Kaizen: “Always Improve”

In September 2016, I joined the Totteridge Academy as a history teacher along with Chris Fairbairn, the new Principal, and a brand new senior team. One month later, we joined United Learning – Britain’s largest Muli-Academy Trust. In the space of a year, Totteridge has improved extraordinarily, witnessing a jump in GCSE results of 27 percentage points (40% – 67%) and a progress 8 score of +0.32, up from -0.44 the year before. The following series of blog posts entitled “The Totteridge Way” go some way to elucidate the ongoing success of the Totteridge Academy.

The purpose of this blog post is to explore how the philosophy of Kaizen has been used by students and staff at Totteridge. Meaning “continuous improvement”, Kaizen has been used mainly in the business arena to improve and streamline multiple lines of work but it is also a common mindset in Asian education and life-coaching. In many ways, Kaizen is meant to symbolise the small-steps that one takes every day to become either a better person or a better professional. It is not about improving oneself strategically over a period of years.

How do we use Kaizen at the Totteridge Academy? 

Each member of staff is continuously critical of their own work and strives to implement a cyclical review process into everything they do For example, I make and write the booklets for the history department and aim to sit down at the beginning of each academic year, re-read them and then edit them where necessary to ensure that they are the best tool to effectively teach history to the given year group. I may, for example, change the way that I want to teach a certain concept (either first or second order), I may include more writings from historians or I may change the overall enquiry. I know that already, I plan to change the structure of the multiple-choice quizzes, gradually taking away the choices and increasing the stakes each time the same quiz is taken.

The policy of Kaizen is also used outside the classroom. For example, Totteridge has a fairly logical and streamlined approach to interviewing and enrolling casual admissions throughout the year; however, because of our focus on Kaizen, certain members of staff have evaluated this process and ensure that it is even better…

Students are also drilled with the philosophy of Kaizen. They are told that the grade that they get is not important but finding a way of improving it is more important. In my class, for example, a large emphasis is put onto purple-pen self- and peer-assessment, not only as a means of improving one’s own work but also being a part of someone else’s improvement Kaizen process. With this in mind, when students sit their exams, I try not and say “good luck” but rather “good preparation” as they are drilled that they can always do more and be more, both personally and academically, and that they should not rely on sheer luck. The result is that classroom behaviour is calm and purposeful as students focus on their learning and personal development because of their deep belief in continuous improvement.

But don’t we all “do” Kaizen

Indeed, critical reflection is fundamental to most teachers’ practice. Department meetings are usually focussed around teaching the specialist subject in the best way, SLT meetings are centred around ensuring that the given school is performing the best either in the local area or in the country, even NQT mentor meetings are focussed on improving the fundamentals of their teaching.

However, at Totteridge, Kaizen is not an unwritten or unspoken rule. We do not assume that people will continuously strive to be better and we do not take this process for granted. Rather, the word Kaizen is used frequently and meaningfully. Each one of the teachers will know what it means and the importance of striving to be better. Certainly, every one of my students will know it too. In my classroom, I have displays centred around Kaizen and we even have a chant. When I say “Kaizen”, my students reply “always improve” to signify that we are about to start either self- or peer-assessment to help us become better learners and better historians.

Yes, this mindset is frequent but actually talking about it isn’t.

Is Kaizen really that good?

Like with everything, there are strengths and drawbacks to this philosophy. First, I believe that because Kaizen focussed on small-steps towards improvement and sweating the small stuff, it is not a daunting process to “becoming better”, which is often such a vague endeavour. Indeed, by sweating the small stuff, oftentimes larger and more fundamental areas of school life look after themselves and fall into line.

When using this mindset, however, one must be careful to not become obsessed with the minor areas of school life and neglect the longer-term strategic overview. Lastly, by continuously striving to be better, one must also ensure that students are aware of what they do well in the moment, allowing them to accept what makes them proud, rather than rejecting all that is good for the sake of continuous improvement.


The progressive bias in teacher training

A few weeks ago, I finished my first year of intensive teacher training and have since qualified. This blog aims to reflect on the past year, reviewing the progressive bias that I experienced whilst jumping through the hoops that would lead me to the world of QTS.

During my six week summer training, I was exposed to the “knowledge versus skills” debate in history education, which provoked much contestation among the trainees and tutors alike. However, I do not recall the words “progressive education” or “traditional education” used once and therefore I was left neglected and ignorant to this enthralling and topical side of my career. To say the least, this was a crying shame as this has been central to my first year of teaching and has guided much of my personal reading and research.

In reality, however, these two debates (progressive versus traditional and knowledge versus skills) are simply not the same and deserve equal treatment. The prior is about how we should teach, whether didactically (“chalk and talk”) or whether the teacher should take a more removed role in the classroom, facilitating knowledge in a collaborative learning environment. Rather, the latter is centred around what we should teaching and, perhaps more importantly, in what order.

Because most of the trainees and tutors favoured a cooperative style classroom that prioritised skills, there was not much information about effectively teaching substantive facts and building “finger-tip” knowledge as Christine Counsell would call it.

Indeed, we had some fantastic speakers such as Christine Counsell, Ian Dawson, Martin Spafford and Arthur Chapman (to name but a few); however, without having a deep understanding of the intellectual context within which these people were speaking, it was very hard (as a trainee) to effectively challenge their ideas about the best and most productive ways of teaching Secondary History. We were also taught extensively about teaching through enquiry – our two main essays were based around this – with little recognition of other ways.

This bias came to head during one of my lesson observations this year with a tutor of mine. I was quite firmly challenged during my feedback on a lesson that I thought went quite well because it didn’t align with the progressive ideology. For example, I didn’t use my interactive whiteboard, or any PPTs, I failed to include a colour-coded card-sort, because I didn’t overly differentiate, and because we simply read 800 words of History together and then students demonstrated their knowledge with answering the questions. Did all of my students engage? Arguably more than ever. Did my students understand the topic and reach the expected outcome? Absolutely.

Whilst this doesn’t sound particularly major, I have noticed that this bias has seeped its way into various annals of education. Luckily, I am in a school that is incredibly supportive of individual teacher autonomy. The main concern that I have with this is the effect on enthusiastic, clever and passionate trainee history teachers. I quickly felt inadequate, backward and wholly ineffective at teaching history because I was unable to explain the enormously complex causes of the Great War with role play and different hats, because I didn’t have the time to sit down and cut out a whole class worth of card-sorts or because I genuinely think reading and writing history is not only beautiful but much more valuable than a whole-class big human timeline.

Worryingly, I do not seem to be the only teacher who has experienced this:

This leads me nicely to the new “knowledge based” BPP teacher training programme. Quite like Robert Peal, I genuinely do believe that there is not only a space but a need in the teacher training market for an idea like this as it will fill the deepening “knowledge gap” that many teachers around the country aren’t satisfactorily exposed to in their training. I do hope, however, that a budding trainee in two or three years time doesn’t feel the need to blog about the traditionalist bias in their training either.


Teaching students to think

Since joining the edu-twitter community just over a year ago, I have been exposed to much debate and contestation about the best, or the most effective, way to teach History. I have, for many months, been strongly persuaded by those educationalists and bloggers that promote a more knowledge based curriculum and have found this approach to be rigorous, engaging and meaningful for both me and the students.

This approach has forced my students to not only learn specific eras and concepts but actually know them. In many cases, I have found my lessons to be much more challenging and subsequently my pupils’ written work has flourished as they decorate their essays and narrative accounts with a high level of historical detail.

This notwithstanding, I have found cultivating judgments among students challenging. Students aren’t thinking about the topic. Indeed, my more able students can clearly provide a judgment on a historical period yet my weaker students have been left confused and unaware. This became strikingly clear when one of my Year 7 students asked: “Why do I have to acknowledge and write about opinions that I believe to be true?”

As we are aware, it is critical for modern historians to read many texts over a broad topic and ultimately provide their judgments on this literature in order to inspire an original contribution to any given field. As Lee Donaghy has said, this takes many years for a professional historian to master, so it is unfair and unrealistic to expect teenagers to do the same after only 50 minutes of exposure to any given topic.

So, then, how do we get students to think more independently and rigorously about historical interpretations?

A common way that historical interpretations are used in lessons are during end of unit assessments where students must write an essay judging how far they agree with a statement about any given topic. On the surface, this method allows students to write critically about a historical interpretation, which is linked with the new GCSE specification, it certainly has its drawbacks. I have found that students often see this type of question as a trick that needs to be grappled with, including showing a variety of perspectives, and ticking a number of boxes in order to get the mark. Regardless of this, I don’t think it forces students to genuinely think independently about their studies.

Rather, just like at university, each of my lessons are based around my historical interpretations. First, I make it very clear to my students that what I teach, and how I teach them, is my interpretation of any given event. Secondly, students are expected to link my interpretation to the given text of the lesson – usually Robert Peal’s Knowing History textbook range with Collins. Lastly, students are expected to challenge my opinion by the end of the lesson. Two examples of my historical interpretations are:

  • When teaching medieval society and feudalism, I argue that peasants were much more clever and developed than many historians have said. They used their best equipment on their land and did the quickest job possible when cultivating their lord’s land. They also knew that they were needed by the lord as much as the lord needed them in order for feudalism to properly and effectively work.
  • During my lessons on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I argue that Rosa Parks was in the right place at the right time and her role was completely insignificant for the development of Civil Rights.
  • (I can expand on these if anyone wishes..)

This method has been successful. I have found that students have been much more ready to think about the topics that they know and pupils have begun to understand that every single part of history is highly debated and contested, which makes it so interesting. Moving forward, we will begin to unpick why historians may promote a certain interpretation.

Sing-Song Pedagogy: It hides all manner of sins

Yesterday, on the 16th February, the Chartered College of Teaching (CCT) held its inaugural conference in London called ‘A collective voice’ with the aim of introducing the CCT and providing ‘an open forum of discussion and interaction on a variety of teaching matters’, according to its website. Whilst I was unable attend the conference, my twitter feed was bombarded with running commentaries from the teachers and educators that could afford the “Founding Member” membership fee. Unfortunately, I could not and thus I had to watch from afar.

Indeed, much of event seemed like a success. The first keynote speaker – Rt. Hon. Justine Greening MP – largely impressed the crowds of eager professionals as she promised to save QTS from being scrapped and argued that teachers are the drivers of social mobility, even suggesting that the our profession needs – and deserves – a higher status. Moreover, Professor Rob Coe’s rallying cry to abandon the progressive/traditional debate and rather support a vision for enhanced professionalism within teaching also seemed to go down well. Myself and many others were particularly impressed by the all-female panel discussion, highlighting CCT’s enthusiasm for social equality and egalitarianism. Yay.

Regardless of how interesting and provocative these speeches were, the image that I have cemented in my head is of a short fourteen second clip showing a room of teachers poorly singing “I’ll be there”, which allegedly lead to a massage session. My concern with this was not that a room full of professionals were chanting and rubbing one another, as perverse as that sounds, but actually something much more significant.

First, the singing was a poor attempt at addressing the crisis of teacher wellbeing. The average career span for a teacher is no more than five years, meaning that teaching is now not actually a career at all. With this, I have worked with colleagues who have burnt out in their first terms of teaching because of poor behaviour (both the annoying low level stuff and actual full on violence), because of enormous and frankly ludicrous workloads, because wellness and self-love simply isn’t taught sufficiently at teacher training, and because schemes of work and properly rigorous and in-depth curricula have not been put in place from above. Teachers are taught to be so selfless that they actually become worthless, unnecessarily slogging away. This is a crisis that needs addressing immediately and a forced choir recital comes off as patronising and thinly-veiled rather than a genuine cause to a crushing problem.

Secondly, because teachers don’t stay in teaching, there is also a crisis of retention. As a teacher and member of steering committees at Teach First (called Action Networks), I have worked with many talented individuals to build teacher retention but also ensure that top graduates enter the profession, especially in schools with low socio-economic contexts, where their impact would be the largest and is most needed. I strongly believe that a massive part of promoting proper teacher retention is enhancing the status of the profession and a group sing-song categorically works against this. One wouldn’t go to a national conference of brain surgeons, aerospace engineers or theoretical physicists and have a quick karaoke session, yet you do with a conference of teachers. This is something that not only detracts top professionals from teaching but is actually dangerous to the profession as a whole. It looks as if we have bought into another gimmick, that we are scratching the surface of hugely widespread problems once again, and that we are all happy together even though we’re crumbling from within.

So, by all means, slap a smile on your face, have sing-song and pretend that everything is hunky-dory, but excuse me if I don’t join in.


NB: I appreciate that the singing will not go ahead at CCT’s next conference but my concern is about what the singing represents (or attempts to fix) rather than the activity itself. 




Starting again: every year, every term, every lesson.

I am standing at my classroom door but remain just inside. One class gone and another waiting to be let in. These few seconds in my room alone is my time. My nice, safe, relaxing time. It’s been a long day. My feet ache, my head hurts, I’ve not had a cup of coffee or a swig of water in hours. I’ve got papers to write, lessons to plan, parents to call, and nine classes of assessments to grade this weekend. My brain feels like water leaking out of my ears because I am so tired. AND I’m about to teach my worst class. All term. All term I’ve tried to train this class but for apparently nothing. What were they like last lesson? Talking over me, climbing on tables and chairs, throwing papers and spit balls. And so much bottle flipping. Okay… breathe. Breathe. I take deep breathes, I wiggle and correct my tie, step outside and welcome the class in. I start again.

Even though I am a trainee teacher, and have been for only a term, this scenario could have been only too real for me quite a few times during the leo-busylong stretch from September to December. When I was training, the most resonant thing that was said to me was that during the long, dark November nights, “tough” will not even begin to describe teaching. They were sometimes right. After a sixteen-week term, cosy Undergraduate research transformed into hectic inner city London school. The days were long and my patience often wore thin.

Despite all of this, or perhaps in light of this, one of the most important things I learnt in my first term was to reflect and to simply start again. This is something that many educators have been doing for years. For example, Kevin Gannon reflected on a challenging semester where the ‘seductive cult of busy-ness’ became too much to handle and The Quirky Teacher reflected that they needed to ‘do’ more and ‘write’ less in 2017. Starting again means different things to different people: for Kevin it meant making aims for his next term, for others it might mean wiping the slate clean with a challenging pupil (or an even more challenging colleague) or perhaps even opening the classroom door, completely forgetting how soul-destroying your last lesson with Year 11 was. Regardless of how you do it, starting again is not only therapeutic, it is utterly necessary.

First, and perhaps most importantly, starting again is good for promoting a teacher’s sanity. In a recent article, Toby French wrote about the change that teachers can bring to student’s lives, even if implementing that change isn’t the most stress-free of journeys. Teaching is a profession that I already adore, just as many others do like Tom Bennett, and it consistently gives me the greatest reason to wake up in the morning; however, because of the high intensity of emotions flying around, it can be incredibly challenging, especially when the scenario at the beginning of this blog post becomes reality. If you were to open the classroom door and start that lesson in the same way that the last lesson ended, then there would be an endless cycle of bad behaviour, lack of effort and very little engagement… and that’s just from the teacbaby-dont-worryher! By starting again, you can rebuild relationships and make the change that Toby referred to more easily. After all this is why teachers teach! Make it easy on yourself and help be a part of that great sense of change. Every single lesson.

Secondly, starting again is crucial for your students. I work in an inner city school with a low socio-economic background, half of the students qualify for Pupil Premium grants, and it was only when I became a form tutor that I really understood the deprivation and troubled lives that my students face. Oftentimes, my students might come to school hungry, they might be unsure where their parents might be when they get home and, with the rollercoaster of puberty, they likely have little understanding of their own emotions. Tumultuous to say the least. By starting again, the teacher is providing the students with the stability that they may not otherwise experience. Teachers don’t hold grudges, they don’t feed into a child’s reputation, and they have accepted and moved on from what happened last lesson. They are monotonous in their stability and when you start again, you give the student a reason and opportunity to correct themselves and thrive.

It is also, somewhat coincidentally, the beginning of a new year and just how I like to start each lesson with a fresh mind-set, I like to do the same with a new series of 365 days. And like most people, I like to set myself a list of resolutions or aims for the year ahead. For various reasons that I will cover in a later blog, it is important to me to be transparent about my aims, both to my colleagues in teaching and my students in the classroom. And in the spirit of reflection, my resolutions for 2017 are things that I need build upon that perhaps weren’t the most successful in 2016.

  1. Publish more, or more specifically, publish two articles. During my time as an Undergraduate historian, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of publishing a few things. Now that I have dipped my toe in the sea of education, I would like to continue to challenge myself by teaching stimulating and publishable material.
  2. Become a qualified teacher with outstanding grade. A blog post is coming as to why this is important to me.
  3. Teach more historically rigorous enquiries to all my students. Since I started teaching, I have made all of my own lessons and resources and I have aimed to teach all of my lessons in sequences of provocative historical enquiries. I would to build on this whist also evaluating and re-writing those enquiries that I have already taught.

2016 was apparently disastrous for more people than just me. And you may have really struggled with a particular child, class or unit of work. But it doesn’t matter. My biggest lesson from last term was to learn how to reflect, take a breath and simply start again.