My random thoughts, musings, rants and stories will appear here over time.

On Leaving Teaching

Written by Mark McCourt on Saturday, 04 February 2017.

It was March 6th 2006 when I died.

Mat was a wonderful student and now that he was in his final year, he had become almost a part of the staff on our regular walking trips.

A late blast of winter fell on the Peak District National Park with a sudden and complete freeze. The low afternoon sun danced on the waters of Ladybower reservoir and Lose Hill threw long shadows across the forest. At the banks of the lake, Mat kicked a rugby ball out ahead and we both sprinted after it. The ball bounced awkwardly in front of me, one way then the next, I grappled with it for a second then pulled the ball tight against my chest and ran as fast as I could. But Mat was young and much fitter than his old teacher and he was on my heels in no time. He lunged forward, locking his arms around my shins and toppling me. My body crashed on to the hard, frozen ground. He had triumphed. Mat beamed with delight and laughed at his success. But immediately, something in my eyes revealed the secret that all was not well. His face changed and he leaned down to me to ask if I was okay. I brushed away the concern, puffed heavily to regain my breath and told him that I was fine.

But I was not fine. The two bottommost ribs on the left of my body had snapped angrily as I impacted with the solid earth and were now screaming out in pain. I composed myself and was helped to my feet by Mat. Again, I reassured him that I was okay and we both walked slowly back to the lake’s shore to join the rest of the group.

Teaching for Mastery, Part 2

Written by Mark McCourt on Friday, 21 October 2016.

Benjamin S Bloom developed Carleton Washburne’s ideas and definitions, which Thomas Guskey codified further to result in the list of core elements of a mastery model for schooling, which, in summary, are:

  • Diagnostic Pre-Assessment with Pre-Teaching
  • High-Quality, Group-Based Initial Instruction
  • Progress Monitoring Through Regular Formative Assessments
  • High-Quality Corrective Instruction
  • Second, Parallel Formative Assessments
  • Enrichment or Extension Activities

Each of these elements, as a way of working with students, is not necessarily impactful. It is in the combining of the elements into the cyclical model (shown in the diagram earlier) that brings about the impact. For example, a pre-test alone makes no difference to learning unless it is followed by an action and, similarly, formative assessments do not improve learning, rather it is the action immediately afterwards that truly matters.

Teaching for Mastery, Part 1

Written by Mark McCourt on Sunday, 02 October 2016.

At the turn of the 20th century, Carleton Washburne would have appeared an unlikely hero.  Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1889, Carleton led an unremarkable life.  His school career was reasonably average for the son of well educated professionals, but he did not excel.  Plodding through life and looking for a path to follow, Carleton turned to his father’s love and attempted to follow in his footsteps by studying medicine at the University of Chicago.  Things did not go well.  His grades fell and his interest waned.


Now frustrated with his life at University of Chicago and left with very few options, Carleton gravitated instead to his mother’s interests.


Carleton’s mother was a strong willed, politically active woman, untypical of the age.  She was a friend to the famed progressive educator John Dewey and would regularly engage with him over many issues.  The parlour would buzz with passionate debate about the purpose of education and how it might be bettered as the young Carleton listened eagerly while he played.  From the very beginning, Carleton’s life was one steeped in education theory and policy.


Carleton attended a Dewey school, Francis W. Parker School, in Chicago as a young child and would later go on to become a founding member of the John Dewey Society and president of the Progressive Education Association.


Carleton dropped out of UoC and headed to a new university that was starting to establish itself in California: Stanford.  No longer pursuing medicine, he chose to study education.


As with all young men in the final year of a degree course, Carleton would have needed focus and dedication to his course to be truly successful.  However, in that same year, Carleton fell deeply in love with Heliuz Chandler and all thoughts of studying took second place.  Their first child was on the way.  Despite this, Carleton did manage to scrape through and graduate.


A mediocre university degree in hand and with no real direction in life, Carleton turned his focus to becoming an entrepreneur.  Enthused by what he believed to be a sure fire business success, Carleton borrowed money from any source he could and invested it all in his new idea.  It failed.  Badly.


Now unable to support his family and with no other options in life, Carleton was faced with only one route out of penuary: he reluctantly became a teacher.

Moron in a Hurry

Written by Mark McCourt on Sunday, 25 September 2016.

On Thursday last week, I wrote a new Blog, #MasteryFail, as an appetiser for a speech I will giving at #MathsConf8 this coming Saturday. I used the blog to highlight my long term support for a mastery model for schooling.  At #MathsConf8, I will discuss the origins of a mastery approach and the weight of evidence to support its efficacy.  I have been speaking and writing about mastery for decades now and find it heartening that this way of operating teaching in schools is having a new renaissance.  Following my speech at the conference, I will release a new blog, Teaching for Mastery, in which I go into great detail about what it is, how it can be implemented and why, if embedded properly, the impact can be incredible.


Unfortunately, as with pretty much all education approaches, the renaissance of mastery has also brought with it much confusion.  So, #MasteryFail was a blog targeted at debunking some of the myths that are flying around at the moment.  If mastery is to have impact in England's schools, then stamping out poor practice early is going to be all important.  I did not expect the blog to be in any way controversial.


I was rather surprised, therefore, to find myself and my company being attacked in public through Tweets from one of the 35 Maths Hubs.


on Thursday, 22 September 2016.

I have such a privileged life, I get to visit schools all around the world and see maths teaching at its very best. I am able to spend time both researching mathematics education and reading the best contemporary evidence as well as well established and proven approaches to pedagogy and subject knowledge.

For decades, I have dedicated all of my time to working to improve education. It is the very lifeblood of a mature civilization, it has the power to transform lives and bring meaning and joy to the world. Mathematics education sits at the top of my priority list – every day, I live and breathe it. My only professional goal in life is to make education better.

So, being able to visit schools and meet with teachers, being able to see experts in practice, being able to hear the stories of success and to witness the extremely nuanced behaviours and dispositions that lead to a mathematics concept being grasped by a child, is an honour.

Over recent months, as I have travelled around England visiting primary and secondary schools, I have repeatedly heard the same word being slapped onto various activities like a brand label. Mastery.

On Selection, Grammar Schools and Mastery

Written by Mark McCourt on Saturday, 10 September 2016.

Yesterday evening, like every other Conservative Party Member, I received an email from Theresa May, outlining her plans to create a meritocratic Britain. A Britain that forces more universities and public schools to use their wealth and influence to aid improvements in State schools, a Britain that aims to give “our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential”. I like the sound of that.

But also, a Britain that encourages the use of taxpayer money to increase the link between State and Church by encouraging the expansion of faith schools, “especially new Catholic schools”. A Britain that, yet again refuses to allow a school structure to have any time to settle by introducing the potential redesign of the entire landscape.

Where is your mathematical bar?

Written by Mark McCourt on Sunday, 14 February 2016.

There are many things in education, which seem taboo to discuss, of great importance when considering how to realistically improve the quality of classroom practice.

The most effective teachers are those with highly developed, subject specific pedagogical and didactical knowledge and skills, combined with excellent subject content knowledge.

A Response to Nick Gibb

on Monday, 07 December 2015.

This morning, The Guardian published a piece by Schools Minister, Nick Gibb (the full text can be found here), which seeks to shut down debate by calling those who argue with the central assertion, racist.

Of course, the words are carefully chosen to avoid such a harsh word, but Nick writes ‘Those who try to dismiss their methods using crude national stereotypes’ and accuses anyone who demurs of ‘narrow-mindedness’.


on Sunday, 27 September 2015.

I have long known that the answer to improving an education system is to fill it with teachers who are determined to never stop learning. Teachers who are intellects, who question and challenge, teachers who do not accept the words of fools and instead insist on an evidence informed approach to classroom practice.


21st Century Learning

Written by Mark McCourt on Saturday, 30 May 2015.

The children in our schools today will face a world unknown to us. The careers they will follow, the lives they will lead, and the decisions they will take can’t possibly be imagined.

Schools must prepare children for this new, unimaginable world. We need to ensure our education system is reformed so that it is equipping our children for the future they will face, not the futures that we faced.

50 Million

Written by Mark McCourt on Friday, 24 April 2015.

Ok, apologies for the self-congratulatory tone of this blog, but I'm really rather proud of Emaths.

In February 2004, I was giving a speech to a conference of teachers. There I was pontificating on the benefits of collaboration: how we, the 350,000 maths teachers in England are stronger together. That if we could network and share resources and ideas, the system really could improve. I talked about the need for a one-stop-shop, a place where any teacher could add their resources and find support materials.

As the speech went on in my usual evangelical manner, a delegate stood up in yelled – and I mean really yelled – at me "why don't you just do something about it?"

Some things I would change...

Written by Mark McCourt on Friday, 03 April 2015.

Just a random stream of thoughts as I sit in a cold railway station trying to get home...

The People I Respect in Education.

Written by Mark McCourt on Sunday, 29 March 2015.

2015 is the year that Marty McFly arrives in a future of hoverboards, self-drying jackets and pizzas that come as tiny dried tablets.

Robert Zemeckis is a clever chap. When writing the Back to the Future movies, he chose the years 1955, 1985 and 2015. This is not just on the off chance.

A thirty year gap does of course play right for the intergenerational conundrums which befall the hapless McFly family, but thirty years is important for a more important reason. To sell movies (and boy, did that franchise sell), the writer needs to tap into something in an audience – a familiarity, a connection, an emotion. Setting the first movie in 1985 and 1955 is so easy because, effectively, they are the same year.

Hubs, Mastery and other passing fads... (and the Stepford Teachers)

Written by Mark McCourt on Wednesday, 26 November 2014.

I am increasingly concerned of late that the profession seems utterly oblivious to the fact that we are sleepwalking into becoming unthinking drones. Rather than trusting the profession and those who know a great deal about teaching and learning in mathematics, the DfE, and particularly Nick Gibb, are determined to implement their own vision of mathematics education. Teachers seem beaten, seem tired or (so much worse) seem to capitulate because they think Nanny knows best.

The Rising Meritocracy

Written by Mark McCourt on Sunday, 02 November 2014.

Here's a thought: wouldn't it be nice if each head teacher was brighter and more enlightened than their deputy, each deputy more so than their assistants, each assistant than each head of department, and each head of department worthy of respect by each teacher they lead.

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