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.