How we can really help parents

One of my stock phrases is ‘the more you help someone, the less they do for themselves’. A great example of this phenomenon occurs within the classroom when the TA or the teacher always sits at the table with children with SEN, re-telling what has just been taught and what they have to do and then providing the starts of sentences/scaffolds. The unintended result is that these children end up…

  • not bothering to listen during the input (because Mrs X will just give me a private tutorial after anyway)
  • not bothering to remember what to do (because Mrs X will be my secretary and remember the order of everything)
  • not bothering to remember key words, algorithms, procedures or put some effort in (because the hard bit of eg. starting a sentence will be done by Mrs X)

Over the years, these thought processes become ingrained, habitual even. This is very difficult to change and I believe it is one of the reasons why, despite average or high KS2 SATs results, many children tank when they start secondary school (where there isn’t an adult always sitting at their table).

Of course, in not helping, you risk being branded cruel and uncaring, so you do your utmost to care and help others despite the fact that you know deep down the best thing is for said others to struggle a bit, maybe make a mistake or two, put the effort into helping themselves or risk the consequence of looking silly and then being reprimanded in some way. For the class teacher, this caring and helping role extends to caring for and helping the parents and wider family. Society expects it. Politicians win votes over it. In a similar way to that child arriving in year 7 unable to start a paragraph, many parents arrive with their 5 year olds already thinking….

  1. children develop pretty much everything naturally by themselves, you know, ‘when they’re ready’
  2. ‘professionals’ will be able to step in to help me when my child doesn’t miraculously develop x, y or z naturally
  3. children should be given choice and voice on every little thing right from the start
  4. children should only experience happiness and happy thoughts if they have any hope of developing into happy adults

The above bullet points are messages that are repeated over and over again right from the moment a woman walks into the doctor’s surgery to have her first pregnancy officially confirmed. She is weighed, her blood pressure taken and then The State Parenting Machine kicks in. The mother-to-be is told to listen to the ‘professionals’ over and above common sense words of wisdom from granny, aunty, even her own mother.

For the new parent who has not been parented well herself, this is an unmitigated disaster. What she needed was to be told that it is only the survival instincts which come naturally and that everything else must be purposefully taught, modelled and then practised to the point of automaticity. This is because parenting is something that you do, not simply become; it takes time and effort. Getting a child to bed at a decent time is a good example. Many parents are told and therefore think that at some point their baby will automatically regulate their own sleeping and then years later they find themselves embroiled in increasingly lengthy and annoyingly elaborate rituals that only the parents can do in order to get their child to go to sleep and stay asleep. Some parents just don’t bother in the first place, or give up along the way. The number of primary age children who disclose that they now just go to sleep whenever they want, are given an iPad in order to be placated, or just get up and go to their parents’ bed whenever! It doesn’t help that this bedtime shambles is compounded by that other misinterpreted message that feeling sad/bored/angry at any point is damaging to a child’s long term mental health (the ol’ ‘they must always be happy and excited’ mantra), so we don’t ever let our child just learn to go to sleep by themselves with a few nights of crying along the way or experience being told off for getting up and wandering about for spurious reasons. Years later, the parents are still knackered and never have time to themselves or to really love and care for each other. No wonder so many marriages and relationships implode by the time children are around 7 years old or when the third ‘marriage wrecker’ sibling arrives.

I think there is a chance that most developmental problems 5 year olds arrive with could be attributed to one, some or all of the four points listed above. The typical Western parent is indoctrinated into being a doormat right from the get-go and then we public sector ‘professionals’ have a go when they don’t do their job and when their children arrive at schools with all sorts of developmental delay. In fact, even nursery workers and reception year teachers are indoctrinated and forced to take this ideological approach because of the EYFS framework. Another great example: speech and language. Children need to hear the English language and then be expected to use it lots. It does not come naturally (I disagree with Geary, as you know). Putting medical factors such as cleft palate and glue ear aside, it can’t be that the reason so many children aren’t saying anything more than the occasional ‘no!’ (also because ‘choice and voice!’) when they start schools is that we’ve all suddenly de-evolved. In schools in areas of high deprivation where precious resources are being hoovered up in order to tackle speech and language delay, that means less time/resources for the teaching of phonics, which means whole cohorts are delayed in reading, which means fewer years to start to accumulate knowledge and vocabulary which means…….you get the picture. Further, delayed language also unhelpfully assists with the bad and yet rather fun habit of being rough in order to get one’s way. Perhaps the root cause of the behaviour crisis in schools goes back further than we think……

How could we really help parents? Many argue for more money for parents or for those Sure Start centres to be re-opened, but I think that the absence of Sure Start highlights just how much the responsibility of parenting has been willingly transferred to the state and to front line public sector workers in general. The logical conclusion to this trend is state boarding schools for all children in this country. Of course, in providing that, the country would go bankrupt and 100% of teachers would quit because the burden of 100% responsbility for the parenting AND education of all children would destroy their minds and completely exhaust their bodies. Part time working is not the answer here either.

Where do we draw the line? Has anyone in power got the guts to change the narrative? Instead of the 4 points above, parents need to be informed of the following:

  1. Parenting is something you do, purposefully. If you want your child to use a potty, hold a knife and fork properly and say please and thank you then you need to teach them and expect them to practise lots because pretty much nothing comes naturally*
  2. It is not the teacher’s job to teach your child to go to the toilet
  3. Make the decisions for your child and do not let them take over all conversations and decisions in the house. Learn to say no and mean it
  4. Your child will never be truly happy if he grows up expecting the world to provide constant fun and entertainment as well as thinking he has carte blanche to act out (sometimes violently) whenever he doesn’t want to do something or work hard for a reward

Who’s with me?

*I just had to put something here about the ability to sit still and focus because I saw a comment on twitter about it. Most people seem to believe that being able to sit still and focus is something that comes naturally and if a child cannot do that, then they need to be allowed to run around and do lots of different things until they’re ‘ready’ to learn to sit still and focus. Everyone seems surprised when these children become natural runners and flitters instead. I believe that just like everything else in life, in order to learn to sit still and focus, you need to be taught and then expected to practise sitting still and focusing lots in order to then become ‘good’ at it. Those children who are miraculously and naturally ‘good’ at sitting still and focusing are usually being taught and then regularly expected to sit still and focus at the dinner table and for their bedtime story by parents.

 

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The Most Magical School

This is a blog post about a school’s USP. I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture and have come to the conclusion that through the latest developments in school network structures such as multi academy trusts, there is the potential for a certain je ne sais quois of individual schools to be lost. Most seasoned headteachers will read this and think ‘no shit, Sherlock’, but I’d still like to write this and offer it up to my followers who might be future leaders.

The most ‘magical’ school I went to visit was a Montessori primary school. Now, you know I don’t agree with the Montessori philosophy in its entirety, particularly the bit about teachers following the child’s interests (which, in my view, causes the habit of flitting about and never finishing anything), but what the former management accountant headteacher did was seek accreditation, develop a method for ‘Montessori-ness’ all the way through the school and then of course this became the school’s USP. The Montessori thing was like a beacon that attracted a certain kind of family who wanted a Montessori approach and therefore were invested in the success of their children and therefore the school before they even filled out an application form. The school’s USP provided a sort of surreptitious selection process to ensure all parents and children were really committed; subsequently, the behaviour and academic standards were very high such that the USP of the school then became ‘Montessori + nice children + great results’.

The most clever thing about all this is that because of the school’s great reputation, the kinds of conversations happening at the dinner tables at home were reinforcing the high status of teachers in the children’s minds so that when they went into school they would listen and work that little bit harder as well as be more likely to follow the rules and routines without quibble. Even the parents that lived next door who were a bit more ‘meh’ about the whole thing would be hearing ‘this school is great’ down the shops or at the pub. Via the great reputation and USP of this school, the parents had been co-opted like eager interns providing extra energy and enthusiasm, all for free, for this organisation. The subsequent ratcheting up of effort of every single pupil and parent had a huge effect on overall attainment and behaviour and this then had a positive effect on the teachers.

So, the teachers could actually teach and because they weren’t exhausted having to deal with obstreperous children, they could invest a little more of their mojo in building those relationships and giving their enthusiasm to the subject matter being taught, rather than having to placate, cajole or entertain. Teachers hardly ever took a day off sick and since all the children were working hard from the start, there was no need for teachers to have to bust a gut over constant interventions. I have never met an entire staff that was happier, friendlier or more willing to go the extra mile than the staff at that school (and I’ve visited maybe in the region of about 30 primary schools). All the staff, including the headteacher, would voluntarily offer clubs at lunch and after school – they could do this because they were happy and had energy and willingness to give that little bit more. The USP of the school attracted the best teachers and those that couldn’t get a job there seemed to volunteer until a position became available. Consequently, the teachers were mostly subject experts and enthusiasts of various kinds, which then added to the rigour and substance of curriculum as well as generating a club offering that was more academic in nature. All the TAs seemed to be volunteers too, eager to work at this friendly and happy place. The headteacher was willing to step in and help if necessary, even if it meant being in the kitchen preparing lunch!

Due to the general positive vibes and extra energy everyone seemed to have, there was extra capacity to give to children with special educational needs. The school then developed a reputation for being very inclusive for children with severe disabilities – everyone was trained in lifting children in and out of wheelchairs for example. If a teacher was struggling with a child who had high needs on a particular day, the other teachers would volunteer their TAs to help that teacher and the child.

All this just from a very clever approach to USP requiring an initial investment of time and resources which then ended up co-opting the hearts and minds of whole families in perpetuity. This didn’t happen by accident: it was pure business acumen and a planned, purposeful and proactive approach to PR that generated all this (people in the street would talk about how it was like a private school). Why have just 50 employees when you could have 500 ’employees’ including parents and people in the local community? This all came from the headteacher. She had the real vision and it was nothing to do with quick fixes or firefighting approaches. Don’t get me wrong, there were also those efficient systems in place that ensured the school ran like clockwork (again, reducing the anxiety of staff because they knew what was coming) – this is what you would expect of any leader who had a background in business/financial services. A leader cannot do all this alone though and the credit also goes to the teachers who bought into the vision and worked that little bit harder as a result. They were appreciated and trusted and you could see how that made them feel good.

44147584-silhouette-of-a-raven

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not trying to persuade anyone other than myself here about how I would go about running a school (it’s both a nice and scary thing to think about). I draw two conclusions from this process of analysing* every single headteacher I have ever met, read about or worked with:

  1. A USP needs to be positive and really quite unique. For me, I would be thinking about how to ‘sell’ a knowledge rich curriculum and the development of scholarly dispositions/habits (no point having a great curriculum if they ain’t paying attention) to parents by thinking about what parents are mostly thinking about and then just co-opting those thoughts. Many parents are concerned about the happiness of their children because that’s where our culture is at at the moment – that’s my in, somehow.
  2. The common approach of advertising how and how much we help disadvantaged children risks sending the message to parents that we will do their job for them and this may be putting pressure on front line staff (aka teachers) to expend an awful lot of energy worrying about everything except the child’s academic attainment. We also need to think about how this is influencing conversations in the home, the messages that children are receiving, taking into school and then being the prism through which they constantly view and interpret their teachers’ words and actions.
  3. I’m not so keen on this narrative of encouraging teachers to be part-time and almost view schools as ‘just’ a place of work in order to save sanity and encourage a work-life balance that is more about life than work. A revolving door of teachers coming in and out whose hearts and minds are elsewhere and who are not keen to build relationships with children or invest a bit of their humanity isn’t, to me, a viable solution to the ‘recruitment crisis’. I think the answer is for leaders to create that great environment and efficient systems such that teachers aren’t exhausted and mentally bail out in the first place.

As usual, in the venn diagram of thoughts in the heads of many who read this blog looking for problems or evidence that I am evil, there will now be those who are thinking that I’m reneging on my dedication to disadvantaged children when nothing could be further from the truth. The way I see it, when you have that incredibly powerful school USP that causes everyone including the pet hamster to work harder, you also create an alternative ‘identity’ for children to step into. For example, anyone who goes or went to Eton, then becomes an ‘Etonian’ with all the connotations that goes with that (future leaders who can make tough decisions rather than be paralysed by emotions, most intellectual of intellectuals etc). Anyone who has stepped foot in a Catholic school immediately owns a reputation that precedes them: self-disciplined, hard working, knowledgeable and in awe of nuns. How does this help disadvantaged children? A USP and a great reputation, particularly one that is built around hard work, kindness and intellectual pursuit, enables that disadvantaged child to leave their identity (yes, and I speak from experience here: nobody wants their identity to be all about coming from a single parent family) and problems at the front door of the school and instead don the magical cloak of aspiration and academic success instead.

Who’s with me?

 

*Here’s an insight into the weirdness that is my mind and how I think about education. If I were an animal, I think I’d choose to be that most analytical of animals which is of course a raven (from the family Corvidae, a type of crow), hence the choice of picture. The raven is an unobserved observer – no one suspects the unattractive, raucous raven (instead, hoodwinked by the beautiful owl which, despite the saying, has phenomenally low intelligence) and yet he can watch,plot and plan his future moves with precision and panache all the while people either ignore him, or make fun of him. If you think you’re watching him, he’s been watching you back twice as hard and for twice as long. I love that Morrighan, a bloodthirsty Celtic goddess of war (I am partly Celt), was thought to be present on the battlefield in the form of a raven and that Odin’s (my grandmother’s family name is derived from old Norse) two pet ravens were called Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory). If I were to design a school crest, it’d have those two ravens right in the middle of it.

 

 

A homage to the ‘Tai Chi’ of academic education

I was in a twitter conversation recently about handwriting and thought I would do a little blogette about it.

Have you ever seen those video clips of elderly Chinese people doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong together in public parks? Isn’t it wonderful! I taught a Tai Chi extra-curricular club at my old school and it was amazing to see children who would normally struggle to concentrate learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you need to learn by rote) even require you to control where you are looking. Along the way, the children would make mistakes and struggle, but they would only master the sequences through overcoming their own internal rebellion and pushing through; I was there to teach, encourage and provide the very still and quiet space to practice, but ultimately they made that journey alone. I see handwriting lessons in a similar way – as a sort of ‘Tai Chi’ of children’s academic education where the outcomes are about so much more than neat, swift handwriting. I will return to this theme later in the post, after I have gone through the usual points in favour of teaching cursive handwriting, and daily handwriting lessons in general.

taichi

Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they may see it as restricting children’s right to express their individuality and a pointless exercise that has no effect on ‘the learning’ because we are supposed to be focusing on the content of the writing and not on the vanity of how it looks. The fact that handwriting is not measured or reported on per se, is also another reason why it has fallen by the wayside as other priorities take over. When I joined the profession, I found it a bit odd that there seemed to be an institutional disregard for something that was, to me, so fundamentally important, so liberating, an entitlement of all children surely? Like many aspects of primary education, to also say that you approve of something also risks a great clamouring of parents and teachers of children with various SEN who then extrapolate that you are discriminating against their child who cannot fully participate in whatever aspect of primary education you are advocating, as if we should get rid of those aspects of education lest someone feel left out. If we did that, we’d end up with no education at all and besides, if there’s one lesson that is pretty much 100% inclusive, it is the humble handwriting lesson…..

For 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on a small aspect of handwriting that is taught and then practised for a decent length of time under the ideal conditions of silence or very soothing music. Ideally, this practice is a peaceful, daily ritual that pays attention to only one aspect of handwriting that has been taught, rather than being obfuscated by additional cognitive demands such as being expected to create some kind of poem, or thinking about a spelling rule at the same time. All of that can come later on. For a moment, all of the children in the class are equals, united by this one purpose and experiencing the same struggle to synchronise their minds and bodies. Quite often, it is the ones who struggle in other lessons who experience the most success and praise and their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone and are expected to work as hard as everyone else, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is also really important because children do like to fit in and be like their peers, even from a very young age. This is also why I am not too fussed about calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, the ‘individuals’ are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as incredibly embarrassed and frustrated. If you want proof, try visiting year 7s in a secondary school and see how they cover up their books when you go into their English lessons to look at their writing.

The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s menu of potentially frenetic and ever-changing activity, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. Unfortunately, just like old fashioned penmanship, the importance and joy of rituals in our lives has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children in particular benefit from and like most an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences for the efficiency and comfort of daily rituals and habits. Many of you might retort that you like to make your lives more interesting by frequently taking on, for example, new hobbies, but you forget that there are parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground you and connect you to your family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they simply haven’t got the capacity or willpower to provide that kind of upbringing for their children. The daily handwriting lesson could, potentially, be the one part of the day all children experience a peaceful ritual. This is particularly so for those children with SEN who frequently miss the ritual of assemblies or daily silent reading practice to attend groups with teachers and TAs for catch up/gap filling lessons.

Creating the peaceful space for daily handwriting lessons is very difficult. Even when you set it all up, there are so many ways the zen-like focus can be shattered into a million pieces. All it takes is for someone to come in to ask what so-and-so is having for lunch, or for a child to just call out that their pencil has spontaneously exploded under the pressure of forming the perfect fancy f. Sometimes it is the teacher who continuously shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, inadvertently destroying the one moment when a child has the opportunity to really learn to focus.

I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on handwriting and so far not talk about the writing itself! Cursive is ideal*. Why? It’s continuous and I’ve literally seen spelling problems melt away over time when children are required to attend to this style of handwriting in a more focused way. Handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks cause children to think about which letter they’re allowed to join or not, rather than the spelling, the choice of word or the coherence of the sentence. This is a simple case of cognitive overload and we’re supposed to be avoiding that, not enforcing it! Further, compulsory breaks stop children from ever reaching the kind of handwriting speed that indicates fluency and allows them to fully participate in more demanding writing sessions. This is odd because many say that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, attending to cursive handwriting slows children down. This is the most bizarre excuse ever because we all know that children are slow at everything at first and just because they’re slow at something, doesn’t mean that we give up and let them do whatever they like instead – if they’re slow, it’s because they need more (focused) practice, not less.

The other aspect of handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks in words is that unjoined tails of letters and part of other letters that are not joined add such variety to the look of many words that children do not see the patterns and rules of spellings. The absence of a lead-in also adds further variety in terms of which words are flying in the air as opposed to sat on the line. This kind of handwriting is also more likely to be messy. Now, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality, but the fact is that children need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Primary teachers who are with a group of children all through the week get used to the quirks of certain children’s handwriting whereas we need to remember that the variety of teachers who will teach the children at secondary school do not have hours and hours to get used to deciphering children’s ‘unique’ (ie, sloppy and messy) handwriting. I’m probably on my own here, but I really do think that neat, fast and fully joined handwriting is an entitlement of all children and that primary schools need to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn, to automaticity, cursive handwriting, even though it doesn’t feature in progress measures.

Back to Tai Chi. The improvement in synchronicity of mind and body is not only amazing to experience, but it is also character forming, peaceful and generates happiness for both teacher and pupil (and onlookers!). The daily handwriting lesson is so similar in this way and I think we need to remember that before we relegate it to the starter, plenary or one-off weekly lesson.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

Do they really need karate and horse-riding?

This was a question that I asked (myself) at a recent meeting. We were discussing length of day and provision of clubs for children. Now, we’re all about Hirsch and want to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum; this is important since we work with the very children and families identified in this article, but when it comes to extra-curricular provision, the assumption is that the more we provide that is similar to the life experiences of better-off children, the more we can ‘close the gap’.

I’m not so sure.

Of course, all of the experiences such as karate, horse-riding, trips here, there and everywhere are beneficial in many, many ways, but I don’t think they’re the reason certain groups of children do so much better at school. I reckon the answer lies in looking at how advantaged children rock up to school at age 5 with a vast store of words and facts in their heads, as well as that advanced ability to concentrate and communicate: I don’t think they gained these advantages from trips to museums or karate class, I think they gained these advantages at the dinner table.

knife and fork

This is the hidden curriculum that no one seems to want to see or acknowledge. Maybe this is because the movers and shakers in education assume that a civilised dinner is more or less what everyone experiences, that such a thing doesn’t really matter, or perhaps they’re too scared to talk about this in public. What fool would dare speak up about this when they could so easily be accused of being a judgmental snob who doesn’t understand that all ‘this’ is down to ‘austerity measures’, Brexit and mental health issues? I guess that fool is me, and yet I still write this knowing full well I will be torn apart over it all.

Instead, we look at the glitz and glamour of activities that are all about entertainment, distraction and making a child feel happy, and then perhaps we assume that if we give as much of this as possible to disadvantaged children, then they will also achieve. I find it odd that given all we know about how children learn best, the fact that purposeful planning, teaching and testing needs to attend to and prioritise their thoughts and thus curate memories rather than seek to entertain, placate, distract or constantly flatter, we still don’t acknowledge the same processes that may or may not be taking place in the home.

When happiness becomes a goal rather than the by-product of hard work, then I think all sorts of people lose sight of what really needs to be looked at. We miss what is really happening and never get to analyse and find the real components of success, that instead of homing in on one thing, maybe we should take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Those advantaged children are receiving at the dinner table, at multiple points of the day, a steady drip, drip, drip of the following:

  • teaching and practice of sitting still and listening
  • teaching and practice of a script for civilised conversation (‘How was  your day? What did you learn?’)
  • teaching and practice of tier 1, 2 and 3 words as well as interesting facts

A simple, but by no means entirely accurate, calculation of 3 x 20 minutes of ‘dinner table curriculum’ a day gives us a child who has had almost 2000 hours of said instruction and practice by the time they start school. Perhaps this is also the reason why the children of immigrants do so much better: they’re getting an enhanced curriculum that also includes messages about doing well, working hard, achieving, looking after granny.

The sitting still and listening bit is really interesting because I have been to selective 6th form open evenings recently and it has really struck me how incredibly still the audience for the opening speeches were when compared to a typical gathering (from memory and recently) of parents at a secondary school meeting, or parents who gather at a primary school meeting. I was left wondering whether we pay enough attention to how just being able to sit still and concentrate is such a vital component to future academic success. And yet we still assume that what these disadvantaged children need, through the provision of ‘middle class experiences’, is the opposite of the bullet points above:

  • teaching and practice of constantly moving about and being heard
  • teaching and practice of a script for shouting matches (‘Who’s ready to have a great time whoooooo!’)
  • regurgitation of one’s own limited vocabulary, opinions and feelings

Maybe we need to somehow implement a ‘dinner table curriculum’ as a way of closing the gap. How exactly we go about that is another question entirely!

Who’s with me?

The wasted years

I suddenly realised that since ‘coming out’, I could be a little more open about my experiences so far. Obviously, I seek to maintain the privacy and protect the identity of those I teach or have taught, as well as those I work with. However, I do want to bring to your attention something that really opened my eyes last year.

If I go backwards in time to around this time last year I have half a class, in addition to my leadership role. The cohort is not in a good way, but we are changing that, dramatically. As you would expect with any group of children, there are those that stand out. Among those that stand out, a little boy springs to mind: he is the son of a couple from Eastern Europe, his father some kind of nuclear physicist who probably works in a role he is way too over-qualified for. This boy is my top mathematician, my top reader and his vocabulary, despite English being his second language, is truly vast. His peers who also have parents from Eastern Europe are also similarly inclined towards all things academic, but he really stands out the most. I watch this boy calculate and I can see him being at ease one day, when he is a man, with calculus – he is surely destined for great things. He does need quite a strong leader to ensure he behaves and concentrates, but it’s fine because I am happy to ensure high standards of behaviour and effort are maintained – even if he thinks I’m not being nice at the time. He will forget me and all that will remain is the knowledge I gave him and that excellent handwriting I insisted he had; that is the way it should be. However, it is when we have our science lessons, or our history lessons, for example, he stands out the most. The sheer amount of knowledge he has already acquired because he is already a fluent reader who reads, reads and reads, and all this knowledge bursts out of his head and he makes those connections effortlessly – he knows all about the moons and the stars and the wars and oh so much more. His questions cause you to dig deep to make sure that you can give him that knowledge his permanently switched-on mind is so desperate to assimilate.

This boy is 5 years old.

abandoned-olympic-venues-urban-decay-26
Abandoned pool from the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I find these sorts of photos fascinating. They represent wasted opportunities and how in the absence of purposeful use, they become dilapidated and sometimes dangerous. 

Compare this fine mind to the boy who sits next to him. Barely reading, barely talking – he knows diddly squat. The difference in knowledge already acquired and the subsequent ability to make connections with what is taught is truly staggering. Not only does he struggle to access what is being taught and is therefore more likely to default to being silly, he also struggles to communicate and interact with his peers which ultimately affects his ability to make and keep friends.

Is the difference innate? Nope, not really. Genetic differences are small. What is different is their upbringing. Our boy of wonder has simply had many more conversations with his parents and he has had the practice required to finally read fluently and then gain his reading wings, thus launching him into the world of independent learning. He also causes me to look back at the years when my own children were young and caused me to feel so much anguish about how those years were wasted because I was not enough of a purposeful parent for and with them. My sons were reading early, clearly intelligent, but I thought they would just sort of acquire what they needed naturally. I didn’t make as much effort as the parents of our wonder boy and I assumed their primary school would be giving them the same amount of interesting knowledge, as well as that excellent handwriting! Oh, how I was wrong. They did alright because it was a nice school with nice kids. Their SATs results were above average, but that didn’t mean much really.

It’s too late.

They’re doing really well, but I know they could be achieving so much more and more importantly, their minds could be more open, curious, if they had more knowledge with which to make insightful connections.

So, this brings me back to year 1. You know, we could go back even further. My point is that the longer children float along in their own world without that purposeful parenting, or that purposeful, knowledge-rich teaching, the more likely they will eventually end up with closed minds and fewer opportunities. Fundamentally, this is about happiness. Who would want to be mired in the day-to-day dross of life when they could be thinking about the moons and the stars? Why wait till KS2 for a knowledge-rich curriculum? Why not have the same approach, the nod to evidence-informed teaching and learning, even in those earlier years.

These children are capable of so much more.

Who’s with me?

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

As usual, I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now. The whole silent corridor debate has given me that extra incentive because much of what has been written and said about the need for silent corridors in schools 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 mundane ritual 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 their little minds. The received wisdom is that the more the child experiences according to their desires (particularly when those experiences are exciting), the more their little hyper-stimulated brains will develop and grow. Perhaps we could consider that this received wisdom is wrong without summoning that classic, frightening image of the child who doesn’t have much in his life, is a bit neglected, needy and also plain bored.

I think there are 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 reckon 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 kumon maths to drama class (the latter activities just for children, obviously). 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? As a result, 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 still the mind and concentrate.

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 their happiness and pride when we give them praise for learning and then automatically using our Way of Walking in the corridors. 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. I was also like that as a child because I moved about a lot which caused a bit of anxiety – I do remember as a 7 year old creating my own daily routines in a list as a sort of way of being more efficient and getting more done! And I did indeed get a lot done. Certainly, the vision I have inside my head is not to every educator’s taste and many educators would balk at the idea of sacrificing their own autonomy and creativity at the alter of routines and rituals. 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?