We Can Only Guarantee Success If We Have Low Expectations. Anything Else Demands Risking Failure: Interview with David Didau from the Learning Spy

Learning Spy

David Didau is the man behind The Learning spy, a blog dedicated to all things learning, from practical tips and advice for teachers to insightful posts on topics like literacy and student motivation. He is also a teacher, speaker, author and soon-to-be Associate Principal.

Didau is passionate about the English language and, with over 13 years of teaching experience under his belt, he recently wrote his own book; The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson, after reading The Perfect Ofsted Lesson by Jackie Beere.

“Rather presumptuously, I got in touch with Jackie Beere after reading The Perfect Ofsted Lesson and told her how I had refined some of the ideas she’d written about,” says Didau.

“Somewhat to my surprise she asked if she could use my ideas in the second edition. Then, a few months later she asked me if I’d like to write a version specifically for English teachers. Naturally, I jumped at the chance and pretty much wrote my first draft in about 2 weeks.

The process of redrafting was hugely instructive and Jackie certainly helped me write a much better book.

The strange thing about having written down your thoughts on how to teach is that thinking evolves. I would not write the same book today. That said, I stand by almost everything in the book – I reread it recently and I think it holds up well.”

But although Didau is now well-known for his outstanding teaching abilities, he wasn’t always as passionate about it as he is today, and he comments that his ambition to teach only made an appearance when he was already a few years into his career.

“I kind of drifted aimlessly into [teaching] and spent the first couple of years regretting the choice. I took to it like a refrigerator takes to water,” he says.

“I was really miserable in my first teaching post and it really knocked my confidence. I used to dread going to work. After my induction year, I worked as a supply teacher for 2 years and spent my time applying for other jobs; I was determined to escape.

I applied for a job at Wyvern Community School, because my wife was pregnant and we needed the money. That first year was really tough and I despaired at various points but my head teacher really believed in me and supported me to start a Media Studies GCSE course and to apply for the position of G&T coordinator.

In my second year there a little bit of magic happened; all of a sudden lessons were easier, the kids were on my side and I found I was enjoying it. And before long I realised I was pretty good at it.”

So what is his biggest motivator to teach these days?

“Partly it’s my fascination with the art and science of teaching – I love experimenting and I also thrive on the performance of it. I’m definitely a bit of a show off teacher. I guess what I love most is that it’s never, ever dull and is a constant surprise.”

Didau believes that connecting with students is one of the most important things for a teacher to do, but he also acknowledges that this isn’t something that happens overnight.

“Forming relationships is the most important part of the job and is something which has become instinctive. But it wasn’t always that way.

My first year at Wyvern was incredibly hard and there were some classes which I found un-teachable. I had this Year 8 drama class who were feral and to my shame I failed to teach them anything at all that year.

These same kids were entirely different in my second year. It was like they decided that seeing as I’d stuck it out; they were prepared to trust me. That taught me the value of just turning up, day in, day out, whether you feel like it or not.”

So what does he think separates outstanding teaching from all other teaching?

“I think one of the biggest problems in teaching is that teachers have, to a greater or lesser extent, been forced to give up their sense of professional expertise.

I can’t stand the kind of feedback where observers say stuff like “I wouldn’t have done it like that…” We are the experts on our students in our staff rooms, and as such no one knows better than we do about how to teach our students.

One of the most pernicious and abiding myths at work is the belief that students should make progress every lesson.

This is meaningless. Learning is complicated and takes place over time. Everyone has experienced the fact that sometimes a lesson seems to have gone really well but yet students remember nothing the next lesson.

This is because we’re obsessed with measuring students’ performance rather than their learning.

Another destructive myth is that the best way to make students independent is to make them learn independently. Independence is an end not a means. If we refuse to teach students and expect them to work it out for themselves we are actually making them more dependent.

Outstanding teaching takes account of these ideas and acknowledges that teaching is sequential.”

When it comes to motivation, Didau finds that the best way to keep students motivated is to have high expectations of them and keep things as challenging as possible.

“I make a big deal about work being hard. If the work’s not hard enough you don’t make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes then feedback is useless.

I try to instill in students that we can only guarantee success if we have low expectations. Anything else demands risking failure.

Ron Berger says in his book The Ethic of Excellence that if work isn’t perfect it isn’t finished. This is a great source of encouragement. The only reason for work that isn’t up to snuff is that insufficient effort has been put into it.”

His belief that high expectations and challenge are what keep students inspired and motivated can be traced back to some of his own experiences as a student.

“My most inspirational teacher was Mr. Birch. He was a huge man: 6 foot five with size 13 shoes and a huge beard. He was my English teacher during my GCSE years and he taught me two really important things: how to enjoy poetry and how to spell.

He had massively high expectations of me and refused to let me make excuses. He was always interested in what I wrote, always encouraged me to read widely and was the only teacher to ever point out that February had two Rs in it.”

Didau admits that he has changed a lot since he first started teaching, and when he looks back on his early years now there are plenty of things he wishes he could do over.  

“I’m staggered by how incompetent I was as a young teacher. Every year I’ve thought, if only I knew that last year! [These days] I put much less effort into planning individual lessons and much more effort into marking and long term planning. My mantra is that marking is planning.”

Finally, what tips does Didau have for other teachers when it comes to planning ahead?

“As a new teacher, lesson planning seemed to suck up almost all of my available time and energy,” he comments.

“In particular, I wasted a lot of effort designing activities rather than considering what my students needed to learn. In an increasingly obsessive quest for efficiency, I’ve developed 5 guiding principles:

  1. Time is precious – put more of it into long and medium term planning

  2. Marking is planning – every time you mark students’ work, you should also be working out what they need to do next.

  3. Focus on learning not activities – I am the enemy of activities! Loading lessons with things to do actively prevents students learning whatever your clear, thoughtful objective was.

  4. Know your students – Good teaching is founded on good relationships. Use data and your knowledge of your students to write ‘pen portraits’ of 5 students in each of your classes every term. Communicate these with the students concerned and let them know that you are planning lessons ‘just for them’.

  5. The 1 in 4 rule – in any given week I’ll spend a disproportionate time planning one or two lessons, but most will be put together in no more than 5 minutes. My formula tends to be that if every fourth lesson for every class is a corker, all will be well.”

Didau also suggests teachers ask the following questions when lesson planning:

How will last lesson relate to this lesson?

“All too often the skills and knowledge learned in one lesson are not revisited the next (performing well doesn’t always equate with deeper learning.”

Which students do I need to consider in this lesson?

“If you know your students well enough you can use your ‘pen portraits’ to focus on a chosen student each lesson.”

What will the ‘bell work’ be?

“Lesson time is too precious to waste having students waiting for tardy classmates to arrive – give them something that they can get on with immediately, and don’t be afraid to abandon it when you’re ready to start the lesson proper.”

What are they learning, and what activities will they undertake in order to learn it?

“This is where most planning time gets wasted! Use shortcuts like the Learning Event Generator to ensure planning is focussed on learning not activities.”

How will we know what progress has been made?

“Don’t worry about students’ performance – how much closer are they to the goals set out in your medium term plan? Tell ‘em.”


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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