Author Archives: The Wing to Heaven

Workload and English mocks

You can also read this post on the No More Marking blog here.

Last weekend, I posted a question to English teachers on Twitter.

Most of the answers were in the range of 10 – 30 minutes. People also pointed out that the time it took to mark mocks varied depending on whether you wrote lengthy comments at the bottom of each script or not.

My own experience of marking the old spec GCSE English Language papers was that it took me about 15 minutes to mark each paper, which included some fairly brief comments. I also found it difficult to mark for more than about 90 minutes / 2 hours in one go, and if I did try and mark for longer than that, I would get slower and need to take more frequent breaks.

If we take 15 minutes, therefore, as a relatively conservative estimate, that means that if you teach 28 pupils, it will take you 7 hours to mark those scripts. That doesn’t include any moderation. If we assume a 90 minute moderation session for each mock, plus 90 minutes to go back and apply the insights from moderation, that means we are looking at a total of 10 hours.

That’s for one English Language Paper. There are two English Language papers, and two English Literature paper. So if you want pupils to do a complete set of English mocks, that’s a total of 40 hours of marking for the teacher.

With the old specification which included a lot of coursework, I think most English teachers spent the bulk of year 10 teaching and marking coursework essays, and didn’t get on to doing mocks until year 11. I was really pleased when coursework was abolished as I felt it would free up so much more time for teachers to plan and teach, instead of mark and administer coursework. However, it does appear as though a lot of this gained time has now been replaced with equally time-consuming mock marking, with mocks being introduced more and more in year 10. Many schools have three assessment points a year. If you were to do two mock papers three times a year in both year 10 and 11, then a teacher who taught one year 10 class and one year 11 class would spend 120 hours of the year marking GCSE mocks. That’s three normal working weeks, or nearly 10% of the contracted 1,265 annual hours of directed time.

In our first No More Marking Progress to GCSE English training days last week, we looked at how schools could use comparative judgement to reduce the amount of time it took to mark an English mock paper. The exact amount of time it takes to judge a set of scripts using comparative judgement will depend on the ratio of English teachers to pupils in your school. But we think that at worst, using comparative judgement will halve the amount of time it takes to grade a set of GCSE English papers; that is, it will take 5 hours instead of 10. The best case scenario is that we can get it down to 2 hours. That includes built-in moderation, as well as time to discuss the results with your department and prepare whole-class formative feedback. You can read more about the pilot, and how to sign up for it, here.

Of course, workload is not the only issue we should consider when looking at planning assessment calendars and marking policies. At No More Marking, we like to evaluate the effectiveness of an assessment by looking at these three things.

  • Efficiency and impact on workload
  • Reliability – is the assessment consistent?
  • Validity – does the assessment allow us to make helpful inferences about pupils, and does it help pupils and teachers to improve?

In future blog posts, we’ll consider how reliable and valid traditional mock marking is. But for now, it’s clear that on the measure of efficiency, traditional mock marking doesn’t do that well.

Life after Levels: Five years on

Exactly five years ago, the government announced that national curriculum levels would be removed – and not replaced.

Here’s a quick guide to some of my life after levels blog posts from the last five years.

It was definitely a good thing to abolish levels. As I argued here, here and here, they didn’t give us a shared language. Instead, they provided us with the illusion of a common language, which is actually very misleading. This is because they were based on prose performance descriptors, which can be interpreted in many different ways. Unfortunately, many replacements for NC levels were based around the same flawed prose descriptor model.

If prose descriptors don’t work, what does? One good idea is to define your standards really clearly as questions. EG, instead of saying ‘Pupils can compare fractions to see which is larger’, actually ask them ‘what’s bigger: 4/7 or 6/7? 2/3 or 3/4? 5/7 or 5/9?’ And don’t expect that if they get one of those questions right that they will get them all right!

This works well for maths, but what about things like essays? How do you mark those without a descriptor or a rubric? Another great idea is to use comparative judgement. I first wrote about this back in November 2015. It is basically the most exciting thing to happen to assessment ever. I am so excited about it that I am going to work for No More Marking who provide an online comparative judgement engine. If you haven’t read about it already, do! You can also watch this video of me talking about one of our pilot projects at Research Ed in 2016.

The two books I’ve found most helpful in thinking about assessment are Measuring Up by Daniel Koretz, and Principled Assessment Design by Dylan Wiliam. My review of William’s book is here. My review of Koretz’s book is in three parts: Part one is How useful are tests?, part two is Validity and reliability, and part three is Why teaching to the test is so bad.

In February 2017, Oxford University Press published my own book on assessment, Making Good Progress?: The Future of Assessment for Learning. You can read more about it here. At the Wellington Festival of Education in 2016, I gave a talk which summarised the book’s thesis – you can see the video of this here.

I think the abolition of levels has given teachers the chance to take control of assessment, and has sparked debate, discussion and innovation around assessment which has been hugely valuable. Of course, things still aren’t perfect. National primary assessment has had a number of setbacks, and there are still lots of examples of ‘new’ assessment systems which are essentially rehashed levels. But overall I am really excited, both about the work that has happened in the last five years, and the potential for even further improvements in the next few years.



Five ways you can make the primary writing moderation process less stressful

The primary interim frameworks are now in their second year, and their inconsistencies have been well-documented. Education Datalab have shown that last year there were inconsistencies between local authorities, while more recently the TES published an article revealing that many writing moderators were unable to correctly assess specimen portfolios. Here are five ways to help deal with the uncertainty.

1. Look outside your school or network
Teachers are great judges of their pupils’ work, but find it much harder to place those judgements on a national scale. So wherever possible, try to get exposure to work outside your school to get a clearer idea of where the national standard is.

2. Use what we know about results last year
The interim frameworks were used for the first time last year and, as noted, there are plenty of inconsistencies in how they were applied. However, we do now know that last year, nationally, 74% of pupils were awarded EXS+, and 15% GDS. This compares to 66% and 19% respectively in reading.

3. Check your greater depth (especially if you’re a school in a disadvantaged area)
There is particular evidence that greater depth is being applied inconsistently, and that schools with below average attainment overall are reluctant to award greater depth.

4. Remember that all achievement is on a continuum
Like all grades, ‘greater depth’ and ‘expected standard’ are just arbitrary lines. A pupil who just scrapes ‘expected standard’ actually has more in common with a pupil at the top of ‘working towards’ than they do with a pupil at the top of ‘expected standard’. Not everyone in the same grade will have exactly the same profile, and sometimes the differences between pupils getting the same grade will be greater than pupils with different grades.

5. Use the Sharing Standards results
In March, 199 schools and 8512 pupils took part in Sharing Standards: a trial using comparative judgement to assess Year 6 writing. The results are available here, together with exemplar portfolios. The results offer all four of the benefits above: they involve teacher judgement from across the country; they use information from last year’s results to set this year’s standard; this means they avoid the problem of school-level bias; and they allow you to see the distribution of scripts, not just the grade.

Some people have expressed surprise at the quality of the work at the greater depth threshold. But as we’ve seen, there is no national agreement about what greater depth is.  It is true that the comparative judgement process does not use the interim frameworks, but it does have the same intention: to support professionals in assessing writing quality. In our follow-up survey with schools, 98% of the respondents said they are planning to use their results in their moderation process as they felt the results supported their internal assessment of writing standards. The Sharing Standards results are the only nationally standardised scale of Key Stage 2 writing, so it can’t hurt to take a look and see how thousands of pupils nationally are doing.

Four and a half things you need to know about new GCSE grades

Last week I had a dream that I was explaining the new GCSE number grades to a class of year 11s. No matter how many times I explained it, they kept saying ‘so 1 is the top grade, right miss? And 3 is a good pass? And if I get 25 marks I am guaranteed a grade 3?’

Here are the four and a half things I think you need to know about the new GCSE number grades

ONE: The new grading system will provide more information than the old one
When I taught in the 6th form, I felt that there were lots of pupils who had received the same grade in their English GCSE but who nevertheless coped very differently with the academic challenge of A-level. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think one is that grades C and B in particular are awarded to so many pupils. Nearly 30% of pupils receive a grade C in English and Maths, and there are clearly big differences between a pupil at the top of that grade and one at the bottom. With the new system, it looks as though the most common grade will be a 4, which only about 20% of pupils will get. With the old letter system, things had got a bit lop-sided: half the grades available were used to distinguish the top two-thirds of candidates.  In the new system, two-thirds of the available grades will be awarded to the top two-thirds of candidates, which is fairer, provides more information, and will help 6th forms and employers distinguish between candidates.

TWO: We don’t know what the grade boundaries will be.
Even with an established specification, it is really hard to predict in advance the relative difficulty of different questions, which is why grade boundaries can never be set in advance. This is even more the case with a new specification. We just don’t know how many marks will be needed to get a certain grade.

THREE: We do know roughly what the grade distribution will be like
Whilst we don’t know the number of marks needed to get a certain grade, we do know how many pupils will get a grade 4 and above (70%), and how many will get a grade 7 and above (16% in English, 20% in Maths). The new 4 grade is linked to the old C grade, and the new 7 to the old A. I’ve heard some people say that the new standards are a ‘complete unknown’. This isn’t the case. We know a lot about where the new standards will be, and this approach lets us know a lot more than other approaches which could have been taken (see below).

FOUR: There’s an ‘ethical imperative’ behind this process
The ‘ethical imperative’ is the idea that no pupil will be disadvantaged by the fact that they were the first to take these new exams. (See page 16-17 here). That’s why Ofqual have created a link between the last year of letter grades, and the first year of number grades. Suppose these new specs really are so fiendishly hard that all the pupils struggle dramatically on them. 70% of pupils will still get a grade 4+. They are not going to be disadvantaged by the introduction of new and harder exams.

AND A HALF: Secondary teachers: if you don’t like this approach, just talk to a primary colleague about what they went through last year!
At Ark, I’ve been involved with the changes to Sats that happened last year, and the changes to GCSE grading that are happening this year. There was no ‘ethical imperative’ at primary last year, meaning we didn’t know until the results were published what the standard would be. Whereas we know in advance with the new GCSE that about 70% of pupils will get a 4 or above, at primary we were left wondering if 80% would pass, if 60% would, or if 20% would! We didn’t have a clue! In the event, the standard for reading fell sharply compared to previous years. Not only did this lead to a very stressful year for primary teachers, it also means that it is extremely hard to compare results year on year from before and after 2016. One might argue that this matters less at primary as pupils do not take the results with them in life and get compared to pupils from previous years. But of course, the results of schools are compared over time, and a great deal depends on these comparisons. So I think an ethical imperative would have been welcome at primary too, and that the new GCSE grades have been designed in the fairest possible way for both schools and pupils.

Sharing Standards 2016-17: The results

In July, I will be leaving my role at Ark Schools to work for No More Marking as Director of Education. 

Over the last 6 months, No More Marking have been working with primary schools in England on a pilot of comparative judgement for year 6 writing called Sharing Standards. Comparative judgement is a quick and reliable method of marking open tasks like essays and stories. The easiest way to understand it is to try out the demo on the No More Marking website, but you can also read my explanation of it on this blog here.

The results of this pilot were published last Tuesday, and you can read the full report here.

Overall, 199 schools participated in the pilot, and a total of 8,512 writing portfolios were judged. 1,649 teachers in those schools did the judging, and the reliability of their judgements was 0.84.  This allowed for the creation of a measurement scale featuring every portfolio, and then for the application of a national gradeset: Working Towards, Expected Standard and Greater Depth. The overview report on the No More Marking website features exemplars of the portfolios at each threshold. Here’s a piece from the portfolio that was judged as the best.


80% of the judgements teachers made were comparisons of pupils in their own school. 20% were comparisons of pupils from other schools. This allowed for the creation of a national scale, but it also meant that it wasn’t possible for teachers to favour pupils from their own schools, as they were never asked to directly compare their pupils with pupils from other schools.

The other nice thing about this structure was that it allowed teachers to see tasks and pupil work from other schools. I particularly noted the popularity of tasks that asked pupils to write from the point of view of a character in a novel, and the variety of novels selected as the basis for this task. And in discussions with teachers after, it was interesting to try and pick out the aspects that made such types of writing more or less successful. Very often it was subtle uses of syntax or vocabulary that made the difference. For example, some pupils trying to capture the voice of Bruno in ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ would use the same very precise and measured sentence structure of Bruno. Others would get this right, but then fall down by using modern slang terms that just didn’t ring true.

And this brings me to the most exciting next step for comparative judgement. As Jon Brunskill writes here, once you have the fascinating data set of accurately graded portfolios, you can then ask: now what? Why are some pieces of writing better than others?  What aspects of writing matter, and how can we teach them? Of course, good teachers have always been doing this, but it’s also always been made harder by the way that traditional methods of marking writing lead to disagreement and disputes. If you can’t get reliable agreement on what good writing is, it’s obviously going to be much harder to teach good writing.

Take a look at the exemplar portfolios here and start this process yourself! Next year, No More Marking will be running similar national assessment windows for all primary year groups. See here for more details about how to participate.


The Global Education and Skills Forum 2017

Last week I spoke at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.

I took part in a debate on the following topic: This house believes 21st century learners need their heads filled with pure facts. I spoke for the motion, together with Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards in the UK. Speaking against the motion was Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education and Skills at PISA, who has been so influential in promoting the use of PISA’s rigorous and robust data sets when comparing education systems.  Also speaking against the motion was Gabriel Zinny, from the Argentinian National Ministry of Education and Sports. You can see a video of the debate here. For a summary of the my arguments, you can look at some of the previous things I’ve written, e.g. chapters 3 and 4 in Seven Myths about Education, or this blog post here on why the 21st century doesn’t fundamentally change everything.

The motion was not an easy one to defend given how absolute and extreme it was – in fact, in a discussion beforehand with Gabriel Zinny, we realised we actually agreed on many things! And at the start of the debate, the audience did not agree with the motion, as you can see from a vote taken at the beginning.

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But when the vote was retaken after the debate, we had managed to win a lot of people round.

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The rest of the conference was absolutely fascinating. There were a series of other debates, of which my favourite was on one whether we should teach global or national values. Julia Gillard spoke in favour of global values, and Michael Gove in favour of national. They both gave very smart, witty and thought-provoking speeches – I would recommend listening to them. I hadn’t heard of their debate partners, but they were also excellent. Lutfey Siddiqi, speaking in favour of national values, advanced an argument similar to ones I’ve read recently by David Goodhart, about how it is dangerous for global elites to become disconnected from their national communities. Emiliana Vegas spoke of the damage that teaching national values had done in her home country of Venezuela.

If I can make some kind of tenuous link between the two debates, I would say that the global concepts I think education should be most interested in are historic global inventions: in particular, the writing and number systems. We take these for granted and sometimes even forget that they are inventions. But writing and number systems are enormously profound and powerful concepts. They are the product of numerous minds from various cultures, and were developed through cross-cultural collaboration in an era long before global conferences. They are also completely abstract and counter-intuitive: it took hundreds of years of trial and error to develop them in their current format, and it is not possible for any one individual to discover or create them in their own lifetime. That, in turn, is one of the main reasons schools and universities were invented: writing and number systems will not be acquired spontaneously, and institutions are needed to safeguard and pass on this knowledge. Perhaps the conservative and ‘national’ aspect of education is that such institutions should be designed to conserve the hard-won knowledge of the past, and such institutions will almost always be organised along national lines, with respect to national cultures. The liberal and ‘global’ aspect of education is that the fundamental concepts we teach, the ones that enable everything else, belong to no nation. When we teach children to read or to count, we aren’t just giving them the tools they need to be able to participate in a conversation with mankind. We’re teaching them systems that evolved globally in an era before long-distance travel. The very existence of numbers and writing show that ideas recognise no borders, and are capable of persisting long after the civilisations and empires that gave birth to them.

The highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Global Teacher Prize on Sunday evening. I think the concept of the Global Teacher Prize is brilliant – the work that teachers do should be recognised and celebrated more often. The presentation of the award to the winner, Maggie MacDonnell, was extremely moving. You can see the ceremony here.

Shakespeare and creative education

This essay was first published in the Spring 2016 edition of Use of English.

I can remember reading Othello for the first time when I was studying A-level, and feeling slightly disappointed and cheated when I read the notes about Shakespeare’s sources for the play. What particularly offended me was how the main female character in the source version of the story, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, was called Disdemona. Not only had Shakespeare not bothered to come up with a plot of his own, but he had made only the most token attempt to disguise the fact by changing Disdemona to Desdemona.  And Cinthio’s novella seemed, from the sections in the Arden notes at least, to be the worst kind of melodrama, full of stock heroes and villains. What would the modern equivalent of this be? Ian McEwan writing the story of Dirdre Barley, resident of Coronel Street, and her unjust imprisonment by the British state? He’d obviously be laughed out of town.

Nor was this use of sources a one-off. I was to go on to learn that most of the Roman and Greek plays borrowed from Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch, and that most of the English history plays borrowed from Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles. Still others borrowed from contemporary playwrights. To give a couple of examples of such borrowing from just one play, look at Antony and Cleopatra.  Shakespeare has Enobarbus describe Cleopatra’s procession along the river Cydnus as follows:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

(Act 2, Scene 2, 195-214)

North’s translation of Plutarch is remarkably similar.

She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.[1]

Other parts of the same play are borrowed from more recent sources. Antony and Cleopatra was probably written in about 1606, and is clearly influenced by Samuel Daniel’s play The Tragedy of Cleopatra,  written in 1594: ‘there are a number of details common to both plays which are not to be found in Plutarch.’[2] Daniel’s Cleopatra speaks of her determination to die in the following terms: ‘I have both hands, and will, and I can die’ and ‘For who can stay a mind resolve’d to die’.[3] Shakespeare’s Cleopatra speaks of ‘My resolution and my hands I’ll trust’ (4.15.49).

To the modern eye, this may all look a bit like cheating. However, it is interesting to consider such practices in the light of Shakespeare’s education, where such reliance on source materials was actively encouraged. Shakespeare probably attended the King’s New School in Stratford from about 1571. At this time, there were approximately 360 grammar schools in England, and we have a fairly good idea of the curriculum Shakespeare would have studied and the prevailing pedagogical style.[4] These grammar schools were based to a very large degree on the memorisation and repetition of classic Latin texts. The curriculum was deep rather than broad. New material was introduced relatively rarely, and when it was, it was studied to exhaustion. In Brian Vickers’s words:

The curriculum was not large, but the teaching was incredibly thoroughly. New facts were released sparely (new words at a rate of three a day) and after the master’s explanation the pupil would repeat it, memorize it, be asked to recite it; be tested again, repeat it, and be made to use it over and over until there was no chance of forgetting it. The amount of repetition required is frightening. School hours were from 6 am till 9, then breakfast; 9.15 till 11., then lunch; 1 till 5, then supper; 6 till 7, for pure repetition; for thirty-six weeks a year, and for four to six years. First thing in the morning pupils were tested on the facts they had been given to learn the previous day. Then some new work was introduced to be studied until lunchtime; that afternoon it would be repeated, and a little bit more added. All would be rehearsed in the evening, tested next day, and so on. Fridays and Saturdays the whole week’s work was reviewed and repeated.[5]

Pupils would memorise definitions and examples of over a hundred rhetorical figures, and be encouraged to spot them when reading literature. They were also encouraged to use such literary texts as models and templates in their own writing. Cardinal Wolsey advised grammar school teachers as follows:

You are to mark every orthography, every figure, every graceful ornament of style, every rhetorical flourish, whatever is proverbial, all passages that ought to be imitated and all that ought not.[6]

In short, Shakespeare was encouraged at school to memorise, to imitate and to repeat, and in his plays, we can see Shakespeare took this advice to heart. We have already seen how he used and manipulated his sources in a very similar way to that recommended by Wolsey. We can also see that the rhetorical figures he memorised at school formed a vital part of his craft.  In Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode traces the evolution of Shakespeare’s language across his career. His earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, may well be his ‘most learned’, full of the rhetorical techniques he would have learned at school. Marcus’s speech at the end of the play features Senecan tags, Homeric epithets, and references to the myths of Philomel and Orpheus. Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus, employs such figures in a different manner – but it still employs them. There is imagery involving an osprey and a fish, ‘a conventional bestiary illustration’ which Kermode describes as being ‘tersely adequate’; then ‘the oxymoron “noble servant” illustrates with precision the dilemma of Coriolanus’ and finally there is synecdoche, with a casque standing in for the battlefield, and a cushion for the senate house. Coriolanus was written in the early 17th century, but Shakespeare would have learnt those figures and examples of them at school in the 1570s.[7] We can also see the direct impact of particular textbooks on Shakespeare’s plays. One of the most popular textbooks of rhetorical techniques was George Susenbrotus’s Epitome Troporum Ac Schematum, and TW Baldwin has shown how Shakespeare used very many of these stock figures in his work. For example, Susenbrotus used lead and stone to represent dullness or stupidity, and air and fire to represent speed and swiftness, and these symbols recur frequently in Shakespeare’s work. Similarly, in Susenbrotus, asyndeton is illustrated by Caesar’s famous line: I came, I saw, I conquered, and this exact line pops up again and again in Shakespeare. A line from an ode from Horace about the ‘wicked Adriatic sea’ is exemplified in Susenbrotus as an example of synecdoche, and reused in The Taming of the Shrew. There are countless examples of Shakespeare’s reuse of such stock phrases, both those from Susenbrotus and other popular rhetorical textbooks of the time.[8]

What does Shakespeare’s obvious reliance on memorisation and imitation mean for his reputation as one of humanity’s most creative minds? Have we been getting it wrong for all these years? Is he actually, to borrow a phrase from one of his contemporaries, Robert Greene, an ‘upstart crow’ whose best work is copied from others? Probably not. Far from reconsidering Shakespeare’s reputation, we need to reconsider modern notions of creativity and originality. Our modern ideas of these concepts are influenced by the Romantics, by the idea of the lone and solitary individual summoning up great thoughts in a spontaneous ecstasy. In Shakespeare’s day, Greene notwithstanding, creativity was seen as relying more on tradition, and poetry ’was a craft to be studied.’[9] Shakespeare was not the only creative genius to emerge from this milieu.

Credit for the ability of so many Renaissance writers to use the full expressive resources of language must be given to the humanist school-system and to the masters who so energetically enforced it…we can see from their later compositions, the schools exerted a lasting impression on the writers who attended them.[10]

Another famous product of a similar education wrote the phrase which best sums up this model of creativity: ‘if I have seen further, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.’[11]

Which conception is right? Is creativity best developed in the somewhat paradoxical way encouraged by the Renaissance grammar school, by engaging with tradition? Or is the more spontaneous and free-flowing method preferred by the Romantics and most modern educationalists to be preferred? Interestingly enough, there is a body of recent academic research which seeks to answer this question – and the evidence so far is all on the side of the Elizabethan grammar schools. In a range of different disciplines, researchers have shown that mastery and creativity are the result of thousands of hours of practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which popularised the ‘10,000 hours of practice’ theory, he charted the development of original thinkers as varied as the The Beatles and Steve Jobs, and showed that all of them depended, as Shakespeare did, on hours of often quite gruelling practice.[12] The academic research underpinning Gladwell’s book is perhaps even more interesting than this. The ‘10,000 hours’ idea derives from the work of the Swedish cognitive scientist K Anders Ericsson. Ericsson showed that what mattered was not just practice. Mere experience, or hours logged, does not help develop mastery of a discipline. Instead, what matters is what Ericsson termed ‘deliberate practice’.[13] Deliberate practice involves breaking down a skill into its constituent parts, and practising those. This is better at developing skill than simply practising the skill itself. Musicians, for instance, don’t practice by playing a piece again and again, but by playing scales and practising particularly tricky parts of the piece. Footballers don’t practise by playing full-sided games, but by doing passing drills and playing small-sided games. Practice does make perfect, but it’s a particular kind of practice. Paradoxically, it’s more useful to practise activities that don’t look like the final end goal. Cognitive science also emphasises the importance of ‘overlearning’: it isn’t enough to understand something in the moment, or to perform it successfully once or twice. Performance isn’t learning. To truly understand and master something requires repetition, often beyond the point we may think necessary.

We can see how both deliberate practice and overlearning were present in Shakespeare’s education. The analysis of rhetorical figures involved breaking down literary texts into their constituent parts and memorising those parts. And we’ve also seen that relatively little new content was introduced: pupils had to ‘overlearn’ content before they were allowed new material. The apparently oppressive repetition of grammatical and rhetorical drills may not seem on the surface to be particularly helpful for developing creativity. But actually, they were. The insight from Shakespeare’s education and modern research is that far from stifling creativity, memorisation and repetition enable it.  As Rex Gibson said,

Everything Shakespeare learned in school he used in some ways in his plays. At first, he applied his knowledge of the rules of language as he had acquired it at school. Some of his early plays seem to have a very obvious pattern and regular rhythm, almost mechanical and like clockwork. But having mastered the rules, he was able to break and transform them; to move from Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona to Hamlet and The Tempest. On this evidence, Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of learning by rote, of constant practice, of strict rule-following. Or, to put it another way, ‘discovery favours the well-prepared mind’. Even the early plays show the same quality of writing that characterises his greatest plays. Shakespeare turned his school knowledge into striking dramatic action and vividly realised characters. His dramatic imagination was fuelled by what would now be seen as sterile exercises in memorisation and constant practice. What was mechanical became fluid, dramatic language that produced thrilling theatre.[14]

One very good example of how this process worked can be seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have seen how Shakespeare borrowed from Susenbrotus the stock figure that lead was dull and slow. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth the schoolboy says to his master, Armado, that a horse is moving ‘as swift as lead’. Armado reprimands him: ‘Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?’ It seems obvious to Armado (and presumably to the grammar school alumni in the audience), that Moth has misunderstood this chapter in the textbook. However, Moth responds that ‘You are too swift, sir, to say so: / Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?’ In this scene, both Shakespeare and Moth’s creativity are on display, and both reveal exactly what Gibson and the cognitive scientists would say about the development of creativity. Moth’s witty subversion can only happen if he knows what the stock meaning of ‘lead’ is, and Shakespeare’s scene also depends on his knowledge of the rhetorical figures and their role in the typical schoolroom. Far from being stifled by school, the originality and wit of both Moth and Shakespeare grows out of such ‘school knowledge’. Baldwin offers us a plausible explication of how Shakespeare’s thought processes might have worked here.

The development of this sequence in Shakespeare’s mind is significant. He begins by reversing the conventional idea of lead as the symbol for slowness. Then he jumps to its conventional antithesis, the idea of thought as the symbol of swiftness, correlated with air and fire, as lead and stones are with earth. Finally, both lead as bullets, and thought are connected as symbols of swiftness. Clearly, Shakespeare had in his mind to begin with both the hyperbole plumbo stupidior and the symbolism of lead to represent the slower elements, as mind represented the swifter elements of air and fire. So when his mind started on lead, it inevitably worked through these previously prepared grooves.[15]

Shakespearean scholars and cognitive scientists approach the development of creativity in very different ways, but they have both come to similar conclusions. If we accept the conclusions of these academics, what are the implications for modern education? It is at this point that many readers will become uneasy. It is all very well to extol the virtues of Shakespeare’s education from a distance, but suggesting they might provide a model for modern schooling is a different matter. Even Vickers, who praises the impact of the Elizabethan grammar schools, calls the amount of repetition ‘frightening’ and ‘remorseless’ and says ‘one is glad not to have been a boy at such a school – or, perhaps more, not to have been a master.’[16] This is certainly a powerful argument. It may well be that Shakespeare’s education was peculiarly suited to developing creativity – but it may also be that we are not prepared to sacrifice that much in order to develop it. Other things are more important.

Still others might argue that the world has moved on since Shakespeare’s time, and that such methods are impossible to bring back, even if we wanted to. Perhaps the best counter-argument to this comes from Dorothy L. Sayers, in an article about education which features a Shakespearean analogy.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back–or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does “go back” mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. “Cannot”– does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if “the Middle Ages” is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not “go back” to it–with modifications–as we have already “gone back” with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and not in the “modernized” versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.[17]

The analogy with Shakespearean performance is an intriguing one. Just as we have ‘gone back’ to performing Shakespeare’s plays as he wrote them, and indeed often using stages and costumes as similar to his as we can find, what might it look like if we were to ‘go back’ to a more Shakespearean mode of education? Obviously, as Sayers says, there would be modifications. Just as we do not now perform Shakespeare with only male actors, so too no-one would propose excluding girls from education, or indeed reintroducing corporal punishment. Similarly, one would not want to bring back the punishingly long hours, or the exclusive focus on Latin literature.

But there are clearly some places where our departures have been in error. Another modern scientist, Herbert Simon, has reflected on the accuracy of a great deal of what might be termed ‘traditional education’, even as he suggests how we could improve on its principles. In his words,

Human beings have been learning, and have been teaching their offspring, since the dawn of our species. We have a reasonably powerful “folk medicine,” based on lecturing and reading and apprenticeship and tutoring, aided by such technology as paper and the blackboard –  a folk medicine that does not demand much knowledge about what goes on in the human head during learning and that has not changed radically since schools first emerged. To go beyond these traditional techniques, we must follow the example of medicine and build (as we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years) a theory of the information processes that underlie skilled performance and skill acquisition: that is to say, we must have a theory of the ways in which knowledge is represented internally, and the ways in which such internal representations are acquired. In fact, cognitive psychology has now progressed a long way toward such a theory, and, as we have seen, a great deal is already known that can be applied, and is beginning to be applied, to improve learning processes.[18]

Much of the powerful ‘folk medicine’ that Simon refers to has in fact been abandoned in the past fifty years as being out of date. Before we can improve learning processes in the way Simon suggests, we first of all have to reverse some of those abandonments. If we were to combine the best of a traditional Shakespearean education with what we know from modern science about how we think and learn, what might it look like? We might see a focus on memorisation and mastery, and of depth before breadth. We would perhaps see new technology used to help memorisation, not to try and replace it. More attention would be given to how drill is scheduled and organised, with modern theories about the best way to time and space repetition being used to structure the school day. We would probably also see more of a focus on a core, shared body of knowledge, but in a range of different subjects, not the exclusive focus on Latin authors that we saw in Shakespeare’s day.

The task for current educationalists is in itself a creative one, somewhat akin to that of Shakespeare’s own process of creation: to absorb and master the best practice from the past, and the latest research from the present, and to synthesise it in such a way as to create something new. Or, in the words of a Shakespearean contemporary, when we innovate, we must ‘make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.’[19]

[1] Qtd in Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s plays. Routledge, 1977, p.221.

[2] Muir, p.229.

[3] Qtd in Muir, p.229.

[4] Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. Vol. 1. University of Illinois Press, 1944.

[5] Vickers, Brian. In Defence of Rhetoric. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989, p.257.

[6] Qtd in Mack, Peter. Elizabethan Rhetoric: theory and practice.  Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.15.

[7] Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Macmillan, 2001, p.17-26.

[8] Baldwin, Vol. 2, pp.138-175

[9] Kermode, p.32.

[10] Vickers, p. 264.

[11] Newton I. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 574.

[12] Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette UK, 2008.

[13] Ericsson K.A., Krampe R.T. and Tesch-Römer C. T’he role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ Psychological Review 1993; 100: 363–406; Ericsson K.A., Charness N., Hoffman R.R., et al. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[14] Gibson R. Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 46–47.

[15] Baldwin, Vol.2, p.150-1.

[16] Vickers, pp.257-8

[17] Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ (1948). Accessed December 1, 2015.

[18] Anderson J. R., Reder L.M. and Simon H.A. ‘Applications and misapplications of cognitive psychology to mathematics education.’ Texas Education Review, 2000; 1: 29–49.

[19] Bacon, Francis. ‘Of innovations’.  The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford University Press, 1996, p.387.