Monthly Archives: January 2015


INSET day yesterday. Hello teachers, I’m one of those people that come to your school on the first day back from holidays and interrupt your preparation for the coming term with power points of wisdom on how to teach.

I like to start by finding out something about what the teachers want, and what their beliefs about education are. Yesterday, one of the ideas that was mentioned – and generally agreed with – was ‘risk-taking’; the staff wanted their pupils to be willing to experiment and explore, and not to fear making mistakes, particularly in Maths. I agree with this aim, but… it’s ironic to hear it coming from teachers.

Why is it ironic? Because a lot of teachers are scared of making mistakes. I suppose there is more than one cause of this. But one of the causes is the current pressures of the profession. (This piece ends on a positive note, by the way, so stick with it!).

The problem is that of the teacher who is running scared of negative judgments. This person might be an NQT or an old-timer, but they are threatened by new ideas because they are worried that they won’t be ‘able to do it’. They are not hostile, and aim to please, but fear assessment, and fear failure.

In some cases, they may simply be an unconfident sort of person. But often, they have acquired this blanket professional anxiety because their training and their CPD have often involved nerve-wracking observations, crushing comments or clumsy feedback. Things have not been explained to them properly. They have been told things that contradict other things they were told. They are not supported by interested experts who believe they can succeed.

They and their mentors are not helped by the incessant tides of new initiative, new curriculum, restructuring, ideology, overcooked controversy and daft fashion that erode the kind of stable foundations across the industry that help professionals to grow. Confusion messes with confidence.

If I am right that these problems exist (though the causes and extent may be arguable), how can teachers expect pupils to take risks? We must remember that the best way to teach children values and habits (as opposed to facts and practical skills) is to model them ourselves. And that is where so many teachers fall down. So many will not risk being wrong in front of their class, their colleagues, or their managers.

In Maths, the subject in which I have a particular interest, the need to create a fear-free environment is most vital, as so many children will only engage partially in class discussions or activities out of fear of looking foolish. There is a risk involved in venturing a daring or untested idea. Safety lies in passivity and caution.

So the teacher needs to model the behaviour he wants to see. That means he has to work things out in front of the class, to correct his working, rub out, re-try, re-think and see the funny side of his own errors. Unless he does this, he can’t model risk-taking. And if he can’t model it, he is probably only preaching it, not teaching it.

It follows logically that for teachers to do this, it requires head teachers (as teachers of teachers) to do it too.

And that is why I was so pleased that in yesterday’s INSET, the head teacher was in the room throughout. He put forward some answers in an experimental spirit and wasn’t worried if they weren’t adopted by the rest of the group – or me, the facilitator. He certainly came across as an intelligent and interesting guy, but it was partly because he risked voicing half-formed ideas to see what other people thought.

Not only was he there all the way through, he volunteered to try out the techniques we were introducing in front of the rest of the group. He wasn’t fazed at all when he found some unfamiliar aspects quite tricky, but described how it felt and what he thought, for everyone’s benefit. He really was prepared to ‘take one for the team’ in that respect!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked with some brilliant head teachers who haven’t sat in on INSETS. And I know they have a mountain of other things to do. So I’m not advocating it as standard procedure across the board. But it was fantastic that someone was willing to demonstrate such a willingness to learn, and to learn by taking risks, when his own staff had cited that as one of their objectives.

So thanks, Mark. I hope you and your team – and the children – benefit from what we brought along.

For more thoughts on Maths teaching take a look at my book, The Numberverse, available on The Philosophy Foundation website and, of course, via Amazon.

For more on teaching risk-taking see Peter Worley’s article on the 9 Dot Problem on Innovate my School.

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