Can bottlenecks have benefits?

It would probably be easier for everyone in education if learning always happened step by step in a predictable fashion. Instead, learning can be uneven, with some steps so much harder to take than others that they can be experienced as something akin to a rite of passage when we finally manage to move on. We may be most aware of these bottlenecks when we make the transition from one stage in our education to another, for example when we first go to university. But wouldn’t it be interesting if these bottlenecks became teaching opportunities?

Díaz, Middendorf, Pace, and Shopkow (2008) thought so, writing about  ‘a mismatch between what college history teachers expect of their students and what those students imagine their task to be’ . Díaz and colleagues became involved in a research project designed to ‘decode’ their students’ difficulties, and then to develop teaching approaches that might be helpful to their students. They identified a series of bottlenecks, shown here.


These bottlenecks may be an example of threshold concepts. These are ideas within a discipline,  Meyer and Land (2003) ,  that are so fundamental to our understanding within a subject, that  we need to grapple with them successfully to make progress in our thinking. Many subjects since 2003 have taken an interest in this idea, recently referenced by BERA in a publication called Making the case for the social sciences- Education.

Turning these bottlenecks into opportunities for learning is something that interests school teachers as well as university lecturers. David Didau @learningspy has written about threshold concepts in  What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology  (2016).

If this is an idea that interests you, then Twitter is a great place to find other enthusiasts, including @MrsThorne (History) and @chemDrK  (Chemistry) who has a blog with an extensive reading list and some fascinating ideas about teaching implications. To read more, see: and

But is there empirical evidence for the ideas of Meyer and Land? Interestingly Nick Rose, aka Evidenceintopractice,  who wrote What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology  with Didau, is sceptical, arguing that learning is more incremental. I agree that the extent of the claims made for threshold concepts should give us some pause for thought. Nick referenced this paper as an example of research suggesting that weaker, earlier theories are not replaced in a transformative fashion, but merely suppressed. The researchers do say though, that ‘ Science educators are thus charged with two tasks: not only must they help students learn the correct, scientific theory at hand, but they must also help students unlearn their earlier, less accurate theories.’ (Shtulman and Valcarcelas 2011).

My current take on this is that although misconceptions are problematic for us as learners, they are pedagogically very interesting. If, as teachers, we take an interest in the bottlenecks created by misconceptions, we will be in territory rich with teaching opportunities. If these bottlenecks are stressful or alienating for students of any age, all the more reason for us to find approaches to dealing with this kind of ‘troublesome knowledge’ (Perkins 1999 in Meyer and Land, 2003).

Bottlenecks that then produce benefits?

Does Twitter need some intersubjectivity? 


Does edu-Twitter need a bit more intersubjectivity?  Do I?

This blog is about why I am so interested in edu-Twitter and also about how it might work better (for me, and perhaps for you).

Perhaps Twitter works  best if the participants have a shared understanding of the reasons for their engagement.

Perhaps this means pausing the conversation occasionally, just for a moment, to ask how we want the conversation to be conducted.

Since Twitter works well with lists, here is a list of ways in which I want edu-Twitter  to work, and ways in which -sometimes- it doesn’t work for me.

Good Twitter     angel emoji

  1. I want to follow teachers who teach everyday, because I want to know what you are doing, what bothers you, what excites you. I follow new teachers and very experienced teachers, primary and secondary teachers, teachers of my subject (History) and others, from my country (England) and from around the world. I want Twitter to keep open windows into other worlds.
  2. I want to hear about things happening in the real world, like research events, teachmeets, museum exhibitions,  government announcements, conferences, many other things, and to share these so that if I can’t attend, a contact on Twitter might.
  3. I want people I follow to suggest things I should read too, especially research  about teaching and learning, articles about the the past, about history and historical thinking, about the politics of education and much more besides.
  4. Twitter can connect me to other people when there is a burning issue, for example in teacher education, the study of the past, or the educational system here and internationally. I often hear important news on Twitter before I hear about from any other source. Cool. Edu-Twitter: you are an inspiration!
  5. I want to use Twitter to explore ideas and issues. Here I am in intersubjective mode. Notice the use of ‘perhaps’ above. I am trying to share the ‘rules of play’ I am looking for on Twitter. Play here means playing with different ideas and bodies of knowledge, trying to open up debate and not close it down. Using the word play doesn’t mean I am not serious about professional and other issues. Play for me doesn’t mean messing around. When musicians play music it isn’t a game. It might even be art. When children play it might enable learning (#controversy) .

Bad Twitter devil emoji

  1. I don’t want to use Twitter to win-or lose- arguments. Debate yes, point scoring no. I am trying to move away from this. Thank you for those tweeters who model this for me every day. You know who you are. (Is this direct instruction or constructivist? #controversy)
  2. I don’t want to be told by other tweeters what I DO think,  on the basis of one thing I say or do.
  3. I don’t want to be told what I SHOULD think. (I might still follow you if you do this, though it is hard work for me. Trying to keep an open mind is very difficult if the debate seems threatening, but it is vital).
  4. I don’t want to attack anyone personally or be attacked. (This post is not about being attacked, as my experiences on Twitter have been very positive overall). Simple right? Well this is another place where intersubjectivity comes in. We all have areas where -suddenly-  we are deadly serious. Our professional identity is at stake. We need to look out for these reactions in our fellow users of Twitter and have the self-awareness to realise that we might close down debate, when -in my view- it needs to stay open. This means taking time to jump out of the debate and, perhaps, think aloud about how we want the debate to be conducted.

So thank you edu-Twitter, but please take play seriously.We will all learn more from each other if we  play nice.




School based teacher training: do we need any other kind? part 3


Michael Gove has argued that moving ‘trainee teachers out of college and into the classroom’ would create liberated professionals.  Are schools full of teachers overwhelmed with a sense of freedom? Under pressure from Ofsted, and performance related pay linked to league tables of examination results, much of the evidence seems to point the other way.

And the new enemies of promise ?

There are socially and economically disadvantaged children in England who are not doing well in school. Some gaps in achievement between children from different socio-economic groups are not necessarily closed by even the most effective schools, (Strand 2014). The political strategy may be as follows. If educationalists argue that child poverty is the bigger issue, they can be attacked as ideologues with low expectations. This tactic diverts attention from economic and social policies, and positions the education system, and teacher training, as the problem. We are a soft target, and not natural rebels.

We do have a great deal to offer, though, and here are some ideas.

  1. University-based teacher educators maintain a focus on beginning teachers as learners (not workers)  and this is vital for their resilience
  2. University-based sessions can provide the time and space need to reflect on and analyse learning opportunities provided by schools, and we have specific pedagogical skills and knowledge to support adult learning
  3. Like the best teachers, university-based teacher educators have a ‘research-informed knowledge of schooling and pedagogical content knowledge for subject teaching, two vital areas for improving the quality of both pupil and teacher learning’, (Murray et al, 2014: 302).
  4. We write stuff for teachers (and not just academics, though some of us can do this kind of writing too). It is this ‘published, practitioner-voiced theorizing’, that forms a bridge between school-based ‘situated craft knowledge and… systemized, abstract knowledge’, in universities (Counsell, 2013: 134-135).  The school-based teacher educators Counsell works with use such texts as ‘framework, exemplar, foil or critical target’, (Counsell, 2013: 1670) to enable their beginning teachers to think through their plans like a teacher. Who will have the time and expertise to produce this literature if the role of the university-based teacher educator disappears?

The problem with schools as a place for adult learning is that they first have to work as a place where children learn. It is not possible to reduce the ‘fundamental variability’ of experiences in the school (Burn and Mutton, 2013).

Shulman argued that the signature pedagogy of a profession should focus on enabling novices ‘ to think, to perform, and to act with integrity’, (Shulman, 2005:52).

If we want to enable new teachers to become thinking, decision-making professionals the road we should be going down will keep universities in. This will make a difference.


In August 2016 I wrote the following, published in the BERA blog series:


School based teacher training: do we need any other kind? Part 2


‘Teaching is a craft and it is best learnt as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman’, (Gove, 2010).

There are teachers who see teaching as a craft, taking pride in the skilful orchestration of classrooms based on years of practice. ‘Since there can be no skilled work without standards, it is infinitely preferable that these standards be embodied in a human being than in a lifeless, static code,’ (Sennett, 2008:80).

The teachers that I work with, as mentors to trainee teachers, have craft knowledge, craft skills and and moral purpose. New teachers would be lost without them and the best trainees are the first to acknowledge the debt they owe them. Almost without exception, however, they lack time. It is exceptionally difficult for a mentor in school to spend as much time as we really need on the ‘why’ of teaching.

University-based teacher educators can and should be different. At the same time as they support the development of practical wisdom in their students, they are part of an institution based on…reason, ‘an institution that insists they subject their own knowledge, their skills and their values to critical scrutiny’, (Furlong 2013: 179).

The argument that teaching is a craft does not necessarily rule out university involvement.

Is it true that learning to teach is only about apprenticeship? The problem is that the presence of craft knowledge and skill does not mean that schools work well as workshops for trainees. In fact, most ‘schools are not designed with teacher learning in mind’, (McNamara, Jones and Murray, 2014: 9). Novice teachers often lack the time and space in school to for reflection needed to achieve mastery through ‘ethical craftsmanship’ (Sennett, 2008:296). Instead, in schools, ‘There is no safety-net for the pre-service teacher…and huge risk of witnessed failure’ in a system that is focused more on ‘workplace performance than workplace learning’, (Childs, Edwards and McNicholl, 2014:29). A central role for universities in ITE is to provide a place for new teachers who have questions to ask, (Ellis and McNicholl 2015).

Surely Gove has to be right about observation though?  Novices must see not only see state of the art practice to reproduce it, ‘It is impossible to teach people how to teach powerfully by asking them to imagine what they have never seen.’ (Darling-Hammond, 2006:308, my italics).

But is it true that we can only learn from observation? In my experience as a teacher educator, it is vital for most people, and yet it doesn’t work for some. They have to learn by doing. They have to be able to ask questions and treat their lesson planning and classroom experience as an inquiry and not just a performance.

If school experience is instead conceptualised as creating an ‘object of inquiry’, (Ellis, 2010: 116), then once again universities have a role. As Furlong argued, ‘when we engage in a complex practical activity such as teaching…’ we need to ‘theorise to make sense of it, (Furlong 2013: 185).

The argument that teaching is only about apprenticeship and observation is flawed. Teachers are deep thinkers too.

School based teacher training: do we need any other kind? Part 1


Around the world, teacher preparation or initial teacher education includes an extended placement in schools where beginning teachers spend time in the classroom ‘learning about practice in practice’ (Darling-Hammond and Bransford 2005: 401).

In  Finland, the practicum takes place in university practice schools. The first English school of this kind, the University of Birmingham School, has just opened.

Increasingly, however, England is in the process of setting out in a different direction: away from any significant university involvement and towards a school-led and school-based system, based on ‘an unquestioning belief that gaining more experience in schools with automatically and inevitably’ lead to better trained teachers, (McNamara, Jones and Murray 2014).


An important reason is that there is research from those in the university sector arguing for ‘the potential of school-based teacher education’, (Hagger and McIntyre, 2006).

Another reason is government policy. In the introduction to the Importance of Teaching White Paper, Cameron expressed concern that ‘we are standing still while others race past.’ (DfE 2010). A review into the effectiveness of Initial Teacher Training by Sir Andrew Carter was launched, and published in January 2015.  The conclusion was the Something Must Be Done. The initial government response to the review was very clear: it would have to be schools that would Do Something.

The implication is that things are so bad that only radical change can make a difference. This is essentially the case made by Michael Gove when he was Education secretary, and here is a quick overview of what he had to say:

  1. Teaching is a craft
  2. Learning to teach is about apprenticeship
  3. Observation is the best way to learn as an apprentice
  4. Apprenticeship creates liberated professionals able to improve the system
  5. Teacher educators in universities oppose change because they are the new ‘enemies of promise

This is old news. But the consequences of these views are playing out now in changes to teacher education. It has taken me some time, some reading and some mulling, but I am now ready to write a few thoughts about each of the points summarised above.

I think it is too soon to write universities out of teacher education, but we need to share the work of explaining why.

Remembrance Sunday and History teaching

So what do we mean when we say  ‘Lest we forget?’

This isn’t a simple question. You remember your times tables. I remember the birthdays of my children as easily as I remember my own birthday.

But when we talk of war, this isn’t my experience, thankfully. I am not remembering a tour in Afghanistan or time in the trenches.

In one sense, ‘Lest we forget’ means to me today, a gratefulness for those who do put themselves in harm’s way, when I have not had to do this.

Services of remembrance though, like funerals, are for the living. There are histories of remembrance, but here is what I remember about how remembrance has changed over the last 50 years.

When I was a child,  remembrance in schools was powerful, in part because First World War veterans were still alive and spoke out. Otto Frank came to my school and spoke in an assembly. Unforgettable.

But in the early years of my time as a History teacher, some of the traditions, such as the two minute silence at 11 minutes past the hour at 11 on the 11th of November, began to fade. The most important reason why they faded was probably that after the Falklands, times were more peaceful. I think we should acknowledge that one reason why remembrance has become so important once again, is because the 21st century has begun so violently. This did not mean, though, that the First World War left the History curriculum. How we study the First World War has changed though, and there are good reasons for this.

I do worry that remembrance traditions, so necessary when we have people currently ‘in harm’s way’, can become confused with what we want children to remember from our History lessons.

What is memorable depends on what we find to be significant, in the present. This changes over time, and also depends on who we are, and the questions we ask about the past. The content and character of an historical education is therefore a mutable thing.

The sounding of the Last Post moves me, as I am sure it moves you.

But tomorrow, I go back to the drawing board in thinking about how we should teach children to remember the past. I intend to do that every Monday morning until I retire. Traditions are important, and they can be very memorable. But it is not wise to let them define what we should ‘remember’.

British values, the History curriculum and Moral Capital

Part 2 of the Teachers’ standards (2012): Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: …not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs

‘Fundamental British values’ have a history. A well-designed History curriculum should enable teenagers to understand how attitudes and beliefs are not static, and how beliefs have changed in Britain, over time. An example of this is the origin of the belief that slavery is wrong and the story of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. In part, this is a question of History teachers taking an interest in historiography. The first stories about the abolition of slavery I heard as a pupil were similar to the interpretation offered by the film Amazing Grace. The ‘take-away’ for me then (Ian Dawson’s term for what we remember) was that the slave trade was abolished because Wilberforce persuaded Parliament that it was morally wrong. There are many problems with this simplistic interpretation, brilliantly explored by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery as long ago as 1944, and more recently by historians such as James Walvin. In their accounts, background conditions such as the American Revolution and changes in trade, and the agency of slaves themselves, play a much more powerful role in explaining abolition. In recent web resources designed by teachers and for teenagers, richer and more nuanced accounts are offered; further example here.

So it is simple then: History teachers just tell an up to date story of the abolition of slavery and we can guarantee that the ‘take-away’ for teenagers will be a sound understanding of individual liberty, say, and the rule of law? Except that it is really isn’t that simple, for reasons to do with pedagogy, how we learn and the nature of the subject itself.

As Arthur Chapman explained in his article in Teaching History 143,  Time’s arrows: using a dartboard scaffold to understand historical action,  we have put a lot of effort into helping pupils with causal explanations as History teachers, but much less into helping them to understand claims about the actions of people in the past. His dartboard scaffold is an approach to dealing with the teacher’s problem: showing us a way to model an exploration of the certainty of claims about acts, beliefs and aims.

Make no mistake though, there is a learning problem too, explored by Shemilt and Pickles later in the same edition of Teaching History. We tend to assume that beliefs current in our own time and our own culture are in fact timeless, when they are not; historical thinking is an unnatural act. We have abandoned empathy and thrown out an understanding of perspectives with the bathwater.

Can more recent historiography help? I have been reading Moral Capital by C.L. Brown, a book inspired by the ‘desire to explain the decisions to act, to make sense of the relation between cultural prescription and individual action’, (Brown, 2006:1). He explores at great length the connections between changing background conditions, (within the American Revolution, Quakerism and the Evangelical movement), to challenge a series of ‘false binaries’ (Brown, 2006: 459) about the abolition of slavery. These include:

  • abolitionists were selfless or self interested
  • abolitionists were humanitarians or hypocrites

He advances a number of claims I would love to see pinned to Chapman’s dartboard:

  1. Colonial assemblies in America wanted to limit enslaved Africans arriving and blame Britain for the slave trade
  2. Granville Sharp wanted to overthrow slavery and establish the liberty of the subject ‘as an inviolable right in British law’ (Brown, 2006:458)
  3. Free black people in Britain wanted to expose the horrors of slavery and assert their own rights and liberties
  4. Evangelicals wanted to promote Christianity in the West Indies and make evangelicalism socially acceptable in Britain
  5. Quakers wanted to abolish slavery and renew their distinctive approach to their faith in a country where pacifism was not respected

We aren’t the only History teaching community concerned with these issues; see the ideas of Peter Seixas in Canada, explored most recently by Alex Ford in Teaching History 157. Ford argues that History is not just ‘a passing on of traditions from one generation to the next…’ but ‘demands that we engage with the complexities of the past…that we interrogate the mentalities of the people we struggle to understand and that we recognise the limits of our understanding. The models of progression we choose to build need to reflect this’, (Ford, 2014: 35).

I am not suggesting that this will be easy. But I am suggesting that if, as History teachers, we don’t think carefully about how to help teenagers understand the actions, beliefs and aims of people in the past, they will be less well prepared than they should be to understand what might underpin ‘fundamental British values’ now, and acquire their own moral capital.