Independent Th!nking

re:thinking education

The Negligent Treatment of Medical Anecdote — June 25, 2015

The Negligent Treatment of Medical Anecdote

Good teachers are being publicly derided by the self-elected ‘pedagogy police’ for talking about ‘what works for me’, even if the canon of ‘approved’ research indicates it shouldn’t.

So, it is interesting to come across the following passage, sent to us by a GP who sees health education the way we see school education, with the human being at the centre of it.

‘It is hard to know why anecdote is now treated so lightly by doctors. First hand, actual, original observation should still be part of the doctor’s way of working. Clinical trials are not oracular. However sophisticated, they do not stop at publication. They start at publication. There is nothing, not even the legislature of fashion, which should disbar or absolve doctors from being curious. But that habit of curiosity, of critical regard and appraisal of their work, is, as we have seen, being lost…

…The following three questions, their brevity enabling their use even by the busiest doctor, should be asked each time a patient receives medical attention. Did the patient benefit? Did the patient not benefit? Was the patient made worse?’

Pickering, W. The negligent treatment of medical anecdote. BMJ. 1992; 304: 1516

If it works, use it, let the research catch up and let the ‘Pedagogy Police’ continue to bicker among themselves.

What If? — June 21, 2015

What If?

This article was first published by the Secondary Heads Association (now ASCL) in 2004 and was written by Ian Gilbert, founder of Independent Thinking Ltd

  • What if we are wrong? What if we are all wrong?
  • What if the system in which we all work is not the best one for bringing the best out of young people? What if, for some young people at least, it is the worst possible system?
  • What if we are doing more harm than good to young people by putting them through a system that is not suitable for their specific needs?
  • What if, when we say that a young person leaves school with nothing, we were to realise that what they leave with may be far worse than nothing? That leaving school with nothing would be letting us off lightly?
  • What if poor teachers aren’t just bad at their job but actually doing harm? Not just ineffectual but destructive?
  • What if poor teaching were a crime? What if allowing poor teaching in a school of which you were the head were more of a crime? What if not knowing that the teaching was poor was more culpable than knowingly allowing it?
  • What if you were to ask of an interviewee, ‘Do you love children?’ Not simply teaching them, working with them, bringing the best out of them in a do-good social conscience sort of way but actually valuing them for who and what they are?
  • What if more secondary teachers realised that, first and foremost, they were there to teach children not subjects?
  • What if secondary schools were like primary schools?
  • What if dividing the world into compact boxes labelled, for example, history or art was the least effective way of seeing the world anyway?
  • What if the education system we have, which is the result of the application to education of industrialisation processes, has run its course and should go the way of the cotton mill or the coalmine?
  • What if forcing children to live with punishment or the threat of punishment wasn’t the best way of forcing them to behave? What if the behaviour we are forcing them to adopt isn’t the behaviour that best serves them or the future anyway, that what we are experiencing in school is not poor behaviour but a wider social change in behaviours?
  • What if the things we teach young people are not the things they need to learn? What if maths is not as important as, say, art or music? What if many people were to admit that if they had spent more time as a child learning to play the piano and less time learning algebra they would probably be spending more time as an adult playing the piano than they do using algebra?
  • What if the qualifications with which children leave school don’t actually count for very much beyond the world of education? What if they count for nothing? What if the skills developed in order to achieve those qualifications weren’t actually to count for anything in later life? What if those skills – writing neatly, spelling properly, sitting still, listening to instructions, doing as told, not questioning authority, being spoon fed – what if they actually mitigated against success beyond school?
  • What if we were to take on board the neurological fact that a brain is not fully mature until it is 20 to 25 years old? And that boys’ and girls’ brains mature in different ways at different times? And that there may be a two to three year spread in the different levels of neurological maturation between children of the same age? What if we asked where it was written that all 16 years olds are ready sit their exams on exactly the same day?
  • What if exams were actually one of the worst possible methods for assessing what a young person is capable of achieving? What if, neurologically and psychologically, assessing people at 16 was the worst possible time to put a young person through such an ordeal?
  • What if the system was actually set up in order to sift one sort of person from another, as a social filter, yet that filter was now hopelessly out of date?
  • What if the highflying A-star students were the ones who were served most badly by schools? What if sending a child out into the world with a string of academic successes but no experience of dealing with failure was the worst we could do to that child?
  • What if the children leaving school with the most qualifications were the ones least suitable for success in the working world beyond school? And the ones with the least the most?
  • What if employers refused to recognise qualifications as a way of identifying suitable employees and chose instead, say, hair colour or number of vowels in their first name?
  • What if the issue is not the underachievement of boys but the overachievement of girls? What if we are teaching girls that working hard and writing neatly is the key to success when it isn’t? What if it is the key to serious mental harm in the long run?
  • What if a combination of teaching young people how to learn, offering them things to learn that were relevant to them and to society and combining that with the most effective use of the most up-to-date technology meant that more young people would benefit more with fewer teachers? What if the democratisation of knowledge meant the need for less subject specialists? That a caring generalist was better for the child than an uncaring specialist?
  • What if not allowing children to learn in a way that suits them best were a crime? What if an adult were to accuse you, as the headteacher, of criminal dereliction of your duty because your staff did not allow him to learn with something such as, say, Mindmaps?
  • What if the system took accepted that the IQ model of assessing intelligence which makes some people clever and some just, say, good with their hands could be an outdated model based on spurious research used in a misguided way for inappropriate reasons?
  • What if teachers worked on the premise that we all have great memories and that students forgetting what we have taught them is not a reflection on their memory, their ability or maybe even our teaching but on the fact that we have not taken the time to show them how to use the memories they have?
  • What if children were not only aware of their own abilities and preferences but also were to insist that their teachers helped them to learn accordingly at least for part of each lesson?
  • What if you were to take a willing but failing student from a lower ability group and work with that student one to one, offering him or her whatever help and support they needed to achieve from your best teachers? What if then that student achieved a better GCSE grade than he or she would have done otherwise? What if this served to prove that the system as it stands is desperately unsuitable for that student and thousands like them?
  • What if we acknowledged the irony of the fact that throughout their school career the child has to share the book, share the desk, share the equipment, share the computer, even share the teacher and then, right at the last minute, we throw them into an exam hall and tell them they are on their own? That we deny them one-to-one teaching but examine them in a one-to-one fashion?
  • What if we looked at a school that scored, say, 65% A-Cs at GCSE and asked if it felt happy that over a third of all its students had failed by the measure of success that has been set for them? What if we asked if that was an effective use of the time, effort, energy and public money – that over a third of all of it was wasted? What if it wasn’t just wasted but actually served to do harm to a young person? What if we saw, based on a national average of A-Cs at GCSE of just over 50%, that millions of pounds, millions of hours and thousands of adult lives had been spent in doing psychological harm to just under half the children in the country? What if a school were to hear itself saying not ‘We have a target this year of 55% A-Cs’ but ‘We are aiming to ensure that 45% of our students will fail this year’? What if a school were to set a goal of 100% A-Cs, whatever the cost, not in money, but to the system?
  • What if, after repeatedly telling young people to think for themselves, they actually did? What if they thought for themselves that the system was not appropriate for them and refused to play along with it anymore, not in a belligerent or aggressive way but just by saying no? What if all the students who were taught by incompetent teachers simply refused to go to that teacher’s lesson? What if they all just went to a good teacher’s lesson instead? What if every student in your school refused to go through the exam process believing it to be flawed?
  • What if all the teachers in the country were to say no – not in the form of any misguided industrial procedure but simply to highlight the fact that if the job involves working so hard so often then the processes behind the job must be wrong?
  • What if teaching something in which we don’t believe, in a system we feel may be fundamentally flawed, means we are actually teaching young people that beliefs, honesty and integrity are not relevant in adult life?
  • What if the union rep who told me recently that the majority of teachers, were they to have their time again, would not go back into teaching was right?
  • What if not enjoying our job is sending the message to young people that jobs are not to be enjoyed?
  • What if we were to ask ourselves about the specific purpose of the education system and whether that was different from the specific purpose of education? What if the two were incompatible? That serving the specific needs of the system meant that we ended up neglecting the specific needs of the child?
  • What if we asked, once we had identified the purpose of education, if we were achieving that goal for all of our students?
  • What if we put self-esteem – feeling capable and loveable – as our number one goal, more important than qualifications?
  • What if we were to identify the purpose of a life and then seek to equip young people with the skills necessary to achieve it?
  • What if we were to treat teaching not as a job but as the work of gods, whose every word and deed had some subsequent consequence that resonated for all time?
  • What if more of us acted strongly on what we felt most strongly about?
  • What if you were to put this article down now and go for a walk?

Makes you think doesn’t it.

Thinking Inside the Box — June 19, 2015

Thinking Inside the Box

Try these Thunks* with young people of any age and see what happens:

  • If you have any empty box, does the air go upside down when you turn it upside down?
  • If you have a box full of water, does the water go upside down when you turn it upside down?
  • If you have a box that is totally dark inside, does the darkness go upside down when you turn it upside down?
  • If you have a mirror inside a totally dark box, does the mirror still work?
  • If you put a lit candle in front of the mirror, do you end up with twice as much light?
  • If the box is black on the outside and red on the sealed inside, what colour is the box?
  • If you turn that box inside out, is it the same box?

Remember, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about getting children to think more deeply about what is all around them.

Enjoy! And let us know how you get on.

*For more Thunks, check out Ian Gilbert’s Little Book of Thunks. By the way, the picture below comes from a lovely blog about using Thunks as a parent by @TheQuirkyParent.

Zero Waste Schools —

Zero Waste Schools


Governments around the world are increasingly fixated simply on data in schools. Meanwhile, really important things like the damage we are doing to our planet only get worse.

But schools can do something about – and many of the children in them certainly do want to play their part.

Last week in Hong Kong saw the culmination of a special Zero Waste Week with a conference for schools across the region, MC-ed by Independent Thinking founder Ian Gilbert. Apart from world authorities speaking about the need for – and the possibility of – zero waste approaches (and the madness of the Hong Kong government building an incinerator that will cause more serious problems than it solves), the conference also launched a ‘zero waste schools’ initiative that will be rolled out in the new academic year.

We will follow this as it develops but, for now, here are the Nine Steps to Zero Waste Schools:

  1. Research – the MISA (Media; Interview; Survey; Observation) approach was well used at the conference
  2. Reduce – just stop using so much of everything, really
  3. Recycle/separate at source – do you?
  4. Composting – The Rocket is a UK invention and does a great job
  5. Reuse/repair – do you?
  6. Economic incentives – you will save money in the long run, guaranteed
  7. Procurement – do you really need virgin pulp toilet paper?
  8. Redesign – how could things be different to be better?
  9. Celebrate – important. Very.

If you want more information then drop Ian an e-mail at

Forget sticking a banner outside your school that says what Ofsted thinks, hoist a banner that says you are serious about saving the planet for the children in your classrooms.


It’s Not About Doing Good, It’s About Doing Something — March 22, 2015

It’s Not About Doing Good, It’s About Doing Something

Hope Tree

During our party to celebrate Independent Thinking’s 20 years in 2013, I promised that I would do what I could to send those Associates willing to ‘dangerous places for no money’.

In a world where millions of children don’t go to school and millions who do learn nothing anyway’[1] I felt that the combined talents, experience and wisdom of a team of educators such as the associates of Independent Thinking was a resource that could make a genuine difference. A small one, but a difference all the same.

Since then we have sent Associates on several occasions to work with teachers and school leaders in an educational charity in Chile who serve children from some of the poorest communities and who fall through the net of the current money-driven education system there. We have sent an Associate to Ghana to lead teacher training across two schools far from any big city and sent a container full of much-needed school supplies at the same time. And we have teamed up with a fledgling educational charity, World Wide Education Project, to send three Associates to one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Kakuma in Kenya, to help with the almost impossible task of teaching thousands of refugee children in the most dire of surroundings.

Why do we do this? Because we can. So, why wouldn’t we?

If you can do something then you do something.

There is a model forced upon education that the only way to function is through competition, by being better than your neighbour, and that teachers work best when you dangle enough money in front of them. To think that is to not understand the nature of the profession. In the Global Education Village, of which we are all a part if you step back and look, we improve things by collaborating and helping.

And if you can help teachers like Nancy, you help.


Why wouldn’t you?

There will be other things we do as there so much to do, but at the moment we want you to help us by raising money to build a new classroom in Kakuma. With over 7000 children, 40 teachers and just 12 classrooms currently it is an instant quick win. We just need £5000 to make it happen and we’re halfway there. A pound or so from enough people like you will get Nancy that school.

You can donate via WWEP’s Just Giving sight here or by texting WWEP01 £3 to 70070.

There will be other ways you can help us help in the future but at the moment, as Debra, Jane, Bethan and Simon wash the dust out of the hair and reflect on one of the most challenging weeks of their lives, this is the help we need.

Thank you.

Ian Gilbert


Independent Thinking

How the Brian Works (sic)! — October 13, 2014

How the Brian Works (sic)!

Last weekend we held one of our Thinking Saturdays where an open invitation is put out to our Associates to get together to explore certain key areas relevant to our work across the board in education.

This time we were fortunate enough to be joined by Dr Andrew Curran, a paediatric neurologist at Alder Hay Children’s Hospital in Liverpool and a long-time Independent Thinking Associate.

As is always the case when we hear him speak, it was mind blowing.

Here are some of the ‘takeaways’ from his two-hour presentation that we thought needed sharing with the wider education community.

  • Rather than use ‘normal’ (eg a ‘normal brain’, ‘a normal child’) use ‘ordinary’. After all the opposite of ‘ordinary’ is far better and more accurate than the opposite of ‘normal’.
  • Love, affection, being wanted and feeling safe are essential for the learning brain.
  • The development of the neurological pathways in the Early Years is dependent on stimulation at home, at school and on environmental influences.
  • We must build emotionally literate communities
  • All schools should have trained Mental Health First Aiders.
  • It’s a relief to know that much of what we have intuitively shared as effective practice for teachers is based on what science is now giving us firm evidence for.
  • Schools need to understand that the teenage brain is not built for sitting in rows learning facts.
  • Great teachers make children feel magic, valued, safe, relaxed, able, known, motivated, wanted and special. If your children don’t feel like that, what are you going to do about it?
  • The brain remains plastic all its life. You can always rewire it if you choose to do so. This is important to bear in mind when looking at areas such as Attachment Theory.
  • You can’t argue with the scientific evidence when it comes to knowing what the brain needs for learning.
  • I will be reviewing the length of learning activities across the school. Fifteen minute blocks of learning followed by a contrasting activity to embed learning seems to make sense.
  • There is no altruism – everything we do on a neurological level is for our own reward.
  • Love helps learning.
  • Neuroplasticity is nature’s way of allowing individuals to learn, unlearn and relearn, thereby giving hope to anyone stuck in a negative cycle of self doubt.
  • Being able to measure the impact of a lack of love and affection on the infant brain is as powerful as finding cures for serious diseases, but humanity is not necessarily embracing the correlation to make significant social policy change.
  • ‘Stop! Stop! Time out!’ should be understood by all teachers.
  • A real scientist can say four times in two hours “We do not know ….”
  • When it comes to teaching and learning, every teacher needs to know the science of how the brain works. It’s as simple as that.
  • How many of our parents understand how the brain works? We need to engage with parents who have ‘tricky’ children. They need to have a clear understanding of the importance of dopamine and how it affects on the brain.
  • Everything we do as teachers is sculpting a child’s brain. This is terrifying – and a very good reason for making sure that we’re getting it right.
  • Dopamine provides a 15-minute ‘look back’ – that is to say reward and pleasure improve our memory for what was just happening.
  • When adults, especially couples, argue they often talk to each other as if they are using their three year-old child brain.
  • If your brain reaches its optimum state at age 25, lets encourage kids to be kids in the meantime, while they are developing.
  • The brain needs dopamine to learn and 93% of its secretion is in the control of our emotional brain.
  • NLP maps directly onto our neurobiological templates.
  • The emotional brain regulates dopamine, which means if your heart’s not engaged your head won’t work properly.
  • Teenagers make high risk, poor judgement decisions – we need to understand that this happens and why it does.
  • So much what is spouted by so-called behaviour gurus and teaching experts flies in the face of the neuroscience.

And finally to sum up why we have been working with Dr Curran for so many years:

  • Andrew’s work is at the core of everything Independent Thinking does

To find out more about Andrew’s work on neuroscience check out his wonderful Little Book of Big Stuff About the Brain and to book him to come and blow the minds of you and your colleagues please drop us an e-mail –


The Great Independent Thinking Twitter Takeover — October 8, 2014

The Great Independent Thinking Twitter Takeover

Starting next week we are opening the doors to the @ITLWorldwide Twitter account to let all of our growing number of Associates have a go.

Passing the Twitter Baton (don’t abbreviate that) from Associate to Associate (or that) each one can Tweet what they like about what they like for a week at a time, culminating in a post on this blog.

We’re a broad church so we don’t mind what they Tweet and Retweet or who they Follow (or Unfollow) as long as they are positive, supportive and, well, nice about it.

Some of our Associates are well known on Twitter, Tweeps like Rachel Jones (@rlj1981), Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) and Vic Goddard (@vicgoddard). Others are, well, what you might call Twirgins so there’s a whole world waiting for them.

Kicking off the Great Twitter Takeover is our very own Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist) who will be running the account for a week starting next Monday 13th October.

He will then pass the baton we know not where.

These are interesting times for sharing ideas and inspirations in education and where better to do it than amongst the positive community on Twitter.

Let’s see what happens…


Are Your Lessons Rigorous? — October 4, 2014

Are Your Lessons Rigorous?

Here are seven great questions from educational rigour ‘guru’ Tony Wagner to check whether your lessons are rigorous or not.

And by rigorous he doesnt mean simply effective at ‘prepping for the exam’.

  1. What is the purpose of this lesson?
  2. Why is this important to learn?
  3. In what ways am I challenged to think in this lesson?
  4. How will I apply, assess, or communicate what I’ve learned?
  5. How will I know how good my work is and how I can improve it?
  6. Do I feel respected by other students in this class?
  7. Do I feel respected by the teacher in this class?

Read more about his research on rigour here.

Some Questions From Hong Kong’s Occupy Barricades for Teachers Everywhere — October 3, 2014

Some Questions From Hong Kong’s Occupy Barricades for Teachers Everywhere

Tania's Umbrella

Ian Gilbert, Independent Thinking’s Founder, is currently based in Hong Kong and has been live-Tweeting from many of the protests. (He has also been interviewed by BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Scotland and the Radio Leicester Breakfast Show which is all a little surreal!)

Below are 17 questions and images from Ian inspired by his experiences this week for you to take and share with your colleagues and young people.

Let us know how you get on won’t you.

Lightsup II1. Can you have genuine education without genuine democracy?

Hong Kong

2. If this was happening in your country, where would you be?

 Free Translation

3. Where would the people you have taught be?

Fuck the Police or Not

4. To what extent are you teaching your young people to be active citizens (these young people are rubbing the graffiti off)? What evidence do you have?

 We Are Not Enemies

5. Students are at the heart of the Occupy movement, led by a 17 year-old student named Joshua Wong. Would one of your students be in a position to lead in such a way?

Keep Calm Be Alert

6. The Education Bureau of Hong Kong, the EDB, introduced ‘Critical Thinking’ into their curriculum. Here is an overview of what local children are taught. Is critical thinking taught in your school?

Torches Viewfinder

7. On the other hand, here is a piece from The Conversation in the UK which suggests that critical thinking can’t be taught because ‘you can’t teach people to be critical unless you are critical yourself’. What do you think?

Which is Weapon?

8. So, which is weapon?


9. What song lyric would your poster say?

Fight or Cry

10. Are your young people fighters or criers, neither or both?

Media III

11. These days modern technologies and online social networks mean the media is us. Or, in Ian’s words, ‘Be the media you want to see in the world’. Do you agree? If so, do your students know this?

No Violence

12. The Occupy Central protests have been marked by a policy of restraint and non-violence (on behalf of the protestors). Do you teach the same constraint? Is there a place for violence in struggle?

Nuremburg II

13. The Nuremberg Principles state that you have a moral obligation that transcends your country’s law. You cannot say, ‘I was just following orders’. Edward Snowden cited this too when he landed in Moscow from Hong Kong in 2013. To what extent does such a moral code influence your actions in school? Do your students know of this code?

Discussion Welcomed

14. To what extent is their a forum for discussion in your school and to what extent is discussion welcomed?

Why Are We Here Wall I

15. On this wall, protestors are writing the answer to that question – what would you write?


16. In the protests, everyone can take their turn to speak. Would you speak and, if so, what would you say? Would your students speak and what would they say?

Umbella & Police

17. Does your school produce the sort of young people who would do this?

NB All the images on this page are by Ian with the exception of the last one, provenance unknown, and the umbrella illustration at the top which is by Tania Willis, a professional illustrator and long-time Hong Kong resident who also designed our logos and the beautiful cover of Ian’s last book, Independent Thinking.

ITL cover 1

You Help Someone Who Is Just Starting Out, Of Course You Do —

You Help Someone Who Is Just Starting Out, Of Course You Do

This week saw the funeral of Paul Chamberlain in Northamptonshire.

Setting up Independent Thinking as a company and a vehicle for Ian Gilbert’s ideas was his idea, along with his wife Sue with whom Ian was teaching at the time.

Apart from their seed capital, Paul and Sue were generous with their time and support to the company in its infancy and to Ian and his family personally.

Through his endlessly patient mentoring and guidance, Paul helped Ian understand not only the mechanics of running a start-up business but also how to do so with integrity and compassion.

Paul and Sue showed that when you get the chance to help somebody else, to give someone their ‘big break’, to help them turn their ideas into reality, it is a chance you take.

Paul’s influence has permeated Independent Thinking for twenty years and we were so pleased that both he and Sue were able to join us for our 20th Birthday Party last year. Here Ian was able to thank them both personally and here too they could get a feel for what the organisation they helped bring to life had become.

We thank them both again now and, Paul, you will be sadly missed.

From all of us at Independent Thinking

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