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Out of Control.

Teaching is hard. But not for the obvious reasons, those that are well-known to novices and non-teachers like long hours, excessive planning and marking, dealing with behaviour that detract from its many joys such as seeing young people grow, develop, experience “lightbulb moments” of realisation.

Teaching’s hard because we always have a nagging feeling there is something more important we should be doing, and usually there is, but we can’t get to it because of all the planning, marking and behaviour management. We know there is higher-value work, and work that would be more enjoyable or fulfilling such as really thinking deeply about curriculum or planning a bespoke lesson based on serious analysis of some assessed work. Making those positive calls home you always promised you would do, or properly watching some training videos that improve your pedagogy, observing other teachers or being coached and putting into practice everything you learned.

But we rarely get time for any of this. As teachers we are constantly living a fiction: that we will eventually get time for the good stuff. Every single week, we fool ourselves that “next week will be less busy”…

Sadly this nagging feeling of rummaging around in the weeds and finding occasional sparkly gems, but wishing you could rise above it all and live in the sunlight is what eventually causes burnout: unmanageable stress, anxiety or other mental health issues, and then good people leave the profession.

Studies show that autonomy is important in job satisfaction:

Teachers’ perceived influence over their professional development goal setting is the area most associated with higher job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching. The average teacher reports a lower level of autonomy compared to similar professionals.

NFER Research, link

Last year the UK’s social research app TeacherTapp reported that only 1 in 3 Primary teachers reported having enough autonomy. And the TES reported in 2020, pre-pandemic, that teachers rank second-lowest (just above healthcare professionals) out of 11 professions for autonomy.

Which is a round-about way of saying: I understand why a colleague left this note on my laptop last September, why I am not bitter about it, and why it made me reflect so deeply on my own autonomy.

A yellow post-it note sits on a laptop keyboard with the words "There is a pencil missing" and a sad face emoji written on in pencil.

I had been covering a lesson in his classroom, and realised I was on playground duty immediately afterwards, so I collected in the pencils, tidied up as best I could in 30 seconds and ran out to do my duty. Just 25 minutes later I returned to gather my things to find this accusing note. Of course I was cross at first: I’d not stopped all day at this point, lost a “free” to a difficult cover and not yet had my lunch, and I thought it was a bit unnecessary: could he not be a bit more understanding? Nobody really wants to cover lessons but we know it’s part of the job and we do our best to look after our colleagues’ classrooms, but nobody’s perfect (don’t get me started on the mess my Computing classroom has been left in previously).

But then I remembered the importance of autonomy, and how lacking in it most teachers are. I remembered this scene about autonomy from “You’ve Got Mail” (which is worth watching just for the banging Cranberries track “Dreams” playing as Joe enters the coffee shop…)

The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.

Nora Ephron’s script for “You’ve Got Mail”, Starbucks scene, Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox speaking.

My pencil-counting colleague was “doing a Starbucks”. In a job severely lacking in autonomy, one thing he can control (most days) is the equipment in his classroom. He can count out the pencils and count them back in. I’m sure there are many other aspects of his job he has control over, but just maybe, returning to find a box of pencils with a gap where an HB should be was the last straw that day. I forgave him but the incident sparked reflection.

Possibly the pencil-missing-post-it cover lesson acted as my toothpick instructions moment. Douglas Adams’ marine biologist character “Wonko the Sane” retired to a house in California he called “Outside the Asylum” upon reading instructions on a pack of toothpicks…

‘It seemed to me,’ said Wonko the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.’

Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

It’s certainly true that I handed my notice in four weeks later. What my post-it-author colleague felt that day I’ll never know, I simply dropped off a couple of similar pencils on his vacant desk at the end of the day and we never spoke about it. (Sure, I wrote and deleted several emails, but never sent them, which I was glad about soon after).

So if you’re in a position of power in school, and you wish to improve well-being, maybe stop doing “surface-level” things like cake in the staffroom or yoga sessions (and do not make any “well-being” sessions mandatory). Deliver on autonomy, which in turn means cutting things out of the calendar to make room for middle-leaders to do high-value stuff. Stop mandating lesson structures and slide layouts (but do share good practice around this that others can learn from). Ask your staff what they think, they are all graduate professionals after all, let them bring themselves into the job.

And just maybe, with more autonomy, teachers won’t feel the need to write passive-aggressive notes to colleagues, or feel the need to leave, and go live Outside the Asylum. 😎

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The curse of knowledge and the giant Skinner box

This piece in the Guardian last month caused a stir in Education social media.

Perhaps spending more time learning how we “do” science – what’s called the scientific method – is more valuable than simply “knowing” stuff.

Jim Al-Khalili in The Guardian

Jim Al-Khalili is undoubtedly an accomplished scientist and communicator, and I’ve enjoyed his books and TV appearances. But his article is misguided, and ironically shows a lack of scientific method in his thought process. Most notably he doesn’t seem to have discussed his ideas with anyone who currently works in education.


A science teacher would have quickly confirmed that we do indeed teach the scientific method in schools. I could have told him that we also teach research skills, spotting fake news and judging the trustworthiness of sources from various angles in computing and many other subjects. Indeed, here is part of the national curriculum for computing, at Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11):

– use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content
– select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information

DfE – Computing Programmes of Study, KS2 – my emphases

What’s more concerning though, is Al-Khalili’s rejection of “facts” and “knowledge”:

Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway? Wouldn’t it be more useful teaching them how to find reliable scientific knowledge – which these days inevitably means online rather than in books – and how to assess and critically analyse and absorb that knowledge when needed?

Jim Al-Khalili, ibid

Unfortunately, Jim appears to have succumbed to the “curse of knowlege“, in short, the failure to see a domain as a novice, and understand their needs. Jim forgets that he himself learned a vast amount of knowlege (those pesky “facts”) about science before he was able to find out new facts about the world. His huge and complicated mental schema, built up over decades of study, opened up new discoveries to him that the novice is simply unable to see, as they do not have the decades of learning behind them.


Children are not small adults, when it comes to learning. At school they need to learn as much as possible of the knowledge that has been acquired by humanity before. This store of knowledge will then enable them to think critically about the world, make sense of new experiences and tackle advanced learning. Without this base level of facts they can not integrate new ideas, and learn new skills that require domain-level knowledge. We cannot think critically about a domain we know little about.

There’s a nice clip of Barak Rosenshine explaining the importance of knowledge that did the rounds last year, and you can find it in this post by Greg Ashman. Rosenshine gave the example of expertise in a specific branch of medicine not being a skill that is transferrable to other branches of medicine. As Greg put it:

Rather than possessing general purpose higher-order thinking skills, cardiology professors know a lot about cardiology. When asked to solve endocrinology problems, they stumble.

Ashman – What even is a domain?

David Didau goes as far as to say “we cannot teach skills, only knowledge” here. Didau even gives us a clue in this blog just how Al-Khalili came to his fallacious position:

Eventually, we may start to believe the skill which for us has become so natural and straightforward can be taught to others as a complete edifice. […] The idea that skill can be taught without the hard work of teaching all the requisite knowledge is an illusion born from the curse of knowledge.

Didau – Skill = knowledge + practice

The curse of knowledge is a terrible thing. How often have you been to a talk, lecture or presentation and the speaker has assumed knowledge you don’t posess? We all do it, I refer to computational thinking as “CT” when talking to computing teachers but have been guilty of failing to explain the abbreviation at times. My own children’s school gave a talk on GCSE options that referred to the modern foreign languages department as “MFL” for 45 minutes before a parent asked what it meant.

Al-Khalili makes the case for a scientifically literate society being better able to make sense of the world, but his boldest claim comes later in the piece, that scientific literacy can make the world kinder:

Adopting the scientific method could help us all become more tolerant and less polarised in our views – to disagree without being disagreeable – particularly online. 

Al-Khalili, ibid

Sadly, this is naive because it assumes good faith on the part of online participants and a willingness to seek truth and reject our biases. Cognitive bias is the enemy of critical thinking, even those of us that claim to be critical thinkers are not immune from it, and that’s before we bring in those that are not interested in truth, or not interested in challenging their own biases and conceptions.

And we must understand the sheer power and range of these biases, studies have shown repeatedly that confirmation bias, anchoring bias and the halo effect are extremely powerful, and lets not forget that the filter bubble imposed around us by the algorithms that drive our social media feeds creates the perfect conditions for the false consensus and bandwagon effects. These biases are stronger than we know. Indeed Jaron Lanier likens social media to a “Skinner box”, after the behaviourist who proved that we could be conditioned to act in a certain way through external stimuli. Pinning our hopes on critical thinking is misguided when large swathes of the media we consume is curated deliberately to misguide and feed our biases.

In short, Al-Khalili’s blog is well-meaning but misguided. Educators do indeed teach the scientific model. But our pupils are not researchers. They need knowledge to become experts, and only then can they discover new knowledge. And critical thinking is important, but as a defence against the spreading of “toxic opinions” and “disinformation” it is no match for a trillion-dollar manipulation machine: the giant Skinner box that is the modern internet. Fixing that is a whole other ball game. I recommend you start with this TED talk from Jaron Lanier, but that’s a blog for another day.

Read more about the impacts of Computer Science including algorithmic bias and the power of big tech in my book: