Ten Takeaways from Jo Facer’s ‘Simplicity Rules’

I saw Jo Facer speak at a researchEd English I attended a few years back in Swindon. Okay, having just checked, it was November 2015. There was a lot coming out of Micheala at the time, and I believe knowledge organisers were starting to be spoken about (but weren’t fully understood). I remember listening to her and I loved her speaking style: she was clearly so engaged in her subject, in the importance of knowledge, in breaking educational boundaries.

Therefore I was extremely excited when my Head of Department gave everyone a copy of her book at the end of the year. Not only was I excited to read it myself, I was intrigued to hear what others might think. We have introduced knowledge organiser, whole class feedback, and starters to recall knowledge- these all feature in Facer’s book. I’m hoping that if we read it as a department, it will provide evidence and reasoning for what we are moving towards. Here are 10 things I have taken from the book: thoughts, musings, ideas.

1. Notice the troublemakers

I really enjoyed the chapter on behaviour- although I kind of wish I had read it 6 years ago! I have, over the years, faced some “tricky” groups – and I found myself nodding along to all of Facer’s sound advice. However, I always take on a new class and try to erase what I know about them. However it is suggested in the book that in the first few lessons you keep an eye on those typically difficult students (if you have been warned about them) and notice them doing something good, then ring home about them. Obviously this opens the line of communication with the parents, gives them a much needed positive call, possibly wins the kid over, and enables you to have the more difficult conversations in the future if you need to.

It has since reminded me that I did this – inadvertently- in my NQT year. Within 3 lessons one of my difficult groups were running rings around me and I had to call home for some individuals – I was advised to make a positive call too. I picked the kid who had been perfect all three lessons. He came in the next day telling me his parents had taken him to McDonald’s. I realised that the one positive call had more of an impact than the negative ones – the kids realised I would call home for good things too. What I didn’t realise until a year later when I no longer taught that particular student was that he was a tricky individual. So I had accidentally taken Facer’s advice years ago. I plan to purposefully do it this year…

2. The knowledge debate

I know that there is a big debate around knowledge and skills. I’m still pretty confident that both are important – particularly in English, and that one does not stand alone. I feel like Key Stage 3 is crucial in building a foundation of knowledge for higher level skill to be possible at Key Stage 4. But I’ve never really been able to concisely articulate why that is. Facer’s book does this superbly. She references Hirsch and a study in 1998 which shows that poor readers outperformed good readers when they knew about the subject matter – this is an interesting study which I plan to read more about. In less than two pages she presents a clear and undeniable argument that knowledge is crucial to teaching. I will most likely be sharing it with the department in the coming months!

3. The problem with the canon

During the recent Team English conference, during the panel discussion, some interesting comments were made about the GCSE specification mainly being made up of “white middle class dead men” – or something along those lines. The speakers on the panel (who were all brilliant, by the way) offered examples of literature that should be included either at GCSE or KS3. It got me questioning how much diversity there is in our English curriculum at my school – probably not enough, which needs addressing.

Facer offers another view of this, which I found extremely interesting. She explains that “it is not our job to be warriors against social injustice”. She does not argue that the canon is correct, but more that the only way for students to properly be able to challenge the canon and change it, is to ensure they are well versed in its traditions. She argues that if we teach things because we think it is morally right, it might not be right for the child. Because ” our children won’t be empowered to change the status quo” and instead they may be prevented from accessing the route to changing it (eg higher education). It’s a very well presented argument (which I’ve attempted to condense here – read the book to understand more!) but it has got me thinking more about what changes we need to make to our curriculum mapping.

4. A new perspective on booklets

I love booklets. I am a booklet convert – Facer’s blog here explains how they can be used extremely well. Her book goes one step further and simplifies all lesson resources into the “two page lesson” – she explains what you need (recap Qs, the text to read, short comprehension Qs and then extended Qs) and that’s it. A simplified lesson plan/ PowerPoint/ handout. I like it. I’m not sure I can move away from ppt though. I get her argument against it. But I love having 5 recall Qs on the board – it’s so easy to prep and share with other teachers.

However the beauty of the two page lesson is that they can all be put together as a booklet the following year. This has made me wonder about the booklets we provide at KS3. They are mainly source material – I do wonder if teachers would prefer for them to contain some questions, Facer style, which they can use. We review them before they are printed for the department – this is something I am going to suggest for the next set of booklets.

5. Stop running the marathon

I mentioned in my last blog on Jennifer Webb’s ‘How to Teach English’ that I liked one of her planning grids for extended essay plans, and that I worry that we can fall into a trap in English of “doing” lots of essays than really teaching the skill of writing. It’s like I knew what I was about to read – Facer makes a strong case against this, and focuses explicitly on crafting sentences, before paragraphs, followed by whole essays.

She mentions the need to explicitly teach topic sentences, to give students sentence stems, the and/but/so technique. Here there are a lot of practical approaches to breaking down the art of writing – useful for all teachers, not just teachers of English. I need to share this with the department. (Of course students not writing essays every lesson for us to painstakingly mark is also beneficial to reducing workload – but this isn’t the main reason we shouldn’t be doing it!)

6. The importance of comprehension questions

In my mind, for a fair few years, comprehension questions were far too easy for secondary English. My brain (and probably my training) told me that I needed to get students doing much more with the text. It is only in the past two years, at my new school, that I have seen the value in comprehension questions, and Facer has made me realise that this is okay!

These are used as the first part of the two page lesson, and is explained in the resources section, but also later in the section on writing. Facer explains that “if children don’t understand, then they can never go further with their insights”. We’ve all been there – read a text, set some analytical question response, and a few students completely miss the mark and write about the completely wrong thing. That’s why we need comprehension. Of course, this can be done verbally, which is how I often do it, but I think the act of summarising and paraphrasing the text in response to questions is useful, and something Facer has convinced me I need to be doing more of!

7. Understanding deliberate practice

I’m a bit of an idiot, I think. Because I’ve thrown around the phrase “deliberate practice” without properly understanding what it means. Facer explains it well, using research to offer the conditions under which practice should take place- and clearly explains that it all comes down to teacher thinking. She uses the example of geography teachers giving students knowledge on a place, then getting them to do a poster on it – their deliberate practice here becomes focused on design, not on understanding the place. A valid point, and one which I would have said to you previously, without really knowing why I thought a poster wasn’t the best task. Now I know!

8. Everyone knows a Linetta

If you get this book, read about Linetta on page 107-108. The story of Linetta made me smile and also well up. I’ve known various versions of Linetta, and I’m hoping that with the shift in education, we can celebrate teachers like Linetta. I’m not going to say anymore for fear of spoiling the anecdote. But it’s a great one.

9. Explaining whole class feedback

If Facer’s book is all about simplicity, that is never more clear than in her superbly simply explanation of whole class feedback. Whole class feedback is offered as an alternative to the arduous ticking and flicking, long personal written targets, I’m losing my entire weekend to these piles of books style of marking. It’s taken off I believe (or hope) as a result of Twitter and the examples shared there.

We offer WCF in our department policy as a preferred method of feedback, and last year my wonderful HoD bought everyone the books from the positive teacher company as a move towards this style of feedback. Facer’s explanation of how to do it, from start to finish, is incredible, and it is likely I will be sharing this with our new staff when they arrive.

10. Help teachers by keeping it simple

A central thread throughout the whole book is that we need to make teaching a lot more simple; it’s about how we plan, how we resource, how we feedback to students. Throughout the book there are key messages about why this is important, but the real emphasis in the conclusion is that this is how we can solve the provenance with teacher retention. It’s a way to bring balance into people’s lives, if we make things more simple and spend less time complicating teaching and learning, and more time doing things simply. I can’t help but agree.


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