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

Are we training the next generation to be selfish?

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

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

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

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

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

orchestra
A place for everyone, and everyone in their place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s with me?

Are we giving a minority of children too much power?

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for a while. Basically, I am concerned about the possible consequences of ‘Student Voice’ in primary schools and I’ll start by summing them up:

  • Children who are given extra power and voice via a Student Council system seem to have more power and airtime than teachers which seems a bit weird/wrong
  • Children who are given extra power and voice also tend to be middle class/already advantaged and this seems to be rather unfair
  • The whole concept of Student Voice seems to be based on the idea that it’s a good idea to give children adult roles, and the words ‘airs and graces’ springs to mind when I think of this
  • Student Voice is inherently biased towards promoting extroverted children, since it is born out of a popularity contest

For the uninitiated, ‘Student Voice’ is something that Ofsted love, apparently. Children vote for class representatives and then said representatives form a committee that is guided by a senior leader to make decisions and form opinions on behalf of the pupils of the school. Representatives can then be given a range of opportunities to exercise their power and develop as future leaders. These opportunities can be anything from tasting foods and helping with decision making on school lunches, taking part in the interview process for new teachers or advising on activities and dress requirements for World Book Day. Our reps also get to go to governors’ meetings to report on various activities at the school.

Perhaps my first bullet point above is just sour grapes, but I do feel uncomfortable with the realisation that I don’t have as much say as little children. I try to imagine what would happen if I adopted this policy in my own home and I’m pretty sure it would not end well. For a start, I think primary age is too young to be making ‘executive decisions’ because it does seem to undermine the concept of respect for authority and expertise. I am the one who knows how to a run a house, so why would I defer to my children? I could ask their opinion on some things, but to allow them to tell me when is best to change the beds, or what to include on the dinner menu, would be ridiculous; I think the children would end up being disrespectful which is actually quite harmful for them.

It also dawned on me recently that Student Voice seems to be another way to give middle class children a leg up at the expense of disadvantaged children. Those of us who are clued-up about education research would agree that the best way to give all children a chance to achieve academically is to use direct instruction, have strict whole-school policies on behaviour and impart lots of knowledge, for example. Conversely, we can all see why progressive education disadvantages the disadvantaged because it assumes that children come to school with a basic schemata of knowledge and skills already provided by parents or that they might somehow come to know everything they need to know (including phonics and number bonds) naturally, which is clearly not the case. But have we fully comprehended that not all children come to school having been provided with the character traits of self-discipline, focus, thinking about others? Here, my concern is that we erroneously assume that those children suitable for School Council are naturally the way they are, rather than having had an extra education at home. Surely we should be developing each and every scholar in the school by making sure that the school day encourages the development of good habits, self-discipline? The disadvantaged child who is more likely to be behind academically is also more likely to be behind in terms of emotional and social development; if they can’t organise themselves and are therefore not even considered for School Council (where you have to be organised in order to organise others), then perhaps we should be helping these children to be organised and confident rather than assuming their position in society as that of being a follower rather than a leader?

I’m also not OK with this thinking that by letting children pretend to be a leader, they will somehow naturally become a leader. I guess you could say this about anything really, like being a scientist or conducting an orchestra. Inevitably, said novices just end up making fools of themselves, having been given the false impression that they are a good as they think they are, whereas all they’re doing is messing about with a microscope or waving a stick in front of some bemused musicians. It’s actually quite cruel. Where is this old-fashioned notion that you need to spend a good deal of time grafting and gradually taking on responsibility, gaining an understanding of the world and people around you, before being handed extra power and status?

Lastly, my old bugbear of the whole world being ‘anti-introvert’. Young children do not possess the ability to judge a person’s leadership skills and general worthiness in a purely rational way. Inevitably, the one who gets chosen is the one who is more extroverted although I will concede children do instinctively recognise that their reps need to be intelligent (and this shows how they all know where they are academically, even if the teacher tries to disguise the group names for seating in subjects) and mature. We do need extroverted leaders of course, but we also need to create a space on committees for the quiet thinkers, and little children lack the ability to understand this prerequisite, instead voting for the most popular child in their class.

Can’t we just have prefects?

Who’s with me?

Get ready for the real dystopia

No, I’m not talking about Brexit. I’m talking about what happens when toddler use of addictive technology and lack of parenting mix together to produce a somewhat hellish scenario that is now beginning to show itself in primary schools and is yet to affect teaching and learning in secondary schools.

Since going on a reading journey via Hirsch and then to the Far East for some research and information about maths teaching, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian vibe of late. The main reason is that every time I read about some aspect of maths teaching or classroom practice in the Far East, there always seemed to be this underlying wisdom influencing and providing a holistic reason for that particular practice. The more I read up on Confucianism, the more I understand why X, Y or Z happens in schools. For example, the reason children sit facing the front is not just because it helps children to concentrate on what the teacher is saying or doing, it is also to do with the much bigger picture of harmony within society that arises out of structure and order, respect for wisdom and experience of (usually) older people. I also love the reverence for education and the discipline of individual study as being seen as the means to becoming a better person. So, if we want to emulate maths teaching and learning as they do in Shanghai, we need to think about the what and how of mathematics teaching (because it is vastly superior to what we currently do) and then go way beyond that to the dao, or ‘way’ of the mathematician (or general student) and how he/she is formed, as they do in the Far East. It’s such a shame that we in the West tend to do the exact opposite to our children.

As a mother of teenagers, I am finding out far too late that this sort of education should start at a very early age in order to counter the only things that do happen naturally and that tend to become entrenched well before puberty sets in: bad habits, lack of focus and laziness. Fortunately, I am a self-confessed Tiger Mum and my children have, overall, benefited, but what I am realising is that I haven’t been Tiger-Mum enough to counter all of the insidious effects of child-centred education and Western society’s tendency towards promotion of child-centred/led parenting. However, the situation for disadvantaged children is far worse and, as I have mentioned before on this blog, secondary teachers have yet to experience what primary teachers are now starting to experience: children who are not only not parented very well, but are suffering the effects of being glued to a screen from around the age of 2:

Not only are children’s minds closed to learning, but increasingly they are closed to all interaction with other human beings.

Before going on to relatively new problem of children being unable or unwilling to interact with other human beings, I will briefly describe just a few examples of how children’s minds are closed to learning well before they attend secondary school:

  • Lack of discipline in the home means children feel empowered to shun hard work and caring authority of teacher
  • Lack of parenting wisdom and sleep routines in particular means that children come to school without having had a proper night’s rest and this tends to manifest as ADHD type symptoms (very different to how adults behave when tired)
  • Child-centred education encourages the child to pursue what is interesting or fun at the time, which for many children means that what is necessary and important is put off almost indefinitely
  • Typical practice in primary schools inadvertently trains the child to ignore the teachers (who have knowledge to pass on) and instead listen to peers who not only have no knowledge, but may provide what I call ‘anti-knowledge’ and continuously distract a child from being able to think, focus and generally develop good study habits

Now let me tell you about this other factor which we have yet to really feel the full force of. This is the effect of children spending vast amounts of time glued to a screen from an incredibly young age. You may argue that this has been the case for a couple of decades now, but I would argue otherwise. You see, what has facilitated this is the invention of user-friendly tablet computers and the normalisation of their use within the family home. As you can see from these statistics, back in 2010 tablet computer use was pretty niche, and it’s only relatively recently that it has become a normal thing for every family to have at least one tablet computer and for it to be automatically given to a toddler as a pacifier. Unlike parking a screaming toddler in front of CBeebies (which is what we all used to do years ago when the going got tough), parking a toddler on an iPad is a whole level up in terms of entrenching bad habits because they will be playing games that artificially stimulate over and over again the reward pathway of the brain, creating little compulsive addicts in the process. 

How does this play out?

Well, if we consider that iPads and tablet use became mainstream from about 2013, this means that the shitstorm is only just starting to happen in primary schools. Children are rocking up not only unable to speak in a sentence (because their basic vocabulary is so poor due to lack of communication), but they are also less used to looking at a human face. It is quite scary to think about 5 year olds who don’t automatically turn to face the adult who is speaking because this means that they are missing out on correct enunciation of vocabulary (mouth movement) and understanding of human emotion as interpreted by facial expressions. Further, no amount of animation in the adult’s voice or body movements will be as exciting as a rewarding and addictive game on the iPad which displays incredibly realistic and brightly coloured fantasy animals dancing about. Not only do we have children whose minds are closed to new knowledge and instruction, but their senses are now shut off too since they don’t even want to look at or listen to an adult, and then you consider the steady increase in glue ear conditions that are so much worse these days due to lack of effective antibiotics. The continued artificial stimulation of the reward pathways of the brain from such an early age due to iPad use would surely affect how children are able or willing to persevere with hard work at school, even if teachers attempted to make all lessons fun and interesting.

All is not lost though and I do believe there is a way to help children. I think the first step is to acknowledge what is happening and the second is to try and emulate what Far Eastern societies do which is to think about how to facilitate the development of the scholar from a young age. This whole situation makes me think, of course, that methods of teaching and learning associated with traditional education actually need to be in place from the start (for example, having children face the front rather than each other), but I’m even starting to think about whether it is a good idea for there to be such huge IWBs being on all day long in primary school classrooms. After all, it is the teacher who has the knowledge to pass on, not the enormous computer screen. If you go in most primary classrooms you will see them organised to encourage the child to look at the IWB (other than each other) rather than the teacher during input time.

Sometimes I even wonder at the increasing moodiness of children these days. Have you noticed it? When we teachers were little children, we didn’t strop and huff and puff as much as little children do in today’s classroom. Perhaps children are like this because they’re actually coping with a mild version of withdrawal and are in ‘need’ of their fix, but do not have the maturity or communication skills to be aware of this.  We should in no way accept this, but seek to mitigate against it. Exactly how is another matter entirely……

Spotting the wolf in sheep’s clothing

An article about the future of education, which was published this morning in the Guardian, found its way to my timeline. It seemed innocent enough and there were a few words and phrases in there that appealed to my trad-teacher brain. Surely this lovely message should appeal, rather than make me worried? However, something didn’t seem right, even though influential people were nodding and re-tweeting on twitter. So, I thought I’d try to turn to my note taking skills in order to try and smoke out the real message. Perhaps you can see what I can see when you read my notes which follow the trail of the original article:

  1. War affects many millions of civilians; war is horrible
  2. Especially when recounted by a 12 yo girl called Ava to 200 adults
  3. Everybody agrees we need to let in more Syrian refugees
  4. Ava is able to make people emotional and see the light because of a speaking project at the author’s trendy new school
  5. We need to teach children about real life, so they can make a difference
  6. We need to teach children to be tolerant. How?
  7. We need to teach children how to deal with technological and medical advancement. How?
  8. Unfortunately, all educators either fall into the bootcamp instructor camp or the ‘technology will make teachers obsolete’ camp.
  9. Evidence of schools using evil algorithms to personalise online learning and ‘flipped learning’
  10. Even parents know that it’s easy just to look something up on YouTube in order to learn about it. This is a real thing and not a fad; we should not dismiss
  11. There are limits to algorithms and looking stuff up because RELATIONSHIPS
  12. Teachers are actually quite good at inspiring children and helping them to learn
  13. Experience of hire candidates moaning about having to teach too much knowledge because ‘exam factory’, ‘not being able to inspire’ and ‘evil data’
  14. The existence of GCSEs creates perverse incentives like their results (which can be quantified) being the ticket to success, headteachers are judged by them, and they’re used to measure progress
  15. Employers don’t even care about GCSEs
  16. Teachers actually try to choose easier syllabi
  17. Narrowed curriculum even from year 9
  18. EBacc is squeezing out creative subjects therefore destroying creativity and problem solving which is actually the very thing we should be teaching
  19. Exam prep taking too much precedence
  20. Children having interventions INFLICTED on them at every opportunity
  21. EVIL EXAM FACTORY crushing individuality
  22. EVIL RULES SUCH AS SILENT CORRIDORS AND DETENTIONS crushing individuality
  23. STRAIGHTJACKET, REGIME, RELENTLESS, FEAR, CHILDREN WHO CANNOT THINK
  24. And now for our new, cosy and fluffy solution which we have named ‘Engaged education’
  25. Obligatory Mandela quote
  26. Reiteration of how terrible all educators are
  27. Education needs to change. Big time.
  28. Woolly nod to ‘best that has been thought and said’ and then dismissed with ‘needs of present and future’
  29. GRIT etc plus being nice and serving the community
  30. Craftsmanship is totally the way forward because creativity and problem solving
  31. Academic, vocational and technical: we need to mix them all together in one big crazy pot
  32. Some schools are doing the right thing which is to focus on teaching skills and desirable character traits like resilience through project based learning
  33. Schools need to change everything they do in order to make project based learning happen
  34. Noise is good because it is evidence of wonderful discovery and collaboration
  35. Schools that are more traditional are clearly crushing the spirit of children and destroying their staff morale. We do the opposite because we’re nice.
  36. The best schools, like us, work with real businesses to make our whole project based learning thing more real-life
  37. In order for us to take over the world, we need 3 things to happen
  38. Ofsted can be good, but it can also be bad. Therefore, Ofsted is bad.
  39. Ofsted makes schools do things which makes everyone feel stressed
  40. Just get rid of Ofsted.
  41. Or not. Maybe it can be peer led [like that College of Teaching we’re all hearing about]
  42. The 3 things Solution: no-notice visits to check safeguarding, just use data (like results) to check progress, and have lots of teachers/HTs [but mostly consultants] visit regularly to check everyone is doing the right thing.
  43. Scrap GCSEs, just let children choose when to take a no-stakes exam in the key subjects when they’re ‘ready’
  44. Assess them instead on 21st Century skills
  45. Schools need to innovate more to make sure this happens and MORE MONEY
  46. Poor little Ava and poor, crushed teachers
  47. By the way, no such thing as traditional or progressive!
  48. All educators, deep down, want what we want, which is children who have 21st C skills such as critical thinking and then they can cure the world of war and Donald Trump
  49. This is better than making children learn ‘shallow’ facts
  50. Wooo yay progressive education
  51. Look at us. We got our children to learn another language solely for the purpose of being able to protest against evil capitalism. Here they are annoying office workers/evil taxpayers as said taxpayers nip to the shops on their lunchbreak, hoping to pick up a spare pair of tights because said pair of tights got snagged at Liverpool street when they were trying to get to work, clearly not concentrating because they were so hell bent on pursuing their careers in evil financial services.
  52. Everybody agrees with us.
  53. If you don’t agree with us, then APOCALYPSE

wolf

This message is a progressive wolf in sheep’s clothing and we need to be able to recognise this situation by disengaging the initial emotional response and instead try to analyse the underlying messages. Also it helps if you add in humour.

Further, if you click through the links to the 3 schools he mentions, you’ll see that uncloaked wolf in plain daylight.

I think the article was written to get parents and the general Guardian-reading public to agree with the sentiments while remaining unaware of what they were really agreeing to. You’ve got to hand it to the author because it is, on the face of it, a truly convincing piece of theatre. But it is theatre none the less, even if that theatre used real props (there were some truths in there that trads would agree with, like the problem of narrowed curriculums from year 9 and the fact that Ofsted creates pressure to over-evidence every molecule of learning).

I think it is ethically wrong for school leaders to do this because parents may flock to sign up their children to this school (and others like it) only to find out years later that their children won’t get useful qualifications. Further, am I the only one who read that article thinking that perhaps the cloak and dagger approach to promoting project based learning also disguises the fact that a lot of vested interests of the money-making kind are relying on these kinds of school leaders to promote this kind of education? Compare this to the very honest messages that MCS send out to the media: parents are under no illusion as to what happens in that school because information about routines, procedures and ethos come across in clear, rational language. MCS also projects a real humility; what other kind of school would invite people in to scrutinise and debate there methods and beliefs in such a public way?

Would disadvantaged and disengaged children who are not so good at self-directing their studies do best at MCS or School 21? What about children with gaps in their learning who cannot access project based learning?

The fact that this kind of message repeatedly makes its way into mainstream media, hoodwinking parents and public is partly our fault. You see, parents don’t really know the difference between different kinds of education and this is possibly because educational language is foreign to the average man. Additionally, parents genuinely think that teachers are passing important and useful information onto children, that their children are practicing using said information and then are de facto able to do an exam in that subject. Progressive educators free ride on this assumption and never quite tell parents what the word ‘independent’ in the context of school activities means, for example. Our job is not just to promote traditional education (and let the results speak for themselves), but to educate, involve and empower parents to make rational decisions about the education of their children. Otherwise, they’ll all be prey to progressive wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

Recognise the wolf. Expose the wolf. Chase that wolf away.

Who’s with me?

What is it about tests that causes such angst?

In yesterday’s post, I discussed a proposal that parents could do with more information about regular tests taking place at their child’s school. This is because parents I know want to be more proactive in their child’s academic life. However, the subject is so emotive on both sides. Firstly, there is a cost and workload implications for teachers and secondly, there is the usual, ‘But I just want my child to be happy’ retort from some parents and educationalists that eschews all tests full stop, never mind the prospect of raw data making its way into parents’ hands. I spoke to another Dad about my blog post yesterday and he said that one problem with this debate is that comments are dominated by the louder, media savvy and more articulate middle class parents (accompanied by a picture of a child holding a seashell) whereas the majority of parents, perhaps more likely to be fathers in the background who don’t get to communicate with schools and school personnel so much, actually want to be more proactive, particularly if they’re worried about their sons’ behaviour and progress.

Image result for picture of child holding a seashell in wonder
If you listen carefully, you can hear His Royal Creativeness Sir Ken talking about the wonders of outdoor learning

Aren’t we supposed to be especially worried about the achievement of white working class boys? I have never heard a father say to me that he just wants his son to be happy (ie footloose and fancy free, untroubled by even the mere thought of a test); I have only heard something along the lines of ‘Is he knuckling down? Is he behaving?’ Further, in the real world, working parents know that we are regularly held accountable for our actions and this is something that we must learn to deal with. It’s not a problem if being regularly held accountable is just a normal part of life’s ups and downs, nothing to get worked up about and if we have been organised and hardworking when that time of accountability comes, then a test should just happen without recourse to histrionics and sulking. Besides, it’s not a test, it’s a quiz! It’s a chance to get a PB! You know, children pick up on adults’ concerns and if we adults are being overly emotional about regular testing, then the children will learn that tests are something to be frightened of.

But then, this is the Western way of thinking. We live in narcissistic times and the MO of many individuals is the pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment, with many dreaming of finally being able to make a living creating hemp flipflops, vlogging about said hemp flipflops and travelling the ‘world’ which happens to only consist of exotic places with lots of beaches. These people are loud and take up a lot of airspace, projecting their trustafarian ideals onto anybody who strays into their circle of influence, including those children who really need to do well at school in order to have choices in life. It makes sense therefore that many children these days are internalising messages that life should be about doing what you feel is good rather than doing what you know is good.

Many would rightly argue that regular testing accompanied by involving parents with timely information sharing would only results in certain children working harder and doing better. But, I would be concerned if leaders were making decisions to hold back some children in order to not highlight the lack of progress in others. Yes, not all children would respond in the same way, but I maintain that among those children we are concerned about, there are many who would work harder if their parents really did know exactly how they were doing in school and nothing tells a parent how well their son is doing like a mark out of a 100 in a test. I can tell you right now that those termly reports that give parents ‘information’ about effort, behaviour, progress and the like (some even report on the Cs of 21st Century ‘skills’), usually with a vague ‘grade’ of 1 to 4 frustrate the hell out of those parents who are intelligent enough (and this is most parents we’re talking about) to work out that the information is subjective and ultimately means nothing at all.

There was a time when regular testing with real results going home to parents was a normal thing. I’d like to see a return to that. What about workload? Well, if workload is an issue then it is not because of the testing, it is because of the lack of routines, protocols and supporting school or trust-wide IT infrastructure. Having read Daisy Christodoulou’s latest book about assessment, I really feel that multiple choice questions set up on an Ipad (or much cheaper and safer Chromebook) for example could be very useful indeed, especially when you consider that the task of data input is done by the pupils themselves. The data could so easily be collated for teachers with a raw result winging its way to a parent in the form of an easy-to-understand mark out of a hundred alongside information about the average mark for that class/cohort (so parents can compare). This would work for pretty much all the subjects with the exception of certain aspects of the English curriculum. What if in order to answer a question, the pupil needed to do some working out? No problem. Just used a notepad for working out alongside clicking or typing the chosen answer. Of course, if schools aren’t implementing a knowledge-based curriculum, then multiple choice questions that include typical misconceptions aren’t going to work. Academy trusts are at an advantage here because of economies of scale and the ability to hire someone who can plan, manage and deliver a cross-departmental assessment and associated IT infrastructure project, possibly working with major publishers and larger education organisations along the way.

Anyway, I still think that regular testing is a good thing, not just because information going home to parents helps build links between the school and home, but also because boys in particular (including the cohort we all worry about) actually thrive in a high stakes and slightly more competitive environment.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

Parents want more data so they can check up on their kids!

Right, this blog post pretty much sums up a current frustration of mine and I also know that it is a frustration shared by just about every parent I have known personally, plus a few more forthright parents of children I teach: they would love to know the exact results of tests that are set in the classroom. Do they want to know these results so that they can give the teacher grief for not working hard enough for their child? No. They want to know these results so that they can give their own child some aggro when it is evident that they have messed up, not paid enough attention, not revised enough or maybe just not cared at all. Once a year to find out some grades or percentages in exams sat in July (if you’re lucky) is not enough.

So much is made of trying to get children to do the right thing, maybe take ownership for their learning and generally try harder, but while many children do possess the right attitude and can see that hard work is the golden ticket to feeling good about oneself and one’s resultant academic prowess, many do not. Of course, schools try to work very hard to get children to a place where they are genuinely wanting to achieve, and this is even evident in primary schools where children are expected to show a ‘genuine love of learning and natural curiosity’ in observed lessons, but what about the children who still seem to be impermeable to messages about hard work? What about children who are just so much younger and need more guidance? What about children who are addicted to computer games?

video-game-2_2362669b
Nothing, not even quadratic equations, is as exciting as video games

As you know, I’ve been on a bit of a journey recently that is still far from finished. In my attempt to read all the books about education in the Far East I’ve learned about that higher level ‘je ne sais quoi‘ of motivation that the Chinese in particular have, and it is all to do with this belief that hard work is the key to success, not just because hard (academic) work results in better grades and general intelligence, but because the diligent pursuit of knowledge makes one a better person. Confucius or no Confucius, parents in the Far East are on their children’s cases constantly, watching and positively interfering with everything (impressive considering pretty much all mothers work full time). They can even see exactly what each child does in maths every day because the textbook tells them.

I’m on my children’s case, but I don’t know the full picture. When one of my sons let slide, after one of my daily dinner table badgerings about the school day, that he got 60% in a recent chemistry test, I was horrified. Both my sons are very academic actually, but peer pressure, video games and that laissez faire attitude that comes with seeing oneself as ‘good’ at everything does occasionally have a negative effect. I bet a million pounds that the children who got in the region of 30% for that chemistry test didn’t even tell their parents there was a test, let alone tell them their result. Why? Because they know damn well that there would be consequences. In my son’s case, he initially tried squirming his way out of my visible disappointment by given me some bullplop about how ‘60%’ was one of the best marks in the class, but on further questioning about particular subjects that he knew deep down he had covered in class and therefore should know, his shame became evident and he admitted to me that he was disappointed in himself, that he should’ve worked harder and that he could’ve been more proactive with revision, but it was too late by then because he had scored flippin’ 60% in that test. What could I have done? If I had known there was to be a test, I would have made him revise every day and shown me evidence of his revision before I let him play his precious video games; I would also let him know that I expect his result to be 100%. Then, I would have demanded the results of his test like an excited child.

Every parent I’ve known wants this kind of information! You could argue that it shouldn’t make a difference, and that if parents did the right thing like take their kids to museums, feed them quinoa and maybe read lovely stories to them constantly, then their children would somehow become academically self-sufficient from the age of 7. No chance. You could do the whole general, ‘Make sure you try hard in school today and make me proud!’ but it’s far too woolly. What works best is something specific like, ‘Make sure you get at least 90% in that Biology test about the structure and function of cells, or I’ll show your girlfriend a picture of you naked in the bath when you were a wee baby!’

I’m being demanding right now because I care about my sons’ education and because I know that even though they are generally good boys who do the chores, work *quite* hard and never disrespect their parents or their teachers, my sons still need the odd push from me to make sure that they are putting the effort in when that temptation to procrastinate and play video games is setting in. Why? Because they are not yet adults and because the price they would pay for not being able to act like perfect adults far outweighs the crime of slacking off infrequently.

So, if I could wave a magic wand, what would I change? I would want an automated email from their school letting me know exactly what they are studying at that moment (just one word will do) and when exactly a test would be (just a date); I would make sure I was quizzing my son about mitochondria! Then, an automated email with his test result would be great. This email can be sent from an unmanned account so that parents couldn’t reply (which would stop certain parents having a go at the teacher and maybe instead ask their own children what is going on). All it takes is a a few minutes a day for me to talk to my sons and put a bit of pressure on them to do well. If I don’t know this specific information, they won’t necessarily tell me because at the end of the day they are teenagers and tend to be a bit lethargic with their responses come dinner time. Also, my youngest son is seriously aloof and really struggles to organise his sock drawer, let alone organise himself to revise properly. I have absolutely no interest in what the teachers are doing because at the end of the day it is down to my sons to work hard, listen, ask good questions and they need to accept that teachers can’t make all the lessons mimic funky YouTube clips 100% of the time. I trust the teachers and I know all teachers care about children’s education otherwise they wouldn’t be a teacher, duh.

So, let’s have some more information from schools, some more raw data so we can keep the pressure on our children at home.  I really believe this is a cheap and time-efficient way to massively improve results for primary and secondary schools around the country, as well as help motivate those children who are not mature enough to eschew all of life’s increasingly interesting distractions.

Who’s with me?

 

From whippersnapper to joyful scholar: the missing link in early primary education

This is an attempt to pull together various ideas and thoughts about teaching and learning in the Far East. The reason I feel compelled to nail my colours to the mast is because something struck home when I read Hirsch’s most recent book about the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum for helping the most disadvantaged children. He said that disadvantaged children didn’t have that extra vocabulary and general knowledge-augmenting curriculum which is ‘taught’ at home, and as a result they were held back by their own inability to communicate and understand, which then inhibited further learning opportunities. I also think there are other important ways that advantaged children get a leg-up; basically, advantaged children are also given training at home in acquiring a scholarly disposition. Surely, if we want to give disadvantaged children the same opportunities in life, we need to not only give them vocabulary, knowledge and the means to connect with other human beings, we also need to give them the opportunity to acquire those good habits that lead to a scholarly disposition. So, this blog post is about how I would change a child’s primary school experience so that he is able to assimilate lots of knowledge and vocabulary in addition to transforming from a whippersnapper to a scholar.

What do advantaged children have that is extra, in addition to a hugely augmented vocabulary and knowledge? Their parents having higher expectations of them such as being expected to behave at the dinner table and actually partake in civilised conversation, daily music practice and faithful commitment to daily reading. I even find that academically advantaged children seem to be more organised and capable of looking after things and you can see this when they change for PE: it is always the disadvantaged children that lose things or are unable to dress themselves properly. I believe advantaged children are taught those habits of self-discipline, concentration and organisation in their home lives and we need to replicate some of this at school. What is the point of having a knowledge-based curriculum if disadvantaged children lack the self-awareness and concentration to take it all in? Child-centred education doesn’t develop self-discipline and focus as it relies upon children wanting to learn and feeling interested as well as assuming that scholarly behaviour just naturally develops; only those advantaged children with a scholarly disposition, painstakingly developed by their parents, are able to access this kind of education.

Reception year:

I have learned that academic education is reserved for slightly older children in the Far East and there are good reasons for this. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t look at EYFS and how it can become a place where disadvantaged children are given a leg-up, rather than almost allowed to fall behind. How can we give them that missing vocabulary? I would dial down the noisy free-flow, self-directed group tables and have more whole class activities in addition to the very important systematic phonics teaching, but I would make these activities enjoyable just like in pre-school (which is very good at helping children become school ready) and the experiences of EYFS-age children in the Far East. I would actually make a daily storytime and sing-song a mandatory part of the curriculum! The storytime is so good for augmenting children’s vocabulary and it can also be a way of teaching important life messages as well as generating opportunities for speaking and listening through open-ended questioning; it is a complete and highly effective teaching package that you don’t need to plan for, save for choosing a really good book. Further, it is important that children hear and see good enunciation, particularly if they have suffered numerous ear infections (very common these days) in their toddler years, in order to help their knowledge of phonics. A daily sing-song would also be a great way to teach new vocabulary as well as preserving collective knowledge of nursery rhymes!

In order to help children acquire the kind of general knowledge that advantaged children have, I would also plan for whole-class teaching of basic geographical and historical facts, in the same way as parents of advantaged children just sit down (usually at the dinner table) and tell their children interesting little snippets of information about who the Queen is or which country you get to if you take a boat from Dover. Why not have a daily 20 minute general knowledge lesson, with children and teacher asking questions to each other? At the end of the day, I would see who could remember the new knowledge! Perhaps we could also utilise a daily notebook system like in the Far East (actually I know many schools already do this, but concentrating on skills being taught) which lets parents know what was learned in the knowledge lesson, so that children can relay the information to parents, thus helping knowledge (and associated vocabulary) go into the long term memory.

I would even have whole-class teaching of how to be organised! It’s such a shame that we don’t have classroom desks with individual drawers like the old days. From what I read about how classrooms, despite having many more children in them, are more organised and efficient in the Far East, I would also do as they do which is to explicitly teach children the minutiae of personal and classroom organisation, the idea being that children are equipped with a school-wide set of standard procedures that can be performed in silence. In many reception and infant classes, an enormous amount of time and human resources are devoted to helping children offload their coats, books and bags in the morning, but this could be taught as a series of special lessons, telling children exactly what to do and in the exact order it should be done (very therapeutic for those on the spectrum). ‘This is how we fold up our clothes when we change for PE’ and ‘This is how we get into a silent line when the teacher taps this little bell’ and ‘This is exactly how we get our books and pencils out ready for such-and-such lesson’. Teachers already do this, but I would be more specific and standardise precise procedures and the signals that instigate them. It would help if a school bag and school coat (non-fiddly, duffle coat style with toggles) were part of the school uniform policy, as is the case in most prep schools in the UK because children could then be taught how to pack and unpack their school bag.

How can we further help children in EYFS take their first steps to acquiring a scholarly disposition? The daily storytime and singing would help with concentration and general behaviour for sure, but I would go even further by utilising the Japanese system of placing children in a han (maybe wearing a different colour scarf/tie/badgeso that they can be more aware of the effect of their behaviour on others. We could even experiment with class cleaning jobs or even serving and having lunch in the classroom rather than in the noisy hall, with a teacher sitting with a different han every day to model civilised behaviour and conversation.  This will probably surprise many but I would also have more playtimes (and continue with more playtimes through primary school), just like they have in the Far East, so that children are better able to concentrate in class as well as have increased opportunities to be social.

Very young children in the Far East tend to do extra-curricular activities that are known to help with concentration and focus. Firstly, learning a musical instrument is THE way to develop self-control, discipline and focus. If I were an EYFS teacher, I’d be doing some whole-class, Suzuki method, violin lessons as well as building in a daily 15 minute ‘music appreciation’ session where children listen to interesting music, the teacher talks about it (using correct vocabulary) and the children get to talk about it too. Further, since the very youngest children in the Far East tend to go to art/calligraphy classes, I would also try to do something similar that would help to develop fine motor control, concentration, pencil hold and letter formation in a creative way.

How about some poetry? Children can hear and learn, off-by-heart, poetry as well as proverbs and even the Lord’s Prayer, to be recited to the school in a Friday achievement assembly. The concentration involved in learning something so educationally beneficial off by heart would be massively helpful for children.

School is massively tiring for the youngest children. I think the constant noise must be particularly draining, as the reception year is notorious for being quite loud. I tend to find more extroverted teachers are unaware that constant noise, even if it is a ‘learning buzz’, is actually incredibly draining for most children, particularly those with SEN and the introverted. I would simply have to build in quiet and silent times to the reception year day, and storytime is one such time where we can quieten down, but I would go further: I would even have a couple of 10 minute silent reading (not while another group is playing in the dress-up area) periods. Think about it, these silent periods of pouring over interesting picture books could be the only time in a disadvantaged child’s day for hearing their own thoughts and experiencing a peaceful calm. Advantaged children are expected to and have the opportunities to do this at home, so why not give the disadvantaged child the same opportunity to develop concentration and peaceful thinking?

The issue of reading continues to fox me. Somehow, the reception year teacher and teaching assistants must hear each and every child read to them every single day. Even if each child only read for 10 minutes, that’s still 5 man hours a day taken up with just hearing a child read. We have our daily phonics lesson (hopefully twice daily), but what about whole class reading? Can we not have an investment in sets of books with children using a reading strip (just a piece of black card) to follow firstly the teacher’s reading and then to read out loud for 15 minutes a day?

Maths:

Maths deserves a special mention because I am interested in maths teaching in particular. I have often wondered whether, in a similar way to the teaching of systematic phonics, we should have systematic teaching of early number, coupled to the daily use of manipulatives? Individual maths sets could be used and they would have shiny beads, tiles and an abacus (preferably a Soroban). The teacher could lead the whole class in this way ‘Hold up two shiny beads. Now put one back. How many do you have left? Who can explain what has happened?’ Eventually, you could have whole-class teaching of number bonds and this would include the use of lots of number songs (singing and reciting maths facts is a key part of early maths education in the Far East) to help. Where are these special number songs? Perhaps we need to develop them! Later, children could be taught to use the Soroban which is useful in children acquiring better mental arithmetic skills. Notice, there isn’t much written/bookwork here and the children are not left to their own devices for any length of time; this is very much that ping-pong style early maths lesson that builds up to including bookwork later in the year or in Year 1. Each child therefore gets maximum teacher direction and time, just like that advantaged child gets his early maths education from a parent at home.

soroban

Parents:

Do you know what, I’d just be very upfront and direct with letting parents know exactly what is needed for children to do well. There would be no pussyfooting about and I would just provide some kind of information about the importance of a study area, the right amount of sleep (some parents seriously think children can just put themselves to bed) and the right kind of diet for the body, mind and soul. The fact is, it only takes one parent to not put their kid to bed at a decent time and the whole class suffers as a result and I don’t think it should be the class teacher who has to have this difficult conversation; it needs to be a member of SLT. Further, I would be using technology and developing child-friendly software for assessment in class of number bonds, phonics knowledge, vocabulary and later reading fluency on a very regular basis and sending the raw data home with information about what constitutes the class average so that parents can clearly see whether their child is behind or not. These kinds of assessments can be fun, like a quiz for the children and need take no more than a few minutes to do. Additionally, I would also have daily and swift intervention for maths and phonics, just as they have daily intervention in primary schools in the Far East. So, if a child hasn’t learned in the morning that 2 + 3 and 3 + 2 = 5, then that child would be doing some extra learning with the teacher (logistics need a think here!) on an individual basis that very afternoon, with the parent being informed that this was happening via the daily notebook.

Years 1 through 6 additional random thoughts.

  • I would still keep the frequent breaks, and I would increase the amount of time spent with whole-class teaching of a knowledge-based curriculum taking the main stage, with daily interventions; there would be lots of competition and frequent testing too.
  • I think I would probably seek to minimise the use of whiteboards and whiteboard pens because they seem to encourage sloppy handwriting and poor pencil grip, instead daily teaching of cursive in the lower years using pencil and paper (this is a bugbear of mine).
  • Also, children in the Far East take a little bow to their teacher, so why not have something similarly respectful for the teacher in the UK?
  • Advantaged children have the benefit of quiet periods of study at home and I would seek to replicate this at a school with high numbers of disadvantaged children; the school day would be longer and children would do their daily ‘homework’ (which is the norm in the Far East, usually maths, reading and writing practise of what has been learned that day) at school during study periods.
  • I would also continue with the musical education because this is incredibly good for helping children to develop resilience, work ethic and concentration.
  • Why not have some daily Tai Chi for everyone? I just think it looks cool and it would definitely help children develop concentration and self-awareness, plus it’s pretty calming for both participants and observers!

The result?

This is in no way exhaustive and what I am attempting to do is possibly write a blog when in fact I need to write a book! Think, Michaela Primary, but using more features of Far Eastern elementary schools, underpinned by Confucian philosophy. Anyway, the upshot would be happier children because they would be able to communicate so well and connect with others with their amazing vocabulary and knowledge, they would experience more friendships because they would be able to listen and focus on another human being, they would find subjects interesting because they would be good at them and they would be proud of their achievements because they have been taught the self-discipline and study habits that make them work harder and for longer, leading to success!

From whippersnapper to joyful scholar

Who’s with me?