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.
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/badge) so 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 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.
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!
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?