approaches.  These include the International Baccalaureate (IB), Expeditionary Schools, Connected Learning, Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs), the Partnership for C21st Skills and Opening Minds.  England could position itself as a world leader in educational practice if it embraced the principle of schools developing much of their curriculum through the medium of high quality locally generated and resourced projects.


Anderson, R. (2014) Careers 2020: Making Education Work, London: Pearson.

Berliner, D. (2011) Rational responses to high stakes testing: the case of curriculum narrowing and the harm that follows, Cambridge Journal of Education, 41:3, 287-302.

To engage in the conversation, tweet @Social_Renewal #IdeasforMaysMinisters

The Case for a Community Curriculum Making

Picture the scene, it is Monday afternoon and twenty 14 year olds are listening with rapt attention to a group of elderly men and women.  Some are writing furiously while others are using their mobile phones to record what is being said.  Back at school with the guidance of their teacher the students will spend the week crafting beautiful stories. The spelling and punctuation will be accurate, the presentation stunning.  On Friday, the students will revisit their new friends and present them with their Story. There will be tears on both sides and teachers and care workers will look on with pleasure as they see the generations collide in an exquisite display of affection and understanding.


This is CCM in action and is a real example taken from Park View School; I could give you many others.  The students are Year 9, the teacher is Alison Moore.  Alison has planned everything meticulously. She has talked to the care home manager and the residents.  She has briefed the students and worked with them to plan how they will conduct their interviews and the importance of listening with respect and understanding and of course of being dressed smartly.  She has discussed with the students how they might present their finished work and has helped them plan their return visit.

Alison has planned for all eventualities however, she could not have anticipated how emotionally engaged the students would become and how their desire to represent the lives of the residents would drive their desire to ensure that they produced beautiful, meaningful and honest work.  Nor could she have anticipated the emotions that would overwhelm both residents and students when the stories were presented framed and gift wrapped.  There were laughter and joy but also tears and sadness for a life once lived but now gone. Rarely do young and old have the opportunity to share something so powerful.


Such an experience enriches the lives of both young and old and is at the very heart of why CCM is so important.  If we wish our communities and our young people to grow and prosper to be compassionate and kind we must make this part of the way we organise our schools and plan our education.  This is how we build social capital and never has that been so important. Building social capital is absolutely critical in our increasingly complex and chaotic world, a world in which young people and their families are faced with evermore challenging economic and social circumstances. At Park View 26% (and rising) of our school population are Pupil Premium and increasing numbers of them are ‘Looked After’. Yet hidden behind these statistics is a darker story, the families who do not qualify for Pupil Premium but are struggling to cope with the demands of daily life and the many young people and their carers facing the catastrophic fallout from declining mental health.

Ron Berger (The Ethics of Excellence) talks about the need for authentic audiences to inspire young people to create beautiful work, which is what Alison enabled.  Keri Facer (Learning Futures) talks of the need for schools to really be the centre of their communities and Mick Waters (Thinking allowed on Schooling) tells us that it is social capital that will rescue children and their families from poverty not ‘intervention and catch-up’. Waters passionately believes that schools should give young people the skills and the courage to network to challenge themselves to meet their aspirations.  They need to be able to be able to present themselves with skill and confidence.  They need to experience the richness of their cultural heritage, just as their ‘better off’ peers do.  Money and connections may not buy happiness but it at least makes prosperity more likely.


I would like to say that the scene I painted in the opening paragraphs was the everyday story of Park View.  It is not.  You will find examples of such richness throughout the year as teachers fight to preserve the joy in learning, but general such experiences take place at the end of the Summer Term in ‘Enrichment Week’.  They do not inform the mainstream curriculum which is increasingly constrained and restricted by a government hell bent on returning to the 1950’s.  The teaching profession must stand against this and CCM is a powerful method of reasserting our independence and our commitment to nurturing creative and compassionate young people.  If we choose to accept this ‘Impossible Mission’ I have no doubt that together schools and their communities can build a fairer society in which all are valued and all can succeed.   The case for ‘Community Curriculum Making’ has never been so strong.

Written by Kim Cowie
May 2016 – Park View School
Kim Cowie has recently been appointed as Lecturer in Education specialising in Professional Learning and will join the ECLS team in September 2016. 

Power to the People; Can Teacher Coaching be viewed as a form of Transformational Leadership?

There is something both alluring and disquieting about theories which can be summed up as a catchy combination of letters and numbers. They create a hook, something which we can engage with, may recall more readily and perhaps therefore start to exploit in our busy professional lives.  Teachers may be familiar with the ‘4 “R”s’ of Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power; Resilience, Resourcefulness, Reciprocity, Reflection, or perhaps with the ‘4 “C”s’ underpinning the pedagogic approach of SAPERE’s Philosophy for Children; Caring, Collaborative, Critical, Creative.  For some these are a powerful shorthand, for others they are overwrought clichés.  Recently I was introduced to another one, this time on an academic leadership programme. Wait for it, yes there are four of them, and this time they are the ‘4 “I”s of Transformational Leadership identified as:

  • Individualised consideration
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Idealised influence
  • Inspirational motivation

We were asked to reflect upon different models of leadership. It was suggested that rather than be ‘transactional’ leaders we should be ‘transformational’ leaders. Transactional leadership was summarised in a way that we recognised as managerial; holding people to account against criteria they were unlikely to feel ownership over and holding fast to hierarchical rules of engagement. Transformational leadership was first coined by Bass, building on the work of Burns. Both men were researching and reflecting on observable qualities of successful leaders in the US political and business contexts of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  On the leadership programme it was proposed that ‘transformational’ was something to aspire to, and to nail it as a concept it had the magic formula of the ‘4 “I”s’.   Clearly this was the true path.  And yes – my immediate response was of sly cynicism and I wondered whose eye I might catch amongst my fellow academic leaders.  Then I realised that the ‘4 “I”s’ were begging for my attention, they were the hook and I was dangling on the line. But wait, I was again distracted, not by the alignment of the transformational leadership model with my own ambitions as a leader, but by their resonance with my work on teacher peer coaching.  The ‘4 “I’s’ seemed to offer a frame through which good teacher coaching, and the school culture that supports and is constructed by it, can be viewed. I had recently led a workshop and written a blog post about the relationships between coaching and leadership, perhaps what I had been missing was the concept of transformational leadership.

My work on coaching in schools (both research and practitioner engagement) always throws a spotlight on its limitations and its potential to clash with performative cultures as I illustrated in an earlier BERA blog post. That same work, however, offers an equally powerful narrative of hopeful optimism.  We know that where coaching is working well, often between peers, and frequently supported by a sustained coaching development programme it creates a different sort of collaborative professional space than is often experienced by teachers in episodes of training and performance management. Uncannily the ‘4 I”s’ of transformational leadership describe the characteristics of the best of these spaces.

Coaching conversations have impact when they offer ‘intellectual stimulation’

Coaching can create a genuine opportunity for ‘individualised consideration’. Teachers are invited to share concerns and areas of interest emerging from their own practice and a good coach will work from that platform rather than from an imposed agenda.  This is critical in building and sustaining the buy-in and trust that means that teachers and coaches will work around some of their workload to give time for coaching.  Coaching conversations have impact when they offer ‘intellectual stimulation’.  These are neither cosy chats nor dogmatic instructional transactions.  Within a coaching conversation there are opportunities for both participants to experience challenge, to engage constructively with knowledge from multiple sources and grow their capacity to make decisions appropriate to the complexities of their teaching roles. And then of course there is the crucial question of professional credibility. Few people will accept coaching from someone who they judge unlikely to be able to walk the talk, instead they want a coach who offers ‘idealised influence’. Finally hardworking teachers are looking to share a sense of hopeful enthusiasm (not naïve goal sharing).  Effective coaches can encourage colleagues to raise their game by building optimism and thus providing ‘inspirational motivation’.

So now I am paying more attention to the ‘4 “I”s’ as I think they offer a route to building an experience of professional solidarity, and I think they reinforce how coaching can give ‘power to the people’.

This blog has been taken from BERA.

Dr Rachel Lofthouse is the Head of Education in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University. She is also partnership development director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT). She has a specific interest in professional learning for teachers and educators, based on innovative pedagogies and curriculum design and practices for coaching and mentoring. These support her learners in building their workplace expertise while developing critical reflection and their ability to contribute to, and draw productively on, the evidence base for teaching and learning. She works with student teachers and their school-based mentors, fulltime teachers as part-time Master’s students, international postgraduate students and school leaders. Rachel has published in peer-reviewed journals on the subjects of coaching and mentoring, the innovative use of video to support practice development, practitioner enquiry and professional learning.

You can find more information at http://www.ncl.ac.uk/ecls/staff/profile/rachel.lofthouse.

You can follow Rachel on twitter @DrRLofthouse

Reflections on the Internationalisation seminar with the Pontificia Catolica Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS, 4th April 2016)

led by Sue Robson and Alina Schartner and Prof Marilia Morosini and Ana Wertheimer

My undergraduate degree in Spanish with French, here at Newcastle University included an element of Latin American literature and linguistics, and more recently I have come to understand this part of the world through hobbies and friendships with Latin American anthropologists in Newcastle and cultural events organised by Vamos. I try to transmit my enthusiasm to my students in my Spanish language classes. I aim to model how deeply meaningful intercultural learning can take place without physical mobility if one takes up the opportunities available.

As a University teacher and PhD student, the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire has been influential on my work, particularly his emphasis on the role of critical thinking in liberating us from oppression, and the view of this as the first step towards transformative social action. Freire’s statement that there is no such thing as a value free education reminds us that the dominant approach we observe today isn’t value free, it’s just driven by values that few educators share. For Freire education is a force of either liberation, or domestication, a distinction which underpins the two discourses around Internationalisation identified today as the Global Graduate / Global Citizen. The former emphasises the need to prepare students for the global labour market, whist the second is a lot broader and sees students as activists engaged in the struggle for a more just society. The former does not involve changing the status quo: students are prepared for the existing world order; whilst the second developing awareness of the power mechanisms perpetuate inequality, with a view to transforming societies for the common good. The direction in which I would like to steer my students then is more in line with Global Citizenship.


In both Brazil and the UK, Internationalisation is caught up in other sweeping changes to Higher Education. In Brazil this seems to be as a result of radical new legislation to promote the Democratization of Higher Education, similar to UK Widening Participation initiatives, and the expansion of the Brazilian private sector. Currently England and Wales are adjusting to major changes in funding sources, and the rapid expansion of free market economics, bringing with them managerialism, corporatisation and ‘student as customer’ approach. To my mind, the public /private sector tensions evident in Brazil are played out to some degree in the UK’s division of red brick versus new universities.

The approach to Internationalisation at both CUPU and Newcastle University was described as ‘symbolic’ with reference to Bartell’s (2003) continuum adapted by Robson and Turner (2007), whilst staff were concerned to move towards ‘transformative’ Internationalisation. In both contexts Internationalisation is associated predominantly with mobility – outward for Brazil and inward for Newcastle, reflecting dominant trends of south to north flows. Going abroad is highly prized in Brazil and associated with high status, and students are selective about where they want to go. Seminar participants today stressed the need to promote Internationalisation as a holistic institution-wide process. In both institutions staff engagement is patchy and may vary across disciplines.

Significant concern was expressed for the ‘home’ student experience of Internationalisation. In the UK these students are often portrayed as passive, xenophobic and parochial, rather than as individuals with particular histories and experiences which might affect their uptake of the opportunities Internationalisation offers them. In fact, Democratization and Widening Participation bring issues of race and social class and to the fore in Higher Education today presenting a very diverse classroom mix in both countries. The profile of ‘home’ students is varied: some are part-time working students, some are mature students, some have dependents, in Brazil some are living in dangerous areas and need to be home early. These factors may influence an individual’s past attitudes to and ability to engage with Internationalisation, particularly when it is mainly associated with physical mobility. The seminar agreed that the menu of opportunities should be enhanced and on a practical note Skype contacts for language learning between students from the two institutions was arranged.


The concept of ‘culture’ is often used in the analysis of student integration issues, yet used sloppily it can be unhelpful. ‘Culture’ is too often equated with national culture, and negatively with difference, conflict, distance etc. A broader interpretation of ‘culture’ and a look at other barriers to integration might lead to greater cohesion for all students. In the UK it is often assumed that ‘home’ students are in a position of power due to English being their ‘native’ language, and for their presumed familiarity with the Higher Education system, yet the reality is more complex. ‘Home’ student- international student relations look different if viewed in terms of socio-economic status: an internationally mobile, bilingual, fee paying International elite alongside a local, non-mobile working mature student. Values led Internationalisation, linked to social justice and the reduction of prejudice, requires that intercultural be defined as broadly as possible, and all barriers to interaction should addressed.

Student integration at the micro level must also be considered in relation to the wider social context. Firstly, the competitive environment and marketization discourse in Higher Education may encourage more instrumental attitudes to learning, travelling and international engagement in general. Secondly, dominant media discourse around of migration, immigration and war, terrorism may also consciously or subconsciously affect student attitudes to cultural Others. Culturally inclusive pedagogies should equip students with the tools to deconstruct media discourse and identity politics. Seminar participants agreed that   discussing highly sensitive political issues is part of the process of the international ‘becoming’ that the group aspires to for their students, although having staff members willing and able to take on this role may be problematic.

This leads us to ask, how we can enable transformative international experiences for our students when political, economic and media discourses in the sector and beyond seem to conspire against this? How can we ensure that students engage deeply with Internationalisation and don’t simply play the game, tick the boxes, by taking a holiday abroad whilst enhancing their CV, for example? Coming back to Freire, this is a question of values, and value change: an important question for a values-led approach to Internationalisation.


Caroline Burns has a BA (Hons) in Spanish with French from Newcastle University, and a MA in Applied Linguistics (TESOL) from Northumbria University where she has worked as a Lecturer in Languages since 2002. She is currently working towards completion of a Doctorate in Education in ECLS which focuses on the ‘home’ student experience of Internationalisation of Higher Education. Her research interests include Global Citizenship, critical pedagogy and narrative inquiry.


An architectural perspective on educational challenges – Jesmond Garden Primary School experience

Paula Cardellino is an academic colleague from Uruguay who has been visiting CfLaT and ECLS.  Here she reflects on a visit to an unusual local School.

My name is Paula Cardellino, and I am an architect and a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Universidad ORT Uruguay, Montevideo. Through the financial support of the British Embassy in Montevideo, Pam Woolner and myself have had the opportunity to work together in the development of future projects that will, hopefully, continue to build on the fundamental idea that school physical environments are intimately related to pedagogical approaches. From very different angles, we both argue for the importance of reaching a balance between the design of physical learning environments and the educational agenda.

During my 2 weeks visit to ECLS I had the chance to visit Jesmond Garden Primary School in Hartlepool together with Pam.  The school facility was built 6 years ago with the Headtheacher´s ultimate aim to make it into a transformational school, not only in terms of innovative pedagogical ideas but also its physical environment.  As she explained,  “we didn´t want a new old building”..

The school has a distinctive design. With 3 cylinders popping out from the rooftop it stands out from the surrounding streets of houses, and suggests that something different is happening inside. Indeed, getting to see the old school before the new one, an old Victorian building, made it clear that the transformational educational agenda that the Headteacher aimed for needed parallel changes to the physical environment.


Upon arrival, we are greeted by Jane Loomes, the school´s Headteacher, a lively, very determined person, eager to show and tell us all about the design and building process. 2During the conversation she tells us that previous to the start of the school design they visited various schools in the UK to get a better idea of what could be done in terms of building design. She felt, though, that some foundational ideas were clear from the very start of the process: flexibility of use of the learning spaces and the instrumentation of the superclass philosophy – units for 90 children with a team of teachers. This not only meant making best use of the staff resources (staffing) but also implementing innovative ideas to the school project such as acoustic solutions.  Added to these challenges, there was a need to make it exceedingly comfortable. She, particularly, wanted the school to feel very warm, natural, airy, calm, relaxing; a cocoon from the outside world.

During the design process, that took around 8 months, a number of meetings and discussions took place between the stakeholders (staff, pupils, parents) and the designer. Many topics were discussed during these meetings, but the main idea continued to be around the transformation of the educational agenda within the school building, touching on concepts such as ´sense of belonging´, ´school as a home´ and enjoyment of learning.

3From the walk around the school it is noticeable that from the heart of the school the use of curved shapes allow for the teaching-classroom areas to become real; though not welcomed at first, the use of curves enabled the inclusion of flexible arrangements within the learning spaces: even the toilets have an unusual circular shape.  Three circles that can host up to 90 children compose the not very traditional classroom space. Separated by acoustic curtains the areas can become different teaching environments or turn into smaller places.

4As I leave you now with my views on this very different school building you can consider if this is something that you would enjoy as a student, a parent or a teacher. It certainly felt to us that a transformation of the culture, practices and setting for learning has occurred at Jesmond Gardens.



Hear more from Paula and Pam when they speak at an interdisciplinary discussion this Thursday:  http://www.ncl.ac.uk/ecls/news/item/a-space-for-learning-developing-interdisciplinary-understandings-to-improve-school-premises

A new direction for gifted education studies?

Research on ‘giftedness’ and ‘gifted education’ often feels like a marginalised endeavour, one which is quite rightly viewed by many as elitist. We have ample evidence to demonstrate that those with the most cultural capital are also those most likely to appear on registers of gifted and talented pupils (Campbell et al 2007), despite a National Strategy (1997-2011) designed in large part to disrupt this pattern of cultural reproduction. Why then do we continue to label individual students as ‘gifted and talented’? The terminology of giftedness has no agreed definition (Freeman 1998), was not recommended by the Select Committee (1999) advising the New Labour government, and essentialises ability in a particularly unhelpful way, carrying overtones of something bestowed on a lucky few. Why are we seemingly trapped in an essentialist logic of natural difference, despite a professional community ambivalent to such practices at best and resistant at worst (Radnor et al 2007), and a wealth of educational research based on a social justice agenda providing ample critiques (e.g. Borland 2005).

There are a variety of possible reasons why we are where we are, but I have suggested that the theoretical and disciplinary divide in research in the field contributes to the lack of progress (Mazzoli Smith 2014). Whilst sociological work on giftedness has done much to critique the normative thinking in educational and differential psychology, its impact only goes so far. Tending to adopt a constructivist stance, sociological approaches are largely conceived around critiques of the construct of giftedness rather than the lived experiences of pupils, parents and teachers. Meanwhile the research base on which the testing and identification movement rests tends to be the preserve of psychologists of education and/or those who advocate on behalf of ‘gifted pupils’. This body of scholarship uses largely empiricist methods and tends to hold to a positivist worldview, often invoking arguments which link gifted youth to future national prosperity (e.g. Eyre 2011). I see little dialogue between the approaches and few studies which fall outside of their parameters.

It is this impasse between the main bodies of research on giftedness, which I argue contributes to the entrenchment of the status quo. Engagement with the more progressive aspects of the field, focused on contexts that foster optimal development for all learners, rather than colluding with the practicies of elitism, may constitute a step away from them (Mazzoli Smith and Campbell 2016). A greater number of educational researchers could support the growing calls to dispense with such anachronistic terminology and the practice of individual labelling (e.g. Matthews and Dai 2014). A wider set of research methods could give voice to a wider range of stakeholders on these issues, not least students themselves. This in turn would enable a more nuanced understanding of the place of values and beliefs in embedding practices which differentiate (Mazzoli Smith and Campbell 2012). To my mind such understanding is crucial for progress, since what is needed is the kind of research impact that not only changes policy and practice in this area, but discourses and cultures around giftedness too.

My research has yielded narratives about being labelled ‘gifted and talented’ which, analysed on a number of different levels, reveal deeply felt, normative, contradictory and contingent beliefs and values which cannot be adequately explained through either a constructivist or an individualistic lens. To bring such patterns into view requires a wider set of research methods than are currently the norm in this area. A more diverse body of research could also play its part in mitigating the increasingly instrumental discourses of individual achievement which continue to assail the educational landscape, through recourse to a broader and richer dialogue about human flourishing. By remaining a marginal endeavour however, the field is polarised around particular arguments, which limit the tools we give ourselves to effect a much needed sea change in this area. As Michael Apple (1996) says, we should invest in a process of participation in the creation of meanings and values and nowhere is this more needed that in the field of gifted education studies.

Taken from BERA

Written by Laura Mazzoli Smith who is currently a member of the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching at Newcastle University, where her research interests are in the areas of social justice, widening participation and access to HE, out-of-school learning, and the potential of narrative and life story research to reveal and disrupt deficit discourses in education.


Apple, M. W. (1996). Cultural politics and education. The John Dewey lecture series. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Borland, J. H. (2005). Gifted education without gifted children: The case for no conception of giftedness. In R. J. Sternberg and J. E. Davidson (Eds.)Conceptions of Giftedness (2nd ed), 1 – 19. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, R. J., Muijs, R. D., Neelands, J. G. A., Robinson, W., Eyre, D. and Hewston, R. (2007). The social origins of students identified as gifted and talented in England: a geo‐demographic analysis. Oxford Review of Education, 33(1), 103-120.

Eyre, D. (2011). Room at the top: Inclusive education for high performance. Policy Exchange.

Freeman, J. (1998). Educating the very able: Current international research.London: The Stationery Office.

Matthews, D. J. and Dai, D. Y. (2014). Gifted Education: changing conceptions, emphases and practice. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 24(4), 335-353.

Mazzoli Smith, L. and Campbell, R. J. (2016). So-called giftedness and teacher education: issues of equity and inclusion. Teachers and Teaching, 22(2), 1-13.

Mazzoli Smith, L. (2014). Extending sociological theorising on high ability: the significance of values and lived experience. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 24(4), 354-371.

Mazzoli Smith, L. and Campbell, R. J. (2012) Families, education and giftedness: case studies in the construction of high achievement. Rotterdam and New York: Sense.

Radnor, H., Koshy, V. & Taylor, A. (2007). Gifts, talents and meritocracy.Journal of Educational Policy, 22(3), 283-299.

SOLE brings a little sparkle into children’s lives

Self-organised learning environments (SOLEs), originally created by Prof Sugata Mitra, are now branching out into art as a way to help children become more self-sufficient learners.

Exploring SOLE through art

Self-organised learning environments turned arty in a Newcastle school last week to discover the secret of the perfect sparkle.

Year 2 class at Broadwood Primary School worked with their teacher Melanie Horan and Newcastle University SOLE Central researcher Helen Burns to think about ‘How do things sparkle?’.

Self-organised learning environments, which were originally created by Professor Sugata Mitra, are spaces where children all over the world work in groups using the Internet to come up with answers to Big Questions.

Creating the ultimate ‘sparkle’ recipe

After using the Internet and their own experiments to find out what sparkles and what doesn’t, these seven-year-olds designed their own ‘recipe’ for making things really sparkle.

They then applied this knowledge to answer a second question: ‘How can we make the sparkliest Christmas decoration?’. Working in small groups, they made decorations from recycled materials, torches, mirrors and glitter.

“We are working closely with this class using art and SOLE to try and help children to become self-organised learners who can ‘think for themselves’,” explains Ms Burns. “Teachers find that many children struggle to apply their learning or think deeply beyond being able to provide a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ answer within the constraints of the current curriculum.”

This research work has just begun, and is currently focused on simply supporting the children to be able to ask and answer ‘big’ questions. However, early next year this will be developed to help children to think about how they think and learn, hopefully enabling them to be more creative and able learners.

Taken from Newcastle University (Press Office)


Authentic Professional Learning in the school workplace. A Leadership Perspective.

Stefan McElwee             George Stephenson High School

It is a widely held belief amongst professionals in a wide spectrum of professions that we continue to learn during our working lives. Learning is a continual process of development linked to professional and social context, both within and outside of the workplace environment.  It might be viewed that this is a challenging assertion which stimulates further investigation within the busy school environment.  Can we assume teachers learn or do we need to investigate carefully what conditions exist or can be created to facilitate authentic professional learning?

This blog summarises the thinking and feelings of a Leadership team in a secondary school in Newcastle-upon Tyne on professional learning. As an Assistant Head Teacher with a responsibility for learning in school, I wanted to probe the subject further. The rest of the team agreed and so we read. The reading process alone was wholesome as our agendas often focus on the routine or strategic management of the day to day operational material which demands much of our time.  Through reading academic research findings on the subject we uncovered a stimulus, a developing need to reflect on this important, yet often neglected subject.

The first challenge was to establish the clear difference between the traditional didactic delivery of content which is common in CPD environments, and the potential to create alternative environments in the workplace that allow authentic professional learning to flourish. The work of Ann Webster-Wright (2009) summarises this distinction and argues for a conceptual change towards a new form of professional learning based on two decades of research across professions.  This article was introduced to me through my participation in modules related to coaching and mentoring for teacher development, in the School of ECLS, at Newcastle University.

As a leadership team, our conversations quickly turned to our “performativity” agenda, and our role in ensuring professional standards, accountability of practice and the creation and monitoring of measurable outcomes. Our ownership of “knowledge” linked to standards inevitably influences what we determine to be of value and justifiable to learn for teachers and other colleagues in our school context.  We feel these pressures place a huge constraint on learning – both that of teachers and our schools’ students. The uncertainty and pace of educational reform produces a high-stakes environment in which colleagues often tell us they have no time to learn.  The challenge for us was fairly clear in our discussions. We want to devolve this knowledge ownership and to provide an infrastructure for teachers to take ownership of their own learning in an environment which supports authentic professional learning.

This key aim led our thinking to the consideration of the contextual factors that make our school a unique place of learning for those operating within it. We have considered the importance of context to the learning of our pupils for years but have never really reflected on it for the learning potential of our staff.  How well do we create and support a learning culture in our school?  We feel we are establishing an environment supportive of authentic learning as established through research findings. We strongly believe in communities of enquiry. Our staff learn together in collaborative groups where teacher talk draws on critical reflection based on experience. We are comfortable and confident in our teachers as participants and not spectators in the learning process. Much of what staff tell us reflects the notion that teacher ownership of a hunch or problem is essential to actively engage professionals in working on genuine problems.  We discussed the crucial component of ensuring our teachers have time to reflect on their problem-solving to transform experience into learning.

We feel strongly that our action research cycles meet many of the criteria of authentic professional learning, but there are areas we need to probe further. Our thinking takes us towards the purpose of learning. Should it be represented in activities that are amenable to outcomes?  What do we count as legitimate knowledge? Do teachers have a say in this and how do we justify our decisions in a standards-driven framework?

We have concluded that teacher ownership of learning is a key component, some needs to be negotiated yes, but authentic learning challenges leadership structures to consider the “lived experience” of our colleagues. The social complexity of their position in the workplace potentially drives their assumptions of practice and how they “feel” about their own learning.  We are considering sociocultural factors very carefully. Our follow-up work will now focus on establishing how we can involve our teachers in the learning process and how we can further exploit the supportive contextual factors that have allowed the first tentative steps in authentic professional learning to occur in our school.


Webster-Wright Anne, Reframing Professional Development Through Understanding Authentic Professional Learning. Review of Educational Research. 2009 79: 702   published 25 February 2009.

Stefan McElwee is Assistant Headteacher and George Stephenson High School which is a Teaching School with both ECLS and CfLaT (Newcastle University) as strategic partners.  Stefan is currently completing the M.Ed in Practitioner Enquiry (Leadership) programme at Newcastle University.