Why Every Teacher Should Listen to ‘Dead Eyes’

When I was 11 years old, my teacher asked the class to report back on news events from the last week. My hand was up straight away. I was desperately keen for affirmation as a young student and it was pretty much status quo for my hand to be raised. From the front row I reported to the class that in the news thar Blyth Tait had been chosen as one of the NZ Olympics flag bearers.

“One of the flag bearers?” My teacher replied with a tone that really did not hide their disapproval.

As a twelve year old my experiences hadn’t quite taught me that in an Olympics opening ceremony didn’t require a person at each corner of the flag. There was indeed only one flag bearer.

My teacher then paused for an intake of disappointed breath, leant in towards me but didn’t lower their voice; they said “Jerome, you need to open your ears…and listen”. They gestured with both hands towards their ears like one might when teaching pre-schoolers parts of the body. They explained what I had got wrong to the class and moved onto the next news event. 

While there is a funny side to this very minor event, I can remember that 30 seconds in vivid detail almost 25 years later. It’s a memory I’ve replayed countless times in my head.

This memory, along with many others, has played in my head while listening to ‘Dead Eyes‘ a “personal nonfiction investigation series” by Connor Ratcliff. The 31 part podcast is “a quest to solve a very stupid mystery that has haunted him for two decades: why Tom Hanks fired him from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series, Band Of Brothers”. Hanks reportedly said Ratcliff had ‘dead eyes’ and he had to re-audition before being fired for a role that ultimately amounted to a couple of lines.

Like Tom Hanks, teachers hold a lot of power with our words. What we choose to say can resonate in a young person’s life for good or for bad. But with great power comes great responsibility and what ‘Dead Eyes’ has helped me reflect on is our role in helping students to navigate failure and disappointment, so that those moments of disappointment and failure don’t have as much power to cause harm. 

‘Dead Eyes’ is an excellent reminder of the growth mindset. Carol Dweck has written extensively about this idea that someone with a growth mindset views intelligence, abilities, and talents as learnable and capable of improvement through effort. On the other hand, someone with a fixed mindset views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time. What we attribute failure to goes a long way to determining how successful we might be on the next task we attempt. 

Do ‘dead eye’ moments happen to people with a growth mindset? I’d argue they certainly do – but a growth mindset can help us to navigate these in positive and productive ways.

Further to Dweck, Doug Lemov’s work on creating a culture of error in Teach Like a Champion is worth considering. His argument is that there is immense value in the learning that comes from error – if teachers make it feel safe to be wrong. A culture of error is an environment where it is normal for students to fail and to learn from it. 

The following are phrases which I am still working at unlearning – I still hear myself saying them at times – because I heard them often when I was a student – because I was listening so well with my open ears.

“Team, I should not be seeing people with this error. You should know this by now”

“We’ve already covered this last week, so I should  see lots of hands up”

“Come on now this is the end of the unit, not the start”

They all have the potential for dead eye moments, engraining a fixed mindset and making it harder for students to learn from their mistakes. Instead Lemov suggests phrases like these:

“I’m really glad you’ve made that mistake; it is going to help me help you”

“This is a tough question. If you are struggling with it, that’s a good sign”

“Wrong answers are really helpful because we learn from the mistakes we make”

“I love that this is a hard question and that there are so many hands in the air”

If students hear disappointment in mistakes they are likely to keep them concealed. The language educators us can an enormous difference.

It is important to learn that things don’t always turn out the way you want them to, and that is annoying but you have to find the best way of dealing with it. ‘Dead Eyes’ has helped me to reflect on the relationship between education and failure, and promoted some really interesting conversations with colleagues – including many other ‘dead eyes’ stories.

There are two broad ideas I want to keep hold of: 

  • One is to reflect on the language I use in the classroom particularly when students are vulnerable, in order to encourage a growth mindset and a culture of error.
  • Secondly, the story of Dead Eyes is not just about when things don’t turn out the way you want them to, it’s also about navigating failure. Ultimately we can’t protect young people from feelings of disappointment and failure but we can help equip students to navigate it when it arises. This needs its own blogpost sometime.

Ultimately, how can we make the students we teach less like Year 8 Jerome who learnt to stop putting up his hand in class discussions and more like Samuel Beckett.

Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson: Great Britain.

Lemov, D (2015) Teach Like A Champion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ratcliff, Connor (Host). (2020–present). Dead Eyes [Audio podcast]. Headgum.

Stop Leading, Start Building

Whenever a new iPhone is launched, Apple puts a significant campaign into highlighting the changes that make the latest release unmissable. There is new language to describe the capabilities of the camera, a fresh narrative to highlight the new abilities of everything under the hood, and the user experience is – once again – completely unique. All things considered these changes tend to be minor improvements that tweak the original formula. In many ways I find educational books of leadership models to be much the same. They sell a revolutionary approach, a fresh lens and a unique perspective – but ultimately isn’t the package just a tweak on what has been said before?

Robyn R. Jackson’s latest book “Stop Leading, Start Building” sells the latest iPhone release with a huge amount of self awareness: “the problem isn’t you; it is just that you were trained in school leadership, and school leadership just isn’t up to the challenge”. The point of difference is we are now sold “buildership” not “leadership” which emphasises the transformation that can take place with the people and resources that you already have (7). And it’s great! It’s a leadership model that makes sense, with lovely examples to back it up. Jackson balances vague exemplars that can be used as templates for the readers’ contexts and specific stories to share prior success. Divided into four sections, each examines the shift to buildership in a meaningful way:

  • Purpose
  • People
  • Pathway
  • Plan

However, I couldn’t help but cynically wonder how much this latest iPhone is just tweaking the old formula. For example the table below helps to introduce the difference between a boss, a leader and a builder. These reductive differentiation amplifies the transformative power of “buildership” – but I question how much of the buildership column doesn’t already exist in literature around leadership.

Figure 1.1 by R. R. Jackson, 2021.

One transformative shift that is emphasised in the book is the power of vision, mission and values. Again this is all great stuff and highlights fundamentals of effective change leadership but I can’t help but be reminded of the Lippitt-Knoster Model for Managing Complex Change, which has been doing the rounds for over thirty years. Is buildership a fundamentally different approach or is it just the latest edition of the iPhone attempting to stand out from the crowd?

One area of the book that I think does stand out from the crowd is a rehash of what Jackson has already written about in her 2013 book “Never underestimate your teachers”. It is about the approach to People (part two of the buildership model). Jackson contends that “every teacher can be a master teacher with the right kinds of support and practice” (45). She makes a case for this by applying the will and skill matrix, which suggests there are four kind of teachers:

  • High skill, high will
  • High will, low skill
  • Low will, high skill
  • Low will, low skill

The framework can be used to diagnose a teacher’s actions – such as in a teacher observation: is the start of lesson routine unsuccessful because of a lack of will (not seeing it as important to the outcome of the lesson, a bad day, not planning this aspect) or skill (do they know how to create a successful do now, or lack behaviour management strategies for successful start of lesson routines).

The buildership model develops this by suggesting there are four ways of improving will and skill:

  • feedback (giving feedback for next steps)
  • support (help and guidance to grow practice)
  • accountability (set expectations, goals, targets)
  • culture (create a culture that encourages growth)

The builder will implement these four steps in different ways that are dependent on the diagnoses of will and skill. This is what Jackson expands upon significantly. Much like how I’ve encountered using the Myers Briggs type-indicator model before – how you approach any given teacher is dependent on who that teacher is. With this knowledge, these conversations can be a lot more effective.

Overall, I’m cynical of the transformative potential of this specific approach to educational leadership. However, Jackson continues to communicate some of the most effective and useful leadership models for schools. When it comes to revisiting, I would suggest “Never underestimate your teachers” is the better place to go.

Jackson, Robyn R. (2021) Stop Leading, Start Building: Turn Your School into a Success Story with the People and Resources You Already Have. ASCD: Alexandra, Virginia USA.

Reflecting on 3 Years Teaching in the UK

I’ve made it home to NZ and it is a bittersweet return. I miss London and the people I shared it with, but there is also a sense of escape and with it: relief. It isn’t just escaping an epicenter of the pandemic, it is an escape from a failing education system within which I found little joy. I was lucky to have spent two of my years with a media department that has brought me considerable happiness, but it was surrounded by a toxic system. Below are some reflections on my time teaching in UK under some themes that have regularly emerged from my writing during this time.

Where are the Values?

A core part of my journey in the UK was looking for pockets in the system that shared my values. Ideally this would have been a school that as a community represented this – but ultimately I only found individuals. I feel let done by school websites that write about an engine entirely different from what is under the hood. I feel frustrated by leadership that talk of values in the start of the year staff meetings but then shelve them for practicalities. Recently, a newly introduced school vision has been boiled down to the directive to staff to label all work set on google classroom with one of the visions three key words: learn, achieve empower. The shift from an exciting shared language and school direction has almost immediately been undermined by the tick boxing exercise that will look good externally but loses all power to investigate and interrogate the vision and the potential for it to naturally emerge in our practice on the back of an engaging and collaborative professional journey.

Since 2018, when I arrived, I gradually improved my situation by moving schools after a challenging period of supply teaching, but I still never really found a school that meets my checklist. My most rewarding experiences were with the organisations I have encountered. Courageous Leaders is a group that holds it’s values up front and the people behind this are some of the most inspiring educators I have ever encountered. In our days together, I learnt a lot about authentic leadership, myself as a communicator and the art of mentoring; also, I proudly contributed to a publication written by the group. Perhaps Courageous Leaders remains so strong in its intent because it remains humble and small, while other similar organisations have expanded and been corrupted by a mission that undermines its values. I’m so grateful for this part of my UK journey – if everything else had been a disaster, Courageous Leaders would have made the three years worthwhile.

Assessment Or Else

In the Lord of the Rings we have the one ring; in the UK education system we have assessment. I was shook recently but a friend who is a nanny of two 4 year old children sharing with me the family’s concern and the extreme choices they were considering based on one child performing below the expected level. How is this child going to have a love of learning if already they are feeling the pressure of catching up? This is characteristic of a system with narrow measures of success without a holistic view of development. It also reflects a class system where those with means have options.

I have found assessment to be regimented to the point where teachers have no incentive to explore new approaches. There is no enabling attitude to enthusiastic staff. There is only hierarchy and transgression is punished. My most significant developments in terms of pedagogy have come from experiment and freedom to play. The life and death stakes of GCSE and A-Level results drives the entire system to corruption. Campbell’s Law is visible in the system in numerous ways.

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

Campbell, Donald T (1979). “Assessing the impact of planned social change”. Evaluation and Program Planning2 (1): 67–90. doi:10.1016/0149-7189(79)90048-X.

The most debilitating aspect of the assessment system has been the limitations of the set text system. I have written about this prescriptive approach at length. The quantity of the required content are significant in most subjects, leaving little room for responsive teaching or ‘hidden curriculum’ moments. As I wrote just before the pandemic began: “Dear front half of the NZ curriculum: I miss you”. The pandemic created an opportunity for reflection and reform that could have been quite exciting. However to date, the solutions presented have been band-aids for the gaping wounds that continue to disadvantage the next generation.

Quantity Not Quality

Related to this data experience is the approach to measurement in the UK education system. I heard the phrase ‘box ticking’ often and it accurately reflects much of my experience. I’ve been fortunate to have had a diverse experience of professional development, but the worst of it is always characterised by this idea of meeting a completion criteria rather than engaging with the idea of mastery or exploring the diverse opportunities created by personalisation.

I would generalise that the overarching approach to education is time-based. I’ve recently witnessed a rather reductive conflict about directed hours, which quantifies our time as teachers to a terrifying degree. I’m aware of the role that numbers play in respect to contractual fairness, but I did not get into teaching so I could be monitored when I log in and out everyday. This obsession with monitoring is a deterrent to the system; it views learning as temporal. Solutions to the lost learning time cause by school closures have been centred around quantifying this time and restoring this through low-cost methods. As outgoing Children’s Commissioner put it to the government: “Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’?” She understands that this isn’t just about results and that this is much more complex situation that a set number of tutoring hours will fix. The neglect of emotional development, the role of social interaction and failure to see the curriculum as more than just test results from the leaders of this country is terrifying. The discussion about teaching and learning needs to be more nuanced than the reductive obsession with time spent in the classroom.


Every time I reflect on a context that has hindered me while being in the UK it is almost impossible to examine it in isolation. I wrote in the September return to the classroom after the first lockdown that we have been “failed systematically at every single level” and therefore it is impossible to hold the school leadership accountable when they are responding to guidance from the Local Authority who is held hostage by the requirements of Ofsted who are politically guided by the Department of Education etc. There is a crisis of leadership in education in the country, made evident by the contributions from the diverse participants in the recent Tortoise Education Summit. Identifying the problems is not difficult, but we appear to now live in a post-accountable world preventing them from being meaningfully addressed. This is evident from the top down. The government has continually avoided admitting its mistakes or acting decisively on matters of serious negligence or incompetence. There is no possible decision that might cause a dismissal, history can be rewritten through changes some words around, and people that speak out can be silenced through passivity or active smear campaigns. This creates a culture that I could see in the school that I worked in.

What does it tell us when the highest office in the country appears to ignore a reasonable moral code? It reveals a toxicity that infects and I’m glad to be getting out. However, it isn’t just the UK and leaving isn’t the solution. We have to fight for accountability and to restore trust in the system. As the Guardian education editorial put it: “the government’s neglect of young people during this pandemic is among the ugliest blots on its record, and one for which everyone who cares about education, both in politics and outside, must hold it to account.

New Zealand: A Education Utopia?

In my time away I’ve come to hold memories of teaching in NZ in the same way a young child might hero-worship an absent parent. It might well be for good reason, but I’m anxious that I’ve held onto an image that is utopian when the reality is anything but. I’m conscious of the danger of comparing the approaches and cultures, but comparison is in many ways irresistible and it has probably done a disservice to my mindset. New Zealand has a values based curriculum and a front half with a holistic view of teaching learning; it has a growing movement for more effective culturally response pedagogy; it also has an assessment system that can be used powerfully with flexibility and potential for personalisation. But will I find the same battles of hierarchy, accountability, and quality vs quantity? I know that I’m returning to a context which is interested in evolving, where the discussion is rich and open, and education solutions are not fixed. Maybe this reflects the communities I have found in either country – the UK is a big place. I hope the voices pushing for meaningful change in the UK get louder; though I’m relieved to now take my voice back to Aotearoa. I will miss London; but it’s good to be home.

Tortoise Education Summit

One of the highlights of last year’s lockdown was discovering Tortoise and enjoying the Education Summit. It was a relief to find a significant community that was having a conversation about the issues in education and engaging with provocative questions. In the spirit of the style of the 2021 day, I’ve found different themes of my notes and have structured them using questions. It’s a snapshot of an inspirational day.

What should we assess?

The discussion of assessment and what it should look like emerged in all the sessions across the day. It began with Tom Fletcher advocating for the head, heart and hands model of learning. However, it was acknowledged that while we assess the head and the hand, we as yet do not assess the heart. The heart refers to the ‘affective domain’ and such skills as kindness, curiosity, bravery. Until we can assess these skills, will the bureaucrats see this as appropriate drivers in our classrooms? It was suggested there are two major barriers to changing this paradigm: the parents (the easiest way to sell something in education is to say it has worked for hundreds of years – and this is new) and the universities (who are most interested in attracting the highest achieving students which drives the entire system to fulfil this). Another thread was the focus on teaching students to learn and the inability for exams to teach 21st Century skills by encouraging a factory setting without collaboration.

Have we lost sight of the purpose of education?

The session that used this question as a prompt introduced me to Aliyah Irabor-York, founder of Pupil Power and a student who has just finished her A-Levels. She spoke elegantly capturing the narrow focus on academic achievement. “The system is one-size-fits-all and it shouldn’t be that way. It very much feels like if you don’t suit it, you’re out.” The solution she advocated for was to democratise learning and empower students to use their voice and be part of the decision making process for their education. Education needs to be ‘done with’, not ‘done to’. The group regularly reflected the point that – as beautifully put by moderator Chris Cook – “schools are pretty well run for nerdy kids that want to go to University” – however, anyone that does fit into that model it is a lottery. Therefore the pressure that schools are applying is to get as many kids as they can to fit into the model that works. The concerning state of SEN education was a consistent theme throughout the day that is worth considering on this point. This lack of diversity in the system is not just bad for the people that fall outside of it; it is also narrowing the opportunities of all young people.

How can we best make up for lost learning?

This discussion addressed for the the idea of ‘lost learning’ pertuated by the media as being a missed temporal gap. Missed school is a lot more complex that just missed time. Learning can be ubiquitous, but is more ubiquitous for assessed skills for advantaged students. As Rebecca Curtis noted “our vulnerable pupils have become more vulnerable through this pandemic”. At best teenagers got a bit bored; at worst it was truly damaged and will be felt in the long term. Anna Vignoles best summarised the response we should have to situation: “stop thinking about education as a cost, and think of it as an investment”. Once we start framing things like that we start addressing the chronic under-funding and we lift the status of teachers.

What model of education should we follow?

This question was not specifically addressed, but it is one that came up from a discussion that used Hertford Principal, Tom Fletcher’s, visit to Silicon Valley to learn from their approach to education. This is an interesting opportunity to address the idea of searching for and adopting successful models of education. While this can offer exciting opportunities to be professionally inspired and reflect on practice, it is a deeply problematic approach that is often misused. On the micro-level, this often plays out as teachers adopting the blog of the week to reform their classroom (something I’ve been guilty of). Or in a wider example a practice is adopted by a leader in charge of CPD, usually in response to a new Ofsted focus with no consideration to current embedded practice or constructivism. There is real danger of seeing a model presented by a school that offers a very specific style of education for a specific audience and not understanding the nuance of translating this to a new context. Despite the outstanding results, I don’t believe we should be pressing ctrl+C on Eton’s approach to education. The model of education we should follow must grow from the community that the education is serving.

Other random bits from various parts of the conference from my notes:

  • Financial muscle drives change. Inequality is getting larger. If we don’t learn new ways, we will elect more Donald Trumps.
  • Our system teaches students how to learn and when to learn in specific contexts.
  • The system encourages failure. It is not democratic. School makes you feel passive by design.

What Could Media Studies Be?

This provocatively titled online conference, ‘What Could Media Studies Be? 21st Century Media Learning Primary to HE’ supported by the Media Education Association (MEA), was a brief relief from my increasing pessimism to the UK education system. The voices of so many inspirational educators were captured making articulate and reasoned arguments for a forward-thinking vision of media studies. The snapshot style of the day, which featured provocations rather than keynotes, left a range of themes resonating. This blogpost will attempt to capture some of these; but in truth, this conference deserves far more dedicated reflection and follow up than I will attempt here.

What does it mean to be a media educator? Steve Connolly suggested a soundbite answer to this in his introductory remarks which rippled through various presentations in the day:

To be a media educator is to be in a permanent state of dissent.

This notion of constant questioning, critical thinking and reflection is embedded in the subject. To teach the subject is to embody these traits. While I like the rebellious connotations of ‘dissent’, perhaps a more palatable version of this idea to take beyond the conference might be a permanent state of inquiry.

A regular theme was the notion of text choice. I wrote about this recently in a board sense comparing the UK and NZ approaches. I was interested to learn the shift over the last 5-10 years where presenters recalled days before the introduction of compulsory case studies and set texts. Various speakers touched on this with a real need to be able to select texts that are more appropriate for our contemporary learners. The fallacy of effective set text pedagogy was also identified. Has teaching set text mastery become the norm? The focus should be on teaching the theoretical framework to prepare students to apply their newfound knowledge and skills into new and diverse areas. We can reflect on how we answer the question: “what are you teaching at the moment?” Is the answer the name of a set text, or is is a wider concept from the curriculum where the text is an example to unpack.

There appeared to be no agreement what specific content belongs under the subject heading of media studies – but a general agreement of what questions and ideas the subject needs to engage with. This relates to the integrated nature style of the subject working it’s way into different areas and becoming irresistible to other subjects, particularly in the humanities, arts and social sciences. The natural way the subject lends itself to cross-curricular approaches reinforces this idea. There was a suggestion that media studies could position itself in a similar space as British Values (or equally as a Key Competency in NZ). This aligns more with the idea that the role of media studies is to teach media literacy. Or alternatively is the future of the media studies curriculum to segregate itself into different strands beyond just the theory/practical divide. Could the future of media studies be similar to the way that the sciences expand into different subject areas towards the end of KS4 and into Higher Education?

Connecting both these threads of content and curriculum were different snapshots of the conversation around social media. The current subject design in both the UK and NZ gives opportunities to explore contemporary media, but it largely emphasises understanding the past to apply to the present. Putting this weight on traditional media perhaps acts as a barrier for potential students. There exists an argument that students shouldn’t be studying the media that they are consuming because they are too close to it to analyse it critically – but that isn’t giving enough credit to the students. If our focus really is media literacy and critical thinking then the context has to be relevant. Social media is one answer to this. One presenter talked about weekly open access lessons, where students brought in something to study from their media consumption. Finding room in the overpacked curriculum for this alone is impressive, but it does help to bring the theoretical framework into focus by engaging in the everyday media engagement of the students. Surely the subject owes them that much.

Lastly, a connection was reinforced that deserves repeating. There’s a really strong Venn diagram overlap between those that are calling for end of media studies or undermining the status of it as an academic subject and those that are falling for fake news and actively spreading misinformation. The biggest naysayers have the most to gain from the growth and expansion of media studies.

ULearn20 – Keynote #4 – Peter O’Connor

The final keynote of the conference was a passionate argument for the central place of the arts in education. Professor Peter O’Connor promoted a discussion that questioned the purpose of schooling and what the real meaning of success is. Below are some of the key themes of his presentation:


Traditional measures of success take little account of creativity, but perhaps a true measure of success can be found more from the way John Dewey talked about education as a national treasure. Dewey understood that we are not just consumers, but producers and makers in the world which required our imagination. The arts train and develop the imagination.

If we can’t imagine the world better than it is now, then we are doomed to live in the world as it is.

An interesting link was made between imagination and democracy. Peter talked about the way that history is made by those in power and the rest of the world is a powerless audience. But through the arts we get to make things, use our hands and our bodies and contribute. This participation is fundamental to being a connected, creative citizen. Our imagination can be used to make the world a better place: “hope is but a leap of the imagination – reimagination is an act of hope”.


In his breakout Petter talked a lot about a new resource Te Rito Toi designed to support returning to school following major traumatic or life changing events. Created in response to the impact of Covid-19, it has a wonderful collection of resources and supporting research to help navigate difficult times. Teachers bind together communities; schools are the glue that pull together communities in ways no other institution can. But we have never trained our teachers to deal with that responsibility and this resource helps us to use the arts to navigate these challenges.

I was struck by the connection of this resource to the the idea of community. Returning to school is often a return to community, where trauma or life changing events are experienced more as an individual. The arts is a return to the collective, and it is the strength of togetherness that can help to process difficulties.

What Matters?

To illustrate the idea of ‘what matters’, Peter gave the example of a discussion with Dorothy Heathcote who despite her specific drama background wanted to know just two things about NZ education:

“In New Zealand, do children do things that matter?”

“In doing those things, do children understand that they matter too?”

Peter challenged the idea that the curriculum is overcrowded. When we ask ourselves what matters and interrogate our values we can get rid of a lot of the noise. Numeracy and literacy are not the only game in town; in fact he referred to significant research that shows schools with arts rich curriculums do better in literacy and numeracy. There were strong parallels here with Dr Lucy Hone’s discussion on well-being. The arts have always had a focus on well-being, and perhaps there is a correlation worth investigating between the declining measures of well-being that Lucy presented and the squeezing out of the arts subjects from our curriculum. We have to make sure regardless of the subject that children understand they matter, not because of what they have achieved, but because of who they are.

The Question of Text Choice – an argument for the ‘How’

Since moving to the UK in 2018, one thing I’ve wrestled with is the change of approach to text selection. In New Zealand our assessment system was standards based with nothing more than recommended texts or units to select from. One exam unit in English for Year 11 is titled:

Show understanding of specified aspect(s) of studied written text(s), using supporting evidence

The written text is selected by the teacher – usually teaching perhaps a novel and selection of poems which the students chose between for the exam. Over the course of my eight years teaching English, Media Studies and Drama I was able to make inventive and bold choices for the classes that I encountered. There was of course an established canon of texts and units encouraged by subject associations and internal preferences determined by the demographics of each school as well as access to class sets, but stepping outside of these – when appropriate – was possible.

In the UK I discovered the prescriptive nature of specifications in the subjects I have taught: English, Media Studies and Film Studies. Some exam boards offer a small selection of texts to choose from, but this decision is often determined by leadership not the individual teachers. The volume of the content is often substantial, leaving so little time for tangents or the hidden curriculum. Testament to this is how when Coronavirus disrupted a full term of learning, Ofqual responded by reducing assessments in various and sometimes considerable ways.

This shift in context has raised a number of considerations for me beyond just comparing the pros and cons of the different approaches to text selection. In the context of so much discussion in the media about woke-culture, black representation in the curriculum and gender inequality, the approach to text selection deserves further examination. Within their individual contexts how can teachers ensure that their text selection is inclusive and achieves the intended impact? My response to this question is to focus less on ‘what’ text is being selected, and more on ‘how’ the text is taught.

Teachers teach best when they are teaching things they are passionate about. In NZ, I was able to teach Karlo Mila’s poetry in English, Wheeler’s Luck in Drama, Taika Waititi’s Boy in Media Studies. They are all texts I love and were a good fit for the assessment context; but I also selected these knowing the students I was teaching them to. These texts were chosen with inclusion in mind; they represent diverse views in terms of gender and ethnicity.

The limitations of the UK curriculum does not approach this inclusion in the same way. The set texts for English Literature from the six main exam boards represent a strong bias to traditional texts that are overwhelmingly white and male in their point of view. Research has show that ethnic representation is still a considerable distance from reflecting the UK population. Continued debate about what should and should not be included has led to some shifts and changes, but these decisions are band-aids for a system that has seen minor changes in recent years. The impact of some of these changes in texts has also been criticised for potentially reinforcing stereotypes because of the impact of ‘othering’ and tokenism.

In film studies, I have similarly encountered issues with the text choice on offer. It concerns me that there is only one text in the Eduqas specification with a central queer character (Carol) and that it is possible to be a A-Level Film Studies student who only studies the work of white men. I know of colleagues who despite being Bollywood cinephiles will not teach the one available Bollywood film from the Eduqas specification, Dil Se, for fear of alienating students from exploring Bollywood further or discovering further global perspectives on film. The ability to present texts to students outside of the specification to encourage curiosity is limited due to the quantity of content demanded by the course.

Whatever text we end up introducing to students, there will be challenges in teaching it. Poor representations of marginalised communities abound through art, particularly when looking at historical texts. Teachers of English, media and the arts are regularly faced with dilemmas of inclusive text choice, but there is another possibility to this problem. Instead of focusing on changing the text, we can instead focus on changing the lens through which we examine these texts.

When faced with a text written by a straight white male, we can ask how this perspective informs the text and interrogate how this influences the form and content. Typically we investigate what is presented to us in a text, but a critical approach will also consider who is absent: what groups or individuals are omitted? We can introduce gender, feminist, queer and race perspectives that are transferable and applicable to the students’ own experiences – both past and future – of art. When things are not named, such as the straight white male perspective, they become invisible and normalised – achieving a cultural acceptance and a position of power. Students therefore need to learn a framework that doesn’t accept the patriarchal, heteronormative and cisnormative perspectives and representations found in most texts they encounter in school, and instead learn to question and challenge.

As a Media Studies teacher, this approach is natural as the subject lacks a canon and the line between low and high culture is blurred and consistency challenged. Popular texts that might be considered ‘low culture’ can produce as in-depth and revealing analysis as a ‘high culture’ text. In English, a much more traditional and conservative manner contradicts this, often dismissing texts outside of the pre-established canon.

To see this approach in action I highly recommend The Bechdel Cast, a podcast that unpacks a film each episode using an intersectional feminist lens. It identifies and locates issues of representation by analysing the overuse of tropes in films. Through their discussion they are able to demonstrate the progressive representation of Hidden Figures or Crazy Rich Asians, and unpack the problematic choices in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Love, Actually. The analytical approach here shows the value of the lens rather than the perceived merit of the text itself. In a similar vein the podcast Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood] offers analysis and a perspective that is challenging and rewarding.

We should of course continue to argue for text choices and selection that are inclusive and reflects the population. But while this conversation of what should be in the canon – and by extension the conversation of what -should be in an exam board’s specification – is important, this dialogue is often reductive. Creating an inclusive classroom is at best only supported by the text choice and selection. There is a real need to ensure that students are interrogating and challenging the hegemonic contexts of our classrooms no matter what text they are presented with.

Essentially what I’m proposing here is using critical pedagogy. This is a teaching approach that “attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate“. A next step to this discussion might be to create a more tangible framework that can be applied to teaching text to support such a critical approach. We don’t need to throw out the canon, but we do need to be careful with the way we hold it up to our students. No matter what text we present to them, students must be taught to think critically.

uLearn20 – Keynote #3 – Dr Pedro Noguera

Dr Pedro Noguera‘s sociological perspective raised such important questions about how we are serving the needs of rangitahi that have historically not been met. When we focus on the most marginalised it benefits not only them, but all of society. Dr Pedro began by acknowledging the disruption of the pandemic which he fears might be missed as an opportunity for change. Can we use this moment to make our schools more responsive to student needs? To a large degree the background of our students predict their outcomes – this urgently needs to change.

In order to change the system we have to see the system. We have to know what needs to change and what isn’t working for our marginalised communities. As Janelle’s keynote covered education has historically been used to assimilate marginalised cultures to the dominant culture. To what degree is this still occurring? The framework that Dr Pedro put forward is race neutral, but needs to be adapted to our community contexts.

Some of the key themes that emerged for me, roughly bulleted pointed out, from his presentation:

  • Complacency is the biggest barrier to equity in schools – blaming parents or students. Like a chef cooking good food; teachers have to take responsibility for their teaching.
  • We have to immerse ourselves intentionally in cultural practice.
  • Empowerment is key – not only for students, but for communities that surround the students. Whānau need a voice just as much as the students do.
  • Our job is to dismantle the structural hierarchies that limit the potential of our students.
  • Disengagement can be viewed as a progression: from task to subject to school and structural. Intervention needs to come early to avoid this trajectory of marginalisation.
  • Reforms are too often fads; the response should be creating sustained conditions that promote security a safety in a community of learning.
  • Holistic views of rangitahi, not limited to the school context, are needed to ensure we are developing the whole person.

Dr Pedro’s presentation was a board consideration of various considerations that are pin-balling around education discussions at the moment. While not rooted in the New Zealand context, it felt relevant and vital. The key shift he was promoting was to move past technical and logistical considerations and ask adaptative questions to allow deep reflection to create meaningful change.

ULearn20 – Keynote #2 – Dr Lucy Hone

Reimagine learning: What do we need to learn for lifelong success?

This keynote tackled the terrifying poor performance in various well-being measures of our rangatahi. The image below captures the need for action, showing concerning increase in different measures in the Youth2000 survey series with recently gathered data from last year. It provides a compelling argument for why well-being must be a central focus of education. Dr Lucy Hone’s keynote made a strong case that social and emotional learning should be just as – if not more – important as academic learning.

A first step in this journey was to ask how our education system contributes to these feelings? There were strong connections here back to Janelle’s keynote where the way we frame success is creating a harmful environment. Enforced competition, comparisons and priorities reinforce feelings of helplessness and creates little opportunity for student agency. Educators need to take responsibility for this, and give students a wider perspective on what it takes to succeed.

Kia tu Rangatira ai

“To stand like the chief we were born to be”

To achieve this Lucy introduced us to appreciative inquiry, “a strengths-based, positive approach to leadership development and organizational change“. It challenges naturalised deficit thinking with mana enhancing principles that focus on the positive and the constructive.

The message was simple: bring these five principles of appreciative inquiry into your Kura. Focus on social and emotional learning and help our rangatahi to be successful.

Final thoughts:
  • How might appreciative inquiry be used as a model for a community, not just a school?
  • Familiar debates sit underneath this discussion. To name a handful: assessment reduction, authentic leadership, inclusive education, minimising high-stakes testing, and access to learning.
  • While I didn’t touch on it above, Lucy powerfully interwove her story into the keynote – captured here in this TED talk:

ULearn20 – Keynote #1 – Janelle Riki-Waaka

Wāhia te tahā | break the calabash

Reimagining success, one of the themes of uLearn20, was explored by Janelle Riki-Waaka in the first keynote, illustrating in particular the failure of the education system for Māori. A familiar foundation was laid: ‘if we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we’ve always got’. What was built on top was challenging and provocative. Here are three things that stayed with me afterwards along with a few thoughts:

Who is defining success?

When Aotearoa was colonised, education was used as a tool to assimilate Maori into the dominant culture. In this process, success was defined by Pākehā for Māori, and not much has changed since. Recognising who is defining success is an important part of deconstructing and “flipping the system on it’s head”. Some suggestions that emerged included challenging the values of literacy and numeracy which are commonly reported on before identity and culture, and letting the student define what they are reported on. We need to ask when this dialogue is happening: ‘who is there?’ ‘Whose voice is missing from the conversation?’ Greater awareness of who is defining success will enable us to be more cognizant of the system, and better prepared to dismantle it.


The statements teachers make about ākonga are usually based strictly on the context of school; yet the ripple effect can be massive. A more holistic view of a child would challenge a lot of the comments we make in formal reporting and would challenge the perception of ‘failing’. This is word that Janelle vowed to eliminate, citing the damage on students who believe they have “failed high school” or words to that effect. This discussion challenging the idea of failure reminded me not only of Carol Dweck’s work but also Karen Boyes’ breakout on the Thinking Dispositions and the way we frame effort and success. We need to reframe the perceived failure of students (not ‘I failed’ but ‘we failed you’). I’m interested in how we model the acknowledgement of that failure to ensure we are holding ourselves to the same standards as students. How can we use our failings as educators to help change what the word ‘fail’ means to students?


Aligning with recent reading from Yuval Noah Harariwhere he traced the introduction of measurement systems to the industrial age, a system we continue to maintain – the limitations of grades is a key part of reimaging success. Janelle suggested a range of different approaches to reporting that avoided labelling students with negative effects. Comparing a child to where they should be is dangerous – whose worldview are these judgements based on?

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way”