The EYFS butterfly and the storm in Year Seven

As promised, this is a write up of my talk given at researchED Northampton, researchED London and for teachers at Yare Academy Trust. As of 20/10/19 I’ve seen that this post is very popular in the U.S, so I’ve updated some of the language and added in document links to aid understanding.


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As an evidence-informed educator who has managed to gain/wangle experience of working with all age groups, I’ve lately come to the conclusion that many behavioural and academic problems witnessed in children who enter secondary school around age 12 have their origins in early home and school life. I had a conversation with a research supervisor (a forensic psychologist) recently and it was almost cathartic to be aligned in reasoning – differences between newborns are tiny, and, for whatever reason, those tiny differences are amplified in early life and the trend tends to continue unabated. We talked about the taboo of differing parenting approaches and how that impacted; this will be another blog for when I summon up the courage and feel that it is safe to write about it. The talk and its write-up is an ode to logic, an invitation to educators in all phases to consider whether the curriculum and pedagogy mandated in the EYFS framework (covering ages 0 to 5), even if we cannot agree a consensus on the cause of those initial problems, may actually embed and augment them. Essentially, I am claiming that early schooling, despite the incredible efforts of early years practitioners, widens the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged child. I asked my audience to consider whether a different approach in the EYFS setting might alter the pathways of children at either end of the behavioural, social and academic spectra.

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Long before scientists knew about the mechanisms of neuroplasticity,  philosophers such as Locke (left), challenged conventional beliefs in God-given innate ability and talent. This belief then naturally evolved into a belief in DNA-mediated innate ability and talent, following widespread acknowledgement of the work of Darwin. Locke’s schtick among many schticks was that the newborn human mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa) without rules for thinking, and that knowledge is added and rules for thinking are formed solely by experiences/input. This is difficult to get one’s head around, but it means that it’s not just what (knowledge) one thinks about, but how one thinks that is curated by experience and input. Lately, I have questioned the relative contribution of nature (genetics) and nurture (experience/input) and have found myself more and more in the Locke camp. This means that I believe that if a child is on a trajectory to exclusion at some point in KS3, then it is not down to God or DNA, but down to what we, as a society, have (or haven’t) given him in early life that would otherwise put him on the straight and narrow.

What this talk isn’t about

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This isn’t about growth mindset. We all know that no amount of ‘if you just believe’ will ever give a child the option of becoming an astronaut.

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And this isn’t about my wanting little children to be sat down all day writing. This is just a myth (about me).


A few technical notes about the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

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For the secondary bods and non-UK educators among you, the scene to the left is the EYFS framework manifest; it is statutory for ages 0 to 5 in ALL schools, even private schools. During free-flow, continuous provision, our youngest pupils access the curriculum, the little pieces of knowledge situated within the areas for play and discovery, via their own choices. It is a play-based, relevant curriculum, mediated via a carefully laid out physical environment with the practitioner following. The theory is that children know what is best for them and should lead their own learning. Recently, there has been slightly more acknowledgement of the need for explicit teaching, particularly for reading, writing and mathematics and the (much disputed) Bold Beginnings report put forward the need for fluency via sustained, discrete practice. For reading, there is now a DfE imposed requirement to teach systematic synthetic phonics (hurrah). At the end of the EY stage, children are assessed against 17 early learning goals, 12 of which must be completed in order for that pupil to have met the criteria for a ‘good level of development’ (GLD). The ‘development’ part is key because there is also an assumption running through the guidance that all aspects covered in the ELGS (should) develop in their own time/pace, including what many would consider ‘biologically secondary knowledge’.

At the end of reception year, the teacher assesses the child against the 17 ELGs. Assessment is mainly informed by observations collected over the previous year or so. Most of these will be documented, together with photo evidence, on an online platform such as Tapestry, but official guidance does allow a practitioner to use their own personal judgement and general knowledge of the child to inform their final assessments. Moderation by local authority officials will regularly canvass teacher assessments to gauge whether they are in line with the county norm, as well as informally ascertain compliance with the EYFS. For example, moderators expect to see evidence of independent learning and children are said to have met an ELG when they have demonstrated the ELG by choice and without the guidance of an adult. If it is felt that practitioners are doing too much in the way of explicit teaching or facilitating discrete practice (which is a big no-no), then that evidence will be rejected. Currently, around a third of children fail to meet GLD at the end of the EYFS. Given the evidence that teacher assessment tends to yield more optimistic judgments, there is a significant possibility that the proportion failing to meet GLD is even bigger than what is officially reported.

The thing about a typical observation is that it only tells you what the child is doing and feeling in a small moment of time. It does not tell you what the child is thinking either at the point of observation, or for the rest of the day when you are not looking and therefore cannot see. If an observation and its note-taking takes 5 minutes, then there are, say, 30 (children) x 12 (obs per hour) x 4 (hours of continous provision) = 1440 potential observations of which just a small handful of the most positive ones are noted down. The primacy of the observation is the first element of the EYFS that I ask my audience to scrutinise.

A cheeky example of the limitations of observations

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Geraldus Cambrensis, like many religious scholars back in the day, liked to observe and write about nature. At the end of the 12th Century, the publication of his work, Topographia Hiberniae, included his description of the life cycle of the Barnacle Goose. Geraldus wrote that he had seen fully formed geese emerge from barnacles hanging off logs of wood on the seashore. Thus, the belief that these geese came from barnacles was born, hence the name.

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When you think about it like a regular 12th Century peasant would, it all makes sense: no one saw the eggs or goslings, just some fully formed Barnacle Geese rocking up for the Winter. Where were they before that? They were in the sea, obvs. And then there was the fact that the body was barnacle shaped. You can’t deny the science, so don’t even try.

This ‘truth’ about Barnacle Geese endured for 500 years. Only common knowledge about migration challenged the status quo.

Screenshot 2019-10-19 at 10.43.10 AM - EditedAt this point, we should take refuge in the rational wisdom of Engelmann. He was, in my opinion, the master of thinking about children’s thinking not just in the moment, but in the past and all the possibilities in the near and distant future. If you want to read about his slightly different approach to Early Years education that was proven to not just close the gap, but shift the entire normal distribution of language and academic attainment to the right (and make for very happy children), then I recommend looking up ‘Teaching Disadvantaged Children in a Preschool’ as well as his work described in ‘Teaching Needy Kids in a Backward System‘ (my synopsis here).

As observers, it is very difficult to let go of focusing on what children are doing and feeling, and instead think about what they are thinking. This is a potential problem for observers in all phases of education. For the next part of my talk, I ask my audience to be like Engelmann and consider whether children in the free-flow classroom are thinking about core knowledge (2 + 3 = 5, say) in the following scenarios, when they are:

  • choosing (what to do)
  • thinking about what they would like to do (preferences)
  • trying to find the right words to join in with peers
  • being distracted by noise, displays and their peers
  • trying to work out what to do

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The above scenarios introduce a high degree of variability in terms of pupils’ ability and time to access and rehearse core knowledge within an area of continuous provision: some children spend a lot of time making choices, some children are more likely to be confused by what to do and so forth. The picture at the right looks fantastic, but is in fact a cognitive obstacle for an at-risk child; he has less of a chance to think about core knowledge in the moment which not only leads to frustration but the possibility of not learning the satisfying pattern that 2 + 3 always = 5.

The undeniable logic of this situation is that children with SEN and/or those who come from certain kinds of disadvantaged homes (where routine, rules, calm and language/literacy is in relatively short supply) are least likely to access and rehearse core knowledge during continuous provision, even if the TA and the teacher gently encourages them (remember, there are 30 children and over 1000 potential observations). So, for every unit of time, they are engaging with core knowledge less than their more advantaged, social and knowledgeable peers. We know that these at-risk groups of children need more practice and explicit instruction, yet they are receiving the least; they are already behind and they are developing at a slower pace. Despite what is said, these children do not catch up ‘when they are ready’, partly because they are not likely to choose to do what is hard any more than I am going to choose to go for a ten mile fell run in the rain. Further, it is mathematically impossible to catch up while learning at a slower rate than everyone else.

Educators mostly approve of the EYFS continuous provision as it stands because their own highly articulate, knowledgeable and confident offspring tend to do quite well out of it – their children will come home with stories about what they discussed and did with the TA and the teacher. Their children are not likely to come home and silently convey that they spent a lot of time outside in the shed, or ricocheting around the room like a pinball in an arcade game.

At the other end of the spectrum, and this is what I have been reminded of by various members of various audiences over the last few weeks, is that children who are coming in with a lot of abstract knowledge, social skills and language/literacy are incredibly frustrated too.

Surely we can’t make make a genius?

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It could be argued that the best way to deal with the left hand side of the attainment distribution is through interventions. However, I would venture that the psychological impact of frustration during classtime, acquiring misconceptions, followed by being taken away for a repeat session while everyone else does Zumba is possibly not the best way to educate at-risk groups of children. If anything, they need to be given a head start on everyone else (how can you do that if you haven’t performed a baseline check?). However, seeking out more efficient ways of acquiring and embedding core knowledge for all should surely be the aim? The answer, for me, lies in a modern version of the Engelmann nursery and reception year, but what about those children on the right hand side of the normal distribution? If we go with the tabula rasa thing, then we might have to consider that we can make a few geniuses at the same time as stopping children from falling behind.

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So, let me introduce you to a psychologist called Catherine Morris Cox. In 1926, her work on the ‘Early Mental Traits of 300 genuises’ was published. It’s actually to Engelmann’s credit that I found her work as he had mentioned her in his own writing. Blow me down, I found a dusty copy of her work at my local university. All the raw data is carefully folded up in it and I can’t wait to apply some modern statistical analyses to it all. Back then, Cox had accidentally found an early years theme for these genuises: early, purposeful, intense and highly intellectual education. Central to their early success were their mothers, quietly inculcating in their children the best that had been thought and said, teaching them stories, proverbs, rhymes, phonics, numbers and how to write from around the age of 3. This wasn’t accidental ‘good’ parenting, but deliberate choices to advance their own offspring. Once these children could read fluently (and this was from an equally early age), they would then read and read and read. So, while the rest of the world assumed these geniuses were so inclined because they were born that way (and that God or their DNA had supplied the intellect), these mothers were quietly designing the initial architecture of their minds and totally not blowing their own trumpet when they should’ve done.

The not-blowing-a-trumpet thing is actually a bit of a problem because modern research on early development of cognition overwhelmingly excludes mothers. Everybody’s looking at what the baby does while the mother sits there with a blindfold over her head. When the mother goes home, she spends hour after lonely hour talking and playing make-believe with her baby and no one looks at that. Further, these studies struggle to include subjects from low socio-economic backgrounds, so there is hardly any comparison to make. Could it be that all this time we assumed IQ was mostly down DNA it was actually due to the mother’s input? What Cox’s work tells me is that early caregivers are more powerful and influential than we give them credit for. What’s more, if we adopted the same approach but modified for the nursery/early years setting, could we potentially send up the most intelligent/intellectual generation of children? Lord knows we need some more intellectual decision makers at the helm of our collective ship.

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Still, most people believed in the ‘unfurling’ of talent and ability, as most do today. I have to admit, if I knew what I know now, including the impact of early vocabulary acquisition and its resulting faster cognitive processing speed, I would’ve been a better parent to my children. It’s too late now because they are teenagers and I’m too old to start again (plus, wouldn’t want to anyway as I’m fat enough as it is). If I could go back, I would certainly apply the approach that Cox uncovered; I may even go for the approach outlined by a radical chap called Karl Witte (picture to the left). He decided to make his son a genius and at the time everyone thought he was a darn fool, partly because his son seemed to display traits we might say indicated a high degree of SEN. His son then went on to be the youngest person ever to obtain a PhD and I believe that record still stands to this day. The great thing about Witte was that he wrote about his approach in a book with a profound title, ‘The Education of Karl Witte’. The book wasn’t a bestseller at the time although I have recently found out that it is popular in China. The main thing to know is that it’s a long read with incredible detail, so it makes sense that the general population gave it a wide berth.

Not so some Harvard boffins in the early 1900s. They found it languishing in the archive area of the university library and proceeded to experiment on their own children who all then went on to be amazing young academics and inventors…….

Steady on there

Even if you’re with me on the idea that we could shift the entire normal distribution to the right (which Engelmann also proved is possible, but on a larger scale), we still have to consider the fact that the EYFS framework in its current design is statutory. It is also choc-full of Rousseauian philosophy:

  • Children are entitled to [unbridled] freedom and happiness
  • Learning depends on stage of development
  • ‘Every mind has its own form’
  • The environment is the best educator
  • The child should remain blissfully unaware of ideas and concepts beyond his grasp – he should play
  • Children should not rely on authority of the teacher for knowledge

For those of you who work in Early Years, it is easy to see his words running through the statutory and guidance documents for that phase of education. It would be nigh on impossible to implement the Engelmann approach even if we wanted to because the Engelmann philosophy is diametrically opposed to the above educational philosophy (which is also now the dominant parenting approach among the middle classes).

  • Children need the adult to show them what to do, what to think and how to be
  • Learning depends upon the degree of exposure to and rehearsal of whatever is to be learned
  • Every mind has potential, but some minds need a little more instruction and practice
  • The wise, caring and attentive human being is the best educator
  • Children love learning about the moon and stars
  • Children should rely on the adult caregiver for knowledge

The third child

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Unfortunately, this is the point where we have to come back to reality. This is where I make the most serious case for reform – the third child. Let us remind ourselves about the two kinds of children we have discussed so far: the child who does access the core knowledge (more often) and the child who does not access the core knowledge (so often). But there is a third group; the child in this group not only doesn’t get to access the core knowledge, but in its absence learns something else. I’m not just talking about misconceptions, but the inculcation/augmentation of deleterious habits and dispositions (that manifest from underlying frustrations and rejection) detrimental to his own and others’ development. Engelmann worked all this out yonks ago.

The following slide contains some potential outcomes when at-risk children who come to school without knowledge and without the ability to sit still, concentrate, communicate etc make their own choices and ‘lead their own learning’ day in, day out…..

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Even more controversial, I cannot help but mention that if you tick off all of the above, you’ve potentially got yourself an ADHD diagnosis. Whether EYFS causes it all cannot be ascertained without considerable research, but it cannot be denied that the current system doesn’t help to correct it because of the way cognition develops away from observations for those at-risk groups. Further, ‘choice’ enables the child who is struggling to be be hidden in plain sight. At most of my talks, this is the point where secondary educators went ‘Yup, those children are in my classroom’. For some of the above children, disobedience and the natural inclination towards slightly violent responses that come from not being able to communicate then become a modus operandi, with risk taking and habitual pursuit of adrenalin taking over. This could also be a reason why teaching assistants haven’t had a net positive effect on results over the years – they’re increasingly carrying a group of children only for said children to flag themselves up at secondary school once all the minute-by-minute support is removed. Of course, they arrive at secondary school and educators assume ‘that’s just the way they are [and they need something different]’, hence the calls for more alternative provision that dominate educational discourse.

Education for the many, not the few

I could write a blog ten times as long as this about my Early Years vision. Given my current pursuit of a Master’s in Developmental Science, this vision is changing at quite a fast rate. I hope to blog about research into early cognition and how this might impact in the classroom. The following bullet points provide some indication of what I would change (not exhaustive):

    • Let the talent/ability thing go
    • Change the prism of observations: maybe a new metric needs to be designed for assessing cognition rather than activities and feelings 
    • A different approach to ‘practice’: systematic retrieval practice for all, not just those who choose it. This doesn’t have to involve sitting and writing; high leverage can be fun, too.
    • Don’t wait (forever): teach and facilitate practice because in its absence at-risk pupils might be learning/habituating something else
    • Bring practitioner training into The (evidence-informed) Fold
    • Raise the status of early caregivers – why not ‘Master Storyteller’, acknowledging that the practitioner is the architect of many children’s intellectual minds
    • Focus on proactive provision of curriculum substance – this means documenting and sequencing core knowledge
    • Change GLD to GLA: A good level of achievement is so much more positive

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Hopefully it won’t be 500 years before we realise the changes that need to be made.

Who’s with me?


On the alleged ‘failing’ research movement

This is a response to a blog written by @heymisssmith

Let’s distill the main messages:

  1. Saturday researchED and associated conferences have reached saturation and are now dominated by the same people. ‘New Voices’ attempts to add more voices to the mix
  2. We need to overcome the cult of the ‘edu-celebrity’
  3. The research movement promised: new people, new chalkface research, universities joining in
  4. Reality: the same old trad/prog thing perpetuated, university involvement remained elusive and dominated by the media savvy
  5. Nobody was ever *made* to teach in a progressive way in the past (so what’s the fuss)
  6. Now, people are being *made* to teach using evidence-informed methods and that’s bad
  7. The whole conference thing is a networking jolly
  8. Jane would like information about best practice to flow in a different way, from teacher to university and from university to teacher so that we can all learn from their wisdom

Let’s unpack this.

  1. To some extent, Jane is right. The conference circuit is dominated by the same people, but this is for a good reason. These people are knowledgeable and provide evidence-informed solutions. As for ‘new voices’, well I’m a new voice and I have been invited to speak at a couple of researchED conferences – if I’m a crap presenter or if what I say makes no sense and isn’t research informed, then no one will invite me to further conferences. This hasn’t happened (yet). Fair enough, I am not in any way an ‘edu-celebrity’, but my B-list voice is there. I would hypothesise that one of the reasons my voice is included is because I have a logical, systematic approach to the subject matter at hand that doesn’t expect participants to indulge in being emotional about early childhood.
  2. ‘Edu-celebrity’, hmmm. I think to some extent one has to just accept that people search for someone to follow and that person will have certain traits that we may not possess. I was never the cool kid at school and I’m OK with not being in the ‘in’ crowd now. However, what isn’t OK is when people who have a lot of power use that power to stop challengers from, um, challenging. I’m not invited to any other edu-conferences, only researchED, and yet at the end of my talks people are saying ‘I didn’t know that before’.
  3. We did get many new people, but I’m not surprised the education departments of universities didn’t join in – this is because what was being said at researchED was the direct opposite of what universities promote (still). As for chalkface research, well, I’m not keen on children being experimented with willy nilly. There’s so much out there already that tells us what the best pedagogy looks like so why not practise and refine that, work on the implementation, rather than insist on doing yet more ‘research’ on thinking hats etc.
  4. The reason the trad/prog thing is perpetuated is because it is still a thing and it is still a problem. People think being a ‘trad’ means a kind of pedagogy when a quick google will tell them that trad/prog is about philosophies, opposing philosophies and you can only be one or t’other. University involvement is elusive because they know that getting involved will meaning ripping up their ITT frameworks and having to start again. The people who wrote the programmes don’t want to admit they were wrong on VAK.
  5. Yes, people were and still are being made to teach using pedagogical and curricular approaches aligned with the progressive philosophy of education – the children without sharp-elbowed parents suffer because of this
  6. It’s great that teachers are expected to use explicit teaching, to ensure that all children, not just the rapid graspers and advantaged ones, have opportunities to rehearse to automaticity. It is wonderful that teachers are being empowered to have high expectations of behaviour, to use choral response as a way of involving all children (not the few who are uber confident), to put in place a system for retrieval practice and so forth. You can still be a creative teacher while using all of the evidence-informed ways, but mixing and matching approaches that are at best detrimental to at-risk groups of children should not be anyone’s ‘right’. There’s a reason doctors aren’t allowed to prescribe homeopathy any more!
  7. Networking jollies are also OK. Many teachers are stressed and isolated and a chance to mingle with the people is a great way to spend a Saturday. Not everything has to be a somber trip to a War Memorial. Further, this kind of networking can also lead to future collaboration on implementation of evidence-informed pedagogy and curriculum – I am living proof that this happens.
  8. I think the (ed dept) uni to teacher and vice versa flow of information has already been done and a second wave will lead to unleashing of methods associated with progressive education all over again. Universities education departments are still very much wedded to the romantic ideal of childhood and it is likely that what would be promoted would be detrimental to disadvantaged children.

Overall comments:

Just because something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean it (and all the people associated with it) needs to be ripped out and replaced. This missive feels like deja vu – how many times have I heard ‘Direct Instruction doesn’t work [for us]’ when actually what was happening was that stakeholders were in an adjustment period where things weren’t perfect at first. Everybody is looking for the instant magic, the solution to end all solutions, the ‘one and done’ approach of a staff meeting and then everyone automatically switching to using a new system that inevitably flops because there is no plan for implementation over a term or two – further, the reality is that even evidence-informed approaches can be implemented poorly and children don’t always learn how we want them to. Let’s not give up on all that!

My solution is for attendance at researchED to become the norm rather than the exception. This should be instead of a deliberate attempt to add in ‘new voices’ for the sake of it. Why? ‘New voices’ risks promulgating poor practice since those ‘new voices’ are going to be NQTs taught at universities that promote inefficient practice and knowledge-poor curricular approaches. What I’d like is for local authority schools and university departments to be expected to advertise the researchED conferences and for teachers to be able to use one INSET day ‘credit’ to attend on a Saturday. That would boost morale, open minds and bring in new recruits to the evidence-informed movement. The Hive Mind of education still needs educating.

Who’s with me?

Addressing the issue of the fundamental unaddressed issue

This is a response to Christopher Such’s blog which is a response to a blog written by Solomon Kingsnorth – Chris details his varied teaching background and how he has found that despite evidence-informed practice filtering into schools, roughly a third of children at year 2 are unable to access the curriculum because they have huge gaps in knowledge. He details the inherent inadequacy of the usual interventions that take place during assembly times and his radical solution is to prioritise the education of this group of children by drastically reducing the content of the KS1 curriculum in order to build in space for extra rehearsal to automaticity and then, in theory, everyone can move at a faster pace later on. I’m in a different camp, the Engelmann camp, that sees the potential of altering the course of development much earlier on……

I’d like to begin by unpacking a few assumptions running through Chris’s blog and offer a slightly different perspective. Like Chris, I have experience with all the age groups, but Chris does not have experience of Early Years. His assumption is that reception and year 1 fosters a convergence of attainment, particularly with regards to scholarly dispositions such as being able to sit and look at an adult for a length of time (some of this is replacing basic parenting), but I think the opposite happens with play and choice-based education (child-led, relevant), not just in terms of knowledge acquisition but also in terms of habits of thought and action. To try and distill recent talks and blogs, here is my logic:

  • choice and play-based education advantages the advantaged because they have social skills and are more likely to choose to ‘play’ with the more academic areas of the continuous provision and receive praise for it, as well as monopolise adult interaction with their ability to ask fine-tuned questions that build on their own considerable knowledge base – their parents are of course intensively tutoring their children with dinner time conversation, intellectual conversation out on trips and visits, and a substantial canon of sequenced literature introduced and rehearsed to automaticity at bedtimes
  • disadvantaged children fall behind even further because they are locked out of play due to lack of language, social skills, the ability to concentrate, the ability to see past the play and to the core knowledge buried within the continuous provision and they are more likely to pick up serious misconceptions due to confusion and being distracted by constant noise
  • at the end of this spectrum of divergent trajectories of attainment are the children who not only fall further and further behind, but whom I believe maladapt in the absence of purposeful curation of the initial architecture of cognition. They pick up habits of thought and action that prevent their ability to learn in the future, possibly sealing a fate that ends in exclusion: increasing violence as a way of overcoming lack of language and social skills, task avoidance to get round feelings of inadequacy, the habit of ‘flitting’ and running around, the habit of distraction to try to make everyone laugh, the habit of guessing through constant calling out, the habit of never bothering to finish a task, decreasing concentration as they are never expected to sit down ‘before they are ready’
  • and then there are the nation’s most intense thinkers, the autistic children whom I believe slowly go mad and end up with a diagnosis of ADHD: this is where you start to see the rocking, the hiding in corners, anxiety rising due to confusion as they desperately try to analyse and look for patterns in order to make sense of the world, yet all the while never knowing what is happening next and never ever experiencing the satisfaction of ticking off a list

As children move through year groups, teachers inadvertently embed these divergent trajectories through

  • poor (but well-meaning) behaviour management of the kind where a teacher asks a class to stop what they’re doing and look at her, but never quite expects the entire class to obey her instructions and instead proceeds to issue instructions while having to talk over children who are carrying on conversations or being a bit silly. This is because she thinks it is wrong to be strict with young children and also that habits of concentration will naturally develop by themselves anyway. Some children are inadvertently ‘taught’ day in, day out that it’s OK to ignore an adult and that adults in general are less important than them – I can see the seeds of disrespectful and rude comments to teachers in year 10 being sown very early
  • thinking that a fleeting moment of understanding constitutes ‘learning’ and moving the entire class on without ensuring sufficient practice to automaticity, inadvertently prioritising the rapid graspers at the expense of the majority. This is a big problem in mathematics with our Western interpretation of Singapore maths teaching, typically obsessing over CPA approaches for example and there are still whole trusts with maths policies that forbid sustained practice
  • operating a KS1 version of Dead Poet’s Society whereby a teacher receives an ‘outstanding’ grade for tailoring questioning to challenge higher achievers whereas what is really happening is deviation from intention and implementation in order to have lots of interesting conversations that go way over the heads of the majority of the class. This process inadvertently teaches many children to think that they’re less intelligent/less important than the children on the dodecahedron table AND inculcates the habit of switching off and maybe having a fiddle with the maths equipment instead

What all of this highlights to me is that educators can conceptualise one iteration of implementation or intention prior to the current problematic situation being considered and then they might not go any further. This would explain why most primary education policy seems to focus on KS2 because people who influence education policy are working or have worked in secondary schools. It also explains why Damian Hinds assumed that middle class activities such as frolicking in fields would somehow close The Gap. Early Years, being the source of the architecture of cognition for the majority of the nation’s children, hardly ever gets looked at because people cannot think further than one iteration of implementation, they’ve forgotten their own experiences, their own children seem to do really well (so it must be OK then), they’re mostly male and never quite fathomed or saw how much effort their wives put into ‘teaching’ their children to talk, they believe in natural ability/talent etc (because they work in secondary and attribute all difference to DNA), secretly see Early Years as merely babysitting and (even more secretly) possibly fear their own status as educator-saviour being compromised by someone or a group of people with the power to render them and their solutions completely redundant.

There are very few I think who go beyond that one iteration and instead think about cognition, what is actually going on in a pupil’s mind at any one time and the likely history of how they came to think like that in the first place. The master of this was and still is Engelmann, a psychologist with substantial proof of how to shift an entire normal distribution of IQ to the right rather than just shift resources around in order to tinker with the edges.

In Early Years, it is actually systematically impossible to think about cognition because the practitioner’s prism of thought is trained to be shaped around thinking about what the children are doing and feeling rather than what the children are thinking, therefore they cannot see that the mandated curriculum and the pedagogy attempts to halt and reverse a fundamental human need for attention, praise, to gaze into a mother’s (or mother figure’s) eyes and therefore receive the Early Years version of core knowledge that purposefully curates cognition. This is the kind of core knowledge that transforms a practitioner into a master storyteller and makes them the most important person in a disadvantaged child’s life, even though that child will forget who they are and likely attribute their own success to someone who taught them chemistry in year 9. Implementation of continuous provision turns children away from the adult faces, de-tunes the honed skills of listening to an adult and instead directs their focus onto ‘things’ (continuous provision) and following their own whims/feelings for the majority of the day. The only policy maker who has interfered with this process is Nick Gibb with his dastardly imposition of systematic synthetic phonics.

The logical extrapolation of this situation is that the nation’s most intense thinkers (Aspies) are at most risk of catastrophic mental health decline through having the architecture of cognition redirected away from thinking about the workings of a train engine and instead worrying about what might happen next, for example.

Chris is right that the solution is to prioritise bottom 1/3 so that everyone can move together, but I think he might be wrong about what that solution might look like (reducing curriculum content). My solution-combo would be:

  • Changing the EYFS framework to de-emphasise the ‘environment’ and elevate the role of core knowledge and the purveyor of core knowledge (notice there is nothing in the EYFS framework about a canon of stories, poetry, proverbs). There are other changes I’d make, but that’s another blog post
  • Train ALL new teachers to use DI to give them an internal framework of just how much practice is needed and how much attention needs to be given to sequencing in order to embed core declarative and procedural knowledge in long term memory. This would also train them to prioritise the bottom third and not to re-enact a Dead Poet’s Society
  • Systematically weave in pre-teaching as the norm for provision for children with SEN and involve parents in the process. Much more positive in terms of child psychology than children feeling like they’re behind and also having their ability to concentrate decimated by constant drop-what-you’re-doing-and-go-be-with-the-TA-in-the-corridor sort of interventions. All you’re doing here is giving them what middle class children receive at the dinner table and at bedtime – prior knowledge and extra practice
  • Involving non-supportive parents by re-awakening their minds to their child’s real progress relative to their peers – we need to be more honest

Who’s with me?

Pre-reading for researchED Northampton

I got so absorbed by a book of research published in 1926 by an American psychologist (I found it gathering dust at the UEA library), that I forgot about the kids’ dinner and burnt it. The following list of early childhood education experiences for some selected geniuses is not exhaustive – I simply gave up because there were just too many examples and I was too tired to read more! I was mainly interested in the first couple of years of education in order to see what it looked like. I would say our collective knowledge about the ‘truth’ of historical English childhood might need some tweaking – there doesn’t seem to be a magical time when children started formal education at 7, rather that was the time they were sent to boarding school or to a tutor and much had happened before then. Further, there seems to have been a tradition of purposeful early academic education among intellectual families that has been largely forgotten.

Mother took a break from peeling the bloody potatoes to teach young Penelope the music of her ancestors

Key themes:

  • Parents determined to inculcate all things intellectual in their children and the viewing of children as a ‘project’ seemed to be near universal
  • Early environment consisted of the best (and by best, I really mean The Best) that has been thought, composed and said, with poetry, recitation, music, discussion and reading aloud being key features for all young geniuses
  • Almost all examples in the book (300 ish) contained evidence that the young geniuses were prolific, passionate readers by around 7 years of age. They were reading great tomes that you and I would struggle to read. I started writing down the evidence of their devouring books from an early age and then realised it was the same for everyone, so I just stopped making notes.
  • The young geniuses also were very focused, a trait inculcated in them by parents, possibly via religious instruction
  • There seems to be a common theme of Jesuit education later on
  • An awful lot of rote learning seemed to be the mainstay of ‘practice’ for the young scholars
  • The higher the IQ, the earlier and more intensive the academic training received


  • George Washington – taught at home from 3 to 7
  • Honore de Balzac – nursery governess. prolific reader before 8 years old
  • Heinrich Heine – taught alphabet by mother on a door with chalk, then an old dame taught him. loved the library
  • Washington Irving – sent to school at 4
  • Jules Mazarin – ‘his mother wished to give him his first instruction’ then sent to Jesuit school at 7
  • Jean-Baptiste Moliere – taught by his mother and then before he was 10, sent to Jesuit school
  • William Prescott – taught academics by mother, then sent to school at 5
  • Edmund Burke – taught by mother, then sent to school at 5
  • Erasmus – sent to an uncle at 4 ‘he devoured all the books he could get’
  • George Grote – ‘his mother taught him to read, write and do latin’ then he was sent to school at 5
  • Napoleon Bonaparte – taught letters, numbers and more at home before he was 5
  • Wagner –  taught at home and fluent reader by 6
  • John Wesley – taught his letters by mother in one day, then from the age of 5 was on 6 hours a day home schooling ‘perfection demanded by mother’
  • Richard Bentley – taught latin by his mother before he started school
  • Thomas Carlyle – taught to read by his mother and arithmetic by his father, then sent to school at 5 (at 7, went to latin school)
  • Alexandre Dumas – grandmother taught him to read, at 4 he was a fluent reader
  • Thomas Hobbes – sent to school at 4
  • Alexander von Humboldt –  taught by a tutor, fluent reader at 4
  • Thomas Moore – early reader, mother ‘anxious that her son should attain a high rank in school…that she examined him daily in all his studies’. Sent ‘early’ to school
  • Peter Rubens – ‘energetic’ mother taught him and siblings, despite also running a business
  • Friedrich Schiller – immersed in literature and scripture, then sent to school at 5
  • Ulrich Zwingli – sent at 3 to an uncle to make him a scholar
  • Francis Bacon – ‘during the early years of his life, his mother devoted herself assiduously to the cultivation of his mind’
  • Thomas Chalmers – sent to school at 3
  • Charles Dickens – taught English and Latin by mother from 4. prolific reader before 7
  • Ralph Emerson – before 3 he was sent to a Dame’s School
  • Friedrich Humboldt – taught to read and write at 3 by tutors
  • Daniel Webster – sent to school at 3
  • Christian Bunsen – taught to read by parents, reading fluently before 6 years of age
  • George Byron – taught ‘by rote’ by a nurse and could read before 5 years old
  • Georg Hegel – taught to read and write by mother at 5. At 6, sent to Latin school
  • Victor Hugo – sent to school at 4
  • Mozart – taught to read and play music at 3
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher – taught to read at 3 by mother
  • Walter Scott – sent at 3 or 4 to a Dame’s School to learn to read
  • Louis du Musset – taught to read and write at 3
  • Toquatto Tasso – grammar study at 3, taught by a priest, then sent to Jesuit school
  • Christoph Wielmund – taught to read and write at 3 by his father
  • Samuel Coleridge – entered reading school at 2 or 3 and then by 6 was sent to a grammar school. Fluent reader (loved Arabian nights) by 4.
  • Jeremy Bentham – taught alphabet before he could talk. At 3, was receiving a classical education
  • Blaise Pascal – devoted father taught him from 3
  • Johann Pascal – sent to nursery at 3 where he was taught to read
  • John Mill – taught by father before he was 3

Likely questions:

  • Were these children miserable or mentally ruined by early education? No – there were accounts of their play (don’t forget, this wasn’t fetishised, so wouldn’t have been documented as much), but there was a theme of early illness preventing strenuous activities. This might’ve have been the case for most children though because the study was published in 1926 and contained evidence going back 300 years.
  • Surely they were naturally intelligent, given that their parents were intelligent? Well, yes, perhaps there was a genetic element, but the universal theme of early and consistent exposure to highly intellectual language and literature would’ve provided early training. Where there doesn’t seem to be any early training, the records of the mother and the child’s early life are absent and instead, records begin when the young genius goes to boarding school, for example. I think it is notable that so many women are mentioned and the language used to describe them showed that they were held in high esteem as forthright, proactive and intelligent women keen to advance their own sons and daughters – how times have changed where women of all academic backgrounds are now expected to dwell joyously in the child’s shadow, following their child’s every whim and need.
  • Were there any account of children discovery learning via their environment, as per today’s ideal? Actually, Newton was documented as being very curious, but his play environment didn’t look anything like the environment of a modern nursery or reception year with bright plastic toys, mud kitchens, sand pits, googly-eyed displays and loud voices. He was interested in the physics of the real environment, and used this to ask questions. As soon as possible, he was educated in the conventional way – he certainly didn’t ‘discover’ reading, writing or arithmetic. In fact, there is not one account (that I could see) of a child discovering and where a young genius seems to think that he learned to read without being taught, there is also an accompanying absence of memory before 5 even though they were sat on father’s knee looking at books together
  • Progressive education was becoming the mainstay of teacher education in the 1920s, so progressive, mainly play-based nursery education was yet to take hold – it wouldn’t be long though. There are still people today (aged in their 50s) who went to more formal pre-schools and had more formal early education (still with lots of play). They were taught by old school mistresses who would’ve received their teacher training in the early 1900s.


Are they really learning, or have you just instigated widespread silent panic?

This blogpost is about my realisation that discovery learning combined with group work (as well as other permutations of pedagogy aligned with progressive philosophy of education) is not only not good for academic progress, but might also cause or augment a whole host of psychological problems in at-risk groups of pupils.

Recently, I enrolled on a Master’s in Developmental Science. I’m not a cognitive neuroscience graduate, having only a mere degree in Natural Sciences (mainly biology and ecology), but my application was strong enough to be accepted and for the course director to offer to be my supervisor. My supervisor’s current research interests are closely aligned to my own theoretical research interests and my ultimate aim is to be able to write about and influence Early Years education. In the meantime, I have to familiarise myself with a whole swathe of information in order to fully take part in all the conversations and get the most from lectures. I can learn quickly and if you were to ask for proof of that, I would say that my evidence for quick learning is that I recently burned through the entire Arabic content on Duolingo in about two days. I’ve gone from pension fund accounting to teaching to educational leadership to brain research and no doubt there will be another shape-shifting moment for me in the future.

Given my own self-perception of being a somewhat competent learner, I was shocked by my experience at a 3 hour initial research methods lecture in which a lead cognitive neuroscientist introduced us to a ‘multi-paradigm numerical computing environment and proprietary programming language’ known as MATLAB.  He introduced the session and explained a fancy schmancy pedagogy he was going to use whereby you learn more through being immersed in the whole coding shebang, rather than being taught in systematic steps. Essentially, we were to be assigned groups, given some script to look at and we were to try to work out what each line was roughly coding for and then work out what the initial psychological experiment was and what the data analysis was doing. We weren’t allowed to run the program. After looking at and trying to work out what the code, um, coded for, we were then supposed to make predictions (Bloom’s taxonomy!) by going through elements of the debugging process.

I was immediately lost because I didn’t even know my way round the interface. Many of us didn’t! So, what I did was copy what other people were doing. It seemed there were a few coders in the room who had worked with other, similar desktop environments and could intuit their way to uploading the script and data files, then running the program. I guess there must’ve been an assumption that people had this basic background knowledge and given the average age was probably around 23 (versus my decrepit 38), maybe most 20 somethings have this background knowledge? Anyway, this is where I started to experience an unfamiliar feeling – panic. I tried to have an internal finger-wagging argument with myself, to stop myself worrying, but it was almost impossible. I was conscious that as the token old person, young people need us to appear cool and calm and generally stay the hell out of the way, otherwise their whole concept of the universe and everyone’s place in it is thrown into disarray.

So, this was a new psychological situation for me. I’ve been a novice learner, recently, when learning how to write Arabic in a class and fully realising how deployment of the EYFS framework causes way too much cognitive overload and prevents adequate discrete practice to automaticity, but I’ve not been a novice learner in this kind of situation where the majority already have background knowledge and seem to know what they’re talking about, such that they’re merrily discovering while I feel excluded, stupid, worrying about how I can catch up when no one is teaching me the basics. The frustration and anxiety was overwhelming and suddenly I am experiencing what thousands of children must experience, day in, day out in UK schools.


The girl sitting next to me who was enjoying the task with another person in the group felt uncomfortable when I barged into the conversation, asking for the most basic of help. She had to stop what she was doing and thinking about in order to point out how the interface worked and the significance of each component, then she turned back to her conversation, continuing with the task, no doubt thinking that I had some kind of SEN and shouldn’t have been allowed on this course. I take solace in twitter and proceed to tweet out my panic. I also looked around and could see others in a similar situation, but not having the confidence to commandeer the lecturer into actually teaching them.

Eventually, towards the end of the 3 hour session, the lecturer taught us a few elements of the script.

One of the associates did try to console me by saying that when she started out on all this, she too felt frustrated. Apparently, there is plenty of help on the internet if you just google it, but I pointed out that perhaps there would be less frustration if the session started with a certain win rather than with the possibility that some might not be able to discover. There were multiple levels of irony in this situation in that we were (allegedly) learning to code, which requires the application of logic, in order to then be more efficient data analysts and producers of adaptive programs to use with experiments, but there was an inherent failure to think logically about the multiple outcomes of discovery learning: some learning the right thing, some learning nothing (and developing a maladaptive habit), and some learning the wrong thing. Further, the lecturer was a cognitive neuroscientist who had chosen this pedagogy based on a paper he had read and I had of course looked it up while everyone else was busy getting on with the task, only to find that the paper didn’t seem to draw on the findings in his own field of expertise regarding how memories are formed, embedded, the need to attend to cognitive load and so forth.

The irony of this situation would be funny were it not for the fact I was both trying to silently stamp on my own anxiety while also trying to summon up the courage to ask questions (while not having the technical language) of relative strangers (I’m a natural introvert) while also trying to learn what everyone else already seemed to know and what everyone was learning in the class at that time. I should also mention that this was in the afternoon when I was in need of a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Anyway, I’m recovered now, but the net effect was the following:

  • I felt embarrassed, frustrated and a sense of panic that put me off continuing to engage so that even when the lecturer finally taught us a few basics, I was already lost to a different thought-world and writing this blog inside my head
  • I now know how many, many children feel when suddenly plunged into, for example, year 7 history as non-readers, or when faced with day after day of open-ended problem solving in maths when they don’t even understand the problem let alone know what to do and then have all the maths facts and algorithms to automaticity in order to pull off problem solving situation. This is how children with SEN feel, this is how introverts feel, this is how those with ASD feel when confronted with sheer lack of logic, purpose, direction

Of course, I can now go away and ferociously learn, but this isn’t even my biggest concern right now. I’m really concerned about the mental health implications for at-risk groups of children who have no choice but to stay in class and put up with these kinds of learning situations. This contrasts with the peace and purpose of the DI lessons I have observed, where the orange and red cells on my datasets have melted away over a short space of time, but more importantly the smiles and sense of success emerge on the faces of pupils hitherto locked out of discovery learning.

However, many educators think discovery and group work is fantastic. They would even say that what I learned, a specific kind of empathy, was actually the best outcome. My hypothesis is that most educators have never been in the situation I faced in that computer lab though. Why? Because most educators are middle class, advantaged, extroverted such that they always have background knowledge and can expertly mingle with friends and strangers in order to get what they want out of a learning situation, or just blag their way through – it would’ve been the same when they were young. If they had experienced what I had experienced, particularly being sat next to a relative expert and feeling stupid in comparison, they’d understand the psychological shitstorm that is unleashed on the most vulnerable of learners when they are thrown into group work and discovery. If I had had testosterone coursing through my veins, I would’ve lashed out in some way for sure, possibly through arguing with the lecturer. Instead, like most females, I turned on myself and tried to hide away. If this was what I had to get used to, then to protect my mental health I would have had to maladapt: avoidance, excuses, copying, possibly distraction.

My conclusion is that all learning situations should be systematic, content-rich, well-sequenced and have discrete practice to automaticity built-in, so that everyone can not only be successful, but feel successful. ‘But what about the higher achievers?’ they bleat……even if you find yourself in a situation where someone is agreeing that whole class choral repetition is a good thing, there will always be the concern that we are not allowing the ‘rapid graspers’ to gallop off into the distance. This question is always the final nail in the coffin of arguments for Direct or Explicit instruction and associated practice to automaticity. As a profession, we willingly sacrifice the most at-risk and vulnerable at that altar. However, I would now argue that if we really cared about the mental health of pupils, then we would prioritise evidence-informed practice not just because of the academic gains, but because of the pschological gains that go with feeling successful, intellectual and actually being able to take part.

Who’s with me?




Did I damage my own children by teaching them too early?

EYFS is in the spotlight at the moment and there is plenty of discussion around the extent to which we should let nature or nurture dominate a pre-school and reception year child’s early academic and social life. Most are in the nature camp with their commitment to choice, play-based provision as the ideal way for children to learn, whereas I’m in the nurture camp with a belief that if a child does not know (how to do) something that the majority can do, it’s because it needs to be taught or modeled in a friendly and no-nonsense way and then for that knowledge to be embedded via plenty of practice/experience. Of course, I have to defend myself when experts assume my idea of practice = sitting down all day writing, or of forcing new born babies to walk (c’mon, really?). When analysing this difference in opinion, the main issue does seem to come down to the concept of practice to automaticity and how much experience that child has had. In reception year, a child who is behind on some aspect of education is viewed as not ‘naturally good at’ or not ‘ready’, whereas the same child in year 1 who is behind is assumed to need more explicit teaching or discrete practice, as per neuroscience.

If you mention the words teaching and practice in EYFS, a curious but dominant counter-narrative from the experts will state that if we teach children to read, write, calculate or know about the world around them ‘before they’re developmentally ready’, then said children will be harmed forever. My ResearchED talk brought some interesting evidence to the table to oppose this claim, but I didn’t go into detail about other evidence, including the fact that I attempted to hack education for my own children and teach them the basics before they started school. Could I (and many other mums) have damaged my own children? Let’s consider a couple of the claims.

#1 Physical damage to the hands from writing too early

If you believe what the experts are saying, teaching a child (especially a boy) to hold a pencil and form his letters properly ‘before he’s ready’, will cause untold physical damage that will need to be dealt with by an occupational therapist. I’ve not been in education as long as some of you, but over the last few years I’ve not seen or heard of any case where an occupational therapist has had to help a child physically damaged by writing too early. Rather, I see a huge amount of damage done when children are allowed to hold a pencil in the wrong way for too long such that their poor pencil grip becomes a habit and muscle memory prevents change. It doesn’t take long, but once the poor grip is embedded before or during reception year, you’re looking at someone who will struggle to write 5 years later – we’re talking physical pain, embarrassment and avoidance, particularly for males. These children weren’t taught too early: they weren’t guided enough or even taught at all when they were making their first steps, alone, as writers.

My main message to Early Years educators here is that if you are going to have a play-based writing area within continuous provision for 4 and 5 year olds, then it needs to be manned constantly. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific language around pen hold development and it’s important to remember that writing is biologically secondary knowledge, therefore I’d advise against assuming that writing develops ‘naturally’ as if it is somehow within our DNA and we are evolved to do it. Really, what we can all think of as a ‘caveman’ grip is more the result of having to work with writing tools designed for the adult or older child’s hand – fat crayons, felt tips and whiteboard markers will force a small hand to hold the writing tool in a certain way. This is plain old physics.

The physical damage warning contrasts with the view of chopstick use in the Far East. Here’s a good thread on different attitudes to learning. If we took the Chinese view (never too young to learn), then we’d have slim little pencils with grip aids for all small hands and those first purposeful steps would involve hawk-like oversight of the learning process, not to be confused with free play. If the child really can’t*, then put the pencil away and don’t let them form bad habits; give them some finger painting or potato stamping instead. Grip aids do get deployed in primary schools, but typically they are used as a correctional tool after the child has gone wrong with pencil hold. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to use them this way? Wouldn’t it be great if all 5 year olds could hold a pencil properly, automatically, in much the same way as all 5 year olds at ballet school are taught to move and hold positions in exactly the same way?

#2 Long term emotional damage from being taught knowledge too early

This is interesting and there are plenty of middle class experts who will tell you all about how their children learned to read, write and add up just through general immersion in a lovely, play-based and language rich environment. At the same time, they’ll warn you off taking a more proactive approach with your own children. If you can bear it, here’s a link to the typical heart-string tugging advice being offered up to the general public.

This narrative feels familiar, but it’s like when thin middle class women tell you that they they are naturally thin despite having an allegedly huge appetite and you suspect they might be starving themselves, but can’t quite prove it. They’ll bring in lovely cakes to work to fatten their frenemies, but behind the scenes they are frantically checking their fitbits and zumba-ing their thighs into submission. If you announce that you’re joining in with the dieting and zumba, they’ll warn you off with reminders about kidney failure, ‘slow metabolism’ and ‘you’re fine just the way you are’.

These same women amaze the NCT group when their babies or toddlers are the first to talk, crawl, walk, use a knife and fork, eat vegetables, sleep through the night, use a potty etc. Behind the scenes, everyone’s secretly teaching their child either through lots and lots of modelling and hawk-eyed facilitation, or through actually telling and showing a child what to do and then when their child inadvertently demonstrates his prowess in front of other mums, the proud mother hears those words she longs to hear…

Oh, he’s just so naturally advanced for his age

I heard the same words when my sons started school. I had done my research and found out that the group or table a child is allocated to when he starts school will be the one he stays in for pretty much the next 13 years. So I taught them some basics in reading, writing and calculating before they started reception year and I also ensured they were hearing fun stories and good quality adult conversation about the world and everything in it. The difference between me and the typical middle class mum is that at least I admit it. Why else would early educational games be so popular? People spend a fortune on them! And, for the record, my sons went onto the top table; it’s been well over a decade and they are still on that top table.

mud kitchen
My children never got to do this, not because I didn’t want them to, but because we lived in a block of flats when they were young. They did get to play lots though!

In the ensuing years that I have been in education, I have NEVER seen a child psychologically damaged by learning to read, write, calculate or know about history, science and geography before the majority. If anything, these children are given a psychological leg-up because they receive extra praise and attention from the teacher and they enjoy that sense of wellbeing that comes from being allocated to the dodecahedron group and given extra opportunities to flourish. While everyone else is still messing about in the mud kitchen, Harry-hedge-fund-manager is furiously calculating into the hundreds. Further, these advanced children get so much more out of life when they know more about the world, when they can read and understand stories, the circuitry of their minds lighting up like billions of stars in the night sky with every conversation, image, song and narrative. The elite among these children are paraded in front of inspectors, consultants and visitors; their faces are more likely to appear in the school photos that end up on the TV, or in the local newspapers. Later on, they shimmy into the top stream classes at secondary school and so are shielded from silliness, low-level disruption, violence even.

It’s the ones who are allowed to fall behind who end up depressed, angry, frustrated and feeling inferior. Those purporting to be their champions are consumed with the ‘truth’ that these children were made to sit at a desk all day long, copying off a blackboard when they should’ve been allowed to play in order to develop creativity and self-esteem. Where does this come from? The EYFS is statutory and it is play-based, so there won’t be any evidence to support this idea that depressed children are depressed because we made them sit down, listen, write, converse, calculate and think about interesting knowledge all day long.

Au contraire, these depressed, angry and frustrated children who maladapt to either avoid or disrupt class work, typically can’t read. They also cannot understand what the teacher is going on about because they do not have enough knowledge in their heads to make the relevant connections with. They weren’t taught enough and they weren’t given what their middle class chums were given at home. The strugglers learn to switch off and are locked out of learning very early on, feeling inadequate in front of their friends. I see how this plays out and it doesn’t play out that well, despite the best intentions and hard work of every teacher in every year group they progress to.

So, let’s not kid ourselves. Advantaged children are not miraculously more advanced or intelligent compared with disadvantaged children – they were given a leg-up at home and they certainly weren’t damaged because of it.

Let’s just give all children what they need and deserve rather than waiting for them to fail.

Who’s with me?

*Worth bearing in mind that if a child can’t, it might be because you are asking him to try and write while standing up, lying on his belly, straddling a soft toy or bending over an easel, all of which is impossible and WILL damage wrists, hands and fingers.





Notes on behaviour: an honest, primary perspective

Trigger warning: contains references to feminism

After reading Greg’s latest notes on approaches to behaviour (in which I always learn something new), I thought I’d offer up a few notes from a primary perspective. The most important message here is that I believe nurseries and primary schools have a bigger potential influence on pupils’ behaviour than secondary or further education.  This is not just because younger pupils are less obstreperous than teenagers, but because the window of ‘wanting to impress the adults’ is mostly open during nursery and primary years and closes towards the back end of primary school (starting in year 4, I reckon). After that, the window of ‘wanting to impress peers’ opens up in its place and then teachers and leaders have to get round this other dimension whereby getting a rise out of an adult can become a deliberate act to raise one’s status (later on, this is replaced by wanting to impress the opposite sex). Teachers and leaders in secondary schools therefore do not have as much currency on the whole positive enforcement side as us pre-school and primary phase educators.

The dangers of labeling

I’ve had a hard time getting people to understand that the way a child is at that particular point in time (when they’re angry and out of control) is not an indication of ‘that’s just the way he is’. A few subconscious and common assumptions contribute to the tendency to label:

  • ‘Good’ or civil, relatively compliant behaviour is something that develops naturally and will arrive when the child is ready. Therefore, we mustn’t, or can’t, interfere with nature
  • ‘Behaviour’ is part of what constitutes a child’s personality and this is pre-determined, or innate. Therefore, we cannot change this
  • Because some children seem to be able to intuit the ‘code’ for acceptable behaviour by merely being immersed in polite, respectful and kind behaviour of the lovely smiley adults around them, then all children can and should intuit in the same way

The upshot is that certain groups of children who do not experience the explicit teaching/modelling of ‘good’ behaviour coupled to opportunities to practice to the point of automaticity in the home are at risk of being allowed to ‘naturally’ develop into out of control young adults at school and in public who are mostly concerned with getting high on and then addicted to the adrenalin of risk taking and defiance. As a society, we also educate the new mother to wait for her child’s ‘innate’ personality and talents to unfurl with only the merest of guide-on-the-side facilitation (ie. lots of free play), and she is minded to mostly use positive praise and modeling of what the child should in theory intuit over time. The mother-to-be is excited and wonders what kind of little person she is being gifted by nature and then we blame her when her child’s toddler tantrums, in the absence of explicit corrective instruction and rehearsal to the point of automaticity that some children need, then becomes the child’s MO all the way through his or her school career.

For some women, this means that their child ends up developing a habit of continuously hitting them and they must tread on eggshells in order to keep them happy and content lest they lash out. It’s a shame that feminism is no longer right-on, fashionable or even allowable these days because only a misogynistic society would take away women’s power (including nursery workers – who are mostly female) to proactively educate their own children and then the same society punishes and blame them when some of their children do not miraculously learn. The exhausted mother and her wayward child is shunned, the dedicated nursery worker leaves out of frustration. These are just my own opinions – I do not influence policy by the way, so don’t worry!

Based on my understanding of neuroplasticity, habits and the science of addiction, my belief is that people, including the youngest of people, can change, adapt and renew, but within all populations there are some people who cannot intuit whatever it is we want them to learn (including habits). Some people need explicit teaching and lots more practice than the average ‘intuitive, rapid grasper’. This includes children with SEN. It goes without saying, therefore, that I do not believe in innate this, that or the other, or that behaviour, knowledge, writing, reading develop naturally or ‘when the child is ready’. I’m in the minority here, just like Engelmann was half a century ago and Froome was a century ago!

What I also see is that the more a child practises and gets used to certain behaviours, the more difficult it is to re-write the circuitry of the mind, particularly if those behaviours inhibit their being able to learn how to communicate effectively with others, form friendships and receive the warmth of praise that would provide a substitute to the ‘drug’ of misbehaviour-induced adrenalin. Having worked with all the age groups, I would say that by 6 or 7, it’s *almost* too late (not that we should give up, ever ever ever). What begins as a little bit of silliness, pushing the boundaries and trying to get out of doing work can all too easily develop into anti-social, out-of-control, angry, defiant and violent behaviour as the child becomes engaged in chasing the high of adrenalin. The parents may say that the child is never a problem at home, but that may well be because he or she is used to doing whatever they want and getting their own way.

An assembly and a chit-chat won’t do

Based on my belief that everyone can learn and everyone can change, I like to observe the child and analyse why he’s like that before thinking about how the circuitry for those behaviours can be overwritten. What caused those tiny little moments of defiance and inadvertent cruelty in the classroom? Almost always, the causes seem to be to do with:

  • lack of ability to communicate
  • lack of social knowledge
  • frustration/confusion with learning
  • lack of ability to concentrate

Communication: not being able to articulate what you want and need and not being able to share in a joke or game is going to prevent you from starting to make friends and joining in. Instead, you’ll be more likely to start learning that pushing and shoving, possibly even hitting, enables you to get your own way. When a child gets into this habit, they also become deeply unhappy, not just because they aren’t experiencing friendship, but also because they can sense that they are not liked and as the rejections build up, they may either become resentful and angry (males are more likely to externalise like this) or incredibly withdrawn (females are more likely to be like this). Yes, we’re talking about 5 year olds. The solution is ensuring that everyone can communicate and if they can’t, then don’t wait, just get stuck in with teaching and practice. I recommend something like this.

Social knowledge: P & Qs. Some children just do not intuit our cultural rules and norms. You know, things like not standing too near someone’s face when you’re talking to them. Pre-school educators are actually really good at teaching all of this, but I think where we all come unstuck is in ensuring enough practice to automaticity and autistic children are particularly at risk here. A social faux pas is met with disapproval and then the child feels a sense of injustice – no one told him exactly what to do, or they did tell him what to do and then he forgot because it wasn’t a habit, yet. So he rebels.

Academic frustration and confusion: very early on, some children become aware that their friends seem to find reading, writing and adding up much easier than them. They see their friends receiving praise and gold stars and they want some of that love, but even though they need more practice than their peers, they don’t want to practice because they don’t like the feeling of frustration or confusion. They choose something else, something that will get them praise and a gold star and then this becomes a habit. As they progress up the year groups, the choice of what to do isn’t exactly on offer. What are you going to do? Try to get out of doing that activity by ‘choosing’ something else by force, like mucking about and being sent to the reflection room. Never underestimate the power of giving a young lad the ability to read and write as well as his peers, and therefore he has the opportunity to show off in a positive way.

Concentration: just like our futile initial attempts to meditate, children who are not taught how to concentrate and then practice to the point of automaticity aren’t going to miraculously develop the ability to concentrate. This includes sitting down and staying sat down. If I had a pound for every time someone said to me ‘Maybe he’s not ready to sit down, yet’…….this is why I’m in favour of whole-class instruction for small parts of the day for even the youngest of pre-schoolers because otherwise there’s no way of guaranteeing the right amount of practice of concentration for all. How a newb to concentration can be expected to develop the habit of concentration amidst a sea of distraction of the kind prevalent in pre-schools and a play-based KS1 is beyond me! So, some children become addicted to distraction and then their bodies and minds seek distraction constantly. This is never going to miraculously right itself, rather it will get worse over time.

Basically, for everything we want children to learn or do, if they don’t know it or can’t do it in a suitable time frame then explicit teaching and practice to the point of automaticity is needed. Rewards and consequences also help that child to stay on the right track. The child who is feeling rejected, angry, defiant and is starting to push the boundaries and act out may needs more than rewards and consequences. It may be that they need explicit teaching and practice of what their friends seem to have naturally developed/intuited. While they are young, they want to please you, so act now before it is too late.

Who’s with me?