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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
At 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
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?
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.
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.
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
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…..
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
Hopefully it won’t be 500 years before we realise the changes that need to be made.
Who’s with me?