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The Teacher I Strive to Be

Why I write a blog

I write about teaching, learning and education policy. My speciality is teaching Computer Science and Computer Games Design to 16+ students in London, UK.

It is my intention to write a blog post about the above subjects once a month as I strive to become a better teacher. Some posts will be anecdotal moments of epiphany from my teaching practice; some will be reactions to articles, videos, books I have read; and others will be reflections on experience.

My Teaching and Learning Mental Model

I also include here a set of statements about teaching, learning, and education that I have either borrowed or written myself. These should be taken as a summary of my mental model of how to teach and learn.

  • “Do not say I have taught it if I have only used teacher talk.”
  • “Do not say they have learnt it if they have not practised it successfully several times over a month.”
  • “It is not just about engaging them; it’s about engaging them in activities that require analysis, processing and practice.”
  • “When designing an activity ask what skill they will use to accomplish the outcome. Are they good skills?”
  • “If your method reaches only the attentive students, then you must either invent new methods or call yourself a failure.” Price, Reynolds. (2000) Feasting the heart.




Teaching Retention

Teaching retention has become a thing in the UK educational sector, especially since we are dependent on exams to assess students.

I have read about interleaving, spaced learning and retrieval practice. All are good techniques for delivering the facts of your subject to students in a format that will assist retention. But few have talked about teaching actual memory skills like those used by modern memory athletes.

And this is exactly what used to happen. The Ancients used to teach memory skills along with other skills.

“Memory training was considered a centrepiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.” — FOER, J. (2011) “Moonwalking with Einstein” p.95.

The Ancients had to do this because writing things down was very expensive. Their writing technology was limited to papyrus scrolls, carved stone or wax tablets. These days in affluent countries we have easy access to paper, pens, pencils, computers and mobile phones. So the need for memory skills has declined, excepting in one regard the need to memorise facts for exams.

We know how to deliver content in a format that helps us retain information, but we are not directly teaching students how to memorise data.

Teaching memory skills is a thing. Memory Sport has “memory championships”, in which “memory athletes” compete for prizes. They learn ancient techniques to memorise random words, poems, card order of shuffled card packs etc.

Teaching memory skills would count as a transferable skill, another goal of modern education.

Working Memory

How much “working memory” have you got?

This is a simple activity designed to break up lessons using the Spaced Learning method of teaching.

Students will learn a little about cognitive psychology and compete to see who has the best memory.

The Rules

  1. Students work in pairs.
  2. One student gets a sheet of paper with a three strings, consisting of a jumble of letters and numbers. (They also have a set of answers on the sheet.)
  3. The first student clearly reads the first string, making sure the other student cannot see the sheet of paper.
  4. The second student using only their memory – no pen and paper – attempts to re-sort the string of numbers and letters using the following system – first come all the numbers from lowest to highest, followed by all the letters from a to z. They must say it, no writing.
  5. For example “54F7A” should be become “457AF”
  6. Each letter or number in the correct place gets a point.
  7. For example a student attempting the string in 5 above says “45AF7” and receives two points for “4”, “5”.Swap over.I suggest that the teacher demonstrates the game to the class first.

The Results

Students report their scores and the teacher puts them on the whiteboard.

If there is time, the teacher might get the best two – especially if they have equal scores – to do the test in front of the class!

Learning & Memory

Related image

If there is time the teacher might like to go over the model.

Working memory can be improved with purposeful practice that stretches and challenges the learner.

This is why I get students to repeat and practice some skills.


Here is further reading on working memory and a specific example of why we don’t remember peoples’ names.

Balancing on one leg

This is a very silly activity involving some people falling over and others laughing at people falling over, or not trying to not to fall over.

It could also be a good way to introduce some basic maths into the class and even and understanding of the ageing process.

First though, the rules.

The Rules

  1. Students work in pairs.
  2. One student times the second student with a stop watch (all smartphones have one)
  3. The second student balances on one leg and closes their eyes.
  4. When they fall over, grab for support or open their eyes, their attempt finished and the first student records and announces the time.Swap over.

The Results

Use this chart below to work out your biological age as opposed to your chronological age.

What’s your balance-based Bio-Age?

Balance Time    Balance-Based Bio-Age

4 seconds 70 years
5 seconds 65 years
7 seconds 60 years
8 seconds 55 years
9 seconds 50 years
12 seconds 45 years
16 seconds 40 years
22 seconds 30-35 years
28 seconds 25-30 years

Source: Balancing Biological Age

In practice

I tried this with a class of twelve 18 year olds. They loved it and were keen to find out who had the longest time – the record was 1 minute 40 seconds. And laughed at me with my paltry 18 seconds, even though I protested it had knocked decades off my real age.

I also used it for a second session in the same class for two of the late comers. I made them balance on one leg with their eyes closed in front of the class. This was greeted with much amusement.


Overall I would rate this as a great success. It’s physical, it’s fun and there is even a bit of learning in it. Suitable for all ages, though for really young children I would not worry them about age aspect.

Spaced Learning – Activities for the intervals

Spaced Learning* is a teaching method that inserts ten minute intervals between three teaching sessions of 15 – 20 minutes.

This blog covers suitable activities for these Intervals.
The Intervals should:
  1. Have nothing to do with the main subject being taught.
  2. Preferably involving physical activities
  3. And be fun
An example used is making something – an elephant – out of play dough or Plasticine, or learning to juggle bean bags.
It is the intention of this blog to record, list, suggest and even inspire you with suitable activities to fill these Intervals. In practice I have found it difficult to create new suitable activities. If you have any suggestions please contact me.

Spaced Learning – further reading

* If you want to know more about Spaced Learning for a long read go to Spaced Learning: The Design, Feasibility  and Optimisation of SMART Spaces or for a quick read go to this Wikipedia page on Spaced Learning

The Number Race

Learning Aim

This Number Race game was devised as a simple computer game. The authors hope it “will enhance mathematical ability…. in children aged four to eight”

How to build a better learner

The idea is to get players to want to win, and thus to count and calculate because they are motivated to do so.

Real World Variant

I have played the computer game and it works very well.

The rewards offered are nice, like getting a butterfly etc. The game play simple and nicely graduating from easy to difficult.

I feel that this sort of game could easily be taken into the real world and made into an exciting class game, promoting team work, self-regulation and competition, plus exercising mathematical thinking.

My particular grumble about the computer game was that there was no pressure to act or think quickly. Perhaps I was playing at too low a level. But it did seem unengaging in its tempo.

The Game

This is a design suggestion, I have not experienced playing this game in class.

The game requires a set of cards, each card has a number of gold pieces on them.

Also required is a scoring track which has numbers 0 – 20.

Each team should have a playing piece to use to mark their progress on the scoring track.

Playing the game

Players & Teams

There are four players, two to a team. The players pair off in opposing teams. So player A1 is opposite player B1, and A2 is opposite B2.

Cards & Card Play

The cards are shuffled and then divided into equal two piles, and placed on a table. The two participants stand opposite each other so they are equidistant from the two decks of cards. Another two players then turn the top card over and place them in front of the two active players.

The two active players slap their hand on the card they want, first hand down wins. Mutual consent has to adjudicate in close ties. (This will get noisy, but one of the lessons here is about self-regulation!!) The card thus selected becomes the score for that team. Each player counts the number of coins and moves their piece up the score track. A bonus of +1 is given for the player who gets the larger amount that turn.

The players then change. So the active players, become the card turners, and the card turners go to the back of the queue of the team waiting to play. And the first in line in the queue become the active players.

Scoring and league tables

When one team reaches or passes 20 or whatever the top score is on the score track they win and gain 2 points. If the other team are close (e.g. 15 – 19) then they score 1 point. Any lower and they score 0.

A league table is setup with a fixtures list for each team.

After each game has been decided the scores are marked on the league table.

When all fixtures have been played, we then as a class add up the scores, the teacher involving the team in its own scoring. Bonus points are awarded if the team is able to give their correct score before the teacher does!

Advanced cards

Just counting gold coins on cards is a relatively simple task.

I would suggest that more taxing tasks would be to add counterfeit coins, or non-valuable items on the card which have to be ignored or taken away when calculating the sum of the coins on the card.

So on one card their might be 8 gold coins, one silver coin and two fish. Sum = 5!


One variant could be to have all the cards with different items on.

In addition there is an additional pile of cards that has one item on it – e.g. a fish, a silver coin, a gold coin, a crown etc. The item on that card shows the only item that should be counted on the next turned over card.

It might be best to introduce these cards after the basic game has been mastered.

Self regulation, disputes and cheating

This game is particularly open to disputes about who got their hand down first. Think of those family games of Snap!

My approach to this is to explain to all the class that they should get the card turning players to adjudicate in cases of dispute. They can agree to discard the card and change the players and move on. If they are not able to resolve this then the teams are to report their “fixture” as null and void. No score will be recorded for either team.

After all the fixtures have been played a check is made and the team with the most “null and void” marks is the absolute loser.

Hopefully teams will get the message and manage to get on with playing the game and resolve disputes internally.

Downloading the game

The original game is an open source free computer game that can be downloaded from this site – The Number Race The game requires a Java runtime environment.

Students and low self-esteem

In the Teacher Training class we have been talking about why some children misbehave. One idea that came up in discussion was it was kids with low self esteem who would kick off in class. Our tutor reinforced this idea in the discussion washup and I think it was something he wanted to steer us towards.

And later that day I was watching a reality TV programme – “Girls can code” and one of the girls said something like this:

“…I found it hard to learn like the other people did, teachers were going to fast, and it made me have low self-esteem… I did some research and people with low self-esteem struggle generally with academic performance in class… like a continuous cycle…”

This comes in the programme between the 51 and 53 minute.

And there you have it. A girl admitting she had problems and finding the source of her problem was low self-esteem. She did not pinpoint why, did her poor performance in class generate her low self-esteem or were there external factors.  A bit chicken and egg. But interesting to know. But once started I can imagine how it would spiral.


Students, computers and learning – not such a good thing

The OECD report: Students, Computers and Learning Making the Connection (2015) caused some interesting headlines in the press Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD (BBC, 2015).

This OECD report is not as alarming as a journalist’s headline might wish to make out (BBC, 2015.)

The conclusion of the report is quite obvious: that learning is not enhanced by using ICT. This is not to say that using ICT in education is a bad thing. It’s just that it’s use in schools has to be tempered and analysed like any other educational tool. The report concludes that other skills should be “bolstered” – like literacy and numeracy and skills – so that the student can better navigate the digital world.

Of concern is the detrimental effect that over use of ICT is having on children. The evidence is compelling and I don’t disagree with this.

“Excessive use of the Internet has also been found to be related to various problems among  adolescents, including poor academic performance, family and interpersonal problems,  and even physical weakness (Park, Kang and Kim, 2014). While the causal direction is not  always established, excessive use of the Internet for leisure can harm academic achievement  and health, as it reduces the time available for sleep, study or physical activity. Conversely,  students who feel excluded from school-based socialisation may retreat to online activities.  In these cases, excessive use of the Internet is more a symptom than a cause of their problems.  Acknowledging emerging concerns over adolescents’ use of the Internet for online gaming, the  fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies  Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition warranting more clinical research…” (OECD, 2015: 43).

I would also not disagree with anybody who told me that doing any activity to an extreme and to the exclusion of other activities is not a healthy lifestyle. I would include watching too much TV, obsessing over Jason Beiber, spending lots of hours hanging out in the park with mates as being too much and detrimental. My point is that I don’t regard the act of gaming or social networking as inherently bad. It’s the obsessive over use that leads to a reduction of the time spent on a healthy mixture of other activities that is bad.

There are other issues I would like to look at in this report, but have not had the time to read all of it. In particular I need to read more about the report’s conclusions on “teaching” children better reading and navigating skills so that they navigate and read in digital texts better.


BBC (2015) Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD, BBC, 15 September 2015.

OECD (2015), Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA, OECD Publishing.

Class sizes and teacher effectiveness

I was reading about teacher effectiveness and how it’s the most crucial factor in achieving good student outcomes.

It was alleged that the most important thing in the mix — the mix being all the possible factors that contribute to student performance — are excellent teachers. The example was that of the Californian experiment when the State decided to implement a policy of class size reduction (CSR) as a quick and magic fix for poor quality student outcomes, especially in poorer areas (Imazeki, 2003)

To quickly fill all these new classes, less qualified, and less experienced teachers were hired. The overall effect was that the results were either bad or good. I can find several papers in the academic literature that say it was worse as teacher quality was the greater factor and only one paper from a think tank that said CSR was more important. (Classsizematters.org, 2012)

So. There you are. My initial reaction is that there is a pressure group out there denying academic study. But I have not had time to read them in depth. What I am really doing is parking this subject here with some sources to come back to later if and when required. I will have to go through this more thoroughly.

Smaller isn’t always better

I did find this pithy summary of the effect of class sizes. It certainly made me sit up when it said that class sizes of less than 10 “lacks energy”. This was my experience with small class numbers in Spain.

“Teachers know that, when it comes to class size, certain thresholds matter. A class with fewer than 10 students lacks energy, and is hardly worth teaching. Seminars — where each student has a chance to participate, share their ideas and thoughts with the rest of the class — work well with up to 15 or 20 students. Above 20 students, it becomes necessary to lecture, but it is still possible to have some group work, and get to know each student individually. With more than 40 students, it is impossible to do anything but lecture.

In lecture-style classes, student numbers are relatively unimportant. A class of 60 is little different from a class of 120. Large classes — 300, 400, 1000 students — can be impersonal, and students tend to sit in the back and whisper. But given a choice between being one of 300 students listening to an engaging and entertaining speaker, or one of 100 students listening to a dull and pedantic one, most students will pick the good talker every time.

This has been known for centuries. Maimonides formulated a rule almost a thousand years ago: when a class has 40 students, it is necessary to hire a second teacher. (Universities today use a similar rule, hiring teaching assistants for classes with much more than 40 students.)” (Woolley, 2011)


Classsizematters.org (2012) In California, class size reduction led to significant improvements in student achievement, parental involvement, and teacher retention.

Imazeki, Jennifer (2003) Class-size Reduction and Teacher Quality: Evidence from California. IN School Finance and Teacher Quality: Exploring the Connections

Woolley, Frances (2011) University class sizes: Smaller isn’t always better  The Globe and Mail. 4 Nov 2011

“Learning with art invites us to imagine how we might see and think differently”

A quotation I saw in Tate Britain.

I like the quote upto a point.

My question: but why only “with art”. Surely a decent education, some critical thinking skills, and some analytical skills will also prove see and think differently.

Which leads me to why I find the quote annoying. There is a certain kind of arrogance here that “only” art can lead one to think “out of the box” or with imagination. Only art gives us a chance to synthesise and blend our ideas to come up with new perspectives.

It mistakes the subject for the process. It’s not art that frees our imagination. It’s us who free our imagination. And we have to learn to exposure ourselves to new experiences and new ideas, and the ability to reflect, analyse and abstract those ideas to come up with new solutions, new processes, and innovate.