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from “Please Stop Teaching”

May 23, 2022

I am writing a book.

It is currently called “Please Stop Teaching!”.

Here’s an extract – me in conversation with my granddaughter, on a train

Railway Signals

It was our first trip to London with our  now ten-year-old granddaughter, by train, for well over a year. She was excited to be on a train again. She watched as we sped through the countryside. After a few minutes she opened her current Harry Potter.

Then we slowed.

1 “Why are we slowing down?”

2 “Because there’s another train in front of us.”

3 “Are we going to crash into it?”


4 “No.”

5 “Why not?”

I like trains. I know something about how railway systems work. I felt the beast stirring within – the rich tangle of fascinating knowledge uncoiling, stretching, demanding to be expressed, the inner teacher preparing to unleash itself.

But I was strong.

“OK”. I think that’s my code word, my warning to Catrin that some educating, some explaining, is imminent. This gives her permission to duck out, to say “It doesn’t matter”, which is my cue not to explain. But she stayed silent.

6 “OK, how do you think our train driver knows there’s a train in front of us?”

That’s an easy one!

7 “Because they can see it!”

8 “No. The other train is a mile or more down the track in front of us, round a couple of bends. And it’s dark and foggy snd raining…”

9 “No, it’s bright sunshine!”

10 “But trains still run when it’s dark and foggy snd raining. Anyway, our driver can’t see the train in front.”

She was intrigued now.

This is still a dangerous moment. My knowledge is pleading to be let out. But again I am strong.

11 “So, how could our train driver know there’s a train ahead of us, around a bend or two?”


12 “He’s got an electronic map that shows him the road – the track?”

Like satnav in the car. Brilliant.

13 I talked a bit about how railways are quite traditional in some ways, so, no, I don’t think that’s how it’s done, although some day soon it probably will be. She nodded.

14 “Do you know about railway signals?”

15 “No?”

Again the lecture wells in my throat. 

Again I am strong. What’s the minimum I can say?

I direct her attention out of the train window. After a few moments, a signal post flashes past.

16 “Did you see that?”

17 “What was it?”

18 “A metal post with coloured lights on”

19 “What colours? Too fast. I couldn’t see.”

20 “They were red at the bottom then amber and then green and amber at the top.”

21, 22, 23 “How do you know? What’s amber? You said amber twice.”

It had gone OK so  far. I hadn’t done old semaphore signals, operated by wires connected to big metal levers in lonely signal boxes. But double amber was an unnecessary complication at this stage. Basics first.

24 “Signals are always the same. [Pretty much.]  Amber on top. Amber, orange, yellow. Anyway. Then, green. Amber again.Then red at the bottom.”

She nodded.

What could I ask next? Ask, not tell?

25 “If you were driving a train and you came up to a red signal, what would you do?”


26 “Stop!”

27 “Green?”

28 “Go!”

29 “Amber / orange / yellow?”


30 “Go – slowly?”

31 “Yes! So when we slowed down back there – did we stop?”

32 “No.”

33 “So – “

34 “Amber signal!”

35 “Yup! Well done!” So, green means …”

36 “Go!”

37 “And yellow / orange / amber means… “

38 “Slow down. Go slow. And red means stop!”

39 I told her what double amber meant. Somewhere between single amber and green. 

40 “So we passed an amber signal. Slowing down. What colour is the next signal the track? Right now?”

41 “It could be – oh. It’s red”

And – she’s got it!

I reckon I had told her 6 or 7 things and asked her around 11 questions. Not a bad ratio. I try to keep the asking to telling ratio as high as I reasonably can. 

She had asked me around 8 questions, and I had answered 5 of them with answers and 1 with a further question. It would’ve been better for me to answer fewer of her questions and answer more questions with questions. But, sometimes, you have to answer the question. Like – she might have asked, “Why is single-amber somehow more urgent than double amber?” I could guess. I don’t know. She didn’t ask. If she had, we could have looked it up.

The analysis isn’t perfect. “Amber” is an answer. “Amber?” Is an answer with an added “Is that right?” But a little analysis is probably more useful than none. 

Then, I asked her, for each possible signal colour, what colours the next signals ahead were, or probably were. She got them all right.

I didn’t do the relationship between signals and track circuits and ”train in section”, and points and interlocks, and all that fascinating geeky stuff. 

I asked ”OK?”

Which meant, “Is that enough for now?”

“Yes thank you.”

She returned to Harry Potter. 

It doesn’t matter that Catrin understands the basic logic and sequence of UK railways four-aspect coloured light signalling. Except insofar as, I believe, it is generally good to make some sense of how the world around us works. Or at a minimum understand that sense can (usually) be made. 

But she learned, more likely reinforced, something much more important. That she can work stuff out, make sense of stuff, with a little input and some questions. 

I know, it’s slow. But it works. I could’ve told her everything that we worked out, in a couple of minutes. But what would have been the point?

  1. Phil permalink

    Wonderful. I wish I had the patience.
    It’s a lovely way of explaining what ‘teachers’ should strive to do. But it’s hard!

    • Phil
      Thank you
      Yes, it’s hard
      But imagine an education in which everyone learns to do this for themselves and for each other!

  2. Tamsin Wisher permalink

    What a great example David, thank you. I can hear your voice so clearly as I read this. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!

    • Tamsin,
      So glad it works for you! Thank you.
      I can’t wait to read the rest of it either. I’ll keep on sharing sections as I draft them.
      Teaching has so permeated my life that I’m finding it a struggle to get beyond it. But I’m making progress. I have to.
      Best wishes,

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