The path to greatness for children is also paved with a thousand tiny rituals

A recent debate about silent corridors has given me that extra incentive because much of what has been written and said about this aspect of schooling has been from the perspective of teaching good behaviour, safety and how said rules and procedures ensure calm starts to lessons. However, I’d like to make the case for more whole-school habits, rules and little rituals for children (especially young children!) as a way of freeing their minds in the same way that commitment of knowledge to long term memory frees the mind to problem solve and be creative. Most schools and teachers could point to a few key rituals that happen within the school day and describe how they help with organisation, logistics, efficiency of teaching and learning, but not much seems to be said about how habits and rituals in particular are incredibly important in developing the character of a child such that not only is his education enhanced, but his whole life. Why not start early?

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When it comes to the education and everyday lives of little children, our culture behoves us to eschew the tradition of mundane rituals and general following of rules in favour of the novel, varied, fun/pleasurable activity and we assume that young children want and need plenty of choice and a variety of experiences in order to stimulate and grow their little minds. The modern wisdom is that the more the child experiences according to their desires (particularly when those experiences are exciting), the more their brains will develop. I’m going to be radical and throw this out there: I think the modern view is wrong. Of course, children’s brains will develop, just as our adult brains are constantly developing, albeit a bit more slowly, just not necessarily the way we, er, want them to.

Let us consider two kinds of disadvantage: the first is to do with a child’s lack of knowledge and vocabulary compared to his peer who has educated and interested parents (we all know about this disadvantage now, hence the increased prevalence of knowledge-rich curricula), the second is to do with a child’s lack of concentration and resilience that would ordinarily be developed through habits and routines in the home. I this second disadvantage is more prevalent than the first and affects children from all walks of life. We all know that lovely middle class family who exist in a state of permanent and delightful discombobulation, with chickens and children either roaming carefree in the garden, or participating in a whirl of activity as we dash from karate to horseriding to kumon maths via the museum. Bedtimes and morning routines? Although always filled with laughter and stories, they are somewhat organic and proceed according to no fixed schedule or hard and fast rules – who would do that kind of thing to an innocent child? Yep, these activities frequently bleed into other parts of the day. This family is always late and the children are notorious for leaving their PE bag on the bus.

The illustration above is actually quite similar to the experience of a child who is disadvantaged in the traditional sense of the word, only with more books, words, knowledge, organic asparagus and pet chickens. All of these children are being trained to exist in the here and now, to never quite get anything done and never experience the mind-freeing result of relegating life’s daily activities to a somewhat mundane and automatic routine; people just don’t do ‘boring’ routines like always doing the ironing on a Thursday at 6pm because that’s the sort of thing someone-with-no-life would do. No one’s making their bed any more, let alone expecting their children to do it automatically – most people think that ‘boring’ routines just don’t matter, so why bother with the effort? All you have to do is look at all the popular accounts on instagram and see that everyone’s nonchalantly lying about in (an unmade) bed, going for an impromptu coffee or taking a louche walk on a picturesque beach while thinking about their feelings. It’ll all end in tears though when someone forgets to pay the council tax. And so the children of this live-in-the-moment and do-what-you-want generation therefore never experience significant and regular moments of peace and quiet that would cause them to develop the habit of being able to be still, concentrate and free the mind for a higher purpose.

What can be done? Should we just accept that this is the way our culture is, and perhaps try to convince ourselves that not being boring by sticking to rules, routines and rituals helps us to be more creative? The fly-in-the-ointment here is that history shows us that the most creative minds in the world were notorious for sticking to self-imposed and really quite rigid rules, routines and rituals (examples here, although, obviously, I do not advocate no.5 for children).

For me, the most potent example of the power of rules, routines and rituals is the dramatic increase in learning seen in our year 1s when they transition from EYFS framework-mandated choice, continuous provision, expectations of independent learning to a formal, teacher-led classroom experience (we just go for it): for example, many had spent a whole year struggling to learn their number formation and within days of starting year 1 their number formation was pretty much perfect. What changed? It wasn’t just the style of teaching and learning, it was the imposition of somewhat more rigid rules, routines and rituals such that a) their ability to concentrate was uniformly enhanced and b) they were able to simply get more (practice) done (in silence). Are they all miserable now because a greater part of their waking day is now exactly the same and running like clockwork with their being expected to work much harder? Not a jot of it – you should see the beaming smiles of children, armed with their maths or writing books, who come to my office for a shiny gold star. You should ‘see’ the calm in their classrooms.

All this leads me to, well, just think really. To what extent could the parts of the day and the parts of the lessons run like clockwork, automatically? Also, do all teachers truly understand that in order for something to become automatic, it needs to be practised regularly until it becomes second nature – this applies just as much to lining up in a fixed order as well as learning those number bonds off by heart. ‘Well they should just know because I did a circle time on it last week’ doesn’t quite do the trick and our tendency to focus on aspects of learning that are formally measured risks neglecting whatever isn’t a focus of Ofsted visits or SATs, for example. Scripted lessons too: the routine familiarity of the language, expectations and lesson design seems to ensure that more is done and learned. To what extent could this approach be adopted in their science lessons, even in the younger years to ensure that more is learned, practised and retained? Could it be that instead of doing an SPG and handwriting lesson once a week, we need to have a fixed part of every English lesson that runs like clockwork through the same LOs for spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting until whatever is to be learned is learned to automaticity. Ah yes, who was it that said that 80% of a lesson should be rehearsal and 20% should be new content? Or did I just dream that?

So, that’s where I am really. Just thinking. Thinking about how the benefits of rules, routines and rituals that automate parts of our lives via the creation of habits and the development of concentration and resilience could be extended to as many parts of the day and lessons as possible. It could be that I am biased because I like all things clockwork and automatic. However, I really think that many children and therefore the adults they become could achieve so much more (and be happier) if we took a more purposeful approach in terms of putting children on the path which is paved with a thousand tiny rituals.

Who’s with me?

 

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3 thoughts on “The path to greatness for children is also paved with a thousand tiny rituals

  1. One of these days I’m going to go through the old spiral notebooks that I took to the UEA education stacks not long after I first discovered that my son’s primary school was run by people who lived in a fantasy world; one of the studies I recorded cited evidence that teachers who had a chance to work in a teacher-centred school never wanted to go back to the child-centred variety. I think it was dated around 1975, when there were still a number of the former that hadn’t been taken over by a ‘vibrant’ new head and a batch of NQTs with their heads full of Piaget and Dewey.

    As depressing as it is to see the huge preponderance of vibrant articles in the TES, at least there’s the occasional genuflection to Kirschner and Rosenshine, and I did enough INSET in the noughties to understand that there are still plenty of schools run by quite sensible heads. You could tell the moment you walked into the lobby–the receptionist smiled and didn’t have any noticeable tics. The sense of calm was palpable, and lunch was a pleasure. Before the Rose Review conceded Reception Year to the Early Years brigade, we even found quite a few primary schools that were willing to use our scripted phonics materials with 4- and 5-year-olds.

    These schools always had very low staff turnover–hardly anyone left before retirement age. Which leads me to conclude that we could do away with Ofsted altogether if we just sacked SLT in schools with a lot of churn. Granted, this would have to be interpreted with a bit of mercy whenever new leadership took over a lousy school–nothing should prevent them from sacking teachers who think everything has to be ‘exciting’. But otherwise, what a gloriously simple way to restore sanity to the lives of our teachers and children! We can always dream…

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  2. I’m wondering if you have thoughts on what lunch should look like at school. Is there any reason it must be the loud, bit of a free for all that one so often finds? Any thoughts on adding some discipline and structure to school lunch times? Thanks.

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