Formal teaching: not for the likes of you

I’ll let you into a secret: before my children started school, I sat them down pretty much every day, taught them how to hold a pencil and how to sound out individual letter-sounds. I also taught them how to form their letters and their numbers perfectly – while they were sitting down at a child’s table. Furthermore, I read to them and I talked to them (while expecting their full attention). I also expected them to stay quiet at the dinner table, while the adults talked, so that they would listen and learn the phrases of everyday conversation.

They went straight to the top tables in their classes and ten years later, they’re still there.

They’re not perfect and they are both such different children, very much their own characters, but mark my words, they have read more, heard more and written more than many of their peers over the years.

So, what would you call this? Was it formal teaching? But, I was ‘just’ a parent – so maybe this was something different? According to their teachers, they magically played their way to excellence! Sometimes, I think education is a feminist issue – why else would the ‘experts’ try to diminish the fact that they were taught, by me, their mother, just like all those other children who seemed to be magically thriving in reception year. Did all this teaching cause them mental distress? No. In fact, they were probably more robust in terms of mental health, simply because they felt good about themselves: they could cope in lessons, received lots of praise and of course could communicate with great articulation and fluency with both friends and adults (communication is excellent for mental wellbeing). Did this stop them from playing? No! In fact, their play was enhanced because all the reading, increased vocabulary and extra confidence added to their fantasy worlds that they created on a daily basis.

The thing is, most educated parents do this for their children before they start school and then throughout their school life. Yet, when the equivalent is attempted for a mere half hour in reception year, all of a sudden people (EYFS experts) are having a hissy fit because ‘formal learning’ is supposed to be a form of child cruelty.

Is it me, or are they trying to mug us off?



The EYFS butterfly and the hurricane in Year 10

In addition to learning how we learn, and linking this to my knowledge of the biology of the brain, neuroplasticity and memory formation, I have also had an increasing interest in Eastern philosophy because of my reading around mathematics education in China. In order to write this post, I must first attempt to give you what will inevitably be a very poor explanation of key difference between Western and Eastern thinking. We, in the West, tend towards taking a reductionist approach to various concepts and phenomena, whereas in the East, it is not just the individual concept or phenomenon that is looked at, but the links that connect to it. It actually blows my mind whenever I peer into the Chinese approach to mathematics education because all the possible links in all the possible dimensions that could be influential have been seen and then co-opted in a purposeful way – no one and nothing is a static individual, but ever changing and evolving as part of an ecosystem of learning (that is also set within an ecosystem embracing culture, language, history and oh so much more) with this purposeful evolution going back thousands of years. According to the Eastern mind, I am not the same person I was 20 years ago – this is wonderfully liberating and gives me continued hope, plus this thinking matches my love of ecology (and the maths that goes with it). I never see an individual, I see a web with that individual in it, and it looks a bit like the picture below.

No man [or educational setting] is an island*
Although I don’t have the words to explain to you properly (I recommend this book if you are curious), I would like to propose that our view of EYFS could benefit from a dose of Eastern thinking too.

Increasingly, a new, evidence-based way of thinking about children’s development has begun to influence our attitudes to EYFS and it is good to see that this is happening within the DfE. ‘Developmentalism’, which behoves us all to ‘wait’ until the child is ‘ready’, has been largely debunked, yet it still has a stranglehold on the collective minds of EYFS practitioners and I frequently get sent ‘evidence’ in support of the mainstream view that the brains of children under the age of 6 are somehow magically different, as if there is an arbitrary point where children’s DNA undergoes some kind of epigenetic switch between Year R and Year 1 (or later) and suddenly a child can be directed by an adult. Meanwhile, pretty much every other in-the-know educator has switched from automatically assuming children should be labelled as SEN or ‘not ready’ and instead employed the evidence-based thinking of  ‘Maybe this child is behind because he has gaps in his learning, hasn’t been explicitly taught the required knowledge and then hasn’t experienced enough practice or testing to the point of automacity?’ What would it take to win the hearts and minds of the big cheeses in EYFS such that they fully joined in with this conversation, instead of viewing the questioning of others as some kind of personal attack on them and their corner of the education world, or missing the point and then lashing out by saying that people like myself don’t think play is important?

The answer, I think, is to encourage us all to look at EYFS in terms of where it sits within the child’s wider life, his family, his community and the journey he is on that will culminate in independence, wisdom and responsibility when he is a man. In short, to have a truly holistic view of the child and his connections to the wider world – Eastern thinking (in 4D!). Many EYFS practitioners would immediately cry ‘But we do value the whole child’, yet I would argue that they don’t. Why? Because pretty much all of the ‘research’ and ‘evidence’ I get told to read (such as this – which puts forward a theory that Year 1, 2 and 3 education should be more play-based because some children, funnily enough the disadvantaged ones, might not be ‘ready’) seems to neglect the fact that children’s brains are also being influenced, ergo they are being educated, by experiences and people outside of the nursery or school. The fact that a child doesn’t seem to be able to sit down and concentrate, and tends towards flitting about, is viewed in by EYFS practitioners as ‘not ready [to sit down and listen]’ so an allowance is made for this based on the ‘needs of the child’.  However, the Eastern thought process would be ‘Let us look at the bigger picture’: being able to sit still and listen is a habit that needs to be taught and then practised to automacity. Who is the teacher in this process? It is normally the parent, usually the mother. Where does the practice take place? At home, at the dinner table, or when the parent takes the trouble to read to their child and expects a bit of polite listening. Nobody in EYFS seems to look at the inattentive and fidgety child and sees the bigger picture which is that they probably haven’t been explicitly taught or expected to practise the habit of sitting still and listening; it is as if the world outside of the nursery or reception year class doesn’t exist. To fully acknowledge this situation, this absence of teaching and enforced practice, would be to acknowledge that they, the EYFS practitioner, are not so influential or important after all which is quite bruising to the ego. Instead, in a situation akin to a doctor responding to a dehydrated patient’s plea ‘I have a headache’ with ‘Clearly you have a brain tumour’, the child eventually gets a pseudo diagnosis of ADHD because all this waiting around and allowing him to be more active than other children based on his ‘needs’ caused him to reinforce the habit of not sitting still and listening.

For the example of sitting still and listening, the EYFS practitioner might not even consider that sitting still and listening at the breakfast and dinner table would actually be influencing the child day after day after day. Since most educators come from middle class backgrounds, they might not have an understanding of the upbringing of children who grow up in overcrowded accommodation who never get to sit and eat quietly at a dinner table with the parents asking them how their day was, or whether they learned a new song or poem at school/nursery. Essentially, they have no frame of reference and never see the bigger picture (or, even worse, have chosen not to see this bigger picture). Another classic example is that of ‘ready to hold and use a pencil’ – aside from the obvious barrier which is that a child is too small and weak due to his age or lack of physical growth, nobody seems to consider that the child without the ability to hold and use a pencil might be that way because a parent hasn’t taught him to use his hands in a productive way: helping to wash dishes, folding clothes, pairing socks, turning the page of a book, putting cutlery away, picking out weeds in the garden are all adult-led and rather formal activities that are quite common in the life of the advantaged child (particularly the female child), yet the disadvantaged child who didn’t receive all this instruction and practice simply gets labelled ‘not ready [to hold a pencil]’ and therefore misses out on the advanced learning that the advantaged child then goes on to receive at school. If we extrapolate to a whole host of other aspects of children’s ‘education’ outside of the nursery and school and how this gives them the edge in the classroom, this situation looks like a conspiracy to give advantaged children the leg up while keeping disadvantaged children down. I go round and round writing blogposts that eventually arrive at this conclusion and everybody comes back to me with ‘Balance of play-based [discovery] and adult-led activities, dahling!’

So, let’s look at this so-called ‘balance’ then.

If we put our Eastern thinking hats on, we would look beyond the nursery or school hours. When we look at the balance of adult-led vs. child-led activities over a 24 hour period of a child’s life, the former involving some aspect of explicit teaching (yes, parents also do this) and an expectation of frequent practice (yes, parents also make sure this happens), with the latter being more about free-play, we would see that the disadvantaged child is experiencing an ‘education’ that is woefully short of adult direction. Further, in deciding to take a back seat and ‘waiting’ for children to naturally/miraculously be ready for more formal, adult-led education in the classroom, disadvantaged children who are evolving into people who ignore adults because their daily lives enforce this habit are in danger of just continuing the very same trajectory; the butterly flaps its wings in EYFS and causes that hurricane in Year 10.

Instead, we could be looking at the whole child and his place and education within the wider world, not just the EYFS setting.

Who’s with me?

*This pleasing diagram is taken from an equally pleasing web-based maths magazine

I could’ve been a concert violinist by now

Since becoming a teacher and going on a reading journey that has eventually led to a deeper understanding of how human beings learn, it has been amazing to realise that ‘natural talent’ doesn’t exist and that pretty much anyone (bar those with serious disabilities affecting cognitive function, memory etc) could become an expert at anything* providing they were taught well, had masses of opportunities to practise and then were tested occasionally. Unfortunately, it also means that I have to live with a permanent sense of regret because I spent far too much time in my teenage years thinking about diets, boys, music, melancholy feelings, clothes, money and housing worries. If only I had known what I know now……..

Anyway, while most of us in the edutwittersphere, from reading experts to maths teachers to historians, are aligned on this matter of ‘how humans learn’ for children over the age of, say, 5, when it comes to talking about tiny children, toddlers and babies, views differ considerably.

My tentative position is influenced by my academic background in biology – what I know about the way that synapses fire and neural pathways are strengthened or weakened based on the frequency of stimuli. Everything I have learned from reading the research of education experts (nutshell: good teaching, lots of practice, frequent testing) such as Hirsch meshes beautifully with what I have learned about how, at the molecular level, the brain works and how memories are formed. What does not mesh, at all it seems, is my knowledge of how the brain works with what the experts in cognitive psychology say about how the very youngest humans learn. My view is that the biology of the brain is exactly the same for all humans, even the youngest ones; therefore, the natural conclusion for me is that even the youngest ones learn in exactly the same way and if we want even the littlest children to learn, say, the subtle rules of social interaction then the process is exactly the same: great teaching (modelling, advice and correction from a parent/adult), lots of good quality practice including through play, and then testing (could just be the ‘test of life’ too). This is why I dispute the efficacy of child-led and play-based discovery learning – for me, play is incredibly important for helping children consolidate, develop and make connections with what they already know, but the good quality initial teaching and modelling primarily comes from the adults rather than being discovered out of thin air or summoned up from some kind of hidden, primitive part of the brain. Perhaps I am wrong on this?

It was Clare Sealey’s post that made me dig a bit deeper and really question this notion that there are two types of knowledge, one, called ‘biologically primary knowledge’ that we are supposedly evolved to learn without effort (allegedly through discovery – hence the promotion of the play-based learning with peers in a stimulating EYFS environment) and one that we call ‘biologically secondary knowledge’ which our brains have evolved to allow us the option of acquiring in order to have a better chance of success in whatever society we happen to live in (hence the need for traditional, knowledge-based education for older children). So, I have actually taken the time to read some of Geary’s work in the field of evolutionary psychology to see whether I am wrong or right. Well, it turns out that I am both wrong and right.

Firstly, it should be noted that the concept of two types of knowledge is actually a theory, rather than a ‘truth’ as has been put forwarded by education experts. Secondly, having read the paper in the above link, it seems that Geary is really making the distinction between what is learned because of a pre-programmed motivation to survive and what is learned because of the motivation to be successful and because of our capacity to make choices. It’s all quite complicated actually and difficult to get your head around, but what Geary doesn’t say is that biologically primary knowledge is constructed in a vacuum, provided the environment is suitably stimulating (ie filled with the right kind of lovely stuff and fellow children to play with). He says this about play:

Play, social interactions, and exploration of the environment and objects
appear to be the mechanisms through which these emerging competencies are
practiced, refined, and adapted to local conditions.”

So, play is about consolidating what is already known, which, as you know, is the position I take. But where are these emerging competencies developed first of all? Were they already embedded in the brain somehow? Geary argues, contrary to the position that education experts have taken, that the seeds are sown by the mother, rather than discovered:

For instance, the strong bias of human infants to attend to human faces,
movement patterns, and speech reflects, in theory, the initial and inherent
organizational and motivational structure of the associated folk psychological
modules (Freedman, 1974). These biases re-create the microconditions (e.g.,
parent-child interactions) associated with the evolution of the corresponding
modules (Caporael, 1997), and provide the experiences needed to adapt the
architecture of these modules to variation in parental faces, behavior, and so
forth (Gelman & Williams, 1998). It allows your infant to discriminate your
voice from the voice of other potential parents, with only minimal exposure to
your voice. Indeed, when human fetuses (gestation age of about 38 weeks) are
exposed in utero to human voices, their heart-rate patterns suggest that they
are sensitive to and learn the voice patterns of their mother, and discriminate
her voice from that of other women (Kisilevsky et al., 2003).”

Later, Geary makes reiterates the point that social biologically primary knowledge, as initially taught or modelled by the parents/adults, is consolidated through play, rather than discovered:

As another example, sociodramatic play appears to be an important vehicle
for elaborating children’s social competencies, such as learning the implicit
scripts that choreograph many social interactions. Beginning around age 3,
children practice social scripts in the context of their play (Rubin, Fein, &
Vandenberg, 1983)”

He doesn’t say those implicit scripts appear out of nowhere. Which social interactions (including facial expressions, body language and social rules) are children watching or taking part in that introduce the implicit scripts they need to practise through play? That’s right. The adult-adult and adult-child interactions. Basically, the paper proposes that biologically primary knowledge is what children acquire by just naturally interacting with or watching parents/older relatives and then practising through play, whereas biologically secondary knowledge is what children acquire when adults make a decision to teach children and then force** them to pay attention!

To me, this makes much more sense although I would still dispute Geary’s theory in terms of the extent to which children come pre-programmed to ‘easily’ acquire this new ‘biologically primary’ knowledge, including language, from their first teachers (parents and older adults in their social group). I think that the learning process is exactly the same: good teaching, lots of practice and then testing. I don’t think there is a difference in how ‘easily’ this knowledge is acquired, practised and then remembered, as if evolution has prepared a special part of the brain with initial ultra neurons or something – anything that downplays the natural yet very deliberate teaching and modelling that new parents do, instinctively and perhaps because of a desire to see their young survive and thrive, I will always view with suspicion. No, the real difference, to me, is the fact that for the first few years of life, little humans are effectively captive markets – they firstly can’t, and then they’re not allowed to, run away, so what is learned is basically what dominates in terms of stimulating the senses: spoken language between and from adults, facial expressions, visual representations of foods that are collected and prepared and so forth. They get lots of practice thinking about, and therefore committing to long term memory, all of this because there is nothing else to think about.

You could perhaps argue that ‘folk physics’ is discovered, but how would we know for sure when the child in the mother’s arms has spent so long looking at and listening to the mother’s interaction with the physical environment, long before he crawled away and decided to crush a flower with his little stubby hand, just to see what happened?

What all this tells me is that I am wrong about grannies being ‘the solution’ by coming into schools, reading to and chatting with disadvantaged children, although they would definitely help close that word gap. Actually, the solution is for tiny children to witness good quality every day social interaction and ‘life’ in order to then have the basic knowledge to go off and consolidate through play. Part of the solution therefore is to reduce the isolation of mothers – how many children grow up without hearing friendly adult interaction because they live in a single-parent household? How many children grow up not witnessing the daily interactions and activities of adults because they’re parked in front of the TV or on the iPad? Children don’t even witness adult interactions at the dining table, shops, post office or church anymore because everyone lives their lives online, in a bubble of one.

The dilemma still exists as to what to do with disadvantaged children who have missed this initial ‘biologically primary’ knowledge that should’ve come from parents, wider family and positive adult role models, those children who come to school without (they can’t play their way to discovery, remember) much to consolidate or develop. The situation is compounded by the fact that primary schools, unlike secondaries, tend to draw from their immediate surrounding areas such that the disadvantaged children on local estates with high levels of deprivation are rounded up together – how can we give them what they have not been given? Even if we did magically conjure up play-based ‘teachable moments’ for all of these children with just two adults, when they’re busy learning the missing biologically primary knowledge, they’re not learning the secondary knowledge and all those advantaged children are tearing ahead, looking forward to years of accelerated learning due to the cumulative effects of the Mathew Effect. The fact is that even though pretty much everyone agrees that there needs to be a ‘balance’ of adult instruction/modelling and child-led play, the current ‘balance’ if you look at the wider experience of the disadvantaged child (as they are learning all the time) results in their being held back such that they miss out for the rest of their lives There must be a way to give them a fairer deal in life? It causes me great anguish that many who work within this very important stage of children’s lives simply say ‘balance!’ and then use this as a way of vindicating themselves, their phase and the status quo.

Since children cannot discover all this biologically primary knowledge through play, the answer lies in ALL the adults, not just the ones working in nurseries and EYFS reception year, bursting their own bubbles and giving children that biologically primary knowledge they so desperately need.

And then letting them play.

Who’s with me?

* Tom says he can’t learn quantum mechanics. If that ain’t a gauntlet I don’t know what is!

**I knew the inevitable reaction to this word, paused before I put it in and then just put it in anyway. For those of you with some faith in us traditionalists and who don’t think we’re monsters, you know it was more tongue in check – I meant the kind of ‘force’ where you expect a child in your class to put down a toy without quibble, and then come and sit near you to listen to a story.

‘[He] has useful speed when he runs in the right direction’

The title is a quote from the letters section of The Telegraph – an amusing collection of the best school report quotes which will make you chuckle to yourself and probably bring back a few fond memories of ‘interesting’ reports you may have received in the past. What would happen though if we wrote the same kinds of reports today? We’d probably be struck off for being unprofessional – thank goodness we have much better report writing standards today! Or do we? In this blog post I will argue for a national standard of report writing in much the same way as there are national standards in other industries, such as financial services. I do not think that parents are receiving clear and concise reports – I think they are being hoodwinked on a grand scale with many teachers effectively coerced into becoming highly competent spin doctors during the report writing process. Since I have a background in financial services, I cannot help but draw parallels with what happens to companies that try to fudge the financial reporting process in order to placate share holders or artificially maintain (or increase) share values: it’s not a happy ending and the people who are most likely to suffer in the fallout are ordinary people like you and me. Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this.

So, what is the problem? Well, I think that somewhere along the line and in response to attitude changes in our society, this zeitgeist whereby everybody is now fixated on the goal of happiness, the original purpose of school reports have changed from conveying important warts n’ all information about a pupil’s academic position, to being about placating parents, making them feel good about their children. Why? Apparently, it’s important, ergo professional, to be ‘positive’, even when conveying information that is really not very positive at all. To me, this just looks like fraud. If we really want parents to engage with their children’s education, then we need to have the balls to report truthfully, even if the truth is painful to receive because at least this gives them the option to do something about it. I do not think we have the right to play God by deciding on the parent’s behalf to withhold, obfuscate or sugar-coat information by being ‘positive’ such that they then don’t act with urgency, or even act at all.

Does the accountant underestimate costs and overstate profits in order to make his client feel great about a dud investment decision? The accountant could absolutely (and might even be asked to) do this, but no, he doesn’t. Why? Because there are rules and regulations in place that compel him to be honest, clear, accurate and concise about his client’s financial position such that his client can then make an informed decision about what to do next. Sure, the client might get quite upset at being told that he’s not quite as rich as he thought he was, but it’s not the job of the accountant to worry about the client’s feelings, it is the job of the accountant to calmly inform said client’s risk of bankruptcy in the near future. The accountant is protected from being blamed by the client because of the very same rules and regulations – there is a mutual agreement in place, you see, an understanding. Of course, you’ve read this paragraph assuming that by ‘client’ I mean one person with a collection of different kinds of assets and liabilities, but what if this ‘client’ were in fact a national organisation with thousands and thousands of customers?

Here’s another analogy: say you are in the process trying to buy your first house (ha, yes, I know this is unlikely for the humble teacher) and you find a bargain with what appears to have incredible potential both in terms of future asset value and in terms of living standards. You commission a thorough survey, but what do you want the surveyor to do? You are hoping that the surveyor returns an excellent and positive report and the surveyor knows that too because he saw your details – young, hopeful and hard-working public sector worker eager to get on the housing ladder and finally start a family – this guy deserves a lovely house! However, the surveyor finds something terribly wrong – the house actually has no foundations and is at risk of falling down at some point in the future. Of course, he is obliged to inform you of this and he is not allowed to try and sugar-coat that message with lots of positive and distracting messages about how ‘the structural integrity of the chimney stack is excellent’. You would absolutely do your nut if you were lulled into a false sense of security, bought that house and it then fell down while you were sleeping.

OK, you’re probably thinking that buying a house is a lot more serious that a school report. But is it? We’re talking about decisions that potentially affect the rest of a child’s life, particularly if that child is disadvantaged and hasn’t got the option of falling back on family support or wealth as an adult.

I think the situation is worse in primary schools than secondary schools. I remember one school that expected personalised reports of around 1000 words for each child and this was the cut-down version from a peak of about 3000 words. The parents very much looked forward to their child’s report and would consume the words as soon as the child handed the report over at the school gate – their voracious and insatiable appetites for praise and happiness would enable them to hunt down and gobble up the golden nuggets of positivity in their child’s report, while glossing over the implied messages, those desperate attempts by the teacher to tell the truth but in code-form:

  • Kevin is a lively, confident and enthusiastic boy who loves to take an active role in his favourite subjects

(Kevin is too boisterous and loud and only wants to take part, on his terms, in P.E and drama lessons)

Nowadays, we do have a requirement to report where the child is in terms of year group expectations, and cannot choose to report only on ‘progress’. This is a good thing. But it is still far too easy to distract the parent with positivity because of the simple fact that they are all biologically programmed to look for positives, particularly when it comes to matters concerning their progeny; without direction or permission to do otherwise, the primary teacher would write a report littered with the following sentence stems:

  • Kevin enjoys listening to…..
  • Kevin has expressed an interest in……
  • Kevin likes to…….
  • Kevin has experienced success at……
  • Kevin always tries to……
  • Kevin happily participates in….
  • Kevin is able to……
  • Kevin is happy to…..
  • Kevin is keen to….
  • Kevin has an awareness of……
  • Kevin always considers……

Even if a parent does have the sense to hunt down the actual bit of data that tells them where exactly their child is (it’s easy because it’ll be in the table at the top of the report) relative to age-related expectations, the columns next to it will include ‘grades’ for effort and collaboration etc. So, a parent might see a ‘1’ for their child’s maths grade, but then be placated by the teacher’s entirely subjective and somewhat optimistic grades for effort, collaboration, creativity because the teacher, remembering that he was the messenger who didn’t fancy being shot, felt compelled to sugar coat the message that their child is about 5 years behind in maths. Combining this kind of information is actually quite confusing for parents and I have been called upon to ‘translate’ reports for various friends and family who are desperate to know if, at some point in the future, their child is likely to end up with poor GCSE results. The recent switch in GCSE grades to a numerical system has also, I believe, presented an irresistible opportunity for schools to further lull parents into a false sense of security because they are being told that achieving a ‘5’ is brilliant when in fact their child is being encouraged to go for the equivalent of the old C grade. Given that we know that there is no such thing as ‘talent’, only the results of quality and quantity of effort, surely we should be encouraging pretty much all children to aim for the top grades?

So, what kind of system would I like to see? Firstly, I think there should be uniform minimum reporting requirements that encapsulate the same principles of reporting as applied in other industries:

  • clear
  • concise
  • honest
  • accurate

Based on the above criteria, I think many school reports would not pass the test! By ‘clear’ I mean easy to read and understand, in plain English – just give the parent the end of year test result as a percentage and also the average percentage for the rest of the class/year group because pretty much everyone understands percentages. By ‘concise’ I mean without superfluous and subjective waffle. By ‘honest’ I mean not attempting to sugar-coat, deflect from or leave out important information that needs to be reported. By ‘accurate’ I mean that the teacher has not applied any bias (for example, making an allowance for boys to be more boisterous and less academic).

What would this mean in reality? If there were national standards, then this would give teachers the confidence to say what needs to be said, without fear of retaliation or blame. If a child is failing to make an effort in class because he does not get enough sleep, then absolutely the teacher needs to be able to say that. If a child is getting into the habit of messing about, making silly noises instead of listening, then the parent needs know that too. If a child doesn’t bother to write in class because he’s too busy spouting racist or sexist shite from various memes he’s looked at recently, then the teacher should be supported to say that. Likewise, if Kevin is 5 years behind in maths then the teacher needs to say to the parent ‘Kevin is 5 years behind in maths’.

Who’s with me?

Grannies are the solution

Trigger alert: this is a light-hearted post written in everyday, no-frills English. The messages within are quite serious though and you might get offended, particularly if you work in Early Years and think everything is just dandy.

I wrote a while back about this problem of children coming to school without even tier 1 words, some without the ability to say anything whatsoever. These children cannot access anything on offer in the EYFS reception year classroom; they fall behind and then suffer for the rest of their lives: poor grades at secondary school, increased risk of mental health issues, vicious cycle of poverty etc. E.D Hirsch was concerned about this, although much of the implementation of Hirsch’s wisdom has centred around providing a knowledge-rich curriculum for older children in primary and secondary schools, the more I work with younger and younger year groups, the more I feel that to truly sort this out once and for all, we need to tackle that word-gap head on – right at the start, and then the children will be on their way with that Mathew effect taking hold for all children, not just the lucky ones with excellent home lives (especially if we ensure that, very quickly, they all become readers too).

So what is the real problem here? Do all these children have diagnosable conditions and SEN? No. The problem is lack of quality human interaction, therefore the solution is more quality human interaction.

Let’s go back to the basic principles of ‘How to be good at anything’:

  • being taught well (explicit teaching, modelling etc – no woolly nonsense)
  • lots of practice in order to secure whatever has been taught in long term memory
  • frequent testing so that it doesn’t fall out of one’s head

Since this process applies to to the learning of pretty much anything and everything, then we can also assume this is how children become competent at communicating in basic English – learning the first few basic rules, vocabulary and phrases (plus pronunciation), facial expression and body language of polite conversation. I have heard that speaking and listening is something that comes naturally, apparently, but I think this dismisses the very deliberate teaching and modelling of English language and the rules of polite conversation that the parent provides – how many times have you said to your own children ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you!’ and then expected them to do this repeatedly until it became a habit. This is the explicit teaching, followed by practice, of a rule of polite communication.

The trouble is, your average nursery can’t provide what is needed. Why? Firstly, not enough people. Even if the nursery teacher sat down with 10 children and read them a story and then tried to have a bit of back-and-forth conversation with the children, only the children who could already speak would dominate. The ones who can’t speak would just fiddle with their shoes and even if the nursery leader did manage to coax a few mono-syllabic answers out of these children, they still wouldn’t be getting anywhere near enough practice (see above on ‘How to be good at anything’).

Secondly, just about everybody in charge is ideologically committed to letting little children explore the world through running around, painting, playing, enjoying The Forest School etc – even Ofsted reports centre around observing how the children are feeling, with a preponderance of ‘children enjoy…….’ statements that presumably mean inspectors are looking for happy faces quite a lot of the time. So, even if the little ones are hearing a few good words from their peers at the mud kitchen, it’ll all be drowned out by the natural din of items being chucked about, joyful screams, whoops, stamping, random humming etc. Besides, in the nursery that serves a disadvantaged area, peers won’t necessarily be the good little teachers that everyone hopes they will be.

At this point, many practitioners would jump in and shout about how wonderful they are at letting the children lead the learning, and how they surreptitiously sidle into various ‘opportunities’ as they arise, questioning and talking to children – but only one or two at a time – what about the other lot? Again, not enough teaching, not enough practice and then not enough ‘testing’ (the kind of test of real life conversation away from the nursery). I’m sure pretty much all EYFS practitioners are fantastic, hard-working, caring and dedicated people who are sensitive to the needs of all children, but all these personal qualities of a very small number of people aren’t enough mitigate against the sheer scale of what we’re dealing with here.

How about using technology? No. We all know that children spend far too much time glued to their iPads and even if there were a super-duper app that helped children to learn a few words and phrases, the other aspects of learning to speak and truly communicating would be not be taught.

Grannies are the solution.


Who’s got the words? Grannies. Who’s got the time? Grannies. Who’s got the patience? Grannies. Who’s got the good manners and well-honed conversation skills? Grannies.

What we need is a system whereby grannies (and granddads) become a standard feature in nurseries and EYFS reception year. What will their role be? To read a story to one or two disadvantaged children at a time and just talk with them, give them the time of day. Surely this should be the parent’s job? Yes, but let’s get real – the parents of disadvantaged children don’t do this and the reasons they don’t are varied (let’s not get into it lest we upset people even more).

How can this happen? There are a number of barriers. Firstly, recruitment to The Cause. We need charities and organisations to be set up to win the hearts and minds of good quality, educated grannies who want to make a difference. Then, we need to create a process whereby it is easy for said lovely ladies to come into the nurseries and reception years and be given a regular time to help those disadvantaged children on their way to joining the rest of society through being able to communicate. We will definitely need to buy a few special comfy chairs for them to sit on, and rearrange the classrooms, corridors and school library (if there is one) to provide truly quiet spaces. Disadvantaged children who have no words need a lot of teaching and even MORE practice – the very first barrier that needs to torn down is the one that exists in the minds of education professionals and it requires an honest admission that one teacher and maybe one or two TAs cannot ever truly replace the quality teaching of the first and most important teachers of those 30 children – the parents. If the parents cannot/will not do this, then we need the next best thing*: grannies.

Who’s with me?

*In many cases, even better – older generations have had a lifetime of reading and conversation which would mean that, for example, their range of vocabulary is huge and varied.


A very middle class delusion

I’m not sure if anyone has spotted the similarity here, but the latest furor over a school ‘forcing’ children to express gratitude by sending thank you cards when it is believed, by some, that ‘true gratitude should come naturally and be expressed freely’ reminds me of an oft-repeated sentiment about how children learn to read, become musicians or just learn in general. It’s an old but still popular attitude that assumes children learn by osmosis, naturally and at their own pace and any adult interference in that process is considered almost a form of child abuse – these beliefs seem to be mostly held by a minority of mostly middle class educators (I do not know why) and this time, it’s reared its ugly head over the issue of teaching children good manners.

thank you

Thankfully, teachers have been forced away from this all-pervading ‘just let them be‘ sentiment with regards to the teaching of reading: it is now universally acknowledged it is not enough to just let children be immersed in a world of lovely books until ‘they’re ready’, but that children learn to read by being taught both the mechanics of reading (systematic synthetic phonics) as well as word meaning (and general knowledge) and then need to commit this knowledge to long term memory through plenty of practice and testing, to the point where they become fluent (speedy  and accurate). If you’re still in doubt about this, read some Hirsch.

Another great example of this delusion which, unfortunately, hasn’t been properly dealt with yet is the classic ‘just let them listen to music and then get the xylophones, triangles and maracas out’ beliefs of primary teachers. Oh how I’d love that one to die an explosive death, but you’ve got to pick your battles and the good people in education research sought to investigate the teaching and learning of reading as a priority. Actually, there is some good research out there (like this) for teachers to read about how it takes a huge amount of deliberate practice to become truly competent at anything, including being a musician, but let’s get back to the issue of good manners.

Many seem to cling to this belief in ‘natural learning’ when it comes to learned habits such as expressing gratitude or being polite. They believe that by surrounding a child who has not been taught good manners (and who really rather enjoys being a bit of a terror) with love, kindness, gratitude and endlessly positive patience and smiles, the child will somehow learn all the words, phrases and gestures of polite Western society through osmosis and then just choose to use them. Get real, people. It’s easy to be a badass toddler and get away with it unless the parent summons the energy to say, “Er, come back here, you! Say thank you to Aunty Janet for those sweeties. You can’t just snatch the sweeties and run off. In fact, I think you owe Aunty Janet an apology as well for being a bit rude.” Well, it takes many years to become competent at anything and that includes being polite and having good manners because both do not come naturally – so we have an obligation to teach and then have children practise what doesn’t come naturally to the point of automacity, whereupon they finally have the maturity to realise that having good manners leads to more friends, success and happiness after all.

If it doesn’t come naturally (and pretty much nothing comes naturally), it needs to be taught. And that includes manners.

Who’s with me?

“Were you shocked when you came here?”

All the problems that educators encounter are like layers of an onion, only most people only ever get to look at a couple of layers underneath. My blog is about how I have peeled back what I think is pretty much every single layer of that onion and seen the horror that is a rotten core. You know who else has seen that rotten core? Teachers and TAs in reception year – the title of this post was a genuine question a TA asked me when she observed me struggling to assess a new reception year child who had recently appeared (seemingly) out of nowhere and with no paperwork (more on that later). I think all educators should be aware of this. In fact, I think everyone in the country needs to be aware of this, so let’s take a blog-journey to the unexpected centre of the rotten educational onion……

You know, I reckon there is a litmus test that could be used to separate the true educators from the educationalists – the former are driven to distraction by a persistent worry telling them that whatever they do for the children they teach (or are responsible for), it will never be enough – so they are continuously searching and reflecting (and peeling that educational onion), looking for decent evidence, research and the wisdom and support of fellow experienced educators to inform their practice. Educationalists, on the other hand, seem to be blissfully free of this existential angst and seem to carry on as if all the problems are a figment of everyone’s imagination. Thankfully, the voices of the former crowd of true educators, as well as the researchers, are being heard by decision makers in government and in Ofsted. Long may this continue.

Many educators, however, only ever get the time to look at a couple of layers underneath their current situation – for example, the year 10 teacher trying to teach a class on simultaneous equations might lament the fact that some struggling young adults seem to be getting in a pickle, obtaining the wrong answers (and then forgetting to check). If only those young adults had had more practice with solving linear equations back in KS3?

But let’s peel back some more layers……


The year 8 maths teacher could see that many struggling children are unable to tackle linear equations because their lack of times tables knowledge prevents them from quickly expanding brackets. He might also see that certain children are prevented from solving any problem because they lack the basic habits of the mind (concentration, systematic approach, right attitude). For both these scenarios the maths teacher would rightly think that these children have not had enough teaching, practice to the point of automacity and fluency, or testing (to ensure it stays that way) of whatever it is they’re lacking – whether it be times tables knowledge or the ability to concentrate.

Let’s peel back a few more layers…..

The year 4 teacher who is trying to teach the algorithm for short multiplication and then ensure its practice, firstly off by heart and then through application, peels back a few more layers of that onion to find that the struggling children in her class cannot access the learning because they are still locked into step-counting and much of that step-counting is riddled with errors. This is because said children don’t even have their basic number bonds knowledge – for example, not automatically knowing and deploying 4 + 4 = 8 in the following sequence used to derive 4 x 8 and then ending up with the wrong answer:

0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 27, 31

The year 4 teacher deduces that said children could’ve really done with more teaching, practice and testing of number bonds and basic times tables way back in year 1 and 2!

Let’s peel back even more layers……….

The year 1 teacher is trying to teach the reading, writing and solving of simple equations so that children can really embed and practise their knowledge of number bonds. However, many struggling children seem to be getting the wrong answers. Close inspection reveals that the children are still stringing in ones and then ending up with the wrong answer. Peeling back yet another layer reveals that even with manipulatives, the child is still getting the wrong answer because they don’t have the basic properties off by heart. For example, when solving 4 + 3, they would count out 4 beads on a bead string, and get the next 3 beads ready, but instead of starting at 4 and counting up those 3 extra beads, they would go all the way back to the first bead and start from 1. Essentially, instead of looking at 4 beads and immediately thinking ‘there are 4 beads there’, they would just see ‘some beads’ and would need to count all over again to remind themselves that there are 4 beads, possibly ending up with (due to fat finger syndrome) 5 to start with and then carrying on to end up with an answer of ‘4’ + 3 = 8. Then of course they wouldn’t be able to write the answer anyway because they haven’t had enough handwriting practice of number formations.

Surely there are no more layers? Oh yes there are.

The child who has arrived in reception out of the blue, just like many similar children who at least started in September, can’t speak. OK, I tell a lie. He can speak and here is pretty much his entire vocabulary that he had during my assessment of him:

  • Batman game
  • Xbox
  • I
  • Me
  • Mummy
  • No

I seriously struggled to decipher the above words because they were so muffled. This child hadn’t been taught the words needed to communicate not just with his friends, but with teachers and in the reception year maths class. He also hadn’t had enough practice of the words that he did know to the point where it was effortless to say them (and people could easily understand). Further, he hadn’t had the opportunity to test his knowledge of the above words simply because no-one had put in enough time to have a conversation with him. Like most learners of a new language, what he could understand would be a tad more than he could say, but because of the sheer limit of the vocabulary he could use, what he could understand was also shockingly restricted to the point where he was in his own bubble, prevented from interacting with teachers and fellow classmates save for the occasional push, shove, tap, thump, whimper, wail or facial expression.

This lonely boy is not alone. There are thousands and thousands of these boys (and girls) who come to school without the means to begin their academic education or make real friends. They cannot start to learn about numbers until they are able to understand the basics of the English language as well have the habits of the mind to stop and listen to other human beings. Reception year is actually the place where all of the academic subjects’ ‘ground zero of learning’ converge.

What will happen to him? Here’s what will happen:

Since reception year has a lot of child-initiated, free-flow (or approaching free-flow), play-based activities, he will spend the majority of the day in his own bubble, feeling frustrated (but being unable to properly communicate that feeling). Of course, the TA or the teacher would look for opportunities to speak to him and engage him, but he doesn’t know what they’re saying, so he grunts, shrugs his shoulders and runs off. It’s interesting to watch the children who don’t normally get watched – we’re naturally drawn, as observers, to watching human interaction/communication and official observations would look at the teacher and whoever he or she is working with at the time (as well as how effective the activity tables are – for children who choose them). Out of the corner of your eye, you can see him surreptitiously move out of the radar of the teacher. He would learn a lot through the story time, snack times, singing, chanting, circle time that the teacher would use as opportunities to teach vocabulary, understanding of the world and good diction, but this boy needs more. So, he has some time with a speech therapist and maybe some extra work with the TA a few times a week (with 10 other children in a similar situation), but up to the point where he finally understands the language of the basic maths lesson, he will sit there in a world of his own picking his shoes and inadvertently amassing gaps in his basic knowledge of number while all the other children make connections in their minds and secure that knowledge in their long term memories.

When he finally does engage, it’ll be too late. Cue potential amateur diagnosis of discalculia and lifetime of frustration and avoidance, eventually leading to a reputation as a class clown and then just bunking off.

So this is the rotten core of the educational onion: the fact that children come to school who have suffered the benign effects of a very Western form of neglect. This is a neglect that is permitted by our society and even children of relatively well-off parents suffer too. It doesn’t seem to be documented, acknowledged, perhaps because the EYFS embodies a ‘Wait and see’ rhetoric and an overly rosy view that the year 1 teacher will somehow teach both from the ELGs and the national curriculum at the same time, but with less adult help. The EYFS curriculum, particularly how it is deployed in reception year, assumes that English children have basic knowledge of the English language and I don’t think we can make that assumption any more.

What is the solution? I actually don’t know the real solution, but what I do know is that lack of vocabulary, speech and understanding can’t be solved with play-based learning where pretty much all the children are at the same level. This is why I favour direct instruction and whole-class teaching, even in reception year, because this seems to be the most efficient way for children to receive the knowledge they need in order to then go and practise through play. But, how can a teacher and a TA, even really good ones, do what should’ve been done by over 100 parents, carers, and close relatives? If we extrapolate in a wildly inaccurate way, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of adults who are inadvertently not doing enough for their children. This is why I believe we’re looking at some kind of national emergency here. This is also probably why the top priority listed in Justine Greening’s social mobility plan is to ‘close the word gap’.

What would help?

Firstly, I would change the EYFS remit to include knowledge (I have written a blog on this) rather than vague nods to creativity, collaboration and all that 21st Century skills jazz. Then, I would restrict it to 0 – 48 months, rather than 0 – 60. For the children aged 48 – 60 months in reception year, I would create a ‘Year 0’ in the national curriculum and stipulate what knowledge needs to be taught and learned off by heart, by subject, as well as have ratios specified for play vs. whole-class, teacher-led instruction to ensure that the little ones get plenty of play time and fresh air to explore. I would also bring in a mandatory baseline check simply because the nation, parents and the media really need to know the extent of the sheer lack of communication knowledge and skills children are coming to school with, plus we need to acknowledge how hard teachers of disadvantaged children have to work even before a child begins to learn about numbers.

You know what? I’d even make speech and language the biggest focus of EYFS curriculum to the point where there should be expectations that nurseries assess children’s speech and language regularly (including vocabulary, phrases, stories and songs known off by heart) and report it to parents and to local authorities. Perhaps this already happens now, and parents receive a report detailing the size of the child’s vocabulary, what stories and songs they know off by heart and information about where they are relative to the average in terms of pronunciation. I suspect not though. I remember getting reports saying my sons had enjoyed this that and the other activity, but no real analysis of their achievement. At the time, I hadn’t made the connection between stories and vocabulary acquisition (it seems to simple, but I just didn’t get it) and if I’d known about all this, I would’ve made more of an effort myself. You’re probably thinking that this is government meddling too far, but how else will we bring back all those parenting skills that have long since been lost in deprived communities up and down our country?

Who’s with me?