Teaching to the converted: Black History Month

This blog post has a soundtrack. Click this link in a new tab and read on.

Right. So for reasons only the timetable gods will ever really appreciate, I recently found myself having to cover a merged set of year 8 classes, including only a small handful of kids from my actual class, who have been studying ‘Conflict’ over the past few weeks. We’d recently been exploring the concept of being at conflict with a place (namely London), examining George the Poet’s ‘My City’. I wanted to go further by studying ‘Sittin Here’, the opening track off Dizzee Rascal’s first album, Boy in da Corner.

So I get the music playing and present a selection of words from the song, excitedly telling the kids that we’re going to have a cypher.

Dizzee words

“What’s a cypher?”
“It’s a bunch of people rapping in a circle, and most of you are now terrified.”

Which they were. Admittedly, I hadn’t really set up the situation probably and the prospect of rapping freestyle in a group of peers is pretty daunting for even the most year 8-ish year 8 mind.

Of course, we got off to a slow, halting start and the kids didn’t do much beyond huddle in groups/ cling to tables/ stare wide-eyed at me/ shrink into themselves like prodded snails/ delete as appropriate. To be fair though, there was a palpable sense of excitement slash fear in the air, which transformed into positive energy once I got them all to chant a shared chorus. “Let me think… Let me THINK… Let me THINK (About what!) LET ME THINK!” etc. Despite having seven years of teaching behind me I was learning, all over again, about group dynamics, as if for the first time.

Naturally, I had to rap first to break the ice, and delivered an iceberg-shattering verse that the kids seemed to like, punctuated by whoops, repeated rhyming words and hype-man-esque dance moves. We were warmed up.

At that point, I lowered the volume and let the kids start writing lyrics of their own (note: it was amazing how quickly they found something to write on and with, with absolutely no heel dragging. Hiphoped: Bringing Children, to Life ™). Feel free to lower the volume on the other tab yourself.

Now, this isn’t a blog post about the magical powers of Hiphop to appeal to modern youth. I’ve written than one already. It’s about Black History. And black culture. See, I’ve spent the past four days wrestling with a blog about the perils of that thing we lazily call ‘cultural capital’ in modern education, linking it to something known as Aggression Theory. Please google it. That particular blog will probably never see the light of day because I just can’t reconcile my ideas properly, but this little anecdote I’m spinning offers a measure of clarity.

As the year 8s thawed and started sharing their verses, I was struck by how well-versed they were in the norms of Grime and Hiphop. Irrespective of gender, colour, creed, height, academic ability and eye colour they knew what was appropriate and what was expected. They knew which idiolect to adopt and which references to drop. To varying extents, they shared a tangible cultural capital of ‘black’ culture.

The problem was/ is/ might be they don’t fully appreciate the nuances of the culture they have adopted as their own. I’ve said in previous posts that there is an allure to the illicit nature of urban music that will always appeal to the adolescent mind. But there is so much more going on that many kids, through no fault of their own, do not see, let alone appreciate. I talked to the year 8s about their lyrics (often violent, always boastful, littered with references to money, sometimes playful) and they hadn’t considered why they leant towards some subjects over others. Only one student (interestingly enough, an ‘at risk’ black boy with a history of school suspension) wrote about something really profound, talking about “this place called prison/ that you don’t want to live in”, with references to young children wielding knives in the streets. They laughed with incredulity when I described looping the breaks on funk records to create a party (“what’s a record?”) and furrowed their brows when I suggested that some of them had written lyrics of protest. And when I asked who they wanted to listen to, it was a top five rundown of the latest youtube stars, rather than a considered list of interesting or arresting artists.

With another Black History Month on the horizon, I’m thinking that I might have a responsibility to offer these kids deeper insights into Black British culture, not because I’m black, but because I appreciate the nuances of that culture. I can see the provenance of various urban genres and their wider socio-economic relevances. I can place myself in a socio-cultural historical context. I’d like to think that I can hold my own in a rave just as much as in a debate about UK race relations in the 21st century. And if we’re serious about giving kids a cultural capital that means anything, perhaps we should offer them opportunities for similar understanding of their selves. Definitely something to think about.


Skepta-gate: Why Teachers Can’t Keep it Real


So I’m drifting round my first year 10 lesson of the Autumn term and I hear one of my students rapping away to himself. My ears tune in and I realise it’s the hook from ‘Shutdown’ by UK Grime MC, Skepta. One of my students, a young Bengali boy, is quietly rapping away to himself while underlining the date and title.


Jokingly, I tell him that he’s going to need to put more bass in his voice if he’s going to pull that off. His response? Widened eyes and dropped jaw.


Him: “Sir, you KNOW that song?”


Me: “Why wouldn’t I know that song?”


Him: “Sir, it’s SKEPTA.”


Me: “I know!”


For some reason, this student (and the other kids on his table) found it utterly unbelievable that I would even be aware of, let alone appreciate the music, life and times of Skepta. They were bemused and incredulous all at once and to be honest, I don’t think they really believed me anyway.


Skepta is a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. I am a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. We share a number of similarities, up to and including the complexion of our skin. He looks like this:

and I look like this:


I have tracked his career from the earliest days of Lord of the Mics. I have bought his music and scrutinised his lyrics. I have discussed the socio-cultural resonances of his work with academics. I have shouted his lyrics in my car whilst driving through the streets of East London. And yet a scrawny teenager of Bengali heritage feels more entitled to claiming kin than I do.


Three theories immediately spring to mind as to what’s going on.


Theory A: Youth

Skepta represents aspects of youth culture that a 14-year old (irrespective of cultural background) feels close to – closer than he thinks I could or should be. As a boring grown adult, it seems unlikely that I would fully appreciate the youthful exuberance of Skepta’s music and general energy. (Especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory B: The streets

Linked to the above. Skepta is a representative of the streets, in his slang, his dress, his references. The average teenager would feel more aligned to this than he may expect of his 33-year old chino-wearing English teacher. (Again, especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory C: General appropriateness

Linked to both A and B. Skepta’s music does not court the attention of adults, and it would be incongruous to hear an adult professional chanting Grimy road anthems while at work. It’s far more appropriate for a teenager who frequents youtube and is drawn to the allure of illicit music to be be rapping at school, rather than his teacher. (Who dresses a bit like Carlton Banks.)

Carlton aside, somewhere in the middle of these theories dance the deciding factors of context and identity. In previous posts I have explored the intersection between persona and identity, suggesting that teachers find themselves snared between crafted and appointed personalities, sometimes at conflict.


Skepta-gate, as it shall be referred to from this point on, throws this conflict sharply into light. Why should my teacherness be an obstruction to my other identities? Why can’t my students reconcile my role as a teacher with the possibility that I may be other things? That I may be from the same social universe as their idols? What is it about the establishment that brings the gears of identity grinding to collapse? And who exactly are my students seeing when they see me? Someone like them with a shared appreciation of marginalised cultures, or someone who is so ingrained in the systems of education that he couldn’t possibly understand where they are coming from?

home road school

I find this worrying. One of the underpinning philosophies of Hiphoped as a critical pedagogy is that it seeks to offer a space of reconciliation for various identities. In the past, we’ve talked of the languages of Road – Home – School as being disparate, forcing students to code-switch and slalom. When I think about it, a similar pressure is exerted upon teachers, especially teachers who fall out of mainstream norms. Not to overstate the case, but isn’t it weird that a young, black, urban teacher is seen, by students, as alien from black, urban youth culture?


A cynical but valid argument is that capital E Education is a straitjacket on identity. The idiosyncratic peaks of an individual who becomes a teacher are bulldozed flat by the profession itself. Alarmingly, my students might look at me and see not a person with the potential for personality like any other, but a simple manifestation of an established system.


The upshot of this is that teachers may find themselves struggling to forge meaningful relationships with their students if the teacher persona is indeed as restrictive as I’m suggesting. And any efforts to reach out and bridge this gap are fighting against a tide of socially and culturally ingrained ideals. When I think about it, this is perhaps a central tension that runs through Hiphoped, or any pedagogy that seeks to meet the kids where they are. Kids aren’t of the establishment, teachers are. End of. It’s no wonder that my anti-establishment claims (ie: liking Grime music) would be met with instant incredulity.


Interestingly, Skepta himself explores the tensions between identity and establishment in the song ‘Castles’ from his 2014 album ‘Blacklisted’. The song (analysed and discussed here by Hiphop Educator/ Academic Darren Chetty and UK rapper Ty – well worth a listen) outlines a young black male’s movement through a system of distrust. He reflects on failing at school (being labelled a ‘sideman’ by teachers), being distrusted by shop security guards, potentially ending up a ‘statistic’ to his racial profile, empathising with the London rioters of 2011, gun crime in urban environments, and the futility of casual drug use (smoking a ‘stupid zoot’). In this, the disconnect between society at large and societal expectations of the young black male prevent Skepta from relaxing into his successes. Yes, he is invited ‘to talk to the kids at assembly’, but his success as a musician is shackled by ongoing social stereotyping.


Ironically, I find myself in the inverse position, whereby the students I teach might distrust my authenticity because of my professional persona (linked to stereotypes of what a teacher is), while the system I teach in fully welcomes my teacherness. As long as I look, act and sound like what a teacher is supposed to look, act and sound like, I can’t possibly be as ‘real’ as is expected of a young black male. In the eyes of my year 10s, a teacher can’t be as real as Skepta, hence the incongruity of my knowing about Skepta in the first place.


Ultimately, this leaves an anvil-like question mark dangling precariously over the flimsy box construction that is identity. Should I shrug and accept my fate as a teacher destined to culturally be at arm’s length from my students? Or do I fight to make my authenticity/ realness/ social identity/ delete as appropriate known? No easy answers, but, as ever, something to think about.




Note: A potential problem in all this is the extent to which ‘realness’ is equated with negative social traits, but that’s for another blog post. Much to think about.

Poetry: ‘The Eighth Man’

The first man tried, the first man died.
The second man tried, the second man died.
The third man tried, the third man died.
The fourth man tried, the fourth man died.
The fifth man tried, the fifth man died.
The sixth man tried, the sixth man died.
The seventh man watched,
The seventh man saw,
The seventh man ran,
The seventh man soared.
The seventh man flew
The seventh man leaped
The seventh man flew from the edge over depths
That kept as a bed where the first six had rested,
Darkened by shadows and precipice crests.
The seventh man jumped,
The seventh man stretched,
The seventh man flailed,
The seventh man reached,
The seventh man tried.
The seventh man wailed.
The seventh man died.
The seventh to fail.

The eighth man tried,


Poetry: ‘My People’

All these white people
Nice enough people
Just far enough removed from white people

Who decided people
Hued like my people
Didn’t deserve equal treatment by people

Living like people
Here with my people
Post-code ascending right to buy people

Sugar sweet people
Cuppa tea people
Coupla plantations overseas people

Owning slave people
Born and raised people
Making wage and get paid by trade people

Eye-to-eye people
Turn a blind people
Just like we out to shop and buy people

We exploit people
Got no choice people
Too far away to hear their voice people

Making things that we buy with cash people
Take away our discarded trash people
On the other side of charity drive people
Two pounds a month just to survive people

Often small people
Or recent old people
Nimble fingers that stitch and sew people

Clothes to clothe people
Far away people
Shopping mall shuffling window gaze people

Bargain bin people
Hidden sin people
Worship at the church of scratch and win people

Justified people
Much to buy people
Turn a blind eye from other side people

Turn a blind eye from other side people
Learn to get by with drier eyes people

These are my people
Make you sigh people
All alive until left to die people.


Becoming yourself: A teacher’s journey to authenticity

Harry Hill has something profound to say about who you are.

Right then. Let’s start with an easy one. What do the kids call you at school? I’m guessing… some variant of Mr/ Miss/ Ms/ Mrs Something-or-other? Perhaps ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’? At least to your face.

Ok, now a harder one. Who exactly are you when you’re at school? Well, to answer that one you’re going to have to read the rest of this blog post. Stay with me.

In the earliest days of my PGCE, I remember being profoundly weirded out by my given title of ‘Mr Boakye’. To clarify, my name is Jeffrey Boakye. At no point in my life had I been referred to as Mr anything and it felt odd to suddenly find myself decorated with that moniker, just because I was hanging around in a school in a professional capacity.

‘Mr Boakye’ (inverted commas entirely necessary) felt somewhat different to the ‘Jeffrey’ that I felt myself to be prior to teacher training. ‘Mr Boakye’ kind of felt like a new character I was adopting, rather than the person I actually was. Jeffrey came quite easily to me aged 26. ‘Mr Boakye’ was going to take some work.

Which, to an extent, summarises the following seven years, up until the writing of this blog post, during which time I have been crafting ‘Mr Boakye’. He talks a certain way. He definitely dresses a certain way. He has certain attitudes and behaviours, and projects a certain set of ideals upon his practice. Not to get too Liam Neesonish about it, ‘Mr Boakye’ has a particular set of skills acquired over a (reasonably) long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you.

Introduce a very interesting dichotomy that forms the basis of this essay: The fact that ‘Mr Boakye’ is a crafted, craftable concept, and one that I can objectively scrutinise, suggests that there is something about teaching that is performative, if not artificial. Simply put, teachers don’t just stroll into their careers as the casual first namers you might meet in a pub or wherever; we take an active step into the role of teaching. And that comes with effort and deliberation.

See, while the crafted persona of ‘Mr Boakye’ is strong and gets stronger, the life of Jeffrey Boakye has informed my teaching at every turn. When I think about it, many of my lessons have been tea-stained by events of my life. For example, when helping my sister get her daughter into primary school, my letter of commendation became the subject of persuasive writing analysis. I once got a bunch of year 9 boys to analyse and critique my wedding speech. My love of Hiphop has almost entirely derailed my pedagogic thought processes (for the better). And so on.

In his excellent book on the history and machinations of stand-up comedy ‘Getting the Joke’, Oliver Double offers the astute and useful ‘Performer-character’ distinction. Stand-up comedians, he argues (by the way, read this essay if you need convincing on the genetic similarities between the comedian and the teacher), are on a performer-character spectrum. Meaning that they straddle all kinds of lines between who they are and who they choose to project to their audiences.

Teachers, I believe, are on the same spectrum. Who we are, who we choose to be, and who we think we need to be are all paddling in the same canoe.

Anyway, here are Oliver Double’s distinctions. I’ll list them first, then we can consider how they might apply to a teacher:

  • Character comedian. You know the type – comedians who exist entirely as a stylised character bearing no relation to the person who plays them. Think all the characters played by a Harry Enfield or Steve Coogan. Personally, I’m not sure if this can apply to a teacher, unless you walk into a classroom with a fake name and completely fabricated personality. Which, crazily enough, I actually did for a string of lessons in 2011 in which I adopted the role of ‘Poetry Man’, a Wonka-esque, trilby-hatted loon who took kids out on adventures involving balloons, biscuits, zombies and polaroid cameras. Seriously, I did that. Click the links. It was exhausting.
  • Exaggerated persona. These are those comedians who play amped-up versions of themselves, usually with stage names and outlandish wardrobe. This, if I’m being honest is where I am at the moment. ‘Mr Boakye’ has evolved into a stylised vision of my own creation. A kind of cartoonified projection of the teacher Jeffrey Boakye has chosen to be.
  • Naked self. When all pretences are dropped and the character is as close to the person as possible. Ironically, I think this naked self can only really emerge accidently. The intensity of teaching and constant proximity to audience (students; colleagues…) means that any chosen persona will necessarily slip. I’ve always maintained that the ‘real’ you will out after even a short stretch of teaching, because you can’t keep a a mask on when building relationships. I can do everything in my power to create ‘Mr Boakye’ but the kids know Jeffrey whether I like it or not.

Recently (by which I mean the last four years or so) I have been trying, intently, to forge the naked self into the exaggerated persona. I have no idea if this is a sensible idea but I’m in love with the concept of not having to put on (or take off) any masks in my professional life. I want to be ‘Mr Boakye’ at all times. I want to lose the inverted commas; I want my work wardrobe to be my weekend wardrobe.

What I really want, I think, is authenticity, and this might be the point of this essay. Teaching thrives in the relationships between teacher, student, subject, and the more authentic these relationships the better. If I’ve learned anything about developing this authenticity it’s that you have to allow something real to permeate your crafted self just as much as you have to exercise control over your naked self.

None of this comes easy. Like the comedian, the teacher is probably racked with insecurity, a sense of deficit and constant doubt. What we do is intimate, but stylised; authentic, but kind of fake, and we have to straddle all that on a day-to-day basis (minus holidays). Teaching is intensely personal. No safety buffer. ‘Mr Boakye’ is me. His competence, passion, expertise, skill, likeability is being judged all day long. Oliver Double talks of the ‘person in the persona’, a neat summation of what we wrestle with. We aren’t one person; we are a collection of choices and experiences. We choose to let some things show and we can’t prevent other things from showing. As Harry Hill puts it:

I think once everyone started doing their own material, most people are putting over… something about themselves, no matter how hidden it is.

From this understanding, it’s not so much a case of asking can you control your persona, it’s more a case of do you want to?

In the past thousand words or so I have suggested that ambiguity over the self is part of becoming a teacher. The question to leave on is whether or not (or to what extent) this ambiguity might help or hinder your practice. Teaching forces us to do what comedians and artists strive to do: reconcile our various selves. We’re so exposed, and so structured, that we have to find a middle ground. This is to be welcomed, perhaps celebrated? It’s about honesty, or the right level of dishonesty, or control, or lack of, which keeps the relationships alive and vital. The audience, the students, need to see some of who you are if they are to accept you and genuinely enter the dialogue you instigate every time you stand there with a lesson plan. To go back to the hard question at the start of this essay, who are you when you walk into the classroom? And who do you want to be? As ever, no straightforward answers, but definitely something to think about.

-Jeffrey ‘Unseen Flirtations’ Boakye

For more thoughts on the nuances of performance and persona I strongly recommend finding and reading ‘Getting the Joke’ by Oliver Double.

10 Tips for Teaching Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Poetry

A neat rundown of how to introduce and cultivate spoken word in the classroom.

Brian Mooney

  1. Be yourself.

If hip-hop isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Better to “keep it real” and be yourself. In other words, keep it authentic. Find connections to your students that are meaningful to you – but don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. If you love classic poetry, boom – spoken word is calling your name. Open your mind to new voices, cultures, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Your students need you to!

  1. Create open mic time.

My students love reading their poetry during “open mic” time – this is a low-stakes, non-judgmental period of 10-15 minutes at the beginning of every club or class meeting when students can share anything they’ve written – poems, verses, raps, bars, songs, or short stories. No feedback, just snaps! It’s important to develop a culture of listening and affirmation before getting to this next tip…

  1. Workshop the writing.

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What I’ll Be Writing On That Starry Night, My Brothers

A poetic response to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, first read at 14, re-read at 33.

You know what?
Be ready to fight. Cos when Alex, Dim, Georgie and Pete, come in the night/ to ask questions of your wife and interrupt your write/ you’d better be ready for life/ -be a young man/– dumb, insensitive/ vocal and feeling plenty of/ power, rage and drive with rookers that fully clench/ and gullivers full of trouble, desire to see the red/ your swordpen cannot save you and neither can what you’ve read/– you’re either starry or not so I suggest you dispense with all the cutter and get yourself a cutter and dance among the gutter/ and shark up, my brothers/- dapper up your platties it won’t/– be very horrorshow if you act the man, he’s a boy/- you can’t reason with infancy/–he’s all he was meant to be – it isn’t indecency/– it isn’t unreasonable/ it’s entirely feasible/– the boy is unteachable but he’ll teach you a lesson/– I am suggesting that you enter the class – britva sharp – with a few ha ha haws (that’s laughs)/ -don’t be scared of a tolchock/– just go for the old rot, you’re human so use your fist to do what you know’s not impossible, just a bit unpalletable/– maybe slightly damaging but ultimately manageable/- and your devotchka? /-protect her like an animal/- all she is is groodies for glazzies to these malchicks.

What’s it going to be then eh?
A night where your DNA/ gets tested or wrested or fully bested? You be that way/– you sit and scribble your clever slovos/ – cos soon they won’t be good enough, you’ll have to use your goloss/– and when that isn’t loud enough you’ll have to use your rookers/– and if they aren’t – sharp enough a britva or a pooshka/– with which you might protect yourself at time of desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/ the night is starry young, they’ll partly come in desperation/– for meaning/– the in and out’s obscene and/– the violence has no ceiling/– you’ll find your glazzies greeting/– until you start to steel them/ the noga to the floor/ you’re at war/ with the floor/ you’re at war/ with the idiot you were and the demons that you saw/ it’s real/– mechanical steel/- the human is peel/ so do what you feel/– just feel it for real/ like eyes glinting looking for the violence in the silent night.


‘Up in the Air’ (2009) – A poetic film review

A poetic review/ critique of the film ‘Up In The Air’ (2009), starring George Clooney.


With your sharkslick moves; dripping hubris as you cruise
With digital ease through analogue seas
Of people, places and unrecognised faces,
An indefinite trip outside of all time, high-flying
Straight by people with lives weighted down and laden
With people, places and recognised faces they’ve acquired.

Pack light: Move swift. Use-less
Energy on useless roots and routes that shoot and shout
Down through the fuselage of your ethos.
Crowds gather where clouds don’t matter and where clouds don’t matter the crowds have scattered –
Jettisoned ballast until your chosen solitude is so close
That you are immune
To your own calloused touch.

Moon bound.
Flying round.
Two hundred thousand miles in the air, getting nowhere
Nearer than closer to somewhere.
Targets thin like skin. Thin air,
Greying hair yet still; you don’t care
Because you care about not there, or there, but the ellipsis in between
Where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Never home, never slowing, sharkslick fin slicing
Through seas of barely recogniseable faces.

Ten million miles closer to that home of your imagination
That dream made real by corporate corroboration,
A scene that means as much to you as two recent teens saying I do,
One small step closer to the landing site called home.
Ten million miles flown,
Each first class seat a throne,
The Emperor’s New Throne in fact,
Weighing just as much as your emptying soul.

With no destination. Outward bound, outward facing,
What exactly is gestating in that sharkskin case
Of you-shaped templates and hollow replacements (of holiday luggage)
Permanently escaping the one place you came from
That is so far away that you finally cannot place it.

But yes, you feel it, for beneath the calloused skin and
(Now slightly dipping) fin and silent, chrome wing
Is him: that collection of people, places and changing, aging faces
That initially flew you in.


‘The Accidental Bubble’

The accidental bubble that popped into existence completely overshot expectations by floating out of the window into the cool summer air. It floated happily upwards and outwards into the skies beyond and caught gentle currents that took it far beyond it was ever meant to go. Due to an impossibly unlikely combination of breezes, temperatures and subtle pressures of air, the tiny bubble survived for years adrift, circumnavigating the globe in bobs and lifts. Had it been aware, it would have marvelled at sunsets, oceans, forests and mountain ranges that shone in majestic beauty and vertiginous awe. But as it was, it was just a happy bubble, completely overshooting is expected trajectory.

Eventually, long after the demise of our own civilisation, the unexpected inevitable happened. The bubble responded as a bubble would to forces beyond its control and beyond its capabilities of resistance. It popped. There was no sadness or pathos in this event. No anxiety or build up of fear. No atonement before, no mourning after. All that can be said is that the bubble was exactly as it would have been at death after eons as it would have been at death after seconds. It had experienced existence and it had not experienced change. And when it was gone it would be gone for more forevers than it could ever realised it had missed.

Us vs Them vs I: Another look at Differentiation

Before leaving his post as Education Secretary, Michael Gove left as a parting gift, an assessment regime hinged entirely upon examination. By eliminating coursework, students are now expected to demonstrate their academic progress in a series of exams, just like the good old days. The upshot of this is that teachers are under increasing pressure to steer learning away from a shared experience. Now, this blog post is not the place to debate the pros and cons of exam-centered assessment, but I do wonder if the wider debate over collective learning (and collective assessment)  has been woefully overlooked.

The current educational landscape has made the exams game almost aggressively individualistic. High university fees, competition for places and reliance upon exam performance means that students are fighting the world to get their place in the world. It’s no surprise that the number of EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) applicants has doubled to 35,000 this year since 2010. Students are realising that they need to stand out; they need to be different. You can blame Capitalism – a free market approach to education will always tend towards individualism.

Now, there’s a fairly long list of things that can take a teacher from nought to inadequate in 60 seconds, and differentiation is fairly high on that list. Nothing can quite generate those nauseating feelings of guilt like the realisation that you haven’t quite taken into account the varying ability levels of your class – one of the reasons that differentiation continues to be a hot focal point in teacher training and performance management. The underlying logic is clear; the best teaching will be tailored to the specific needs of individual students, as opposed to a ‘best fit’ approach that might overshoot subtle nuances.

In my time as department lead, I have, every assessment interim, been required to analyse data and offer commentary as to the progress of various cohorts. And at the end of it the desired action was always clear: sit down with each teacher in my department and work out a strategy for each ‘Red Alert’ student in their class (as identified by the data crunch).

Again, the underlying logic is clear; the apex of good differentiation is personalisation. It then becomes the job of the teacher to work out the specifics of each student’s needs, which, of course, leads to huge amounts of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

As a so-called ‘middle manager’, I have felt it my responsibility to ensure that, anxiety aside, proper differentiation takes place. So, after every interim I would diligently schedule an action plan meeting with each of my colleagues and work out how best to meet the needs of students X, Y and Z. Which, of course we never really followed up on. We’d have the meeting, the next interim would roll round, and I would, with a little knot of guilt, start the differentiation dance all over again.

None of this, I think, makes me a bad middle manager. There’s something about differentiation which is mirage-like and almost ephemeral. It seems doable in theory but in practical application quickly spirals into poorly tweaked resources, or ad hoc minutes spent during lessons.

Which might explain the evolution of my lesson observations during the year. A few half terms of drifting in and out of lessons to observe practice and identify examples of good teaching resulted in the following list of questions:

How do your students know when they are doing well?

How do your students know what good work looks like?

How do your students know what a ‘well’ classroom looks/ feels like?

When do your students have Autonomy?

When do your students have Relatedness?

When do your students have the chance to show Competence?

Does your class have a culture or sub-culture?

The interesting thing about this list is that it refers exclusively to students plural as opposed to student singular. Somewhere in my understanding of performance management, it had become apparent that a holistic approach to classroom analysis was somehow preferable to reducing a class to a selection of individuals (despite consistent pressure towards individualisation).

In his New Scientist essay ‘The Death of Individuality’, Alex Pentland offers the idea that individuals learn better in a social context. In what he calls ‘social physics’, a community actively feeds off the actions and implicit lessons offered by own members, to the benefit of each individual within the group as well as the group as a whole. Far beyond simple peer pressure, he argues that individual incentives are dwarfed by social networks – citing ‘patterns of communication’ as key to decision-making in small groups, as opposed to the characteristics of individuals.

At this point, if you’re a teacher, you’re probably right now thinking something along the lines of “Well, duh.” Teachers know the power of ensemble. It’s what we spend our weeks, months and years building with our respective classes. It’s why we continue to utilise group work as a pedagogic strategy, despite the rugged individualism of solo examinations. We understand that a class of kids is greater than the sum of its parts. The problem is that traditional assessment models view the individual as the greatest unit of rationality, and this can far too easily bleed into how learning is structured. If it is true that we learn through community, then why not follow that stream into the estuaries of shared assessment?

At times, education gets this right. Drama teachers understand the power of ensemble in assessment; whereby individuals are judged on their contribution to a shared outcome. The (currently trendy) concept of Project Based Learning invites students to develop individual skills through the shared creation of a product. The dialogic classroom, by definition, relies upon communication to even function.

No neat conclusions to this one but if it’s obvious that classes learn well (or best?) collectively, it seems equally obvious that we would do well to prioritise communal learning. Yes, there are arguments against collectivism in education, but I feel these arguments will always be rooted in negative assumptions of human motivation; that some people will coast, or that some will piggyback the work of others. In reality, classrooms can be far more collegiate. Evidence? See below for a selection of practices garnered from my department based on the questions outlined earlier:

  • Using student work for modelling
  • Using marking as an opportunity to highlight specific student’s positive outcomes
  • Creating class booklets of work to celebrate outcomes
  • Rewarding positive class behaviours as well as work
  • Developing tasks that rely upon individual participation for a desired outcome (all students valued equally)
  • Ditch the seating plan
  • Developing a culture of valued individuals

As ever, something to think about.