“I hate poems”: introducing poetry

I hate poetry.

Of course that isn’t true.

But it would be equally untrue if I were to say I love poetry.

The reason both these statements are untrue is because they are huge, sweeping statements. Poetry, like music, movies, books, art, theatre, television and chocolates runs the gamut from the great (strawberry creams) to the woeful (coffee creams). I love some poetry. In fact, I love lots of poetry. But there’s some poetry I plain dislike. This is the first thing I discuss when teaching poetry: that it is a matter of taste. People don’t say “I hate music”; they say “I hate Kula Shaker”. They might hate The Voice and Top Gear and Hollyoaks, but that doesn’t mean they hate television. So if a pupil says “I don’t like poetry”, I suggest that what they mean is “I don’t like any of the poetry I’ve read to this point in my life”. And I tell them that I think that will change.

Such preamble out of the way, I always ask my pupils this simple question before studying poetry with them for the first time:

What is poetry?

Don’t read ahead yet. Just stop here and answer the question. Commit to a definition. Take as long as you need. Write it down if you want, but I want you to have a definition. If you don’t want to write it down, say it aloud. Poetry is…

Was that surprisingly hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you’ve thought about having a clear definition before. But if you haven’t, that might have taken a little bit of thought or refinement. Certainly, it seems a difficult question for pupils to answer. In fact, for many of us, it’s one of those things that we assume we know the answer to, but perhaps we don’t. Psychologist Rebecca Lawson explored this illusion of knowledge when she asked people to draw something very simple, something we should all be familiar with: bicycles. She found that, despite such familiarity, most people can’t draw a bike or even pick one out in a line-up of drawings.

Rebbeca Lawson - The Science of Cycology
Questions from Rebecca Lawson’s ‘The Science of Cycology’


When I ask pupils to answer the question “What is poetry?”, I get all sorts of answers, some vague, some pertinent: it rhymes, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it’s a way of showing emotions, it tells a story, it has a rhythm, it uses lines and verses, poems are short, etc.

Most of those answers might be true of some poems, but they never get anywhere near defining poetry. I spend a little time trying to falsify their answers: if poetry rhymes, does that mean this shop name is a poem?


If poems tell stories, is this a poem?


Eventually, we can all agree that we haven’t really defined what poetry is, so I suggest we need to understand what it is if we are going to study it.

And this is how I get pupils to define it.

I show them a range of differing texts – about 8 or 9 – and ask them to look at them and answer two questions:

  1. Is this a poem?
  2. Why/why not?

The thing I don’t tell them is that every one of the texts is a poem. I just ensure that each of them is so different from the next. I throw in seemingly impenetrable modernism from Gertrude Stein, a short three-word poem, a prose poem, some nonsense from Spike Milligan, some E.E. Cummings, and a few others. I make sure that each of the poems do different things – some have clear meanings, some are abstruse; some rhyme, some don’t; some are long, some are short; some have end-stopped lines, some use enjambment; some are narrative, some present ideas or feelings.

For as long as I’ve been doing this task with classes, the pupils have always responded that they are certain that some of the texts are poems and they are adamant that others aren’t. They are also often some that they are undecided on. Sometimes I let them remain undecided but ask them to explain why.

Once pupils have made their decisions, we go through each of the poems, one by one, together. We explore meanings and messages, highlight differences and look at the features, and I slowly reveal my trick: that they are all poems.

We then go back to the first question, with a further clause at the beginning:

If all of these are poems, what is poetry?

(In other words, what do they all have in common?)

Then, with some questioning, we arrive at a very simple definition. The wording tends to differ with each class, but it goes something like this:

Poetry uses words (or language) in different ways (without having to follow the rules of grammar), often using patterns, to create meanings.

It is, as I say, a really simple definition, but I think it unlocks poetry a little for pupils. From here, we might actually apply this definition by giving pupils an opportunity to create poems such as humuments, blackout poetry or cutout poetry. I find this is quite efficient as it doesn’t rely on pupils trying to write something from scratch and gives them an opportunity to produce a poem by using words that are already in front of them and to apply the definition by using those words in different ways (breaking rules) to create new meanings.

I’ve always found this a simple but effective way to introduce poetry.

Great chain of being in education

The following is copied and pasted directly from Wikipedia:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 08.13.04

Great chain of being in education

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The great chain of being in education is a strict, hierarchical structure of all matter and life in the education sector, believed to have been decreed by the Secretary of State for Education. The chain starts from the Secretary of State and progresses downward to the HMCI, HMIs, LEAs, CEOs of MATs, executive headteachers, headteachers, SLT members, middle leaders, and right down to teachers and other minerals.

The great chain of being (Latinscala naturae educatio, literally “ladder/stair-way of nature in education”) is a concept derived from PlatoAristotlePlotinus, and Proclus.

Divisions [edit]

The chain of being is composed of a great number of hierarchical links, from the most basic and foundational elements (classroom teachers) up through the very highest perfection, in other words, Secretary of State for Education.

The Secretary of State sits at the top of the chain, and beneath them sit the HMCI, both existing wholly in spirit form. Earthly flesh is fallible and ever-changing, mutable, as can be noted by teacher retention figures. Spirit, however, is unchanging and permanent. This sense of permanence is crucial to understanding this conception of reality. It is generally impossible for an object in the hierarchy to have a voice that is heard by, or above, those higher up the chain.

In the natural order, teachers are at the bottom of the chain; they possess only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds at least one other. Teachers possess only existence; the next link up is middle leaders who possess some power and existence. Elements further up the chain add more power still, as well as a more amplified voice in the education debate.

Natural science [edit]

Aristotle [edit]

The basic idea of a ranking of the education system’s organisms goes back to Aristotle.  He classified education’s elements in relation to a linear “Ladder of Life”, placing them according to complexity of structure and function so that higher organisms showed greater power, autonomy and trust.

Aristotle’s concept of higher and lower organisms in education was taken up by natural philosophers during the Scholastic period to form the basis of the Scala Naturae Educatio. The scala allowed for an ordering of beings, thus forming a basis for classification where each kind of leader, teacher and mineral could be slotted into place. In medieval times, the great chain was seen as a God-given ordering: Secretary of State at the top, teachers at the bottom, every grade of creature in its place.

Scala natural educatio and the proposed College of Teaching  [edit]

In May 2012, a cross-party education committee gave impetus to the idea of a new “member-driven” Royal College of Teaching. A consultation was launched in December 2014, after the Secretary of State for Education expressed their support for the college. The consultation report stated that:

“It will be led by teachers, enabling the teaching profession to take responsibility for its professional destiny, set its own aspirational standards and help teachers to challenge themselves to be ever better for those they serve.”

A website was launched too, stating that:

“The College of Teaching is an independent, evidence-led, member-driven body run by teachers for teachers in order to best meet the needs of learners.”

The idea of classroom teachers running their own college, however, is in direct contravention of the great chain of being in education, and despite the claims of the promotional materials and consultation, it was considered blasphemous for the college to put a classroom teacher in charge of its operation. As ever, the great chain of education being and the natural order took over and a CEO was appointed from higher up the chain. It was considered that, as this CEO already has power and a voice in education, it was probably best to amplify that, rather than allow a classroom teacher to speak for their profession. Ultimately, it was considered too much to ask.

See also  [edit]


Visible Learning 2108

It’s been a hundred years since Professor John Hattie released his 2008 seminal work, Visible Learning. To commemorate this, we present to you summaries of our meta-analyses of some of the educational interventions used today, in 2108.

Education has come a long way since the ubiquitous Robinsonian approach to education was adopted and schools churned out innumerate and illiterate finger-painters. Many interventions were introduced in the ensuing years to counter this outdated and unsuccessful approach. Here we present evidence on some of the latest approaches for 22nd century learners.

NZT-48 Nootropic Improvement of Cognitive Functioning

There were huge claims made for NZT-48 Nootropic Improvement of Cognitive Functioning (NICF) in its early use in education in the mid 2050s. Based on the premise that we can only access 20% of our brains, this small clear nootropic pill purported to allow pupils access to 100% and thus improving cognitive functioning.

In classroom trials, the makers of NZT-48 reported a huge effect size for this intervention, based on self reporting of the test subjects. However, this is the only research that has made such claims , highlighting the importance of independent research for any intervention. Indeed, when independent randomised controlled trials were undertaken, researchers actually reported negative effect sizes for this intervention. These independent findings have been confirmed in replication.

In further clinical tests, the drug was proved to have “no cognition-enhancing effects”, suggesting that any initial success reported by the manufacturers was down to the placebo effect.

In fact, neurologists have gone further and have been able to report unequivocally that the 20% rule is a myth and that “we use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all the time.”

Despite all this overwhelming evidence against NZT-48, however, the approach is still used by many teachers who state that, “it works for me and my pupils.”

NOVA Laboratories Input Reading Intervention

The Input Reading Programme (IPR) is an intervention using educational technology created by NOVA Laboratories in Astoria, Oregon.

It is a one-to-one reading intervention that involves pupils using their own sentient S.A.I.N.T. robot to support reading input. Pupils use their robot to read for them and supply them with any knowledge ‘input’ that they require. The robots can digest knew knowledge at a phenomenal speed and then pass it on to pupils via conversation as required.

The intervention has been hugely popular, with many schools engaging institution-wide one-to-one robots for their pupils. This has put NOVA Laboratories at the forefront of the ‘edtech’ industry. Indeed, NOVA Laboratories run a Distinguished NOVALab Educator programme, where teachers can get a certificate for using NOVA Laboratories products in their classroom. This has resulted in increased sales and income for the company, although there is very little empirical evidence to suggest that it has improved outcome for pupils.

The cost of this intervention is huge, yet it continues to be adopted across schools, despite the paucity of evidence to support it.

One of the concerns of this intervention is that it outsources memory and means that pupils aren’t actually learning the information that their robot shares with them.

Researchers have concluded that schools are often convinced to invest in this unevidenced intervention due to a number of appealing elements. These elements include: the attractive brand of NOVA Laboratories; the ubiquity of the product in education giving a false impression of success; the sunk cost effect (once some money has been ‘sunk’, schools often increase their investment); a belief in narratives surrounding ’22nd century learners’ and ‘robot natives’; and even the general shininess of the S.A.I.N.T. robots.

It is interesting to note that, despite the huge amount of money that companies such as NOVA Laboratories and other similar companies stand to make by selling this type of intervention, these companies are still yet to commission, produce or identify any successful empirical evidence to support their products’ use in education.

Rekall Inc. Memory Implant Programme

The Memory Implant Programme (MIP) is a short intervention programme designed by Rekall Inc. in 2098. After the company’s problematic start as a holiday company, they lost their ABTA membership and were subsequently bought out by billionaire philanthropist Romeo Beckham, who turned it into an education enterprise.

This intervention involves pupils having memories of knowledge within the various subject disciplines implanted into their brains. Its initial rollout on Mars was so successful that it rocketed the Red Planet to the top of the PISA rankings in 2099, where it stayed until the programme was rolled out galaxy-wide in 2105.

Its a very simple intervention which takes very little time and resource (once a memory resource is produced, it can be used for all pupils, undifferentiated) and has the highest effect size we’ve ever seen for an education intervention. MIP has managed to wipe out illiteracy across the known universe and ensures that all pupils are able to obtain the same exceptional level of academic and artistic achievement. It has created true equality in education and allowed all pupils to pursue their dreams. We don’t use these words lightly when we suggest that this is probably the perfect education intervention.

Despite this considerable evidence, however, there are still many teachers who prefer to dilute the effectiveness of MIP as part of a mixed methods approach, citing that “all children are different and they all learn differently”.

Schrödinger’s homework: the problem with takeaway menus

One of the signifying mantras of progressive education’s child-centred approach is the idea of giving pupils elective choice in what or how they study.

One example of this choice in action is the phenomenon of ‘takeaway homework’.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 16.54.28

For the uninitiated, this is where pupils are given a menu (usually emblazoned with the branding of a high street fast food chain) from which they get to choose to complete one (or some) from a range of homework tasks.

Whilst I’ll concede that it isn’t completely at odds with it, this idea does seem to sit uncomfortably with another of progressive education’s bogeymen: the marketisation of education (you can also add ‘Poundland pedagogy‘ as another bedfellow in this conflicted ménage à trois).

But that isn’t my main concern with takeaway homework. Neither is it the stealthy promotion of junk food that these menus might seem to endorse. It isn’t even, as Chris Moyse suggests, the excessive workload that takeaway homework creates.

No. The concern I have with takeaway homework is that, whilst it claims to be promoting valid homework, it’s actually doing the opposite. And that’s because it’s doing both.

You see, I think that takeaway homework can be seen as a thought experiment, similar to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.

This is what I mean. Take a look at this schematic figure of takeaway homework.


Pupils are offered 4 tasks to choose from. We tell them that these tasks are all valid and useful. Pupil One chooses the circle task. This means that they do not complete the other three tasks. We are now saying that, if we are happy for Pupil One not to complete these, they can’t be important. On the other hand, as they are completing the circle task, this must have validity.

Pupil Two chooses the square task. This means that the circle task that Pupil One completed does not have importance or validity. We are happy for Pupil Two not to complete that task; they can miss out on the learning from this task. We must, therefore, also be happy for Pupil One not to complete that task, even though they chose it.

Pupil Three chooses the pentagon task. This means that nobody chooses to complete the triangle task. We are happy for nobody to complete that task, so it must be unimportant. The learning provided by the triangle task can be bypassed by all pupils.

Put simply, the tasks on this menu are both valid and invalid at the same time. By organising homework in this way, we are suggesting that each task is simultaneously important and unimportant; useful and useless; they have both a learning outcome that we think pupils need and no learning outcome at all.

And the crux of all this is: if we are saying that some of those tasks are unnecessary but it doesn’t matter which, then we are actually saying that all of them are.

This is the problem of takeaway homework.

I think that homework needs to be directed, with a clear intention and learning outcome to be effective. Woolly, ‘anything goes’ approaches like takeaway homework is the opposite of this. It seems to hinge all of its claimed ‘effectiveness’ on things like motivation and engagement, which, as Professor Robert Coe tells us, are actually poor proxies for learning:Poor proxies fro learning

Where Hattie has thrown some doubt over the effectiveness of homework as an intervention, wouldn’t it be better to, as Tom Sherrington says, “be more specific and precise” in the tasks we set?

Even its advocates must agree that takeaway homework is far from specific and precise. And with that in mind, I’m personally hoping that we soon see yesterday’s takeaway homework menus as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.


Tell all the truth; don’t tell it slant

When Armando Iannucci delivered last year’s MacTaggart Lecture, he opened with this anecdote:

“Staring nervously out at you all, my future sitting in front of me, my mind goes back fifteen years, when I was lassoed into a BBC brainstorming session on the Arts, and I spent the day in a brightly-painted room at the mercy of a team of professional arts brainstormers.

These were experts paid to be spontaneously positive; they had degrees in being upbeat, and had trained with some of the world’s most optimistic people.

‘This is a day to let your hair down,’ said the leader. ‘It’s all about having fun. We want to have fun.’

And then she looked straight at us. ‘If you’re not prepared to have fun, get out now.’

I got out, and resolved the last thing I would ever do is trap a group of talented people in a colourful room and subject them to one-sided opinion masquerading as open debate.”

I think that Iannucci’s experience at the BBC at the turn of the millennium is probably not too dissimilar to the experience of many in the education debate today.

It is a common trope in education discussion for criticism or debate to be coloured as ‘negativity’, just as the charge towards ideas is often trumpeted by a reveille of voices calling for positivity at the sacrifice of challenge or critique.

Sir Roger Scruton (the knighthood has been bestowed in the time it has taken me to draft this post) suggests that some of the worst crimes in humanity are down to the charge of unscrupulous optimism (I won’t go into details, for fear of invoking Godwin’s Law but you get the idea). Scruton suggests that unscrupulous optimism entails clinging to a plethora of fallacies which protects one from the truth:

“Whole lifestyles are built upon these fallacies, and they confer upon those who espouse them a validation and a cost-free serenity that could never be achieved were they to invest their hopes in themselves and in the things upon which they can act with proper understanding.”

I’d contend that some of the worst things to happen in education – things that hinder pupil progress, things that cause stress to teachers, things that take money away from more useful areas – are done in the name of unscrupulous optimism.

But unscrupulous optimism isn’t a just a blind march towards a goal, blindly ignoring criticism. No, unscrupulous optimism often lashes out at criticism, in terms that seem to contradict the positive, caring, be-excellent-to-each-other ideals that they seem to hold dear. As Scuton notes:

“When these fallacies are questioned, therefore, optimists are apt to release a flood of defensive anger. Rather than examine their beliefs and risk the great cost of correcting them, they will turn upon their critics… The critics of unscrupulous optimists are not just mistaken in their eyes, but evil, concerned to destroy the hopes of all mankind, and to replace genial kindness towards our species with cruel cynicism.”

Education is full of unscrupulous optimism. Whilst there are wonderful platforms for debate at the Festival of Education, ResearchED, Michaela Community School’s ‘Debating Education’, etc., there are also many forums which choose to close down debate through unscrupulous optimism. The manner in which they do this is often in casting any critique as ‘negativity’.

Thus, one has to be cautious when challenging an idea for fear of being cast as ‘negative’. I have lost count of the number of times I have swallowed back a criticism or a question I want to offer because I fear the reaction. I’m not sure what this says about our profession that this reaction often exists to challenge or critique? Whilst Scruton suggests that unscrupulous optimists hide from truths, I am also aware that I myself am complicit in hiding those truths from them out of fear of the response. I often feel that confronting someone with a challenge to a belief will probably not help the discussion, even if I know that it should. This circuitous route around the truth reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Indeed, I delivered some CPD some time ago and I’d already taken some caustic shots at Bloom’s taxonomy and Dale’s Cone of Experience, when someone mentioned how a certain approach would benefit kinaesthetic learners. I should have made reference to the debunking of learning styles, but my internal voice was telling me that enough sacred cows had been slaughtered already, so I just nodded and hastily moved on.

Fear of offending or being called ‘negative’ often holds back important truths, truths that could move us forward as a profession. Whilst Iannucci fled from that colourful room at the BBC, I’m advocating that we stay. We stay in the room and we embrace open debate and we tell the truth – we don’t tell it slant – and we don’t give in to unscrupulous optimism. I’ll even let the bright colours stay. See, I’m positive?

The factory model

Mr. Brumley looked out of the window and to the crowd gathered outside the gates. He squinted as he tried to make out the words on the placards being waved enthusiastically at passing cars. He saw the words ‘SCHOOLS’ and ‘FACTORIES’ repeated a dozen times, as well as various iterations urging people to ‘SAY NO!’

He turned to the group gathered around the table in the meeting room.

“What do we do about this?” Mr. Brumley urged. “The staff have all walked out in support of this protest. How can we get them back into work? How can we get this place going again.” He looked around at the nervous faces looking back at him. “Anyone?”

Silence. A few furtive glances were exchanged between those sat at the table. Then, an anxious voice spoke.

“They’ve, er… they’ve kind of got a point, though, haven’t they, sir?”

“What? Who said that? Was that you, Mr. Perkins? What do you mean? Don’t be nervous – I want to know what we can do to get back on track. Your voice is important here, as you know.”

“Well, they are kind of right, aren’t they?” replied Mr. Perkins. “Things could be done a bit better in order to make it less stressful for everyone, couldn’t it? I mean, the current model makes it very difficult for everyone out on the chalkface. There’s a lot of really anxious little faces out there every day.”

“Go on… how could we improve things? What do you think we are getting wrong? Do you think there is something in this whole ‘factory / school’ thing?”

“Well, yes. The fact of the matter is that this place shouldn’t really be run on the model it does. After all, we are a factory. I mean, we manufacture plastics to sell to industry. The protesters are right: this factory really does seem to run on ‘a school model’.”

“How so?”

“Well, the inefficiency for a start. We spend an awful lot of time and money on things that don’t really need to be done. All the filling out of forms. All the time spent on the latest industry fad before it is never heard of again. And what’s the point of all the data collection? I collect the data from all the departments every month and it just sits in filing cabinets. Someone told me it is only produced in case the auditors come in. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of time spent writing commentaries, explanations and analyses of the data. And then there’s all the meetings….”

“Interesting. Mrs. Sanderson, will you look into this for us? Go on, Mr. Perkins…”

“There’s also the excessive managerialism. Just look around this table. No offence to anyone, but do we really need this many managers? I mean, in every department, there are as many managers as there are entry level workers. Have you seen the amount of company-wide emails and the excessive workload that this sort of thing generates?”

“Right… yes, that is a problem. What else?”

“Well, the worst of all is the waste. I mean, we have lots and lots of materials that we buy in, that then leave the factory without ever having been enhanced in any way. They just end up in the same state that they arrived at us in. It’s like these materials never even came to the factory in the first place. In my last factory, we were really efficient about waste. We made sure all materials were refined.”

“Okay. You seem to speak from a place of experience. How should we go about things here?”

“Well, I propose we run this plant on what I call ‘a factory model’. It’s based on efficiency and fair accountability.”

“Yes, but we do want everyone to enjoy working here. We don’t want to take the fun out of the job, do we?”

“Well, actually, in my experience, when everything runs efficiently and with fair accountability, there is room for lots more joy. Efficiency doesn’t mean ‘cold and unfeeling’. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Because all the systems are structured around effectiveness and efficiency, it means we can take more time for the personal touch. We actually care more about causing damage, not less. Achievement goes up. Morale goes up. Try it and you’ll see.”

“Right. It sounds like a model worth trying.” Mr. Brumley had a glint of excitement in his eye. “We’ll put together some analysis of current systems and then come up with a strategic plan. We’ll start testing this model within a few weeks.”

“Testing?” replied Mr. Perkins. “Testing? Are you some kind of monster?”

I'm just a teacher, standing in front of a class, asking them to be quiet and listen.

The Stable Oyster

Education, leadership, literacy and staying warm.


What I've been thinking


All views are my own.

Filling the pail

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - As W. B. Yeats never said

A Total Ed Case

Eric Kalenze, writer and educator, on education practice and reform

A Muso's Musings

My thoughts on music, education and music education


Education, research and stuff.

must do better...

thoughts about English teaching and education in general

Esse Quam Videri

A blog about education. Follow me on twitter @HeatherBellaF


An English teacher trying to get better. Looking to discuss and share teaching and learning ideas.


Expert opinion from the UK's leading centre for education research

Horatio Speaks

Speak to it, Horatio - thou art a scholar!

Socially Redundant Education

Unpacking the dynamics of socially constructed educational experience. A spoof by @greg_ashman


Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past.