Is too much choice making children miserable?

This blog post was inspired by a recent chat I had with a friend who is part of the home-ed scene. We were talking about behaviour and she mentioned that among the extreme ‘child-led’ faction (yes, there are different factions) where children are given freedom to choose what to learn, what to do and are asked constantly how they feel about something, they are self-centred, badly behaved and miserable. It would seem that all that lovely freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, in fact, quite the opposite. I couldn’t find any academic research on choice and happiness in children, but we are all familiar with what is known as the ‘Paradox of choice‘ and how adults are affected (basically, too much choice makes us miserable); should we also think about how choice might affect little children?

Creating ‘independent learners’ usually features on primary school mission/vision statements and is especially evident in the EYFS reception year classroom. Although this document is quite old, the sentiments and direction within it still hold sway in primary schools up and down the country, minding teachers to, among other strategies, use ‘choice’ as a way of developing ‘independent learners’.

“…..time for children to follow their own ideas, to make their own choices, and develop as self-regulating learners”

Providing little children with lots of choice is, on the face of it, kind, caring and would in theory lead to children being more independent, but I think it just makes them miserable, ‘picky eaters’ who are never satisfied and are constantly thinking about their feelings. They’re not able to think rationally because they’re little children (some adults still can’t think rationally and instead just depend on how they ‘feel’ for direction in life); surely the Choice paradox is actually worse for little children?

All this choice leads to nothing but regret (and a stomach ache)

What kind of choices to primary children have these days that didn’t exist when we were children?

  • ‘Choose your challenge’ in all lessons
  • Choice of activities in EYFS reception year
  • Which exotic piece of fruit to choose for break time snack
  • What to have for school lunch
  • When, during lessons, to have a sip of water
  • Choosing a colour/smiley/unhappy face to put by the LO at the end of every lesson
  • Which club to go to after school
  • Which enrichment activity/club to go to during lunchtimes
  • Which teacher/headteacher will be employed (student council interview)
  • What to research during topic lessons
  • Which role to take on during groupwork sessions
  • Which storyline to follow for independent writing
  • Whether to behave based on how ‘fun’ the lesson is
  • Which songs to sing in assembly
  • Which secondary school to go to

Individually, these choices seem inconsequential and ’empowering’ for the child and I’m sure you can think of quite a few others, but when we consider them in terms of the cumulative effect of constantly being minded to think about one’s feelings, I reckon many children are being guided down the character-development path of misery. OK, that’s probably a bit too dramatic and, of course, nothing is quite as clear cut (but sometimes you have to talk in terms of dichotomies in order to compare situations) as we would want.

What is the answer? I wonder if it would be best to just turn it all around and have as little choice as possible? You might argue that this would lead to children just kind of flopping back and not developing at all, but I do believe there is a place for learning to be grateful, to accept and to just get on with the job; the opposite of this is learned when we make little children’s lives one big smorgasbord of edu-choice. Also, let us think about the disadvantaged child in this situation: they’ve already had to make way too many choices that they shouldn’t have to make (such as, what to eat, if anything, for breakfast, or, where to go after school when no one’s at home) and perhaps they could benefit more from not having so many choices to make. Sure, give young people more choice as they get older and have learned to work hard rather than ‘choose’ to bail out when the going gets tough, or when they have taken on more responsibilities, but for little children? Those of use who are parents know the consequences of providing children with lots of food choices at home: it leads to fussy eaters. When are education professionals consider that providing too many choices in the classroom will lead to fussy learners?

Who’s with me?

When maths practice doesn’t add up

As twitter was a-buzz with Michaela quotes, something caught my eye this morning:

I wonder if any other school adopts this view?

I have, of course, written before about the issue of practice and how I feel that many teachers are not quite aware of what it takes to fully commit maths facts and procedures to memory, or to elucidate whatever pattern has been embedded in a carefully curated session of intelligent practice. This is perhaps because most primary teachers don’t even have A-level maths, let alone a degree in the subject (or a degree that uses a lot of maths). For the purpose of making my message clear, I am going to use the terms lower and higher achievers, so don’t even think about kicking up some puerile nonsense about how I’m labeling children etc.

Anyway, perhaps you’d like to join me on a little thought exercise about your lowest and highest achievers? Do the lowest achievers really have discalculia or some other SEN? Let’s do some rough maths for LKS2, concentrating on lessons involving calculations rather than recalling shape facts for example (and it really is rough, but still interesting, since looking through the books for this purpose really exposes a stark difference).

  • Average lower achiever number of calculations performed in each lesson: 7
  • Average higher achiever number of calculations performed in each lesson: 20

We have weekly tests and the children, funnily enough, tend to do the same number of calculations under test conditions (just goes to show the power of test conditions). If we assume that perhaps another fifth of the maths timetable is used for shape, time etc, that leaves us with, roughly, 3 lessons per week where children are doing calculations. Let’s also cross off a couple of weeks for days out, plays, productions, longer assemblies etc and we’re left with 37 weeks.

The difference in the number of calculations higher and lower achiever children do is roughly 1500 a year and this is a conservative estimate because I have not taken into account the difference in amount of practice during start of the day activities, or homework, or even in the ‘maths doodling’ that children do during wet play times or at home for a laugh (yes, many of the more ambitious children in my class ask for extra times tables practice sheet so that they can ‘get a PB’ in the weekly tests).  We could spend all day quibbling over the real numbers (well, you could, I have a full time job to go to!), but I hope the main message is clear: there is a huge difference in what higher and lower achievers actually do during maths lessons. Am I confusing correlation with causation? Is it wrong to assume that sheer lack of practice is the main reason that lower achievers are lower achievers?

What causes this difference? From my observations, children at the lower achieving end of the maths spectrum tend to spend longer trying to recall (or calculate, using repeated addition, for example) individual snippets of information during a calculation, thus showing an over-reliance on working memory (also increased likelihood of getting wrong answers). They also take longer to decipher a question in the first place. Additionally, there are key personality trait differences: lower achievers tend to be more resistant to requests to focus, to stop talking, to concentrate, to stop fussing over silly things like sharing rubbers. They are more likely to mess about. They are more likely to not care about presentation or laying out calculations in a systematic way. They are more likely to just sit there and wait for an adult to show them, all over again, what to do (thus clearly have ‘learned’ that they don’t need to pay attention during the initial input or bother to ask a question). Higher achievers are the opposite: focused, determined, serious, quiet, systematic, hard-working. I have worked with some of the best mathematicians in this country and I can tell you that these adults mathematicians seem to be similar to the higher achievers in classrooms. Isn’t that a weird coincidence, don’t you think?

The paragraph above illustrates to me that the main issues are more to do with lack of maturity, good behaviour and focus that would, over the years, contribute to fewer maths facts and procedures being committed to long term memory. This is a parenting issue first, but it is also a whole-school behaviour issue that perhaps shows us how important it is to make sure that the personality traits of successful mathematicians are instilled at a very early age in order to stop the rot, those gaps in learning, from setting in. However, if you look at primary schools (especially in the younger years), group tables, carousel activities and the teacher’s love of ‘buzz’ in the classroom means that these children fly under the radar for a long time, sometimes all the way till UKS2 by which time those habits of distraction, rather than maths facts and procedures, are permanently entrenched.

So, let’s think about instilling good habits from an early age.

Who’s with me?



Throwaway culture in schools helps to produce the next generation of consumers

This week, the number of teenage males living in my house temporarily doubled. In addition to the loo-seat always being up, I found that the sheer amount of food packaging waste generated was really quite concerning and I couldn’t help but shift my home ‘planning’ so that meals were thought about in advance and every purchase was about buying in bulk, cheaply and with minimal packaging. I quite enjoyed the resulting efficiency which included making more of an effort to get these teenagers to pitch in with family meal time prep and clear-up as well as the inevitable crack-down on leaving food on the plate (intuitively, I instigated zero-tolerance on that one). Part of the process of slightly evolving my thinking was down to the fact that I simply could not afford, despite caring very much about every individual in the house, to pander to individual preferences or allow everyone to just sit back and let one person do all the work. Why? because the amount of adults in the house is fixed (2) and the amount of income is not just fixed, but reducing due to continual increases in the cost of living/taxation of working-age individuals. Also, I have working class roots and we working class believe in living within our means rather than getting ourselves into trouble through treating our kids like little emperors.

Mountain of school waste
An example of school waste

Naturally, I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to waste in schools, primary schools in particular, and how the whole rhetoric about ‘needs of the child’ has driven and continues to drive the production of huge amounts of waste, and I’m including the waste of humans here too. Recently, we had a company come in to re-do all of the tens of wall displays around the school as part of a project that involves all of the children in the production of wall-art with a particular theme. Just producing all this art consumed enormous amounts of materials (vats and vats of glue, a mountain of tissue paper and newspapers) and adult energy (behaviour went to the wall) plus the company charged thousands for the privilege of designing the process for us all to do. Obviously, the children loved it and what was produced was inspiring and colourful, but I couldn’t help but feel a tad sad about all the waste, consumption of materials, energy and money thrown into this experience knowing that it would all be torn down again next year; I even felt guilty about the fact that so many parents took precious time off work to come in to assist the process. Is it really all worth it so that Ofsted can come in and be wowed by the wall-art, children can have a few days of riotous fun and the Art coordinator has evidence for her file in the section marked ‘Evidence of collaborative learning’? In all honesty, I do not feel comfortable with this situation at all, given that we all live in straightened times and are staring down the barrel of further economic hardship that will come regardless of which political party is in power at the time.

I can appreciate why leaders might choose these one-off, temporary and ‘wow’ experiences: everything must be a ‘thing’ these days and if something has been done regularly in the past, it’s nigh on impossible to cut it out without an uprising from the masses. We’ve been told that if we don’t have this regular project, then teachers will be faced with even more display boards that they must update regularly (because: Ofsted) with children’s work, so who am I to argue with that?

It’s not just the profligate waste of producing super-duper displays that is concerning though. It’s all the worksheets produced that are then either filed forever in a dusty file, or just thrown away in a fit of ‘I can’t cope with all the paper flapping about’. Then we have the white board pens and whiteboards, the electricity continuously sucked out of the grid to keep all those laptops, IWBs, lights on all the time and I start to wonder if it would be better to have chalkboards and textbooks again. You know, all this business of producing knowledge organisers? I also wonder whether a textbook could function in this way: I remember flicking through the textbooks when I was a child, like they were family albums, and reminding myself of lessons gone (with worked examples still there like memories of family get-togethers) as well as lessons to come.

Don’t get me started on all the food waste that ends up on the floor of the dining hall, thanks to the combination of universal free school meals and fussy children who have not been taught how to hold a knife and fork or behave in a civilised way at the dining table. Why do we even given them a pudding every day anyway when they don’t need all that extra energy? Most adults don’t eat a sweet course at lunch, except for Sunday lunches, so why the hell are we doing flippin’ three course meals avec a side salad for 5 year olds? All that time and energy that lunchtime supervisors expend, only for children to turn their noses up at it or just let it fall onto the floor. These days, we don’t make children eat everything on their plate and most adults would agree with this policy. However, this belief is informed by our own memories of being forced to eat sausages laden with gristle, boiled-to-death cabbage and lumpy mash, but children’s lunches are not like this anymore. Seriously, the school lunches these days are really interesting and tasty, but so much gets left. Cumulatively, the mountain of food waste is shocking to behold and an absolute insult to the staff who laboured so hard to prepare it, as well as the taxpayers (many of whom are on minimum wage) who gave up vital family income to source it all.

Technology, too, is consumed at a frightening rate, partly because purchasing is done by ill-informed individuals who are hood-winked by the ‘latest thing’. IPads are a case in point: very quickly, working memory becomes clogged up by constant updates and every teacher in the land learns the hard way that they can’t be used for ‘research’, since the images listed are filled with words and pictures that children should not see.

Then we have the consumption of humans and human energy. I’m talking about continuously churning through staff and providing ever more human resources to tend to the needs of smaller and smaller groups until eventually, in year 6, practically everyone’s got their own tutor. Children running out of class or being violent? No problem! Just hire some more people to follow them around or give them extra play sessions and self-esteem groups! All this happens instead of using cost-free/lower-cost systems such as competition, regular testing, routine, strong discipline, rules about transition and conduct in corridors etc. This situation is the most bonkers of all and I find the fact that practically everyone in education just accepts it as normal very difficult to comprehend. All these school leaders and consultants on twitter bleating that schools are not being provided with ever more NQTs to burn through and cast aside? Where are the leaders banging on about investing in their staff rather than campaigning to have supply agency fees reduced so they can go on cherry-picking their way through human beings?

What is driving all this waste? Certainly, everyone in the UK knows that the public sector is famously inefficient and wasteful and I guess this would also be the case for education (those who have only ever worked in this sector will never see it because they have no frame of reference). However, there is something more and it is to do with the ideology of blindly committing to spending on children because, well, they’re children. This whole notion of getting ourselves into debt (the same is happening in families; think about all those evening hours and resources previously reserved for investing in the husband and wife relationship, given over to yet more time and fun with the kidz) for the sake of lavishing more experiences, resources and energy on children as if their status trumps all other concerns is plain wrong, not least because children quickly internalise that they don’t need to give a shit about the environment, their surroundings or how hard the adults are working to make their lives exciting, free of worry and untainted by the need to lift a finger to help themselves or others. I find it ironic that the dominant progressives in education are typically left-wing and anti-capitalism, yet cannot recognise that their ideology is the most effective way to generate the next generation of unthinking and selfish consumers of resources, time, energy and fellow human beings; basically, little capitalists hell bent on promoting themselves and only thinking of themselves.

Well, I for one am not down with that.

So, what’s the answer? Resources that are re-usable, investment in CPD and whole-class teaching with catch up, textbooks and strong discipline, obviously! There is a better way and I believe we need to let go of the overly emotional belief that if it’s a ‘nice idea’ or ‘for the children’, then it must be pursued regardless of cost.

Who’s with me?


Who sings your praises in the staff room?

I found out recently that a colleague had, behind the scenes, codified and organised phonics teaching in the younger years for our school (resourcing, planning, everything). She had done so much, but I wasn’t aware. Why? So obsessed are we with making sure that every single scrap of energy goes towards the ‘needs’ of children, that we don’t even set aside a few moments in a staff meeting to share what has gone well or to praise staff members for doing so much behind the scenes. Based on this situation alone, I would recommend that all school staff meetings learn from industry and put one additional item on the agenda for that week: sharing good practice, praising those who have created intellectual property and for making staff in other phases or subject areas aware of what goes on behind the scenes.

But, it’s more than that. It’s also about how the ‘system’ has put each and every teacher’s head over a barrel such that there is no spare moment to do ‘normal’ things like support each other or give each other praise in an informal way. I find it ironic that those of the progressive persuasion make such a big deal out of ’empathy’ and ‘mental health’ and ‘social skills’ for children, yet seem unaware that their design for education involves such copious squandering of resources (including teacher’s energy), that said children never even get to witness a simple ‘Would you like me to do get you a coffee?’ moment of shared kindness between colleagues because no one has any energy left to do this.

When you think about it, not only do disadvantaged children lack the knowledge and vocabulary that advantaged children have (so, we should teach knowledge), or the self-discipline instilled through routine, manners and daily music/reading practice (so, we should have good discipline, routine, practice and manners taught at school), but they also don’t get to see ‘ordinary conversation’ if they happen to live in chaotic households or single parent families where (typically) the mother is the only adult in the house. How can we have children witness simple, polite and kind conversation if all the adults have been brow-beaten into differentiating god knows how many ways, and the enforcement of the prog’s ideal of ‘inquiry based learning’ ‘in groups’ has led to children only thinking of themselves and generally shouting at the tops of their voices at each other such that the adult voice is nothing in comparison?

Most primary teachers at least have days where they do not speak to another adult: you come in and it’s immediately a mad dash to create  all the different worksheets and activities for the day. There is no time to say hello to the TA as she immediately sits down with a child to read. The teacher is on duty for break, and will spend that time talking to children about their various accusations that ‘friends’ aren’t ‘letting them do what they want’. Then, lunchtime will be spent in the classroom either in meetings, or marking or getting extra children in for ‘detention’. After school? A club. After that? More marking. Where is the humanity in that? How are the children learning that adults (women in particular) are not just edu-servants, there to proffer a smorgasbord of edu-choice whenever the child’s whim changes like the wind?

My solution? Of course, the trad way. Whole class teaching, discipline (whole school), textbooks, children facing the front etc means that the teacher is less tired and could perhaps offer to make another teacher a coffee. Perhaps another child could witness this and see what ‘normal’ adult behaviour looks like.

Who’s with me?

“Miss, I totally want to have a big wheelie chair and a complicated telephone when I grow up!”

White working class boys are the lowest achievers in the country. Let’s grab the bull by the horns and change this situation.

This is honest blog post is about the motivation of very young boys through the medium of competitive maths. We’ve been here before, but this time I’m going all out to put my heart and vision on the line. Feel free to lambaste and chastise me for this, but I believe this is a way to both raise the attainment, success and happiness of those white working class boys at the same time as addressing our country’s need for a bigger pool of engineers, statisticians, finance professionals and anyone else who uses maths in their everyday jobs. In order to turn this section of the pupil population from a liability and potential drain on society into an incredible asset, we need to accept the possibility that deep down in the DNA of little boys, there is the potential to create mighty warriors, only we want them to fight with their brains, not their brawn.

So many reading this are going to shout ‘sexist!’ in response, but I really think we need to have a frank discussion about this. Yes, we could downplay the differences between males and females that might be attributable to hormones or socialisation, instead possibly convincing ourselves that we are all one homogeneous lump of humanity eager to collaborate and live in a hippy commune, but I really do believe boys and men are different. In a good way.

Where’s my experience? My whole life has been filled with mostly men and boys. Working in financial services and then IT has meant that colleagues have been mostly male. Even before the world of work, my 6th form chums were mostly male (my A level choices were choices that males were more likely to take) and, years later, my body only seemed to want to produce male offspring. Even my choice of sport (competitive triathlon and time trialling) is dominated by males. No matter which way I turned and until I entered the teaching profession, I was immersed in a world of banter, office japes, competition, ‘which gearset and frame is that?’, belonging to a tribe, singular focus, problem solving, serious data analysis, wanting to impress and rise up the ranks, speed, life hacking and ‘f*ck it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ What’s also great is that this was all incredibly inclusive: anyone could join in if they worked hard enough.

It’s been brilliant. Men are brilliant; I especially love the fact that they have an ability to absorb, protect and promote fellow colleagues who are quite clearly on the spectrum and they do this without fanfare or playing the equality card. Deep down it’s as if they are motivated by a desire to impress women and the world, promote their own tribe (whether it be workplace or family) and give their offspring the best possible chance of survival in life through whatever means necessary. Why else would we have ridiculously, perilously tall skyscrapers? This isn’t something to frown upon, it’s actually incredibly honorable. This world that I experienced is a world that I’d like those young white, working class males to enter and thrive in, only they don’t know about it and if they do find out, it’s usually too late.

For those who know me, my teaching journey has led me gradually down the year groups. I’m in lower KS2 now now and this trajectory will continue for the next year or so. A few weeks ago we had a rare, spare 20 minutes and I thought I’d bring the kids up to speed with the latest news by showing them one of those children’s news-clips and then having a little discussion about it. The newspresenter was stood in an open plan office and you could see lots of people working at their desks. Naturally, we found ourselves talking about offices in general and it had occurred to me that many of the children didn’t know about the normal world of work. So I thought I’d enlighten them.

I told the children the story about when I first went to work and how I had been given my own desk, complicated telephone (with lots of buttons on) and my own computer. I told them that I was really amazed at being ‘given’ so much and they thought that was quite funny! “Guess what, kids! I even got to have a cup of tea and biscuits to dunk whenever I wanted!” The kids were hooked and wanted to know more, so I showed them pictures of different kinds of workplaces where people mostly worked on their own in open plan offices, or in cubicles. The boys in particular mentioned the chairs and how good they looked compared to the ones they sat on at home and in school. You know, they had wheels on and who doesn’t love a chair with wheels on? I got the opportunity to tell those boys that the more awesome and hard-working they were at work, the bigger and better the wheelie chair they got and they bloody loved it! Then, seeing as they were hungry to know more, I told them about how, by being good at maths, writing and talking to people, they could not only get a fantastic wheelie chair, they might even end up with their own office to put it in. By now, they were besides themselves with joy about the prospect of a chair, telephone, desk, computer and office and then I dropped the c-word. Yep, that’s right. I got to tell them that people who work really, really hard and do well sometimes get given a nice CAR to drive.

Livin’ the dream requires a chair with wheelz!

To see that fire light up in their eyes as they realised that, yes, this sort of thing existed and that these opportunities were open to any young fellow who put himself forward to take the test of life was very interesting to observe. What’s also interesting is that I have found most young boys, when given the chance, will write about their future selves as being married and having about 10 kids (One time in my class, the writing about the future got a bit too competitive between the boys and I had to let some of them know that having 20 kids was probably a bit too much to ask of their future wives). Well, all those children need to be provided for!

Anyway, when we got back to the day-to-day routine of maths, English etc, those boys were very motivated indeed, more so than usual and especially during our weekly maths tests. Now, our maths tests are a bit different to maths tests in most primary classes. You see, we go for a personal best and this personal best isn’t just about the number of correct answers, it’s also about time. I put a big stopwatch on the IWB and then set everyone off on their times tables (or number bonds) test and then children make a little ‘beep’ when they’ve finished, noting their time. For some, just finishing all the questions and getting them right within 10 minutes constituted a PB, but for others, the opportunity to ‘go for sub-3:00’ or ‘shave off 10 seconds’ (and they actually use the very same language when talking to each other now) pushes them much, much further and harder, partly because of the adrenalin and excitement involved (studies also show that adrenalin helps the memory) and partly because I always talk about tests in very positive, motivational terms. When I first started, the use of an online stop-watch wasn’t standard and children used to just aim to complete their grids within a vague 10 minutes. I was with much older children then and I found that, in my opinion, they just weren’t fluent enough with their recall of times tables and I was worried that they would be held back by the demands of the impending KS3 maths curriculum. But, as soon as I added in the rhetoric of time trialling and a live clock to watch, everything changed. With every single cohort I have taught, adding in the whole concept and possibility of ‘going for a PB’ has transformed the motivation of children in maths because suddenly they can compete with themselves as well as with those of a similar ‘rank’. Who was transformed the most and raced up the covert maths rankings within a class, becoming better mathematicians as a result? You guessed it: white, working class males. Gradually dropping down the year groups has taught me that even younger boys respond in exactly the same way.

It all makes sense when you think about it; the use of subtle but constant competition plus the motivation of one day being admired and successful also explains why boys love football so much. Whenever a young lad plays football, he’s not just having a kick about with his friends, he’s imagining himself as his favourite football hero and dreaming about the life of that hero (the respect, the awesome skills, the car, the big house, the belonging to a mighty tribe). The fact that football is very much a grassroots sport, with all famous working class football players having come up through the ranks from a very young age through commitment and practice, gives the young working class lad the belief that he too could also become a great football player one day. Football isn’t just a game, it’s a complete package of belonging, motivation, personal development and vision. The world of maths and maths people could provide that too by co-opting some of the ‘features’ of the world of football, only this time it would be more realistic because for every famous footballer there are thousands of accountants, engineers, fund managers and IT professionals.

The thing is, just as the training of the world’s finest football player starts at around the age of 5, so too should the training of the world’s finest mathematician. Along the way, there needs to not only be leagues and competitions up to a national level, but also tribes to join. There also needs to be an honest presentation of the future that awaits the future mathematician so that he can hold onto a motivational vision of himself as a man. Young boys are not shielded from knowing about the fortune of the famous footballer, although we do try to downplay it, so why do we not tell them all about those wheelie chairs, company cars and public recognition that waits the man who is good at maths? Is it because we view it as distasteful or crude? I guess it is all too easy for a comfortable and well-off middle class teacher to prefer to encourage those young working class boys to aim for something a little less vulgar, or to try and make the world a better place through collaboration and being eco-friendly, for example. To endorse accountancy would probably feel too much like an endorsement for dirty capitalism, so the class teacher might instead promote working with animals i.e. making a living being nice.

However, I believe what is promoted by teachers may not be enough to displace the vision that footballing stardom brings to the young working class male’s mind. Instead, I think we need to tell boys about the real world and the possibilities within it for all boys, regardless of race, background or means, to shine and have a nice shiny car or even a chair with wheels. We also need to let them compete in order to become better mathematicians.

Who’s with me?


Play is great, except when it isn’t.

So, Tom Bennett and Tim Taylor have recently written about the use of ‘play’ as a medium for learning in the classroom and I thought I’d wade in. Tom’s position was that play is great for rehearsing what is already known by that child at the time, or for experimenting with everyday knowledge (like: sand falls through your hands), but not for learning how to read, for example; these things need to be taught and require that children concentrate, practise and generally work hard (which children don’t want to do). Tim’s position was that if the teacher is involved in playing, then they can ‘nudge’ the play towards discovery learning, that play is hard work anyway and that we should be prioritising making children’s learning experiences interesting and engaging (rather than boring ‘straight’ lessons) which means elevating play as a medium for learning in the classroom.

I’d like to bat the ball back with a few points from my point of view.

Before I begin, I should probably put this statement in: I think play is very important for children and I actually argue for more opportunities for children to be given the freedom to get bored, run around, climb on things and play games with friends. Children play even into their teens and we should give them space in their lives to do that. This means we, the adults, need to limit those computer games and instead choose to boot the children outside. In order for children to be able to go outside, we, the adults, need to ensure that there are enough safe open spaces and parks for children to play in and we need to ensure that our roads are safe enough for children to cross so that they can walk to said parks. We also need to shout very loudly about the fact that, while certain sections of the relatively wealthy population are given rights to hold on to a huge family home at the taxpayer’s expense, our youngest generations face housing insecurity and terrible housing conditions. How anyone can think it right that a young family should have to live in a one bedroomed, bed-bug infested flat with no safe outside space to play (or even room inside to play with siblings), paying extortionate rent such that they can’t even feed themselves properly is beyond me.

Remember these?

Now let’s get back to the classroom where futures can be made or destroyed.

I’m against the use of play as a priority medium of learning in schools because it is grossly unfair to disadvantaged children. Here are the reasons:

Firstly, play is incredibly noisy. Those who arrive at reception year not speaking at all or with poor vocabulary and enunciation should not be condemned to have their lack of speaking and listening skills entrenched simply because Jemima and Jonte love to role play being veterinary surgeons. The children who can’t speak need to hear the best sentences, phrases and words and with the best enunciation; this means the teacher needs to be teaching (and this could be simply reading a lovely story and explaining things along the way) and no, working with a group while the rest of the class hoof it up in the role play areas is not good enough. There needs to be a super quiet and calm backdrop, just like those advantaged children get to experience at home when Mummy and Daddy read them a lovely story and explain what everything means.

The above point also reminds me that we really need to ensure that the teachers in reception year, or even in nurseries, need to be very well-read and confident mathematicians so that the disadvantaged children get to experience the erudition that matches what advantaged children experience at home from their well-educated parents. I think many young educators in particular are unaware that the parents of advantaged children will quite happily talk about CERN at the dinner table, or even talk about the mating characteristics and genetics of snail populations when pottering about in the garden (hell I know I have!), yet teachers insist on bringing the level of conversation down with limited vocabulary and ‘relevant’ topics in the classroom.

Secondly, play as a medium for learning is incredibly inefficient. Those disadvantaged children need to catch up, not fall behind, but if ‘learning through play’ were instigated for them, then we risk that they might not learn anything at all (particularly if they lack the vocabulary and general knowledge to access what Jemima and Jonte have rustled up) or even worse the wrong thing.

Thirdly, a teacher can only ‘play’ with a small group of children at a time. So, while the teacher is getting excited that Jemima and Jonte have asked for clipboards and hardhats so that they can pretend to be health and safety supervisors at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the disadvantaged children have resorted to arguing with each other, or experimenting with life-physics by stress-testing the lego area with a toy hammer. OK, so these are extreme examples of free play, but even if you use the examples of guided play whereby the teacher has set up different stations where children play ‘maths’ or ‘writing’ using the number bonds or phonemes taught first thing in the morning, the teacher cannot be at every station at the same time ensuring that 100% of the children are on the right track. Maybe the teacher could take the time to explain the purpose of each station? That would take ages and just imagine if all that time explaining ‘how to play at the maths station’ could be used to actually teach?

Finally, if play-learning is such hard work, then why not expend all that energy efficiently? Research shows that the most efficient way of teaching and learning is through the use of explicit instruction. But wait, this means the children would need to sit and listen which is surely too much for their little bodies? I see no problem with this and it’s what Jemima and Jonte are expected to do at the dinner table anyway: not being allowed to talk over the adults and to listen carefully. Why not give disadvantaged children this opportunity to develop self-control, concentration and listening/questioning skills?

So, instead of play as a go-to medium of learning, let’s have play as a medium of play (or a reward for working hard) and teaching as the main, equitable medium of learning.

Who’s with me?

Will there be an epidemic of back problems (and terrible pen hold) in the future?

We don’t do ‘lining up’ (I think we should) in our school, nor do we have any kind of policy on deportment. Most primary teachers, however, instinctively remind children to sit up straight when they are listening to the teacher or during assemblies for example. However, there is one ubiquitous practice that seems to undermine all attempts to get children to develop the healthy habit of good posture and that is carpet time. If you are a secondary teacher reading this (good! I like to bridge that gap) then let me explain carpet time.

  1. It’s usually at the start of a lesson and children come and sit in a fixed place in front of the teacher on the carpet for the input
  2. Said children will grab a mini whiteboard and whiteboard pen
  3. For the starter and at frequent intervals during the input, the children will be required to demonstrate their learning on mini whiteboard (AfL) and there will also likely be an Ofsted-approved attempt to use this information to send a small group of children off early for ‘independent learning’ to overtly show differentiation in terms of different activities etc
  4. For the very youngest children, often the entire lesson will consist of being on the carpet, especially if the lesson is phonics or early writing skills
  5. In some schools, children will be intermittently slurping a carton of milk while being expected to use a whiteboard

Teachers use this method because (of):

  • School policy
  • Having children closer to you means it’s easier for behaviour management purposes (you can see everyone)
  • Ofsted/SLT requirements to overtly demonstrate frequent use of AfL and tick off teacher standards related to meeting the ‘individual needs of the child’

When I have a look for scientific papers on posture and back problems in children, there seems to be plenty looking at factors such as obesity, habits at home such as watching TV or the use of large backpacks at school, but I can’t find much in the way of studies of early primary age children that specifically reference carpet time or mini whiteboard use. I am concerned that sitting hunched over a mini whiteboard is not good for posture as well as being not good for learning. Why is this?

  1. Being hunched like this puts a terrible strain on the neck (if you try sitting on the floor and writing in a big notebook on your lap, you’ll quickly feel it)
  2. Looking directly down and then looking up constantly is somewhat disorientating
  3. Using a mini-whiteboard and being expected to lift it up to show the teacher constantly means that children get used to using an enormous ‘font size’ to ‘prove’ themselves; this is not good for those children who should really be spending all writing time focusing on fine control of letter size (those with lack of coordination or fine motor skills, for example)
  4. Little children are eager to please and the more competitive will be tempted to rush in order to be the first to show the teacher, thus encouraging sloppy handwriting (boys are more vulnerable here) and sloppy posture
  5. Whiteboard pens are very chunky and, in my opinion, are a massive factor in causing children to regress from correct pencil hold to ‘caveman’ grip. A whole year in reception doing this is going to play a massive part in determining pencil hold going forward
Note the size of the letters in relation to the hands and also that classic (if slightly obscured) overly curled pencil hold with the side of the hand resting on the board to provide stability. Note also the overall posture.

What is the solution though? Many teachers, including myself, recoil at the idea of doing away with carpet time and this is partly to do with behaviour management concerns. I believe that use of SLANT from an early age and deploying the TA to make sure that all children are facing the teacher would help, but it would mean of course that we would not be complying with the requirement to ensure that TAs are with a group or specific children aiding their ‘learning’ during input. My morning TA (I have no TA in the afternoon) is required to take one child (one-to-one) away from the main Maths and English input and give him interventions in number bonds and phonics (yes, for the more logical reader among you, this means both catching up and falling behind at the same time) so cannot be used in this way. This will be the case in many primary schools where TAs are expected to give interventions during carpet-input time.

Dare I say it, but I fully realise why the Victorians had all the children facing the front, writing on angled desks and with the youngest children right at the front of the class. Of course, back then deportment was a ‘thing’ that won you prizes (and many private schools continued with this until recently), plus they didn’t have the luxury of disposable white board pens or whiteboards. How did those teachers meet the individual needs of the child though? They didn’t. They expected everyone to learn as much as everyone else, including being able to write beautifully. It is also interesting when you consider that Victorian classrooms would’ve contained an enormous variation in ages of children, presumably the youngest would’ve been expected to ’emulate’ quite a bit of the time.

Boys sat in rows. Although not writing here, note that they are all holding their reading book the same way and in the same position. (Be careful with assuming their faces indicate general mood or happiness at school; the Victorian culture in general preferred a more serious look when it came to photographs). Image courtesy of BBC history archives.

There is a very stark contrast in posture when you compare the two pictures in this blog. Of course, we need to be careful with assumptions and any lack of back problems in the past could be attributed to the fact that previous generations were more stoic than us. Perhaps even their eyesight was far better (I’ve observed many reception year children put their book practically right next to their eyes in order to read). However, I think we need to seriously consider who really benefits from carpet time and using a whiteboard and who might actually be suffering.

Who’s with me?