Teach Like a Pirate – review

Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an EducatorTeach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So much hype surrounds this book, and its been rated highly by many educators whom I respect, so I thought it would be worth a look.

Author Dave Burgess shares a great deal about his teaching practice, and to that end, its a great read. I always love hearing about how other teachers go about their work. He has a great emphasis on creativity and engagement, and provides many great tips that I’m sure many teachers will find useful.

He repeatedly reminds his readers that education needs to be more than about what is on the test, and one of the points of difference between his class and many other classes, is that he provides far better reasons for his students to engage in learning than telling them they need it for the test. Perhaps this is one of the reasons, the book didn’t really resonate with me. Burgess works in the US school system, which is increasingly dominated by high stakes standardised testing. In my system, that’s not the case. We aren’t test driven, and I know of no teachers who use the ‘test’ as a justification for any of the learning their students do.

As an Australian primary school teacher, I found nothing new. We already take a creative, cross curricular approach to our work. Dress up days, theme days, magic, cooking, outdoor lessons, simulation games, role play, are all common and familiar.

I found it troubling that Burgess frequently wrote as if he was the only teacher using these practices, and his aim was to make his class stand out from all the others that students in his school attend. He went so far as to suggest that the rest of the school experience for his students was dry and boring. He wanted his students to know that as soon as they entered his room they would have a different and superior experience to what they would experience in any other classroom. As a school leader I found this problematic. I’d like to see teachers working less in isolation and more in collaboration. We all improve as we draw upon each others strengths and expertise. Setting out to convince our students that our class is a special experience is fine, but setting out to convince our students that our class is a superior experience to the classes of our colleagues is toxic and undermining.

Teach Like a Pirate includes some great tips for people who are having trouble being passionate about their subjects or engaging their students. However, I don’t believe it deserves the bandwagon hype that it has received. This is not a book that every teacher should read, or that will transform their work. It’s a book about one teachers practice with a few good tips, particularly for inexperienced teachers or perhaps those who are feeling jaded and need some inspiration.

Update: After posting this review I had a number of discussions on Twitter that led me to feel the need to expand on this a little more. There is plenty that is good in Teach Like a Pirate, as well as areas that I find problematic. Read more in my next post: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

View all my reviews


Formative Assessment (Part 2) and A Case for Differentiated Instruction

I started this post as a case for differentiated instruction, but as I wrote it, I realised it was also very much about formative assessment. So, this is part two in my series on  formative assessment where I blog my journey through Dylan Wiliams’  book, Embedded Formative Assessment and share my and my school’s change journey.

Recently, quite a few blog posts and articles have been popping up in my feeds making a case against differentiated instruction. They’re powerful and convincing posts backed up with a lot of research evidence.

So, it’s perhaps arrogant of me to dare to disagree, given that I haven’t researched it myself. What I do have instead, is 20 years of teaching, observing, evaluating and reflecting on the effectiveness of my practice, and I would argue that dismissing the validity of that is also rather arrogant. (In fact, as an aside, has anyone else noticed how teacher’s are being listened to less and less? It’s as if our professional expertise aren’t worth anything if we don’t have a PhD!)

Mug from Moorland Pottery

Mug from Moorland Pottery

The argument against differentiation seems to be that there is no evidence of impact and that most teachers don’t do it because it is, in fact an impossible ask. In some instances it leads to lower outcomes because teachers set the bar too low, and don’t allow all students the opportunity to do the more challenging work. Therefore, we should back away from the whole idea as it doesn’t work, it’s so difficult it’s unachievable and it’s stressing teachers out.

Well, in spite of what the research apparently tells us,  I’m not turning my back on the practice.

As a primary school teacher, my classes are mixed ability.  My last Year 2 class had a student who entered as a non-reader and a non-writer. He only knew a few letters of the alphabet. I also had a group of English language learners in that class including some new arrivals. And then I had about 5 students who were extraordinarily capable. They were reading and spelling at a level more typical of 12 year olds, had impressive vocabularies and were enthusiastic writers.

If I gave the whole class the standard Year 2 work, my non-reader and writer would have floundered. He would have been constantly reminded that he was not good enough. He could perhaps retain some dignity if he copied from another student’s book, to at least appear to be working at the class level, but his experience would have been one of daily failure.

Similarly, if I insisted that my cluster of very talented students were to work at a Year 2 level, they would have coasted. They had already mastered the phonics and spelling curriculum that for most of my students required explicit teaching. They would have handed in bland, formulaic writing which achieved all the basic Year 2 standards on our marking rubric. They would have learned that they did not need to learn, that success comes easily. That challenge was only experienced by students with less ability than them.

I differentiate my lessons because if I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly be as effective a teacher. I’m  not prepared to rob my students of the best education I can offer just because its hard.

It is hard.

It’s also rewarding.

Differentiation does not have to mean planning different lessons for every student. For me, differentiation is about knowing where each of my students are at (see my earlier post on formative assessment) and setting explicit goals with them to move them forward in the context of each lesson.

Here is a simple example. When teaching persuasive writing I might assign the whole class the same topic, but the goal for each student is different.

My student  just learning to read and write would dictate his line of argument and three supporting statements either to me, to an aide, or as a voice memo on the iPad. He would then hear it back, and slowly record it in writing. His goal at the start of the year was to write one complete simple sentence on the topic using a capital letter and a full-stop. As the year progressed, we increased the number of sentences he was to write, and added other features such as conjunctions. The goals were explicit and we recorded his progress on a little chart. We kept copies of his work so he could look back and compare his later performance to where he was at the beginning of the year. He did not require a separate lesson, and supporting him in this way was not difficult. All it required was a knowledge of where he was at, and then working out his next step. He had a sense of pride and achievement, and was able to participate fully in the class program, but at a level that was appropriate and would move his learning forward.

My cluster of high achievers did not miss out. We would conference together and set goals for their writing as well. They were challenged to use different sentence structures and to vary the way they opened their sentences. They had to elaborate more and were challenged to use metaphors and analogy in their writing. Again, they were working on the same task, but they had specific goals, negotiated with them,  to move them forward.

Goals weren’t only for the students at the higher and lower ends of my class. All my students were working towards their own goals which were determined through clear, specific feedback and negotiation.

I did not have to work hard to plan different learning experiences for each of my students to differentiate a lesson. What I did have to do was provide effective feedback, and co-create learning goals which would move students forward. It was effective teaching, my students not only progressed well in writing. They also became empowered learners. They understood their goals and took responsibility for tracking and working towards them. My students not were not only learning how to write, they were learning how to learn.

Podcast: Developing a culture of positive behaviour management


In this fortnight’s episode of The Teachers Education Review Podcast, I speak with Annabel Astbury about ABC Splash, which is a treasure trove of education resources. Annabel is a former History/English teacher who is now the head of digital education at the ABC.

ABC Splash is part of our national broadcaster, and provides a free public resource for teachers, students and families. There are thousands of resources for teachers to use with their classes. What I particularly love is that it houses so many of the high quality educational video resources that the ABC has created over decades. For me, it’s a treat to be able to dip into these archives and find new uses for them.

As Annabel explains in the podcast, ABC Splash has been around for just over two years, however the funding for the project has come to an end and the future for the project is now unknown. An application for further funding has been made, but whether or not the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull grants that is another story.  We’ve already seen so many cuts to the public broadcaster. Let’s hope this growing resource for educators doesn’t become another one.

Our feature for Episode 40 is an interview with Paul Dix, from Pivotal Education in the UK.  Paul spent eleven years teaching some of the toughest kids from some of the most difficult backgrounds in the UK and now works with schools to transform their culture of behaviour management.

He talks about how transforming teacher behaviour will transform student behaviour and how to build a positive culture in the school. He recommends getting rid of whole school point systems and a focus on punishment, replacing those with very simple strategies that set high standards, build emotional capital and recognise success.

Disclosure: I am currently contracted by ABC Splash to assist them in raising awareness of their resources for Australian educators.

You can listen and subscribe to TERPodcast on iTunesAndroid Smartphones and on Stitcher Online Radio.


00:00 – Opening Credits

01:19 – Intro

05:04 – ABC Splash, Annabel Astbury

13:49 – Education in the News

30:54 – News Discussion

44:00 – Main Feature Intro

46:01 – Interview with Paul Dix

01:21:30 – Discussion, Behaviour Management

01:43:10 – Announcements

01:47:09 – Quote & Sign Off

Can we all please just agree to disagree?


Do you ever feel as if the teacher community on Twitter is just one big echo chamber? I’m not intending to be disrespectful to anyone here, its just I’ve noticed, after 4 years of tweeting, that those in my PLN seem to agree on almost everything.

I realise this is a result of following like minded people. I  follow people who are teachers like me, and with whom I’ve had some sort of positive engagement. We may have had an enjoyable exchange in a chat, or perhaps they retweeted one of my blog posts and made a positive comment. I follow people who tweet things that resonate with me, or who share things that I find interesting, or who write blogs that I enjoy reading.

So, its somewhat inevitable that my feed will become full of those who think like me.

But without dissenting voices, we leave ourselves open to some troubling habits and I write this post to urge some caution.

I fear at times, my network and I are developing a sort of group confirmation bias where ideas are accepted as true, because they appeal to our collective view of how we would like the world to be. We start to accept ideas without appropriate scrutiny.

A sort of group-think starts to emerge. There are so many expert voices and loud voices on Twitter advocating for the same ideas – 1:1 ipad programs, inquiry learning, flexible classroom spaces . I wonder if there are people out there who have some doubts about these ideas, but adopt them anyway because it seems as if everyone else is, and if all those expert, leading teachers say these are good, well they must be, right?

I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency for people to squash dissenting voices on the odd occasion where they emerge. If someone says something that challenges group norms, rather than engage in a productive dialogue, finding out how a person might have come to a particular, dissenting conclusion, and being open to discussion, people try to ‘correct’ their point of view. This may be done by telling them directly that they are ‘wrong’, or by rounding up other ‘right thinking individuals’ to help convince dissenters that they are wrong. An almost moral outrage seems to flare up from time to time if someone dares say that they like to use text books, or that they believe teacher centred methods are appropriate.

Some people take dissenting views very personally. Perhaps they feel so invested in an idea that a criticism of an it is perceived as a personal attack. I’ve been unfollowed by people I’ve engaged with positively, after they’ve discovered we have different views on particular issues, and I’ve seen whole groups of people unfollow those who express dissenting views too often.

I’ve started to become disenchanted with the echo chamber. I still love Twitter. I love the community, the friendships, the support and help that my network provides. However, I feel like I’m  learning less and less because I’m not being challenged as much.  We’re all just agreeing and reinforcing the same ideas.

Increasingly, I’m finding myself drawn to people who I don’t agree with. A few months ago, I tweeted something critical of direct instruction. It was retweeted a number of times and a person I’d never interacted with me before, started arguing with me, wanting me to justify my position. I didn’t have the energy to engage in a debate, with someone who was clearly a lunatic (after all, we all know that direct instruction is bad and inquiry is better, right?) and was tempted not to respond. Instead,  I chose to ask him how he came to his views. He linked me to his very reasoned blog, and while I still didn’t change my mind about the value of inquiry learning, I shifted on the issue of direct instruction. I could see that there is value in it, and I’ve softened my stance. I’ve been reminded that I’m not an expert and perhaps need to examine the evidence for and against my position more deeply.

The beauty of genuinely engaging with someone I don’t agree with, rather than trying to argue against them, is that it stretches me. It forces me to re-examine my beliefs and put them under scrutiny. I may emerge with an even stronger commitment to a particular stance, or I may find my self shifting on issues and adopting a new position. This is healthy, and it is to be encouraged. For me, encountering ideas that force me to re-think my own, is what keeps Twitter a vibrant place of professional dialogue and learning.

Dissent is not negative, its a sign of a vibrant and healthy community. In fact its just not normal to agree on everything all the time. Constant agreeing and echoing of views leads to a sort of smug, self satisfied stagnation that I don’t want to be a part of.

So here’s to those who are brave enough to express their dissenting views. I applaud you. Now can we all just agree to disagree please?

Podcast: Positive Education – a Whole School Approach

Sparkle by Rolands Lakis

Sparkle by Rolands Lakis

A message that came through consistently at the Positive Schools Conference, was the importance of having a whole school approach to positive education.

When the whole school community (teachers, parents, students) can clearly articulate their philosophy behind positive education the outcomes both in learning and wellbeing for the entire community seem to improve.

In our latest podcast, Cameron and I explored this idea in depth. We spoke with Neil Porter, Professor David Bennett, Professor Toni Noble and Geelong Grammar Vice Principal Charlie Scudamore to find out what positive education is all about, how to teach resilience and how to take a whole school approach. The feature begins at 41:10

I like to listen to podcasts using my iPhone podcast player while I’m either driving or cleaning the house. It’s certainly easier than listening in front of a screen. You can listen and subscribe to TERPodcast on Soundcloud,  iTunes, Android Smartphones and on Stitcher Online Radio.

We’d also really appreciate your feedback on the podcast. Help us to improve by filling out our feedback survey .

Time Codes

3:51 AITSL Teacher Feature: The importance of professional learning

7:00 Education in the News: Round up of Australian education news stories from the past fortnight

25:09 News discussion: Cameron and Corinne discuss some of the main stories in depth. This time focusing on funding for technology in WA, Pyne’s push for the reintroduction of Latin, and Pasi Sahlberg’s comments on excellence and equity in education.
34:21 Off Campus: Dan Haesler discusses the impact of teachers’ relationship with technology on their well being. Is 24/7 access good for our mental health?

41:10 Positive Schools conference introduction
43:00 Neil Porter, the chair of the Positive Schools conference speaks with Cameron about the history and aims of the conference.
53:07 Professor David Bennett talks with Corinne about the impact of our modern lifestyle on student wellbeing and how we as teachers can support young people in becoming resilient.

1:06 Professor Toni Noble speaks with Corinne about why schools need to take a whole school approach to positive education, how to teach resilience and about a number of programs and resources that are available to support schools in this work.
1:16:35 Charlie Scudamore, Vice Principal of Geelong Grammar, speaks with Cameron about how his school set about developing a whole school approach for positive education.

1:35:51 – Announcements

1:37:30 – Mystery Educator competition

1:39:17 – Quote and finish

Podcast: Edutech – an Overview

2 weeks ago, Cameron Malcher and I attended the 2014 Edutech National Congress and Expo on behalf of our podcast, the Teachers Education Review.


Attending the event as media was an enormous privilege and I’d like to thank the Edutech team for being so accommodating. They provided us with introductions and access to many of the major key note speakers who generously gave of their time so that we could record some interviews with them.

We left the conference full of ideas and inspiration, and with memory cards full of interviews and presentations so that we could share some of the learning with those who couldn’t make it.

The material we collected will form the basis for a series of podcasts, the first of which has just been released. In the first episode of our Edutech series, we provide a general overview of the conference, to give you a taste of what the event was like.

Our interviews (with time codes)  include:

  • 32:54 Craig McFarlaine, the CEO of Association and Communication Events, the company behind Edutech. He speaks about the history of the event, its mission, and also how the event has influenced his ideas on education  as a father of two young children.
  • 39:25 Suan Yeo on about some new tools for the classroom from Google
  • 46:25 Leigh Murphy from Education Services Australia tells us about Scootle
  • 51:27 Rachel Guo, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare talks about some curriculum resources.
  • 56:17 Peter West, from St Stephen’s college explains about their whole school approach to blended learning.
  • 1:05:19 Ewan McIntosh talks about the founding of TeachMeet (yes, he was part of the first one) and some ideas on how to develop the global movement
  • 1:12:32 Dan Haesler speaks about the experience of presenting at large conferences
  • 1:17:23 Simon McKenzie talks about his experiences as an edutech participant over the years, and how he was able to affect some change.
  • 1:22:20 Adam Spencer, the event’s MC provides his perspective on the event and on the important work that educators do

We also collected some extended interviews with a number of keynotes including, Sugata Mitra, Conrad Wolfram, Jenny Luca, Joyce Valenza, Ian Jukes and Alan November. These will become the focus of a number of future episodes of the podcast.

To listen, you can either use the soundcloud player below, or download the podcast to your smartphone. You can subscribe to us on iTunes, Android and Stitcher Online Radio.

Does being a parent make you a better teacher?

Just over a week ago, Teacher and Blogger Craig Kemp wrote a heartfelt post on his blog titled ‘Being a Dad makes me a better educator‘. It’s a lovely piece which has clearly resonated with many people. It’s been shared several times in my twitter timeline over the past week by different people, and I’ve spotted many comments from people who related to that post and felt that parenthood had impacted their teaching in a similar way. But his post raised some issues for me…

I am a woman in my 40s and will never have children.

When I learned that  this would be the case, I had to confront the painful idea that my life would lack any meaning or significance. The schema I have been raised in as an Australian female had taught me that family is the most important thing and that the most important contribution I would make to society as a female would be that of a mother to my own children.

I grieved for the children I would never have, and feared for my future, imagining a shallow, barren existence. I still wonder from time to time, who will care for me when I’m too old to care for myself, and who will visit me in the nursing home of my future.

I had to work hard to reimagine a future for myself without children and challenge the notion that a woman’s life can only be fulfilled if she is a mother. Some years down the track I now realise what garbage that notion is.  I do live a life that is enjoyable and  fulfilling, in which I thrive and in which I contribute meaningfully to society and to the lives of others.

However other people, raised with the same assumptions about womanhood, find my childless status hard to understand or appreciate. When they discover I have no children, I am given either bewildered,  pitying or judgemental looks. Some, apparently trying to relate and empathise, will tell me how sorry they feel for me since my life must be so empty. Others are more judgemental, assuming I’ve put my career ahead of children. These tell me that I really should get on with it or I’ll run out of time. I’ve even been told that I’ll never truly understand what it is to be a woman until I’ve given birth, so apparently I’m just half a woman.

I’m used to these reactions now. They irritate me, but they no longer sting.

But one part of my experience as a childless woman, that I never, ever will get used to is the prejudice that I encounter as a teacher. 

I’ve been told, when a fellow teacher disagreed with a decision I’d made, ‘If you were a parent you wouldn’t have made that decision.’

Parents of students I teach, who’ve discovered I have no children of my own, have openly marvelled at the way I can still relate their kids.

And on countless occasions now, I’ve sat and listened respectfully as  parents, who are also teachers, talk about how parenthood has improved the way they relate to their students, helpfully  telling me, ‘until you’re a parent, you’ll never understand ‘  As if somehow I’m incapable of truly relating to my students and having empathy without children of my own.

Apparently, my childless status means that not only am I incomplete as a woman, I am also incomplete as a teacher.

I’d like to make something very clear.


Successfully completing a teaching degree is what qualifies us to be teachers, on going professional experience, learning and reflection is what makes us better.

This is not intended as a criticism of what Craig Kemp has described. His experience as a father has added depth and perspective to his work as a teacher. And he never suggests that his experience is universal, or that all teachers who are parents are better than those who are not. He writes from a personal perspective about a powerful life experience.

All life experiences impact and change us, and add to what we bring to our work as teachers.

My experience of being bullied in primary and high school has taught me to care deeply about that issue, and work proactively in my school community to minimise bullying and to support victims.

My childhood experience of being lousy at sport, and finding it a humiliating experience,  has given me special insight in to the experience of children who struggle with sport, and led me to arrange special opportunities for those children to learn the  basic motor skills required for games, to arrange mentoring for them in playground games, and a range of other  opportunities that help increase their participation in and enjoyment of sport.

Life experiences, with or without children, will impact us all. I’ve experienced grief, trauma, heartbreak, loneliness love, joy and friendship. Each experience touches me, changes me and makes me who I am. I bring all of that passion, wisdom, insight and empathy to my work.

Life makes me a better teacher.