Are you really teaching? Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, partly because Ben Newmark has been writing some excellent stuff on didactic teaching which has got me thinking about what concise-explanation-is-king teaching looks like in the primary classroom and partly because it was mentioned on twitter that most instruction in the primary classroom is, apparently, didactic.

I disagree.

I think that many teachers might be confusing all teacher talk with didactic teaching, instead inadvertently employing a version of discovery learning that requires the children to construct their own knowledge/understanding/skills in their heads and then share it with (and ‘teach’) the rest of the class. Just because they’re not at their tables working in groups, or using lots of manipulatives,  sugar paper, drama or iPads doesn’t mean that discovery learning is not taking place. Conversely, just because the children are sat on the carpet in front of you, doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is happening. What I have seen and still see a lot of is various permutations of this:

I’m thinking of the thing, can you think of what it is yet?

Even I sometimes slip into this habit and it’s as if the rhetoric of child-centred education can so easily filter into the teacher’s head, slightly shifting and warping the words and phrases that the teacher uses (employing a dose of guilt too), ultimately allowing the child’s voice to take precedence over the teacher’s voice. This manifests in endless questions prompting the children to make the next connection themselves and then offer up these connections to the rest of the class. Underlying all this questioning is the prioritisation of engagement and interest, and underlying this is an internalisation of the following message by the teacher:

I am not worth listening to (actually it is wrong for me to ‘force’ children to learn what I want them to learn), I am not important and it is better if the children arrive at their own conclusions themselves or with each other than if I simply tell them.

They also might be thinking this:

I must AfL it to the max. All the time.

How does this pan out? In order to really understand this, we also need to put ourselves in the shoes of the various different children in our class. This is what tends to happen when, instead of just giving the children some interesting information about the key concepts of Islam (for example), the teacher asks, ‘Muslims read a special book; does anyone know what this book is called and what language it is written in?’

  1. There will, probably, be a [middle class] child called Derek who already knows this information and he immediately throws a hand in the air. A few other gung-ho kids with the wrong information throw their hands in the air too.
  2. The teacher may a) pick Derek and he then ‘teaches’ the rest of the class, but is a bit woolly with his explanation, saying the words a bit wrong, or, b) picks a gung-ho child who ‘teaches’ the rest of the class something that is completely wrong and they all have a good laugh together, maybe going off on a tangent into Judaism.
  3. Jerry, who has SEN and seriously struggles to understand what the hell is going on, immediately feels down when the teacher asks the class if anyone already knows what she is intending to teach them or whether they have worked out, by themselves, the next step because he can’t put his hand up. Then he either thinks a) Derek is so lucky that he naturally knows everything or b) That Judaism and Islam are pretty much the same thing.

Despite everyone in the class looking engaged, this is mostly a waste of time. All the children who struggle to concentrate would’ve switched off, all the children with SEN would’ve either learned nothing or, even worse, the wrong thing and all the advantaged children would’ve been given a leg-up to the next step and made to feel like they’re better than all the other children. Well I, for one, am not down with that.

Don’t get me wrong, questioning is good, particularly if you make children fully explain their reasoning. However, there’s a difference between using questions to check whether children understand what has already been taught versus questions that are intended to prompt children to make connections and construct their own knowledge in their heads. The latter is inefficient, risky and leaves disadvantaged children behind. A truly traditional teacher would do the following:

  1. Show children a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic.
  2. She would show children the words ‘Q’uran’ and ‘Arabic’ on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’
  3. She would then ask the whole class if anyone can say, in their own words, what she has just taught the class.
  4. Both Derek and Jerry put their hands up when asked a question about the special book that a Muslim reads.

Some of you might be thinking that I’ve picked something that is too straightforward and that of course you would take the second approach. But do you really? A slightly more complex situation would be in the teaching of column subtraction. The properly didactic route would be to get the children silent, all hands resting on the desks (not fiddling with a pencil) and 100% of eyeballs looking at the teacher. The teacher would firstly show children a ‘problem’ that needs solving and the calculation that needs to be done, then stating why column subtraction needs to be used as opposed to mental arithmetic. Then, she would clearly explain exactly how to lay out column subtraction including why it is laid out that way (but remembering to keep on task with the explanation and not leading the children astray with their thinking). She would then go through each and every step modelling his/her thinking and number bond knowledge along the way and when arriving at the answer, stating (using the correct mathematical language and including the units of measurement) how the original problem has been solved, showing children the now balanced equation.

How many primary teachers would have the confidence to go through this process, which should only take 5 minutes, without resorting to stopping every half a bloody minute to ask the following questions:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they think the calculation needs to be?
  • Who thinks they know why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they think the next step is?
  • Who thinks they know what to do when we are faced with a subtrahend here is bigger than the minuend here?
  • Who can guess what this number in this column represents?
  • Who can think of a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who thinks they already know what the answer is?

When teachers resort to discovery-through-questioning-teaching I find that it causes children to start guessing and calling out (because all little children are eager to please and have approval; something that secondary maths teachers don’t experience as much so we primary teachers should remember to be grateful!). I do find that many classes’ overall psychology is to assume that they will be constantly called upon or allowed to constantly interject with their opinions in this way and you find that hands shoot up all over the place and pretty much constantly where they even try to anticipate the question, never mind the answer! In fact, some cohorts don’t seem to understand the whole concept of a teacher actually teaching or that they are there to learn rather than have conversations and do activities. This is seriously distracting.

There are a couple of other reasons why a teacher, particularly a young and new teacher, might resort to this kind of ‘teaching’, especially in maths lessons. I think one of the reasons is that a typical SCITT course ‘Maths day’ doesn’t actually consist of ‘How to teach maths’, rather an immersion in the consultant’s version of ‘It’s great when you get all the equipment out, here are some exciting activities and let the children enjoy, discover and improve their self-esteem’ way of life. The other reason is probably lack of confidence/maths prowess among new primary teachers themselves which would lead them to inadvertently deferring the ‘teaching’ as it were to the more confident children in their class. I often wonder whether primary teachers are really checking number bond or times tables knowledge among the children when demonstrating a formal method of calculation, or whether they didn’t have that particular maths fact to hand at the time. Honestly, the number of times I’ve heard teachers either admit to being a bit frightened of year 6 maths, or even saying that they need to brush up on it really does alarm me! The risk is of course is that a child says the wrong answer, and then the teacher will quite often say, ‘Well, you’re nearly there and almost correct! Well done for having a go!’ instead of ‘This is the wrong answer.’ It’s better just to model your knowledge of the maths fact and then get 100% of the children to chant it back, then maybe ask an individual child than risk mass confusion. Perhaps SCITT maths days really need to include the course tutors actually modelling how to teach converting fractions, for example, then the SCITT student would a) feel the love for fractions and understand why various aspects of the previous years’ curricula need to be learned off by heart and b) assimilate a bank of words, phrases and lesson structures that would help them teach maths.

Now you might still be thinking that there clearly isn’t enough questioning. However, after the teacher has properly explained what is is going on, including actually ‘answering’ those questions listed above (‘-10+1 = -9, let me just write this maths fact at the side here, so we can just quickly subtract 10 and add 1 rather than inefficiently count back 9 ones, which I’m now going to prove to you’), including pre-empting the misconceptions (‘no, we don’t simply decide to subtract the minuend from the subtrahend’) then the questions can be allowed, but with the teacher leading the way, not the children.

  • Who would like me to go through this again?
  • If there was a bit of this that you found confusing, please put up your hand and tell me exactly which part didn’t make sense. Remember, your friends are probably thinking the same thing!
  • Does anyone have any questions about what I have done or the words and phrases I have used?
  • Right, now we are going to do one of these together, but bit-by-bit. If you are feeling confident, please don’t call out; instead, you can play a little game inside your head where you guess what I am going to say and do next.
  • [Checks Jerry is smiling] Jerry, I am going to read this problem for us both. Can you tell me what the calculation is and why you know this?

Of course, many reading this are thinking that a teacher just teaching is all rather boring. I would disagree. What I find is that when the children are settled, in ‘receive’ mode and I give myself permission to just teach, taking care with the explanations, modelling of thinking and doing, using the new phrases and vocabulary, maybe even converting the instruction into a nice story, then I am more likely to hear the muffled ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Far from boring, this is incredibly liberating because when the teacher actually teaches, and this is what I, as a parent, thought all teachers were all doing before I entered the profession and experienced a rather rude awakening, then all children can learn. When all the children have learned, then the questions subtly change:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they know the calculation needs to be?
  • Who knows why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they know the next step is?
  • Who knows exactly what this number in this column represents?
  • Who knows what to do when this number is bigger than this number here?
  • Who knows a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who knows what the answer is?

Knowledge is power, so let’s actually teach the children everything they need to know (and then of course get them to practise lots!)

Who’s with me?

 

 

The warped world of the teacher-therapist

You’re not the second Messiah and that’s OK.

On my timeline yesterday and today is quite a bit of chatter about something called Attachment Disorder (AD). This came up because I had written a blog post about how teachers are expected to parent in addition to teach to each and every child’s ‘needs’ and I felt that this was one of the reasons teachers leave the profession: it’s just too much to ask of one human being and not expect them to have a nervous breakdown! Of course, AD was thrown back at me as something that apparently all teachers should be aware of and cater for, effectively a reposte that implied that, yes, it was the responsibility of teachers (especially primary teachers) to ‘nurture’ children through special intervention groups if no one else can be bothered to do it, in addition to squeezing in a bit of teaching the national curriculum during any spare time of course. To sum up, this is a ‘disorder’ that happens when children don’t form good emotional attachments to their main caregivers (because of neglect/lack of nurturing) in very early childhood and according to attachment theory it manifests in children in the following ways:

  • Not being able to accept discipline
  • Poor self-control
  • Unwilling to take responsibility for own actions
  • (If untreated) Criminal acts, including violence, aimed at other innocent people and animals
  • Initially compliant and ‘nice’ in the classroom, but then bizarrely turns defiant, moody and difficult to handle
  • Poor eating etiquette and stealing others’ food
  • Trouble making friends, working in groups and is quite often a bully
  • Not being able to solve problems or think critically
  • Deliberately doing badly in tests
  • Talking out loud in class
  • Disorganised, rejects instruction that helps with organisation
  • Nosiness
  • Not caring about hurting others
  • Enjoying getting a rise out of the teacher
  • Deliberately ignoring instruction and doing own thing
  • Destroying others’ property
  • Blaming everyone else
  • Attention seeking

I haven’t heard it mentioned at my workplace, yet, but attachment ‘awareness’ does appear to be gaining momentum:

Screenshot 2017-04-17 at 8.03.11 AM

So, if a child in our class is displaying one, some or all of those ‘symptoms’ listed above, then we need to consider whether it is some kind of attachment disorder, especially if the child is adopted or in foster care, and then attempt to cure it through nurture group interventions. But there is a massive assumption underlying all this that I take issue with: that children are naturally ‘good’ or well behaved and any general naughtiness is down to lack of ‘nurturing’. Effectively, in response to the kind of behaviour listed above, instead of telling a child off, giving some kind of punishment or sending them out of the room, we teachers need to assume that the child cannot help themselves, possibly has a mental health issue that absolves them of all responsibility and instead is needing more love and general positive ‘affirmation’ in order to cure that child.

We live in narcissistic times and I’m continuously amazed (read: shocked) at the sheer amount of confidence, bravado and self-belief of new, young teachers entering the profession (I was never like that when I was in my twenties). Perhaps this is just the way society and Western culture is evolving, but I can’t help but think that recruitment advertising is driving a hidden process by which teachers (especially the young ones) entering the profession really do believe that they can be that ‘special person’ who can change a child’s behaviour through love, kindness and inspirational lessons. If you are in any doubt as to this process, take a look at this advert for Teach First and think about the hidden messages: anyone who is perhaps a little more realistic about their own human capabilities would be put off from applying. Further, if you look at pretty much all adverts for teaching roles, you will find an emphasis on ‘performance’ which effectively allows extroverts (who are more likely to be overly self-confident) to dominate the profession, especially when it comes to promotion. The upshot of all this is that unproven neuromyths such as attachment disorders can be promoted because the majority of new teachers are more than happy to boost their own ego through trying to be that one special adult who can transform a child through love and inspirational lessons. Everything fits nicely together like a jigsaw. Except when it doesn’t.

Many who are reading this would be thinking that love and inspirational lessons sounds like a really good idea. ‘Bring on the nurturing, performing teachers!’ But what if lots of nurturing doesn’t cure a child of AD and the misbehaviour that allegedly results, or if the teacher just runs out of emotional energy required to ‘cure’ it? What if the child isn’t ‘inspired’ by ‘fun’ lessons either or the teacher runs out of time and energy to make all 25 lessons a week jaw-droppingly amazing?

It’s all the teacher’s fault. Put them on capability, crush them with workload and drive them out. Get more young, cheap, energetic and deluded NQTs in.

You know what’s really sad about this situation? It’s the fact that while everyone’s falling over themselves ‘loving’ and ‘inspiring’ the children who are badly behaved, there are children who are silently suffering, yet being ignored. Why? Because they’re well behaved, quiet and just get on with the job of listening and learning. These are the children who not only have a shit time at home, but also have to put up with having their learning, and therefore their entire future, compromised because all this ‘love’ and ‘inspiration’ is failing to cause a child with ‘AD’ to behave in class. This injustice of this situation, when I think about it, makes me feel quite angry

What is the answer? As you know, I believe the forgotten wisdom of traditional education saves the day. Structure, routine, heirarchy and whole-school discipline saves time, energy and perhaps even lives.

  • The teacher is supported to teach rather than expend all their energy trying to be a therapist
  • The child who misbehaves is supported to behave and do well academically (discipline is true love, as opposed to false love which boosts the ego of the person who is overtly demonstrating that ‘love’)
  • The quiet, silently suffering child can take refuge in a peaceful and positive classroom as well as look forward to a bright future

Who’s with me?

 

 

Progressive ideology – bad for everyone’s mental health?

You know me, I don’t beat about the bush. I’ve finally managed to get my planning done, but I’m feeling anxious about the start of the new term and I know I’m not alone in not being able to fully enjoy the Easter weekend. Why am I anxious? It’s because progressive ideology and the teaching/assessment etc methods that are associated with it requires me to constantly worry about children. Let me illustrate my point (and then I’ll talk about a solution):

Child-centred education essentially puts the adult on the back foot. So, the typical teacher will have to, ideally, differentiate teaching and learning for the individual child, personalise marking and constantly assess, assess, assess each child in every single subject, updating various APP-type systems as they go. This means that all the effort and worry of children’s learning is transferred to the teacher, trapping them in a never ending state of chasing and hoping and generally not being in control. Furthermore, and this is probably more of an issue in primary schools, unlike the other professions where being ‘professional’ means keeping a healthy emotional distance between front line worker and client (for example, in the police force, officers are minded not to get too emotionally involved for the sake of their own health), teachers are actively encouraged to get overly emotionally involved with children in order to be able to ‘teach’ the ‘whole child’ and also cater for the child’s ‘needs’. Anyone who questions this is at risk of receiving a hefty dose of emotional bribery: deemed to be ‘uncaring’ by those on high who have either never stepped foot in a classroom, or have left that exhausting place a long time ago.

The bonkers nature of this system is fully exposed when you consider how humans normally organise the more repetitive parts of their lives through the use of ritual and routine, a sort of human version of ‘automation’ that outsources the worry and makes us all more efficient and in a better state of mental health. This could be anything from how we manage to get ourselves of bed and out of the door for an early morning run, to falling into a routine of weekly meal prep that saves the household ‘cook’ from constantly having to dream up new and exciting dishes for everyone’s delectation. When we walk a familiar route to the shops, do we make sure that every single time we go, we change the route a little, perhaps opting to hop, skip or jump our way there? No, each time we get a little more efficient: choosing the exact place to cross the road where cars naturally slow down for example, soon we don’t even think about it. But the teacher who is minded to follow and use the teaching methods associated with progressive ideology is effectively expected to take a wiggly walk to the shops. with no walk ever allowed to be the same. Teachers are barred from outsourcing worry, using a teaching and assessment version of ‘automation’ or becoming more efficient because a) she must try to follow/plan for each and every child’s learning ‘needs’ (the thought-process equivalent of trying to stab a single ant among a hundred other ants) and b) constantly dream up new and ever more exciting ways to pique children’s interests. Then of course we have to consider the extra burden of worrying about children’s feelings constantly which is EXTREMELY draining.

You know what the answer is? Yes, you guessed it. A massive switch to the traditional side of education would, I believe, save the sanity of teachers and dramatically reverse the trend for teachers to leave the profession in droves. You see, I think it’s not so much the long hours that is the main factor in driving teachers away, it’s the fact that they can’t let go of anything and they are forced to worry all the time. This surely must be the mental oppression equivalent of doing 30 PhDs at once, forever.

By teaching the subject and not the child, the former is a much more stable entity that can be codified and delivered as a neat package of information divided up into ‘chunks’. with regular testing. The ‘worry’ can be outsourced to textbooks and the use of efficient methods of teaching which involves ritual and routine can save the teacher so much mental energy that would have otherwise been sunk in trying to dream up ever crazier lessons. The use of frequent testing and healthy competition transfers ownership of learning back to the child, who is then incentivised to work hard. Rules and regulations regarding behaviour and giving respect back to the teacher also puts a healthy emotional distance between the child and the teacher; the child is able to trust the teacher, but doesn’t overstep the mark and the teacher’s mental health is protected.

Happy, relaxed teachers.

Who’s with me?

Real silence

This blog post is intended as an extra layer in the conversation surrounding the use of silence in schools to help children study. After Anthony Radice wrote a blog post which talked about the forgotten importance of good ol’ fashioned Prep Time, I of course concurred but then questioned whether there were any dedicated silent periods in the majority of primary schools. A couple of teachers on twitter said that they had silence in their classrooms, but I’d like to argue that whatever they’re doing, it is no where the same or effective as Prep Time. I’d also like to add my own thoughts on how and why I would increase the ratio of silent study to teaching time in state schools if I had some kind of magical power.

Firstly, are there ever any really silent periods of study in primary schools? If teachers are saying that there are, then my concerns would be:

  1. Since we are supposed to be teaching 100% of the time, if a visitor/consultant/member of SLT bundled into the classroom during a period of silent study, would the teacher not get a bollocking for slacking off?
  2. If the teacher admits to doing something overtly ‘productive’ in the eyes of Ofsted (as I was told early on, ‘You need to be seen to move children on in their Learning. How do you know they’re not thinking the right thing?’), perhaps by sitting with a group and giving extra help/teaching, then there won’t be silence. Regardless of what tweeps say about #nobestwaytodosilentstudy, if there is a teacher and a TA constantly teaching or helping children during a period of silent study, then it is not silent study. You see, there is either silence or there isn’t.
  3. Even if the teacher were to be bold and actually go ahead with making children work in silence, this would be an ad-hoc decision and it wouldn’t last anywhere near as long as traditional Prep Time.
  4. Distractions are much more commonplace in primary schools, I think. The internal/infernal phone is constantly going off (‘Could you let Tracy know that she is going home with Uncle Billy today’), there are children who come in late (very late) and some children absolutely refuse to stop pestering their friends by either fiddling too much with rubbers and rulers, or announcing constant wittering commentary about every little thing that they’re thinking or doing (‘Ha! Look at this line I just drew! It’s all wonky like a see-saw!).

I’ve often thought that sometimes extrovert teachers say that there is silence in their classroom, when what they are talking about is their version of silence. How often have I heard from teachers, ‘Oh gosh I couldn’t study in total silence! How awful! I think it’s much better to have a hum of noise or chatter in the background, or maybe some music. Nobody could possibly like total silence. It’s practically barbaric to inflict that on children!’ These teachers announce that there will be silent writing, and then will promptly put some music on and perhaps start a scrolling set of pictures ‘to inspire creativity’ on the IWB. Said teachers will also punctuate the silence regularly with constant repetition of the success criteria, or suggestions of ‘Wow Words’ to use. In their heads, there is silence, but in the minds of the introverted children their thoughts are being shattered into a thousand pieces with screeching violins, brightly coloured gargoyles and incessant nagging.

Of course, I have admitted to using periods of silent study in my classroom too. You would expect that, since I am a rare primary teacher who is also an introvert and therefore understands that introverts aren’t merely ‘defective extroverts’ (as the extroverted world would believe us to be), but a group of Thinkers who mull things over before opening their mouths. We are more interested in solving problems, pondering the wonders of science or deciphering the intentions of others rather than constantly trying to hog the limelight. I always try to be fair by announcing that a certain amount of time that can be dedicated to talking about the work (to appease the extroverts and SLT, who always seem to be extroverts themselves), but that after this time there will be silence ‘For the sake of our friends who need and want to concentrate by themselves’. The children welcome this and the relief is almost palpable (sometimes there are few hurrahs) when I announce that it’s time to knuckle down. And then of course the known children who just cannot help but witter on get moved away from other children.

If you do as I do quite regularly, then the following positive things happen:

  • Children get better and better at concentrating.
  • Massive improvement in quality and quantity of written work. For example, fewer spelling errors and neater handwriting.
  • Chatterboxes do change a little and begin to think of others. I like to encourage the introverts to assert themselves by having the confidence to say, ‘Would you mind leaving me alone to think now.’
  • Weirdly, fewer arguments, tantrums or friendship issues.
  • The children who can’t be bothered to listen and learn during my input suddenly get smoked out because they can’t just ask their friends for all the answers. Then, they tend to make more effort to do what is expected the next time round and ask questions if they want the teacher to explain something again.
  • When I mark, I can tell exactly who needs an extra intervention and my extra time can be devoted to them, rather than having to make the children who can’t control themselves (and who might have otherwise chatted about Minecraft) do some extra work to make up for their wasted time
  • Children who have got used to having an adult with them, practically doing the work for them and repeating the input, are forced to think for themselves

Given the above, you could say that everyone’s a winner in this situation. Except, I don’t think this use of silent study goes far enough. What’s the missing link? The missing link is that Prep Time is a ritual, whereas a teacher’s random decision to instigate some silence is definitely not. In the former situation, children come to expect it and by having Prep Time for the same time every single day, they also learn the good habits of regular self-study (instead of procrastinating). Again, it is the disadvantaged children who lose out if we choose not to appreciate the true value of a ritual such as Prep Time: they don’t have a chance to learn at home, as their advantaged peers do, to dedicate a fixed and regular amount of time to silent study. Their advantaged peers have parents who put in place that crucial routine for doing homework, times tables or spelling practice and, of course, silent reading.

As you know, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian thing, trying to understand the culture that underpins methods of teaching and learning that happens in maths classes in Shanghai, for example. To me, there was another subtle je-ne-sais-quoi that went beyond the initial understanding of your classic ‘ping-pong’ maths lessons, daily interventions to keep the whole class together and the use of varied and intelligent practice to help consolidate learning. What I have realised is that, staring right at me, was a ritual just like Prep Time. Perhaps I am taking the analogy too far, but it is almost like the process of becoming a mathematician in Shanghai is like a path of devotion, particularly when it comes to the use of practice. You see, children practise what they have learned in maths every single day and for a good long time. They practice at home, alone and in silence. This is a daily ritual, something akin to a meditation in numbers, with new connections and insights revealed through purposeful study and the repetitive practise of calculations. There is refuge in numbers and the desk which has been purchased for every child (who may live in poverty or cramped conditions) is like a shrine to self-cultivation which, as Confucian philosophy states, makes us not just more intelligent, but better people. Confucians understand and accept of the importance of ritual and habit as a way of becoming more cultivated, productive and also happier. I think we used to have this wisdom too, but it has since been lost.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would instigate Prep Time for all children in state schools. It’s not just about having a place and time to study alone, it’s about getting into good habits, being able to concentrate, self-cultivation, making your own connections and committing useful facts and procedures to memory; it’s also about being a happier person.

Happier children.

Who’s with me?

 

 

Life is a series of tests, so adding another little one at the start of school shouldn’t matter.

I think a baseline test would be a great idea, mainly because I think we really need to know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even get started with phonics! But before I give a little detail as to the positives, let’s tackle that old spiel about how allegedly ‘detrimental’ they are to children’s wellbeing.

Yesterday I read an article written by a former teacher, university professor and Ofsted inspector which stated various arguments ‘against’ implementing a baseline test for 4-5 year olds:

  • Apparently, we don’t really know how to devise the perfect test
  • Children learn in different ways/times, so any test will not be fair
  • Young children are ‘volatile’ which means that tests would be inaccurate
  • A school test won’t be measuring the full range of children’s achievements
  • You can’t measure the most important things like self-confidence, collaboration and independence
  • A test will cause children to worry, which will then stop then from learning
  • Tests at age 11 are not comparable with tests at 4
  • It’s best if the teacher just works with the child to find out about them
  • Tests aren’t sensitive to the child’s individual needs

First off, there is no such thing as a perfect test. A perfect test only exists in the hypothetical future where somebody has invented a machine that can scan every neural connection in the brain and apply the universe’s most complex algorithm in order to formulate a result. All we mortals can do is give due attention to the possible imperfections of any test and try to mitigate against them. Lack of aforementioned machine is not a reason to abandon a regular test for 4-5 year olds.

Secondly, yes, children are different. This kind of baseline test will be measuring those differences so that limited resources can be efficiently and appropriately targeted; how is this not fair?

Thirdly, the fact that some little children can’t sit still and are prone to wild fluctuations in mood and responsiveness is not a reason to not have a baseline test. If anything, this kind of thing needs to be objectively measured so that schools can look at their whole-school behaviour policies in order to help the less ‘focused’ children progress towards being calmer, more focused and therefore able to learn (and not stop others from learning).

As for a baseline test not measuring all of a child’s ‘achievements’, why would you want it to? You might as well say that we shouldn’t have academic GCSEs because said GCSEs don’t measure teenagers’ achievements in the realm of getting a date, doing the moonwalk or creating a funny meme. The purpose of a test is not to pump up the ego of the testee; the purpose of a test is to test what is being tested. This brings me swiftly to the ‘fact’ that a baseline test doesn’t test the ‘most important’ things like self-confidence and collaboration. I’m not so sure personality traits associated with extroversion should be seen as ‘more important’ than being able to focus in order to learn how to read and write (note for people who will immediately misinterpret this: I’m not saying confidence etc is not important). Besides, I reckon a test could actually measure these sorts of things, if it were administered by a teacher.

Now for the matter of children getting worried: there really is no need for this. Life is a series of tests, especially for the young child. Has the author never experienced the ‘joy’ of ‘encouraging’ a toddler to eat their vegetables? A baseline test involving asking a child to separate some toys based on their colour pales into insignificance when compared to the mighty battles that have occurred between the tired mother and the tempestuous toddler. Despite the author’s fearsome academic credentials, I would suspect that assuming a baseline test would damage the wellbeing and self-esteem of a young child is somewhat out of kilter with the realities of day-to-day life of most young children, particularly the disadvantaged children (I’m also assuming the author is relatively wealthy and middle class too, as are most teachers it seems these days).

Finally, the SATs are comparable with baseline tests. This is because we would see whether prowess at SATs is correlated with ‘prowess’ at baseline. Of course, we should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation; however, a baseline test would essentially measure how much a child has been ‘taught’ at home by the parent and has therefore been given a leg-up towards being ready to learn. Conversely, a baseline test would also measure how much a child has not been parented and this is where I can finally talk about the benefits of a baseline test: surely it would be a good idea to really know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even begin teaching the basics of literacy and numeracy? Some reception year teachers, especially those working in schools situated in areas of social and economic deprivation, have to do the following:

  • Toilet training
  • Teaching a child how to sit at a chair
  • Teaching a child how to actually look at another human being’s face
  • Teaching a child how to speak
  • Teaching a child how to listen to another human being
  • Identify and mitigate against various hitherto undetected issues such as glue ear, cavities, pinworms, headlice, ringworm, flea bites, fallen foot arches and other foot defects, malnourishment, neglect, tendency towards violent outbursts, syndromes genetic or metabolic in origin, ADHD, autism, hernias, short and long-sightedness, tablet computer addictions and chronic sleep deprivation

Although I’m usually against all things Big Brother, I can actually see whole host of benefits for a baseline test. Firstly, I would make them very simple and easy to administer by the teacher; software with an easy-to-use interface that is iPad-friendly would be great. I’m thinking questions for each child with yes/no answers that can be partially completed without the child present such as:

  1. Can the child sit in a chair for 5 minutes?
  2. Does the child make and sustain eye-contact?
  3. Does the child know any nursery rhymes?
  4. Is the child toilet trained?
  5. If you place 5 items in front of the child, and then take them away, can the child remember what the items were?
  6. Can the child separate some toys based on size, colour or material?
  7. Does the child say please and thank you?
  8. Does the child modulate the loudness of his voice based on whether he is indoors or outdoors?
  9. Can the child hear a whisper?
  10. Does the child enunciate well enough to be understood?
  11. Is the child alert for most of the day?
  12. Does the child know anything about the world around him such as where milk or eggs come from?
  13. Does the child share toys willingly?
  14. When a teacher says ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’, does the child immediately do as instructed?
  15. Can the child self-soothe when he is upset (ie stop crying rather than escalate into tantrums or panic attacks)

Just writing these questions makes me think about the sheer amount of work teachers in reception year have to do. This is all work that normally comes under the banner ‘parenting’ that is not factored in any way into pupil progress meetings when it really should be because a) teachers who have more to deal with should be rewarded accordingly and b) the nation needs to know exactly how behind many children are developmentally, and this has nothing to do with being ‘ready’, rather it has to do with sheer lack of modelling and instruction at home (nothing comes naturally).

It would also be interesting if said baseline test also included an element of testing for how well a child could read, write and add up. This wouldn’t be because of an expectation that some miraculous academic achievement had occurred in two weeks of being in school, but because it would be interesting to know to what extent parents are supplementing their child’s formal education. I also have a sneaky suspicion that quantifying the extent to which parents are teaching phonics and early number facts might also finally expose the fraud that is ‘discovery’ learning and ‘natural development’ in EYFS.

So, let’s have a baseline test and not make a big fuss over it

Who’s with me?

 

 

The case of the disappearing TA

Simultaneously taking on the role of the parent and going all-out with inquiry-based learning is too resource-intensive in these straightened times. 

I have the ‘least’ TA now in the school (down to a few partial mornings a week) and am fully prepared to be sans TA at some point. This is despite the fact that we have some children in my class who have substantial needs, one of whom is pretty much one-to-one (and we are pursuing a statement). How do I cope? It’s like I’m teaching multiple classes, but the ones who are not on IEPs but are still quite low achieving really do lose out; there just isn’t enough of me to go round, particularly if I’m mainly with the very neediest children. Secondary educators might bang on about inclusivity, but I’d like them to try spending nearly 30 hours a week teaching a junior year group but always having to differentiate down to reception year, constantly working with the same children (who always seem to be sleep deprived), going over the same things (like putting a capital letter for a name), over and over and over again. And don’t get me started on how a minority of children with poor behaviour and attitudes to authority/school (because of their upbringing, reinforced by child-centred education) systematically sap my energy and detract attention away from children who genuinely do need my help. So it’s no surprise that my eye was drawn to this article written by a governor who makes the case for more school funding to keep TAs in the classroom, but I ended up disagreeing with him towards the end of the article.

The main issue I had was with the governor’s assertion that the school was pursuing inquiry-based learning as well as being ‘attachment-aware’; two aspects which are pretty ‘TA-intensive’. Inquiry-based learning is pretty common in primary schools (why does the DfE not tackle this?), but research shows that it’s not effective, in fact, it’s actually detrimental (particularly for the disadvantaged and those with SEN) even if the children seem to love it at the time. Here is my anecdotal and summative list of view-from-the-frontline problems with IBL:

  • It always involves too much noise and nobody can hear themselves think
  • Little children are inherently needy and you end up being asked the same questions, preceeded by your name, millions of times
  • It encourages the extroverts to be even more loud and brash, at the expense of introverts
  • It’s exhausting trying to keep kids on-task because little children have no sense of time and are prone to just chatting about that fly that just buzzed in through the window
  • Low-level poor behaviour (aka ‘bantz’) flies under the radar and is therefore implicitly encouraged
  • The children with SEN get confused
  • Presentation in books goes down the pan
  • The disadvantaged children who don’t have the requisite background knowledge and vocabulary can’t fully take part
  • Many children are at risk of learning nothing
  • Some children actually have misconceptions reinforced
  • A few children might even invent some new misconceptions. This is especially true in science.

I was told recently by a couple of TA colleagues that I was one of a minority of teachers who choose to consistently work with children with SEN rather than just assuming the TA will work with them, so perhaps I am also one of the few primary teachers who really does understand how ‘discovery’ doesn’t work for everyone; you just end up having to teach what should’ve been taught in the first place to the lower achievers (who have had to spend most of the lesson really confused). Presumably TAs up and down the country are having to do this constantly, so why not just teach everybody right from the beginning?

Let’s get pragmatic: if most TAs are eventually going to go, then it behoves us to revert to whole-class teaching using explicit instruction right from the beginning, with extra teaching of those who are not keeping up. This teaching should include all the knowledge that children need, particularly those who are not lucky enough to have aforementioned knowledge supplied at home. I can really see no alternative that is as fair to all children in terms of giving them opportunities to achieve.

As you can see, I am not arguing for more funding. It pains me to say this, but I think we need to accept the pain of saying goodbye to class TAs. Just the thought of it makes me shudder, but then perhaps school leaders would have the wisdom to accept that some items which are labour intensive but provide minimal educational return on investment of time (such as multiple, constantly-changing 3D displays and working walls) could also be dropped, since these items really do require the help of a TA. It would take a bold, brave and clever leader who could really look at marginal returns (I’m not even sure most educators are aware of this concept), but what the author of the article is doing is bemoaning lack of TAs whilst simultaneously creating a situation where teachers desperately need more TAs!

As for attachment theory, I’ve heard about it before, but this is the first time that I have read about a primary school actively promoting policies related to it. I’m not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that the main idea is that if children aren’t suitably attached or bonded to a primary caregiver, then their behaviour will be detrimentally affected. Presumably, the governor’s school is attempting to improve behaviour and learning by ‘replacing’ any ‘missing’ attachment through nurture groups and a focus on promoting children’s self-esteem? I cannot find anything about how they are implementing this, so I am left asking myself who is being expected to step in and be a substitute parent in terms of providing a bond with a child (even more so that the usual relationships built up in the classroom)? At the end of the day, the more a school tries to tick every fad possible (they also like to plan/differentiate for VAK learning styles), the more resources are needed, including human resources. Also, I would argue that ‘attachment theory’ could represent the very last stepping stone for the state to assume the entire role of the parent which is actually quite a scary thought.

Either way, I can see no increase in funding any time soon. If anything, the worst is yet to come and we are in for some very spartan times indeed. There was a time when children achieved much more, but with fewer resources. You could argue that children in the past didn’t present with the same level of needs as today’s children, but have you seen an antique primary school Headteacher’s logbook? The answer is not to make the remaining staff work ever harder, but to actually take an intelligent, research-informed look at which practices (and quality investments such as textbooks rather than iPads) deliver bang for your educational buck. Happily, these very same cost-effective practices (whole-class teaching with catch up, whole-school behaviour policies and knowledge-based curricula) also deliver the best educational outcome, particularly for disadvantaged children.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

There is the curriculum, and then there is the *other* curriculum.

Are we training the next generation to be selfish?

The more I read, the more my own thoughts evolve about the purpose of education. I have always been convinced of the importance of teachers actually teaching, which is what I thought they did, until I started my SCITT course and found out that apparently this was a bad thing. I have also always been convinced of the importance of providing children with oodles of knowledge in every subject and then giving them opportunities to memorise, recall, apply and build on said knowledge regularly so that they can have choices in life, do well in their exams, be fascinated by subjects rather than activities and of course communicate and engage with the wider world (again, I thought this was what all teachers wanted until I started my SCITT course and found out that apparently this was a bad thing).

Thankfully, it turns out Hirsch and many other researchers have supplied and interpreted the evidence to back myself and other trads, so I know I’m not going mad after all. But then, not much is written in the world of educational research about the importance of whole-school behaviour and culture except in terms of how, by behaving, children are better able to learn. I think that perhaps somewhere along the line, vast swathes of the population have forgotten the true purpose of instilling and, if we’re frank and honest about this, enforcing good habits, respect for authority, focus and work ethic in the next generation; this is the other curriculum, the development of the scholar, and it goes way beyond the individual and it is important from the very first day a child, especially a disadvantaged child, attends school.

Seriously, have you thought about the other curriculum (and I’m not talking about PSHE here) in your school? I’m loathe to go all hippy and philosophical on you all, but I might have to go this way for the next couple of paragraphs. Don’t worry! It’ll come round to the usual pragmatic considerations…….

As you know, my reading journey has led me into the world of Confucianism and I must say I find it fascinating, especially when I find out that Confucius himself acknowledged the conflict of filial piety (duty to your immediate family) with the fact that many children’s family circumstances were pretty dire. Sure, I might be a few thousand years too late to the party, but I am happy to now know that Confucius considered his best students to be those that wanted to learn the most, regardless of their ‘status’ in society at the time (and many came from impoverished backgrounds, so now I feel right at home with the whole Confucian thing). Furthermore, I also loved reading about how the process of studying hard made you not just more intelligent and well-read, but a better person because you become more focused, able to work hard and for longer than others. This makes sense because, when you think about it, the self-discipline and focus needed to perform hundreds of complicated calculations, or spend a whole hour perfecting just one bar of a piece of music transfers to having the gumption and resilience to tackle tricky aspects of life without getting all flaky, shirking responsibilities or endlessly whinging. In fact, if you are brought up to be self-disciplined, you will also come to view all trials and tribulations in life in quite a positive way because all struggle, whether it be perfecting handwriting at the age of 7 or getting stressed over wallpapering the spare room at the age of 37, is character forming (if you take the right view, that is).

Anyway, let’s get onto this other curriculum. As Anthony Radice said to me recently, “We need to train the will as well as the reason.” Why? It’s not just good for the individual, it is good for society because when you are in control of yourself, you are better able to give yourself to others. How is this done? I’d like to use the most beautiful analogy I can think of: the musician and the orchestra.

orchestra
A place for everyone, and everyone in their place

The young musician spends many hours laboring over scales and arpeggios, and sometimes one piece of music will take weeks and weeks to master. For many years, a parent will share this responsibility and frustration because they must, come rain or shine, ensure that their child practices religiously until said child is wise enough to appreciate the value of discipline and practice and also has those good habits to continue the hard work alone. Non-musicians will never understand the frustration and pain (mental as well as sometimes physical) that a musician goes through in order to do the composer and themselves justice. They think that musicians are just somehow naturally ‘creative’ and have accidentally noodled their way to musical mastery.

A young musician also has another education and this comes through participation in attending music school in order to play in a youth ensemble or orchestra. Through being able to play in an orchestra (which only comes through being able to play an instrument and read music well; ‘communicating’ with other musicians), the musician learns among other things to discern two types of harmony: the first being that which sounds pleasant to the ear, and the second being that of harmony within a society. As the the will of the musician has been trained by his parent and teacher (and eventually by himself) through hours and hours of practice until he is in control of himself, he is then able to give himself to the orchestra under the leadership of the conductor and the guidance of the lead musician for their section. Out of this, comes beautiful music and happiness for all concerned. The musician can eventually go on to work in other orchestras, or even form their own ensembles or quartets………

It doesn’t take a genius to work out what I am getting at.

How on Earth can a young person participate in the great orchestra of life, if they are not in control of themselves and are therefore unable to give themselves to others? I believe we need to consider the other curriculum: training the will of young people. Sure, this already happens for advantaged children in the home, but for disadvantaged young people, the story is very different. This is part of the reason why I am so against the supreme dominance of child-centred education in primary schools and argue instead for traditional education. This whole idea of allowing children to ‘choose their challenge’, indulge in the odd chitchat at the expense of task focus, or follow their own interests actually encourages children to develop the ‘ability’ to flake out when the going gets tough. The requirement for teachers in primary schools to not talk more than a couple of minutes and to also make sure their lessons include lots of relevant and fun activities also trains children not to concentrate on any one person or tricky concept for a length of time. This is the opposite of training the will. This is training children to think only of themselves and what interests them and their feelings, to be selfish.

If young people cannot participate in the great orchestra of life because they lack the self-control and discipline that enables them to give themselves to others and experience the beautiful music that is produced, then how can they ever be truly happy? The answer and key to children’s happiness and achievement in life must surely come through training the will (in addition to training the reason through a great curriculum and teaching).

How can we train the will? Here are a few examples:

  • Strict rules of conduct helping children to develop self-control
  • Making sure that children are paying attention to the teacher and expected to listen and participate in questioning for increased lengths of time
  • Practice, practice and more practice of knowledge and skills which helps with recall in lessons as well as self-discipline in life (this is also why I like Shanghai maths)
  • Regular silent study/reading to focus the mind
  • Memorisation of poems and Bible verses to help develop concentration
  • Encouraging determination and focus through the use of competition
  • Regular testing with direct feedback of results so that children know that hard work pays off
  • Participation in ‘mini-societies’ such as orchestras, choirs and sports teams to develop an understanding of the importance of rules and hierarchy

At the end of the day, this is all about the development of scholarly disposition in children and the celebration of all things scholarship.

Who’s with me?