10 Things To Avoid in INSET

September 5, 2014

At the start of a new year teachers face at least a day of CPD. Here is my attempt to identify the worst possibilities (with thanks to all those who suggested things on Twitter or told me what hadn’t yet died out).

  1. Anti-education videos. In the old days it used to be “Shift Happens“. Now it is more likely to be Ken Robinson’s Animate. Both are quire explicitly arguing that kids should learn less.
  2. Teaching programmes. These are a mix of theories and activities that are meant to indicate a different way to teach. Some are expensive, others largely in the public domain. The ratio of bullshit to insight provided by the methods is remarkably high but they tend to have a cult following that will throw money at them and force them on other teachers. The biggest one is Building Learning Power. Others include TEEP, Kagan Structures and Mantle of the Expert. The most ridiculous programme of the lot, not even deserving the name “teaching”, was the (still not completely dead) Brain Gym.
  3. Taxonomies. This can be a way to subdivide learning. If so this is usually Bloom’s (in either original or revised versions) or its close relative SOLO. The idea is that there is a generic structure to learning that can be applied across disciplines to understand one’s subject better. Perhaps they fit some subjects better than others, but, inevitably, they are no substitute for actually knowing your subject and its structure properly in the first place. Far worse is where it is a way to subdivide thinking, like Thinking Hats (below) or teaching methods (like the learning pyramid/Dale’s Cone of experience). And the absolute worst of the lot is when it is a way to subdivide learners by “learning style” (again, something which is still not dead despite being utterly discredited) or “left and right brain”. 
  4. Pre-determined discussions. Often in groups with somebody senior monitoring each table, this is a way of manufacturing “buy-in”. The idea is to have a discussion where ambitious people just repeat what those in charge wanted to hear. Flip charts and post-it notes feature heavily. The big craze a few years ago was having to write answers about what students should be like around an outline of a person. The correct answers were “independent”, “resilient”, and “motivated”. Any attempt to say “clever” or “good at maths” was considered a joke.
  5. OFSTED training. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they claim that they don’t want to see a particular teaching style, or even that they won’t grade teaching, nobody believes them. So schools are still telling teachers how to game inspection.

    A list of “what OFSTED want”

  6. Sensible things made into gimmicks. I really don’t have a problem with Carol Dweck’s concept of a “Growth Mindset” if it means kids are encouraged to work hard by telling them they will get smarter. I do have a problem with the “weaponised” versions involving stickers and questionnaires. This seems like a rerun of AfL, where perfectly sensible ideas about feedback turned into compulsory mini-whiteboards and insane levels of differentiation.
  7. Objective Mania. I don’t have a problem with learning objectives. I really don’t. A few words clarifying what kids need to know or practice can only help with my planning, and is unlikely to hinder their learning. However, multiple objectives to be copied down are a pain. These include “WALT and WILF”, “All/Most/Some” and “Must/Should/Could”. This is not differentiation, it is obstruction. And the worst of all is having to put levels or grades on objectives.
  8. Behaviour Training that blames teachers. Teachers need to be taught how to use the procedures and where to get help. Also useful to tell them a few tricks appropriate to the school, and warnings about what won’t work. However, too much behaviour INSET, particularly from outsiders, is about making teachers feel they are to blame when they face bad behaviour. Planning well, being nice, making lessons fun, will not sort out behaviour problems. Being told to keep them to yourself (“swallow your own smoke”) will make them worse. And don’t get me started on anything with “restorative” in the name.
  9. Bad SEN. Don’t know why but nothing seems to attract nonsense like SEN. The most common types of nonsense are in the descriptions of the conditions. Claims are made about the causes and characteristics of conditions that have nothing to do with how they are diagnosed (like claiming dyslexics have better spatial awareness, or we know which part of the brain causes ADHD). Worse, is when bogus treatments are publicised, like changing the colour of paper or ink for those who can’t read.
  10. New marking policies. If your marking policy is so complicated people have to be trained in it, then it is too complicated. And I include in this (in fact I make a special effort to include this) those policies that are introduced that will “save everyone time”. They won’t. Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.

I realise that this is, no doubt, terribly negative. But it shouldn’t be difficult to get INSET right. Just do the following:

  • Give teachers plenty of time for their own preparation during the day. Preparation is training.
  • Let departments have time to help those with deficits in subject knowledge.
  • Make some things optional.
  • Concentrate on essential information.
  • Make sure any training on how to teach is evidence-based and relevant to your school.

and most of all

  • Don’t make anybody sit through something you wouldn’t sit through.


  1. I really like the material you produce. It reflects the fact that common sense went out the window years ago and careers can be made trying to categorise that which can’t be categorised.

    Sent from my BlackBerry Q10 smartphone.

  2. The converse of 4 is ‘discussions’ which are actually a way of getting the unwary to say what they really think, so that they can be punished for it later.

    NQTs and other new members of staff are particularly at risk of this, especially in the first few days of September.

  3. At last some common sense…some of these were used against me to hound me out of a job. I’ve never recovered, thinking myself to be useless.

  4. The thing which always puzzles me is whether the SLT members who bring in the (sardonic voice) experts to talk at us, and who are responsible for seeing that the lower orders carry out the latest fad, actually believe the stuff themselves or not. They obviously have to play the game if they’re to continue being promoted, but how far do they convince themselves that these amazing, transformative initiatives are indeed amazing and transformative?

  5. one of those posts thats worth forwarding to ‘all staff’.

    or blowing up on a big staffroom poster…

  6. Would disagree on you lumping Kagan Structures with nonsense like Building Learning Power and Brain Gym. Done badly they are a waste of time, used correctly there is good evidence it increases pupils learning (see Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment on cooperative learning).

  7. As you say, this is unbelievably negative. I work where a school took on TEEP as framework for our improvement four years ago – staff have gained so much from it. We support each other in our development as teachers, we are less threatened by feedback, we have all moved on hugely in our practice – our data shows this – and instead you say to avoid this kind of inset at all costs. Furthermore, what’s wrong with suggesting a student should be resilient and independent? Yes they need to be good at maths but in a school like where I work (very high indicators of deprivation and very low baseline on entry) our job involves much more than data. We are there to educate the whole person. And that’s what we do. Would welcome feedback!

    • We know from Hattie that everything works. If you spend money on TEEP then you will be convinced it works. Until somebody else takes over and replaces it with the next fad. The question is whether it works better than actually getting the basics rights.

  8. And re marking:
    “Set a minimum standard. Don’t expect everyone to be able to keep to it.”

    If this means what I think it means, you are suggesting that we should not expect everyone to be able to follow marking policy? Is this what you mean? Not expecting everyone to meet the minimum standard is very low expectations? Low expectations in a school like mine would be an out and out disaster. They come to us with the lowest of expectations for their life and we spend 8 years changing that. We can’t have a different set of expectations for our teachers.
    Apologies if I have misunderstood your comments.

    • Obviously there’s an element of humour in that remark. I am playing with the expectation that if you set a minimum then everyone should achieve it. But there is a serious point. There are only so many hours in a day, and there will always be a week here or there where people can’t keep to it. Policing marking is very often counter-productive if it makes people shift their priorities in ways that aren’t actually good for learning. Better to have an ethos of effective teaching (including the best use of time spent marking) than a culture of management policing and work for the sake of pleasing managers and inspectors.

      • Most marking is done because it is easy to evidence, not because it improves learning. In fact 60% of feedback has undesirable outcomes.

  9. Great stuff. Had Kagan imposed at our school. Anything that markets itself as a panacea has the whiff of bullshit to me. Some of the worst, most messianic training I’ve had to endure.

  10. I don’t agree with every statement you make here – I think you’ve thrown out some things which are popular to mock but served me extremely well in my career – but the gist of it and most of it I definitely nod my head at. For my part, I had 15 years of INSETs (under various names) and not a single hour of a single day of any of them was worth a dime (and I must confess that the session I endured on Brain Gym was possibly the very worst of them all). What a shame – I agree with you that it ought to be possible to make INSET worth the time and effort. Alas I didn’t see it before I left the game.

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