Progressive ideology – bad for everyone’s mental health?

You know me, I don’t beat about the bush. I’ve finally managed to get my planning done, but I’m feeling anxious about the start of the new term and I know I’m not alone in not being able to fully enjoy the Easter weekend. Why am I anxious? It’s because progressive ideology and the teaching/assessment etc methods that are associated with it requires me to constantly worry about children. Let me illustrate my point (and then I’ll talk about a solution):

Child-centred education essentially puts the adult on the back foot. So, the typical teacher will have to, ideally, differentiate teaching and learning for the individual child, personalise marking and constantly assess, assess, assess each child in every single subject, updating various APP-type systems as they go. This means that all the effort and worry of children’s learning is transferred to the teacher, trapping them in a never ending state of chasing and hoping and generally not being in control. Furthermore, and this is probably more of an issue in primary schools, unlike the other professions where being ‘professional’ means keeping a healthy emotional distance between front line worker and client (for example, in the police force, officers are minded not to get too emotionally involved for the sake of their own health), teachers are actively encouraged to get overly emotionally involved with children in order to be able to ‘teach’ the ‘whole child’ and also cater for the child’s ‘needs’. Anyone who questions this is at risk of receiving a hefty dose of emotional bribery: deemed to be ‘uncaring’ by those on high who have either never stepped foot in a classroom, or have left that exhausting place a long time ago.

The bonkers nature of this system is fully exposed when you consider how humans normally organise the more repetitive parts of their lives through the use of ritual and routine, a sort of human version of ‘automation’ that outsources the worry and makes us all more efficient and in a better state of mental health. This could be anything from how we manage to get ourselves of bed and out of the door for an early morning run, to falling into a routine of weekly meal prep that saves the household ‘cook’ from constantly having to dream up new and exciting dishes for everyone’s delectation. When we walk a familiar route to the shops, do we make sure that every single time we go, we change the route a little, perhaps opting to hop, skip or jump our way there? No, each time we get a little more efficient: choosing the exact place to cross the road where cars naturally slow down for example, soon we don’t even think about it. But the teacher who is minded to follow and use the teaching methods associated with progressive ideology is effectively expected to take a wiggly walk to the shops. with no walk ever allowed to be the same. Teachers are barred from outsourcing worry, using a teaching and assessment version of ‘automation’ or becoming more efficient because a) she must try to follow/plan for each and every child’s learning ‘needs’ (the thought-process equivalent of trying to stab a single ant among a hundred other ants) and b) constantly dream up new and ever more exciting ways to pique children’s interests. Then of course we have to consider the extra burden of worrying about children’s feelings constantly which is EXTREMELY draining.

You know what the answer is? Yes, you guessed it. A massive switch to the traditional side of education would, I believe, save the sanity of teachers and dramatically reverse the trend for teachers to leave the profession in droves. You see, I think it’s not so much the long hours that is the main factor in driving teachers away, it’s the fact that they can’t let go of anything and they are forced to worry all the time. This surely must be the mental oppression equivalent of doing 30 PhDs at once, forever.

By teaching the subject and not the child, the former is a much more stable entity that can be codified and delivered as a neat package of information divided up into ‘chunks’. with regular testing. The ‘worry’ can be outsourced to textbooks and the use of efficient methods of teaching which involves ritual and routine can save the teacher so much mental energy that would have otherwise been sunk in trying to dream up ever crazier lessons. The use of frequent testing and healthy competition transfers ownership of learning back to the child, who is then incentivised to work hard. Rules and regulations regarding behaviour and giving respect back to the teacher also puts a healthy emotional distance between the child and the teacher; the child is able to trust the teacher, but doesn’t overstep the mark and the teacher’s mental health is protected.

Happy, relaxed teachers.

Who’s with me?

Real silence

This blog post is intended as an extra layer in the conversation surrounding the use of silence in schools to help children study. After Anthony Radice wrote a blog post which talked about the forgotten importance of good ol’ fashioned Prep Time, I of course concurred but then questioned whether there were any dedicated silent periods in the majority of primary schools. A couple of teachers on twitter said that they had silence in their classrooms, but I’d like to argue that whatever they’re doing, it is no where the same or effective as Prep Time. I’d also like to add my own thoughts on how and why I would increase the ratio of silent study to teaching time in state schools if I had some kind of magical power.

Firstly, are there ever any really silent periods of study in primary schools? If teachers are saying that there are, then my concerns would be:

  1. Since we are supposed to be teaching 100% of the time, if a visitor/consultant/member of SLT bundled into the classroom during a period of silent study, would the teacher not get a bollocking for slacking off?
  2. If the teacher admits to doing something overtly ‘productive’ in the eyes of Ofsted (as I was told early on, ‘You need to be seen to move children on in their Learning. How do you know they’re not thinking the right thing?’), perhaps by sitting with a group and giving extra help/teaching, then there won’t be silence. Regardless of what tweeps say about #nobestwaytodosilentstudy, if there is a teacher and a TA constantly teaching or helping children during a period of silent study, then it is not silent study. You see, there is either silence or there isn’t.
  3. Even if the teacher were to be bold and actually go ahead with making children work in silence, this would be an ad-hoc decision and it wouldn’t last anywhere near as long as traditional Prep Time.
  4. Distractions are much more commonplace in primary schools, I think. The internal/infernal phone is constantly going off (‘Could you let Tracy know that she is going home with Uncle Billy today’), there are children who come in late (very late) and some children absolutely refuse to stop pestering their friends by either fiddling too much with rubbers and rulers, or announcing constant wittering commentary about every little thing that they’re thinking or doing (‘Ha! Look at this line I just drew! It’s all wonky like a see-saw!).

I’ve often thought that sometimes extrovert teachers say that there is silence in their classroom, when what they are talking about is their version of silence. How often have I heard from teachers, ‘Oh gosh I couldn’t study in total silence! How awful! I think it’s much better to have a hum of noise or chatter in the background, or maybe some music. Nobody could possibly like total silence. It’s practically barbaric to inflict that on children!’ These teachers announce that there will be silent writing, and then will promptly put some music on and perhaps start a scrolling set of pictures ‘to inspire creativity’ on the IWB. Said teachers will also punctuate the silence regularly with constant repetition of the success criteria, or suggestions of ‘Wow Words’ to use. In their heads, there is silence, but in the minds of the introverted children their thoughts are being shattered into a thousand pieces with screeching violins, brightly coloured gargoyles and incessant nagging.

Of course, I have admitted to using periods of silent study in my classroom too. You would expect that, since I am a rare primary teacher who is also an introvert and therefore understands that introverts aren’t merely ‘defective extroverts’ (as the extroverted world would believe us to be), but a group of Thinkers who mull things over before opening their mouths. We are more interested in solving problems, pondering the wonders of science or deciphering the intentions of others rather than constantly trying to hog the limelight. I always try to be fair by announcing that a certain amount of time that can be dedicated to talking about the work (to appease the extroverts and SLT, who always seem to be extroverts themselves), but that after this time there will be silence ‘For the sake of our friends who need and want to concentrate by themselves’. The children welcome this and the relief is almost palpable (sometimes there are few hurrahs) when I announce that it’s time to knuckle down. And then of course the known children who just cannot help but witter on get moved away from other children.

If you do as I do quite regularly, then the following positive things happen:

  • Children get better and better at concentrating.
  • Massive improvement in quality and quantity of written work. For example, fewer spelling errors and neater handwriting.
  • Chatterboxes do change a little and begin to think of others. I like to encourage the introverts to assert themselves by having the confidence to say, ‘Would you mind leaving me alone to think now.’
  • Weirdly, fewer arguments, tantrums or friendship issues.
  • The children who can’t be bothered to listen and learn during my input suddenly get smoked out because they can’t just ask their friends for all the answers. Then, they tend to make more effort to do what is expected the next time round and ask questions if they want the teacher to explain something again.
  • When I mark, I can tell exactly who needs an extra intervention and my extra time can be devoted to them, rather than having to make the children who can’t control themselves (and who might have otherwise chatted about Minecraft) do some extra work to make up for their wasted time
  • Children who have got used to having an adult with them, practically doing the work for them and repeating the input, are forced to think for themselves

Given the above, you could say that everyone’s a winner in this situation. Except, I don’t think this use of silent study goes far enough. What’s the missing link? The missing link is that Prep Time is a ritual, whereas a teacher’s random decision to instigate some silence is definitely not. In the former situation, children come to expect it and by having Prep Time for the same time every single day, they also learn the good habits of regular self-study (instead of procrastinating). Again, it is the disadvantaged children who lose out if we choose not to appreciate the true value of a ritual such as Prep Time: they don’t have a chance to learn at home, as their advantaged peers do, to dedicate a fixed and regular amount of time to silent study. Their advantaged peers have parents who put in place that crucial routine for doing homework, times tables or spelling practice and, of course, silent reading.

As you know, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian thing, trying to understand the culture that underpins methods of teaching and learning that happens in maths classes in Shanghai, for example. To me, there was another subtle je-ne-sais-quoi that went beyond the initial understanding of your classic ‘ping-pong’ maths lessons, daily interventions to keep the whole class together and the use of varied and intelligent practice to help consolidate learning. What I have realised is that, staring right at me, was a ritual just like Prep Time. Perhaps I am taking the analogy too far, but it is almost like the process of becoming a mathematician in Shanghai is like a path of devotion, particularly when it comes to the use of practice. You see, children practise what they have learned in maths every single day and for a good long time. They practice at home, alone and in silence. This is a daily ritual, something akin to a meditation in numbers, with new connections and insights revealed through purposeful study and the repetitive practise of calculations. There is refuge in numbers and the desk which has been purchased for every child (who may live in poverty or cramped conditions) is like a shrine to self-cultivation which, as Confucian philosophy states, makes us not just more intelligent, but better people. Confucians understand and accept of the importance of ritual and habit as a way of becoming more cultivated, productive and also happier. I think we used to have this wisdom too, but it has since been lost.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would instigate Prep Time for all children in state schools. It’s not just about having a place and time to study alone, it’s about getting into good habits, being able to concentrate, self-cultivation, making your own connections and committing useful facts and procedures to memory; it’s also about being a happier person.

Happier children.

Who’s with me?

 

 

Behaviour: what can primary schools do?

Rather than leave it all to class teachers, primary school leaders could help by taking on some responsibility for behaviour

Secondary teachers, how would you like to teach your bottom set for every lesson, every day, all week and for a whole year? This is the lot of some primary teachers up and down the country, such is the nature of primary teaching that every now and then a teacher will be handed a notoriously difficult cohort for a year and there will be much sympathy in the staffroom for them.  This teacher will either be a really good teacher who has ‘broad shoulders’ and is known for being good with behaviour management such that they can reform an entire cohort, or SLT just hate them and are hoping they’ll have a mental breakdown and leave. This teacher will be responsible for and be physically with this cohort even through breaks and lunchtimes if the weather is bad.

I’ve often written about behaviour and you all know that I am a big believer in teaching children self-control through routine, discipline, high expectations and clear boundaries. I think this is especially important for disadvantaged children because in addition to the well documented lack of vocabulary and general knowledge, many also lack the self-control and ability to organise or be systematic due to not having routines, discipline or boundaries enforced at home. Lately, a reading journey into Confucianism has highlighted for me the importance of ritual and habit as a way of civilising human beings. The Chinese employed the Confucian principle of shaping character through repeated ‘proper actions’ because they believed that doing good not only made you a better person, but a happier one too; I can’t help but make a link here with Michaela Community School’s policy of enforcing good behaviour with rituals associated with ingraining politeness and civility and the fact that all accounts of the school state that the children seem very happy. Is there a place for rituals and behaviour policies like this in primary schools that would not only improve behaviour, but also make children happier? If there is, a beleaguered classroom teacher cannot do this alone.

Contrary to what I view as the MCS ideal (or idyll), primary schools are quite likely to employ child-centred behaviour policies that rely on the child making their own decision as to what constitutes good or kind behaviour and it is not uncommon for primary educators to believe that a black-and-white approach to behaviour is far too authoritarian, abusive even. Primary educators are also likely to subscribe to the developmentalist view that good behaviour somehow develops ‘naturally’ and I’ve quite often noted a collective sigh of acceptance in classrooms, corridors and schools whereby staff opt to follow an errant pupil, offering choices and kind words rather than just saying that enough is enough. What compounds this issue is that when children are very young it is assumed that their chatter and high jinks in class is not seen as quite so disruptive, partly because their little bodies do less damage and make less noise, partly because their slight misdemeanors may even be seen as quite cute; the upshot is the tendency towards low-level disruption is effectively ingrained over a few years until, usually, the year 5 or 6 is handed a riot of 30 large, loud and unruly children. Confounding this issue is the fact that primary schools are more inclusive than secondary schools; whereas the most disruptive children would go on to special schools or PRUs, or at least be spread around different classes in secondary schools come year 7, these same children have been with the same cohort for 7 years on the trot prior to that; the children that they shared a classroom with for 7 years would inevitably become desensitised to poor behaviour such that they become either angry at the injustice of seeing some children be allowed to break the rules (and receive rewards for things they should be doing anyway), or just be more likely to engage in low-level disruption because low-level disruption is actually good behaviour when compared to the lowest common denominator. I saw a year 5 class of 34 once at a multi-school event stand by and not even flinch as one of their peers proceeded to shout and kick the shit out of the classroom furniture in a science lab. The teacher stood by and occasionally interject with kind, soft words imploring the child to make a good choice.

Even if primary educators vehemently deny all this, instead verbally supporting a view that children should sit still, concentrate and face the teacher because it is the right thing to do, you look around schools and a good portion of children don’t even stop what they’re doing or bother to look at the adult when the adult is talking. Reality: primary schools may inadvertently have lower expectations of behaviour,  behaviour policies that seriously undermine adult authority and when dealing with bad behaviour are more likely to blame the teacher anyway for not making lessons fun enough etc.

I realised recently that I do SLANT, but only because it seems normal rather than because I have read about it; perhaps this is because I am a parent and wouldn’t dream of allowing my own children to ignore me when I am giving them an instruction. Unfortunately, children genuinely come up to my class every single September not bothering to look at the teacher and I find it a bit weird (this is worsened by children spending too much time at home staring at screens rather than getting used to talking and looking at human faces), so I’d have to repeatedly stop what I doing to enforce children’s attention and you wouldn’t believe the tutting, stropping, huffing, flouncing, eye rolling and scowling I would be treated to upon asking, politely, this most simple request for 100% attention. I don’t give up and behaviour does turn around such their next teacher says ‘Aren’t they a good class! You’re so lucky!’ completely unaware of the sheer ball-breaking relentlessness I have had to deploy to get cohorts straightened up. But is this troublesome class the fault of their previous teachers? No. It’s the fault of school management. Every single teacher in any primary school that does not have whole-school behaviour policies is utterly exhausted from constant behaviour management such that things slip, they get desensitised to the subtle rudeness and anyway, they are led to believe it’s somehow their fault for not be nice enough or having fun/interesting lessons. Inevitably, they choose to leave with their heads hung in shame. High turnover (which is a ‘Good Thing’ because SLT need to keep up the search for The Perfect Teacher) and the fact that children are given so much status through the use of student voice perpetuates this misery.

So, like many primary teachers, I run my own ‘detentions’ and I dig deep to find the energy to get children to behave and pay 100% attention, never settling for anything less than that, but I can’t be with them 100% of the time. I get given the tough classes because I am a strong character, but what of the different kinds of teachers who also deserve to have the children’s attention? This is would I do if I had some say so in primary schools:

  1. Stop blaming the teacher for not making lessons fun enough
  2. Do what secondary schools do and have a system for removing the worst offenders from lessons without automatically blaming the teacher. Let them do something mundane while they’re out of class and have them apologise to their teacher and classmates for stealing precious learning time.
  3. Have visible SLT backing up teachers in public. This sends a very powerful signal to children that they cannot play adults off against each other and that just because their own class teacher isn’t with them, doesn’t mean they’ve got permission to turn into hooligans. Remember, young children lack the maturity to know and understand the right way to behave, which is why whole-school behaviour is probably more important in primary schools than in secondary schools.
  4. Have centralised ‘detentions’ run by SLT rather than just brushing everything under the carpet and turning a blind eye to the fact that teachers are having to cobble their own lunchtime ‘detentions’ together. Or maybe just allow junior school teachers to share the lunchtime detention responsibilities; this would free up time to run fun lunchtime clubs because, let’s face it, constantly spending lunchtime chivvying the same children to neaten up their writing books or actually do more than 3 calculations really grinds you down over time.
  5. Bring back some old-fashioned rituals that ingrain politeness and civility. Lining up in silence, standing up and greeting the head teacher when she enters the room etc. Not only would this massively improve behaviour, but ancient Chinese wisdom says that rituals like this makes people happier.
  6. Instead of constant learning walks that check up on the teacher, why not have learning walks to check up on the behaviour of children and how they’re making an effort with presentation in books? I can’t help but think that children get the wrong message when they see the look of fear on a teacher’s face as SLT burst in with their clipboards and iPads, poised to photograph and peer at everything the teacher does, as if trying to catch them out.
  7. Maybe those weekly arithmetic test results could be emailed out to parents? Yes, some parents won’t be bothered, but many will and there’s nothing like a bit o’ pressure from Dad or a threat of no pocket money to make an unruly child think twice before opting out of paying attention! Parents I speak to desperately want this information anyway and they also want to know a class average for comparison too; fundamentally this comes from a place of caring and wanting their child to do well. I once mentioned this in the staffroom and there was general disgust at the possibility of parents being a bit competitive with each other over their children’s test results, but if it’s ok for it to be widely known that a child is good at football, why is it such a sin for it to be known that a child is working hard at being a good mathematician?
  8. Have a whole-school expectation for SLANT policy in all classrooms. Make sure the TAs follow it too (the times I am trying to say something to the class and a TA simultaneously allows a child with SEN to opt out and witter on about mundane things…..).

The DH sat near to me recently in PPA and we were near her classroom. The supply teacher was ‘suffering’ and you could hear some high jinks just carrying on while the teacher tried to give out some instructions. The DH turned to me and said, ‘It’s such a shame. They behave for me, but why not for this teacher?’ I kept my mouth shut.

Whole-school behaviour policies. Come on, let’s get strict in primary schools.

Who’s with me?

 

 

Life is a series of tests, so adding another little one at the start of school shouldn’t matter.

I think a baseline test would be a great idea, mainly because I think we really need to know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even get started with phonics! But before I give a little detail as to the positives, let’s tackle that old spiel about how allegedly ‘detrimental’ they are to children’s wellbeing.

Yesterday I read an article written by a former teacher, university professor and Ofsted inspector which stated various arguments ‘against’ implementing a baseline test for 4-5 year olds:

  • Apparently, we don’t really know how to devise the perfect test
  • Children learn in different ways/times, so any test will not be fair
  • Young children are ‘volatile’ which means that tests would be inaccurate
  • A school test won’t be measuring the full range of children’s achievements
  • You can’t measure the most important things like self-confidence, collaboration and independence
  • A test will cause children to worry, which will then stop then from learning
  • Tests at age 11 are not comparable with tests at 4
  • It’s best if the teacher just works with the child to find out about them
  • Tests aren’t sensitive to the child’s individual needs

First off, there is no such thing as a perfect test. A perfect test only exists in the hypothetical future where somebody has invented a machine that can scan every neural connection in the brain and apply the universe’s most complex algorithm in order to formulate a result. All we mortals can do is give due attention to the possible imperfections of any test and try to mitigate against them. Lack of aforementioned machine is not a reason to abandon a regular test for 4-5 year olds.

Secondly, yes, children are different. This kind of baseline test will be measuring those differences so that limited resources can be efficiently and appropriately targeted; how is this not fair?

Thirdly, the fact that some little children can’t sit still and are prone to wild fluctuations in mood and responsiveness is not a reason to not have a baseline test. If anything, this kind of thing needs to be objectively measured so that schools can look at their whole-school behaviour policies in order to help the less ‘focused’ children progress towards being calmer, more focused and therefore able to learn (and not stop others from learning).

As for a baseline test not measuring all of a child’s ‘achievements’, why would you want it to? You might as well say that we shouldn’t have academic GCSEs because said GCSEs don’t measure teenagers’ achievements in the realm of getting a date, doing the moonwalk or creating a funny meme. The purpose of a test is not to pump up the ego of the testee; the purpose of a test is to test what is being tested. This brings me swiftly to the ‘fact’ that a baseline test doesn’t test the ‘most important’ things like self-confidence and collaboration. I’m not so sure personality traits associated with extroversion should be seen as ‘more important’ than being able to focus in order to learn how to read and write (note for people who will immediately misinterpret this: I’m not saying confidence etc is not important). Besides, I reckon a test could actually measure these sorts of things, if it were administered by a teacher.

Now for the matter of children getting worried: there really is no need for this. Life is a series of tests, especially for the young child. Has the author never experienced the ‘joy’ of ‘encouraging’ a toddler to eat their vegetables? A baseline test involving asking a child to separate some toys based on their colour pales into insignificance when compared to the mighty battles that have occurred between the tired mother and the tempestuous toddler. Despite the author’s fearsome academic credentials, I would suspect that assuming a baseline test would damage the wellbeing and self-esteem of a young child is somewhat out of kilter with the realities of day-to-day life of most young children, particularly the disadvantaged children (I’m also assuming the author is relatively wealthy and middle class too, as are most teachers it seems these days).

Finally, the SATs are comparable with baseline tests. This is because we would see whether prowess at SATs is correlated with ‘prowess’ at baseline. Of course, we should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation; however, a baseline test would essentially measure how much a child has been ‘taught’ at home by the parent and has therefore been given a leg-up towards being ready to learn. Conversely, a baseline test would also measure how much a child has not been parented and this is where I can finally talk about the benefits of a baseline test: surely it would be a good idea to really know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even begin teaching the basics of literacy and numeracy? Some reception year teachers, especially those working in schools situated in areas of social and economic deprivation, have to do the following:

  • Toilet training
  • Teaching a child how to sit at a chair
  • Teaching a child how to actually look at another human being’s face
  • Teaching a child how to speak
  • Teaching a child how to listen to another human being
  • Identify and mitigate against various hitherto undetected issues such as glue ear, cavities, pinworms, headlice, ringworm, flea bites, fallen foot arches and other foot defects, malnourishment, neglect, tendency towards violent outbursts, syndromes genetic or metabolic in origin, ADHD, autism, hernias, short and long-sightedness, tablet computer addictions and chronic sleep deprivation

Although I’m usually against all things Big Brother, I can actually see whole host of benefits for a baseline test. Firstly, I would make them very simple and easy to administer by the teacher; software with an easy-to-use interface that is iPad-friendly would be great. I’m thinking questions for each child with yes/no answers that can be partially completed without the child present such as:

  1. Can the child sit in a chair for 5 minutes?
  2. Does the child make and sustain eye-contact?
  3. Does the child know any nursery rhymes?
  4. Is the child toilet trained?
  5. If you place 5 items in front of the child, and then take them away, can the child remember what the items were?
  6. Can the child separate some toys based on size, colour or material?
  7. Does the child say please and thank you?
  8. Does the child modulate the loudness of his voice based on whether he is indoors or outdoors?
  9. Can the child hear a whisper?
  10. Does the child enunciate well enough to be understood?
  11. Is the child alert for most of the day?
  12. Does the child know anything about the world around him such as where milk or eggs come from?
  13. Does the child share toys willingly?
  14. When a teacher says ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’, does the child immediately do as instructed?
  15. Can the child self-soothe when he is upset (ie stop crying rather than escalate into tantrums or panic attacks)

Just writing these questions makes me think about the sheer amount of work teachers in reception year have to do. This is all work that normally comes under the banner ‘parenting’ that is not factored in any way into pupil progress meetings when it really should be because a) teachers who have more to deal with should be rewarded accordingly and b) the nation needs to know exactly how behind many children are developmentally, and this has nothing to do with being ‘ready’, rather it has to do with sheer lack of modelling and instruction at home (nothing comes naturally).

It would also be interesting if said baseline test also included an element of testing for how well a child could read, write and add up. This wouldn’t be because of an expectation that some miraculous academic achievement had occurred in two weeks of being in school, but because it would be interesting to know to what extent parents are supplementing their child’s formal education. I also have a sneaky suspicion that quantifying the extent to which parents are teaching phonics and early number facts might also finally expose the fraud that is ‘discovery’ learning and ‘natural development’ in EYFS.

So, let’s have a baseline test and not make a big fuss over it

Who’s with me?

 

 

There is the curriculum, and then there is the *other* curriculum.

Are we training the next generation to be selfish?

The more I read, the more my own thoughts evolve about the purpose of education. I have always been convinced of the importance of teachers actually teaching, which is what I thought they did, until I started my SCITT course and found out that apparently this was a bad thing. I have also always been convinced of the importance of providing children with oodles of knowledge in every subject and then giving them opportunities to memorise, recall, apply and build on said knowledge regularly so that they can have choices in life, do well in their exams, be fascinated by subjects rather than activities and of course communicate and engage with the wider world (again, I thought this was what all teachers wanted until I started my SCITT course and found out that apparently this was a bad thing).

Thankfully, it turns out Hirsch and many other researchers have supplied and interpreted the evidence to back myself and other trads, so I know I’m not going mad after all. But then, not much is written in the world of educational research about the importance of whole-school behaviour and culture except in terms of how, by behaving, children are better able to learn. I think that perhaps somewhere along the line, vast swathes of the population have forgotten the true purpose of instilling and, if we’re frank and honest about this, enforcing good habits, respect for authority, focus and work ethic in the next generation; this is the other curriculum, the development of the scholar, and it goes way beyond the individual and it is important from the very first day a child, especially a disadvantaged child, attends school.

Seriously, have you thought about the other curriculum (and I’m not talking about PSHE here) in your school? I’m loathe to go all hippy and philosophical on you all, but I might have to go this way for the next couple of paragraphs. Don’t worry! It’ll come round to the usual pragmatic considerations…….

As you know, my reading journey has led me into the world of Confucianism and I must say I find it fascinating, especially when I find out that Confucius himself acknowledged the conflict of filial piety (duty to your immediate family) with the fact that many children’s family circumstances were pretty dire. Sure, I might be a few thousand years too late to the party, but I am happy to now know that Confucius considered his best students to be those that wanted to learn the most, regardless of their ‘status’ in society at the time (and many came from impoverished backgrounds, so now I feel right at home with the whole Confucian thing). Furthermore, I also loved reading about how the process of studying hard made you not just more intelligent and well-read, but a better person because you become more focused, able to work hard and for longer than others. This makes sense because, when you think about it, the self-discipline and focus needed to perform hundreds of complicated calculations, or spend a whole hour perfecting just one bar of a piece of music transfers to having the gumption and resilience to tackle tricky aspects of life without getting all flaky, shirking responsibilities or endlessly whinging. In fact, if you are brought up to be self-disciplined, you will also come to view all trials and tribulations in life in quite a positive way because all struggle, whether it be perfecting handwriting at the age of 7 or getting stressed over wallpapering the spare room at the age of 37, is character forming (if you take the right view, that is).

Anyway, let’s get onto this other curriculum. As Anthony Radice said to me recently, “We need to train the will as well as the reason.” Why? It’s not just good for the individual, it is good for society because when you are in control of yourself, you are better able to give yourself to others. How is this done? I’d like to use the most beautiful analogy I can think of: the musician and the orchestra.

orchestra
A place for everyone, and everyone in their place

The young musician spends many hours laboring over scales and arpeggios, and sometimes one piece of music will take weeks and weeks to master. For many years, a parent will share this responsibility and frustration because they must, come rain or shine, ensure that their child practices religiously until said child is wise enough to appreciate the value of discipline and practice and also has those good habits to continue the hard work alone. Non-musicians will never understand the frustration and pain (mental as well as sometimes physical) that a musician goes through in order to do the composer and themselves justice. They think that musicians are just somehow naturally ‘creative’ and have accidentally noodled their way to musical mastery.

A young musician also has another education and this comes through participation in attending music school in order to play in a youth ensemble or orchestra. Through being able to play in an orchestra (which only comes through being able to play an instrument and read music well; ‘communicating’ with other musicians), the musician learns among other things to discern two types of harmony: the first being that which sounds pleasant to the ear, and the second being that of harmony within a society. As the the will of the musician has been trained by his parent and teacher (and eventually by himself) through hours and hours of practice until he is in control of himself, he is then able to give himself to the orchestra under the leadership of the conductor and the guidance of the lead musician for their section. Out of this, comes beautiful music and happiness for all concerned. The musician can eventually go on to work in other orchestras, or even form their own ensembles or quartets………

It doesn’t take a genius to work out what I am getting at.

How on Earth can a young person participate in the great orchestra of life, if they are not in control of themselves and are therefore unable to give themselves to others? I believe we need to consider the other curriculum: training the will of young people. Sure, this already happens for advantaged children in the home, but for disadvantaged young people, the story is very different. This is part of the reason why I am so against the supreme dominance of child-centred education in primary schools and argue instead for traditional education. This whole idea of allowing children to ‘choose their challenge’, indulge in the odd chitchat at the expense of task focus, or follow their own interests actually encourages children to develop the ‘ability’ to flake out when the going gets tough. The requirement for teachers in primary schools to not talk more than a couple of minutes and to also make sure their lessons include lots of relevant and fun activities also trains children not to concentrate on any one person or tricky concept for a length of time. This is the opposite of training the will. This is training children to think only of themselves and what interests them and their feelings, to be selfish.

If young people cannot participate in the great orchestra of life because they lack the self-control and discipline that enables them to give themselves to others and experience the beautiful music that is produced, then how can they ever be truly happy? The answer and key to children’s happiness and achievement in life must surely come through training the will (in addition to training the reason through a great curriculum and teaching).

How can we train the will? Here are a few examples:

  • Strict rules of conduct helping children to develop self-control
  • Making sure that children are paying attention to the teacher and expected to listen and participate in questioning for increased lengths of time
  • Practice, practice and more practice of knowledge and skills which helps with recall in lessons as well as self-discipline in life (this is also why I like Shanghai maths)
  • Regular silent study/reading to focus the mind
  • Memorisation of poems and Bible verses to help develop concentration
  • Encouraging determination and focus through the use of competition
  • Regular testing with direct feedback of results so that children know that hard work pays off
  • Participation in ‘mini-societies’ such as orchestras, choirs and sports teams to develop an understanding of the importance of rules and hierarchy

At the end of the day, this is all about the development of scholarly disposition in children and the celebration of all things scholarship.

Who’s with me?

Get ready for the real dystopia

No, I’m not talking about Brexit. I’m talking about what happens when toddler use of addictive technology and lack of parenting mix together to produce a somewhat hellish scenario that is now beginning to show itself in primary schools and is yet to affect teaching and learning in secondary schools.

Since going on a reading journey via Hirsch and then to the Far East for some research and information about maths teaching, I’ve been getting into the whole Confucian vibe of late. The main reason is that every time I read about some aspect of maths teaching or classroom practice in the Far East, there always seemed to be this underlying wisdom influencing and providing a holistic reason for that particular practice. The more I read up on Confucianism, the more I understand why X, Y or Z happens in schools. For example, the reason children sit facing the front is not just because it helps children to concentrate on what the teacher is saying or doing, it is also to do with the much bigger picture of harmony within society that arises out of structure and order, respect for wisdom and experience of (usually) older people. I also love the reverence for education and the discipline of individual study as being seen as the means to becoming a better person. So, if we want to emulate maths teaching and learning as they do in Shanghai, we need to think about the what and how of mathematics teaching (because it is vastly superior to what we currently do) and then go way beyond that to the dao, or ‘way’ of the mathematician (or general student) and how he/she is formed, as they do in the Far East. It’s such a shame that we in the West tend to do the exact opposite to our children.

As a mother of teenagers, I am finding out far too late that this sort of education should start at a very early age in order to counter the only things that do happen naturally and that tend to become entrenched well before puberty sets in: bad habits, lack of focus and laziness. Fortunately, I am a self-confessed Tiger Mum and my children have, overall, benefited, but what I am realising is that I haven’t been Tiger-Mum enough to counter all of the insidious effects of child-centred education and Western society’s tendency towards promotion of child-centred/led parenting. However, the situation for disadvantaged children is far worse and, as I have mentioned before on this blog, secondary teachers have yet to experience what primary teachers are now starting to experience: children who are not only not parented very well, but are suffering the effects of being glued to a screen from around the age of 2:

Not only are children’s minds closed to learning, but increasingly they are closed to all interaction with other human beings.

Before going on to relatively new problem of children being unable or unwilling to interact with other human beings, I will briefly describe just a few examples of how children’s minds are closed to learning well before they attend secondary school:

  • Lack of discipline in the home means children feel empowered to shun hard work and caring authority of teacher
  • Lack of parenting wisdom and sleep routines in particular means that children come to school without having had a proper night’s rest and this tends to manifest as ADHD type symptoms (very different to how adults behave when tired)
  • Child-centred education encourages the child to pursue what is interesting or fun at the time, which for many children means that what is necessary and important is put off almost indefinitely
  • Typical practice in primary schools inadvertently trains the child to ignore the teachers (who have knowledge to pass on) and instead listen to peers who not only have no knowledge, but may provide what I call ‘anti-knowledge’ and continuously distract a child from being able to think, focus and generally develop good study habits

Now let me tell you about this other factor which we have yet to really feel the full force of. This is the effect of children spending vast amounts of time glued to a screen from an incredibly young age. You may argue that this has been the case for a couple of decades now, but I would argue otherwise. You see, what has facilitated this is the invention of user-friendly tablet computers and the normalisation of their use within the family home. As you can see from these statistics, back in 2010 tablet computer use was pretty niche, and it’s only relatively recently that it has become a normal thing for every family to have at least one tablet computer and for it to be automatically given to a toddler as a pacifier. Unlike parking a screaming toddler in front of CBeebies (which is what we all used to do years ago when the going got tough), parking a toddler on an iPad is a whole level up in terms of entrenching bad habits because they will be playing games that artificially stimulate over and over again the reward pathway of the brain, creating little compulsive addicts in the process. 

How does this play out?

Well, if we consider that iPads and tablet use became mainstream from about 2013, this means that the shitstorm is only just starting to happen in primary schools. Children are rocking up not only unable to speak in a sentence (because their basic vocabulary is so poor due to lack of communication), but they are also less used to looking at a human face. It is quite scary to think about 5 year olds who don’t automatically turn to face the adult who is speaking because this means that they are missing out on correct enunciation of vocabulary (mouth movement) and understanding of human emotion as interpreted by facial expressions. Further, no amount of animation in the adult’s voice or body movements will be as exciting as a rewarding and addictive game on the iPad which displays incredibly realistic and brightly coloured fantasy animals dancing about. Not only do we have children whose minds are closed to new knowledge and instruction, but their senses are now shut off too since they don’t even want to look at or listen to an adult, and then you consider the steady increase in glue ear conditions that are so much worse these days due to lack of effective antibiotics. The continued artificial stimulation of the reward pathways of the brain from such an early age due to iPad use would surely affect how children are able or willing to persevere with hard work at school, even if teachers attempted to make all lessons fun and interesting.

All is not lost though and I do believe there is a way to help children. I think the first step is to acknowledge what is happening and the second is to try and emulate what Far Eastern societies do which is to think about how to facilitate the development of the scholar from a young age. This whole situation makes me think, of course, that methods of teaching and learning associated with traditional education actually need to be in place from the start (for example, having children face the front rather than each other), but I’m even starting to think about whether it is a good idea for there to be such huge IWBs being on all day long in primary school classrooms. After all, it is the teacher who has the knowledge to pass on, not the enormous computer screen. If you go in most primary classrooms you will see them organised to encourage the child to look at the IWB (other than each other) rather than the teacher during input time.

Sometimes I even wonder at the increasing moodiness of children these days. Have you noticed it? When we teachers were little children, we didn’t strop and huff and puff as much as little children do in today’s classroom. Perhaps children are like this because they’re actually coping with a mild version of withdrawal and are in ‘need’ of their fix, but do not have the maturity or communication skills to be aware of this.  We should in no way accept this, but seek to mitigate against it. Exactly how is another matter entirely……

Spotting the wolf in sheep’s clothing

An article about the future of education, which was published this morning in the Guardian, found its way to my timeline. It seemed innocent enough and there were a few words and phrases in there that appealed to my trad-teacher brain. Surely this lovely message should appeal, rather than make me worried? However, something didn’t seem right, even though influential people were nodding and re-tweeting on twitter. So, I thought I’d try to turn to my note taking skills in order to try and smoke out the real message. Perhaps you can see what I can see when you read my notes which follow the trail of the original article:

  1. War affects many millions of civilians; war is horrible
  2. Especially when recounted by a 12 yo girl called Ava to 200 adults
  3. Everybody agrees we need to let in more Syrian refugees
  4. Ava is able to make people emotional and see the light because of a speaking project at the author’s trendy new school
  5. We need to teach children about real life, so they can make a difference
  6. We need to teach children to be tolerant. How?
  7. We need to teach children how to deal with technological and medical advancement. How?
  8. Unfortunately, all educators either fall into the bootcamp instructor camp or the ‘technology will make teachers obsolete’ camp.
  9. Evidence of schools using evil algorithms to personalise online learning and ‘flipped learning’
  10. Even parents know that it’s easy just to look something up on YouTube in order to learn about it. This is a real thing and not a fad; we should not dismiss
  11. There are limits to algorithms and looking stuff up because RELATIONSHIPS
  12. Teachers are actually quite good at inspiring children and helping them to learn
  13. Experience of hire candidates moaning about having to teach too much knowledge because ‘exam factory’, ‘not being able to inspire’ and ‘evil data’
  14. The existence of GCSEs creates perverse incentives like their results (which can be quantified) being the ticket to success, headteachers are judged by them, and they’re used to measure progress
  15. Employers don’t even care about GCSEs
  16. Teachers actually try to choose easier syllabi
  17. Narrowed curriculum even from year 9
  18. EBacc is squeezing out creative subjects therefore destroying creativity and problem solving which is actually the very thing we should be teaching
  19. Exam prep taking too much precedence
  20. Children having interventions INFLICTED on them at every opportunity
  21. EVIL EXAM FACTORY crushing individuality
  22. EVIL RULES SUCH AS SILENT CORRIDORS AND DETENTIONS crushing individuality
  23. STRAIGHTJACKET, REGIME, RELENTLESS, FEAR, CHILDREN WHO CANNOT THINK
  24. And now for our new, cosy and fluffy solution which we have named ‘Engaged education’
  25. Obligatory Mandela quote
  26. Reiteration of how terrible all educators are
  27. Education needs to change. Big time.
  28. Woolly nod to ‘best that has been thought and said’ and then dismissed with ‘needs of present and future’
  29. GRIT etc plus being nice and serving the community
  30. Craftsmanship is totally the way forward because creativity and problem solving
  31. Academic, vocational and technical: we need to mix them all together in one big crazy pot
  32. Some schools are doing the right thing which is to focus on teaching skills and desirable character traits like resilience through project based learning
  33. Schools need to change everything they do in order to make project based learning happen
  34. Noise is good because it is evidence of wonderful discovery and collaboration
  35. Schools that are more traditional are clearly crushing the spirit of children and destroying their staff morale. We do the opposite because we’re nice.
  36. The best schools, like us, work with real businesses to make our whole project based learning thing more real-life
  37. In order for us to take over the world, we need 3 things to happen
  38. Ofsted can be good, but it can also be bad. Therefore, Ofsted is bad.
  39. Ofsted makes schools do things which makes everyone feel stressed
  40. Just get rid of Ofsted.
  41. Or not. Maybe it can be peer led [like that College of Teaching we’re all hearing about]
  42. The 3 things Solution: no-notice visits to check safeguarding, just use data (like results) to check progress, and have lots of teachers/HTs [but mostly consultants] visit regularly to check everyone is doing the right thing.
  43. Scrap GCSEs, just let children choose when to take a no-stakes exam in the key subjects when they’re ‘ready’
  44. Assess them instead on 21st Century skills
  45. Schools need to innovate more to make sure this happens and MORE MONEY
  46. Poor little Ava and poor, crushed teachers
  47. By the way, no such thing as traditional or progressive!
  48. All educators, deep down, want what we want, which is children who have 21st C skills such as critical thinking and then they can cure the world of war and Donald Trump
  49. This is better than making children learn ‘shallow’ facts
  50. Wooo yay progressive education
  51. Look at us. We got our children to learn another language solely for the purpose of being able to protest against evil capitalism. Here they are annoying office workers/evil taxpayers as said taxpayers nip to the shops on their lunchbreak, hoping to pick up a spare pair of tights because said pair of tights got snagged at Liverpool street when they were trying to get to work, clearly not concentrating because they were so hell bent on pursuing their careers in evil financial services.
  52. Everybody agrees with us.
  53. If you don’t agree with us, then APOCALYPSE

wolf

This message is a progressive wolf in sheep’s clothing and we need to be able to recognise this situation by disengaging the initial emotional response and instead try to analyse the underlying messages. Also it helps if you add in humour.

Further, if you click through the links to the 3 schools he mentions, you’ll see that uncloaked wolf in plain daylight.

I think the article was written to get parents and the general Guardian-reading public to agree with the sentiments while remaining unaware of what they were really agreeing to. You’ve got to hand it to the author because it is, on the face of it, a truly convincing piece of theatre. But it is theatre none the less, even if that theatre used real props (there were some truths in there that trads would agree with, like the problem of narrowed curriculums from year 9 and the fact that Ofsted creates pressure to over-evidence every molecule of learning).

I think it is ethically wrong for school leaders to do this because parents may flock to sign up their children to this school (and others like it) only to find out years later that their children won’t get useful qualifications. Further, am I the only one who read that article thinking that perhaps the cloak and dagger approach to promoting project based learning also disguises the fact that a lot of vested interests of the money-making kind are relying on these kinds of school leaders to promote this kind of education? Compare this to the very honest messages that MCS send out to the media: parents are under no illusion as to what happens in that school because information about routines, procedures and ethos come across in clear, rational language. MCS also projects a real humility; what other kind of school would invite people in to scrutinise and debate there methods and beliefs in such a public way?

Would disadvantaged and disengaged children who are not so good at self-directing their studies do best at MCS or School 21? What about children with gaps in their learning who cannot access project based learning?

The fact that this kind of message repeatedly makes its way into mainstream media, hoodwinking parents and public is partly our fault. You see, parents don’t really know the difference between different kinds of education and this is possibly because educational language is foreign to the average man. Additionally, parents genuinely think that teachers are passing important and useful information onto children, that their children are practicing using said information and then are de facto able to do an exam in that subject. Progressive educators free ride on this assumption and never quite tell parents what the word ‘independent’ in the context of school activities means, for example. Our job is not just to promote traditional education (and let the results speak for themselves), but to educate, involve and empower parents to make rational decisions about the education of their children. Otherwise, they’ll all be prey to progressive wolves in sheeps’ clothing.

Recognise the wolf. Expose the wolf. Chase that wolf away.

Who’s with me?