“Obvious, obvious, obvious.” CLT: just so right?

I recently watched and very much enjoyed this webchat between Oliver Lovell and Tom Sherrington.  Lovell has recently written Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, and Sherrington was interviewing him about it. 

About 24 minutes in, Sherrington asks Lovell for “the main thing that teachers should do.”  Lovell gives three things to avoid: 

  • Redundancy: cut out anything you don’t need.  Anything redundant wastes precious working memory. 
  • Transience: for example, when running through a powerpoint, remember that the information is transient.  It’s on slide one, but not slide two, three or four, but you still need the class to remember it, and that takes up working memory. 
  • Split attention: “information that must be combined, should be together in space and time.”  Sort of a development of transience, I think. 

Good stuff.  Eminently and evidently sensible.  So much so that Sherrington describes it, in a much more complimentary way than will come across on the page, as “Obvious, obvious, obvious.”  He’s not belittling Lovell’s ideas.  Rather, he is praising Lovell for his research-based clarity of thought and expression, and the obvious link between Cognitive Load Theory and Lovell’s practice.  Nice. 

I agree.  I think Lovell’s suggestions are excellent.  They are indeed obvious, once you come to think about them.  What’s more, they just feel right. 

The problem is that other things just feel right too, even when they’re wrong.  Way back in 2008 the great Daniel Willingham, of whom I am an enormous fan (ask any of my classes), made a video called Learning Styles Don’t Exist.  I’m sure that somewhere he once apologised for its “garage band quality”, which I rather liked, but the information is good and, as it happens, I buy it.  Of particular interest, though, is that Willingham himself says that the learning styles theory, specifically the visual/auditory/kinaesthetic variety, “seems to make a lot of sense.”  He even asks, “Why does it seem so right?” 

He says there are three reasons: 

  1. Because everyone believes it; 
  1. Because something close to the theory is right; 
  1. Because of confirmation bias (though he doesn’t use that term). 

I think you could apply a lot of that to CLT, or rather to the way CLT is being used in the classroom.  As Sherrington implies, Lovell’s suggestions “seem to make a lot sense,” and so they do.  It may even be that they are sensible because they derive from CLT.  But it may not. 

I recently highlighted some doubts about the robustness of the methodology underpinning CLT experiments.  (To save you a read: it’s not clear that we can measure cognitive load very well, which to me begs the question of whether we should be building theories of education on it.)  Be that as it may, once you’re into cognitive load, you see it everywhere and it explains everything.   

Your students wrote rubbish essays?  You probably overloaded their working memory with new information.  They can’t factorise?  I expect you didn’t do enough worked examples.  They forgot to bring their swimming kit?  Well, that was one of four messages you gave out in form time yesterday.   

Alternatively, perhaps you explained the essay really badly.  Maybe, during your factorising lesson, they were all thinking about inter-form football later on.  Perhaps they were hungry in form time, or focused on the latest gossip.  The CLT explanation might feel right, but is it?  How can you know? 

Ironically, perhaps, Willingham’s VAK video makes a similar point.  He imagines a teacher trying to explain the structure of the atom, but “it’s not really clicking.  Finally, you say, ‘Picture the solar system. The nucleus of the atom is like the Sun, and the electrons are like the planets spinning round it.’ The student understands and you think, ‘Aha!  The student must be a visual learner.’  But maybe that was just a good analogy that would have helped any student, or maybe the student needed just one more example for the idea to click.  Why the student understood at that point is actually ambiguous.” (My emphasis.) 

The same could be said of CLT.  You’ve read about it, maybe been to talk or a webinar.  So you strip down your explanations, use worked examples, rid your slides of diversions and – ta-dah! – your students ace the test.  Cause and effect?  Maybe.  Probably your teaching, free of frills and frippery, was clearer and sharper, and thus more likely to produce the desired results.  But can you be sure that was due to your adherence to CLT?  Or was it just that you thought harder about how you were going to explain things?  As Willingham says, “if you already believe, ambiguous situations are interpreted as consistent.”  

I’ve written before about the the seduction of quick clarity: the danger that we alight on something that seems to make logical and accessible sense of a difficult and nuanced issue – teaching, for example.  CLT certainly seems logical and can be made accessible: witness this by Adam Boxer.  That doesn’t make it right – VAK wasn’t, after all – but it will still lead us to teach in particular ways and, perhaps damagingly, not in others.  That’s for next time, though.  

Cognitive Load Theory: a life of its own

In 1971, in Palo Alto, California, the Stanford Prison Experiment took place.  You’ve probably heard of it. In case not, here’s a quick rundown. 

The SPE was led by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University’s psychology department.  It involved two groups of nine students.  One group played the role of prisoners, the other the prison guards.  The prisoners, supposedly arrested for theft or armed robbery, were stripped naked, given numbers and locked up three to a cell. The guards were to keep order.   

Order broke down.  The inmates rebelled.  The guards responded with fire extinguishers, physical punishment, sleep deprivation and refusals to let the prisoners empty their sanitation buckets.  The researchers concluded that these otherwise upstanding young people had acted in such appalling ways as a result of their environment.  Put otherwise good people into bad situations, and their behaviour will deteriorate. 

However, according to Rutger Bregman’s recent book Human Kind, the study was “a hoax.”  The scientist in charge had told the guards how to act, rather than letting their behaviour develop unencumbered.  Zimbardo denied it for years.  As a result, according to Bregman,  

“In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s staged farce.” 

And as for Zimbardo himself, asked in 2018 how he felt about his research, he said: 

“It’s the most famous study in the history of psychology at this point.  There’s no study that people talk about fifty years later.  It’s got a life of its own now.” 

He’s not wrong.  Today (26 October 2020) I googled “Stanford Prison Experiment.”  The very first hit, even before wikipedia, took me to SimplyPsychology.org.  It describes the experiment in some depth.  It doesn’t say anything about it being a hoax.  A life of its own indeed. 


I feel like this about cognitive load theory (CLT).  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s a hoax, nor impugning the good auspices of its proponents.  I’m also not saying that I don’t buy it.  What I am saying is that it’s got a life of its own, and that may not be a universal good. 

If you’re not totally familiar with CLT, an admirably succinct definition was given by Oliver Lovell, author of the brand new book Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, in this webchat with Tom Sherrington: “to reduce extraneous load and optimize instrinsic load.” 

To me, CLT basically means that our job as teachers is to ensure our students think about the right things (the intrinsic load: the particular bit of grammar/trigonometry/coding they are doing), with minimal distraction (the extrinsic load: the pretty pictures on the worksheet, the overwhelming glut of new information).  You can read a much fuller and better explanation by the redoubtable Adam Boxer, here

The “Sweller” of Lovell’s title is John Sweller, Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales and the godfather of CLT.  Papers of his such as Cognitive Load During Problem Solving (1988) and Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work (2006, with Kirschner and Clark) are widely cited.  Famously, in 2017 Dylan Wiliam tweeted that “Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.” 

And so it came to pass.  Right now, CLT and the method of teaching it inspires, perhaps best encapsulated in Barack Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (which itself references two Sweller papers), are having a moment.  More than a moment, in fact.  As well as Lovell’s book, there’s Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action and accompanying CPD events, articles everywhere you care to look, the ResearchED movement, and much, much more. 

Mainly, that’s a good thing.  I think it’s great that we are seeking to put our professional actions on a sound footing.  I’ve presented at a ResearchEd national conference myself.  However, as Roxana Moreno, Associate Professor in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico, put it, “researchers construct towers of knowledge on the foundations of others.”  So, what if those foundations are a little bit shaky? 

For example, I had assumed that measurement of cognitive load would be really, well, scientific.  If lots of people are telling me that understanding CLT is crucial to my success as a teacher, I want that to be founded on excellent research.  So I was a bit surprised to read this, in an article by Professor Ton de Jong of the University of Amsterdam: 

“The most frequently used self-report scale in educational science was introduced by Paas (1992). This questionnaire consists of one item in which learners indicate their ‘‘perceived amount of mental effort’’ on a 9-point rating scale (Paas 1992, p. 430). In research that uses this measure, reported effort is seen as an index of cognitive load.”

In other words, students measure their own perceived mental effort in a task.  In Paas’ original scale it ran from “Very, very low” to “Very, very high”, although others prefer a five point scale and still others use different terms.  Some studies into CLT ask this question at the end of the task, others during.  From this perceived mental effort we deduce cognitive load: lots of effort = lots of load.   

I’m no scientist or psychologist, and maybe this represents the best we can do at the moment.  If so, great.  But it’s still a bit less robust than I had imagined, or would want from a theory which has convinced so many that direct instruction is the way to go.  Roxana Moreno, however, is rather more direct: 

“The conclusion is clear: There are no standard, reliable, and valid measures for the main constructs of the theory…In contrast to the large number of studies that have used CLT to frame the research questions and predictions as a framework, insufficient attention has been given to the rigorous development of CL measures.” 

In other words, we’re putting the cart before the horse. 

I also found this, on the twitter feed (@cbokhove) of Dr Christian Bokhove, Associate Professor of Maths Education at Southampton University.  It’s the numbers of people who took part in the relevant studies in the 1980s, when CLT was coming to prominence. 

Not tiny numbers, but enough on which to base a whole theory of teaching?  Not sure.  (Honestly not sure.  Maybe in academia it’s plenty, but it’s still fewer than I’d imagined.) 

But all of that was a long time ago. How about something more up to date? Well, there’s this, from a 2019 article whose authors include Sweller and Paas themselves:  

“There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered in future research with regard to the optimal use of the subjective ratings scale. What is the effect of time on task on perception of invested mental effort or task difficulty? What are the effects of age and gender on the ratings? Do we need to present participants with a baseline before they start to rate?”  

Personally, I’d quite like to have had some of that nailed down.   

The article continues (the square brackets are mine, the curved ones theirs): 

“It is assumed that low or high performance on the secondary task [i.e. one set after the initial one, to check how well the information has been learned] are indicative of high and low cognitive load imposed by the primary task [i.e. the higher the load in the primary task, the worse people will do in the secondary].  However, secondary task techniques have been criticised for their intrusiveness (i.e. imposing an extra cognitive load that may interfere with the primary task; Paas et al. 2003) and inability to differentiate between different types of cognitive load. 

Ah. Oh. 

Maybe there are new techniques we can use.  There seems to be some promise in physiological tests.  One study used a “rhythmic foot-tapping secondary task.”  But, the authors add, “much more research is needed into these techniques and their potential to measure cognitive load.” 

What worries me here is that CLT requires us not to overdo the CL.  But it’s not at all clear that we know how to measure CL in the first place.  And it seems that I’m not the only one who’s a little bit nervous.  Remember the Dylan Wiliam tweet from 2017?  Well, here’s another from 2019: 

Still important, then, but perhaps not quite as unequivocally so as in 2017. 

As I said, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I don’t buy it.  What concerns me is that we’ve just accepted it as The Truth.  And now it’s everywhere.  Maybe that’s OK, maybe it isn’t.  Whichever, CLT has undoubtedly got a life of its own now. 

First Impressions

OK, so this one’s a list rather than a diagram, but it’s day four and I’m flagging a bit.

EffectivenessIt derives from some Harvard University research into whether the first impressions we make as teachers are predictive of how good we are at our jobs.  Somewhat disconcertingly, the clear answer is yes.  Within two seconds – two seconds – students can form an impression of us that will correlate remarkably closely with how we are rated by our superiors. And those impressions will be based not on what we say, but on what we do: our non-verbal behaviour.

That raises all sorts of questions, some of which I addressed in this article. But for the purposes of this short blog, just know this: the traits you display in class may well predict how are good you are at your job.

The lists above are the traits on which the Harvard professors asked pupils to score their teachers.  The higher people scored in the list on the right, the better teachers they were.  (In the list on the left, Anxious was negatively scored – so the lower the rating, the better as it meant they were Not Anxious.)

So how do you come across as Enthusiastic, Confident, Dominant etc?  The research suggests this:

Body language

So there you go.  Walk around confidently; smile enthusiastically; touch your upper torso dominantly; be a better teacher.

Good Question Questions

“Good Question” Questions

Mainly, questions in lessons are good.  They suggest interest, curiosity, a willingness to try something out or to ask for help.

However, not all questions are equal.  After observing several lessons and noting down the pupils’ questions, I think they can be grouped like this:


“How to do it” questions

These were the most common.  Pupils ask them to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do.  Here are some examples:

  • Can we take notes on this?
  • Should we put a cross or a tick?
  • How should we structure this essay?
  • Do we only add three things?

These aren’t bad questions but they are a bit annoying: they take up time which could be used on other things and they reflect the fact that either you haven’t explained properly or they haven’t been listening, or both.  They don’t add much to your lesson, and can be avoided.

“Clarificatory” questions

I like these questions better.  They are ones through which students try to clarify their understanding of a particular issue.  They may not drive the lesson forward, but they will probably help ensure that the foundations are secure.  For example:

  • Do you have to re-sign Executive Orders every 90 days? (Bit niche but fellow teachers of US Politics will back me on this one.)
  • Does sea or land heat quicker?
  • Is judicial activism something which overturns a ruling?
  • What was that thing you said about Labour’s rise in the 1970s?

Nothing wrong with these at all, but they probably aren’t the ones that make you say, “Good question!”

“Thanks but” questions

These are the ones which represent the opening of the rabbit hole.  Perhaps something more tempting than a rabbit hole, actually; sometimes they offer the possiblity of an interesting tangent, a beautifully freeform, off the cuff discussion.  Such questions may well reflect an inquiring mind and some genuine interest, but they threaten to derail your lesson.  Hence the “Thanks, but…”  Some examples:

  • [In a lesson about the UK constitution:] Does the constitution really exist?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] AIDS, is that what Freddy Mercury died of?
  • [In a lesson about the 2017 election:] Why does the left wing see the media as so biased against them when there is so much media attention on minor gaffes like fields of wheat, rather than on big issues like Corbyn being friends with Hamas?

“Good question” questions (GQQs)

These are the ones you really want.  They take whatever it is you are discussing and move it on a level.  Unlike “Thanks buts”, these ones do make you say, “Good question.”  They show interest, understanding and curiosity and they are relevant.  For example:

  • [In a lesson about the formation of tropical storms:] Why are tropical storms not found on the equator since it’s an area of low pressure?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] So, a doctor could be infected?
  • I know second term US presidents are supposed to have less power of persuasion, but haven’t they built up good relations with Congress by then, which should help?

For more on all this, including how to get more of the right sort of questions, click here.


Totally ripped off from Adam Boxer, this one.  I claim no credit whatsoever.  Here’s the diagram: 


So clear, so simple, so effective.  Your lessons need to be in the top right hand quadrant for as much of the time as possible. 

The only thing I’d add, which probably goes without saying which is probably why Adam doesn’t say it, is that your students need to be thinking hard about the right stuff.  I know lots of my students will be thinking hard if I walk into the room with my flies undone, but it probably won’t help their understanding of the Treaty of Versailles. 

There are implications for your teaching practice, though.  Here are ten things that sometimes happen in class.  It’s worth considering where they fit on the graph and whether, therefore, they offer good teaching value. 

  1. Group discussion in which you take only those hands that go up. 
  2. Group discussion when you ask people rather than using hands up, but in which your main aim is to get everyone to speak. 
  3. Inviting one person to write their ideas on the board. 
  4. Individual work. 
  5. Group work. 
  6. A whole class debate, properly set up with speakers proposing and opposing the motion. 
  7. Resources with lots of clip-art style pictures to make them fun. 
  8. Making a poster to display information they’ve found out. 
  9. Writing a newspaper front page to describe a pivotal moment, complete with adverts for the grrrrreat competition on page four. 
  10. Making a model of a First World War trench/a cell/the solar system/an oxbow lake. 

And if you’re observing a lesson, the diagram is a good framework to discuss what you saw. 

For more on this, including from the Boxer’s mouth, try this presentationthis blog and this one. 



It’s what we all want to see.  People progressing in our subject.  Brilliant.

Now, “progress” is a contentious and complex term.  But for the purposes of this blog I’m going to cut the crap.  Today, it means “getting better at your subject.”  You can define “better” however you like – that’s one for your department meetings.  Here, it just means “better.”

Everyone knows one thing about progress, however defined: it’s got to be inexorable.  No backsliding or false starts or dips.  Only endless, upwards, momentum.  Everything must always be getting better.

Unfortunately, progress in your subject won’t look like that (and if it does, you’re not looking hard enough).  Instead, it will look like the graph below.


  1. Start of year. Let’s assume they arrive somewhere above the bottom of the Y axis.
  2. Steady progress. They’re enthused, you’re refreshed and well prepared.
  3. Fire practice. Not much done today, and it meant they missed homework.
  4. A difficult concept. Needs quite a lot of explaining and will need going over again.
  5. But, they got it!
  6. Unexpectedly busy few days with your sick child/mother/cat/car. Not much time for planning.  Lessons feel adequate at best.
  7. Everyone got their parents to do that homework.
  8. You’re poorly. You’re trying, but you know you’re not on top of your game.
  9. A good few steady weeks. They’re interested and it’s one of your favourite topics.
  10. Lesson badly derailed by vaccinations/MidYis assessment/careers interviews.
  11. Data provided for OFSTED.
  12. End of year exams. I mean, what do they show, exactly?
  13. Summer holidays. Everyone forgets everything.

So next time someone asks you why Child X or Class Y are not “progressing”, first explain that it depends what you mean by progress, and second deploy any or all of the factors above.  Sorted, and repeat to retirement.

My worst ever lesson



I’m early in my teaching career.  I am teaching History to the bottom Y9 set.  The class of about 18 pupils had been together ever since Y7: always the bottom set, in everything. I don’t know them well yet, but we have already developed a slightly up and down relationship.

We are about to start a new topic.  It’s a subject I know nothing about.  I have had a look at the existing worksheet and it’s poor: complicated, uninteresting, bad questions.  I haven’t had time to improve it, nor to think properly about the answers I want them to give.  I place my trust in the fact that, as the sheet is in the filing cabinet, it must have worked before.

What happened

Things go badly more or less from the outset.  The class arrive in slightly ragged fashion, as per.  They take their usual seats, arranged in groups of four or five. I don’t insist on complete silence and attention while I’m explaining what to do.  Nevertheless, I set them off on the worksheet.

The text is difficult and immediately I am met with a chorus of “I don’t get it.”  There is little work and lots of irrelevant chat.  I know I am losing them, and we’re only a few minutes in.  I decide to rearrange the seating, then and there.

We put the desks into rows, each a distance apart from the others.  I re-seat them so the most difficult ones are apart from each other.   I say that there must be ABSOLUTELY NO TALKNG AT ALL or there will be SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES.

I notice one girl chatting chat with a neighbour.  I bawl her out: “LAUREN! WHY ARE YOU TALKING WHEN I HAVE SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU NOT TO?  LAUREN?  LAUREN!”

Oh crap.  She’s not Lauren.  Lauren is sitting quietly across the room, wondering why I am yelling at her a) for no reason and b) while looking at someone else.  Julia, the actual culprit, is enjoying it hugely.   Everyone else is sniggering.

Deep breath.  Apologise to Lauren and Juliet – “But of course that doesn’t mean, Juliet, that you didn’t break the rules.  You’re in detention.”

Still no work done.  I want to enthuse them with some fascinating facts about the subject but I can’t because I have none.  So we plough on, with the pupils not really trying to do the work that neither they nor I properly understand.

I’ve pretty much lost all interest in the content by now; I just want them to BLOODY WELL DO AS I TELL THEM. They don’t, so I resort to accepting a level of conversation and getting round the class to help as much as I can (and if anyone will listen).  We limp on until the bell rings.

What I learned

OK, no-one swore at me, punched anyone, or stormed out.  But it was absolutely horrible because so many things went wrong and I could have prevented pretty much all of them:

  • I hadn’t set proper behavioural expectations. Neither the students nor I really knew exactly what was acceptable and what wasn’t, or what would happen if my standards, whatever they were, were not met.
  • I rearranged the room mid-lesson. What a kerfuffle.
  • I lost my cool and shouted, using the wrong names.
  • I used terrible resources, with which I had not properly engaged.
  • No-one learned any history.

Worst of all, I knew this was going to happen.  I didn’t have the right relationship with the class to be able to get away with anything being sub-par, and I was finding it hard to control them at the best of times.  As such, I was tense from the off.  It wasn’t going to take a lot to tip me over the edge.

Back in the staff room, I have the thousand yard stare.  My HoD notices.  We talk.  She advises.

Next lesson, the class and I have a review.  We agree better rules of engagement.  We gradually start to improve.  By the end of the year we have a mutual appreciation society.  Several of them take History GCSE.  With exquisite irony, I end up with quite a lot of them in my set.

My worst ever resources 


GCSE History.  I’m teaching the end of apartheid in South Africa to a very mixed ability class.  We have got as far as the introduction of sanctions.  I have decided that this is a very difficult concept that some in my class will struggle to understand.  In my view, the best way to help them is to let them experience what trading under sanctions might be like.

So, I create The Sanctions Game.  I choose a dozen countries from around the world.  I allocate each a natural resource, or some expertise – something they can trade.  The amount of resource they have depends on its value.  For example:

  • Saudi Arabia: 5 x oil
  • Ecuador: 30 x bananas
  • South Africa: 10 x diamonds
  • UK: 15 x banking expertise
  • Belgium: 20 x chocolate

And so on.  (I know the valuations are all out of kilter but bear with me, they were only illustrative.)

The class will be put into groups of 2-3 and each given a country.  Each country will start with the goods or expertise it produces, plus a list of all the goods and expertise it needs.  So the UK might need to acquire an oil, five bananas and two diamonds, while Ecuador needs an oil, a diamond and ten chocolates.

The groups will then try to trade what they have for what they want.  I hope that the differing values will encourage the development of various exchange rates: surely South Africa won’t swap a diamond for only one chocolate?  There’s also another layer of trickiness: Ecuador, for example, needs nothing the UK has, but the UK needs bananas from Ecuador?  So the UK needs to find out what Ecuador wants and trading banking expertise for some of that, before returning to Ecuador to make the deal.  Brilliant.  The winning country will be the first to acquire all the items on its shopping list.

After one round to get the hang of it, we will start round two.  This time, every country will get a secret instruction.  For all bar South Africa, it will say, “DO NOT trade with South Africa.”  South Africa’s will say, “If anyone won’t trade with you, try to do it in secret.”  Then the game will begin again.  And lo and behold, everyone will realise that sanctions make life very hard for the country on the end of them, but also impacts the countries imposing them.

What happened

I spend hours creating the game.  I find pictures of every commodity, copy and paste them so I have the right number, cut them all out and put them in envelopes.  This means 30 pictures of bananas, each individually snipped; 20 chocolates; five oils, and so on.  I write out the rules and the secret instructions.

Once in class, I explain the game.  Several times.  The first round finishes in about five minutes as no-one bothers with exchange rates – they just get what they want without worrying about how much things are really worth.  It takes ages to return all the goods to their original homes for round two.  When that starts, it turns out that everyone is perfectly willing to deal openly with South Africa, despite their instructions.

I end up explaining sanctions to them myself.  They have no problem with it.  It wasn’t even that big a part of the course.

I had enjoyed thinking up and making the game, and in some ways I’m still quite proud of it; it sounds fun, doesn’t it?  But I spent far, far too much preparation time on it.  Card sorts are bad enough, though I do quite like them sometimes.  This, though, was a card sort on steroids.  Think of the other things I could have been doing instead.

I had massively overestimated the complexity of the concept at hand, and equally underestimated the ability of my students to get to grips with it.  Yes, sanctions are a bit tricky to get hold of.  But I think I must have realised that at about the same time as having a brilliant idea for a game, and married the two.  As a result, the pupils picked up very little about sanctions, had the topic built up in their minds as Something Very Hard, and wasted valuable lesson time.

What I learned

  • To focus first on what I am going to teach, not how I am going to teach it.  These days I only think about the latter when I am secure in the former.  In this instance, even if the game had worked, the students would have gained only a superficial understanding of the pros and cons of sanctions.  Nothing about why they were introduced, when, who by, on what goods and with what results.
  • To remember that good teaching doesn’t require massive creativity.  It does require clear thought, good explanations and appropriate tasks.
  • That fun comes in many guises.  It’s perfectly possible to have enjoyable lessons without games. In this case, for example, through an informed debate about the effectiveness, fairness and morality of sanctions.  Less immediately grabbing than a game, but ultimately far more satisfying.
  • That pupils are more likely to remember what they think about.  As a result of the Sanctions Game they would have remembered that they had lots of little tokens and had to buy stuff.  The sanctions element – the whole point of the exercise – was too much of an afterthought.

You can read my other Worst Evers here:

My worst ever disciplinary decision 

My worst ever assembly announcement

My worst ever form time

My worst ever disciplinary decision 


I’m doing my PGCE. I’m covering someone else’s lesson.  There’s quite a tricky character in the class; I can still remember his name, 25 years later.  The class isn’t doing much, to be honest, but I’m quite pleased that I’m keeping a lid on things. 

What happened 

For reasons that I can’t recall, we are listing nationalities and races.  The tricky character says something under his breath.  I don’t catch it but others laugh, nervously. 

I ask the boy what he said.  He doesn’t want to tell me.  I insist.  Rather sheepishly, he repeats the words.  They were derogatory about another race.  Not massively, but derogatory nevertheless. He’s clearly expecting to be told off. 

Not wanting to pick a quarrel, and feeling the need to get quickly onto safer ground, I say, “Yes, well, I’ll think we’ll move on.” 

I end up teaching the boy quite often.  His behaviour gets worse and I find it very hard to control him, and indeed many of my other classes.  This is partly responsible for my decision not to continue with teaching after my PGCE. 

As I analyse it further, I am disappointed to realise that would probably have acted differently had the perpetrator been someone less, well, intimidating.  

What I learned 

1.To be braver and have the courage of my convictions. 

To put it bluntly, I was afraid of inflaming a situation involving someone I would rather have had with me than against me.  I was yet to appreciate that allowing people to get away with poor behaviour doesn’t make them like you or your lessons, respect you, or want to work hard for you.  It just makes you seem weak, and that reputation spreads very quickly.   

2. If someone says something clearly unacceptable, call it out.  As I’ve read elsewhere – Tom Bennett? – what you accept, you encourage. 

If you want more…

You can can read about my worst ever form time here (quite short and utterly excruciating) and my worst ever assembly announcement here (very short, hideously embarrasing, but quite funny).

My worst ever assembly announcement


Every year we took the whole of Y9 to the WW1 battlefields.  I’d organised that year’s trip.  A couple of days before we were due to leave I went into Y9 assembly to give some last minute reminders.  It was an all girls school; I was in my late 20s. 

What happened 

“So, everyone, as you know we’re all off the battlefields on Thursday.  I just wanted to remind you of a few things.  Don’t forget your passport and EHIC; you won’t be able to come without them.  The same goes for epipens and any other medication you might need.  Don’t be late: we are on a tight schedule and we will leave without you.  And please, girls, dress sensibly.  We’ve studied the trenches and you know how muddy it can be, so please wear appropriate footwear.  Boots or wellies are good, or even some old shoes that don’t mind getting a bit filthy.  Whatever you do, don’t wear your breast trainers.” 

Pause. Close eyes. Wait approximately 0.5 seconds for wave upon wave of hysterical laughter.  Leave the school, and in fact teaching altogether, about eight weeks later. 

What I learned 

Sometimes you’ve just got to laugh at yourself.  Slips of the tongue happen: you will say a lot of words and inevitably you will get some of them wrong.  And I was already leaving teaching anyway.