The Research Hub

Interview with Mary Myatt

Author of High Challenge, Low Threat

You have worked in many different roles throughout your career. What lessons have you leant by being both inside and outside the classroom?

Never to underestimate what people are capable of. When the conditions are right, when the fear of failure is removed it is possible to achieve far more. I have learnt not to dumb down, not to make things too easy because we all enjoy doing things which demand a lot of ourselves. I’ve also learnt always to look for the best, for things to enjoy and celebrate. Because there is far more which is going right than going wrong. I’ve noticed that the most effective settings are those which have a sense of intellectual adventure about them – always questioning, always asking how could this be better. But always in a way that energises people, rather than grinding them down.

Your book is called ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’. Can you please explain what that means to our readers?

Most of us hate doing things which expose us to being publicly humiliated or put down. Yet many of us will do demanding ‘tests’ such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, maths problems in our own time. The difference is that there is no-one pointing at us making us feel like a muppet. We go back if we get something wrong, we try again and then we happily move on to something more demanding. We are prepared to really stretch ourselves with high challenge as long as there is low threat alongside it. I argue from this that we are a ‘challenge-seeking species’.

You have talked about the dangers of teachers labelling pupils with levels or numbers, how have you seen this done in schools and how can we avoid it this data driven climate?

It is fine to attach a number to a piece of work, but the problem is that pupils have identified themselves with the number e.g. ‘I’m a level 5’ which is not the case. That piece of work might, or might not be a level 5, but the child is a learner. It is important to remember that levels have gone and so we have to find new ways to make judgments about pupils’ work. The shift now is checking whether the curriculum has been taught and whether pupils have got it, can do something with it on their own terms, and where the gaps might be.

Relating to this, it is important to think of information of which data is a part. Information comes from pupils’ work, what they say and the things they produce which show whether they have understood something. Information includes data i.e. the numbers but is a larger canvas describing pupils’ achievement.

Finally, there is a lot of evidence that setting targets can put limits on pupils’ learning. John Tomsett has written about this. Alison Peacock’s latest book ‘Assessment for Learning without Limits’ and Gordon Stobart in the ‘Expert Learner’ also show how we need to think carefully about this.

In your chapter, The John Lewis Model, you discuss the idea that teachers who are working long hours and late nights should be taught to work smarter, not harder. How can senior and middle leaders within the Hatton Teaching School Alliance ensure that they are helping their staff work smarter?

It is really important to take account of the findings from the DfE’s workload challenge. My take on this, attached, from ‘Managing Teacher Workload’.

In your book and when I have heard you speak, you have talked about the importance of being/ perceiving others as human beings first and professionals second. Do you think that the education profession has lost sight of this?

No, I don’t think we have. Just that we need to be reminded of this, and also that our pupils are humans first and learners second…

The Hatton Academy Teaching School Alliance has many aspiring senior and middle leaders, what advice would you give them moving forward in their careers?

Keep excited, keep learning, look for opportunities to make a contribution to developing yourself and others both within and beyond the school.

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