How about a Japanese breakfast?

So, this free breakfast idea is a tad more expensive than the Conservatives envisaged. Or is it? This blog post mulls over the idea that perhaps we could learn from the Japanese and incorporate into the school day the ‘extra’ education of serving, eating and cleaning together that not only saves on non-teaching staff costs, but also helps children to learn to be polite, caring and a little more self-sufficient. I should point out now that I am in support of the removal of free school meals for children of wealthier families and for those funds to be directed towards those most in need; we simply cannot afford as a nation to spend taxpayer’s money simply because it’s a ‘nice’ idea.

I admit anyway that I am effectively saying that I should be the one to do this breakfast club thing, since I am the class teacher after all. Where is the TA? Well, like many teachers I have got used to less and less TA support and I admit that it is a struggle: we have significant SEN in my class (like most primary schools which are by design and policy more inclusive than secondary), including one boy who is, according to the Ed Psych, one-to-one and on a completely separate curriculum. As this article succinctly states, lack of TA support really does expose the fragility of the ‘inclusive ideal’ because the reality of the situation is that this little boy is next to my side at all times while I try to teach and help the rest of the class, many of whom have SEN themselves. Anyway, I’m resigned to it, although it is ridiculous that I get asked about how I am supposed to be doing interventions or hearing individual readers when I am teaching the class? So, I’m in school early trying to organise this separate curriculum malarkey and children and parents come into the classroom well before the school day; we might as well stop beating about the bush and have a breakfast club in the classroom too. Hell, it might give me a chance to actually hear some of those other children with SEN read.

How would this work? As I said, this is just an exercise in thought and I don’t have power to change primary schools up and down the country, just in case you were worried about it! I’ve often thought that while I’m getting the class to tidy up after some rare art of an afternoon, we could actually be hoovering, wiping, dusting etc as well. Just as the kids are tearing off after the end of the day bell goes, the (female) cleaners are coming in and what message does this send to the children? I am rather tired of this attitude that cleaning is women’s work and when you do see many children nonchalantly drop litter or sling their jumpers across the cloakroom like they couldn’t give a shite, is it because they have inadvertently internalised that cleaning is demeaning or that they are above it all? How about instead of paying lip service to the whole class responsibilities thing (so-and-so tidies the book area etc) we actually divvy out real jobs, nailing down some serious routine while we’re at it? This could easily work for year 3 and up; they can be taught how to hoover, how to wipe down a surface and as this blog post is about breakfast we could easily teach them how to put a piece of toast in a toaster, put butter on said toast, eat it in a civilised way, put the plate on a tray and then wipe the table they just ate at.

household-rubber-gloves_13785
Studies have shown that approximately 3 children in the UK would voluntarily help clean up a weird sticky patch on a table.

Now many teachers would read this and balk at the very idea, but not because of the extra workload rather because of an ingrained belief that children should not be troubled with such requests that are ‘demeaning’ or somehow interfering with the ‘purity’ of carefree childhood. This is a middle class thing and it has spread like a rash into the mainstream community; people just don’t expect children, boys in particular, to help with chores or tidy away after themselves these days and these requests are sometimes seen as infringing on children’s ‘rights’. This is why you get many primary teachers racing around like blue-arsed flies during a lunchtime trying to lay out perfect creative ‘experiences’ rather than expect children to help set up said experiences. Of course, Ofsted also play a role in this because they are looking for 100% ‘learning’ from the moment the bell goes and it is difficult to justify to an inspector that asking children to hand out scissors, glue etc qualifies as ‘learning’.

However, I can’t be the only person who thinks that the world would be a better place if everyone, including The Queen, cleaned a toilet once in a while.

Yes, I of all people do not believe it is the educator’s place to dabble in social engineering, but in not expecting children to perform meaningful and real cleaning/serving tasks, we might be undermining a minority of parents who do want their children to learn how to be self-sufficient and think of others. If you look at all sorts of cultures around the world both ancient and modern, you will see children as young as five very much contributing to the running of a household in a positive way, rather than being almost parasitic well into their twenties (or even thirties) as is common in the West. In these straightened times can we really afford to allow anyone, even children, to sit back and just ‘take’? Is anyone else apart from me sick and tired of children treating adults around them like their personal ‘skivvy’? From a purely financial point of view, if you are spending money feeding and educating children, then is it not prudent to expect some immediate return on investment rather than fall back and accept that any return on investment should be years and years and years in the future?

So, bring on the breakfasts, the routine and the cleaning.

Who’s with me?

Perhaps some children are just too tired for your amazing Science lesson

I’m trying to move house at the moment which is quite stressful. It doesn’t help that the whole prospect of thinking about housing reminds me constantly of that time when I was 18 and living in a hostel, having to concede defeat by becoming acquainted with the new reality that I wouldn’t be going to university; my A level grades tanked following months of having to work late into the night after college to support myself (I’ve written about this before and you’d be surprised at the number of callous comments from educators I get over this), plus I just couldn’t afford to go really. This blogpost is about how educators see childhood through the prism of their own experiences, not thinking about how certain lesson types might actually be detrimental to disadvantaged children.

Anyway, I was sporting a temporarily furrowed brow recently (after the children had done home) and a colleague commented on it. Actually, she was not impressed at all at my lack of upbeat demeanor. Said colleague is quite wealthy and like most teachers had had a middle class upbringing, therefore wasn’t exactly familiar with any of the everyday stresses that us ‘normal’ people put up with. Of course, I assured my colleague that I wasn’t allowing my own tribulations to affect the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom, but I couldn’t help but think that this trite request to ‘just be happy’ is very much a slap in the face when you’ve got ‘life stuff’ to think about.

smile
Smile, it’s good for you!

Naturally, this led me to think about how this kind of ‘just be happy’ attitude might affect children in the classroom. As you know, I am concerned with the education of disadvantaged children and while it is good that we have young and worry-free educators who can give that little bit extra in terms of time, energy and ‘sunshine’ to the lives of children, it might not be so good when it comes to lesson design and experiences. Teaching standards, consultants, missives in the TES and god knows what else always implore us to make our lessons fun and different, so we slave towards the never ending Holy Grail of ‘unique experiences’ with lots of groupwork, discovery, resources, moving around, carousel etc etc. I’m wondering whether disadvantaged children really do love all this ‘Guess what we’re doing today kids!’, or whether they might appreciate something a little more laid back and routine.

Simply put, I know for a fact (because I’ve been there) that children who are just that little bit more emotionally spent because of their home lives do not necessarily respond to ‘fun’ in the way that your pampered middle class child does. If there is little they can give in terms of energy and enthusiasm, then we must use this efficiently, so as to give this child the best return on their effort, ensuring that they themselves can see how their effort is rewarded with the true feel-good factor of increased knowledge. Expecting them to burn through their personal bank of smile credits during that ‘fun’ discovery lesson, knowing that they lack the vocabulary and general knowledge to discover like their middle class friends is a big waste of time; it is not simply a case of saying to these children ‘Just be happy’.either.

Who’s with me?

 

 

Is there a second identity available for a child to step into?

I’ve been reading ‘Much Promise. Successful Schools in England‘ by Barnaby Lenon on and off for a while now, but I had glossed over a section about school personality, thinking that I had already internalised the main message that schools need to provide an academic atmosphere, encouraging aspiration and hard work as well as having a ‘brand’ as it were that makes them different from all the rest. It wasn’t until I saw a series of programs from the BBC archives about young recruits to the Parachute Regiment of the army that I started thinking about motivation for young boys in particular and how schools’ personalities may or may not be influential enough. Here we had very young men, many of whom had pretty much failed academically; they were seeking more than the security of regular pay, rather they were more eager to see ‘action’. It occurred to me that they wanted to be heroes and were willing to put themselves through some seriously difficult training (which also included being insulted regularly) and living conditions in order to achieve their goal. Basically, the forces presented the option of a completely new identity for these young men. No longer would they be known as ‘so-and-so, the lazy arse from the crappy estate’, they would be known as ‘Private Smith, ready for anything’.

Of course, this led me to think about whether primary schools in particular were providing a ‘second identity’ for young boys to choose to step into. Many would argue that young boys don’t need that kind of extrinsic motivation when they are so young, but I think that even at the youngest age it is really important to not have to constantly be reminded that you can’t control your emotions every time you go for a special intervention session with the HLTA. When I think about schools in disadvantaged areas and the motivation of many teachers who choose to work in primary schools, it seems to me that many schools’ ‘personalities’ inadvertently condemn certain children to continue to be reminded of their disadvantaged background rather than provide an alternative identity for them to step into. This is all done out of love, a sense of ‘This is what we do: we direct our resources to tirelessly working with children with social and emotional needs arising from the conditions they live in. We are positive, we put those interventions in place and we care so much.’

However, despite all that love, it’s still kind of like a collective victim mentality. It doesn’t matter that a school might have a lovely library, or excellent co-curricular clubs or even a free breakfast club: if there’s no ‘second identity’ for children to step into that allows them to forget about their home life and instead choose to be ‘The Best Mathematician’ for example, then they will internalise that their background defines them and there will surely be hardly any motivation during those maths lessons. This situation partly explains why young boys are so obsessed with football: it provides not just fun, running around, a sense of belonging to a tribe and competition, it also provides the ‘fantasy’ that one day they might be football heroes as men and for half an hour on that playing field, no one is reminding them that their parents are alcoholics or why their uniform, academic achievement and general motivation is in tatters.

theflash
Boys and men want to be some kind of hero, why deny them this?

So, I’m wondering whether providing a ‘second identity’ for young children, boys in particular, might be pretty transformational even in the reception year. Last week I was called ‘The Flash’ by some of the boys in my class when I demonstrated exactly how fast you really need to be when it comes to recall of maths facts. Wouldn’t it be great if they could take on that identity? Of course, I told them that there was nothing special about me, just that I had worked hard and had practised, practised and practised. When I think back to when my own sons started school, they were already equipped with an ‘identity’ because our family is seen as being good at maths. Disadvantaged boys, I have realised, not only come to school with a lack of vocabulary, general knowledge and focus (because they have not experienced routine and discipline at home), but they also come to school with a lack of ‘hero’ identity to hold onto.  It does not help that many primary teachers look down upon all forms of competition and the notion of wanting to be publicly good at something (academic) as somehow ‘vulgar’, personality traits that must be erased at all costs. I think this attitude is particularly detrimental to those white, working class males we’re supposed to be helping, not hindering.

In order to provide a ‘second identity’, we need to create a rhetoric in the early years that gives young boys permission to dream a little and choose to leave their infamy (perhaps as the one who shouts, or runs out of class constantly) at the gates. We also need to give children all the knowledge they need so that they can actually be good at something academic.

Who’s with me?

 

Core Knowledge for EYFS reception year

Hardly anyone read my previous post about how EYFS assessment labels children able/less able when ‘ability’ really means ‘degree of parental input’. The most serious concern here is that disadvantaged children are labelled ‘less able’ when they really don’t have as much input from their first teacher (the parent) and then they go on to have that disadvantage entrenched because the rhetoric of EYFS ‘teaching’ is to brand them ‘not ready’. Are secondary educators even aware that EYFS actually allows disadvantaged children to fall behind, thus setting up every single teacher that follows with a requirement to differentiate massively? Despite this lack of awareness and interest, I’m still going to march on with the next post which is a collation of ideas and thoughts about how I would give disadvantaged children a leg up right from the start of their school career by:

a) getting parents more involved

b) mitigating lack of parenting as much as is feasibly possible by being proactive about giving the youngest scholars the bits and pieces of knowledge and skills that advantaged children bring with them to the EYFS reception year classroom

At the end of the last post, I produced a quick list of some of the home experiences that advantaged children received:

  1. Intellectual conversation that is infused with extensive, subject-specific vocabulary, idioms and phrases as well as providing general knowledge about the world, our culture and history
  2. Wonderful music
  3. Hearing interesting and varied stories, nursery rhymes and songs
  4. The undivided attention of an adult who hears them read daily and who teaches them, explicitly, how to count, form letters and to read by sounding out
  5. Understanding that certain behaviours affect others, making them angry, upset and leading to consequences; that it is better to be well-behaved in order to be happy and have good friends
  6. Being taught good manners and social etiquette
  7. Being taught to focus and persevere through daily practice of musical instruments, reading, handwriting, ballet
  8. Early understanding of how ‘society’ works by taking on chores, contributing to the efficient running of a household and feeling good about working hard to help others
  9. Adequate sleep and nutrition

The rhetoric of EYFS is very much about reacting, given that it is child-led and ideally play-based. I propose turning that rhetoric on its head and devising a system of teaching and learning that is proactive about closing gaps in home learning as soon as a child steps foot in that EYFS reception year classroom. Firstly, I would instigate a very specific baseline test that not only gave me an indication of how much vocabulary and general knowledge the child is bringing to the class table, but also information about enunciation, hearing, ability to focus and concentrate, even degree of understanding right and wrong; it should be possible to quantify all this by creating a multiple choice questionnaire for the teacher to do with the child as well as an observation checklist. Some of the questions might even be ‘Do you know what please and thank you means?’ because there are some children who come to school without even the most basic of conversation scripts being taught or modeled in the first years of their lives. Again, why would they naturally know all this?

The second stage would be to decide on all the knowledge that is needed to be given to children in their first year, and this is truly wide ranging: anything from nursery rhymes, counting songs and well-known stories (you’d be surprised how much of this has been lost from our culture) to how to hold a knife and fork and conversation scripts for how to interact with strangers (v. important for those children living in single parent households who don’t hear much adult conversation). Yep, although I bang on about not taking on the parents’ role because it leads to more abdication of responsibility, I now think that we have got to the stage where we need to reverse this great Titanic of lost culture, conversation, social niceties and links to the past by attempting to revive traditions, handing them back to their rightful owners: our youngest children who will inherit the future. You’re probably thinking that many reception classes already do this, but I think it is rather incidental, ‘Oh this would be nice to do for X, Y or Z topic’. Personally, I’m pretty keen to revive the lost tradition of many counting songs and even creating a few more to help children learn, off-by-heart, their early number facts.

Of course, this would mean more whole class teaching, but why not have a teaching sequence that ends with, instead of written practice, play-practice? As an example, a half hour English speaking lesson whereby a script is taught (while 100% of the class is quiet, looking at and listening to the teacher) where children ask for and give each other items politely, as if they were at the shop and then the challenge at the end would be to try it out for themselves? We could go for ‘ping-pong’ style teaching (my favoured approach) with the teacher modelling a ‘worked example’ and then the children doing something almost the same. We could also ‘problem solve’ by listening to a script that is missing some key words. As the year goes by, the children would be taught how to use certain idioms and phrases in conversation.

What about the school day? I would have a lot of whole class teaching; I really cannot think of any other more efficient way that children can learn, particularly when you consider that many children come to school with chronic glue ear and really need to be able to hear what the teacher is saying. It always saddens me to hear from early years teachers and professionals ‘Oh it’s so noisy, you just get used to it’ and I wonder how these children are able to take their first steps as young scholars amidst such a din. I quite like the Far Eastern approach of having more play breaks interspersed throughout the day and shorter, more frequent lessons that can be really varied: number time (whole class number bonds teaching), art (proper slow art, where the paintbrush is held properly), storytime (planned to include stories with good vocabulary and general knowledge), speaking/enunciation/interesting vocabulary and phrases lessons, handwriting, music appreciation and ballet to help strengthen children’s bodies so that they can walk tall and sit up straight. I would also go for the Japanese way of teaching humility and kindness through having the children serve each other lunch in class and then clean up afterwards.

Some may argue that actually teaching children all this life knowledge is some kind of indoctrination that must be avoided. In fact, most EYFS educators don’t believe in teaching the youngest children at all, but what they are really saying is that some children who are taught all of the above at home should be allowed to steam ahead, leaving those disadvantaged children behind, labelled ‘less able’ and ‘not ready’. I think this is patently unfair and the real reason why certain sections of the young population end up achieving hardly anything at all. Young males, for example, all have little egos, so why not teach them all to read properly so they can feel good about themselves as readers rather than by acting as class clowns?

To get the parents more involved, I would be ready with some cold, hard facts about where their child is in relation to the average. Quantifying vocabulary and general knowledge acquisition and retention, then giving this information to parents would help, as would encouraging reading at home by providing information about how exactly lack of reading practice leads to children falling so far behind.

Core knowledge for EYFS: who’s with me?

It’s as if the parents don’t exist

This blog details the consequences of the peculiar inadequacies of data and assessment in EYFS. I believe this affects a child’s academic career all the way through to secondary school, particularly if that child is disadvantaged. There are two key issues that leaders need to consider:

  1. There is no acknowledgement in the statistics generated within schools of parental involvement in children’s academic progress. This leads to some wrong assumptions about children’s ability, thus entrenching disadvantage
  2. Some of the early learning goals could come under the banner of ‘parenting’, yet weirdly if a child doesn’t meet these Early Learning Goals (there are 17 of them), it is assumed that it is because the child is ‘naturally’ delayed rather than lacking parental guidance. Here again, disadvantaged children are disadvantaged further because, as many EYFS reception year policies and ideologies dictate, the process is child-led, meaning that the adults aren’t necessarily proactive about providing the intensive ‘middle class’ education that many advantaged children receive at home

In short, it’s as if the parents don’t ‘exist’ once a child starts school. When you think about the fact that reporting, assessment and general teaching does seek to involve the parent in The Conversation, it is rather paradoxical that when data is generated, the statistics of parental involvement doesn’t exist. And while there is plenty of data showing us that disadvantaged children start school not having received an adequate ‘bank’ of general knowledge and vocabulary such that they find it harder to assimilate new information at school (yet most primary schools choose not to provide a knowledge-based curriculum that would mitigate against this), there is not much in the way of statistical analysis showing how much a child’s academic progress is influenced by the education provided by parents at home during the child’s school life. Although most of us primary teachers know and moan about the fact that sheer lack of parenting, whether it be not regularly hearing a child read or never ensuring their child goes to bed on time, leads to lack of progress at school, we have no way of proving it and, technically, no justification for acting upon it either. This is a situation that could be easily remedied, but first we need to acknowledge it and then we need to get to grips with quantifying it.

I had a little meeting recently with a colleague who gave me some information about how EYFS school reception year progress is reported at progress meetings, moderation meetings and to parents. All teachers should be aware that the reception year teacher’s lot is one of constant assessments, record keeping and updating: all adults in a reception year room will have an iPad permanently in their hands and they will be in ‘waiting’ mode constantly, ready to note down a child’s conversation about how the water fills a jug in the outdoor play area so that they can add that to evidence for the ‘shape, space and measure ELG’ under the ‘uses everyday language to talk about capacity’, for example. The mind boggles at the sheer burden of evidence gathering, especially when you consider that EYFS teachers are supposed to surreptitiously engineer situations such that children discover through guided or independent play; how is it possible to efficiently keep tabs on ‘accidental’ learning for 30 children? Anyway, at regular intervals, the teacher will record the child’s progress against each ELG as either ’emerging’, ‘expected’ or ‘exceeding’ so at least that part is pretty simple (if the huge amount of evidence required to justify is discounted!).  My colleague showed me her spreadsheet and I had a good look at the data, compared it to previous cohorts and we had a conversation about the various outliers on the normal distribution.

Firstly, we talked about the children who were ‘exceeding’ for almost all the ELGs. These were described as ‘more able’. This is where I immediately had concerns, “How do you know that the child is ‘more able’? It could be that they are being provided with additional ‘tuition’ at home?” I asked. Even though it was tentatively acknowledged that, yes, these children were clearly being taught at home if not explicitly then definitely through extra reading, intellectual conversation at the dining table etc, the data didn’t acknowledge that. Instead, they just showed up as ‘more able’, ergo ‘more innately intelligent’.  The outcome? An expectation that these children would ‘exceed’ for all the ELGs, such that the teacher was obliged to provide more intensive learning experiences so that the child ‘exceeded’ for everything, including writing, reading and early maths. So, the child who has everything at home, is given everything at school.

Then, we talked about the children who were ’emerging’ for almost all the ELGs. Here too, it was sort of acknowledged that sheer lack of parenting was the reason that many of the children couldn’t speak, let alone have a decent conversation or begin to put something akin to a conversation down on paper, but it’s almost as if the situation is just accepted. My colleague thought that parents would be aware of the importance of hearing their child read regularly, but I argued otherwise. Why? If you think about it, parents don’t have a frame of reference like us primary teachers and leaders. Even if they do read to and hear their child read regularly, they cannot compare the trajectory of their child to another child in the class (or know how little that other child is reading at home), so have no real understanding of how ‘practice makes perfect’. For the parent of a disadvantaged child, she will be told about her child’s progress but have no idea that her child is really quite behind, and if the SENCO gets involved will then internalise that the child has special educational needs and that the school will be providing what is needed to help that child (remain low achieving and forever hugely dependent on an adult) perhaps allowing this parent to abdicate their responsibility even further. The parent might be minded to do more at home, but will never be given the following information: your child is behind because he is not reading enough at home, he is not getting enough sleep and here is the data to prove it. Just writing this is quite difficult and it goes to show how we educators need to be bold (and diplomatic) about having difficult conversations with parents before it is too late. However, because of the developmentalist beliefs of primary educators, the parent is likely to be placated with a ‘not ready’ catch all reason for why their child is behind.

It occurred to me that the spreadsheet lacked a column.

Is there some way of adding into the data a ‘rating’ for parental involvement such that we can analyse to what extent children’s progress in EYFS is actually down to parental ‘teaching’? You could say that we have no right to ask or pry, but we do have one proxy for ‘parenting’: reading records. We know, instinctively, that parenting (or lack, thereof) makes a massive difference to a child’s academic progress in the early years, but parents do not. Here is what I would do:

  1. Keep an overall record of the number of times children have read to their parents at home and then run a regression analysis against outcomes for the ELGs.
  2. Convert this data into some easy-to-understand information and give this information to parents. ‘Children who only read to their parents once a week tend to be a year behind their peers’ cuts the mustard way more than ‘It really helps if you take the time to hear your child read’.

I do believe all kinds of parents can be our allies if only they were given real information about how their role is so vital. In order for this to happen, educators need to collectively admit that what they do is never going to totally replace the influence of a parent. We could also do with codifying the exact experience of the advantaged child and seek to provide this in the classroom. What does the advantaged child (usually) experience?

  1. Intellectual conversation that is infused with extensive, subject-specific vocabulary, idioms and phrases as well as providing general knowledge about the world, our culture and history
  2. Wonderful music
  3. Hearing interesting and varied stories, nursery rhymes and songs
  4. The undivided attention of an adult who hears them read daily and who teaches them, explicitly, how to count, form letters and to read by sounding out
  5. Understanding that certain behaviours affect others, making them angry, upset and leading to consequences; that it is better to be well-behaved in order to be happy
  6. Being taught good manners and social etiquette
  7. Being taught to focus and persevere through daily practice of musical instruments, reading, handwriting
  8. Early understanding of how ‘society’ works by taking on chores, contributing to the efficient running of a household and feeling good about working hard to help others
  9. Adequate sleep and nutrition

My next blog post will focus on the specifics of going beyond the somewhat woolly ELGs and what I would do, given some sway, to tweak the EYFS reception year experience such that disadvantaged children are given a leg up!

 

 

 

 

An anti-anti-SATs rant

It’s that time of year again: children are looking forward to getting those pesky SATs over and done with so that they can concentrate on preparing for the Year 6 prom or auditioning for the lead role in the end of year performance. You know, fun stuff. What are the adults doing? It seems many, including educationalists, are falling over themselves with worry about how SATs kill children’s ‘creativity’ and mental health etc. Well, I’d like to step forward as one of very few primary (maths specialist) teachers who thinks SATs are not just not that big of a deal, but are actually really important.

Let’s begin with this:

elphinstone
Ahem, it’s a ‘subordinating conjunction’, by the way.

We’ve all saw it last year and then had the great joy of seeing it again all over facebook this year. What’s great about it is that it handily sums up the opinions of many relatively wealthy, privileged and middle class people who have no clue about the lives of disadvantaged children in this country. They see childhood as an endless carefree jaunt in the woods, but they don’t realise that their childhood home life (which would’ve included plenty of opportunities to read and write), even the very conversations they had at the dinner table, would’ve provided that extra education and boost towards academic success that the disadvantaged child would not receive. So, just because they’ve been given a leg up in life and didn’t need, for example, knowledge of how our wonderful language is constructed*, they seek to deny that knowledge to other children and then they seal it off with a ‘And Shakespeare didn’t know any grammar either!’

I don’t know which is worse. The fact that this children’s author compared herself to one of the greatest playwrights in history, or the sheer audacity with which she implied that even Shakespeare didn’t receive this ‘intense’ a schooling. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that Shakespeare had a very traditional education and would’ve been able to parse the hell out of a sentence, in Latin. Abi’s missive that one should simply ‘dream BIG’ also reminds me of that popular song which many primary school children sing: ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh. It’s a very catchy, emotional song that has, on the face of it, some empowering lyrics:

I can do anything at all; I can climb the highest mountain and I can hear the ocean calling wild and free. I can be anything I want, with this hope to drive me onward if I can just believe in me.

I can’t be the only teacher and parent who thinks this and Abi’s message might be setting children up for failure when they realise, half way up Mount Everest, that believing is not quite enough; you also need a vision, a plan, hard work, perseverance and the maturity to not wimp out when the going gets tough. Plus an oxygen tank.

SATs calm

I think many people lose sight of what the SATs are for and instead opt for the odd view that they are somehow about labeling children, making them feel miserable or because ‘exam factories’ etc. To be fair, much of the misery comes from the fact that many children rock up to year 6 with gaps in their learning that go back as far as the educational eye can see and suddenly there’s a panic about school data. This leads to a massive diversion of manpower and resources towards these children who end up being tutored to the nth degree. If there were ever an example of how bonkers progressive (child-centred) education is, it is this total farce whereby children are allowed to fall behind or take a less steep trajectory compared to their peers in the name of ‘differentiation’ and then they’re subjected to intense pressure at the 11th hour to make up for all those years of staring out of the window or having a massive cob on whenever they were expected to work hard. It’s actually quite cruel, but this isn’t the fault of the SATs, it’s the fault of a system that does not expect all children to progress together and yet at the same time expects all children to be secondary ready at exactly the same time. It never ceases to amaze me how so many in education either cannot see this paradox or who seem to think that their amazing skills as educators can somehow override the space time continuum. I also feel sorry for many year 6 teachers who are having to tutor through lunch periods and after school, as well as run all those breakfast clubs and Saturday schools, yet at the same time have to put up with other teachers who berate them for being ‘driven by data’ or ‘careerist’.

What is also apparent is that many teachers and primary leaders would prefer for the SATs to be abolished so that the children would not need to be put through the pain of breakfast or Saturday clubs etc. I believe that this would lead to many more children rocking up to year 7 without the basics in terms of reading, writing and mathematics because, at the end of the day, SATs are a proxy for ensuring children are able to read, write and add up such that they’re able to get the most out of their secondary schooling and therefore life. We should also remember that while children may, of course, prefer to mess about, play and do ‘creative’ lessons, we need to be responsible enough to ensure they have the opportunity to experience the simple pleasure of reading a good book. So, whenever a primary teacher makes the argument for ‘happiness’ (ie more art and drama) in year 6 for children who are not fluent readers, writers or who cannot do basic arithmetic, she is also inadvertently making an argument for potential misery in year 7 and beyond.

At this point many will argue that my argument is too binary. What about those with SEN who will have to suffer through these exams only to be labelled as ‘failures’? Well, I have seen this ‘fact’ propagated far too often. Children with statements are not required to sit the exams and besides, the results are reported to parents who are then free to share (or not share) this information with their children. I am also quite amazed to learn that schools are allowed to provide readers for children who cannot read; this is surely proof that there is some leeway in the system to facilitate the needs of children with SEN?

There have also been arguments leveled at the entire SATs regime because of individual experiences of children crying over SATs. My counter to this would simply be that just because one middle class child has never experienced any hardship, harsh words or even lifted a finger at home and therefore can’t cope with tests, is no reason to deny all other children the opportunity to work towards something so important (basic life skills) and then be tested on it. For every mum on Facebook raging against the fact that her little angel Persephone is in tears, there are 10 others with children who are just getting on with the job without making a fuss. Why are their children able to do this? Perhaps because they live in cramped, damp homes and have seen their parents worry and fret over the bills; an hour long test in the warm followed by half a mars bar is a walk in the park in comparison. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the prevailing ‘wisdom’ that anything that makes a child feel a little bit sad will inevitably lead to mental health issues.

I think that what we all need to remember is that for every parent who barges into the school reception and shouts at the year 6 teacher for making her son work towards having neat, fluent and spelling-error-free handwriting such that he is ‘forced’ to throw a strop, wail, shout and bemoan his lack of time in the ICT suite or on the playing fields, there are 10 parents who are worried that their children might end up in the low sets at secondary school and be subjected to bullying, low self-esteem and unhappiness because of their poor grasp of the basics. These parents are also worried that their children might not have choices in life, or, even worse, make the wrong choices, leaving them to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams when they themselves are struggling to make ends meet. These are the parents who tacitly approve of a few weeks of intense study towards doing well in the SATs because they have the maturity to know that doing well in the SATs is actually about having basic life skills and knowledge. Also, they know that working hard is a good thing because it gives you the opportunity to experience the true joy of success that comes from sheer effort and also deferred gratification. I am rather miffed at the way in which educators seek to undermine these opportunities for children to mature or even experience real happiness when they promote an agenda that effectively prioritises instant gratification.

What would help though (I believe) is if we had some kind of yearly exam and requirement to report the exact results and their comparison to the average to parents. This would go some way to mitigate the need for such intense teaching in year 6. Also, I think it would be a good idea to encourage primary schools to be evidence-based in their construction of curricula and use of certain teaching methods. For example, there is an increasing awareness that reading comprehension success is mostly to do with having lots of general knowledge as well as being able to read fluently. It behoves us to ensure that children are reading a wide range of non-fiction writing from the start of their school career, rather than focusing on endless fantasy stories. A middle way would ensure that even stories contain a modicum of general knowledge, for example using settings that give children geographical or cultural knowledge of the wider world. I’m sure many schools already do this to some degree, but that perhaps it is not sequenced or with the deliberate aim of improving the vocabulary and general knowledge of disadvantaged children. Certainly, when you check the websites of most primary schools, you will see a nod to child-centred education and skills based curricula despite evidence showing us that whole-class teaching and knowledge-based curricula is best for all children, especially disadvantaged children. ‘Knowledge’ is still very much a dirty word in primary education and this needs to change.

I saw our year 6s recently and I said well done to them for working so hard towards something that is so important; not the SATs, but towards being able readers, writers and mathematicians which is really what this is all about. I also let them know that I was excited for them because, next week, they would have the opportunity to show how amazing they are, to go for a personal best and to be proud that they can focus so well.

It’s all about attitude and I do believe that we need to model being positive in the face of adversity.

Who’s with me?

*I may not have the writing skills of a widely published author such as Miss Elphinstone, but without my self-taught knowledge of grammar and punctuation, I would not have the confidence or skills to write this blog.

Are you really teaching? Or are you just asking endless frustrating questions?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, partly because Ben Newmark has been writing some excellent stuff on didactic teaching which has got me thinking about what concise-explanation-is-king teaching looks like in the primary classroom and partly because it was mentioned on twitter that most instruction in the primary classroom is, apparently, didactic.

I disagree.

I think that many teachers might be confusing all teacher talk with didactic teaching, instead inadvertently employing a version of discovery learning that requires the children to construct their own knowledge/understanding/skills in their heads and then share it with (and ‘teach’) the rest of the class. Just because they’re not at their tables working in groups, or using lots of manipulatives,  sugar paper, drama or iPads doesn’t mean that discovery learning is not taking place. Conversely, just because the children are sat on the carpet in front of you, doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is happening. What I have seen and still see a lot of is various permutations of this:

I’m thinking of the thing, can you think of what it is yet?

Even I sometimes slip into this habit and it’s as if the rhetoric of child-centred education can so easily filter into the teacher’s head, slightly shifting and warping the words and phrases that the teacher uses (employing a dose of guilt too), ultimately allowing the child’s voice to take precedence over the teacher’s voice. This manifests in endless questions prompting the children to make the next connection themselves and then offer up these connections to the rest of the class. Underlying all this questioning is the prioritisation of engagement and interest, and underlying this is an internalisation of the following message by the teacher:

I am not worth listening to (actually it is wrong for me to ‘force’ children to learn what I want them to learn), I am not important and it is better if the children arrive at their own conclusions themselves or with each other than if I simply tell them.

They also might be thinking this:

I must AfL it to the max. All the time.

How does this pan out? In order to really understand this, we also need to put ourselves in the shoes of the various different children in our class. This is what tends to happen when, instead of just giving the children some interesting information about the key concepts of Islam (for example), the teacher asks, ‘Muslims read a special book; does anyone know what this book is called and what language it is written in?’

  1. There will, probably, be a [middle class] child called Derek who already knows this information and he immediately throws a hand in the air. A few other gung-ho kids with the wrong information throw their hands in the air too.
  2. The teacher may a) pick Derek and he then ‘teaches’ the rest of the class, but is a bit woolly with his explanation, saying the words a bit wrong, or, b) picks a gung-ho child who ‘teaches’ the rest of the class something that is completely wrong and they all have a good laugh together, maybe going off on a tangent into Judaism.
  3. Jerry, who has SEN and seriously struggles to understand what the hell is going on, immediately feels down when the teacher asks the class if anyone already knows what she is intending to teach them or whether they have worked out, by themselves, the next step because he can’t put his hand up. Then he either thinks a) Derek is so lucky that he naturally knows everything or b) That Judaism and Islam are pretty much the same thing.

Despite everyone in the class looking engaged, this is mostly a waste of time. All the children who struggle to concentrate would’ve switched off, all the children with SEN would’ve either learned nothing or, even worse, the wrong thing and all the advantaged children would’ve been given a leg-up to the next step and made to feel like they’re better than all the other children. Well I, for one, am not down with that.

Don’t get me wrong, questioning is good, particularly if you make children fully explain their reasoning. However, there’s a difference between using questions to check whether children understand what has already been taught versus questions that are intended to prompt children to make connections and construct their own knowledge in their heads. The latter is inefficient, risky and leaves disadvantaged children behind. A truly traditional teacher would do the following:

  1. Show children a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic.
  2. She would show children the words ‘Q’uran’ and ‘Arabic’ on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’
  3. She would then ask the whole class if anyone can say, in their own words, what she has just taught the class.
  4. Both Derek and Jerry put their hands up when asked a question about the special book that a Muslim reads.

Some of you might be thinking that I’ve picked something that is too straightforward and that of course you would take the second approach. But do you really? A slightly more complex situation would be in the teaching of column subtraction. The properly didactic route would be to get the children silent, all hands resting on the desks (not fiddling with a pencil) and 100% of eyeballs looking at the teacher. The teacher would firstly show children a ‘problem’ that needs solving and the calculation that needs to be done, then stating why column subtraction needs to be used as opposed to mental arithmetic. Then, she would clearly explain exactly how to lay out column subtraction including why it is laid out that way (but remembering to keep on task with the explanation and not leading the children astray with their thinking). She would then go through each and every step modelling his/her thinking and number bond knowledge along the way and when arriving at the answer, stating (using the correct mathematical language and including the units of measurement) how the original problem has been solved, showing children the now balanced equation.

How many primary teachers would have the confidence to go through this process, which should only take 5 minutes, without resorting to stopping every half a bloody minute to ask the following questions:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they think the calculation needs to be?
  • Who thinks they know why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they think the next step is?
  • Who thinks they know what to do when we are faced with a subtrahend here is bigger than the minuend here?
  • Who can guess what this number in this column represents?
  • Who can think of a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who thinks they already know what the answer is?

When teachers resort to discovery-through-questioning-teaching I find that it causes children to start guessing and calling out (because all little children are eager to please and have approval; something that secondary maths teachers don’t experience as much so we primary teachers should remember to be grateful!). I do find that many classes’ overall psychology is to assume that they will be constantly called upon or allowed to constantly interject with their opinions in this way and you find that hands shoot up all over the place and pretty much constantly where they even try to anticipate the question, never mind the answer! In fact, some cohorts don’t seem to understand the whole concept of a teacher actually teaching or that they are there to learn rather than have conversations and do activities. This is seriously distracting.

There are a couple of other reasons why a teacher, particularly a young and new teacher, might resort to this kind of ‘teaching’, especially in maths lessons. I think one of the reasons is that a typical SCITT course ‘Maths day’ doesn’t actually consist of ‘How to teach maths’, rather an immersion in the consultant’s version of ‘It’s great when you get all the equipment out, here are some exciting activities and let the children enjoy, discover and improve their self-esteem’ way of life. The other reason is probably lack of confidence/maths prowess among new primary teachers themselves which would lead them to inadvertently deferring the ‘teaching’ as it were to the more confident children in their class. I often wonder whether primary teachers are really checking number bond or times tables knowledge among the children when demonstrating a formal method of calculation, or whether they didn’t have that particular maths fact to hand at the time. Honestly, the number of times I’ve heard teachers either admit to being a bit frightened of year 6 maths, or even saying that they need to brush up on it really does alarm me! The risk is of course is that a child says the wrong answer, and then the teacher will quite often say, ‘Well, you’re nearly there and almost correct! Well done for having a go!’ instead of ‘This is the wrong answer.’ It’s better just to model your knowledge of the maths fact and then get 100% of the children to chant it back, then maybe ask an individual child than risk mass confusion. Perhaps SCITT maths days really need to include the course tutors actually modelling how to teach converting fractions, for example, then the SCITT student would a) feel the love for fractions and understand why various aspects of the previous years’ curricula need to be learned off by heart and b) assimilate a bank of words, phrases and lesson structures that would help them teach maths.

Now you might still be thinking that there clearly isn’t enough questioning. However, after the teacher has properly explained what is is going on, including actually ‘answering’ those questions listed above (‘-10+1 = -9, let me just write this maths fact at the side here, so we can just quickly subtract 10 and add 1 rather than inefficiently count back 9 ones, which I’m now going to prove to you’), including pre-empting the misconceptions (‘no, we don’t simply decide to subtract the minuend from the subtrahend’) then the questions can be allowed, but with the teacher leading the way, not the children.

  • Who would like me to go through this again?
  • If there was a bit of this that you found confusing, please put up your hand and tell me exactly which part didn’t make sense. Remember, your friends are probably thinking the same thing!
  • Does anyone have any questions about what I have done or the words and phrases I have used?
  • Right, now we are going to do one of these together, but bit-by-bit. If you are feeling confident, please don’t call out; instead, you can play a little game inside your head where you guess what I am going to say and do next.
  • [Checks Jerry is smiling] Jerry, I am going to read this problem for us both. Can you tell me what the calculation is and why you know this?

Of course, many reading this are thinking that a teacher just teaching is all rather boring. I would disagree. What I find is that when the children are settled, in ‘receive’ mode and I give myself permission to just teach, taking care with the explanations, modelling of thinking and doing, using the new phrases and vocabulary, maybe even converting the instruction into a nice story, then I am more likely to hear the muffled ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Far from boring, this is incredibly liberating because when the teacher actually teaches, and this is what I, as a parent, thought all teachers were all doing before I entered the profession and experienced a rather rude awakening, then all children can learn. When all the children have learned, then the questions subtly change:

  • Who has read this problem and can tell me what they know the calculation needs to be?
  • Who knows why I have laid it out this way?
  • Who can tell me what they know the next step is?
  • Who knows exactly what this number in this column represents?
  • Who knows what to do when this number is bigger than this number here?
  • Who knows a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
  • Who knows what the answer is?

Knowledge is power, so let’s actually teach the children everything they need to know (and then of course get them to practise lots!)

Who’s with me?