Teaching: The Hardest Job?

In this blog post I will argue that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs there is, and lest you think this will be one long moan about workload etc, let me assure you that I am writing in the spirit of celebration of what we do in the classroom, day in day out.

Last Friday, a colleague asked me if I had enjoyed my first half-term of teaching, and I had to be honest and say “not really”. That is understandable. As a new teacher at my school, I have had to learn so much, absorbing masses of new information to the point of cognitive overload. I have had to try to juggle lots of this information in my mind whilst trying to teach my lessons.

Teaching is a performance profession – when you perform, you cannot easily stop and check your notes to refresh your mind on what you should say or do next. You have to be prepared to think on your feet and react quickly to changing situations without the benefit of time to mull things over. It is a tricky thing to do, especially if you do not know the curriculum inside out and you are having to manage the behaviour of 30 not always co-operative children.

Now I am perfectly prepared to believe that this gets easier with time and experience. A seasoned teacher will have built a repository of phrases and responses to given situations. They will have built up a reputation within the school, making it easier to manage behaviour. They will have developed curricular expertise and have the correct terminology to hand, as well as tried and tested methods of explanation. All this makes the process of teaching easier, although it never becomes a walk in the park.

Michael Fordham argues in his blog “Teaching: a very natural act?” that fundamentally teaching is a natural act that all humans have evolved to do.

Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

He goes on to say:

teaching is, quite simply, a matter of communicating something I know to someone who does not.

How beautifully simple and true! We do have a tendency to over-complicate it sometimes. And it is this simple and straightforward definition of teaching that initially drew me into the profession. I started by tutoring my boy at home, trying to help him move into a higher ability group. I bought maths and English booklets and worked through them with him in short evening sessions. His rapid improvement and increased confidence as a result of this tutoring gave me much satisfaction. It spurred me on. I wanted to help communicate knowledge to other children, not just my son. I walked into teaching thinking it would be an amplified version of what I had been doing at home with my son. But it was not.

I return to the wisdom of Michael Fordham. He argues that although teaching is a natural act, it is not easy. This is because the things we are teaching are complicated, unlike the rules in a playground game.

None of these things are natural: to the contrary, all are recent inventions in the greater scheme of things. Grasping the content and structure of these practices in such a way that you can explain it clearly to someone who knows less takes a great deal of time to learn. Working out the lynchpin ideas, finding the powerful examples, knowing how one concept rests on knowledge of another: these are the things that require a great deal of thought and consideration.

As I knuckle down to teach mathematical concepts or literary devices, I am reminded of this more than ever. It takes an immense amount of expertise to be able to convey complicated and sophisticated knowledge to pupils – particularly when one factors in the practical logistics of having to teach these to a large group of children.

It is unsurprising therefore that I have found the last 7 weeks less than enjoyable. I am having to do an extremely difficult job and I am not yet proficient at it. It is hard to find joy in a lack of success – particularly if you are a certain age and have been used to being good at most of what you do. Yet it has not been unalloyed misery either. One of the delights of teaching is working with young people, getting to know them and developing strong, caring relationships. I look forward to greeting my class every morning. I have had some mishaps – such as regularly walking into furniture – but I am learning to make light of them –  and each time I overcome an obstacle, such as last Friday’s technology fail, I am a little more empowered. I am also incredibly lucky to work with supportive colleagues who are doing everything they can to help me get better.

So let me say this, which I am sure most of you know already. Teaching is an incredibly hard job. It may not be valued societally as it should be – entry level civil servants earn more than teachers and have far less workload/stress. My big shot lawyer sister gets more kudos and respect for the major multi-million pound cases she works on. And yet, hand on heart, I believe my job is more difficult than hers. More difficult but also far more rewarding. As I plough on through the obstacle course that lies before me, I need to remind myself that my job is not easy and that when this is taken into consideration, I am doing very well indeed.

 

Is Cognitive Load Theory an Edu-Fad?

Two tweets on my timeline today have been the stimulus for this blog. That’s what I like about edu-twitter and why I think it’s fantastic CPD for new and experienced teachers alike. You are drawn into the most current conversations about education and these take your thinking into new directions or cement an idea already forming in your mind.

In today’s case, the two tweets were as follows, on the same issue but taking different slants. The first one was by Daryn Egan-Simon:

The second tweet that set me thinking and writing this blog was posted by Sam Strickland, the organiser of today’s ResearchEd Northampton conference, which I was sadly unable to attend. Sam shared an interesting quote from Tarjinder Gill‘s talk:

As most of you will be aware, a key part of Cognitive Load Theory is the idea that working memory is limited and can get easily overloaded. We can only retain a few bits of information in our working memory at a time, so to engage in complex thinking, we have to make use of information stored in our long-term memory, which is unlimited. To aid our pupils by-pass the constraints of working memory and to solve complex problems or write sophisticated analysis, we should focus on purposefully building schemas of information in their long-term memories that they can retrieve when needed.

Cognitive Load Theory became the latest big thing after the edu-guru, Dylan Wiliam, posted this tweet about it over two years ago.

Now as it happens, I disagree with William on this. I don’t believe Cognitive Load Theory is the most important thing for teachers to know, but I do think it is vital for curriculum leaders to know it and act on it. For to me, the greatest implication of CLT is for how we sequence curriculum to help our pupils build the knowledge base that will allow them to do all sorts of sophisticated thinking and tasks further down the line. That’s not to say it has no value for active teachers in the classroom, of course it has, but I would not rank it of the highest importance.

Tarjinder Gill’s description of working memory as a bottle neck brought back a memory of something I learned about a quarter of a century ago (yes that long) from when I was studying for my MBA. I was given a book called The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt, which puts forward the Theory of Constraints, a management theory which focuses on finding and addressing the constraints that are creating bottle necks in the throughput of a business. I was immediately struck by the parallels between the Theory of Constraints and Cognitive Load Theory. Whilst one was formulated for business and the other for education, they both have in common this idea of bottle necks or constraints which impede either the learning or the productivity.

And I was reminded of the example that Goldratt uses in his book to illustrate the Theory of Constraints. The protagonist of the book is a character called Alex, a plant manager whose factory is struggling to manufacture and ship orders to customers on time. Alex meets an old friend called Jonah (a fictional version of Goldratt) who gets him thinking about the choke points that are constraining the factory’s output and to see that the whole factory can only move as fast as its slowest element. Later in the book, Alex gets an opportunity to put the Theory of Constraints to the test, not in his factory but on a hiking trail with his son’s scout group.

Alex notices that the single file line of scouts never manages to maintain a consistent pace, but is constantly stopping and starting. The speedy children at the front are zooming ahead, but having to stop to let Herbie, the chubby boy, catch up with them. In this context, Herbie is the choke point or bottle neck, slowing down the whole group (this book was written decades ago before we got all politically correct, so please don’t get uppity with me for talking about a chubby boy slowing everyone else down). The group can only move as fast as its slowest element – Herbie – and so it makes sense to bring Herbie to the front of the line and to lead the pace. This way, there is no constant stopping and starting. The contents of Herbie’s backpack are distributed to the other children, lightening Herbie’s load and thus helping him to walk faster.

So when Tarjinder Gill spoke of working memory as a bottle neck, I was transported back to the example I describe above. What a great way to put it! Working memory is a bottle neck. Like Herbie on the scouts trail, our pupils can only think as fast as their working memory will allow them. Overload that working memory with too many new concepts, and it will create a bottle neck. And as Herbie was helped to go faster by having the group walk behind him and the contents of his heavy backpack shared amongst them, we need to help our pupils avoid the bottle necks in their working memory by consistently building up, over time, a repository of information – the schemas – that they will need to process complex ideas and develop sophisticated thinking.

Is Cognitive Load Theory a fad, as suggested by Daryn Egan-Simon in the first tweet I shared? I believe not. It has very important implications for how we design curricula. Having CLT at the forefront of their minds will help curriculum leaders ensure that important concepts, skills and vocabulary that pupils will require are embedded and stored in long-term memory during their curricular journey in the school. This is a painstaking and time consuming process, but done well, should reap great rewards further down the line.

That’s not to say there aren’t many edu-fads still out there. I’ve only been working 4 years in the British education system, and already I have seen some big ideas come and go –  witness the current near demise of Growth Mindset. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who has been teaching several years were to develop some healthy cynicism about the latest edu-theory. In this case, however, I think the cynicism is misplaced.

Fixing workload requires a culture change

These days, I am not blogging as much as I used to. This is partly due to my being busy and tired, but also because I don’t have awful things to report on from the frontlines anymore. It makes a difference to be working in a sensibly run school, surrounded by supportive professionals at the top of their game.

However, I am breaking my blogging purdah to write about two related issues that have cropped up on my Twitter timeline this week. The first was this tweet by Miss Smith, which has struck a chord with many and garnered 1,000 likes.

The second thing was a blog written by Mike Thain, a maths teacher of 17 years, in which he explains why he has decided to leave teaching. Reading the blog brought a lump to my throat, especially when he talks about the effect the job was having on his family life.

The pressure to deliver results in a maths team is something that unless you have taught maths, english, or science at secondary level you simply cannot understand what it requires of you. This pressure over the 7 years as a middle leader made me have to chose between my own children, and the children in the school(s) I was working in. My children are now 11 and 8. When you hear phrases come out of their mouths like “Daddy never laughs” and “why is Daddy always sad” your heart breaks. When you come home and within 5 minutes you are telling them off because you are so stressed after work that you are like a coiled spring.

Although I have never run a school department, I have experienced some of this feeling like a “coiled spring” in previous school jobs, so I can imagine only too easily what it has been like for Mike and, as it turns out, many other teachers working across the country. Since writing his blog, he has been inundated with messages from fellow teachers who have similar tales to tell. Perhaps, as he says, it’s time for structural change to support teacher retention.

This is an issue that is close to my heart because I too have felt the pull between work and family (and I know I am not unique in this respect). Unless you’re a superwoman type person like Nicola Horlick – and let’s face it most of us aren’t – then it’s incredibly hard to juggle the demands of family and an all-consuming profession such as teaching. I still have to make sure my boy has clean clothes to wear, that his homework gets done and that he gets a nutritious meal for his dinner. I try to read with him every evening for 30 minutes or so before his bedtime. I also want to maintain a harmonious relationship with my spouse, to have the time and energy to converse and spend quality time with him. All this is very hard to do at the end of a long, energy-sapping day.

When I first decided to get into teaching nearly 4 years ago, I spoke to a history head of department at a local school I wanted to get some volunteering experience at, and was taken aback when he said he worked from 7am to 7pm most days, and that I should expect this kind of long hours if I became a teacher. Surely not I thought at the time. It turns out he was right.

As I said before, I now work in a sensibly-run school which takes workload seriously. I get to work at 8:00am and leave at 4:30pm most days. I still have to work at home for around two hours in the evenings, though much of this is because of the extra stuff I have to do for my PGCE and also because, as an inexperienced teacher, I take a bit longer to do my planning. I would be extremely surprised, however, if any of my more senior colleagues manage to get their work done within those working hours of 8am to 4:30pm. It has not escaped my notice that most of them are already there long before I arrive at 8am. Quite simply, there is so much to do, even in schools where marking is not expected and planning is done collaboratively.

It will require a major re-think and cultural shift to change things in any significant way. The problem, as I see it, is this. Quite simply, the work of schools and teachers has expanded beyond the main remit of giving pupils an academic education. This is what it ought to be:

  • Children go to school, they learn stuff then go home.
  • Teachers go to school, they teach the stuff pupils need to learn, then go home.

But it’s no longer as simple as that, is it? I believe that if we want to have a more sane, less manic workplace, then we need to find our way back to those simple principles above. We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and stop the extras from creeping in. At the moment we’re in a rat race, constantly competing in what looks like a market-driven model – except it’s not really delivering optimal results for its customers (parents and their children). We also have, as collateral damage, the haemorrhage of teachers from the profession.

And so we come to the issue of accountability. We can’t pussyfoot around it. Most, if not all the factors that make teaching such a difficult job stem from it. We have one of the most high stakes accountability education systems in the world. It may have driven standards up a tad (I’m not even sure it has), but at what cost? And let’s face it, there are still many children who leave school with a mediocre education. So we have a high stakes accountability system that makes the job of teachers practically intolerable, but it hasn’t improved standards of education in any meaningful way. Yes I know that Ofsted under its present incarnation is moving in a more positive direction, but try as it might, a high stakes inspection regime will always result in some unintended consequences and perverse incentives, especially when there is the prize of getting an “Outstanding” rating still being dangled. Grumpy Teacher has written a fabulous blog about this very issue and comes to similar conclusions. We simply can’t use high stakes accountability systems to quality assure standards of education and provide value-for-money for our taxpayers. Here’s what GT concludes:

Well, I wouldn’t mind a basic inspectorate like the sort of hygiene inspection to which the hospitality industry is subject. By all means treat a school like an office, if you must.

How do I answer the taxpayer? I shrug and say well, sorry, we tried. But it turned out that trying to look after your interests meant that education was made significantly worse for our pupils. So we’re not going to do it any more.

Beyond accountability systems, there is another issue which I think unnecessarily contributes to teacher workload: planning lessons. Now I know some teachers are very wedded to the idea of planning their own resources – it is after all one of the teachers’ standards – but hear me out on this one. I myself have found great personal satisfaction in writing my history teaching booklets (please see www.learningformemory for more information). However, I’m fairly sure now that I’m wearing different hats when I teach in the classroom and when I write teaching resources. They are actually two separate jobs. Of course they are related, in that it’s very difficult to write good resources if you haven’t taught. On the other hand, I know that not everyone who teaches has the aptitude for writing well. I don’t believe every teacher should be writing resources from scratch. Why re-invent the wheel?

I’m particularly struck by this when I’m teaching maths (though really this is the case for most subjects). Here I am in 2019 teaching pretty much the same kind of maths I was taught in the 1970s. Last week I was teaching my year 4s how to round numbers to the nearest 10, 100 and 1000. I know my teachers taught me the same stuff when I was a child at school. They must have done their job well because I left school with this mathematical knowledge, as did most of my fellow classmates. There is an arrogance in thinking that we are better teachers today than people who did the job decades or even centuries ago. I simply cannot believe that in the last 40 years or more, the subject has changed so materially that we constantly need to plan new maths lessons. And yet everyday, in schools all around the country, there are teachers hunkering down to prepare their slides and worksheets anew. It seems like an awful waste of energy to duplicate work that has been done by others a thousand times over. Not to mention a waste of paper and ink.

This, I think, is where the advent of interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint have created a sort of monster. Lesson planning has been transformed into the preparation of slides and worksheets. When I was a child, we had a textbook and an exercise book. That’s all. I suspect the sum total of a teacher’s planning was to bookmark the page of exercises we were going to start next. She would go through a couple of them with us on the blackboard, explain it to us, then ask us to turn to page 122 and start doing the exercises independently in our books. Then we would mark it together, and she might explain a misconception where some of us went wrong.

I don’t dispute that interactive whiteboards can be very useful, but I think they also provide a perverse incentive to base lesson planning on ever more slides. Now I know it’s difficult to wean ourselves from our reliance on Powerpoint slides. They’re everywhere. They’re the norm. Nevertheless, I think the way forward has to be to have high quality textbooks or booklets that can be re-used year after year. If a school wants to create its own booklets, they can design them in PDF and have them professionally printed and laminated so that they can be re-used like textbooks. Think of the huge savings that could be had by reducing in-school printing of worksheets and text sheets to read.

However, this would mean teaching a lesson planned by somebody else. This would turn us into automatons, simply delivering content without any input of our own. Once upon a time, I would have believed this. In practice, that’s not the case. I know because we have 3 teachers in our year group and we all teach with the same resources, planned collaboratively. I can tell you that lessons have a vastly different flavour from teacher to teacher, despite starting off with the same resources. It’s perfectly possible to still have autonomy, to still put your own personal stamp on a lesson, without having prepared the resources from scratch.

It will take a big cultural shift to move away from the idea of planning individual lessons to using quality assured, pre-planned resources, for I know many teachers are resistant to the idea. The time saved though, would make working life so much more tolerable. Perhaps time to give it a try?

 

Negativity

This has been a restful bank holiday weekend. Nothing wildly exciting was done, but batteries have been fully recharged. I have also spent a fair amount of time online, not least because I’m organising my first education event – BuffetEd – and this requires me to get the message out to as many people as possible. While I have you here, do yourself a favour and book a ticket. It’s going to be great!

However, I have been struck yet again by the negativity on edu-Twitter. It’s nothing new, but it is ugly and demoralising, and oh how I wish it would stop. Let’s start with exhibit A, a tweet by a so-called inspirational headteacher in a discussion about pupil behaviour.

Quite apart from the breathtaking arrogance, there’s mocking condescension here towards the thousands of teachers in this country who are struggling daily with poor behaviour, often through no fault of their own. Such boastful comments, so obviously designed to wound, are the type common to the playground bullies who afflict many vulnerable children in our schools. That they are being made by a headteacher, I find shocking and incomprehensible. That some people have seen fit to like and retweet even more so.

Let us move to the next one. After a big DfE announcement that Tom Bennett will be leading a £10 million initiative on behaviour, there was the inevitable pile on against him, and as usual, it got personal. This little gem of a tweet invited a whole host of responses from others, wearing #BlockedbyBennett as a badge of honour and indulging in character assassination. I have no issue with those who would question the DfE’s decision or disagree with Tom’s views on behaviour, but for goodness sakes criticise the policies, not the person.

And then we come to this one, directed personally at me. As mentioned already, I am organising an education event, a small one called BuffetEd, my very first foray into this type of thing. Of course I want people to buy tickets. An event without people is not much of an event, and the venue has to be paid for. So I set up a Twitter account for BuffetEd and started promoting it through a series of tweets describing what it was about and linking to the Eventbrite page.

It didn’t take long for someone, who I have previously had some unpleasant encounters with, to send poisonous darts towards my new endeavour and warn off others about it by making the unfounded claim that it is aping/riding on the coat tails of BrewEd and that the event has a “commercial interest/pedagogical bias”.

For the avoidance of doubt, the so-called commercial interest involves me taking the opportunity presented by my own event to give out free copies of some teaching resources I have written. As for pedagogical bias, I have no idea how this could possibly be levelled at my event, and not say at any other event (BrewEd included). I have invited people in education to come and speak freely about a topic of their choice. Several people have contacted and are on the diverse list of speakers for the event. But no, that wasn’t the end of it. Next, my history booklets came under scrutiny.

As my mother always used to tell me, if you have nothing positive to say then don’t say anything at all. Why so much effort to cast aspersions on my motives and my output? Why try to shoot down my honest hard work?  I’m sorry to say, but it comes over as a bit mean. And I’m tired of all the negativity. I get that we don’t all agree with each other’s education viewpoints, and that my strongly held views on some issues are not shared by others. So what? Live and let live. Be kind.

Given it is the start of Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar, I think it fitting to end this blog with a well-known verse (surat Al Kafirun 109) from the Qur’an, which perfectly encapsulates the present dilemma if we substitute the word “religion” here for “educational ideology”.

In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.

Say: “Oh, you who disbelieve!
I do not worship that which you worship,
Nor do you worship That Which I worship.
Nor will I worship that which you have been worshipping,
Neither will you worship That Which I worship.
To you your religion and to me mine.”

Yummy and Healthy Blueberry Muffins

“Not another blueberry muffin recipe”, I hear you say. This one, trust me, is very special. It’s not sugar-free but the sugar is within acceptable enough levels for me to call this a healthy treat. It’s also very quick and easy to make. This recipe makes 6, because any more than that in my family of three and it would start to be over-indulgent. Double the quantities if you wish to make more.

Ingredients:

  • 50g butter, softened (you can do this in the microwave in short bursts at 600W)
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 125g wholemeal flour
  • 7 tbs apple puree
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 125g blueberries

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C. Place 6 muffin cups in a muffin tin. Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon in a small bowl, then set aside. In a larger bowl, cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg, apple puree and vanilla extract. Fold in the flour mixture, ensuring all the flour is fully amalgamated. Lastly, gently fold in the blueberries. Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups, dividing evenly between the 6 cups. Bake for 10-15 minutes. The muffins are ready when they feel springy to the touch.

Yum yum!

Do less but do it well

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment. There is just so much to do and not enough hours in the school day to do them. I’m sure I’m not alone.

As I drove in this morning, I juggled in my head all the things I planned to do today. I need to catch up on my one-to-one reading. If I’m focused, I can try to do at least three pupils before morning break, that way I can do book changes after break and maybe squeeze in another pupil to read with. Once I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, then I’ll have time in the afternoon for interventions. Oh, hang on a minute, there’s a meeting I have to attend at 13:30 to sort out the appointment slots for parents’ evening. Scotch that, won’t have time for interventions today. And my stress levels start to rise.

At this point, a dose of common sense takes over. I take a deep breath and resign myself to the fact that not everything that needs to be done will get done, and it won’t be the end of the world. I try my best every day, but short of cloning myself, there is only so much I can do and I need to be fine with that. As it happens, not even my plan to catch up on my reading came to pass today. There’s some eggs in an incubator just by the school office, and a few chicks have hatched. I’m asked to take all the children in small groups to visit the chicks, take some pictures and record their reactions. By the time that’s done, there’s only time to read with one pupil before break time. Despite my best intentions, I am once again behind in the work I’m supposed to do, and even though common sense tells me that it’s not my fault, still I feel a sense of guilt and responsibility for coming up short.

I pondered this conundrum during my lunch and felt there was a blog that needed to be written, and I could already picture the title: “Do less but do it well”. I tweeted my thoughts and was directed to this fabulous blog by Solomon Kingsnorth. Well, what can I say? That just blew my own meagre blog right out of the water. If you haven’t read his blog, it’s a wonderful exploration of what could be achieved if we stripped back much of what we do and just focused on the core things that matter. My own ideas are far less radical, but indulge me nevertheless.

Here’s what I think.

We are at full capacity. There is no slack, no margin for delays or overflows. Every minute of our school day is packed to the rafters. I’ve heard those chants that every single minute counts, that no time can be wasted in our quest to educate our children. To a certain extent, I agree with this view. School time is precious and should not be wasted. However, this doesn’t mean that we should load our days so heavily. Sometimes, less is more.

In the rail industry, slack time is built into the train timetables. It doesn’t always work, of course, as many of us have experienced delays. Nevertheless, there is an understanding that it’s impossible to run a reliable service if there is no margin built in for little delays here and there. As someone who lives in South London, I’m familiar with the Southern Trains service that runs from Victoria to London Bridge (taking a circular route). When the train arrives at Crystal Palace, it pauses there for five minutes. It can be a bit annoying, sitting on a stationary train when all you want to do is to get moving. These five minutes are there to give the service extra slack, just in case it’s needed.

It’s not just the rail industry that does this. Aeroplane journey times take into account possible delays waiting to get clearance to land, as well as the possibility of adverse wind that could slow down the aircraft. The journey time given is never just the average time required to fly from A to B. There is always some time added for padding. And even then, countless passengers experience delays. Imagine how much more delay there would be if services operated at full capacity without any slack time built in.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine it, because that’s what schools are like these days. We run at full capacity, so anything that knocks us slightly off course can cause a massive backlog of work to be done. Take my own case for instance. What caused my recent bout of stress? Well, yesterday we had an open morning, so I wasn’t able to get my usual work done. Today I had to escort the pupils to see the chicks that had hatched, so I couldn’t get on with what I had planned to do. Last week, we had World Book Day. That too, knocked my schedule off course. The week before that, we had a school trip, oh and there was the poetry show too. There’s always something extra going on, whether it’s a fire drill or Black History Month. Don’t even get me started on how much time was eaten up by the Christmas nativity show!

Compounding all this, is a new intervention programme which I’m supposed to implement. We had a day’s CPD on it last term, and now I’m having to do three sessions a week of the programme. That’s on top of what I was already doing. Now, I’m a pragmatic individual. I have tried to accommodate this extra work by organising my time as efficiently as possible, but I can’t afford any interruptions to the service. There is no slack time. I am officially at full capacity.

The net result of this is that, quite apart from the stress it causes me, the work that needs doing doesn’t always get done. Not all children get to be read with. Not all interventions can take place. Sometimes, I even find myself looking at the clock and feeling a sense of impatience with a pupil for taking too long with a task. I try, of course, not to let it get to me, but I am human. And I can’t help but think that there is a problem here with how we organise our time in school. We should be scheduling less, and doing things more thoroughly. I know there is this intense need to squeeze as much as possible into the day, but I think this is a mistake. Unlike the slack time in a train timetable, where the train stands uselessly for five minutes, schools can always use up slack time productively. If, as a teacher, you find you have an extra 20-30 minutes one morning, pick up a book and read to the class. Wouldn’t this be better than to feel you were constantly having to rush to keep up with everything?

So here it is, my little plea to any school leader that might be reading this blog. Let’s try to pack less into our day, and do the remaining things really well. If you’re going to add little extras to the schedule, make sure there is enough slack to cope with it. Do a poll of your teaching staff. Are they working at full capacity? If so, you may need to reduce some of the things they do. Just remember, slack time is not necessarily wasted time.

PTE’s Wonder Years Conference – My Takeaways

I came back home yesterday afternoon after attending the PTE Wonder Years conference, thinking that it was money – and time –  well spent. I was already a convert to knowledge-rich education, although convert is probably the wrong word to use. I have always been for it. So I went to the conference curious to see what was being done in those knowledge-rich schools and to learn from their experiences.

The day started with a rousing keynote speech from Amanda Spielman, with which I agreed wholeheartedly. The speech is available on the link above, so I won’t paraphrase it. In fact, what I want to do in this blog is to highlight the conclusions I have reached since attending the conference.

Getting buy-in

We need to get more buy-in from the teaching community and the public at large for the knowledge-rich approach, and this means countering the many misleading tropes that get put out by its opponents (rote learning, regurgitation of facts, elitism, lack of relevance) and replacing it with a powerful counter-narrative. I very much liked John Blake‘s phrase “Knowledge is not an imposition, it is an emancipation”. We need to keep highlighting the emancipatory power of knowledge and keep hammering that message in. It is not the knowledge-rich schools that hold back the poor and disadvantaged. Quite the opposite.

It is knowledge-rich education that, quoting Clare Sealy this time, “changes a mirror into a window”. Through a knowledge-rich curriculum, “Great teachers lead the child by the hand from where they are to somewhere else” –  this from the fabulous Christine Counsell. We need to keep very much on message when it comes to this important point. Just like Leavers kept telling us about “taking back control” during the referendum, we need to keep talking about knowledge being freedom, knowledge being power, knowledge opening up wide vistas of opportunity. Knowledge is not a bad word.

ITT is the missing piece of the puzzle

One thing that was quite evident in several of the sessions I attended was the importance of subject knowledge for teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum. Matt Burnage suggested that teachers should have knowledge of the subject they are teaching at a key-stage level above what they teach. So if teaching the Norman Conquest at KS3, they ought to have at the very least GCSE-depth knowledge of it. If teaching the Cold War at GCSE, then they need to have A-Level depth of knowledge. And so on.

Nearly all the speakers I listened to spoke about the need for subject-specific CPD when changing over to a knowledge-rich curriculum, in order to equip teachers to teach at that level of depth. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had implications for Initial Teacher Training (ITT). I braved a question about it to John Blake, and he responded with an impassioned call for universities to do more. (This came with a rather good impression of a university academic lecturing teachers about their shortcomings – could it be David Starkey?)

I do agree. Universities, and school-based ITT, need to do more. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but the picture overall is not a good one. There is too little subject-specific training and too much genericism. Instead of devoting a whole lecture on the subject of creativity, my university tutor could have got us delving into different interpretations of King John or of the Third Reich, sharing expertise, sources, texts and pedagogy specific to these topics. Perhaps the assumption is that we already have the knowledge, because of our undergraduate degrees. But here, John Blake was very clear. Undergraduate knowledge of a subject is not the same as knowing how to teach it.

So yes, universities need to do more, but are they willing to? My distinct impression is that many of them are still very much in thrall to progressive education ideology. Much of the criticism I see on my Twitter feed directed against knowledge-rich education – those tropes about rote learning and regurgitation of facts – has come from university academics. How do we effect change in this sector?

This leads me to my final point.

Institutional memory has been lost

There was a time when knowledge-rich education was considered the norm. I was lucky enough to go to school on the last cusp of that era, before schools went down the road from which we are now trying to veer. In the thirty plus years since, personnel change in schools has been such that most of the senior leaders, the people with power to change their schools, are steeped in the previous orthodoxy and don’t even know what knowledge-rich education looks like. Why else did we need to have a conference about it last Saturday? Why is it we need to preach the gospel of knowledge-rich curricula? It’s because that institutional memory has for the most part been lost. It will be a long road to bring it back, but yesterday felt like a positive start.

Speaking to Stuart Lock during lunch, I voiced my fear that we were in a bubble, preaching to the already converted. He responded with optimism. “A few years ago, you would have got only 50 or so people to attend a conference like this [as opposed to the 300+ attendees that came]. I was expecting to see the same people but looking around, there are so many new faces here today”. The word is spreading. Let’s keep up the momentum and not let up.

Quaker Soup

One of the advantages of my new healthy eating regimen since the new year is that I get to rediscover some rather tasty Arabic recipes. This soup is filling enough to be a meal on its own – it’s often made during Ramadan to sate hungry people breaking their fast – and it ticks my healthy eating checklist as it’s thickened with oats, not flour.

This is a very well known soup in my native Saudi Arabia. They call it Quaker soup after the leading brand in the market, Quaker oats. I don’t know why I haven’t made it for so many years. It’s delicious and easy to prepare. I’m thinking of making a big batch and freezing individual portions which I can then take to work for my lunch. Much better, and cheaper, than shop-bought soup.

Here’s the recipe. This makes enough for two hungry adults.

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped
4 chicken thigh fillets, cut into small pieces (the packet says it’s 360g)
Half a can of crushed tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes)
2 chicken stock cubes, dissolved in 1/2 litre of boiling water (I use very low salt stock cubes, as I like to salt the food myself)
Around 16 tablespoons of oats
1 level tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Heat some oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onions. Cook on medium heat for a few minutes until softened. Add the chicken, and brown on high heat for a minute or two. Next add the tomatoes, spices and chicken stock. Bring to the boil then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. While the contents in the pot simmer, mix the oats with a cup of water and leave them to soak. When the 10 minutes are up, add the soaked oats to the saucepan, mixing thoroughly. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing sticks at the bottom of the pan. When the soup is ready, give it a taste and add salt and pepper as required. Serve and enjoy!

The Obligatory New Year Blog

This is the time when many of us reflect on the year gone past and make new resolutions, so I might as well join in.

2008 was a bit of an annus horribilis for me, although it ended on a positive note. Having had my hopes of becoming a history teacher dashed, I licked my wounds last January and resolved to start anew, this time in a primary school. What I still wanted, more than ever, was to teach and I reflected that there were more opportunities in primary than in secondary history, which is not a shortage subject.

I started scouting for jobs, and soon managed to get myself an interview. It seemed promising: year 6 TA in an Outstanding school, which was also a teaching school. A perfect springboard for developing my career! The interview itself went well enough, until right at the end, I was asked how I would feel working with a teacher much younger than me and taking instructions from her. I can’t remember what I answered, something to do with mutual professional respect, but in that instant I knew that they probably weren’t going to offer me the job. It might not have been ageism per se. My eclectic CV just didn’t fit the bill and I know that my bailing out from an ITT course one term in didn’t inspire much confidence.

A month went by, with no responses to several applications I had put in. I began to lose confidence and feel very unwanted. The only bright spot on my horizon was the KS3 history textbook I was writing, which gave me a sense of purpose. Over time, this morphed into a set of booklets on the Middle Ages, which I decided to self-publish under the name Learning For Memory. I haven’t exactly broken the publishing world with this venture, but I have received some positive comments, for which I’m grateful. I’m currently working on some follow up booklets and looking forward to getting them out during 2019.

But as for a career in teaching, well that path seemed to have closed up. On my low days, I felt very hard done by. It offended my pride and sense of rightness that, in an era of teacher shortages, someone as bright, dedicated and talented as me could not get a foot in. However, one can only be maudlin for so long. I applied for some more jobs and eventually got offered a position. It was well paid and at Level 4, which I soon discovered meant that I would be the cover teacher across the school in the event of an absence. More significantly, it meant working in Reception for the first time ever.

I started one bright morning in February, full of hope. Working with very young children was a bit of a shock to the system, but I soon adjusted. On my third day in the job, heavy snowfall meant that the class teacher couldn’t drive in, and I had to step into her shoes, with little notice and no lesson plan. With the help of a fellow TA, we somehow managed and I felt very pleased with the way I had acquitted myself that day.

It’s a shame to say, but that sense of hope faded fairly quickly. I had never before experienced working in a school where fear of SLT was paramount, where the audit culture and the appearance of things trumped everything else. It didn’t help that, a few weeks into the job, I was hauled in to a meeting with the head of department, the neighbouring Reception teacher who had barely cracked a smile in my direction since I’d started. We were due to have a “mocksted” the following day, and the pressure was on. She started the meeting by describing how unlucky my class was to have gone through so many TAs since September, and that they had really hoped to recruit someone with experience in Early Years, but instead they had got me. She went on to say that Early Years were very different to other key stages and whatever school experience I already had was of little use.

Having demoralised me to this extent, she then went on to describe how terribly, earth-crushingly important tomorrow’s inspection was going to be, and how I must absolutely not let them down. She was particularly worried about how I would fare being observed during a phonics lesson. We had daily phonics, and I had been given a group of the lowest ability children to teach, with no training apart from being told to teach them the phase 2 sounds (whatever that was) and some flash cards. Now, she handed me a sheet of paper with a lesson plan on it. “Follow this to the letter”, she barked, “and come to me if you have any questions about it”. Meeting over.

I’m happy to report that the mocksted went just fine and the next day they were basking in the positive comments that had come their way. They were Good but on their way to Outstanding. Well, hooray! As time went on, it became increasingly clear that this school was not the place for me. It’s difficult to describe how corrosive a working climate can be, where a whisper from a colleague that SLT is in the vicinity can inspire such fear. It’s not healthy to spend your day fearful of being told off, to feel that no matter how hard you work, it is unappreciated, but whatever little error you make is magnified. I decided to hand in my notice after the Easter holidays and to finish off the summer term by working for a supply agency, which experience I wrote about here.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel though. Last summer, I applied for a job starting in September. The pay was much less than I was used to, but the hours were shorter, which meant no need to pay for before-school and after-school club (I have a 9-year old son). I had reached last chance saloon. If this didn’t work out, then I was going to just give up on ever working in a school again. Three horrid school experiences in a row can do that to you. Luckily for me, it has worked out well. The interview augured well. The headteacher had a list of questions to go through with me, but five minutes in, she opined that I knew what I was doing and didn’t need to answer any more questions. A few hours later the phone call came in, offering me the job.

I can’t begin to say what a difference it makes to work in a place where you are valued and trusted, where you are seen as competent, and not a problem to be managed. It helps too, that I work with the best class teacher ever. I learn something from her everyday. We also have a fabulous SEND TA who works with one of our autistic children. The three of us work wonderfully well together, with professional respect and kindness underpinning everything we do. If there is one big lesson I’ve learned from 2008, it’s the importance of kindness and respect in the workplace. You can put up with a lot, as long as you feel valued.

So what does 2019 hold for me? One thing it won’t is teacher training. I have abandoned any further idea of training as a teacher. I look around me and see that it’s not a job I want to do anymore. There are many reasons for this, but I can encapsulate them as follows: audit culture and workload. I have just turned 48 and my husband celebrated his fiftieth this year. He is talking in terms of taking early retirement, working less and improving quality of life. I’d quite like to share some more leisure time with him, not have to be a slave to the teacher grind. I also want more time to write my history booklets and the possibility of working with schools to develop their history curriculum. There’s lots to look forward to in 2019. I’m glad I can begin the year with a sense of optimism. I’ll sign off with this little gif which my cousin sent me and which made me smile.

Direct Instruction: A No Brainer?

This morning, I took part in a Twitter discussion around Direct Instruction and it has prompted me to write this blog, in order to elaborate my thoughts on the matter.

To me, direct instruction is a no brainer. We’ve all learned through direct instruction, and wouldn’t be where we are without it. It is the most natural thing in the world, and has been going on since time immemorial. Fundamentally, it is the process of someone with knowledge of something, communicating that knowledge to someone who doesn’t have it. Michael Fordham in a blog entitled “Teaching: a natural act?“, describes it as thus:

“Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

And what does this natural propensity entail? In short, it is communication from one who knows to one who does not.”

In this instance, we can substitute the word “teach” with “direct instruction”, for that is what I believe direct instruction to be: communication from one who knows to one who does not. This communication can take many forms. It can be an hour-long lecture given by a professor at a university. It can be a PE teacher showing pupils how to bounce a ball. It can be a Reception teacher teaching pupils what sound a letter makes or modelling on the board how to write that letter. In all these examples, we see someone communicating knowledge (both in the “know-that” and “know-how” sense) to others who do not have this knowledge. So the term direct instruction is very broad in what activities it might entail, but narrow in the objective: the transfer of knowledge from one who has it to one who doesn’t.

It is in this sense that I can state with conviction that direct instruction is a no brainer. Everyone, even the most ardent progressive, uses some form of direct instruction at one point or another. It’s impossible not to. Perhaps it is more helpful to discuss what is not direct instruction and to explore what that might look like in practice.

In the Reception example I gave earlier on, direct instruction takes place when a teacher tells pupils what sound a letter makes and shows them how to write the  letter. The alternative to direct instruction would be to give pupils picture cards with the word written underneath, and let them infer over time what those symbols are. As to writing, the approach would be to let pupils experiment with paper and pen, and try to replicate the symbols on the page as best they can. The opposite of direct instruction is letting children work things out for themselves, the so-called constructivist approach. Some children can and will work these things out for themselves. Many of us have come across children who are practically self-taught when it comes to reading (or taught at home by their parents). But I don’t think we would want to encourage this survival of the fittest methodology in our schools.

This is why you will not find, in Reception classrooms across the land, children being completely left to their own devices, without some element of direct instruction to ensure they learn their letter sounds. So the debate is not really about direct instruction versus non-direct instruction, but about the grey area in between. To what degree does the teacher directly teach something? At what point does the teacher step back and let the pupil work independently?

From thence comes that common mantra: “limit teacher talk to 10 minutes”. It is a deeply unhelpful piece of advice. Firstly, because of the arbitrariness of it when everything in teaching is context-dependent. Are we really going to tell the college professor to limit her lecture to 10 minutes? Obviously not. If, however, you are teaching a class of 5-year olds, you might want to limit your talk to even less than 10 minutes, such is the attention span of young children. Secondly, being told to limit teacher talk is unhelpful because implicit in the statement is the idea that by talking, a teacher is somehow inhibiting the learning of pupils, that talking is a necessary evil in teaching that must be kept to a minimum. All kinds of unhealthy attitudes to teaching stem from such an idea, the very worst one being that teachers should not really teach but facilitate.

Ironically, most teachers are deeply aware that a facilitating-only approach leads to very poor outcomes, unhappy parents and Ofsted banging on the door and branding their school as requiring improvement. They know that at some level, direct instruction is needed. But they are pulled this way and that by the conditioning they receive in teacher training where they are told (implicitly or otherwise) that teacher talk is bad, that pupils learn better when they discover something for themselves, and by the judgements made of them when they are observed teaching. This conundrum was resolved by Andrew Percival, now a deputy headteacher, as follows:

Where does this leave us? Well for starters, we need to rehabilitate the words “direct instruction” and not let them be taken for some evil, autocratic force in education. Everyone learns through direct instruction and it should not be controversial to say so. We also need to move the debate on from arbitrary measures of how much a teacher can talk in a lesson, to looking at the curriculum and its pedagogic implications in each subject, recognising that context, and subject, is king.