The fundamentals

One theme I keep coming back to in my thinking about education is how we sometimes charge ahead with our ambitious curricula without first ensuring that the fundamentals are in place. This was one of the main messages I got from reading Hochman and Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution”. Its central tenet was that we need to teach children explicitly how to write good sentences before expecting them to write paragraphs or essays.

I have vivid recollections of my time at a previous school, in Reception year, where children would be encouraged to write a whole page or more of narrative – I hasten to add that this was in the Summer term. Their writing often felt like a stream of consciousness rather than a properly structured piece of prose (unsurprising for 5-year olds). The handwriting sometimes bordered on the illegible (with the teacher transliterating it into proper English so that a casual observer leafing through the book could decipher what was written).

While there were children for whom just being able to write one or two key words was an achievement, many others in the class were able to write words by sounding out phonetically. If they could write words, then it was assumed they could also write sentences, and so they were presented with a full page of lined paper and encouraged to complete the story of Goldilocks or to re-tell “Little Red Riding Hood”. And some children relished the challenge, writing pages of words –words, not sentences or paragraphs. It was not unusual for a sentence to run on for an entire page, with one event running into another and into another. These children would present us with their epic pieces of writing with a sense of pride and we would duly praise the amazing output. I can’t help thinking, in retrospect, that we were not doing these children any favours by encouraging them to run before they could even walk.

Perhaps we should be focusing on getting the fundamentals right, before rushing in to the more sophisticated and skilled activities. In Reception, I would settle for children being able to write one good sentence, starting with a capital and ending in a full stop. For instance, this could be a sentence like “Little Red Riding Hood ran away from the wolf.” The more skilled writers could have this extended by adding a “because” clause, for example “Little Red Riding Hood ran away from the wolf because it wanted to eat her.” Only once children master the ability to write a sentence can they then be expected to be able to tackle more extended writing.

Now the impetus for this blog came, not from my need to expound on pedagogy for teaching writing in Reception, but from something that occurred today, that got me thinking about the fundamentals. I was helping my (nearly ten-year old) son complete a sheet of mental arithmetic homework. One of the questions on the sheet was this: 48 hours = __ days.

At this my son looked at me blankly and I tried to jog his memory.

“How many hours are there in one day?”

“I don’t know. Ten?”

“Think. How many hours from midday to midnight?”

A pause, and then. “Twelve.”

“And then how many hours from midnight to midday the following day?”

“Twelve?”

“That’s right, so what’s twelve add twelve?”

“24”

Sigh. Finally, we got there.

“So, there are 24 hours in one day. Can you try to remember that because it’s important. A full day is 24 hours. Now answer the question.”

And of course, now that he had this critical piece of information in his head, the answer to the question was very straightforward.

A short time later, we came across the following question: How many months in five years?

Again, the blank look. Again, I try to jog his memory.

“How many months are there in a year?”

“Dunno.”

“Well, let’s just write them all out and see. What’s the first month of the year?”

“January.”

I make a gesture for him to continue, as I write them down in a list.

“February, March, April, July.”

“Stop there, what comes after April?”

Thinks for a moment. “June?”

“No, it’s May.” I write it down and ask him to continue.

“June, July, August, September, November.”

“Stop again. Come on, we’ve just had this month. What’s after September?”

Pauses to think and then remembers.

“October, November, December.”

“Ok, now count how many months there are.”

He starts counting with his fingers but rushes and gives me the wrong number.

“11”

At this point I am nearly pulling my hair out.

“Count again!”

Finally, he gets it. There are twelve months in the year. Within seconds, he uses his times table knowledge to multiply 12 by 5 and gets the correct answer. At this point, my husband who had been sitting quietly at his computer in the next room, explodes.

“I can’t believe he doesn’t know any of this! Don’t they teach them knowledge in school anymore? This kind of thing was drummed into us everyday when I was a child!”

And I had no easy answer. We had all simply assumed that by now, these obvious things were common knowledge for our son. Obviously not. He knows all about electrical currents, AC and DC, and can talk for ages about the electrification of the railways, but he still doesn’t know that there are 24 hours in a day and twelve months in a year. Was he absent on the day when this topic was taught or maybe just not listening attentively? Was it simply not drummed in often enough to embed in his memory? I wonder how many other basic gaps he has in his knowledge. For surely these are not the only ones. I’m sure my son is not unique in this respect. If he has such gaps, then it’s probable that many other children his age have them too. How would a teacher find out? There is no easy test that can be administered to reveal what glaring omissions in knowledge a pupil may have. Or is there? I don’t have answers here. But tonight, I was reminded of how important it is to teach the fundamentals, and teach them well.

Cognitive Load Theory – How Significant Is It? (part 2)

In my previous blog I discussed how an experience with my son struggling to complete a maths multiplication homework had led me to re-evaluate the importance of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). In this blog, I will discuss a second experience which has convinced me that we should put CLT at the heart of everything we do as teachers.

First, let me give a little context. In September, I started working as TA (teaching assistant) in a primary school Reception class. I had worked in Reception before for two terms in another school, so I had a good understanding of the Early Years curriculum and objectives. In my previous school, I had been assigned a group of eight children to teach phonics to in a 20-minute session four days a week. Surprisingly, given I had no prior experience of teaching phonics (and I was given no training), I was assigned to the ‘lowest’ ability group. That is, I was given the pupils that were most behind and needed the most intervention. This was surprising to me, because I would have expected that such pupils would be taught by the most experienced practitioner, not the least experienced.

I was told to simply teach those eight children the initial phase 2 sounds, using the Jolly Phonics letter rhymes and some flash cards. If you are not acquainted with these songs, they would go something like this (to the tune of Skip to my Lou):

“/a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arm, they’re causing me alarm”.

While singing the song, you would mime the movement for the letter sound, which in this case was touching the top of your arms as if you had ants running up them. Each letter had its own little song and mime routine. The children were so practised in this that it got to the point where if you showed them the flash card for a letter, they would immediately act out the movement, such as putting their arms out and pretending to be an aeroplane for the sound /n/. It was all very jolly and fun, but I had a niggling suspicion in my mind that I wasn’t really teaching them very much by singing lots of rhymes and showing them flash cards. On one occasion, I tried to get a little more creative. I gave the children mini-whiteboards and tried modelling how to write the letter we were focusing on that day. Later, the class teacher took me aside and told me not to give them mini-whiteboards as they were not “developmentally ready” for writing. She had spotted me trying to help a pupil who was struggling to grip a pen correctly and made her disapproval clear. In her mind, writing was far too ambitious a step for children who still didn’t know all their initial letter sounds. I believe this is a commonly held view in the Early Years sector.

Before I move on to discuss how my experience of teaching phonics differs in my new setting, let me interject with two little observations I made during my time at that school. I noticed that overwhelmingly, the children who could read and write well (for their age) were the ones able to sit still, listen and focus. Most of the eight children in the low ability group I was teaching were unable to do this. They constantly fidgeted, called out and got distracted. They found it very difficult to focus. From an anecdotal perspective therefore, there was a clear link between poor focus and low attainment. A few other children in the group were quiet but had English as a second language and ended up in the lower ability group simply by dint of being labelled EAL. The second observation to be made is that I was teaching these children the very basic letter sounds, not in the first half-term so that they could catch up with their peers, but in the Summer term, by which time they had well and truly been left behind. Hold these two observations, if you please, as I will be returning to them later in this blog.

My new school uses the Sounds-Write programme to teach reading and writing. I am currently undergoing training in this programme and I’ve also been able to observe it being taught daily in class this past month. As from last week, I have been able to put some of my training into practice, as I’ve been assigned a group of five children to run an intervention programme with. We have a teaching session together while the rest of the class goes off to the main hall for assembly. This means we have a quiet classroom and I sit them around me on a horseshoe shaped table so that their focus is on me, with little to distract them.

Cognitive Load Theory is at the heart of the Sounds-Write programme. I do not have space in here to go into too much detail about the programme itself, but I will make some observations how it uses CLT to advance pupils’ learning.

  • The programme is very carefully sequenced to teach the children how to read and write in small incremental steps. Nothing new is introduced until the previous concepts/knowledge/skills have been consolidated. The idea is that at no point should children have to process too much information and suffer from cognitive overload.
  • Once a sound is taught, the children get to practise writing it straight away. There is no concept of focusing on the reading first, and letting the writing catch up at a later stage on the assumption that children are not yet developmentally ready for writing. The two skills are taught in tandem. On the contrary, it’s thought that getting the children to write the letter sound being taught helps to reinforce recognition of that letter/sound correspondence. As they write each letter, the children have to say out loud the sound they are writing. They also get a motivating sense of success by learning how to write a few simple CVC words from a very early stage.
  • Lessons are scripted with very concise and precise language. So for example where I would have been minded to correct a child I’m reading with by using language such as “this letter makes the sound /i/”, the Sounds-Write approach would have me simply say (pointing to the letter) “this spells /i/”. Cutting out extraneous language such as “this letter makes the sound” and replacing it with “this spells” is a powerful way of keeping the focus on the main thing. Again, the fewer the distractions, the greater the focus. Since we are dealing with young children who have not yet learned those essential focussing skills, we need to be very mindful about creating a framework where what we are teaching can cut through.
  • Similarly, when encountering everyday words that have extended code sounds (those so-called tricky words such as “the”, “was” or “is”) we don’t go into any extended explanation about them. We simply say for instance: “in this word (while pointing), this spells /th/”.
  • The core of the programme is taught by way of set piece lessons, which are repeated over the different learning units. This means that while the content being taught may change, the actual lessons stay the same. Within a few weeks, the children become very familiar with the lesson framework and this means that their focus is on the new content rather than on the delivery of that content. Because the children know what will come next, they can anticipate and be ready for it. If their attention momentarily strays, they will not be lost at sea when it returns. They can immediately work out at what stage of the lesson they are and what will happen next. Therefore, even easily distracted children can still stay on track with the content being taught. By keeping to a familiar format, limited working memory can focus on learning the new content and not be wasted on processing other things.
  • Having the same set of lessons repeatedly is not boring. The new content is what keeps it fresh.

Over the last four weeks I have watched with interest the daily Sounds-Write lessons. These are done when the children are sitting on the carpet, and I spend my time supporting the teacher, checking what the children are writing on their whiteboards and helping those that are struggling.

There is one little boy, I’ll call him Steven, who is quite young, easily distracted and struggles to hold the pen in his hand. When we come to writing a simple word we have built (lesson 1: word building) he finds it hard to replicate the shape of the letters on his whiteboard. I have had to help guide his hand, as well as write out the word in green and ask him to trace over my writing in black. Even such a task, he finds tremendously difficult. Many educationalists would say Steven is not developmentally ready to write. In my old school, he would probably have been placed in the low ability group and relegated to repeating the phase 2 sounds. Here, there is no opt out. He participates in all the lessons with the rest of the class, and even though he gets distracted, something of the repetitive nature of the lessons must be cutting through.

Steven, unsurprisingly, is one of the five children in my intervention group. Last week I had my first session with them. I didn’t give them a specially tailored programme. I simply taught two familiar lessons: symbol search (lesson 2) and word building (lesson 1). This meant that there was no messing around trying to work out what they were supposed to do or getting excited by an exotic new task. By now, all the children were well versed in the handful of lessons from the programme. In symbol search, I say a sound and they point to the correct letter on my letter grid. Steven still struggled with this task. When I asked him to point to the sound /i/, he pointed to the letter “a”.

We then went on to the word building lesson. I helped them to build the word “mat” and modelled how to write it on my board. They then had to write the word on their mini-whiteboard. This is usually the point where Steven looks at me and asks for help. Not this time. Before my astonished eyes, I saw this boy pick up his pen and carefully write out, inelegantly but legibly, the word “mat”. We then proceeded to build the word “sit”. As we build it, I ask a child to tell me what the first, next and last sound of the word is and to then point to the correct letter corresponding to that sound (they are displayed on post it notes). After “s” was put in place, I turned to Steven and asked him what sound comes next. He immediately answered “/i/” and then picked the correct letter and placed it after the “s”. Finally, when the word was built, they each had to write it down on their own mini-whiteboard. The shape of “s” was a little too tricky, so I did my usual of writing it in green pen and asking him to trace over it, then to try to write out the whole word independently. My heart sang as he held up his white board with a clearly written “sit” in his own hands.

We still have a long way to go with Steven. However, I have been impressed with the rapidity of his progress. This means he won’t get left behind with an ever-growing attainment gap. He’s going to catch up. The deceptively simple design of the instruction programme has helped him to keep up. He doesn’t have to grapple with lots of unfamiliar processes or too much new information. Even though he’s not sitting rapt and focused like some of the other high attaining pupils, the necessary content is cutting through and he is learning to read and write.

Cognitive Load Theory – How Important Is It?

Not many in the education world will have failed to have heard about Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). The theory was propelled into the limelight by a seminal tweet made by Dylan William last year and has since been the subject of much discussion among various educationalists.

I’m going to paraphrase the theory here, but my understanding of it is that there is only so much information that can be held in working memory at any time, but one way of short-cutting this constraint is to memorise important building blocks (or schemata) into long-term memory, which has infinitely more capacity. These schemata in our long-term memory can then be brought forward at any time to assist our working memory in thinking about more complex problems. On the other hand, if we ask our students to try to juggle too much new information at once, the result will be cognitive overload, or that blank, confused stare which means you have totally lost them. One way forward is to only teach new concepts in small increments and practise them extensively before moving on to the next new thing – in this way building up all those vital schemata in long-term memory.

I have read about CLT with interest and found the arguments persuasive, though I was a little doubtful about Dylan William’s assertion that it was the single most important thing for teachers to know. However, two experiences this week have forced me to re-evaluate my thinking on this.

The first experience was at home with my 9-year old son. He had some maths homework to do on Mathletics (an online app for children to practise maths) and I could hear him groan in frustration from across the room. Upon further investigation, it turned out that his Mathletics homework involved solving some long multiplications, and that he had absolutely no clue what to do. I prodded him a little by asking him what the steps are in solving a long multiplication. “I don’t know”, was the answer.

“Didn’t your teacher explain how to do it?”

“He did but I didn’t understand it.”

“What bit didn’t you understand?”

“I didn’t understand anything”.

His voice had now risen in frustration. He then produced a sheet of paper for me and said the teacher had handed it to the students who still were unsure about the process of solving long multiplications. He had been studying this sheet of paper, trying to understand, but looking at it made him even more confused.

I had a look at the sheet. For someone like me who understands the concept, the sheet made logical sense, but I was not surprised that a novice like my son would find it confusing. Firstly, there’s just so much to take in. Six boxes filled with text and numbers, and the confusing use of letters to denote numbers. A novice will look at this sheet and think, oh my goodness this is so complicated, and then give up.

So, we started from scratch all over again, and I was painfully aware that I had to make my explanation clear and simple or else risk losing him all over again and reinforcing the negative feelings he was developing about not being good at maths. I was particularly frustrated because we had been through something like this two years ago. Back then I had had to step in and tutor him because he had claimed he couldn’t do maths and was making remarks such as “I’m not clever”. We had spent 20 minutes a day for a few weeks or so during the Summer holidays, with me explaining concepts to him and getting him to practise them. His improvement was rapid, to the extent that when he started year 3 and had to fill out a card about himself, he wrote this.

By the way, I’m happy to report that he did indeed improve his writing and won a pen license!

I decided to get the mini-whiteboard out and model for him exactly how to do a long multiplication. I had to think of how to model this on the hoof, but I came up with using different whiteboard colours for each of the main steps.

The first step was to write out the multiplication in black. I made sure he knew how to lay it out on the grid. Then I switched to a blue pen and circled the number “8”, explaining we start by multiplying this with each of the numbers above. I made sure to repeat my instructions before moving on to the next bit and to speak slowly and clearly. I decided to just write out the numbers to carry forward on the side, and to cross them out as we went along. I felt that inserting them under the main numbers in the grid would just make the whole thing look too busy.

Having finished with the first line, I then switched to my brown pen and circled the number “6”. Now we multiply “6” by all the numbers above, but before we do this, we write a zero here. And I modelled the process for him, explaining in very precise, succinct terms what I was doing. Finally, the last step was done in green, where we basically added up each column.

I then wrote down another long multiplication for him to try out by himself. What pleased me was that he got all the steps right. He knew where to start, and where to proceed next. He didn’t get the multiplication right because he was let down by his poor times table knowledge. I thought he had these in the bag, but it seems not all the information was firmly embedded in long term memory. We practised a couple more long multiplications, and he progressively got more confident. He knew just what to do and was no longer confused. He had a clearly mapped out plan of action.

But of course, it was clear to me he needed to master his times tables. I tested him on a few of the tables and had some interesting results. For instance, he paused a long time before giving me the answer to 6×4. He then admitted that he knew 2 sixes made twelve, and that he had been adding up twelve and twelve in his head. Can’t fault his logic there, but such calculations take up too much working memory. His answer needs to be automatic, practically without thinking.

This is something we are going to have to remedy. Why oh why, though, is it me having to do this and not his teacher at school? I remember regular drills of my times tables at school when I was young. I don’t think my mother ever had to step in to ensure I learned them. If we think of this times table knowledge as one of the vital schemata required in long term memory before children can successfully attempt long multiplication and long division, then it’s a mystery to me as to why that knowledge is not checked, just like a phonics check, though perhaps more informally (i.e. not state mandated).

As we put the whiteboard away, I asked my son if my explanation of how to solve long multiplications had been more understandable than the teacher’s. And then the truth came out. “I don’t know. I was distracted by the displays on the wall. I like looking at the enrichment tasks, you know, the pieces of work other children have done. I also like looking at the clock and adding different times to see when it will be lunch time.” So, whatever technique the teacher used to explain how to do long multiplication was lost on my son because he was distracted by the displays on the wall and by the clock.

Another nugget of information then came my way. “The teacher goes really fast, like he’s in a big hurry and he doesn’t give me time to think.” A fast-paced lesson full of energy might work fine for some, but it can mean others are left behind, particularly if they have not yet mastered the concepts being learned. When being subjected to a quick-fire barrage of information, some children can suffer from cognitive overload and shut down altogether. I’m guessing something like this must have happened with my son. For he is perfectly capable of learning how to do long multiplication. A systematic approach that took into account Cognitive Load Theory would have helped him, and many others like him, not to fall by the wayside needlessly. In retrospect, there are several key areas where a CLT approach might have ensured a different outcome:

  • An understanding that knowing times tables is a vital schema that needs to be embedded in long-term memory as a precursor to moving on to doing more complex calculations such as long multiplications. This should have been checked and remedied.
  • An awareness that busy displays on walls can be distracting, using up critical working memory when the pupil should be focusing on the teacher explanation. Wall clocks should also be positioned out of pupils’ sightlines.
  • When teaching a complex process that involves several steps, to think about how to display that information in a way that reduces cognitive load. On reflection, my modelling of the long multiplication using a different colour for each step was a way to simplify the tasks in a visually appealing way. This is, if I understand it correctly, a lot of what dual coding is about. Whereas that busy yellow sheet was the opposite of dual coding. It invited pupils to try to process too much information at once and had little to help them short-circuit working memory constraints.
  • There was also an issue with the fast-paced barrage of information being delivered in one go. While it might be tempting for teachers to up the pace and inject some energy into proceedings, it is important to remember that new concepts must be taught slowly and in small increments, to allow working memory to cope.

 

I have spent so much time on this one experience that I have not got the space in this blog to talk about the other thing that has made me re-evaluate the importance of Cognitive Load Theory. This was the implementation of the Sounds-Write phonics programme in my Reception class. I will have to write about this in a future blog. For now, I hope I’ve made a strong case for the importance of CLT for teachers.

Education needs to sort itself out from within

I read with interest a recent article in the Guardian highlighting the number of British teachers who have gone to teach abroad and who do not plan to return to teach in the UK. Having worked full-time in five schools, and had a stint doing supply work, I am not surprised that so many teachers are leaving.

I myself enrolled on an Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course last year, only to find the working conditions intolerable. Since then, I have often thought about ‘getting back on the horse’ and just this week took a look at the UCAS listings to see what training opportunities were available in my area for 2019. I decided not to go for it. Maybe it’s a case of ‘once bitten, twice shy’, but I feel very reluctant to invest my time and trust in a profession which overwhelmingly does not treat its people well.

What I found even more interesting, reading the article and comments responding to it, is the belief held by many that somehow the government is to blame for the current state of affairs and that it is the government that must put things right. Of course, the government is not entirely blameless. I have heard enough about how Ofsted used to strike fear in the heart of teachers and the arbitrary way schools used to be inspected. I also know that funding is an issue for many schools. When wasn’t it an issue? It’s probably always going to be part of the remit of school leaders to lobby for more funds and budget stringently. However, we must keep aware that funding in itself is not a panacea. If schools overnight were given 10% more money, there would still be a teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

The problem goes much deeper than salaries or inspection frameworks. The problem is that we have too many school leaders who do not really know how to lead. Compounding this problem is a powerful layer of academics, consultants and teacher trainers who perpetuate the wrong ideas and put new teachers at a disadvantage right from day one. When you have trainees being told that teaching “is not a profession where you can clock in and clock out” (why on earth not?) and that they need to be prepared at times “to work from 7am to 10pm” (not on your nelly!), we have a real problem with how teaching is perceived. Too often it is seen as a vocation for which sacrifices are necessary, rather than as a job. Of course calling it a ‘job’ doesn’t mean teachers are mercenary or unfeeling. Jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. However, they don’t take over your life, occupying both your working and leisure hours. [By the way, I am the trainee who was told such things.]

So yes, we have a problem, but the government is not going to solve it. If we want things to change, then the change needs to happen from within. There are so many ways in which school leaders could effect changes that would make their schools happier places to work in. I agree wholeheartedly with Colin Harris, who writes in his recent TES article that:

We cannot afford to lose any more teachers and we can’t afford for morale to be so poor. So it’s time for us to do something about it.

In short, it is time for schools to re-evaluate.

It’s time for schools to re-evaluate. Stop blaming the government for all our ills. It’s all too easy to do that and deflect the blame away to some third party. The change needs to happen within schools. Governors and school leaders – it’s up to you to take charge of this crisis and do something about it. And in case you don’t know where to start, here are some pointers.

  1. Sort out behaviour. Ensure you have robust systems in place that support teachers to teach and create a calm, safe environment for your students. Also, give yourself a reality check. Stop thinking that behaviour is fine when it actually isn’t. Can every teacher in your school, be it an NQT or a supply, walk in to their classroom and teach without disruption? Do you still expect your teachers to run their own detentions? (if so, you need a re-think)
  2. Carefully consider your teachers’ workload. Are you asking them to do time-consuming tasks which contribute little to the educational progress of your students? Remember, feedback and marking are not the same thing. If you still expect your teachers to mark school books on a regular basis, you need to think again. Whole class feedback is far more effective as a feedback strategy, and far less time consuming. Do you still expect your teachers to enter lots of data on spreadsheets? Stop doing that. SLT can do the data entering and crunching. Teachers have far better ways to spend their time. Do you require your teachers to make fancy displays to impress visitors, such as parents on open days? Again, these are things that don’t have much if any impact on student learning. As long as classrooms are neat and tidy, leave the teachers alone. Finally, think carefully about how often and when you schedule meetings. Could much of the business in these meetings be sorted by email or some kind of Google Share platform?
  3. Trust teachers, do not micro-manage them and restore autonomy to the teaching profession. This also means not imposing on your teachers particular types of pedagogy or lesson structure. Let the curriculum, and the teachers leading that curriculum, decide how best to teach it. As Michael Fordham argues cogently in this post, generic pedagogy has been over-emphasised at the expense of curriculum.
  4. Finally, be kind to your teachers and don’t let cliques, resentments and competitiveness build up. Let every staff member in your school feel valued. Unfortunately, the audit culture in many schools has created a febrile climate where teachers feel under constant pressure to perform and where they are constantly fearful of being rapped on the knuckles for doing something wrong. Take that pressure away and create a “high-challenge, low threat” supportive environment where teachers feel comfortable trying new approaches out and seeking help and advice when they need it.

And that’s about it. It’s not rocket science really, just common sense. It doesn’t require some government edict from up high. It just needs leaders to actually do their job – be leaders, not opressors.

We’re finally talking about behaviour

Much of my blogging, since I decided to get into teaching some three years ago, has been concerned with the subject of poor behaviour in schools. I’ve been banging on about it so long that I must at times have sounded like a scratched record. And while there have been some sympathetic ears, my overwhelming feeling has been that the behaviour issue is often downplayed and not taken particularly seriously. I hear a lot of outrage from some quarters about cuts or about tests, but when it comes to the massive issue of behaviour: silence. So I’m rather pleased that we’re finally talking about it.

It all started with an article in Schools Week written by Laura McInerney entitled: “What if it’s behaviour that makes new teachers leave?” This was followed by a flurry of responses on Twitter, with anecdotal evidence that indeed behaviour is one, if not the leading factor for teachers leaving the profession. That’s not to say there hasn’t been the usual pushback on this issue. This prominent edu-tweeter posted the following:

  And a former school inspector had this to say:

Since I am one of those people whose teaching career was blighted by poor behaviour, I would beg to differ with the above points of view. I am not alone. Here’s what one teacher had to say about her NQT year:

As far as I’m concerned, behaviour is the number one issue at the heart of many of our problems in education. Sort out behaviour and in one fell swoop, without making any other changes in your school, attainment will rocket up. Sort out behaviour and you’ll finally plug the haemorrhage of teachers from the profession. Staff absences will also miraculously reduce. It is no accident that the majority of schools that needed my services when I did supply work were schools with behavioural issues. Sort out behaviour and your teachers will be able to actually teach rather than fire fight. It is a complete no brainer, and yet so many school leaders still don’t accept that it is their primary responsibility to ensure that their schools are safe, calm spaces to work in.

Sorting out behaviour is not exactly rocket science. Several schools in this country do it very well. At the very least, school leaders could go visit them and learn a thing or two. But really, what are we talking about here? Having high expectations of your students (beware the soft bigotry of low expectations – just because children come from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds doesn’t mean they can’t behave). Devising clear, simple rules, communicating them to students and staff, and then rigorously enforcing them for a consistent approach. It is eminently do-able.

Come on school leaders of the land, sort out your systems. Don’t blame individual teachers and make them feel like failures because they couldn’t manage the behaviour in their classes. The absolute cheek of it! Blaming teachers is the biggest cop out in town. It is not a badge of honour to be able to control a class of rebellious teenagers. Some people are naturally good at it, others struggle. That alone does not make a good teacher. There are so many talented people out there who would make great teachers if only they were supported with behaviour. Tom Starkey makes this point eloquently in his oh so excellent blog this week:

Sort out your systems first, then look at individuals. Without functioning systems, you’ve no idea what people can do. Great teaching can only be enabled if systems support great teaching.

And Ofsted, please, please, make school leaders accountable for behaviour. I still haven’t forgotten how one of my previous schools – with shockingly terrible behaviour – could proudly emblazon its front gate with a quote from an Ofsted report saying “Behaviour is good”. Scratch a little more under the surface and find out what behaviour really is like before making such stupendously incorrect statements in your reports. Just, for goodness’ sake, sort it out.

Nuance: another attempt to silence ‘trads’

Every so often – actually rather frequently – a controversy or heated debate erupts within edu-twitter which, if you dig down to the root of it, usually represents another round in the ‘trad’ versus ‘prog’ battle.

I get that some people are heartily bored with this particular debate and that others maintain the dichotomy doesn’t actually exist. Moreoever, I’m pretty sure a good many teachers, too busy to do the Twitter thing, are blissfully unaware that this debate is occuring.

“What’s a trad or a prog?”

“No idea.”

I too, before deciding to get into teaching, could not have told you what these labels meant. I would also like to point out that I’m not particularly keen on labels.  I always get a bit uppity about having to answer questions about my ethnicity when applying for jobs or filling out various other forms. Eek. Don’t label me! I’m me, a unique entity, not “Asian other” or “Middle Eastern”, though technically those terms might apply. So I can understand some people’s resistance to the idea that teachers might be ‘trads’ or ‘progs’.

Some may be uncomfortable with the combative aspect of this debate, which can often get a little heated. They might express sentiments such as “Let’s play nice and stop warring with each other” or “We’re all on the same side and want the best for our students”. I suspect a minority of people also like to virtue signal their neutrality.

And yet it’s obvious to me that there are fundamental differences in outlook and approach that manifest themselves in various ways. A look at recent debates, for example the one on school exclusions, will generally see people range into two camps. In this instance, people on the more progressive spectrum were calling for a reduction in the numbers of exclusions, and people on the more trad spectrum arguing for their necessity.

Secondly, it’s clear to me that the status quo, or you can call it the establishment, is profoundly progressive in its outlook. A significant proportion of educationalists – university lecturers, ITT tutors, educational consultants and senior leaders in schools – have a progressive ethos, even though they might not like to describe themselves as such. Consequently, many trainee teachers as well as the more experienced ones, have been exposed to progressive ideology throughout their careers and led to believe that it is the accepted truth. It was the need to bust such myths that prompted Daisy Christodoulou to write her seminal book “Seven Myths About Education’.

In the last few years, a proportion of teachers have, through Christodoulou’s book (and others), social media, grassroots conferences such as ResearchEd and the edu-blogosphere, begun to question the orthodoxies they had been inculcated with as trainees. These nascent ‘trads’ are still a minority in education but a growing one. It’s amazing how quickly ideas can spread, and how movements can snowball. It would not be too far from the truth to describe the trad movement as an insurgency in UK education.

Now of course, some established people are unhappy about this. The insurgency must at all costs be suppressed. No academics or consultants, who for years have been peddling certain practices to schools and teachers, want to hear the rising voices saying such practices are nonsense, or ineffective. As a result many teachers in the ‘trad’ camp have faced concerted campaigns to silence and discredit them. One approach has been to claim that there is ‘no best way’ to teach and that most teachers use a combination of groupwork and direct instruction anyway. A more recent attempt to discredit trads has been to claim that education debates should be nuanced. Thus I saw in my timeline today a blog being discredited for lack of nuance.

At its worst, this suppression can take a nasty and downright sinister turn. Schools and headteachers, being publicly shamed and harrassed for their supposedly ‘no-excuses’ approach to behaviour management. Individual teachers being reported to their schools for things they might have said in blogs or on social media. I myself have experienced such malicious actions, which practically derailed my career in education (but I’m still here). Some of what I experienced is described in this blog by Andrew Old.

So please, edu-twitter, don’t tell me the debate between trads and progs doesn’t exist. Don’t tell me the debate doesn’t matter. Why else would it get so heated and so underhand if it didn’t matter? We are not debating here whether porridge or toast is best for breakfast. This debate, this battle, is the most important one to be had because it directly impacts the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children in UK schools. Do we continue to let them down, with lax behaviour, knowledge-poor curricula and ineffective pedagogy, or do we confront the misguided ideas that have driven down standards for far too long? I know which choice I’m making, and detractors can shove their nuance up their backside.

 

Back to School

It’s that time of the year again. The long holidays are winding to an end and preparations beginning in earnest for the new school year ahead. I logged in to Twitter today and found loads of posts, mainly from NQTs, stressing about whether they had set up their classroom well enough or prepared adequate resources.

Even experienced teachers are feeling nervous, and having strange school-related dreams. It’s like a new theatre production about to have its first night. The actors have practised their lines, the costumes and sets have been finalised, and everybody is holding their breath to see how it will go.

There’s a lot of that performance anxiety in teaching. It’s probably always been this way, though I wouldn’t know for sure. Some people relish the tension and anticipation. Some are less able to cope with it. I’m glad I’m not an NQT this year, as I was supposed to be. In fact, more and more, I’m glad not to be a teacher.

I will be going back to school this September, but as a TA in a new primary school (new to me at least). It seems like a pleasant, well-run ship, with well behaved pupils. I’m looking forward to meeting the children and getting stuck in. I’m glad though, that I don’t have to worry about setting up my classroom, doing data drops or any of the accountability measures that teachers face. I will clock in, do my bit, earn some money, then go home, well in time to pick up my boy from his school without him having to go to after-school care. He won’t have to go to before-school care either. What a blessing!

Of course there are some downsides. I will be earning less than I was last year and less than I could be earning as an NQT. That’s a slightly bitter pill to swallow but in all honesty, I’m lucky enough not to need the extra cash. For a few  hundred pounds a month more, I would have to do exponentially more work, a lot of it of the unpleasant admin/accountability variety, as well as work far longer hours. Also, being able to have my evenings and weekends to myself allows me to develop other side projects, most notably the writing of my history booklets – to be found on LearningForMemory.com.

Another downside is that I will have less responsibility and be given more menial work at times. I will be at the bottom of the school hierarchy. And yet… I will still be teaching. Everytime I sit with a child and read with them, or help them with their writing or their numbers, I will be teaching. There is still much scope for job satisfaction and usefulness. It’s not what I had hoped my teaching career would be, but in the present climate, this is the best compromise I can come up with. It turns out that when it comes to work/life balance, quality of family life trumps everything – in my case at least. I suspect I would have been more willing to do the long hours at work if I had felt they were being well spent. Inputting data into spreadsheets, attending pointless CPD and endless meetings – these felt like a waste of my time when I could have been picking my son up from school and asking him about his day. And the straw that broke the camel’s back was behaviour. Having to deal with surly, rude and disrespectful teenagers on a daily basis was not the recipe for a happy working life.

So this is my conundrum. I love teaching. I love lesson planning. I love working with kids. I’m good at explaining things. But I could not be a teacher today, in the current schools climate. I think that’s a pity, not just for me but for the teaching profession as a whole, which can’t really afford to lose talent like mine. Perhaps the profession needs to take a long hard look at itself. Perhaps senior leadership teams should start to question the sacred cows that have been the orthodoxy for so long. Just because something has been done a particular way for ages doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right thing to do.

I recently started looking into potential new schools for my son, as we are hoping to relocate in a year or two, move away from the rat run of London for somewhere more laid back and picturesque. In the process, I signed up with the Good Schools Guide, and started reading up their reviews of some schools. I was struck by the number of times teachers in these reviews were described as willing to ‘go the extra mile’. And struck by this quote from a headteacher, who:

Has high expectations of his staff and spells out the commitment at interview; ‘I pin them down, no woolly promises to help will do. This job is a vocation.’ He is scornful of phrases such as ‘work-life balance’, believing that, in term time, successful teachers must be prepared to involve themselves far beyond the classroom itself, including meetings at odd times; ‘Ten o’clock in the evening is not unheard of.’

I wonder what kind of teacher turnover this head has at his school. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after earning their spurs for a few years, many of his teachers decided to look for greener pastures. He is, unfortunately, not alone in having this kind of attitude towards teaching. I remember on my first teacher training seminar being told that teaching was not a profession where you could just clock in and out, and that we needed to be prepared to work long hours, sometimes until 10 pm on some, if not all nights.

By no means do I denigrate the idea that teaching is a vocation for some people and that many such people thrive on totally immersing themselves in school life. These people are often the ones most likely to progress on to headships – because they are willing to go the extra mile. However, I don’t think we can build a school system on the proclivities of a minority of people. Most of us want to have a life outside of school, and to be able to leave school concerns behind us when we walk out of the school gates at the end of the day. For many people, it is a job, not a vocation.

Reality bites

Just to let you know, today’s blog is a personal one, with not much to do with education. It’s been prompted by a short trip to Belgium I made yesterday to visit my uncle, who is very unwell. I had calculated roughly while sitting in my train carriage that I hadn’t seen my uncle for 22 or more years. For many of those years, I had simply lost touch with him, until I got a call out of the blue last year.

With my uncle yesterday

My uncle is from Syria, my late mum’s younger brother. I remember seeing him a lot during my childhood. He owned a fashion boutique in Damascus and would travel to Europe every year, visiting Milan, Paris and London to buy apparel from wholesalers to sell in his boutique back home. In London, he would stay at home with us, updating mum on the latest family gossip and showing us the garments he purchased each day. He would always bring with him some tasty treats from Syria, such as home made apricot jelly (a particular Damascene specialty) or pickled eggplants stuffed with garlic and pine nuts (delicious, I promise you). But then we had the Gulf war and the Axis of Evil, which made it more difficult for my uncle to get visas to travel abroad. We saw much less of him after that.

My uncle Marwan, looking dapper at my parents’ wedding

I myself travelled rarely to Syria. My last trip there was, I think, in the year 2000, and was totally unintended. I had been sent on a business trip to Beirut for a few days – at the time I worked for a consultancy that specialised in the Middle Eastern markets. On the spur of the moment, I had telephoned one of my aunts to say hello, and she had read me the riot act about not coming to visit them in Damascus. “Just get into a taxi and come over, it’s only an hour’s journey away”, she said. So I checked out from my hotel and asked the receptionist to sort out a taxi for me, and then made my way towards the Syrian border.

The taxi driver was friendly and chatty, and quite familiar with this commute between the two neighbouring capital cities. At the border checkpoint, I presented my passport (I was a Saudi Arabian national then, not yet a British citizen), had it stamped and sent on my way. However, just as we were about to drive off, a man in military uniform stopped our car and asked if he could nab a ride with us. The taxi driver was unable to say no. This big man, with a gun sticking out from his side, turned to me with false bonhomie and started asking me questions. The taxi driver turned silent and fearful, as for the remaining part of the journey, I was grilled on who I was, what my connection to Syria was, what was my reason for making this journey, who was I visiting, where did my aunt live, and so on and so forth. After half an hour of this inquisition, we arrived in Damascus, and the security official asked to be dropped off on a street corner, allowing us to drive off. I heaved a sigh of relief, as my taxi driver went back to his garrulousness. Looking around the city, everywhere were billboards and posters of the recently deceased Hafez Al Assad, and his son Bashar who had  succeeded him as ruler of Syria, together with patriotic slogans – a daily reminder of the almost totalitarian dictatorship in charge of the country. I kept my visit short. My family was welcoming but I couldn’t shake off that feeling of oppression when everywhere we went involved passing a security checkpoint, where the encroaching power of the state could be felt at every level. I vowed not to return, at least not until there was a better, more open regime.

During that short visit, I met many family members, but not my uncle. He had been ostracised by the rest of the family for his womanising ways. After his long suffering wife had asked for a divorce, he had taken up with a girl half his age, a girl from the provinces, that is, not from Damascene high society (shock horror). I heard he had married this young woman and started a new family with her, but as he was beyond the pale now, he had not been invited to the dinner being held in my honour. There was also another member of the family, my aunty Nadia, who had been similarly excluded. After an unhappy marriage, she had turned to drink and men for solace, and tales of her licentious behaviour had, it was claimed, stained the family name. This all sounds rather Victorian, doesn’t it?

My aunty Nadia, in happier times

When my mum was alive, she had been the glue keeping the extended family, if not together, at least connected. But my mum passed away in 1999, and after that I received little news about my uncle Marwan and my aunty Nadia. The war started, though my family in the affluent part of Damascus seemed curiously unaffected. Facebook posts showed them dressed up to the nines attending weddings and lounging in cafes. About two years ago, I heard on my cousins’ WhatsApp group that aunty Nadia had passed away, and assumed she had died of old age as she was close to 80 years old. I heard nothing about my uncle until that phone call about a year ago, telling me he was now in Belgium but giving little detail as to how he arrived there. I promised to visit, but got sidetracked with work and life. Then I heard he had been admitted to hospital with a life threatening illness, and then sent home for the little time he had left. The visit could not wait any longer.

It’s funny how, you can be apart for decades yet still feel that instant connection and familiarity when you meet up again. This is how it was yesterday. I had brought some old family photos and we sat together and reminisced. I met my uncle’s wife for the first time – a lovely lady – and my two young cousins, a boy aged 11 and a 13-year old girl. Later, I found out about their harrowing journey to Europe. Back in Syria, they had given shelter to my elderly aunty Nadia, whose home in Ghouttah (near Douma) was in a zone of intense fighting. One day however, she had decided to head back to her flat – she wanted to get hold of a stash of money she had hidden away. No amount of pleading could persuade her not to go. She didn’t make it back from that short walk a few blocks away. It’s presumed she was shot dead by a sniper. They never managed to recover her body.

In due course, the fighting got ever closer to my uncle’s home, and they took the decision to leave. Everything they owned was liquidated in a few days, their home, their furniture, any of their belongings that could bring in some cash. They flew to Turkey and paid a smuggler to take them in a boat to Greece. They got on the rubber dinghy late at night, and luckily the sea was calm. After a while, they saw the lights of a boat approaching and panic set in. If it was the Turkish coastguard, they would be returned back to Turkey. But luck was on their side, as it was the Greek coastguard, who took them onboard and deposited them on mainland Greece. From there, they were dispatched straight to Germany, but my uncle’s wife had heard through the grapevine that refugees were no longer being welcomed there, following a backlash against Angela Merkel’s earlier decision to let many of them in. They decided to sneak away from the centre they were at, and with the last of their money, bought coach tickets to Brussels. Arriving there on a cold winter’s evening, they found the office for processing refugees closed, and sat outside, not knowing where they were going to spend the night. They had no money left.

And there, they were accosted by a kindly expat British couple, who took them into their home and gave them shelter for a week, while their documents were being processed. They were then told to go to a detention centre in a small town about an hour away. With help from the British couple, who paid their taxi fare there and even put them up in a hotel when they arrived and found the processing office closed, they finally ‘got into the system’ and were housed in the detention camp, four to a room, with communal bathrooms. They stayed there for four months, enduring many interviews to ascertain whether they were truly who they said they were. The camp was full of Afghan and Iraqis, many of them claiming to be Syrian, with forged passports in tow. Some of the interrogation involved them being tested on streets and details about Douma that only someone who had lived there would know. Finally, they were given residency papers and waited a few more months before they were housed.

In all that time, I was blissfully unaware of their fate. I watched footage of refugees in boats on the news, like everyone else, never thinking it directly affected me. Cushioned by the creature comforts of home, I felt sympathy but disconnected from it all. These awful things were happening far away, to other people. It was sad, yes, and I made charitable donations to organisations involved in helping refugees, to help me feel I was doing my bit. Finally, sitting across from my 72-year old uncle, reality came to bite. In all that time of tribulation, they never called me or my sisters. They didn’t have my number, but a few enquiries would have procured it, as they were able to reach me last year. Maybe it was pride or a sense that they had no right to ask for help from family members they had not spoken to for decades. In the end, it was not me who helped them, but an anonymous British couple. It’s no exaggeration to say that I don’t feel too good about myself right now.

Do we really need the Chartered College of Teaching?

My edu-Twitter feed is currently a hive of posts about the forthcoming elections to the Chartered College of Teaching, which was set up to be a teacher-led organisation but now looks like it will be anything but teacher-led. The discussion has been spearheaded by Andrew Old’s recent blog (entitled “I was wrong about the Chartered College Of Teaching. It’s worse than I thought it would be”), as well as this blog from Greg Ashman and this thread from Michael Fordham.

From the looks of it, influential and already powerful people within the education establishment will have their voices amplified even more via this new organisation (which as I understand, has failed to recruit the expected numbers of teachers to its membership). Now, I have only worked in schools for the past three years, and been on educational Twitter approximately the same amount of time, but one thing I have noticed is the enormous amount of push-back and gatekeeping from an establishment keen on maintaining orthodoxy and silencing dissenting voices. Andrew Old summed it up nicely in this Twitter post:

I don’t particularly want to use this blog to add much to the discussion on the Chartered College of Teaching and how it’s run. My main focus in writing this is to investigate the question: do we really need it? I still struggle to get my head around why our cash-strapped government needs to spend millions of pounds on a new organisation for teachers. I’m told it is to develop the professionalism of teachers, by providing them with access to research and high quality CPD, as well as the all important certification of becoming a ‘Chartered Teacher’. This will, it is argued, provide a career path for teachers to rise within their profession.

Now, if you’ve been on this earth as long as I have, perhaps you too might be a little sceptical about certification as a way of guaranteeing quality. Just because someone holds an impressive looking certificate, and adds a few more letters after their name, doesn’t really mean that this person is any better at their job than someone without such accoutrements. Similarly, we all know that just because a school has been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted doesn’t really mean that the school is actually outstanding. These are often arbitrary judgements, made by people who are as prone to bias as anyone else. More often than not, such accolades are simply proof that said school or said professional has jumped through the requisite hoops, said and done the right kind of things to appear to be outstanding.

If the primary aim of the Chartered College of Teaching is to provide teachers with research and CPD, then here too I would question the need for this to be done via a well funded organisation. Opportunities for high quality CPD are plentiful without having to pay the rather steep price of membership. Just going on edu-Twitter, connecting with other teachers and reading blogs or articles they share, is a free and easy way to improve your practice. There are also many grassroot teacher conferences out there, such as ResearchEd, NorthernRocks, and BrewEd – to name just a few – providing teachers with a forum to share best practice. Some Multi-Academy Trusts also provide competitively priced CPD sessions in which they share good practice with other teachers and school leaders (I’m thinking here of Inspiration Trust, which has run some very interesting courses recently). So there’s plenty out there for the reflective teachers wanting to improve what they do.

I would argue that the best way to enhance the professionalism of teachers is to actually let them get on with their job and:

  • teach in classrooms where good behaviour is the default;
  • not bog them down with pointless paperwork;
  • trust teachers to do their job instead of micro-managing them;
  • provide them with opportunities to visit other schools and network with other professionals;
  • and, most critically, good leaders in their school, that set the right culture for the teachers to improve.

The amount of money that is spent in education on things that do not actually feed down to helping students improve is mind boggling. Organisations with large amounts of funding inevitably become bureaucratic beasts and vulnerable to takeover by the ‘established elites’. Do we really need this? I leave the last word to Mr. Blachford, who is a supporter of the CCT but concerned about the influence of non-teachers on the profession: