An Unprecedented Situation

First of all, I hope that wherever and whenever you’re reading this, you’re OK. A global health crisis in which people are dying is no time to moan about the first-world problems of working from home, even though the effect on mental health is very real and a problem for many people.

There’s no denying that ‘normal’ life has all of sudden become much more difficult – even for people who haven’t suffered the direct effects of the terrible disease.

These past few days, there has been little time to focus on this blog when learners and colleagues have struggled to deal with a sudden need to utilise technology as the primary means of learning. Up until now its role has been supplementary; now, it’s crucial.

The technology is not the main stumbling block, though. Many learners have been struggling, not only to find their way around unfamiliar technology, but to become independent learners who solve problems, interpret instructions and make decisions for themselves without teacher input. The situation has highlighted how far we still need to go to empower learners with a skill-set that enables them to drive their learning forward.

I’ll endeavour to explore possible answers to some of these problems in future posts and how we can apply what we learn during this crisis to future learning, whatever form it takes.

In the meantime, look after you and yours. See below for a resource that may help if you’re struggling to cope. Best wishes.


That age-old question.

I was having a conversation with colleagues last week about whether we preferred teaching older or younger learners. What was remarkable was that there was clear demarcation between those who chose ‘young people’ and those who chose ‘adults’. Few were sitting on the fence.

A few years ago, as a teacher of apprentices, I much preferred teaching older learners, simply for one reason; behaviour. I didn’t really have a clue how to deal with some young people who – as I saw it at the time – didn’t want to learn. I saw it as a nonsense, as an annoyance and often got hooked into emotional responses out of frustration that some learners just wanted to disrupt!

I look back now and see that I was having exactly the same problems with older learners – but it was because of my different response (kinder, more understanding, more patient) that I was able to deal with it better and so enjoy the relationships with my learners more.

Why was my response different? Possibly because the adults who were exhibiting difficult behaviour were more self-aware of their behaviour and the reasons for it. An adult learner who has no self-confidence with maths will often readily blame things such as bad experiences at school for refusing to attempt a task, and be quite apologetic about it. A young person without that awareness might also refuse a task, but feel angry and confused because they haven’t made the link with previous experience. That anger then gets directed at the teacher and results in unwanted behaviour – unwanted by the teacher, the other students and the learners themselves.

Understanding some young people is hard. When someone doesn’t have the emotional maturity or experience to understand why they are feeling scared or frustrated or angry, they are in no position to help you, as a teacher, find a route through it. That makes it even more important to be willing to show unconditional acceptance of the person, and to separate them from their behaviour.

That can be a massive challenge. Showing relentless positivity and energy in the face of a room full of sceptical, negative, maths-hating teens is tiring. But it’s definitely worth it.

Most of the time, there are no quick wins. But there are those moments – those watershed moments – when that confidence you’ve been trying to instil starts to show – when a frowning face starts to crack more smiles, perhaps, or when an entire lesson’s work is no longer just the date at the top of the page, but some nicely laid-out answers too.

I’m not saying that teaching older students is easier. One of the reasons some colleagues felt they preferred teaching younger people is that they ‘don’t come with as much baggage’ or ‘they’re not so set in their ways’. My own opinion is that the baggage is just different baggage and the ways are just different ways. The strategies are essentially the same – it’s just that with young people it’s more coded; you just need to break through. With adults, it might be more obvious what’s needed, but then the break-throughs are harder to win because of years of negative reinforcement.

Whichever we prefer, it’s good that we’re allowed to specialise and build the types of relationships with our learners that we enjoy. It allows us to become more skilled in helping learners and to help in ways that suit our personality and our strengths.

What we must do, in surely one of the most difficult jobs around, is look after ourselves. Our well-being allows us to be strong enough to help those learners who struggle with a subject they’ve come to see as a monster. It’s our responsibility to help them slay that monster without getting bloodied ourselves.

So, whether you’re teaching teens or educating elders, look after yourself. Your students – whatever age they’re at – depend on it.

For more information on ‘unconditional acceptance’ – see

For more information on ‘behaviour management’ for young people, see

For more information on teaching older learners, see

Whatever Happened to Times Tables?

It’s 1979. I’m 6. I’m a pupil at Bluecoat County Primary School and I’m in class K3, taught by Mrs Woodcock.

We’re reciting times tables. And it’s boring.

My fellow pupils and I recite the tables together in that bored monotone that can only be generated in a primary school classroom – a sort of maudlin chant that has only ever been captured effectively on tape by Pink Floyd.

“One two is two. Two twos are four. Three twos are six. Four twos are eight.”

The pattern is established.

“Five twos are ten. Six twos are twelve.”

It continues in its stilted way, and then, all of a sudden, it gains momentum:

“Seven twos are fourteen, eight twos are sixteen, nine twos are eighteen, ten twos are twenty!”

Phew! Then a final flourish – the more difficult bit. The icing on the cake:

“Eleven twos are twenty-two, twelve twos are twenty-four.”

It ends on a downbeat note, but it’s reassured. Twelve twos are definitely twenty-four: the end.

This is how we rolled in the seventies – learning by rote while our flares flapped around our ankles and our free milk sat in the corner getting warm and gross.

But, milk traumas aside, it worked. I know my times tables. I know them as well as I know that I’m allergic to nuts, am colour-blind and need to put on glasses in the morning before I can locate the switch on the coffee machine. They’re ingrained. No calculation is required to know that 8×9 equals 72. It’s just a fact that I know – that I’ve always known.

So why don’t my students know?

I think there’s a clue in something I mentioned above: it was boring.

In this era of short attention-spans and fast online access to information, the opportunities to become bored have shrunk by a significant degree. Classrooms are now dynamic places, housing teachers taught to engage students through a variety of innovative, fun, technological methods that vary by pace and form delivered in such a way that, we hope, will distract students from viewing the next text message they receive.

But boredom works.

We need to learn to be bored. Coping with boredom and accepting that repetitive learning sometimes requires us to be able to be bored is, in my opinion, a skill worth learning. Ask anyone who’s learning a musical instrument. Or who’s a model. Or a factory worker. Or is an extra in a film. All of these jobs involve either doing very little for long periods of time or doing the same thing again and again and again.

Could it be true that in a desperate attempt to engage learners, we have overlooked one of the most important skills of all? I’m not sure that the 1970s offered this skill by design. I’m sure it was just the way things were done. But it’s strange to think that while we think we’ve advanced a great deal in the ways in which we teach our children, we may have overlooked one of the most important learning experiences of all.

But who dares to suggest that as the way forward in securing such vital knowledge in long-term memory when the world of iPads and quizzes and apps beckons?

Go on. I dare you. In the comments. 😉