Confirmation bias in the reception year classroom

In publishing a couple of blogs disputing what is considered best practice, firstly regarding the psychology of young disadvantaged males, and secondly regarding the application of CLT to the reception year experience, I’ve had a lot of push back (as expected) and some of this has been along the following lines:

  • EYFS is great if you do it right
  • In our setting, all disadvantaged children catch up by year 1 – this is because we do EYFS right
  • Young children’s brains are different, therefore EYFS is great
  • Prove it! You’re theorising, but fail to give me real evidence, therefore EYFS is great

It seems to me that whatever I say, whatever appeal to logic (such as the proportion of time Harry spends choosing, as opposed to learning relative to Hermione), people are extremely keen to defend and promote the status quo. Perhaps the problem that EYFS reception year faces is confirmation bias? Everyone’s mostly going around around telling each other how great it all is, and then writing research papers about how great it all is.

I’m not going to challenge the first bullet point above because it’s a rehash of a classic argument for progressive education in that people who challenge it are told they’re simply not doing it right, or enough. This is really a thinly veiled and slightly amusing insult along the lines of ‘You’re an idiot and so are your colleagues’, which I will not participate in.

The second bullet point is interesting. So, there are all these EYFS reception years where disadvantaged children (boys in particular) catch up by the start of year 1 and then everything’s just dandy. I even began to question my own assertions when challenged with this evidence, so I went back to the national data on outcomes at the end of reception year:

  • 44% of white British boys eligible for free school meals achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. 61% of white British girls who were also eligible for free school meals
  • 67% of white British boys who were not eligible for free school meals achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. 81% of the same category of girls
  • For the local authorities in poorer areas of the country, around 50% of children on FSM achieved at least the expected standard in all ELGs vs. around 70% of non FSM children

They certainly don’t catch up which is just as I thought. Disadvantaged white working class males having the worst outcomes at the end of reception year, just like they have the worst outcomes at every other data collection point for the rest of their academic lives. So it is quite odd that many tell me how wonderful they and their reception year settings are (and therefore shifting the blame to teaching and learning in year 1 and above). Perhaps we’ve got a bit too much confirmation bias going on? Also, you’ve got to wonder if this child-led, play-based, personalised, relevant education is so wonderful at helping disadvantaged young males to catch up, why is it not then the modus operandi of teaching and learning in year 1, 2, 3 even?

You can literally see confirmation bias when you observe reception year settings – the teacher will be looking for evidence to collect, which means perusing/scanning for children who are doing something productive and constructive at the continuous provision activity areas. When they’re looking for evidence to tick off ELGs, they’re not looking for evidence of children not ticking achieving ELGs, so Harry is less likely to gain the teacher’s attention (unless he messes about), whereas Hermione (who already has extra education at home which gives her confidence and communication skills) gets to have slightly more, thus consolidating, reinforcing and augmenting what she already knows. At the end of the day, the teacher will upload all this positive evidence and then feel good about all these children who have achieved.

Experts, consultants and officials who visit reception year will also (inadvertently) be prone to confirmation bias. If you look at Ofsted reports, you will see much lip service paid to the superficial – the ‘children were busy and happy’ type comments alongside the approval of all the lovely activities and equipment laid out (because that is what they were looking for, that ‘best practice’ that we all love so much). They too will be drawn to the most responsive, talkative and engaging children – who are these children? Harry’s not one of them because he’s not a fan of the whole talking malarkey – he’s got no clue about what people are talking about anyway so he likes to be where the adults aren’t. This is the complete opposite of the observation protocol in year 1 and above where observers will not only look at what the teacher is doing and saying at each and every minute of the observation, but at each and every child (which is possible because they’re sat still) and then each and every one of their exercise books and data sets with the expectation that 100% of them will be paying attention and then making some kind of progress. You simply cannot look at 100% of the children in a reception year classroom at any one time, nor can you properly analyse what they did/learned/said afterwards because much of that evidence vanished into thin air as soon as it happened. You know, if I were to do some kind of PhD, I think I might look at analysing what children are doing and saying, but using the mathematics of crowd dynamics and comparing different cohorts. Technology would be key to this investigation and children would have to have some kind of tech attached to them that recorded position within the classroom as well as proximity to various activities, for example – I wonder if my hypotheses that white working class males spent a higher proportion of their time racing around in ‘choose’ mode (relative to being calm and doing activities laid on for them), a lower amount of time ‘concentrating’ (ie. sat relatively still at a literacy table) and a lower amount of time interacting with adults than their peers would be proven correct?

The third bullet point really bugs me. You’ve got your neurons and you’ve got your connections between the neurons – there are fewer connections (I’m deliberately using simple language here, so don’t have a go) in younger children because they have not learned as much, yet. Teaching and learning (should) causes changes to long term memory – synaptic plasticity being the key mediator here. However, defenders of the EYFS child-led status quo tell me that children’s brains are different because they have fewer connections between neurons and therefore this is why they cannot learn like older children (where it’s ‘safe’ for their brains to let an adult teach them), instead they must learn through child-led discovery and play, the EYFS way. However, fewer connections doesn’t mean ‘different’ like they’re a whole different species – fewer connections just means that their brains are less mature or, er, child-like. Essentially, people are telling me that little children have little children’s brains. Further, if you look at the evidence in support of child-led learning, it completely ignores the explicit instruction and requirement of sustained practice from the mother in the very early months and years of a child’s life, as if the mother doesn’t exist at all – instead we have this (in my opinion dangerous) ‘biologically primary’ argument that certain aspects of very early learning are pretty much spontaneous and you only need to look at old footage of Romanian orphanages to see that ‘biologically primary’ doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, the way confirmation bias works in this scenario is when certain children seem to ‘learn’ at these various activity areas in the reception classroom, yet no one seems to wonder whether they have really miraculously learned, or whether they’ve just summoned up and consolidated some prior learning (from home) – why would they when they could easily attribute Harry’s apparent ‘lack’ of learning to ‘not ready’?

The final bullet point I cannot do much about because educational research hasn’t really asked the kind of seriously awkward questions I’m asking right now. The lack of evidence in support of my hypotheses isn’t due to their all being proved wrong, the lack of evidence is due to a lack of research. I seem to be held to account for this lack of research and subsequent evidence, like I should apologise for it, but many of these same experts and consultants seem to forget that I work full time in an actual school.

After all is said and done, I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working class males achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year. This is partly because I am trained to just put the emotions to one side, analyse and then be impartial in my reporting (previously worked in financial services), and partly because I do not define myself solely through my work. It strikes me that many who define themselves through their work, and this is more likely in education, particularly in EYFS, are likely to interpret any criticism of The System (which is what I’m doing) as a personal attack on their identity, which then of course in their view justifies a personal attack back at me. I can see that. But let’s move on anyway.

I was about to wrap this blog up when I received a personal message drawing my attention to some activity on twitter. I’ve cut out the identity (GDPR n’ all that) and here is a summary of the back story before you look at the accompanying image:

  • This child was excluded 4 times from his previous primary school where he was in a ‘formal’ year 1 class that was not ‘inclusive’ and not ‘compatible with his needs’ (the national curriculum does require reading, writing and arithmetic to be taught, so it does have to be quite formal at times)
  • The child has moved school and is repeating a year 1 which is, according to the mother, ‘inclusive’ and personalised [and therefore the correct way]

Here is the child’s daily timetable:

Screenshot 2018-06-03 at 10.28.32 AM

The mother had said she had picked the wrong primary school and disputed whether the Bold Beginnings report was correct in its conclusion that children who are falling behind need a bit more instruction and practice in order to catch up, but I do wonder the extent to which his reception year experience enforced habits of ‘do what I like that I’m good at, enjoy and find easy’ and ‘I will avoid difficult tasks such as writing, reading and arithmetic’. I do not know the child and therefore need to be careful in my analysis because he may indeed have SEN or severe behavioural difficulties, plus such a strong character that any request to try out something a bit more academic resulted in a dangerous reaction, but surely letting him choose then reinforces and possibly augments the status quo? I’m seriously wondering whether reception year actually worsens a child’s SEN or a predisposition to behavioural issues. This is purely anecdotal, but there does seem to be an acceptance that the best way to deal with young children with behavioural problems is to let them repeat reception year (or year 1 if it is set up more like reception year), as if reception year and year 1 is some kind of in-house alternative provision. Here we have yet more confirmation bias in reception year – observers would be looking for a child like this to not be having meltdowns/temper tantrums/violent outbursts, and when this is confirmed, it is assumed that the child is having his needs met and is now making progress. Is he having his needs met, or is he having his wants met and then for that to become even more entrenched/habitual? The child above is receiving just 10 minutes of academic learning a day, plus he is a whole year older than his class mates and therefore bigger, louder, stronger and scarier. I’m quite protective of my little ones and it does upset me that before a child can even be considered for an EHCP or managed moves etc we must show how much we’re doing for said child, including letting them hang out in and possibly dominate younger year groups. I digress – is this not another case of confirmation bias getting in the way of tackling real issues because of the association with happiness = progress?

My last point is to do with habits. How long does it take for scholarly habits to form? Well, according to this interesting article, the time it takes for something to be learned to automacity (ie, to become a habit) depends on the nature of the habit. If it’s easy and relatively pleasurable to do, then the habit forming period is much shorter, but if the habit is relatively difficult at first, then it takes much, much longer. The research referenced in the article found that some trickier activities hadn’t become habits even when done regularly for a year. Also, a crucial factor in successful habit creation is the regularity of that activity at the beginning of the habit forming period. Confirmation bias in reception year must surely blind observers to the fact that Hermione must have had a shed load of consistent practice at doing reading and writing every day for it to become second nature in the classroom, an automatic choice for her? The other side of this is pretty disastrous for Harry because his choosing the easier, less-academic things to do on a daily basis becomes, if the article is correct, a habit within about 4 weeks of starting reception year.

Perhaps we need to stop looking at how successful Hermione is, and start looking at what it’s going to take to get Harry to be just as successful.

Simply saying ‘It’s great in reception year’ is not enough.

Who’s with me?



5 thoughts on “Confirmation bias in the reception year classroom

    • In total agreement with all you write – an avid follower. I have been a Head for over 20 years of firstly an Infant School with a Nursery and then a Primary with a Nursery. Formerly I started working in secondary education before becoming a primary classroom teacher. I have taught 4 year olds all the way to 18 year olds. As a Head, part of my job is also to teach adults (the staff) as well, as we collectively explore the latest educational research. I am convinced that we all learn in basically the same way.

      In my experience EYFS has developed itself into an exclusive club that really does not want anyone to join, especially if that person has new or different ideas. “You can change anything, as long as everything remains the same” – being a common mantra. This phase of education is undoubtedly the most resistant to change, though others are guilty as well. In other key stages, the obsession that learning is best achieved from behind a desk and through writing being an obvious example.

      A whole industry and support/advice system has been built around this exclusive club, that basically appears to have not changed what it believes in since the 1960s. How can this be the case when there have been so many advances in thinking with respect to educational pedagogy and neuroscience? EYFS, in my opinion, stick their heads in the sand, in a deliberate defensive mechanism to avoid change, so that a whole commercial and administrative world, that is dependent on it, does not collapse. Once again, to some degree or other, the same accusation can be aimed at all key stages.

      As a school we have now changed, as part of our continuous evolution for many years, and taken on board much of the thinking in Bold Beginnings, as well as the value of direct instruction and cognitive load theory. EYFS children are not a separate species that need something different to other key stages. The success we have achieved with our new approach is remarkable, measurable in all areas of EYFS. We have children who are challenged, interested – and very happy children who are making remarkable progress. Gone are post-its and the camera lens seeking evidence and ‘in’ is oracy, purposeful focussed adult interaction, whole class learning activities, focussed activities, direct instruction, as well as opportunities to develop curiosity, imagination and exploration.

      This approach we then continue through to year 6 and if we taught KS3 would continue beyond. As Daniel Willingham has said, “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they learn.” In my experience and reading of research, as a species we basically all learn in the same way (always allowing for an individuals developed creative thinking and preferred approaches). As individuals our success is dependent on the life experiences and influences that we have had, the amount of talk we have been exposed to and the knowledge we have gained that has transferred and become part of our long term memory. To suggest that a child is different simply based on the number of months they have been on the planet as opposed to the quality and diversity of their life experiences, is in my opinion, ludicrous. I do agree that more research is needed to prove what is, to me, simple common sense.

      Well done for challenging a phase of education that I believe is actually harming a child’s educational development, through a basic lack of willingness to change.


  1. As a constant source of reassurance, I’ve got a framed quote from Thomas Sowell just over my desk: “Virtually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important”.

    It’s safe to say that the notion that young children’s brain are transformed magically between the ages of 4 and 5 is one of these ideas. Although it can be traced back to Jean Piaget’s discredited claim that children reach developmental milestones at specified ages, there is very little that is truly new in progressive education.

    The first article I published in an academic journal was “Phonological Training in Reception Year” (1996) and it cited Woods Loke Primary School, which is where what we now know as synthetic phonics was developed. The evidence I cited were confidential LA reading test results, which showed that only 1.8% of Woods Loke pupils had standard scores <80 at 8+–and those were all pupils who had transferred in after Reception. By contrast, 14.3% of all Suffolk pupils had scores <80. Woods Loke served an area with very few professional parents, and social indicators were average.

    Ten years later we had published decoding materials and we had no trouble convincing primary schools in Suffolk, Gloucestershire and Southampton to conduct informal trials in Reception Year. This all changed with the introduction of the EYFS in 2008; in 2009, formal trials in the latter two LAs were conducted with Yr 1 pupils. In Glos at least, we knew that this was not because of Ed Psychs or SEN advisers, all of whom had previously been enthusiastic about using our books in Reception. There was no question be the resistance came from Literacy advisers, who had never evinced the slightest enthusiasm for our materials.

    At a guess, I'd say that the support for the EYFS is a lot shallower than what one might guess from Twitter storms. To quote Dame Warnock:

    "Metaphysical systems do not yield, as a rule, to frontal attack. Their odd property of being demonstrable, only so to speak from within, confers on them a high resistance to attack from outside. The onslaughts of critics to whom, as likely as not, their strange tenets are nearly unintelligible, are apt to seem to those enshrined inside, misdirected and irrelevant. Such systems are more vulnerable to ennui than disproof. They are citadels, much shot at perhaps, but never taken by storm, which are quietly discovered one day to be no longer inhabited."

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I blame sibling rivalry, or rather the lack of it. On the train yesterday a mother with 3 young children had them up and ready ten minutes before the deboarding at PBO station. There was much discussion, buy in and a general calmness especially amongst my aged fellow buffet car comrades. Contrast this with Coach B on the previous connection single Albert & subsequently differently (it was a long journey) Oscar were ploughing their own path; their teacher was taking an alternative provision approach adapting to the less crowded configuration of the classroom space.

    I just wonder reading the opening of what you write above whether your adversaries have a legitimate viewpoint: their experiences might all be positive. I have just been invigilating for week after week and all the cohorts were different and in many ways predictably so, eg sports people were sporty. Any intransigence of their part was a result of circumstances well out of their control usually simple issues which affect the delicate order and rhythm of exam procedure. My years of experience at the school have consistently improved despite having to incorporate national procedures to accommodate according to statistics increasing numbers of hiccups elsewhere. The invigilating team has had a change of management and continual refreshing of staff which has kept all sharp. Further the school seems to be confidently run and from what I can see without major discipline problems.

    Contrasting this with my (and others) erstwhile direct experience of teaching at various secondary schools (but I do have experience age-wise downwards) I have anecdotes to muse over of less rosey experiences.

    In conclusion I would observe that, for whatever reason, some school areas seem to win out in the battle for new schools and local facilities whereas others and the funds per pupil figures bear this out seem to get a raw deal. If you are always at the former, as the Queen experiences the world smells of new paint, if it is the latter then I would venture your restricted personal funds are directed at purchasing basics for your charges: Harry, Hermione, Hugh, and Henry and ….


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