This is a blog post about how to nurture creative writers. It is a response to this article, which tells us that in order to help children become creative writers, schools should increase opportunities to do creative writing via the use of various kinds of stimuli, as well as the hook of a small amount of media fame, rather than dwelling on boring things like basic sentence construction, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
I think their approach is going to be great for the children who already love (and are therefore relatively good at) writing, but for many others, it will be frustrating and potentially disastrous in the long run. To me, this situation is analogous to the folly of trying to develop problem solving ability in maths through the medium of lots of fun lessons with group work, discovery and of course open-ended problem solving. We all know this ends in both literal and metaphorical tears.
What makes a creative writer? It seems to me that educators who advocate for the approach described in the TES article look at a truly creative writer in their class or school and see only the emotion of the writer rather than the words on the page. She is so inspired, so motivated, and the response is to try and artificially create that initial emotion in other children in the hope that they too will produce sumptuous writing just like our creative writer who sits with her pink sparkly pencil (with unicorn head rubber on the end) poised for action, waiting for the signal to fire up her fertile imagination.
This is not the case for a boy called Tommy who not only thinks he is a terrible writer, but is actually a terrible writer. Tommy couldn’t give a flying rat’s arse about a special creative writing project because he doesn’t want to look like a fool in front of the girls with their pink sparkly pencils. When pressed to take part, he has to deploy what limited writing knowledge he has and usually the story ends with everyone dying in an explosion, or waking up and realising it was a dream. His handwriting is atrocious and painfully slow, he can’t spell or automatically construct a sentence that makes sense, and he lacks knowledge of stories and general knowledge to draw upon as inspiration. If he does engage with the creative writing project, he’ll just be reinforcing, embedding and potentially making permanent, his poor writing technique. If he doesn’t, then it’ll be because he’s trying to avoid the rude truth of being exposed as a poor writer and the awful feeling of confusion that goes with it. Talk about making behaviour problems worse.
So what makes a creative writer? Here are the ingredients:
- Knowing how to construct a decent sentence and being fluent in the use of this knowledge (basically, not even having to think about it)
- Knowing spelling, punctuation and grammar rules and being fluent in the use of them (so, not even having to think about it)
- Knowing a ton of stories (types of characters, storylines, settings) and being fluent in the use of them for inspiration
- Knowing a ton of general knowledge about the world and being fluent in the use of this knowledge to add detail
- Knowing a huge variety of words, phrases and sayings and being fluent in the use of them
- Knowing how to join up handwriting so that it is neat, readable and being fluent in the use of this handwriting (so, quickly and not even having to think about it)
- Fluent reading ability to check own work
- Possession of the habit of being able to concentrate for a length of time without giving up
- Possession of the habit of planning and proof-reading in a systematic way
- Possession of the habit of thinking about the reader rather than yourself
- Due to having all of the above, receiving genuine praise, recognition and admiration for producing a great story such that you are motivated to do even more
Many teachers are vehemently opposed to ensuring the features described above are taught and practised to the point of fluency. They see it as boring or too hard for children and would much prefer the easier option of creative writing projects where, at the surface level, everyone looks busy and happy, but in fact what is happening is that the writing can is being kicked down the road – Tommy will end up missing lessons in year 7 because despite his ‘story’ being ‘liked’ by 2000 non-experts around the world, he still can’t bloody write a sentence that can be read by someone else. Further, some leaders would even downgrade the teaching and practice of some of the ingredients because they do not form part of the data set that the school is judged by. Some even oppose the teaching of the above because they see it as interfering with a child’s right to be his ‘true self’ which in their view is a non-conformist individual who can go through life not having to worry about silly things like rules and regulations. These people, I think, are wrong.
How do we ensure that Tommy can also be a creative writer? We need to give him all of the above and ensure that he doesn’t have an opportunity to opt out along the way. We should do this not because it’ll help with the attainment and progress data, but because it is the right thing to do. The process takes years, not days or weeks at the last minute. This means explicit teaching and enough practice, hopefully in silence, of everything listed. Ideally, each component should be taught and practised discretely to the point of automacity before being added to the mix of creative writing in order to avoid cognitive overload. Then Tommy feels great and wants to do more. He may never become a truly creative writer in the sense that he becomes some kind of world famous author, but at least he can write.
Who’s with me?
This is a new and improved version of a previous post. I’ve added something about playground knowledge of songs and games.
Reason #1: narrative of bullying vigilance causing a child to think of themselves as a victim as well as viewing friendship as being the responsibility of others
When a child starts school, it is an emotional time for both parent and child. Many primary educators would agree with me that often the parent will have more issues around letting go than the child in question and despite a lot of friendly advice from experienced early years professionals in the nursery years preceding school entry, said parents will continue to project a lot of emotion onto their child for as long as is feasibly possible, if we allow it. This is where diplomacy pays off as we gently remove the child from the emotional situation, quietly close the doors and then provide the child with something fun to think about, like phonics. In addition to the pain of disruption to the caregiver’s need to be needed, there will also be major worries about whether the child will be happy. The anxious parent will say goodbye to their crying child and then spend the rest of the day imagining a worst case scenario which is that their child cries all day long, on his own in a corner of the room, while other children are cruel to him or her and the teacher does nothing about it.
Later that day, the worried parent will return to pick up their child, hoping to see joy in his face, but when they are greeted by a little person who immediately bursts into tears, the great investigation into What Has Happened begins. The parent is informed that when young children see a parent’s face again, they tend to remember the previous emotional goodbye and that is one reason they start crying. Of course, we are also reminded that it is normal for children to be very, very tired at the end of their first days at school and an immediate interrogation as to the day’s activities can be too much for the child, causing them to lose it. However, the interrogation proceeds and the child ends up being badgered into giving a reason for his tears through certain leading questions until the parent is satisfied with the cause of their child’s distress. Usually, that reason is something along the lines of ‘bullying’. Over the years, the child is effectively trained to look for evidence of bullying from others, but in their immature state will conflate ‘no I will not give you this ball because we’re busy with it right now’ with ‘he’s not being a good friend’. This is actually quite a miserable situation for the child.
Solution: at the end of the day, try asking asking children what they have learned (rather than ‘What did you do’), as well as asking them who they played and shared games with (rather than ‘Who was nice to you’)
Reason #2: desensitization to cruelty through too much unsupervised screen time
Many parents are completely unaware as to what their child is doing or looking at on the iPad or phone. Eventually, these children migrate from apps and games and then will be hooked on youtube, watching various nonsense that insidiously desensitises them to all kinds of cruelty. While the school might be working hard in assemblies, circle times and PSHE lessons (as well as through rules and routines) to teach children to use ‘kind hands’ and ‘not make fun of people’, the internet is working hard to teach children to laugh at others’ misfortune, economic circumstance, race, sexuality, disability and religion. Children from all kinds of homes are being abandoned to the internet and I see addicts all around me who display all the classic symptoms when confronted: anger, denial, manipulation, self-pity. Further, the hallmark preference reversal means that these children will ignore their own hunger, tiredness or even the need to go to the toilet in pursuit of their fix and I have heard many times from both parents and children that their first port of call upon waking is not a cuddle with a parent, but picking up an iPad – am I the only one who thinks this situation looks too similar to that of an adult who lights a cigarette when they wake up? What happens during the day, when we’re supposed to be learning, is massively affected by this because these children are cranky as well as under the impression that casual cruelty is normal – this all gets transferred into the playground too.
Solution: take the tech away. Even better, don’t let them have it in the first place*.
Reason #3: rejection of human interaction, books and stories
Some parents genuinely think that the fact their very young child has been able to use the iPad since before they could walk is an indication of intelligence, so they encourage it. However, in addition to the problems of addiction outlined above, we also have the fact that screen time is much more exciting than everything else in the world for a child and this causes them to reject human interaction, books and storytimes, never acquiring the vital knowledge that fuels imagination and imaginative/social play. This social play is the first stepping stone to being part of society. The child who spends all his time on the iPad will not know how to join in with a group of children who are acting out a storyline which combines Little Red Riding hood, some random trolls under a bridge and that time when someone’s mummy asked daddy to hoover up a giant hairy spider the size of a dinner plate.
It doesn’t help that we seem to be telling parents that early language acquisition etc will develop naturally and without the need for any purposeful parenting. A young child has no hope of making friends if all he can do when he starts school is push, poke, shove, grunt, scream at and chase after other children because no-one bothered to have a conversation with him at the dinner table so that, gradually, he learned how to speak. As I have written before about reception year, certain habits born out of frustration quickly become embedded and I believe this is one of the reasons why we have a behaviour crisis (the rot sets in early). When it comes to making friends and keeping them, re-enacting Fortnite just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Solution: put the human interaction (talking with children), books and storytimes back into children’s lives so that they have the conversational knowledge (words, phrases and social rules such as taking turns to listen) as well as fertile imaginations (through knowing stories) to take part in social play. Daily storytime really needs to be daily.
Reason #4: not understanding what ‘no’ means
This is a big one and it’s to do with boundaries. What happens is that many children are getting their own way through tantrums and therefore learning that tantrums are the go-to option with pretty much everything in life. By the time they start school, they would’ve had about 3 years of empty threats, never sharing anything and generally getting their own way (because tantrums typically start around age 2). No one dare say any of this in public, but I reckon there are thousands of primary (and possibly secondary) teachers out there who are having their mojo drained because of children who greet every instruction with toddler-like behaviour. This also transfers into the playground where said children ask to join group of children who are playing together and are met with a resounding ‘no’ because of their reputation and they then simply recourse to flying off the handle and making sure everyone knows about it. Once you reach a critical mass of children who have that habit, it’s pretty miserable for everyone involved.
Solution: boundaries, saying ‘no’ and meaning it
Reason #5: traditional playground games and songs have disappeared
A couple of days ago, I happened upon a really interesting documentary which was made in 1959. I love peering at the past in this way, looking beyond material differences and instead at how people interacted and communicated with each other. The most striking feature for me was the children’s play times at school. Sure, the boys looked a bit rough, but you could see evidence of scripts handed down over the generations that ensured games were fair and rules were followed. The girls were all dancing to and singing songs that had been passed down the generations – the smiles on their faces and the size of the groups playing together. So inclusive! But where has it all gone? When was the last time you saw children singing Ring-a-ring-o-roses?
Solution: answers on a post card!
Who’s with me?
*I think my future uber-trad school might be a low-tech one!
I have put something in my Todoist planner (recommend it) to blog once a week on a Monday. This week’s blog is a digest of Frank Furedi’s talk about mental health. Nutshell: we’re all doomed unless we collectively recognise what is really going on and take active steps to do something about it.
Frank began by going through some statistics, highlighting the massive increase in the use of mental health as a reason for making claims upon an already stretched system. Something like 15% increase in a year which is interesting because it shows that we haven’t reached a peak in terms of accommodating mental health issues. What’s also interesting is that according to Frank’s analysis all of the media claims are that mental health among young people is getting worse and that the language used is overly inflated, with frequent warnings that all student will be, for example, ‘damaged for life’ by their experiences at school. The fact that all claims in the media point to mass worsening of mental health should make us all skeptical and this is where Frank takes us, questioning the narrative and really thinking about whether our youngest generation is as mentally ill as is commonly. I’m really thankful to Frank that at least one social scientist is bringing this to our attention.
Frank went on to highlight a few common beliefs within the population that contribute to our collective concern about mental health. Firstly, that children are increasingly defined by their vulnerability and secondly, that in order to help them grow up to be resilient and happy people, we need to protect them from all pressure. I certainly see that thread of concern and belief weave its way through all sorts of aspects of education. Thankfully, I’m old fashioned and know, despite what I was told during my SCITT year, that it is the difficult experiences that make you stronger and this influences how I lead my year groups: we say yes to competition, yes to high expectations, yes to being held to account and challenged when we put a foot wrong, yes to working hard (regardless of one’s own troubles at the time) and yes to doing lots of practice. However, much of this narrative of vulnerability and protection from even the slightest of stresses permeates aspects of education I have no choice but to comply with. Safeguarding is one such role where I think we are in danger of collectively putting a lid on what disadvantaged children can achieve by automatically turning them all into ‘customers’ for mental health provision. I won’t go into that right now.
Our attention was drawn to how the typical problems of childhood have been co-opted and redefined with medical language. Frank gave us a great example of how, when we were young, some of us would bunk off from school on a regular basis. Back then it was called truanting and the assumption was that we were choosing to not do the right thing, and that the solution was to ensure we stopped bunking off of school. Nowadays, truancy has been co-opted so that now we have ‘school phobia’ with the result that children who are given this pseudo-diagnosis then get to have their ‘need’ to bunk off rubber stamped by the system. As one teacher pointed out, this makes it very hard for them to challenge children who have some kind of diagnosed condition, undermining their authority and making it very difficult for them to just teach – effectively, the whole system, including the teachers within it, lowers its standards and expectations of these children who happen to be experiencing merely normal teenage life and yet are led to believe they are mentally ill. Those children who have had their life experiences pathologised are also looking at getting less out of their academic education than others. Who are these children and which parts of our society do they hail from? We should all be really concerned about this.
Frank then described something called ‘concept creep’ for terms frequently used as part of the therapeutic industry’s expanding remit. Apparently, concept creep can be applied downwards (to less and less stressful experiences) and outwards (to capture a wider variety of everyday experiences). For example, ‘trauma’ used to be applied to only the most severe of life experiences, but is now casually applied to normal experiences such as having to leave one’s parent at the beginning of the school day. I hear the word ‘trauma’ quite often in my work as a school leader. For school leaders and business managers, there is an additional headache in that all this concern and provision for mental health issues in the school is very expensive. Further, Frank drew our attention to some stark statistics about the dramatic increase in mental health interventions in the U.S with the result that instead of reducing mental health issues in the younger population, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children identified as having mental health problems. This ties in with my observation that the more you do for people (particularly parents!), the less they do for themselves.
Frank’s closing thoughts on this were very sobering indeed. Essentially, the ‘mental health crisis’ is a manufactured problem that has become very real. This is because children are being socialised into interpreting their everyday experiences through the prism of attention to feelings and casual acceptance of all stress being a flag for mental health; over the years, this is making children genuinely mentally ill. My comment to the crowd was an anecdote from a recent safeguarding course I attended in which an example of ‘best practice’ was promoted. There was a school teacher who, in her reception year classroom, had set up individual, named pockets on a wall and children were asked to reflect on each activity and choose a ‘face’ every so often to put in their ‘pocket’ indicating how happy or sad they were at the time. The system was that as soon as a child felt a bit sad about something or someone, a TA would be able to swoop in and attend to their feelings. Again, this is part of the whole ‘children must never feel stress or just sort themselves out’ narrative, but now co-opted into the safeguarding system as a way of identifying and helping children who might be indicating to us that something is going on at home. Frank’s response to this involved a word beginning with F and that word was not ‘fantastic’.
My final thoughts at the end of this session were that I think school leaders need to be more courageous about highlighting and challenging this situation, not least because it threatens to burden teachers with an additional workload that they absolutely should not be burdened with, but also because this situation will stop many of our young people from coping with adult life as well as ruining their chances of academic achievement.
Who’s with me?
Nutshell: we could co-opt our innate need to compare and compete and, to a certain extent, have a collective ‘enemy’ for the purpose of enhancing educational outcomes.
I loved studying ecology at uni. It all made so much sense to me when all the jigsaw pieces of life seemed to slot into place: very satisfying! However, the lasting impression is that just like that kid from Sixth Sense who saw dead people everywhere, I see ecosystems everywhere. I just can’t help it. A key factor in ecology is the importance of competition in enhancing a species’ chance of success and humans are surely included in this. In fact, it is generally accepted that humans are competitive and you don’t need to search for too long in order to find evidence of this. Amusing examples of how we compete, sometimes just inside our own heads, are:
- When very young, with siblings in order to get parental attention and resources, and with peers in order to get teacher attention and resources
- When very young, with the opposite sex at school in order to prove that the opposite sex is rubbish in some way
- When slightly older, with peers for various ‘top dog’ status such as being the best at scoring goals, running, times tables, drawing, or having the most number of friends and wearing the coolest trainers (latter two are possibly linked)
- Teenage girls compare and compete with each other as to who is the prettiest, slimmest, sexiest, most fashionable, has the handsomest boyfriend/most success with the boys
- Teenage boys compare and compete with each other as to who is the strongest, fastest, most daring, best at ‘witty’ banter, feigning disinterest in school in order to prove manliness
- Women compare and compete with each other as to who is the slimmest, most successful at ‘life’, most able to defy the ageing process, has the most memorable of weddings, is able to design the most boutique hotel-like interior for their homes, can curate the sexiest and most artistic holiday snaps on social media and who eats the least at a work-do buffet and makes a big show of it
- Men compare and compete with each other as to who can move the most paving slabs, who’s got the best missus, who’s got the best house, who can down their pint the fastest, who is/appears least fatigued at the end of a club (bike) ride and who can shift the most metal at the gym
Granted, most of the above is pretty vacuous, but we still do it! Even nerds compete with their fellow nerd as to who is the most academic in some way. The drive to compete is everywhere and in everyone. Why? A scientist would say we have evolved this way because in a past world where resources were scarce and the chances of survival and reproductive success were somewhat reduced, competition made us push ourselves in order to maximise our change of survival and success. The only people I see who seem to be immune to competition are those who would, if ranked, come out on top anyway, i.e they’re pretty good at something, tend to be a lot older and have that air of confidence. Perhaps this is a natural shift in mindset that happens to everyone when they have either reached a certain age, have everything they need (and have also procreated?) or perhaps achieved everything they had set out to achieve? Perhaps some people believe that they are simply better than others and don’t need a competition to prove it.
The latter thought reminds me of an interesting thought-exercise conducted on a group of people, myself included, who were attending a speech by a well-known educationalist. She announced that we would be taking part in an experiment: an exam in a mysterious subject and then we would be ranked by results at the end of it. Then, she asked us to put up our hands if we’d be happy with that. Pretty much everyone was horrified and kept their hands down, except an idiot who was thinking about the one time she came dead last at a long distance duathlon and how she had learned from it as well as seeing the funny side*. This universal dismissal of competition and ranking was used as an example to gain collective approval that competition and ranking are de facto bad for children and should never happen in schools, whereas I thought that perhaps it was proof that people don’t like being tested on something they may know nothing about; therefore, we need to ensure that children are taught well and have committed knowledge to long term memory before they do an exam. To me, it’s all about fairness and I think that deep down the mass balking wasn’t so much the ranking per se, but at the unfairness of being ranked with those who may already know this mysterious knowledge. I also thought there might be an element of confidence that comes with age and believing one is superior to others (because of their chosen profession and their current status within that profession – attendees were all school leaders), therefore the thought of being ranked on some other factor was viewed as pure insult. Children have no such thoughts because they have yet to make their way in the world.
Anyway, given that we all, at some point and particularly when young, have this innate competitive drive, I’m somewhat perplexed when educators decide they can simply eradicate the competitive instinct in the name of promoting those ’21st Century Skills’ we’re all supposed to have. To me, a decision to eradicate competition in order to improve humanity is on the same level of folly as a decision to eradicate our preference for making our own lives easier and more productive by making rules, routines and habits illegal. If an educator decides to remove academic competition, then I believe this either drives academic competition ‘underground’ or drives children to compete on other terms (such as who has the best trainers). We’ve all witnessed teachers say, ‘Don’t worry! This isn’t a competition and you should just do your best!‘ as they hand out exam papers to their class, only for each and every child to spend an amount of time copping a sly look at neighbours’ writing in order to ascertain whether they’re on the right track and in with a chance of not coming last – everyone works that little bit harder. We all know that there will be a surreptitious ranking of percentage results when the teacher gives back those marked exam papers.
Even those who would normally come near to the bottom of a league table seem to still want to take part. I have found, over the years, that maths competitions, implemented well, seem fire up absolutely everybody, including those disabilities and SEN. I think the key here is to make sure competition is ‘healthy competition’ with the option for everyone to achieve a personal best and where there is an adult in charge to ensure no-one’s cheating, being a sore loser or showing off too much, although it is important to celebrate the high achievers because they have worked for it and set the gold standard for everyone. Perhaps it is the honesty of knowing exactly where you are that makes us all feel safer, less anxious, plus there is the feel-good factor of seeing your hard work pay off. There is also something to be said for how amazing it feels when you come from a less well-off home than your peer and yet can compete with them on the same terms. What’s amazing is that I have seen children previously assumed to have some kind of discalculia shoot to the top of the class in maths within weeks of getting stuck into maths competition involving timed practice.
So I’ve talked about how competition brings out the best in us and now I’d like to introduce the concept of some kind of innate need for a (friendly) foe to fight against. I haven’t seen much written on this, although I did find an article on it recently. To me, it seems that without some kind of collective real or fictional foe to fight against, people just fight with themselves or look to the nearest person or group of people and make them the enemy instead. Teenagers are really interesting group to think about in this context. I do wonder if, during puberty, some kind of innate ‘warrior’ manifests and in the absence of a killer tribe in the next village, teenagers opt to make their parents and teachers the collective foe. Perhaps this is one reason why house systems work so well. Instead of fighting teachers or each other, they group together and vie for academic and sporting supremacy against a group of peers.
So, I really think that we should harness children’s innate desire to compete both with friends and with foes in order to get the very best out of them. Why fret and spend hours doing masses of extra interventions when a competition and ranking ‘system’ will do the hard for you by compelling children to push themselves that little bit further. Surely this is an opportunity to be grasped – can you imagine how all children could collectively ‘level up’ and have more pride in their education and school if there were trust-wide, then regional and then national competitions in various subjects/disciplines?
Who’s with me?
*That idiot was me. To be fair, it was the worst weather ever such that almost every female competitor stayed away and I ended up being one of only seven hard-core female competitors in the whole event (and my coach said that out of them all, I was probably the only woman).
A blog about maths, just like old times.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had educators who are also parents approach me to ask for advice about their child and how he or she can catch up. There is a common theme among these requests: their children tend to be around 7 or 8 years old, they’ve become aware that their child is on the ‘low table’ and then they try a few things out with their child at home and are horrified to see their child struggle with even the most basic of calculations because they’re still stuck using their fingers to count up and down all the time. Thinking about my own experience of various primary schools, primary educators and children whom I’ve taught, I would say these requests are not isolated incidents, rather indicative of a widespread problem: young children do not have their basic maths facts off by heart. What are the contributing factors and what can be done about it?
- A skills-based approach in the early years assumes that the objective ‘being able to do simple addition or subtraction’ can be ticked off if the children can do it via counting up and down with fingers, beads, toys, whatever, but no expectation that they would be fluent (speedy and accurate)
- The incredibly high amount of visual and aural distractions in the reception classroom that regularly interrupt children’s counting such that they often arrive at the wrong answer (no one’s there to check it because there are only 2 adults in a class of 30 with many different activities going on) and never get to really know for sure that, for example, 2 and 5 make 7. This is more of a problem for children who haven’t got the habit of concentration (see my other posts on learning to concentrate being as important as learning knowledge) in an environment that actively discourages it
- A teaching approach that confuses ‘showing understanding’ with ‘learning’, leading to children being moved on to something else, usually problem solving, before they’ve had a chance to do enough practice and commit what has been taught to long term memory
- Some early years and KS1 educators have a subconscious bias against maths, seeing it as inherently boring or hard, and seek to mitigate against this by making maths ‘fun’, thus obscuring and distracting from the core knowledge that children need to have
- Awareness of the reasons why children need to know, for example, their times tables, but an inability to draw parallels with what must be known off by heart in early mathematics
- Calculation policies mandating the use of inefficient methods of calculation in order to ‘show understanding’ before children are allowed to proceed onto the formal methods holds many children back
- The need to evidence differentiation which means that over the years, the LAPs not only do fewer calculations per any unit of time, but they’re always being given manipulatives which removes the requirement for them to learn maths facts off by heart
- Sometimes the differentiation is by calculation method, with LAPs expected to remain on those number lines while the HAPs get to use their column addition and subtraction to do many more calculations and learn so much more about number facts and relationships (place value, for example) through this practice
- Teachers of mathematics in the earlier years (Year R, 1), while being aware of cognitive load theory, do not (or cannot) necessarily apply these concepts to teaching and learning of maths
- Ideological opposition to SLOP and ‘knowing things off by heart’ in maths
For me, I cannot help but see parallels with the teaching of reading. We now know that systematic synthetic phonics is so much more effective than the old Look & Say methods that encourage various forms of guesswork; children need to learn the little parts of words and how to sound them out and blend them, but we don’t stop there because we expect the requisite amount of practice to take place such that children become fluent at segmenting and blending and this means knowing the graphemes off by heart. However, in mathematics, it’s like we teach the equivalent of the phonics (actually, sometimes we don’t even do that), and then give the children some Shakespeare to read while also playing experimental Jazz in the background.
So, the children get to practice some simple recall on the reading table within continuous provision, or will have opportunities for recall in extra phonics sessions at various points of the day, but the maths retrieval practice will be lots and lots of counting up and down, or perhaps recall of shapes, time, the weather, days of the week – anything but knowing off by heart, through teaching and lots of practice in reception year and year 1, that if we pop a 2 and a 5 together, they always make 7. They may or may not twig this fact, and even if they do, it is a fleeting moment that is not emblazoned in their long term memory because they’re swiftly moved to the ‘shopping task’ and suddenly their heads are filled with apples and pears. As these children progress onto working with larger numbers in year 1, 2 and 3, the constant counting up and down leads to errors: sometimes 9 and 5 make 14, sometimes 9 and 5 make 15 – so these children don’t then start to learn the patterns (that you also need to know off by heart) for, say, adding 9. They cannot see the mathematical tree for the leaves, never mind the woods for the trees! Some children go up into year 2 not being able to look at 6 objects and instantly know that there are 6 objects – you’ll put 6 counters down in a typical 2 by 3 array and they’ll bloody start counting one by one.
To many who read this, these little parts of number knowledge seem insignificant and therefore nothing to really worry or bother about. The common sentiment is that children will arrive, when they’re ready, at all this knowledge and then we can just focus more intensely on maths knowledge and SLOP in KS2 (quite often the maths lead will be in year 6). But that surely is the equivalent of expecting children to learn to read by immersion and magical osmosis?
If I were to change things, I’d shift the focus to a knowledge-based approach in early mathematics and really systematically teach, assess and expect lots of practise of specific, small bits of number knowledge – just like we’re expected to with phonics. Children who haven’t learned the little parts off by heart would then be expected to discretely practise more until they’ve got it. This is kind of the opposite of what the EYFS mandates, so we’re a little stuck at the moment, and I’m finding a focus on fluency in year 1 and 2 is really difficult as a result.
Until then, when teacher-parents approach me for advice, I usually recommend counting at home (without distractions) to 5 and then recognition of what 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 look like in a really systematic way, as well as the use of games such as dominoes, snakes and ladders where turn taking and slight increase in adrenalin induce more concentration (which is associated with enhanced memory formation and is an oft-forgotten reason why summative testing and competition are so useful). I also then recommend plenty of systematic practice such as through attending Kumon classes or just buying Kumon practice books off Amazon and doing them at home – the practice is really repetitive, but this is exactly what the child who is behind in their learning needs in order to commit maths facts to long term memory. It doesn’t take much, and with daily practice they can catch up, feel successful and move on to that top table in class. If you’ve got sons who are starting to be more consistently accurate with their calculations, I recommending making your own maths ‘league’ with ‘levels’ that are based on particular sets of maths knowledge, tell them a complete myth about a legendary boy who could do any level in under a certain time (make the target SMART), then whip a stopwatch out and see their faces light up with joy and ambition.
Who’s with me?
This blog post goes beyond the usual consideration of, for example, cognitive load theory, or the need for explicit instruction and retrieval practice in reception year and into the realms of the neuroscience of habits. I think that ‘best practice’ in EYFS does not consider this aspect of neuroscience. Yet!
It’s been a privilege this year to oversee the education of children in reception year and if I’m honest, I certainly couldn’t do as good a job as our current reception year teachers – the experience has given me real food for thought as I have dwelled on the eternal conflicts that could be summarised in the following questions:
- These [disadvantaged] children need to be taught, by adults, what they do not know, and they need to be encouraged to practice what they have been taught in order to commit knowledge to long term memory – why is this truth almost frowned upon?
- Even though we know that learning and development comes from being taught and then being given opportunities to practice, why do we insist on waiting for children to be ‘ready’, only to then label them SEN when they don’t miraculously discover or do what everyone’s waiting for?
- Why does cognitive load theory not seem to apply to EYFS? All these children flitting about and thinking about their choices, or with the teacher in a group having to process much more than a child in year 1: struggling to concentrate as their young minds consider what to write, the phonics, the pencil grip while other children constantly but inadvertently interrupt the teacher’s words and the child’s thoughts – their working memories must surely be overloaded?
- All that constant noise (or ‘learning buzz’ as so many call it) – how do they not go mad or just switch off altogether? The closest we come to stillness and focus is when we are listening to a story, or when we are receiving our phonics instruction, but there isn’t even 5 minutes of silent, whole-class reading or writing when they are alone with just our own thoughts and struggles
This last bullet point is what I am thinking about most at the moment, which is why I have ended up pondering how the neuroscience of good habit formation might be applied in reception year (or what happens in its absence). When I consider our most disadvantaged children and the lives they lead, I realise there is probably no moment of peace during their day in which they imagine themselves in a story. The equivalent for us adults is when we create space in our lives and minds to think about or invest in our future. How is this possible? We humans have this marvelous ability to do more than the bare minimum of existing through the creation of rules, habits and routines, an automation of thought processes, decisions and actions that make us more ‘efficient’ and then happier because we feel we have achieved more, or because we have facilitated opportunities for relaxed conversation, time to read a book even.
The thing about creating good habits and routines is that you need to have some willpower to start them off and the resolve to keep doing the same thing until you no longer have to think about it (if you want to read more of the science, try this). The habit formation loop relies on a cue, the repeated activity and then the reward at the end. For most of us, the ‘cue’ tends to be a signal for a particular time of the day, and the ‘reward’ is the satisfaction of having got something done or making someone else happy. Many of our good habits were actually developed when we were children because our parents made us form them: brushing our teeth before going to bed, always cooking and eating vegetables with every meal, always ironing shirts and shining shoes on Sunday night, making our bed every morning, practising the piano after dinner, being polite to granny even though she asks the same question over and over – we had no choice but to put our whining to one side and just get on, resulting in greater willpower and concentration that helps us at school and that we carry through to adulthood, enabling us to form whatever habits are necessary to for us to achieve as parents, colleagues and friends. It’s a virtuous circle of good habit formation which facilitates even more willpower, concentration and ordered thinking that makes us more successful as adults.
What about the disadvantaged child? You know, the one living on that estate and who is permanently tired, messing about, can’t read, not interested in anyone or anything to do with learning? What good habits does he have in his life? When he wakes up, it won’t be to an alarm and there won’t be a set routine for getting dressed, brushing hair, having breakfast at the breakfast table, finding and putting on shoes and then going to school in an orderly manner. No, he’ll awake, late, to a cacophony of noise, drama, rushing around and his mother will berate him for not being able to find his tie – but nobody showed him how to lay out his uniform and bag before bedtime as a matter of routine or then ensured it was done every single night until it became a habit, such that he could simply put on his tie on in the morning like any other child. How on earth is he going to develop some willpower and ordered thinking if he’s never been taught and then expected to practice those typical rules, routines and systems that then create good habits and the accompanying willpower?
Does this boy think about his future, stories or life’s curiosities, or does he live merely ‘in the moment’, condemned to think only of the here and now, of how hungry he is (because there is never a fixed time for dinner and he’s got into the habit of constantly asking her about it), of when he’s next going to get on the XBox and the fact that his mum seems to be stopping him from doing what he wants to do? In the absence of willpower, direction and parental authority, he begins to develop bad habits: being disrespectful (it creates a risky buzz of excitement), pushing boundaries and breaking society’s rules (another risky buzz), not bothering to listen till the end of a sentence, automatically deciding to do the bare minimum until he can get back outside to play, never sticking with any activity for longer than a few minutes, developing automatic defiant reactions to being asked to do anything that is not what he wants to do (partly because he is so cranky from lack of sleep). Over time, these bad habits become ingrained. The trajectory is set and it ain’t upwards. It doesn’t help that mum’s support worker said that she needs to let him have more choices so that he can ‘develop independence’, and to reason and negotiate with him rather than tell him off when he throws a tantrum so that he develops ‘his own understanding of kindness and right and wrong’. If she’s honest, she feels powerless and lately a little bit scared of him.
And then he starts school.
He has no willpower, and he physically and mentally flits about, doing his best to avoid anything that involves a bit of effort. The teaching assistants notice that he never washes his hands after going to the toilet, so they set about teaching him how to wash his hands, then watching him and reminding him to ‘wash your hands!’ until the hand washing becomes a habit. But does the teacher notice his bad habits in the classroom? She may not; lack of willpower or willingness to please others is not really a problem in the EYFS phase because this phase is child-led. If she does notice, what is the automatic reaction? There is no mention of the value of home rules, habits and routines in terms of helping him to acquire some willpower, concentration, a notion of obedience. Instead, we may have the usual recourse to ‘he’ll do it when he’s ready’ and then they will wait for this miraculous overwriting of neural pathways to happen, only to watch him get worse and worse as he simply reinforces those bad habits over and over again. In the meantime, they put him on an IEP for SEMH and he attends a lego therapy club twice a week.
If the baseline didn’t crystalise just how much he is missing, the need to assess constantly makes it glaringly obvious that something isn’t quite right. The professionals come together to nod sagely and talk of ADHD or ODD, and his mum reveals she has been thinking about this for a while. His ‘needs aren’t being met’ and if he carries on this way, he’ll end up being excluded – he’s now starting to hit children in order to satisfy the habit loop of always getting his way. At the end of reception year he hasn’t achieved many of the ELGS, particularly the more academic ones and ‘Year 1 will just make him kick off! He needs to have more ‘active learning’ and ‘choices’ because ‘he has low concentration‘. So, he goes up to year 1, but spends most of the morning back in reception year repeating the phonics and the early maths, and then choosing activities that he wants to do. He never quite learns to read and write like other children his age, because he never had the willpower to concentrate on the adult teaching him in the first place. He never experiences the joy of listening to or reading a whole story.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. I’m coming to the conclusion that poor behaviour, including the kind that leads to so many thousands of children being excluded, has its roots in the entrenching of bad habits all the way back in EYFS. Part of the problem is in how we also automatically dismiss poor parenting on ‘austerity’ and alleged lack of help for disadvantaged parents. The answer always seems to be more mental health support, more money, more provisions, never anyone actually taking ownership for the true cause of the situation which is that these children just haven’t been put on the right path towards greater willpower, concentration, can-do attitude. It costs nothing to decide to put your child to bed at night at exactly the same time, and follow a set routine until that child goes to sleep, but today’s disadvantaged parents have themselves grown up without rules, routines and good habits such that they too are mired in the ‘here and now’ and there is no time or space in their lives to invest in teaching their own children.
Likewise, many teachers do not even see the real point of rules, routines and the deliberate formation of good habits (to overwrite the bad habits), merely seeing it all as a way of ‘forcing’ children to behave in a certain way for the sake of everyone else’s convenience. ‘Why are we even making them waste time lining up in silence after lunch?‘ they say to me, ‘Surely the learning time in class is more important?‘ I say to them, ‘but this is also their learning’. They argue that we should let children be who they are meant to be, and to let them choose rather than automatically comply, knowing full well that the disadvantaged child will never automatically choose to work as hard as his advantaged friend, or even to work at all towards the higher goal of success and happiness in life.
I think this is the real reason why, despite massive investment in the promotion of, for example, knowledge-rich curricula, plus intense focus on the how and what of teaching, certain pockets of disadvantaged children still trail behind. This is why I think children need more structure, routines, rules and deliberate formation of good habits in the early years of school life, rather than for us to inadvertently allow bad habits and poor concentration and willpower to become entrenched. Until we get our heads round that, and start taking into account the neuroscience of habits when it comes to teaching and learning for younger children, those disadvantaged children just won’t access knowledge-rich curricula the way their advantaged friends do.
Who’s with me?