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.

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.