Secondary teachers and leaders: are you finding that your new year 7s love all their lessons and are eager to learn, all the time? Do they do extra reading around their subject because they’re interested in it? I would bet that the answer to these questions is mostly ‘no’ and it would be easy to assume that this is because your typical pre-teen is more interested in youth culture and whatever their peers are doing, saying and wearing. What, if anything, can be done about this situation? Are we even bothered about it, or should we just bumble along with the status quo? I think there’s a lot that primary schools could do to help children arrive at secondary school not just with the basics such as competency in the 3Rs, but with the right attitude to and habits for learning.
Weirdly, if you randomly google ‘primary school’ and ‘love of learning’, what you will find is that according to various mission statements on primary school websites, most primary schools are instilling, in every child, a lifelong love of learning. Well, perhaps this lifelong love of learning is falling out of their heads during the 6 week holiday, or, more likely, this lifelong love of learning isn’t really being instilled in the first place. This isn’t to say that primary schools aren’t doing their best for children because we know that all primary school leaders want children to have the highest possible chances of success and happiness. My theory is that perhaps the assumptions as to how to instill a lifelong love of learning are a bit, erm, wrong.
When I was at primary school, I loved Friday lunch (chips!), holding my coat in the air on the windy day, playing the recorder, quiet reading and numbers. I was relatively good at all those things, especially the coat in the air thing because I had my technique down pat. Coincidence? I think not. If I flip the situation round and think about what I didn’t like – dance class – I was hilariously crap at that. If you think about various jobs and activities that you do, you will probably find that you love and enjoy doing the things you’re relatively good at and dislike doing the things that you’re not so good at. So, my thinking is that like pretty much anything in life, a love of learning can only develop alongside being relatively good at said love of learning. Are you with me so far?
Which came first, the ‘being good’ aspect, or the ‘loving/enjoying it’ aspect? If I think about my initial experience of playing the recorder, it was so frustrating (and squeaky). However, I persevered until I had learned all the knowledge of how to play the recorder and read music, and the point at which I was invited to play in a recorder ensemble I would’ve said that I loved being a little musician. If we extrapolate to many enjoyable activities and jobs in our adult lives, we certainly didn’t enjoy them at first. The journey to loving any activity whether it be playing the recorder or learning new knowledge in the classroom is not easy, but the evidence surely points to the necessity of perseverance until we reach the point where we are good at activity X and then love activity X.
A ‘love of learning’ is a bit generic though, isn’t it? What I find is that children who love learning, tend to love learning in their favourite subjects. They tend to have, relative to their friends, more knowledge and competency in that subject. For example, a young lad who loves an aspect of history such as the Romans will typically have a big bank of history books at home on the Romans. In class, he will often link every other aspect of history that he learns back to his knowledge of the Romans in some way because he just can’t help it. A young girl who loves maths will also tend to be high achieving and experience lots of success in that subject – she can make the connections, do the calculations and see the patterns such that the circuitry of her mind will be buzzing with anticipation, satisfaction and reward (and she will, hopefully, be getting some kind of certificate in achievement assembly too).
The second key factor I observe in children who genuinely love learning is that they tend to be prolific readers. Prolific readers are those children who are not only fluent in the mechanics of reading, but also have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand what is read and create that all important picture in their head. Furthermore, they’ve also developed the habit of reading. That’s 3 things that need to be in place before you’ve got yourself an prolific reader who experiences independent success in acquisition of knowledge and enjoyment of stories that then creates a virtuous circle of self-improvement. How many children in your year 6 are prolific readers? Perhaps not many. I would say that if we are honest about this situation, some older children lack all 3 components: fluency in the mechanics of reading, background knowledge and vocabulary and regular, dedicated and peaceful moments for reading quietly without distraction at home. The latter component is why we’re working on helping children in our school develop the habit of getting stuck into a book through a fixed, almost sacred, period of silent (and I really mean everyone should be silent) reading after lunch. There are many in education who would balk at this (‘but where is the learning?’ they say) and would try very hard to stop this from happening, but I think it’s the right thing to do for children who do not have this opportunity given to them at home. Please feel free to message me if you think that I am wrong on this and that ensuring children have the habit of reading is not within the remit of a primary school.
The final aspect of being ‘good’ at learning also involves being able to focus and practise without giving up such that the initial hurdles of learning any particular activity or subject are surmounted without too much fuss. Not many children would choose to continue when there is a possibility that they might look silly, or when they are struggling. This is because they are little children who, just like us, would rather do the things they’re good at (and therefore enjoy more). This is a bit of a problem in the reception year where they’re all supposed to choose their own learning. Anyway, we need to ensure that expectations, rules and routines are in place right from the start in primary school such that we, the adults in charge, are not allowing children to opt out when the going gets tough.
This all seems obvious, yet I think that a few common assumptions stand in the way of really understanding and implementing the above. Firstly, many hold the view that instead of gradually ramping up the expectations in terms of hard work that children should do, ‘resilience’ is allegedly built through removing all and any stress/struggle for children until most/all of their lived experience is happy, magical and full of variety. For example, even testing is frowned upon. In fact, that are some educationalists that believe that frequent testing will cause children to become mentally ill. The other assumption is that a love of learning in any subject will develop primarily through having lots of fun and enjoyment in said subject. This belief, which comes from a place of love, is at the core of the drive to make teachers sing and dance in front of children while providing ‘activities’ that make children feel good rather than think hard. Teachers feel guilty about expecting children to get on without a fuss and on the primary school’s website, the prioritisation of fun and enjoyment and miraculously effortless learning in every lesson might translate to ‘we provide lots of stimulation and opportunities for creativity, and encourage children to be active learners’. However, if we return to our own knowledge that ‘loving’ comes after a relatively high level of competency is achieved, this attempt to provide constant fun and enjoyment (and ‘creativity’) in lessons is futile, surely?
So, I believe we need implement what the evidence shows us needs to be in place. The real way to instill a lifelong love of learning is to have:
- Policies, procedures and curricula that ensure children become prolific readers
- A commitment to ensuring children are good at any subject (knowledge-rich curriculum, good teaching, lots of practice and no opt out)
- A whole-school approach to teaching, learning and behaviour that ensures that children develop the stamina and resilience to carry on, even though they may be struggling at the time
Who’s with me?