Category: Book Notes

Notes from ‘An Ethic of Excellence’


Key Summary

 Students need to see what excellence looks like, encouraged to be given meaningful audiences for their work, and opportunity to redraft.


  • With models of work from former students and models of work from the professional world class sits and admired. They critique and discuss what makes the work powerful. These is kept as a library of excellence – on the walls, on counters, in boxes – pupils visit and recharge their vision.
  • Culture matters – there needs to be a culture of excellence and excellent work rather than the volume of work.
  • When considering improving education, focus lesson on what is delivered to students, consider schooling as an experience not a delivery system.
  • “When kids walk into run-down, ugly buidings constructed as cheaply as possible and often falling apart, what message do these children get? We don’t care about you. We don’t value you. We don’t expect much of you.” Pg 46 – the same could be said for classrooms?
  • Excellence does not just mean excellence in work – but also excellence as a human being – being the kind of person who will be a credit to our society.
  • Students produce high quality work because they did not spend years reading textbooks in unison or filling in blanks on worksheets.
  • Uses project work but projects are structured to make it difficult for students to fall behind or fail.
  • When apprentice builder long explanations were not used – instead a model was given. Therefore RB always knew what he was striving for, what quality work looked like.
  • Need to admire models, find inspiration in them, and analyse their strengths and weaknesses. The same needs to be applied to feedback – need to model it.
  • There will be tribute work, work of a student who borrowed work from an example, but this is to be encouraged as it allows students to develop skills.
  • Students need to know from the outset that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing.
  • Three simple rules for critique:
    • Be kind.
    • Be specific.
    • Be helpful.
  • Guidelines for critique:
    • Begin with the author explaining their work.
    • Critique the work not the person.
    • Begin with something positive about the work.
    • Use I statements “I am confused” rather than “this makes no sense”
    • Use questions when possible “I am curious why you began with this?”
  • Teaching is hard, harder than can ever be explained to anyone. Doing it well consistently take a unique stamina.

Potential Action Points

  • Consider modeling for students. Saving past student work.
  • Spending more time looking at work with students – possibly earlier in the process.

Secondary Starters and Plenaries – Geography

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I pre-ordered the above book when it first appeared and received my copy though the post on Saturday. It is a mix of more traditional ideas, old ideas with a new twist and totally new ideas.

I really liked the introduction of the book:

“The aim of this book is to bring excitement and high levels of engagement to your geography lessons, so that your pupils feel really inspired by the subject. We want your pupils to leave your lessons feeling exhilarated about what they have learnt and eager to return to your classroom for more. And we want the geography department to be known as the place where the most interesting learning takes place.”

The authors also give six characteristics of high quality starters and plenaries:

  1. They help pupils develop their geographical knowledge and/or skills by focusing on one discrete area of the curriculum.
  2. They help pupils to understand important geographical principles that can be applied in a variety of contexts.
  3. They encourage pupils to think deeply about geographical topics and case studies, and ask relevant questions.
  4. They help pupils make links between different aspects of the subject through knowledge or skills bridges.
  5. They provide pupils with deep geographical learning that they can take with them beyond their formal schooling.
  6. They provide a means of addressing the themes of the Global Dimension and Sustainable Development, and therefore make a meaningful contribution to the school’s work on two important cross-curricular themes.

The book states that it has a companion website – however when I visited the website (23/2/2014) there was no content available. I image it will be put on soon as the book has only just been published!

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The book is arranged by topics and has a range of activities for each. What I particularly liked was the authors use a named place example for most activities; these can be easily be changed but makes it more readable.

Some of the activities I particularly liked were:

  • Getting students to consider comparing ‘Amazon’ and ‘Leeds’ on street view; what would a camera capture in both locations.
  • Looking at a photos taken in cities looking in two separate directions from the same place.
  • Get students to design success criteria for redevelopment projects.
  • Decide who would benefit most from an electric bike scheme (residents of a hamlet, visitors staying in a holiday cottage, or residents of a large village).
  • Ask pupils to consider what type of business from a detailed daily weather forecast; what type of information would that business particularly need.

This is just a brief summary – the ideas are more developed and better explained in the book!

The book was up to date looking at ‘modern’ topics such as fracking and flooding in the UK.

In summary this book is affordable £13.49 on the Bloomsbury Website, £14.99 on Amazon. It will also be available on Kindle on March 13th. I would definitely recommend it to all beginning Geography teachers, it would also have a place on all departmental book shelves.

What to Expect when No One’s Expecting – America’s Coming Demographic Disaster


This book was an interesting look at the demographics of the United States, however the author also touched on the wider issues of population dynamics and used other countries as examples. I will recommend this book to my sixth form students, and it would be appropriate for students studying both A’Level and International Baccalaureate Geography. The book is readable while at the same time having a secure factual underpinning.

The book opens with this quote:

Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how to you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily? It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in … that could be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization.

– Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, 2012

  • The author looks at the historical shift in American fertility. In 1800 the fertility rate for white Americans was 7.04. The earliest reliable data for black Americans in the 1850s puts it at 7.90-. By 1890 the fertility rate for whites had fallen to 3.87; while blacks had only fallen to 6.56.
  • In 1960s America the combined total fertility rate was 3.1, in 1980 it was 1.8, and then to 2.12 in 2007, falling to 2.01 in 2009. However this rebound was largely driven by the high fertility of immigrants.
  • The decline in American fertility rate is the result of a ‘complex constellation of factors’. The decline in church attendance, the increase of women in the workforce, the laws mandating car seats, and reform in divorce statutes. None of these changes were designed to drive down population however they have had that affect.
  • In 1936 64% of Americans said that three or more children were ideal, today only 33% of American’s think that. In practice actual fertility is lower than desired fertility.
  • Total fertility varies across the United States, Utah had a TFR of 2008, whereas Vermont had the lowest at 1.67.
  • Due to demographic momentum you don’t see the effects of fertility decrease until the last above-replacement generation dies.
  • As a society ages the level of entrepreneurship and inventiveness decreases. Older citizens necessarily seek less risky employment and investments.
  • Fertility correlates with income. The poorest families, wiht annual incomes under $20,000 have the second highest fertility rate, 2.038. The higherst fertility is found amongh lower-middle-class families, those with incomes between $35,000 and $49,000, they have a TFR of 2.052. As you slide up the scale fertility drops.
  • One of the biggest predictors of fertility is woman’s educational level. If a women does not have a high school diploma the TFR is 2.45; whereas for a women with a Bachelor’s degree it is 1.63.
  • The abortion rate also has an impact on Fertility, for White Americans abortion lowered the fertility rate by 0.08 or 4%; for Black Americans it lowered the fertility rate down by 0.34 or 13%.
  • Research by an Australian researcher, Vegard Skirbekk, stated in the 14th century the wealthy were having as twice as many children as the lower classes, by 1600 elites were bearing only 25% more children. The trend lines crossed in the Western world in 1750, and then reproduction of elites never went below that of the working class.
  • If current fertility rates remain constant in Europe the total population of the continent will go from 738 million in 2010 to 482 million by the end of the century.
  • It is difficult to predict what is going to happen in the future because since the industrial revolution there is no model for a country experiencing a sustained, structural shrinking of its population.
  • In the US the Social Security Administration predicts that by 2034 the ration of workers to retirees will be 2.1 workers for each retiree, today it is 2.9, in 1950 it was 16.5.
  • Abortions and the availability of abortions also plays a role in a countries population; there have been 53 million abortions in the United States since 1973; there have been 37.9 migrants in the same period of time (both legal and illegal).
  • By 2050 China’s population will be falling by 20 million every 5 years, and one out of every four citizens will be over the age of 65. (goes to explain why last week they announced their population policy would be relaxed)
  • The author concludes with ways to increase the fertility rate:
    • Reducing social security taxes for parents with children; remove them for parents with three children under the age of 18.
    • Eliminate the need for college or make college more conducive to couples with families; for example BYU provides family housing.
    • Increase the number of people going to church. (although this is a simplification of the authors argument).



The Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon


This was a fairly quick read that I picked off the shelf in Foyles when going to pick up another book that I ordered online.

This was an interesting tale of the everything store. It provided some interesting insights on what, I am sure will become the world’s biggest retailer.

The book opens with the following quote:

“When you are eighty years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices.” – Jeff Bezos

The author described Amazon as a company that was among the first to see the boundless promise of the Internet, and the company that ended forever changing the way we shop and read. He goes on to say that the company has nearly perfected the art of instant gratification, delivering digital products in seconds and their physical incarnations in a  few days.

Throughout the book there are many analogies that talk about Besos’s single mindedness who is indifferent to the opinions of others. He is described as an avid problem solver, a man who has a chess grand master’s view of the competitive landscape, and he applies the focus of an obsessive-compulsive to pleasing customers and providing services like free shipping.

The book talks about the idiosyncratic customs of the company. For example Power Point decks or slide presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six page narratives laying out their points in prose.

When opening Amazon Bezos’s original aim was to provide an everything store; something nearly 20 years on he has nearly achieved. However he initially wanted to capture it’s essence – unlimited selection – in at least once category – Books. It was interesting to read that there was initially a negative response from publishers over the review features on the site (as it allowed both negative and positive reviews).

The book talks about how e-commerce allowed customers to have a personalised shopping experience, something that was not possible with traditional retail. However he did take ideas from other traditional ideas; particularly drawing ideas from Sam Walton of Walmart.

The book also described the way that Amazon attempted to remove the friction of online buying. This was achieved by allowing ‘one click’ ordering, and also by providing free super saver shipping.

As part of the companies early history it’s core values were agreed:

  • Customer Obsession
  • Frugality
  • Bias for Action
  • Ownership
  • High bar for talent
  • Innovation.

Throughout the book it there is constant reference to the fact that value trumps everything and the overarching aim of Amazon is to provide value for money for customers.

The book also touches on Bezos’s personal leadership style.  He does not have one on one meetings with his subordinates as he feels they are a waste of his time.

All in all a fairly quick read that provides an interesting insight into the company that I love to hate!

Categories: Book Notes

Practice Perfect


The book is not designed solely for teachers; it offers practical advice on improvement for people in all walks of life. However the tips can be applied by teachers in two ways; ideas for how teachers can improve their own pedagogy, and ways that students can coach their students in improving their examination performance. The author’s claim that the aim of the book is to engage the dream of better. They claim that  deliberately engineered and designed practice can revolutionise the most important endeavours, however frequently practice is not used to the best effect.

The book refers to Doug Lemov’s previous book ‘Teach like a Champion’ [a book that I have not read but will now]; and talks about characteristics of high performing teachers. The authors state that ‘Great teachers obsessed on things like how efficiently they used time in the classroom.’ …[they also had] questions which were artful; their assignments, demanding – but there was a clear tendency among positive outliers to see the power of the humdrum, the everyday. He talks about teachers rehearsing how they ask questions, how they start lessons, and also how they would deal with disruption. He gives case studies of teachers practicing non-verbal ways of dealing with students disruption and anticipating the response. There are examples of teachers spending 10 minutes a day to improve their questioning and responding to questions. This allowed teachers to then concentrate on the nuances of student answers and other aspects of teaching.

The authors state that outside the world of professional athletics it is rare for professionals to practice. The premise of the book is that all people can use practice to improve.However it is important that it is done correctly, as we can work hard without getting very far. The book states “it is not just enough to be busy”.

The author has put together 42 rules which can be used to improve practice; I have shared some of the rules below:

Rule 1: Encode Success

Practice makes permanent, It is important to practice doing the right thing; though it is important that practice is pitched at the correct level. Practice that is pitched at the wrong level is not useful as people the practice failing.Practice activities should be engineered so the success rate is reliably high.

Rule 2: Practice the 20

80% of results come from 20% of the ‘things’; it is important to practice the things that matter. This requires more time to be spent on planning, but this can be done in advance.

Rule 3: Let the mind follow the body

Learn skills to the way to autonomy; that way the skills can be used automatically. If skills are practised enough they will become second nature and used without thinking.

Rule 4: Unlock Creativity …. With Repetition

Repetition is often termed ‘drill and kill’ – the opposite of higher order thinking and creativity. However creativity often comes about because the mind has been set free as the basics are now second nature.

Rule 5: Replace your Purpose (with an objective)

Vague ideas of a “purpose” should replaced with a manageable and measurable objective that is made ahead of practice and gives guidance. This allows progress to be measured.

Rule 10: Isolate the Skill

If you attempt to practice too much at once the results will be mixed. Practice the skill in isolation until the learner has mastered it.

Rule 11: Name it

Name each skill or technique you practice; use this vocabulary, ask others to name them and then ensure those names are used correctly.

Rule 14: Make Each Minute Matter

Identify areas in which time is wasted; and create remedies to ensure all time is fully utilised; and create those remedies into routines.

Rule 16: Call your Shots & Rule 17: Make Models Believable

Before modelling something, explain what you are looking for. In addition the context that things are modelled in should be as similar as possible to context in which the learner must perform.

Rule 19: Insist they “Walk this Way”

I found this interesting, as frequently people try to put their own personal touch on things. However the authors argue that it is best to ensure that  people directly imitate the model.

Rule 20: Model Skinny Parts

Model complex skills one step at a time rather than demonstrating complex skills in their entirity.

Rule 23-30 Focus on Feedback (I have attempted to summarise the feedback section rather than dealing with each rule individually)

  • Get people to commit to using feedback, discuss when the feedback will but into action and build a culture of accountability.
  • Build a culture of people getting better at using feedback by doing it a lot.
  • Instead of reflecting on feedback get participants to apply the feedback first and then reflect.
  • Shorten the feedback loop and give feedback straight away – I think when considering lesson observations this may mean giving feedback at the end of the lesson even if it is not fully formed / written up.
  • Highlight what people do right as well as what they do wrong.
  • Limit the amount of feedback given so it is not overwhelming.
  • When people get multiple sources of feedback track the feedback so what people hear is consistent and not overwhelming – a really important one for schools!
  • When giving feedback don’t use “don’t” ; instead focus on telling participants how to succeed.
  • Lock in feedback, when giving feedback: 1. Ask recipients to summarise what they heard you say; 2. Ask recipients to prioritise the most important parts of the feedback; 3. Ask recipients to identify the next action they are going to take.

Rule 31 – 37 Creating a culture of practice

The final section of the book looks at how to create a culture of practice within an organisation. There are a number of suggestions; they create a fine line between accepting errors and ensuring errors are not minimised or ignored. They need to ensure that the barriers to practice are knocked down and anticipate some people will resist practice.

Some other elements are:

  • Utilise friendly and positive competition.
  • As the leader be willing to model and engage in practice.
  • As a leader ask for feedback on your own practice.
  • Allow team members to self-identify particular skills and areas of growth they want to focus on.
  • Normalise praise that supports good practice; actions not traits.
  • Create systems of recognition.


The last section looks at how to make new skills stick.

  • If a particular skills are going to be evaluated; practice those skills first.
  • Use the names of skills to discuss skills post practice to keep them alive.
  • Reward hard work and communicate a sense of urgency when improvement is necessary.

The conclusion gives practical advice on how to implement some of the skills. I strongly recommend reading this book as it is relevant to all walks of life and walks the fine balance between theory and practice successfully.


Categories: Book Notes, Leadership Tags: Tags: ,

Favourite Books


I read a lot. In 2012 I read over 100 books, 108 to be exact. I expect to read a similar number this year. 

The reason I read so much is fourfold:

  1. I am a quick reader.
  2. I have a 1 hour and 10 minute commute each way to work, therefore I have about 2 hours a day uninterrupted reading time.
  3. I don’t watch huge amounts of television.
  4. Frequently I select books that aren’t challenging, but instead quite quick reads.

I log all my books in Goodreads, a free online reading journal that I recommend for anyone, it is particularly useful if like me you read lots of crime thrillers that aren’t particularly memorable from the title alone but don’t like re-reading books! All the books I have read can be found there:

When coming up with my favourite titles I have deliberately excluded any Education Texts or Geography Texts; those will receive a blog post in their own right.

Please Mrs. Butler – Alan Ahlberg

please mrs butler

This is probably the book that I remember most from my childhood, having read it first when I was in Year 3. I have since re-read it a couple of times, and being children’s poetry is very accessible. I think the fact that I am now a teacher, albeit in a secondary rather than primary school has given these poems more meaning.

My particular favourites are ‘Please Mrs. Butler’ and ‘Scissors’; the full text of Scissors can be found on the poetry archive here.

Killing Floor – Lee Child

killing floor

The main type of novel I read is Crime Thrillers. The Jack Reacher series is my favourite (I can’t wait until the next novel comes out at the end of the month). I picked this novel, as although I am not sure it is my favourite in the series, it is the first so certainly a good place to start if you have not entered the world of Reacher before.

Tom Cruise has recently starred as Jack Reacher in the new film franchise, although I enjoyed the film immensely, if you read the books you will see why Tom Cruise, physically at least, was an unusual choice.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick


This novel is one of the first I have read about life in North Korea, and although I have since read others I still think this is the best. This non-fiction work follows the life of people living in North Korea and through doing so explains the challenges of every day life. It also goes some way to explaining how the government of North Korea keeps a hold on the countries population. Personally I found the most interesting part of the book the tales of how people have escaped from North Korea and then struggled to integrate into the free society of South Korea.

The American Dream – Harmon Leon


This book is written by a comedian, although it is not an out an out funny book. This book talks about the different versions of the American Dream and how the common ideal of the ‘American Dream’ can have different manifestations.

I frequently use the section on illegal immigrations when teaching migration in Geography. There are a couple of paragraphs that describe the illegal crossing of the US/Mexico border.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch


I don’t normally read fantasy novels; however this is a fantastic series. I read this book when it was first published, I was captured by the title’ rivers of London’. However it is now a series of four ‘Peter Grant Novels’, with more to come!

I don’t want to spoil any of the magic of this novel but it has some great moments set in London and some good descriptions of noteworthy parts of the city.

More Favourites

The books above are my favourites of the moment. However this is a constantly changing list; and choosing only five is difficult.

The ‘widget’ below shows my favourite books on Good Reads, which are constantly changing.


Categories: Book Notes

The Working Poor – Invisible in America

This book was written based on America, it is also slightly dated, having been written in 2004. However many of the author’s comments are relevant today and could be applicable to England. Some of these issues are particularly pertinent as in the last year I have gone from working in a school in a relatively affluent suburb to an inner city school.


The book begins by discussing what factors comprise poverty is:

“For practically every family, then, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of others, and are all so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a change reaction with results distant from the original cause.”

The book then goes on and discusses one of the key problems that faces people in poverty or in low income situations, the lack of resilience. People don’t have the funds or access to mainstream credit to deal with every day problems such as car repairs. Relatively minor problems can cause a cycle of decline as people just above the official poverty line are often barely keeping afloat.

One of the woman interviewed for the book states “we feel poor when we can’t go to the doctor or fix the car”.

One of the statistics that shocked me as a teacher was the relative high levels of the population that lacked functional literacy and numeracy, and although these figures are specific to the United States I imagine the statistics from the United Kingdom would be similar.

“Some 37 percent of American adults cannot figure a 10 percent discount on a price, even using a calculator. The same percentage cannot read a bus schedule or write a letter about a credit card error. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, last taken in 1992 by the Department of Education, 14 percent cannot total a deposit slip, locate an intersection on a  map, understand an appliance warranty or determine the correct dosage of a medicine. Therefore, they cannot compete on a global playing field.”

The book also discussed the relationships between home and school and how this can perpetuate the cycle of poverty, as poverty is intrinsically linked with low educational attainment. “Some parents with little education or busy work schedules cannot help with homewok, cannot take the time for meetings with teachers, and do not know how to be constructuve advocates for their children  Some had such bad experiences as students – sometimes in the very same building – that now, as mothers and fathers, they perceive school as a hostile place to be avoided. When they here from teachers the news is rarely good, most teachers call with problems not praise, so the conversation may be humiliating and adversarial”. This reinforces for me the importance of making positive contact with parents as frequently, if not more than negative contact.

The thing that made this book unique to me was that it did not blame either the poor or the employers instead: “Working poverty si a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another; not just low wages but also low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient saves but also unwise spending , not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households.”

“The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves.”

I found the following survey results astounding  “Time magazine found in a 2000 survey that 19 percent of Americans thought they were in teh top 1 percent of wage-earners, and another 20 percent expected to be in the future. This may go someway towards explaining, why policies that benefit the top minority are approved by the majority, I imagine though slightly different numbers similar figures could be applied to the United Kingdom.

The book closed with the following two sentences:

“Workers at the edge of poverty are essential to America’s prosperity, but their well being is not treated as an integral part of the whole. Instead, the forgotten wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed.”

The author of the book David Shipler has a blog here.

Categories: Book Notes