Confirmation bias in the reception year classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the child’s daily timetable:

Screenshot 2018-06-03 at 10.28.32 AM

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

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

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

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

Who’s with me?

 

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Does cognitive load theory apply to reception year?

Much of my writing about EYFS is a simple extrapolation of how I would apply what we know about the benefits of, for example, explicit instruction, and how lots of practice enables those positive changes to long term memory – my theory is that whatever applies to all the other year groups above reception year must also apply to reception year (and nursery) itself because the structure and function of the human brain is the same. Of course, EYFS experts would jump on this and parody my argument with their visions of innocent little children slaving away at desks all day long when nothing could be further from the truth – whole class instruction can also involve lots of singing, hearing great stories, for example (still leaving plenty of time for all important free play). I’ve written a lot about how the ‘best practice’ set up of your typical reception year classroom leaves too much to chance, allows disadvantaged children to fall behind and ensures that children who have had extra practice at home (also known as ‘good parenting’) in the basics to fly ahead; however, I’ve not written about how specific elements of cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom.

In a nutshell, of course I believe that cognitive load theory applies to the reception year classroom. The trouble is, I don’t think EYFS experts give much thought to this at all (happy to be corrected on this). It’s an interesting thought experiment, so here goes……

#1 What are they thinking about?

Of course, the ideal, according to experts, is that children don’t know they’re learning – they’re supposed to just be thinking about having fun, innocently playing their way to basic competence in reading, writing, conversation, calculations, although we do at least now have a requirement for explicit instruction on systematic synthetic phonics. I’m in two minds about this issue. For me, it seems like a massive imposition on cognitive load for a child to be thinking about, say, adding as well as playing at the same time. Let me give you an example:

maths 1

Harry’s 4 years old, what would he be thinking about when he approached this multi coloured table? Harry’s not competent in the maths basics, otherwise he’d probably reinforce his knowledge with a few more calculations and wow the girlz with his adding prowess. However, he’s got no clue, so what is he going to do? Maybe play with the tweezers, scoop up all the counters and then pour them out? You bet. Even if the adult (remember, there are two, possibly three, adults in this classroom of 30 children) did come by and ‘encourage’ some kind of activity involving actual maths, the confused child is now thinking the following:

  • I want to please this person
  • I want to continue to have fun with these tweezers
  • Oooh look at that fly
  • If I don’t scoop up these counters, Barry’s gonna take the red ones
  • Adding is hard – I don’t want to do that
  • Maybe if I went to the painting area, this teacher would leave me the hell alone
  • OK I’ll just do a bit of adding, then when Mrs Smith goes and deals with the pushing and shoving over there, I’m just going to carry on with this epic scooping and pouring project
  • 2 add 4, hmmm, which counters shall I choose?
  • OK, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 10, oh I’ve forgotten what I’m doing
  • What was the question?
  • How come Hermione seems to know all her adding things off by heart?

It seems to me that Harry’s working memory is overloaded – in order to be better at calculating, he needs to think about the calculations and pretty much nothing else. Unfortunately, the above set up overloads his working memory and he’s not even picked up a pencil and had the opportunity to write anything down and check it makes sense.

So, maybe the above example was too open ended? Let’s look at another:

maths 2

Now, how long did it take you to work out how to use this ‘machine’. It looks fun, doesn’t it? It’s a classic, lovingly made by hard-working, caring reception year teachers and appearing on many independent maths tables in reception year classrooms up and down the country. Unfortunately, it causes children to think about lots of other factors at the same time as the calculations, and this is what happens in Harry’s mind:

  • Ooh, nice machine. I love a machine. Wonder if it goes 100 mph?
  • How do I use it?
  • Oh yes, Miss explained how to use it at the beginning of the lesson. Shit. I wasn’t really listening then because she’d also previously explained the spider man writing challenge table and the creative area activity and the outside jumping and hula-hooping thing and the……
  • I’ll just copy Hermione
  • Right, look at the card like she is. E + 7. What the…? Oh, it’s upside down. 2 + 3.  I got this
  • I’m gonna have 2 cubes and 3 cubes. I got this
  • [sing songy voice activated] I’m gonna put the 2 cubes and the 3 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 5 cubes…oooops gone too far….take some out….I’m gonna take the 5 cubes and the 4 cubes and the 3 cubes….
  • HERMIONE!! Why are you using this at the same time?
  • Let’s count it up. What do we get? Tada! 11 cubes [there are 23 but no one knows the number for that].
  • Miss? Are you going to take my picture as well as Hermione’s?

Not only was Harry not thinking about the calculation in the way that was intended, but he was thinking about all sorts of other things and then the outcome wasn’t just the wrong answer, but a missed opportunity to learn, off by heart, that 2 and 3 make a no-quibble 5.

#2 choices

I really struggled to find the kind of picture I want you all to see, but without children in it (GDPR ‘n’ all that). So, we’re talking about ‘continuous provision’ which, for the uninitiated, means a number of areas within a room, a creative area and an outside area with lots of different activities laid out. Some of these activities are numeracy, literacy based, and some are more like free play, one area will be dressing up within a particular topic etc. The thing about choice is that it involves choice, and when you’re making a choice, you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be learning. This brings me to another aspect of the disadvantaged child’s life in that our man Harry is more likely to lack the kind of concentration and resilience that well-fed, secure, calm and focused Hermione has. Harry, through lack of opportunities for/expectation of sustained concentration at home (such as eating and having polite conversation at the dinner table, or having a story read to him), has not got the requisite focus to really benefit from spending time at just one area, but tends to flit about like a fly on E. Even his mum laments the fact that he just can’t sit down for too long which is not because he’s got ADHD by the way, but because he hasn’t had much practice sitting down…because no one’s actually ensured that he sits down. Anyway, not only does he not get the same benefit of the maths and the independent writing tables as Hermione because he hasn’t got the basic knowledge down pat so ends up overloading his own working memory, but he also spends more of his time making choices and then giving up than Hermione because he just can’t sit down.

The above two examples of how reception year ‘best practice’ does not consider working memory, or, you know, what the child is thinking about at any one time that might not be about learning. And this is before we’ve gone into the additional detrimental effect of constant noise, constant movement, constant visual (and olfactory) stimuli that take up precious working memory, reducing the educational experience to virtually nil for the disadvantaged child.

Say you wanted to get radical and just separate out the whole play and learning thing (for crucial early academic knowledge). Maybe increase the amount of explicit instruction a little, ensure that whatever is taught is practised to automacity in a quiet and calm atmosphere and then just go nuts with the whole play thing once Harry’s got what Hermione’s got. Could you? No. The current EYFS framework mandates a certain reception year way….

play

So, we’re told that children learn through play. And that’s that. Here’s more:

teaching and learning

If we look at the playing and exploring aspect and the assumption that children need to investigate and experience things in order to learn, you do need to have certain thought processes going on in your head in order to get out of x, y or z activity that which the teacher had in mind. In short, you need a requisite amount of knowledge to partake in the whole investigating and experiencing thing. Harry doesn’t have any knowledge, so……?

As for ‘active learning’. I’ve had this rammed down my throat so many times – it’s basically ‘anything that is not about sitting down, listening, reading, writing and generally concentrating’. Trouble is, Harry struggles to concentrate, so……?

Then we have creating and thinking critically – where do these ‘own ideas’ come from? Harry doesn’t have many ideas because he’s not got the kind of knowledge that Hermione’s got, so……?

These 3 characteristics of (alleged) effective teaching and learning seem to be the opposite to the effective characteristics of teaching and learning in year 1, 2, 3 all the way up to….er…..adulthood. No mention of explicit instruction. No mention of much needed practice to fluency and automacity. No mention of retrieval practice to help secure knowledge in long term memory. Yet, their brains are virtually the same come year 1 – albeit with slightly more connections (especially for Hermione). I’m also reminded of the very somber message said to us all at a recent local authority moderation meeting:

Remember, we are looking for evidence of the three characteristics of effective teaching and learning in your setting – this is mandatory. Evidence collected for the ELGs must be through implementation of these three characteristics.”

Anyway, I maintain that cognitive load theory applies to Harry in reception year just as much as it applies to a Harry in year 1, 2, 3 and beyond. How we factor that in, while also ensuring that Harry develops in other ways, is another question entirely!

Who’s with me?

 

I just can’t let Harry fail

People keep banging on about how wonderful the whole EYFS shebang is, quoting me this, that and the other bit of the framework that was written by the same kinds of people, who then quote their own ideology and call it ‘evidence’ in a circular route to continued approval of the status quo, but I just can’t get over the fact that those boys, the white working class ones in particular, stare right back at me when I look at the (bottom of) data.

I too have flitted into plenty of EYFS reception year settings. Granted, no where near as many as the experts, but I don’t seem to see the same things as the experts. Perhaps it’s because I look at it all in a different way – the expert may be drawn to where the adults are (‘drawing out’ those conversations with the children who engage with them), or at the different areas of the EYFS setting laid out with activities, challenges and tasks – what they will be shown is the ultra version anyway, whereas what I have seen is more ordinary, everyday EYFS – the version that doesn’t require the teacher to be up all night cutting and laminating bits of card. Further, I look at the nooks and crannies, and the areas where the adults aren’t.  How could the teacher possibly monitor all the other 24 children when she is with 6 children? Statistically speaking there are going to be quite a few children who get away with doing the bare minimum in terms of ‘choosing’ the academic tasks – who are these children? Take a wild guess. You can’t argue with the stats.

So these boys fall behind. Then they tell me that boys are behind girls in terms of natural development anyway and I’ve always accepted that, yet lately I’ve come to question this truism because it seems too much of a coincidence that we encourage and expect boys to mostly go outside and kick a football about, and we expect girls to play ‘shop’ or ‘mummies and daddies’, and then we say that boys are naturally behind the girls in terms of social, verbal and fine motor skills but ahead in gross motor skills. Funny that. Are those boys really ‘naturally’ behind, or have they not received enough instruction and opportunities to practice those things that the girls seem to ‘naturally’ do so well? Do these boys really prefer being outside, or is it that we give them praise for what they’re doing outside and they think ‘Yeah, I’ll have some more of that.’

And then we’re in the reception year and I’m sat at the independent writing table. The teacher has worked her socks off to make every area super-duper. On this table we have, for example, some clipboards, pencils and some kind of stimuli related to the topic-du-jour. The children have been told what the ‘challenge’ is (and it’s boy-friendly).  Who’s already sat there? Little Hermione. She’s doing some lovely writing and receiving lots of praise from the teacher who scoots past with the iPad in observation mode. I turn to Harry and say ‘do you want to come and write?’, but Harry’s torn. On the one hand he wants to please me, on the other hand he’s got this major project on the go and it’s called ‘World’s biggest lego tower that falls down and makes a massive crashing sound’. Of course, he’s just seen Hermione ace the whole writing thing and he doesn’t want to look like a complete tool in comparison.

What Harry doesn’t know is that Hermione got a ‘My first magical pink princess unicorn diary and wand-pencil’ kit for her birthday and she’s done hours and hours of shopping list writing, just like mummy does. So Harry reluctantly joins me, but his writing is messy, fumbled, unintelligible and despite enormous amounts of praise and encouragement, and a sticker with a football on it, he cannot produce the kind of writing that Hermione can produce. But then, he hardly ever writes, unlike Hermione. The teacher tells me he’s already on an individual education plan for fine motor skills, and possibly has dyspraxia. He goes back to his enormous tower and tries to talk to the TA about how high it is, how it’s half way up to the ceiling, generally rectangle shaped, with a red-blue-red-blue pattern and taller than everyone else’s – but of course he’s from a disadvantaged background where language and communication skills are generally poor (there are no dinner table conversations – there is no dinner table), so his words are mumbled and ineffectual. The TA records his conversation on a post it note – evidence for ELG 12: ’emerging’

I’ll keep banging my own EYFS drum until Harry gets to be as good at Hermione

Who’s with me?

Attitudes that still need to change

I’m fortunate enough to work in an environment where pretty much everyone gets why teaching knowledge is so important. I’m in a leadership position now and every time I ask the question in assembly ‘Turn to your friend and tell them one interesting thing you have learned this week’, I see plenty of smiles, conversation (surreptitious retrieval practice) and shooting up of hands to then tell me what they have learned. I have written before about how their playtimes are just that little bit happier, safer and filled with creative play (it’s still not perfect out on the field, but we’re working on that) – this is an unforeseen side effect of a knowledge rich curriculum that they not only have more to think and write about, but more to enrich their interactions with each other outside and in their free time. I see this more with year 3 and 4 at the moment. You know, I’ve also realised how a knowledge-rich curriculum is also pretty good at engaging those hard to reach boys – I’m always maintained that boys of all ages have a deep need to have and show prowess is some area of their life and this is why I prefer a more rigorous, structured approach to teaching and learning in the early years that gets those lads working hard on their reading, writing and calculating rather than letting them internalise that they are ‘good’ at football, running at the speed of light, jumping off stuff, being the class clown and then simply choosing that area of their life to become an ‘expert’ at – I want them to be able to get some kudos for being fast readers for example and then they’ll want to do more of that to impress the crowds. Anyway, it occurred to me that those same boys just love being able to show off how much they know and isn’t it great that we’re giving them opportunities to feel good about themselves; I’m not one of these educators who sees this aspect of boys (and men) as a defect that needs to be socially engineered out, rather a wonderful trait that will eventually give us some supreme invention, feat of engineering or crazy architecture in the future. Who doesn’t want to nurture that?

pyramids
Would the pyramids have ever been built if parents at the time sought to crush their children’s tendency to want to impress people?

So, while everyone who has read about the research and evidence base for knowledge-rich curricula is getting on the knowledge bus, dismissing the ‘But we’re just spoon feeding them’ and the ‘But we’re not teaching them creativity’ arguments that just don’t hold up when discussed in a rational way, there are still some attitudes and beliefs in education that I’d really like to see being examined, challenged, excoriated even. Here are some of them:

‘If we expected that, then we’d be waiting forever’

This is basically low expectations combined with ‘because I’m not worth it’. I quite often get this in response to talking about educators (both teachers in the classroom and leaders in eg. assemblies) making sure that absolutely everyone is listening and paying attention when they are speaking – I’ve had to teach all kinds of children and I know this is possible, but you just have to be prepared to put some massive effort in at first until the children really do get that you’re not letting anyone off the hook. Ever. However, in response to the ‘might as well not bother because these children can’t be expected to do that’ belief, children learn that it is OK to ignore an adult, not concentrate and to not learn. If there is a member of staff in a primary school who thinks like this, then some children in that class are going to have a whole year of embedding the following attitudes:

  • I don’t need to listen to her
  • My conversation about fortnite/slime/music.ly is way more important than The Romans
  • Adults aren’t important
  • I can dictate what goes on in this classroom
  • I can do what I like

Meanwhile, all the other children are thinking this:

  • I can’t hear the teacher
  • Why is that person allowed to be like that?
  • I wish the teacher would make him stop that humming sound
  • Maybe I shouldn’t bother listening either

Whole classes go off the rails and end up in a right mess which means that The Stern Teacher has to move year groups to sort them out the next year. The ones who suffer the most are children with SEN because they really need to be guaranteed quality adult input.

‘Well, they should just know that’

Essentially, this is an abdication of responsibility and a palming-off of workload up the line of command. Sorry guys. Also, I sometimes think this is a thinly veiled lament about children not being perfect which then leads to a subconscious justification of not doing anything to help a child correct bad habits. This is almost funny when the line above is trotted out in response to a discussion about 5 year olds. Sure, they might know the right thing to do, but we’re the adults in charge and if they think they can get away with something, then they will do that thing unless we make sure that whatever high jinks they’re cooking up never gets actioned, or at least is met with the Glare of Doom and a somber, muttered apology in response.  Admittedly, it is very difficult when most of the children come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have not had a sense of right and wrong instilled in the home (this is why we need more routines in schools, not fewer). Leaders also really need to support teachers (particularly supply teachers) in re-establishing the correct pecking order – I like to be available as someone whom a child can be sent to, if they need reminding of who’s in charge in the classroom (which is the teacher, and NOT the child).  I also like to be a visible presence as much as possible, particularly during times of transition although I’m sure some staff think I’m being rude when they’re trying to talk to me about something when I’m like ‘But I’m trying to watch all these children walk nicely right now’ out the side of my mouth.

I’m happy with a more relaxed approach

Not sure their parents would agree, or the children who can’t stand all that noise.

‘Because these kids aren’t getting these experiences outside of school’

This is a difficult one. This sentiment comes from a place of loving kindness, but taken too far can obscure the core purpose of education. Also, and correct me if I’m wrong here, but I sometimes detect a whiff of not so much wanting to provide nice experiences, but just wanting to have a nice time with children and perhaps using ‘experiences’ as way of justifying putting the ‘boring’ and difficult lessons to one side for a while. I’m strongly opposed to the whistlestop-tour-of-all-the-possible-middle-class-experiences approach to organisation of trips because they use up so much in the way of teaching and learning time and vital, taxpayer funded human resources. If each primary school year group goes on just 3 foundation subject trips and 3 unusual sports events a year, that’s 42 days a year when many year groups don’t have TAs to do some intensive intervention work with the most disadvantaged children. I guess it’s all about balance, but it does distress me intensely when children who can’t read are held back by all this lovely activity. Part of this problem is to do with how Ofsted just seem to love the laying on of all sorts of ‘good times’ for children and I think we all need to ask ourselves whether a one-off afternoon of martial arts is really the life-changing experience that we think it is, and whether the absence of a one-off martial arts experience will be noted by children, or possibly cause them some kind of long-term mental health issue? It takes a strong leader to not engage with this arms race of experience provision. Don’t even get me started on this business of KS1 residentials. Personally, I’d prefer an old-fashioned approach of a great sports day and a great history or geography trip once a year.

But their home lives are so sad, we need to make up for that

This belief is never spoken, but I think it is at the core of why so many educators think that consequences, sanctions and ticking offs should not be allowed in school. It’s about not wanting to hurt their feelings, but it is, in my view, more damaging in the long run not to help a child regulate their emotions and actions. As a parent, I don’t like telling my children off, or docking their pocket money, but it is the right thing to do and I tend to think that if this is good enough for my own children, then it is good enough for all children I am responsible for at the time.

I’m sure there are a few more attitudes and beliefs you can think of, that may, in the long term, affect a child’s ability to achieve academic success.

Who’s with me?

No money for nice things

I’ve noticed some interesting patterns that play out in the classroom, as well as in whole schools, whole neighbourhoods, whole towns and, I think, the whole country. You probably read the title and thought that I’d be arguing for ‘more money’ from the government, or whatever, to help me provide a decent education to disadvantaged children. But no, I’ve realised that the answer has nothing to do with receiving yet more money from the beleaguered taxpayer. There is something about our culture that is toxic and those of us who are net givers (of time, resources, wisdom, kindness, expertise, guidance, care) in society are edging closer and closer to this event horizon of need that threatens to consume us all. Let me give you some examples and perhaps you will see what I see.

Example 1:

I work in a school in one of the most deprived areas in the country. My colleagues work so hard for these children, but it is so difficult to summon up the extra energy to focus on and provide an academic education (the core purpose of a school) because they are continuously dealing with wave after wave of need that goes way beyond absolute poverty. It is easy to give a child an apple or an emergency jumper or coat, but it is not so easy to deal with the consequences of poor parental life choices (these are all our problems now, apparently) and the lack of actual parenting that is being done because of said life choices. These children are not so much starved of food, but starved of humanity. Those tantrums that manifested back in the toddlers years were never dealt with and instead present to us as entrenched scariness, causing everyone to walk on eggshells. It’s exhausting. The baby’s tapping and making of odd noises to try and gain attention of the caregiver become habitual shoving and shouting by the time they are at school. The answer is not more money to provide an endless supply of adults to cope with and overcome all this, in order to then be able to educate – the answer is to somehow cause all parents to put their own wants to one side and step up to the responsibility table. I’ve always maintained that the more you do for others, the less they do for themselves. The trend for primary schools in particular to be responsible for pretty much raising the nation’s children shows no sign of abating. So, in allowing a generation of parents to not bother because of our default mode of automatically taking on everyone else’s problems, there’s nothing left for the ‘nice things’.

Example 2:

My second example is a whole town – a seaside town I will not name. It might as well have a sign saying ‘Go away’. Dreary, delapidated buildings, run down businesses, even the sand and sea cannot muster up enough beauty to distract our attention from that godawful gargoyle of a flagging industrial port. Where is the interesting architecture? Where are the events? Why has that sea-front not been hipster-fied? There is an easy train service from the nearest city all the way there, but the townspeople prefer a more arduous journey to go to a different seaside. I look around and see potential, amazing potential – all it would take is a one-off investment. Then you look around a bit more and realise why there is no money for nice things; the council’s too busy spending all its cash, gathered through a heartless wringing out of the town’s grafters and small businesses (greatly accelerating the decline of the town), on dealing with everyone’s poor life choices and the problems that ensue.

Example 3:

The NHS. So I read this morning about how the NHS just hasn’t got enough money. Again. Currently, we spend 8.4% of national income on the sick, old and vulnerable. Is that not obscene enough as it is? We’re talking about nearly £124 BILLION. The main driver of spending in the NHS is lifestyle diseases though – so why are we saying we need to spend 11.4% of income on the NHS now? Surely this is, again, a glib acceptance of other people’s problems? They talk about investment in the NHS, but the point of investment is that you look for a return on that investment at some point in the future and there isn’t really any return on investment to be had. What I see is a black hole. The extra money could have been spent on nice things that generations of people can enjoy, but no, we’ve got to spend on the consequences of gluttony and laziness.

Perhaps we have all got too comfortable, happy to offload problems. The politicians exploit that with their promises. It’s almost as if we need some kind of huge shock to cause us all to step up, be responsible, work hard.

Who’s with me?

If we gave in to every request, chaos would ensue

So I read this and felt guilty for coming to the end of the article and still thinking that SATs are OK. Why is this? Is there something wrong with me? As far as I know, I’ve never met a year 6 teacher who aims to make children in his or her class feel bad about SATs. If anything, the whole experience is like a long team-building exercise, with a big game of rounders and ice creams at the end. I’ve also yet to meet a year 6 child who has had to be taken to the doctor’s for exam anxiety. However, the author of the article is not lying, and perhaps her children are particularly prone to anxiety – a small percentage of the population do have a really serious, debilitating reaction to all forms of stress (I have met them; they tend to be really intelligent in my experience) and this is to do with the way their body’s sympathetic nervous system is so easily triggered and goes into overdrive. This tendency also runs in families and you will find other family members are, in varying degrees, prone to debilitating anxiety too – I’ll be honest and say this tendency also affects my family. However, I still think this whole ‘SATs are bad because they cause too much stress, therefore they need to go’ attitude is wrong. Let me explain why.

They are, at the end of the day, just a few tests, even if some people really don’t cope well with them. You know, some of the children we educate live in cramped, damp and unsafe accommodation. Some of our pupils may be witnessing domestic violence, or are worrying about their parents’ use of alcohol or drugs. There are even pupils who don’t know who their father is. In our cities, there are children who have fled war torn countries, walked barefoot through dangerous borders and have risked their lives to jump on the back of  a lorry to get here. These children deserve all the TLC we can give, yet they tend to be the ones who are least likely to make a fuss about a maths test. The hard graft of preparing for these tests (which includes not just the basic 3Rs but also a knowledge rich curriculum) is also preparing them to experience a wonderful knowledge-rich secondary education, the opportunity to be successful in life and to be able to communicate with all sorts of people in our society. SATs aren’t perfect, but they don’t ‘alf cause everyone to up their educational game. If we got rid of them, standards would fall and it is the children whom I describe above, and these are children who might not have access to spontaneous lessons about, say, Roman Mesopotamia at home (you know what I mean), who will lose out the most

Say we did get rid of the SATs so that a few mainly middle-class children are further spared the worry of tests in their already worry and stress-free life, would we stop there? I don’t think so. Let us consider other requests from educationalists:

  • Making the curriculum ‘relevant’ (ie. dumbed down) because a rigorous, academic and knowledge-rich curriculum is allegedly too hard for certain children
  • Getting rid of sanctions for poor behaviour because high expectations and sanctions allegedly ‘discriminate’ against certain children
  • Getting rid of the maths GCSE because it ‘discriminates’ against children with SEN

You know, for every aspect of normal school life, which includes frequent testing as well as end of year tests in all the year groups (not just year 6), there is always some minority who may struggle – this is no reason to get rid of everything that may cause a bit of struggle for a minority of children because struggle is part of life and to go through life trying (and expecting) to avoid struggle is not healthy. When I was at school, I was one of those children with diagnosed hypermobility (or, as my friends would call it, ‘bandy legs’) who would constantly have injuries from PE lessons, plus I was terrible at running, jumping, throwing, kicking, dancing – all the sporty things required of young ladies really. Did my mother storm down the school and shout at everyone for making us bigger girlz do trampolining? Did she have to write a blog about how she had to take me down the doctor’s because I’d mangled an ankle? No. Of course she didn’t. Going by the rhetoric of some of the loudest educationalists on twitter these days, we should probably get rid of PE because it discriminates against children with physical disabilities and causes them a lot of stress and worry about how they can’t take part fully.

While we’re at it, let’s get rid of school dinners because some children have a fear of certain foods, or may have extreme allergies and can’t eat the school dinners. Let’s also get rid of all the doors on toilets because some children experience acute stress when a door is closed on them. Oh, and books: where do I start? Some children experience an intense amount of stress and worry over the fact they can’t read, so let’s just get rid of all the books too.

OK. Let’s not get rid of all these things.

Who’s with me?

 

On being strict early on

The topic of exclusions and how to deal with children who are excluded is in the media limelight at the moment and I must admit that I have been deliberately avoiding articles written on this subject. Why? I just get way too annoyed with most of what I read because the main messages about ‘more love’ and ‘more nurturing’ and ‘more resources’ seem to divert attention away from the glaringly obvious – the bad habit seeds of poor behaviour and general defiance are sown at home and it makes much more sense to pull up those weeds as soon as possible, before they become the dominant species in the magical forest that is a child’s mind. If we don’t pull up those weeds, they will eventually choke the growth of all the other beautiful knowledge plants and trees sown by the teachers. In fact, some children arrive at school with not so much a magical forest, as a monoculture of deep-rooted weeds.

The reason I am writing this is because I spied a glimmer of hope in an article in Schools Week about exclusions in which Nick Gibb is mentioned as seeing the need for stricter primary schools and early years settings. This is exactly what I think too, but have refrained from writing recently simply because I know I am very much in the minority in my thinking. Nick Gibb’s comment, although haughtily swept aside by the author of the article, gave me some courage to speak up again. Yes, being strict early on could really help to nudge a child onto the right track. Unfortunately, we come up against the rhetoric of early years curriculum which mandates that the teacher is less of a sleeves-rolled-up proactive ecologist and more of a happy-go-lucky gardener, expecting the weeds to just die off of their own accord (‘when they’re ready’) and for exotic and beautiful species to spontaneously emerge as a result of the provision of lots of sunshine and extra sprinkles of nutritious soil.

So, I guess my next post will be about how we can be proactive ecologists.

Who’s with me?