Updated: May 16
The third episode of The Subject Leaders Podcast features podcaster and author Kieran Mackle. He's well-known for his Thinking Deeply About Primary Education (#TDaPE) podcast and his book Thinking Deeply About Primary Mathematics.
In this episode Kieran looks back on his time as maths subject leader across three school and shares his knowledge about promoting and encouraging enthusiasm for the subject you lead before sharing his thoughts about assessment in primary maths.
Find this podcast episode on your preferred podcast service: https://linktr.ee/subjectleaderspodcast
Below you can find the transcript for this episode of The Subject Leaders Podcast:
Aidan: Our guest is Kieran Mackle. Hello, Kieran, thanks for being with us today. How are you?
Kieran: It's my pleasure, yeah, all good here. Thanks for having me.
Aidan: Good, let's crack on. Let's start by getting to know you a little bit more.
Kieran: So my name is Kieran Mackle. I am a teacher originally from Northern Ireland, but in the southeast of England. You can get me on Twitter at @kieran_m_ed and on Saturday mornings, I host the Thinking Deeply About Primary Education podcast.
Aidan: Brilliant. Thank you. Really one of my favourite podcasts and it's been a pleasure to have been a guest on yours as well, so thank you. So, can you tell us a little bit more about your experience as a primary teacher and a subject leader?
Kieran: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I moved England in 2008. We were talking like, 15 or so years ago, taught across all groups from nursery to year six. I mean, when I first started, I thought I was going to be a key stage two teacher, but ended up probably spending more time in early years in key stage one than initially thought. First subject leadership role was RE, and that was after a year. So in the old days, you used to do your NQT year, then you got a subject because we were one form entry school. And then I took on maths the year after that and never really looked back. I mean, in terms of interesting roles, I was the in-house math specialist for a project run by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and essentially three schools with a need to improve outcomes and aspirations for their communities. And so I had five years to be the person who could try and drive that forward. So, yeah, it's pretty cool.
Aidan: Sounds brilliant. And, yeah, maths pretty much all the way for you. So what would you consider to be your subject specialism? Is it maths and what are your favourite subjects to teach?
Kieran: Here's the thing, because in Northern Ireland, there's a bit of a game to play with university and places for teaching, so you had to choose broad and balanced subjects. So I did English Literature, History and Politics at A level and then did a B Ed. So no specialism unless I wanted to become a math teacher at secondary. I wanted to be a primary teacher so I had to choose broad and essentially in terms of my interests, I want to possess the sum total of human knowledge and I know that's not maybe not possible. That's my aim. So things like history, physics, evolutionary biology, music, dig into those and obviously they all tie in really well with mathematics and especially when you're thinking about things like etymology and stuff and if you go back to the times like the golden age of Islam and the mathematical discoveries, I think it all marries in quite well. So I've got this professional interest, I did a postgraduate course over two years right back at the start of my career and that funnelled my professional development into mathematics but at university I had to play the game and go broad because I love literature too. I want to know everything and I want to know it now.
Aidan: So you're a polymath?
Kieran: Well, attempted or aspirational!
Aidan: Great. Thank you. So if the curriculum were being slimmed down, which subject would you fight hard to keep?
Kieran: Anyone who's listened to Thinking Deeply About Primary Education will know that I'm in favour of completely slimming the curriculum. I would have three subjects English, maths and reading. I'd have a shorter day, so your day would be along the lines of Singapore, where you go in at 7:30, finish at 1:30, and in the afternoon the pupils did something along lines of enrichment with specialists or intervention with their teachers, if necessary. But I know that there exists a bit of a paradox because in many instances our most disadvantaged pupils need access to the best that's been thought across a breadth of subjects, and it's not necessarily something I can reconcile here. But I acknowledge that although I think the most important thing is that our pupils leave primary at eleven years old being able to read, being able to write clearly and functionally numerate, I'm not going to make that a policy on my first day as Education Minister.
Aidan: Is that a career goal?
Kieran: I'm not sure they'd have me, to be honest!
Aidan: Controversial, but interesting thank you. So before we get to your three questions that we've got for you today what do you love about being a subject leader?
Kieran: Yeah, this was an interesting one to think about. I think ultimately you get to decide the journey in a lot of instances anyway, so you can follow your interests. So, for instance, if I think about between 2014 and 2017, I was reading a lot about cognitive load theory and about cognitive science, and I had supportive headteachers who allowed me to follow those. And obviously things are paying dividends x number of years down the line. So following your interests and being that person who drives that vision and establishing that vision, I quite enjoy that. And I think helping others almost gives you a sense of professional satisfaction along the lines of helping pupils. I don't find a distinction between pupils and adults. And also being able to see a project through to completion is quite rewarding because often in education, we never see the end. We see the first couple of years and then maybe we go or things change in school. But I quite like the idea this is what we hope to achieve over the next seven years, and then seeing that through, that's quite rewarding.
Aidan: Great. There's three, I think, distinct things there that definitely people will be able to relate to or even perhaps aspire to as a subject leader. So let's get to your questions now.
How can subject leaders promote their subject to staff and children?
Aidan: So the first one how can subject leaders promote their subject to staff and children?
Kieran: I mean, this is something I've thought a lot about so when I was thinking about the answer to this question I was thinking about well, what did I do? I think that the biggest leverage thing you can do is make the most of every moment. So, like, little and often see every conversation or every opportunity as a chance to promote in my case, mathematics. Because the plan for CPD within a school or the opportunities you have to talk to the whole staff body might be quite limited or relatively limited. But if you're in the staff room and you say, have you read the latest paper on this? Or have you seen this video from Johnny Hall? Because Johnny every Friday has his task videos. Doing that, you almost chip away at the surface, bit by bit. And I always found that was really useful because I would have a weekly staff meeting - or not a weekly staff meeting - a termly staff meeting, but there's a lot of time between those instances, if you know what I mean. I think also being the change you want to see and so your actions almost speaking louder than your words.
So if I want to promote certain behaviours amongst my peers I will try and exhibit those behaviours myself. I mean, one of the ones that I think probably the strangest one is being caught reading by senior leaders and being caught reading in the staff room, even if it's just for two or three minutes while your computer loads up. I always talk about my computer taking 20 minutes, but if I'm doing a planning session in the afternoon while I'm waiting for them in the staff room, I'll be reading an education book. And then bit by bit, you get to the end of the book. So those kind of things and same with behaviour management in school, same with anything if you embody that change. I think it goes a long way. I think you got to be the bridge between the academically rigorous and the fundamentally accessible, because quite often the way that thing I think we're quite lucky that we live in a time where there are so many great teachers, distilling academics and the work of academics into accessible packages. But I think where that doesn't exist, we've got to be that person in school.
Aidan: How do you balance that when you know that you are just one of many subject leaders trying to do that for your subject?
Kieran: That's a good question. I think at the minute, as we're recording, there's this conversation about the generic and the specific online. Isn't there some I'm trying to think about how I can navigate that, but I think there are certainly things from mathematics pedagogy that align with other areas of the curriculum. So, for instance, if I'm talking about worked examples, 90% of subjects that's going to work the same, or direct instruction. The PE lead can get just as much from that. Often they've got better sources than I do because sports is such a really well-researched field in terms of the impact of instruction. So I think it's about having conversations with your colleagues about what the shared priorities are.
I think you've got to be honest about your ambitions. Acknowledging with both pupils and staff this might be difficult, but we're more than capable of reaching certain goals. So if I'm thinking about my classroom practice, high expectations and articulation of this is where we're going to get to, it might be difficult now, but you've got lots of qualified professionals around you to help you get there. And I think the same is true for staff because we can say, okay, here are the people who are going to support you and we want to be the most effective school, we want to be the best we can be for our pupils and I think it's about being honest about that.
And that ties into my last point, which is almost like don't insult the kids. I think the body of knowledge, whatever the subject, but for me particularly, maths is inherently valuable itself and it's worthy of promotion, so it doesn't need to be dressed up. Think about word book day reading and literature are immensely valuable in themselves. Maybe it's just because I don't like dressing up, but it doesn't need to be that way, if that makes sense.
Aidan: Yeah, well, I love dressing up, but I still agree with your point. It's the inherent value in each subject, isn't it? That you kind of want to get across so that there's that intrinsic enjoyment, engagement, enthusiasm about it, knowing that this is an important thing, this is something that is worthwhile and good for me to spend my time on. Rather than promoting it with those one-off events that blow up and die down really quickly or the gimmicky reward based processes and so on.
Kieran: Yeah, I think the one off is the key there. If it's part of a really rich offering, well, there's absolutely no issue with it, but if it's the only thing you do, then that's probably where I question the value of the thing itself.
Aidan: Yeah, great, thanks. I think you've said some things there that you are coming slightly from a maths angle, but very much making it clear that these are things that, regardless of the subject which you lead, you can harness and take on board when trying to promote your subject and to staff and to children as well. And I think there's probably an element in which if you focus on the staff, which I think your answers tip towards, then it's then their job to filter that down to the children. And hopefully quite naturally, and not in a kind of forced way, that if you've got the staff in the right place, like you said, if you've got them understanding exactly what you're trying to achieve with your subject and what expectations you have, then there's almost that trickle down, if I can use that phrase, the trickle down effect of that.
Kieran: Whenever I started my last project, I was talking about the start. It was pretty much a blank slate in terms of this is what we want to achieve, but the person who gets the role will be able to decide how. And from the very start said this is an investment in teachers because the more effective our teachers are, the better the experience for our pupils. I always try to position myself as someone who's on the side of classroom teachers and here are the things that it's acceptable to be expected to do. And I think that sums up my approach in general, is if you've got really happy, or not even happy, satisfied and enthusiastic teachers who are both proficient and efficient, then I think then it goes a long way to solving a lot of the things that can often go wrong in schools.
Aidan: And that steers us towards the position of a subject leader being a leader of people, not of a subject. So as a subject leader, you have this team of people, these teachers who are out there not necessarily doing your bidding, but they're there for you to lead with regards to your subject.
How can subject leaders encourage enthusiasm about their subject?
Aidan: Great. Let's move on to your second question, which is similar, but definitely has a different focus. So how can subject leaders encourage enthusiasm about their subject? And again, we can talk about staff and pupils.
Kieran: So my first idea comes in two parts and I think that both parts are equally important in terms of the conversation because I think one of the things that we can do to encourage enthusiasm is live and breathe our subject. And by that I mean finding fascination in the little things. For instance, if we think about maths, I always find it fascinating that the multiplication of two fractions is this representation of scaling, but not necessarily, it's almost like the inverse of what you would expect scaling to be, because thinking about geometry and you've got your square and you want to increase it by a scale factor or whatever. This is almost like the inverse and the distinction between the visual representation and the symbolic representation where it's very much you can multiply the top and the bottom is probably quite often heard, but actually what's really happening there is fascinating. And so trying to find the find the fascination in the small things, because then you can use that enthusiasm to drive encouragement of others. The caveat is that you're not going to necessarily find fascination in whatever subject if you're in a half form entry school and you're leading several subjects I know that's very different from someone who studied maths at school or at university and then decided they wanted to be a maths lead.
I think in those instances you've got to fake it until you make it, because a huge proportion of the great math teachers I know or have connected with online didn't necessarily like maths when they started teaching. All of a sudden you get good at it and then you realise you can help other people get good at it, then your attitude changes. So I think eventually your endpoint might be to become someone who's fascinated by the minutiae of mathematics or whatever subject it is you're leading. But until such times, there's no harm in faking it.
Aidan: Pretending to be excited about your subject.
Kieran: Exactly. It goes a long way. I mean, Chris Such talked about pretending to find interest in even the smallest things in interactions with pupils. I think it's just an extension of that, okay.
The next one feeds into that. And it's the idea that success breeds motivation as opposed to the other way around. And I was at ResearchEd Cymru at the weekend, and David Didau was talking about retrieval practice needing to be built on a bedrock of success. Because if all a pupil has known is failure, then they're not going to engage, they're not going to try, and the retrieval won't be effective. And I think it's the same in our classrooms for both the adults and the children. But if you've only ever been told that you're teaching maths badly - I'm trying to think of is a better word - or ineffectively, well, you're going to disengage, aren't you? “I'll never be a great teacher.” And I think we lose too many teachers to that - they just give up at some point. But if we can make teachers feel successful, give them really small things to focus on, then we can start challenging them bit by bit.
So we want people to be enthusiastic, they've got to be successful. Well, choose something to start that everyone can do. And then bit by bit, obviously we've got coaching models and stuff we might come onto in a bit, then we can take the technical difficulty to the next level.
And then the last thing is that sometimes enthusiasm might be a reach and you might have to settle for competency and proficiency. I personally would take 100% of the staff body or proficient over 50% enthusiastic, 50% inefficient or ineffective, any day of the week that'd be my preference. But like I say, if we think about fake it until you make it, eventually your teachers will be so confident teaching math that actually they'll forget that they weren't too fond of it in the past. So hopefully that makes sense and answers the question you asked.
Aidan: Yeah, very good. Thanks. Just a similar comeback to... on my first point as well. Just bearing in mind that our primary school teachers are usually teaching upwards of 10, 11, 12 subjects, and how you can ensure that there is this feeling of competency across that range, what would your thoughts be on that? Are there always just going to be subjects that some teachers just don't feel that great at?
Kieran: I think there's a lot of domain specific knowledge necessary to have the starting point necessary to teach well in a subject. I'm thinking about music. I've definitely spoken to Lloyd and Neil. We're musicians in our spare time, but we spent upwards of 20 years refining our craft, so to speak, and I don't think that's a realistic expectation for all the subjects in the English national curriculum. Lloyd will talk about his spotlight, or no, it's Nick Hart's spotlight. But Lloyd has similar ideas in terms of which subjects are brought in to be focused on and which ones go to the back. If we're asking teachers to become experts in everything because of the framework for inspection as opposed to our ultimate goal for the school, then we're going to try and rush this through as quickly as possible. There's no reason why after ten years, we couldn't be sufficiently expert in enough that you didn't necessarily need to bring in external specialists. Sometimes it's just better. I've worked in schools where like Gillingham Football Club or Charlton Football Club will come in and they'll do the PE training. And these are the guys who are working with the men's teams and the women's teams or the youth teams, but doing outreach work with schools. Why wouldn't I want those guys to teach sport?
Aidan: So there's an aspect of bringing in the expertise which links back to the model of kind of schooling that you were proposing earlier, but also this idea that maybe subject leadership is a slow burner and that we're actually looking at quite a long period of time for improvements to be made, for knowledge to be developed in teaching stuff.
Kieran: Yeah. And I think it often goes overlooked. Subject leadership is often seen as part of the fast track to the assistant head role, and then the assistant head role to the deputy. And then you're a head teacher before you're 40, and then you're wondering, where does the rest of my career go and obviously now we've got CEO so we can aim for that now. But I always try to instil in subject leaders I'm working with the idea that this is something that's valuable, this is something you could dedicate your career to and it could be both rewarding and really helpful for your school. So if leaders are thinking about how they remunerate or how they provide their teachers with support, you might have someone who needs a part time contract for any number of reasons, but if the time they were in school they could lead a subject really well, everyone wins. Or if you said, we're not going to have such a big leadership team, but we're going to focus some of our resources on those people leading subjects across school. And obviously, I decided that I would never be a headteacher, and so I've never dealt with a budget myself so I'm happy to say that that isn't my particular area of expertise. But I imagine there's a way that we can reprioritize what's important. And if the curriculum is important, those people who lead are important, and those roles are important. It's not like when I started, when a subject was, let's get through these as quick as possible.
Aidan: Or a subject leader was a coordinator, and it was about ordering the art supplies and tidying the PE cupboard and that sort of thing. We've kind of moved on. And so maybe, yeah, we do need to see these roles that I think it's fair to say Ofsted has elevated with the deep dives and the focus on the curriculum and so on, as being as integral as they truly are.
Which aspects of maths do subject leaders need to monitor and evaluate and what might that look like?
Aidan: Let's move on then to your last question. And we're focusing in particularly on maths now and looking at an aspect of subject leadership which is absolutely crucial. So which aspects of maths do subject leaders need to monitor and evaluate and what might that look like?
Kieran: This one's a bit of a minefield because my default position is that monitoring for monitoring’s sake is pointless, wastes time and it burns through your goodwill. So I think we need to think really carefully about what it is that we expect to see or we expect to be able to ask of teachers before they just go, there's no point of doing this anymore. I think that's your default starting position, I think, is that, okay, we're going to look for things that A we can realistically measure or see and B, we're not going to do it for the sake of it.
My starting position with maths is that subject leaders should have a pedagogic model in mind for the subject. So you should have a vision about what you imagine the subject to be and how you hope this is realised in classrooms. This can be different. I think we know that some models are more effective than others, but no matter what you choose, you can have a pedagogic model in mind.
Sometimes I talk about the idea that different states, different counties in America can be really different despite being geographically close to each other, just the way their system is set up. And I think probably the same is true in England and the United Kingdom, because we've got quite a bit of freedom in terms of what we choose ultimately. But as subject leader, you've got this in mind and you need to have a picture of how it's being enacted in the classrooms across your school. So this is what you want. You've shared your vision, you've given people the tools to realise that vision. You then need a picture in your head. So, last project, three schools, I needed to see in my mind when I closed my eyes, what's the state of play across these three schools. So we had a one form, a two form and a three form. So essentially we had six forms and I needed to think, okay, well, in this particular part, what's happening? And so for me, in Thinking Deeply About Primary Mathematics, I break down what I think are the bedrock of effective practise for teachers.
It drew on inspiration from an American book called Learning to Improve, and then from the teacher gap and the idea that at the time it felt new, but now, because obviously the early career framework has taken things to this step where we can break things down into small actionable targets. So it's a question of how then do I get this picture of how those actionable targets are being developed in the classroom? So if we've got a whole school focus on checking for understanding, what is it I'm expecting to see and what systems can I put in place to give me that picture? So I'm always very keen to remove myself from the accountability process. I'm not making notes when in people's classes, but it might be that I want to go and learn and walk and almost have an open door policy where they know that there's a supportive environment. If I see something, I'm not going to chastise you for it. But we might, whenever we're next working together, speak about that. It might be that the coaching is more robust or the systems for coaching are more robust and you will have a set group of coachees that you're working with. I don't have a preference, but I think you're going to marry those kind of ideas together when you're trying to get your picture of what's happening in classes. Like, I mean, I would work with people for maybe an intense six week period and then that would be a plate that spun, and then I would go and work with other people. So at my peak, I could be teaching in three classes in the morning and then working with three teachers in the afternoon and then those plates spin for six weeks and then we go and over five years, you come back round. I mean, some of the guys I worked with in my first term were so quick to engage with the evidence informed practice and dialogue, that they ended up being much better than I was teaching math by the end of. So I didn't need to go back to those plates, but I knew that I could rely on them, I knew that the kids were getting a good deal, so that's fine. I think it's about that picture. And then what systems can I put in place? Whether it be coaching, whether it be learning walks, but always supportive and always removed from the accountability process. And if we're really specific about what it is we need to improve or what we hope to where we're going to next, then I think we can help people get there.
Aidan: So for maths, would you say your monitoring should be looking at the pedagogical approaches that you have kind of decided upon? We're not looking at how is problem solving going, how's reasoning going, how's the arithmetic? Is that a fair distinction or am I mischaracterising?
Kieran: No, I think it is because I think in terms of your big pedagogic model, how we approach reasoning, fluency and problem solve, that trifecta at the heart of the national curriculum. I think that should be embodied, but you don't want to be prescriptive. That's how we end up with problem solving Fridays and stuff. What I wanted is my teachers to say to me, I've made this decision for this reason. We're doing this right now, because of this. And I always talk to them about, when an inspector comes into your room, you're going to be more experienced in primary maths nine times out of ten than they are. So it's about you have the confidence to say, this is why it's not what you do, it's the why that you did.
So if I'm walking around and I don't see inverted commas ‘problem solving’, well, maybe it just wasn't the day, or if I don't see the use of concrete resources, it might be that they're not the best metaphor for what we hope the pupils will understand. What I don't want my teachers doing is shoehorning things in because I'm walking around, that makes sense.
So I think built into how you see maths being realised, those things come. So I would look at helping teachers get to that point. I think the real evaluation is how pupils deal with the content that's put in front of them. So do they exhibit the behaviours associated with efficacy and proficiency? Are they drawing on prior knowledge? Do they know what to do when they don't know? And it's like almost like your SATs results are out of date on the 20 July. I can't remember who said that it. Might have been James Pembroke. But anything that gives us a sense that we're being effective, keep an eye out for it. But measuring things in primary schools, measuring things in schools is difficult.
Aidan: You have mentioned quite a lot in your kind of approach to monitoring as a subject leader, how you work with teachers. Do you think that's important for a subject leader to do, to bring teachers into a conversation around it?
Kieran: Yeah, I'm very much of the ilk that I'd rather be shown what to do by someone more experts than told what to do from someone who's not coming back again. And so one of the things that got me a lot of street cred with my teachers in most of my roles is the idea that “I'm struggling with this....” “Well, let's have a look at this together and see what this is like,” because then they might see things that they hadn't thought of before, but you've got this starting point, okay? They might think, well, these kids are just not getting it. Well, I'll have a go, and then we'll go from there. And I always tell them, it's never going to be perfect either, because you need that out. There's never an expectation of perfection. But I think it goes a long way, because if I'd gone into those three schools and said, where the only constant was changed for such a long time, I say, “No, we're going to do it this way. Here's the rules do this.” I don't think I last very long in that position.
Aidan: And equally, there appears to be an element of you learning from them as well. You go into a lesson, you might not see X, Y and Z, but you have that conversation with the teacher, and they say, “Well, actually, that was a conscious decision. I made that decision because of this, that and the other. You didn't see that today because it wasn't appropriate. We did it the other day,” and so on. And they build the picture for you as somebody going in and observing. And your picture is built further, surely, by having been part of that process where you sit down with the teacher and you're actually planning and preparing for these lessons. So you actually have gained a broader picture than you would have if you just went in, observed a lesson left, and perhaps just gave kind of one-sided feedback.
Kieran: Yeah, big time. And you get to look for things like patterns and things, because if you work with enough teachers in similar situations, you'll start to see things that come up time and time again, so then you can almost be one step ahead the next time you're expecting that. For instance, if you're working with teachers who are just out of university, quite often the need to explain or give instruction is often overlooked. And I think it's a sense of liminality that really your only experience of school was the time you went to school. But the importance of things like direct instruction, not with small D, small I: that's often overlooked. So then you know that the first thing you're probably going to work on if you're looking at pedagogy is, well, how do I explain things to much younger, less mature human beings? It never gets boring because you can always look for what are the similarities and differences between these different situations. Like, you say you become a better teacher yourself because you see things that you really like or you think, oh, in that demonstration lesson, I'm never doing that again because that did not work, which happens all the time.
Aidan: Great. Actually, we're coming to a point here where we're saying that to be a subject leader isn't just to have all the answers and do all the things. It's actually a learning journey for a subject leader as well. I think that fits really well with what we're trying to do here with this podcast to kind of help subject leaders to develop what they know and what they can do.
Aidan: So thank you for your answers today. It's been really useful, really great to chat. I feel like we could have gone off on many, many tangents. I think what we've talked about was nice and concise and will be really helpful for subject leaders. So thank you. Kieran, are there any closing comments you'd like to make?
Kieran: No, just that I'm looking forward to listening. I love an education podcast. I try to consume as many as possible and looking forward to hearing what your subject leaders say and to see if anyone falls along the same lines as I'm thinking.
Aidan: Well, I'm sure there will be some, and hopefully there will be some who think differently as well, because I think having that breadth of opinion and viewpoint is very important. So thank you again.
Kieran: Thank you.