QT goes to GYCA

I couldn’t think of a snappy title or any incredibly deep and meaningful quotes to put in this post (poet laureate I ain’t), so I am just going to share a snippet of honest detail about my trip to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. The truth is that it’s extraordinarily ordinary: all pupils are polite, happy, safe and can learn, and all teachers can teach. This is how it should be in every school, shouldn’t it?

Barry breezed into the reception area where I was waiting and then all of a sudden we were practically Olympic walking through the corridors and into the classrooms to see how the children and staff were doing. One of the teachers was accosted en route and was asked to tell me how things used to be: teachers were afraid to go into the corridors because it was so unsafe, it used to take 20 minutes just to get pupils to write the date and the learning objective and pretty much every simple request would be met with defiance and rudeness. Staff used to be told that if they made their lessons engaging enough and if they got the differentiation right, then children would behave and would want to learn, but no matter how hard the teachers tried, it was hellish to work there – I was told of a teacher who would throw up on their way to work on a Monday morning, such was the anxiety, and of how the school was blacklisted by supply agencies because it was too dangerous to send supply teachers there.

And if it was that bad for staff, imagine how it was for those pupils who had SEN, or who didn’t look quite right, or who were in any way unconfident or different. 

The expectations are very high now. Your typical educator or Ofsted inspector might look at what is going on and think that the pupils are being prevented from being creative, from being ‘themselves’, but when you think about it, they’re actually liberated, set free from the typical teenage experience (that frequently descends into chaos) and given unfettered access to higher level thinking that comes from knowing more and more. There are now many rules and routines that require the pupils to control their own inherent distractions such that in any lesson you will never hear the errant tap of a ruler or see pupils look pretty much anywhere other than at the teacher or their books (after clear instructions). There is no space for opt out of any kind. Many adults would struggle to conform in this way because they have had a lifetime of slouching, tapping, whispering, ignoring, fiddling and interjecting without thinking first, but these children have been given the keys to the kingdom of the best that has been thought and said – you can hear it in their full sentence replies to teachers’ questions and you know that those interesting words, phrases and concepts will trickle into the local community such that even everyday conversations will evolve. Imagine the happiness that will result from that.

Charter is a very civilised place now and yes, this even includes the canteen! But the magic isn’t really in what is happening in the corridors and the classrooms, the magic is what is happening inside the children’s heads because of what is happening in the corridors and the classrooms. Barry and his senior leadership team bring a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to GYCA and it is a very positive place to be, so if you’re an intellectual teacher or aspiring leader who wants to, shock horror, ensure that children learn, then I recommend you get in touch with Barry. You won’t regret it.

Who’s with me?

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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?

 

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?

 

Why children ‘love’ textbooks

This blog post looks at the much maligned textbook from the child’s perspective. Rightly, we tend to analyse the benefits or disadvantages of x, y or z educational practice or resource in terms of its effect on learning and we will look for those added months of progression or increased retention of knowledge, but how often do we put ourselves in the shoes of your typical child and imagine what they’re thinking and feeling? I’m not saying we should concede all ground to ‘pupil voice’ otherwise we’d end up with every lesson being some kind of content-less disco party from hell, but it does seem to me that we place far too much emphasis on what and how the teacher teaches and tend to ignore what I think of as bonus learning that happens because of certain systems, practices and resources. The textbook is one such resource that I believe offers up extra learning that goes beyond the provision of worked examples, curriculum progression and saving of the teacher’s time and energy – I’m talking about the textbook being a kind of psychological anchor for the child, much like a family album that triggers all sorts of memories and feelings. Have we, in our drive to improve the quality of teaching and curriculum content, forgotten about how the humble textbook adds to learning because of how it makes children feel and how the extra layers of emotion (both good and bad) actually help with retention of knowledge? Let me give you a few cheeky examples.

I grew up with textbooks and I remember enjoying the feeling of progress as each lesson moved through the textbook in a systematic way, even though I may not have liked the subject at the time. In fact, even negative emotion seemed to help with the retention knowledge as I flicked through the history textbook to find the page the teacher was referring too. I would be inadvertently treated to reminders of both enjoyable and (what I thought were) horrible lessons. For example, as a typically obstreperous, tired, grumpy and opinionated teenager I particularly detested the entire Victorian era. This was because I felt the teacher seemed to be preaching to us all about how terrible life was for poor children when, at the time, I really objected to being forced to get all emotional about kids scrambling up chimneys or having their arms ripped off by cotton mill machinery. I would have much rather learned about ships named ‘Devastation’ and ‘Invincible’. Even so, the anchoring effect of the textbook kept me working hard, attempting all the questions and the sense of ‘thank god we’ve finished that chapter’ was both motivational and helped me to remember a lot of the content. Upon finishing all those questions before others had, I’d then treat myself to some surreptitious retrieval practice and extra learning/reading by trying to find some part of the textbook the teacher had glossed over because she hadn’t deemed it politically correct enough, fond memories of groans and rollings-of-eyeballs flooding back as I’d happen upon those pictures of workhouses and orphanages. Good times. Of course, I’d also look ahead at what was coming up – today’s pupils have been denied all this extra learning in the name of ‘personalisation’ when in fact flappy bits of paper provided by harassed teachers are anything but ‘personal’ because there is no extra layer of feelings about progression or content.

Further, there is also that anxiety-reducing effect of always having a trusty textbook about your person to quickly refer to before a lesson, test or exam, particularly if you struggled with a subject like I did with French and were worried about getting told off by a nun (I was taught by them) for not remembering the translation of ‘Chips with mayonnaise, please!’ Oh yes, you would say that today’s pupils can simply look at their notes, but it’s not the same, is it? Their notes don’t come with an index, contents page or some pictures to laugh at. And where are the opportunities for a good old swot-fest with friends in the common room when all anyone has is a random collection of dog-eared worksheets and spider diagrams?

_45926100_tricolore_graphic

Although there are probably plenty of other points around the subject of curiosity and happiness that comes from looking ahead at ‘illegal’ learning, I’d like to finish this blog by saying that when you are a tired, grumpy and obstreperous child, nothing quite beats the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards and then moving up to a textbook with the word ‘advanced’ on it (or even just the next year group number), then looking back at old textbooks and laughing about how ‘easy’ they were/are. Currently, my own teenage sons don’t have that and that is a real shame.

Perhaps we could work towards bringing back proper textbooks?

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

By *not* having a national baseline test, we are neglecting the needs of the most disadvantaged children

Yet another baseline-bashing article appears in mainstream media and I wonder whether I’m the only person despairing over (what looks like) naivety of all these high-profile academics, consultants and experts. It’s as if they don’t have a handle on the reality of what children really need to have in place in order to access the wonders of a knowledge-rich curriculum, or even just have a happy life that includes being able to communicate (and play!) with all sorts of people – is it because most people who work in the early primary years tend not to have had experience with KS2, KS3 or beyond? Do they just see little children in a bubble of childhood, completely separate from the teenagers and then responsible adults that they will become?

I believe the government, policy makers and indeed everyone in this country has a right to know about the state of early childhood. Currently, we are mostly in the dark, save for emotional stories about a certain kind of material poverty, but what we have no public discourse on is something I call a poverty of aspiration. It is this kind of poverty that has the most far-reaching effects and I believe it is more endemic than material poverty. Put simply, a poverty of aspiration is what happens when parents are led to believe that parenting is something that happens, rather than something that one must do – the latter being about the goal of sending out in the world intelligent and caring adults into the world who will have an overall positive effect on society. The early years curriculum rhetoric reinforces this laid-back attitude of just letting everything unfold ‘naturally’ and the result is that children arrive at school without speech, without general knowledge, without stories, songs or nursery rhymes, even without those basic habits that make us different from animals (frankly).

This is not an OK situation.

The sheer extent of this issue is covered up by the fact that it is mostly the stalwart nursery and teaching assistants who have to roll their sleeves up and stoically get on with the job of dealing with all this evidence of benign neglect without making a fuss. In the meantime, people like me look at the EYFS data, the phonics data and see enormous numbers of children who are increasingly unable to access the academic aspects of the curriculum (the real purpose of schools might I add!). If we had a national picture of the real state of early childhood, then we’d be able to deploy those resources more effectively. We also might have a little more respect for those reception year teachers and teaching assistants who have to try to teach children who are relatively unteachable within a framework, moderation and inspection process that pretty much frowns on teaching in early years – the upshot of which is that disadvantaged children in particular are disadvantaged even further, and combined with the fact that there is no magical process that suddenly makes them ‘naturally’ catch up (like, in the 6 week holiday between reception year and Year 1, for example) as well as the fact that all children in later year groups sit the same tests, those disadvantaged children are looking at fewer choices in life when they become men and women.

(At this point, as usual, I have to put in the usual clause about how, yes, I agree that little children still need to have lots of play and fun.)

I think a baseline test would also wake parents up as to the minimum expectations for school preparedness and be made aware of what the consequences are for their own child if their child cannot access the learning or even play happily with their friends. This is about honesty, joined up thinking, working in partnership with parents and sometimes we need to have difficult conversations as part of that process. Of course, many might then look at this national picture of early childhood and surmise that perhaps we simply need to delay school entry, perhaps have children start school at 6 or 7 years of age – but imagine the word gap by then! I think we’d also end up with children still starting school without the basics, only this time the bad habits would be even more entrenched.

So, let’s have that national baseline test and brace ourselves for the massive wake-up call that it will bring.

Who’s with me?

96% of teachers think their role is to facilitate student inquiry

In this blog post, I’d like to put forward the view that Dr Mary Bousted is wrong when she asserts that teachers should be allowed to teach in the way ‘they believe in’. Here is a brief summary of the claims:

  • PISA high-ranking countries are moving away from traditional education (both in terms of curricula and teaching methods) and choosing to focus on teaching children soft skills (‘developing the whole person’) rather than mostly focusing on academic content – we’re doing the opposite (i.e the wrong way)
  • The OECD has found that “The future needs to emphasise the integration of subjects and the integration of students. It also needs to be connected so that learning is closely related to real-world contexts and contemporary issues and open to rich resources in the community” and “Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively in novel situations, and about thinking across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines. If everyone can search for information on the internet, the rewards now come from what people can do with that knowledge”
  • Teachers in the UK believe that the best way to teach is through facilitating children’s inquiry based on their own interests and knowledge, but instead are being forced to use didactic methods/rote memorisation

I’ve been trying to consider other viewpoints which is very difficult because I’ve come to conclusions based on reading some pretty weighty evidence, research, findings – I’m not really open to the above because it just seems like a re-hash of all the old prog-ed values, but with more tech-words layered on top. But, could I be wrong? So, I decided to journey deeper into the world of education experts…..

Dr Bousted attended the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP), a gathering of the best and most influential voices in education from around the world who are united by a vision to prepare young people for the 21st Century. Among other topics, ‘pedagogies for the future’ was discussed, drawing upon a background research paper produced by the OECD entitled ‘Valuing our Teachers and Raising their Status‘. Naturally, I went to have a good old read, but found that I was barred, probably because I’m just a mere blogger. However, there was a link to a webinar discussing the contents of the paper, so I watched that instead. Here are a few highlights from the first part of the webinar which focuses on education in the 21st Century:

  • There is a positive correlation between value/status of teachers and outcomes in education
  • We live in an interconnected, post-truth world – we need to prepare children for this [online] world where automation threatens the kinds of jobs that require people to know stuff
  • We need to focus on teaching pupils ‘how to think like a mathematician’ rather than just giving them disciplinary knowledge of the mathematician
  • Pupils do better when they have more control over what they learn and do
  • Pupils need to be developing competencies such as creativity, empathy, problem solving skills
  • Pedagogy needs to, above all, ‘mobilise’ the above competencies in children
  • When we map curricula against desirable competencies (Canada is held up as a good example), certain competencies seem to be neglected, such as entrepreneurship
  • Data shows that the more time spent learning, the lower the attainment in science, for example
  • Technology is the way forward – better than textbooks, can be used to personalise education, but we don’t have the pedagogies, yet, to really get the best from this technology

The webinar then swiftly moved to another linked topic of conversation around teacher autonomy – linking to the above topic in terms of an assumption that teachers know best and actually want to be teaching these 21st Century skills (oops! we should be saying ‘competencies’ now!), but are being prevented by ‘others’ such as, perhaps, The Government- why are we not letting them do what they believe is right (which just happens to be what the OECD and the ISTP believe)? Why are we making them use proven, equitable methods of teaching and learning when they really want to be facilitating inquiry?

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I was a bit shocked at the statistic which flashed up on my screen. 96% of teachers? Are we all lemmings or something? I wonder if this is the same group of ‘teachers’ which happen to all be against timed tests, The Government, MATs, baseline testing etc.

Thankfully, we have the considerable work of knowledgeable people regarding how the brain works, how memories are formed and linked to other memories, and the implications therein for effective, equitable and efficient teaching and learning methods in the classroom – we know that student-led and tech-dependent inquiry in ‘relevant’ topics is not the best way for children to learn, no matter how seductive the message or how fun the lessons are. We also know that in order to think creatively, for example, you need to have something to think about and that something is actually knowledge, so we need to teach it.

Who’s with me?

Only about 4% of teachers, apparently.

The real way to instill a love of learning

Secondary teachers and leaders: are you finding that your new year 7s love all their lessons and are eager to learn, all the time? Do they do extra reading around their subject because they’re interested in it? I would bet that the answer to these questions is mostly ‘no’ and it would be easy to assume that this is because your typical pre-teen is more interested in youth culture and whatever their peers are doing, saying and wearing. What, if anything, can be done about this situation? Are we even bothered about it, or should we just bumble along with the status quo? I think there’s a lot that primary schools could do to help children arrive at secondary school not just with the basics such as competency in the 3Rs, but with the right attitude to and habits for learning.

Weirdly, if you randomly google ‘primary school’ and ‘love of learning’, what you will find is that according to various mission statements on primary school websites, most primary schools are instilling, in every child, a lifelong love of learning. Well, perhaps this lifelong love of learning is falling out of their heads during the 6 week holiday, or, more likely, this lifelong love of learning isn’t really being instilled in the first place. This isn’t to say that primary schools aren’t doing their best for children because we know that all primary school leaders want children to have the highest possible chances of success and happiness. My theory is that perhaps the assumptions as to how to instill a lifelong love of learning are a bit, erm, wrong.

When I was at primary school, I loved Friday lunch (chips!), holding my coat in the air on the windy day, playing the recorder, quiet reading and numbers. I was relatively good at all those things, especially the coat in the air thing because I had my technique down pat. Coincidence? I think not. If I flip the situation round and think about what I didn’t like – dance class – I was hilariously crap at that.  If you think about various jobs and activities that you do, you will probably find that you love and enjoy doing the things you’re relatively good at and dislike doing the things that you’re not so good at. So, my thinking is that like pretty much anything in life, a love of learning can only develop alongside being relatively good at said love of learning. Are you with me so far?

Which came first, the ‘being good’ aspect, or the ‘loving/enjoying it’ aspect? If I think about my initial experience of playing the recorder, it was so frustrating (and squeaky). However, I persevered until I had learned all the knowledge of how to play the recorder and read music, and the point at which I was invited to play in a recorder ensemble I would’ve said that I loved being a little musician. If we extrapolate to many enjoyable activities and jobs in our adult lives, we certainly didn’t enjoy them at first. The journey to loving any activity whether it be playing the recorder or learning new knowledge in the classroom is not easy, but the evidence surely points to the necessity of perseverance until we reach the point where we are good at activity X and then love activity X.

falloff-bike
Do you remember learning to ride a bike?

A ‘love of learning’ is a bit generic though, isn’t it? What I find is that children who love learning, tend to love learning in their favourite subjects. They tend to have, relative to their friends, more knowledge and competency in that subject. For example, a young lad who loves an aspect of history such as the Romans will typically have a big bank of history books at home on the Romans. In class, he will often link every other aspect of history that he learns back to his knowledge of the Romans in some way because he just can’t help it. A young girl who loves maths will also tend to be high achieving and experience lots of success in that subject – she can make the connections, do the calculations and see the patterns such that the circuitry of her mind will be buzzing with anticipation, satisfaction and reward (and she will, hopefully, be getting some kind of certificate in achievement assembly too).

The second key factor I observe in children who genuinely love learning is that they tend to be prolific readers. Prolific readers are those children who are not only fluent in the mechanics of reading, but also have enough knowledge and vocabulary to understand what is read and create that all important picture in their head. Furthermore, they’ve also developed the habit of reading. That’s 3 things that need to be in place before you’ve got yourself an prolific reader who experiences independent success in acquisition of knowledge and enjoyment of stories that then creates a virtuous circle of self-improvement. How many children in your year 6 are prolific readers? Perhaps not many. I would say that if we are honest about this situation, some older children lack all 3 components: fluency in the mechanics of reading, background knowledge and vocabulary and regular, dedicated and peaceful moments for reading quietly without distraction at home. The latter component is why we’re working on helping children in our school develop the habit of getting stuck into a book through a fixed, almost sacred, period of silent (and I really mean everyone should be silent) reading after lunch. There are many in education who would balk at this (‘but where is the learning?’ they say) and would try very hard to stop this from happening, but I think it’s the right thing to do for children who do not have this opportunity given to them at home. Please feel free to message me if you think that I am wrong on this and that ensuring children have the habit of reading is not within the remit of a primary school.

The final aspect of being ‘good’ at learning also involves being able to focus and practise without giving up such that the initial hurdles of learning any particular activity or subject are surmounted without too much fuss. Not many children would choose to continue when there is a possibility that they might look silly, or when they are struggling. This is because they are little children who, just like us, would rather do the things they’re good at (and therefore enjoy more). This is a bit of a problem in the reception year where they’re all supposed to choose their own learning. Anyway, we need to ensure that expectations, rules and routines are in place right from the start in primary school such that we, the adults in charge, are not allowing children to opt out when the going gets tough.

This all seems obvious, yet I think that a few common assumptions stand in the way of really understanding and implementing the above. Firstly, many hold the view that instead of gradually ramping up the expectations in terms of hard work that children should do, ‘resilience’ is allegedly built through removing all and any stress/struggle for children until most/all of their lived experience is happy, magical and full of variety. For example, even testing is frowned upon. In fact, that are some educationalists that believe that frequent testing will cause children to become mentally ill. The other assumption is that a love of learning in any subject will develop primarily through having lots of fun and enjoyment in said subject. This belief, which comes from a place of love, is at the core of the drive to make teachers sing and dance in front of children while providing ‘activities’ that make children feel good rather than think hard. Teachers feel guilty about expecting children to get on without a fuss and on the primary school’s website, the prioritisation of fun and enjoyment and miraculously effortless learning in every lesson might translate to ‘we provide lots of stimulation and opportunities for creativity, and encourage children to be active learners’. However, if we return to our own knowledge that ‘loving’ comes after a relatively high level of competency is achieved, this attempt to provide constant fun and enjoyment (and ‘creativity’) in lessons is futile, surely?

So, I believe we need implement what the evidence shows us needs to be in place. The real way to instill a lifelong love of learning is to have:

  • Policies, procedures and curricula that ensure children become prolific readers
  • A commitment to ensuring children are good at any subject (knowledge-rich curriculum, good teaching, lots of practice and no opt out)
  • A whole-school approach to teaching, learning and behaviour that ensures that children develop the stamina and resilience to carry on, even though they may be struggling at the time

Who’s with me?