What if…..they just faced the front?

Often I think about how teaching and learning would be so much better if children were paying more attention. We spend so much time and energy trying to make learning ‘fun’, ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’, but it’s never enough; nothing can compete with those iPad games and YouTube videos, the crack cocaine of children’s entertainment. We even jazz up our lesson powerpoints and source interactive visual aids, fuelling children’s addiction to the screen and encouraging children to never actually look (or listen) to the teacher or just any human being really. Children also cannot concentrate or commit to hard work (because they just don’t read a book any more or do chores) and increasingly the critical mass will not be used to any kind of discipline in the home. This particular wave of very young children are addicted to screen time in the same way that male teenagers traditionally are and I believe secondary schools have yet to fully experience this wave of children who have been mainly goggling at their iPads since about the age of 4. I reckon the first few are trickling into secondary year 7 about now, but the peak of normal distribution will arrive in a couple of years’ time*. This blog post argues that in order for children to learn and to develop good social skills, we need to break their collective addiction to screens and we need to force them to look and listen to adult humans because it sure as hell ain’t happening in the home.

For the sake of clarity, I would like to reiterate the problem with children being entertained by looking at screens and playing iPad games. Reading and looking at books requires children to decode print and create an image inside their own heads (creative thinking), whereas looking at a hypnotic iPad clearly doesn’t. Of course, at this point many middle class primary teachers are already thinking about commenting about how their Tarquin and Pandora absolutely love reading Enid Blyton, but I’m talking about the ordinary masses here, ok? Playing iPad games usually involves minimal effort both in terms of coordination or general problem solving. Compared to the traditional entertainment (doing painting, playing with play-dough, role-play with siblings/friends, just making up games using whatever is lying around, like a stick and a leaf for example) of very young children, development of coordination, communication and  creativity is vastly undermined. Like I said, secondary schools have yet to fully experience the increasingly weird situation whereby children just don’t seem to look at adults any more or find anything remotely interesting, even if it is accompanied by a whizzy powerpoint. It also doesn’t help that primary teachers are on average very young and only have a few years of experience, and even if they are parents themselves their children will tend to be very young, therefore there is no frame of reference, no comparison, no understanding of trends, so they just accept the status quo and, even worse, add to it by feeding young children’s addictions to iPads by bringing them into the classroom. I am not only a very rare parent teacher, but also an even rarer (is that a word?) parent of teenagers and I also was a parent long before I became a teacher; trust me when I say that early childhood is changing incredibly quickly.

It seems ironic that I have both written about how to be a (mostly successful) strict teacher and about how I am struggling to control my current class who are the loudest and collectively the most ‘ADHD’ in terms of group psychology that I have ever experienced. I have changed down year groups for the sake of career ‘progression’ and I wonder whether I have jumped onto the year group who represent of that normal distribution I was referring to earlier? Let me throw down that gauntlet now: why not just have them at individual desks facing the front, as they seem to do in the U.S and in other places around the world? Also, while we’re at it, why not just get rid of the IWB instead of having this mandate that we use technology in our classrooms constantly. Is an adult human being, a large surface to write on and a decent textbook not enough anymore? If you think so, then perhaps you assume that children’s brains are not the same as previous generations, that they are no longer capable of thinking for themselves?

At this point I’d like to tell you that my own vision (it’ll probably stay just a vision though) of a ‘Slow School’ just crystallized in my mind. It’s a really peaceful, calm place where young children study hard in the morning, all concentrating on the teacher and putting their own thoughts to paper. In the afternoons, they would do interesting hobby lessons, with the very little ones being able to do a bit of free play and roaming about outdoors. There would be no tech, no screaming colours, words and pictures with stary eyeballs jumping out of all the walls at the children and there would be no distracting group work or group seating in the morning. Because the children would be working and thinking so hard in the mornings, listening to the crystal clear voice of the teacher, looking at the textbook or the no-tech whiteboard, their learning would be accelerated and they would have more time for playtime and lunch. Can you imagine how their vocabulary would be so much better than children who are constantly immersed in the whole ‘talk to your partner/group; what do you feel the answer is?’ Unhinged from the dominance of the giant computer screen that currently occupies the space where the teacher used to be in all primary classrooms, the children would be given the opportunity to just listen to a magical story brought alive by an ordinary human being.

Many primary teachers would recoil in horror at this vision, citing that it would not help children learn how to be social, mainly because most primary teachers are extroverts and primary leaders extroverts too (we hire based on public performance, not intellect) and these people hate The Quiet. However, when children spend all day at group tables, chatting about anything but the work (admit it, this is what they do: they’re little children, not employees at Google head office), sometimes messing about, endlessly distracted by each other and by the noise of their increasingly loud and shouty voices, are they really learning social skills? I don’t think so. No, we’re basically training the children to be rude, talking over each other, with the extrovert children believing that they have a free pass to show off and inflict their noise and jokey antics on everyone else. Is there not enough time outside of school or during playtime for children to do this? If you’re one of these teachers who thinks the modern workplace is one long shouty conversation (oops, my bad, I meant ‘collaboration’) and that we need to emulate that in the classroom, you seriously need to take a sabbatical and go visit a few workplaces yourself because they are not like that at all. Modern working life is not an episode of Friends and even open plan offices require people to work on their own thing, alone, occasionally getting together for a meeting or making a phone call to clients etc**

I just can’t help but think that the simple act of turning the desks so that primary school children face the front rather than each other, and removing the constant screen time that conspires to stop them from developing the skills of concentration, would be immensely beneficial. It might even help to reduce turnover because teachers wouldn’t have to work so hard, almost fighting, to gain the children’s attention with loud voices (painful throats), clapping, a little bell, cajoling, putting a whizzy song or video on the IWB, use of various ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’. That exhaustion that accompanies constant, literally every second of every minute of every day, behaviour management and requires an additional set of eyes and ears in the TA, would melt away. How much would the achievement of young males, because they operate best in a hierarchy, working hard for the approval of one leader rather than their friends (who would prefer them to mess about), in particular absolutely skyrocket? Further, how much would this change cost? NOTHING.

Who’s with me?

*First iPad, which revolutionised tablet use for the masses due to the novelty of ‘apps’ and easy-to-use interface (that competitors tried to emulate), released in 2010 and by the time the iPad 2 was released over 15 million had been sold: let’s assume it took a year or two before it became the norm to buy an iPad/tablet for very young children aged 4 in 2011 + 7 years of primary school = 2018 is the year that secondary Headteachers, who thankfully will be older and more experienced/worldly wise than the primary equivalents, will notice.

**And, by the way, adults are rewarded for their productivity not their effort. Perhaps we should think about that before we hand the termly assembly prize to a child for making an effort to do the bare minimum and not mess about in class.


14 thoughts on “What if…..they just faced the front?

  1. Agree with almost everything. The task is all but impossible but bear in mind that by the time these kids are 18 there will be no jobs for them.adjusting to the new reality is a bit difficult. As long as you can kettle them for a while, job done.

    Getting them to sit in rows will I think he a tough ask and may not be possible and reading on an iPad is to reading a book what reading a book was to listening to a yarn……progress. Other than that I agree.i think ipads should be mainly for reading books.

    Good luck and keep safe.


    • ‘Jobs’ as such were a temporary aberration in human history that coincided with the industrial revolution and the growth of trade unions and social legislation. ‘Work’ will in all probability always be with us: even now, the UK is creating so much work that we need immigrants. Predictions that automation would leave us all without work have been around for half a century.

      However ill-prepared for work our digital zombies may be, I expect that most of them will eventually be hit in the face by reality. And there’s always Michaela School to give us hope: it’s amazing how quickly their pupils make up the huge gaps in their primary education. The teacher, and not the EWB, is the centre of every classroom, and pupils always face the front. When I visited, their PCs (the only connective devices I saw) were sitting in an empty room. I’m sure they get used on occasion. What’s more, their pupils actually read complete books.

      The problem is not the kids–it’s the teachers. Although a teacher’s life at Michaela in vastly more satisfying than at any other comprehensive you are likely to find, it’s no longer all that easy to find teachers with enough subject knowledge to teach them. This is why exam boards are now producing PowerPoints that will allow them to go through the charade of ‘teaching’ a given topic.


  2. Ha, I am one such middle class prep school English teacher, although I’ve got 2/3 of my class as Mashas and Sashas from Russia and Jean-Philippes from France. So much as I’d love to say they all adore Enid Blyton, they don’t. Yet. Probably because reading in a foreign language is difficult.

    I also strongly agree with you that attention is a skill that must be developed with practice. It seems Giving children iPad apps, jazzy PowerPoint and YouTube clips is simply giving in to their pathological need for stimulation. We don’t give children sugar whenever they ask for it, but the prophets of technology seem to have us all fooled. Plus all the on-screen “engagement” is just a proxy for the real work: reading, vocabulary building and learning grammar.

    The desks in my room face the front. I don’t have an IWB. I don’t do PowerPoints. I don’t have a TA. We have a set text (or even two) each term (Tom’s Midnight Garden for Year 5 at the moment) that we analyse in detail. Funnily enough, they love it because they can feel for themselves how fluent and confident they are becoming.


  3. I think you need to persuade your SLT. Point out to them that having desks in rows does not mean you never do group work or pair work. But having desks in clusters is an invitation to getting distracted and is not conducive to tasks when you want them to listen and concentrate on you and whatever it is you are telling them or showing them. It’s difficult to change in the middle of a school year but try it from next September


  4. I am with you. I teach computer science, a subject in which students need to interact with the computer, but in a creative way, and not just as consumers. I have had to train all my classes to turn their monitors off and “face the front” so that they learn from the expert in the room. Some really do seem fixated on the screen in front of them, and they have little or no apprehension of how long they are distracted by those screens. At times it seems as though they value the screen over any human-to-human interaction.


  5. 100% with you.

    All my training events and talks include the issue of desks facing front – and this is not Victorian, formal, authoritarian or draconian – or anything else negative – and research shows it makes a substantial difference to ‘learning’.

    And of course desks can be grouped during the day too – when it is fit-for-purpose for the subject and activity.

    This is even an important factor for our four to six year olds, many of whom have not yet developed sophisticated spatial awareness or left/rightness well enough.

    The difference in trying to teach children with desks facing forwards compared with desks in groups is PROFOUND.

    It is SO MUCH HARDER in every way to teach to grouped children and it is NOT FAIR ON THE CHILDREN EITHER.

    There – I’m shouting that.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Absolutely agree. We implemented a very similar approach in Reception last year with a significant increase in attainment, attention and engagement.


  7. I’m never quite sure who you are having a go at?

    From your previous blogs I gather that your bosses think you are the bees knees at behaviour management and at teaching and learning. They would not give you the trickiest class otherwise. I reckon you could do just whatever you liked in your classroom and they would let you get on with it because they know you are getting results.
    Just do it. They won’t say a word. If they do, nod nicely and tell them – again and again if necessary – where you are coming from. There might be stuff said in staff meetings and INSET etc, but if it doesn’t apply to you, take no notice. You have them by the short and curlies – where would they find another such as you? When you are in your classroom with your class, you are in charge, and they know it. They can’t manage your class from the other end of the school – they know this too. They also know that teachers are all different. Some quite like a lively class, some like silence – both can get results and that’s really the main concern.

    Please stop listening to the sinister Jimminy Cricket you imagine is on your shoulder blowing raspberries. He isn’t. Sit the children in rows, turn the IWB off and write on a paper flip chart if you like. Guess what? They can’t stop you. You are a qualified and experienced professional. Never forget that.

    And please also take no notice of blog commenters who have not had a class for more than 25 years, and certainly never in the current regime.


    Liked by 1 person

  8. My daughter’s just starting grade 7, and when I visited her school, I was delighted that finally the desks face the teacher again. It’s curious that we think younger students should face each other for optimal learning and only face the teacher as they get older. But now we’re giving Chromebooks to all the grade 9s in school, so they just get two years to face the teacher before they start looking at a screen all day. It’s nutty.


  9. I’m with you. I love ICT, but all this desperate ’21st century innovation’ signalling drives me bonkers. Do what works. The end.


  10. Where I went to primary school – it was that. Lessons in the morning, games and clubs in the afternoon. Where I went to secondary school, there was no selection. There were a few private schools, but even rich kids when to the state schools where the standards were as high as they should be when the ‘best’ pupils are not being creamed off, leaving a lower expectation for everyone else. There is nothing I have seen in progressive or traditional education that I hadn’t already seen in my own. Barring digital technology, there are no tactics, strategies, classroom management techniques that are new to me. I wondered the other day how our teachers managed it. But then I remembered two things: we understood that we were meant to listen to the lesson and to think about it; the content was also available in high quality text books, written by experts in the subject and in pedagogy (not just some commercial organisation working with class teachers). I do not think the conditions in which we teach now, have improved things.


  11. In answer to your question: me! On a Sunday evening, you have excelled yourself, and written your most thought-provoking and inspiring blog to date; I can only say a profuse ‘thank you’.

    Liked by 1 person

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