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.

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:

The Teacher Gap

I have just finished reading ‘The Teacher Gap‘ by Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims, an important book in the educational lexicon which should, in my view, be essential reading for all stakeholders in schools – heads, middle leaders, teachers, governors and even interested parents. Not forgetting, of course, policy makers in government.

I read it with mixed feelings, because it spoke so eloquently about my recent experience, even though it wasn’t, of course, about me specifically. For anyone who doesn’t know my history, I enrolled on a school based ITT course (training as a history teacher) last September but bailed out a few months later for various reasons, many of which are explained very well in the book. I read this passage with a dawning understanding of my predicament:

Even worse, because it is the low performing and disadvantaged schools that suffer from staffing shortages, the schools with the strongest incentives to take on trainees are often not those that are best placed to support them. High performing schools with excellent working conditions generally have less need to recruit new teachers. As a result, those schools with the greatest strength and stability to deliver training experiences are often not the institutions who are incentivised to do so.

It goes a long way towards explaining the dearth of high quality history teacher training positions in my area. To remedy this situation, the authors recommend two things:

  • Create an institution that can collect accurate information on which schools have the capability to provide high quality training placements. [I’d be interested to see how this could be done without some schools ‘gaming the system’. Also, in this crowded institutional landscape, do we really need to add a new institution, rather than enhance the remit of an existing institution?]
  • Provide funding for reluctant schools to train novice teachers.

Another of the problems highlighted with teacher training in the book is that it is far too ‘front-loaded’, which can be overwhelming for new teachers. Novices are expected to learn everything there is to know about teaching in the first two years, after which no further formal training is required of them. This doesn’t give them time for deliberate practice and mastery of different aspects of teaching. Very often, new teachers are having to plan a whole career’s worth of lesson plans in the space of one year. It’s suggested that schools should support novice teachers by providing them with lesson plans prepared by experienced colleagues and ensure that mentors give non-judgemental support, and act as genuine role models rather than just going through the motions and doing the paperwork. Also, the training teachers should be allocated their own classroom, even if it means the head of department goes without (wouldn’t I have loved that!)

These are all things that can be done by schools without waiting for policy makers. However, policy too could be changed to tackle that front-loading aspect of teacher training. The authors advocate a system whereby it takes two years for a teacher to obtain a diploma, and then a further four years of practice before they obtain their full teaching qualification, all the while receiving support and coaching. In this way, novice teachers would have the space to master their craft in a supportive environment rather than being cast out to sink or swim.

These are all sensible, if expensive, proposals. However, in my view, they fail to take into account two things. Firstly, the elephant in the room that is behaviour. The book touches on this issue but doesn’t delve into it far enough. This is a shame, as I think poor behaviour in schools is one of the most critical issues in teacher recruitment and teacher retention. New teachers wanting to engage in deliberate practice of different aspects of teaching – which is what they need to do to become expert –  are often compelled to put all their focus on managing behaviour. If we want teachers to develop their teaching, then they need the space to teach without constantly having to fire-fight disruption in their classroom. I would suggest that an important part of the capability judgement on whether a school is suitable to train new teachers or not, is the quality of the behaviour systems in place. As a minimum, new teachers (and experienced ones too for that matter) should not be running their own detentions. School leadership should be visible and proactive in ensuring good behaviour is maintained.

The second thing is that it’s all well and good to advocate extensive coaching and mentoring over the course of several years, but this only works if the quality of the coaching is good to start with. I believe there is a deficit of expert people who can help develop good teachers. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but country-wide and system-wide that is not enough. Novice teachers to this day are being taught about learning styles on some ITT courses. There is also a structural bias towards teaching constructivist pedagogy (particularly in the university-based PGCEs), where didactic teaching from the front is frowned upon. How many ITT courses I wonder are introducing their trainees to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, or discussing the merits of explicit instruction versus inquiry learning? There was an interesting Twitter thread not long ago discussing things people had been taught on their PGCEs which they now realise were wrong. This prompted a prominent academic to censure them for slagging off their courses. In my experience, that type of push back, or gatekeeping, is fairly common and symptomatic of that constructivist or ‘progressive’ bias when it is challenged.

The Teacher Gap also discusses other factors which are contributing to the exodus of teachers from the profession. Workload, lack of autonomy and the audit culture in schools are laid bare for the chimera that they are – none of these measures (which have made teachers’ lives much less tolerable) have improved outcomes for students. The message is clear. Restore trust in teachers, and manage out the minority that can’t cope without being audited to extremes. The collateral damage of trying to micro-manage this minority of under-performing teachers is killing the profession. This book should be a massive eye opener for school leaders vested in their tracking systems, or book scrutinies or data drops. I wonder though how many of them are self reflective enough to digest this message?

 

 

 

 

The erosion of knowledge

I watched an interesting video clip yesterday, kindly shared on Twitter by Martin Robinson, of an interview with Roger Scruton. It’s long (about 52 minutes altogether), but well worth the time if you can spare it. I had of course heard of Roger Scruton – mainly through people tweeting soundbites of things he has said – but I had never heard him speak before. The interviewer in this clip (an academic from Berkeley University) commits the cardinal sin of talking more than the person he’s interviewing, but the result is that it feels more like a conversation than an interview.

Why am I writing a blog about it? I’m not entirely sure, but maybe it will become clear as I write. There’s a moment around 23 minutes into the interview, where Roger Scruton discusses the importance of teaching grammar at school and his experience, coming from a poor background, of going to grammar school. He compared the approach taken by his teachers then with what is happening in schools today:

“our teachers as their first instinct when they found you were handicapped by the language that you’d learned from your parents was to take you in hand, give you the advantage which your family had not, so that you could catch up with the others. I think that idea of teaching, that you’re actually lifting people up, so as to be able to receive their inheritance, that idea has gone to a great extent. It’s much more now that the teacher comes down to the level of the student.”

I was struck by the truth of this observation. Of course, this is not the case in all schools. There are some wonderful teachers and leaders in this country, determined to give their students, no matter how disadvantaged their background, the knowledge and skills to be able to accesss our shared cultural inheritance and to join that great conversation of mankind that has been going on through the ages. But they are a minority. Overall, my experience of working in a variety of schools the past three years, has been an inexorable dumbing down of content in order to make the curriculum more accessible and engaging to students.

In this context, I think the idea of a personalised curriculum, where what is taught is more dependent on who the student is and what level of attainment he or she has reached rather than on an ambitious curriculum for all, has been corrosive for our education system. I remember some years ago working as an LSA in a year 7 class, and the set text in English one term was “Terror Kid“, a novel by Benjamin Zephaniah. I can see that the book ticked a lot of boxes, written by someone from the same Afro-Carribbean community as the majority of the students and dealing with the subject of violence and terrorism, very on message with the whole ‘Prevent’ strategy. The fact that the book contains an implausible plot, stereotypical tropes and, worst of all, pedestrian prose, is conveniently overlooked. I can think of no clearer example of teaching being brought down to the level of the students, rather than aiming to lift them up, and I can almost guarantee that no independent school in this country teaches that book (I could be wrong, correct me if I am).

Now, I’m not particularly intellectual. I must admit to spending a large part of my youth reading Mills & Boon type novels (though I also devoured ‘War and Peace’ in less than a week). I still feel a little intimidated in conversations with people who obviously know much more than I do. For example, I’ve had several illuminating Twitter chats with The Grumpy Teacher, an anonymous history teacher, where I’ve felt a little out of my depth but gained fresh insights about the Feudal System, among other things. When I decided to get into teaching, I had great hopes that my staff room would be full of Grumpy Teachers, from whom I could absorb, osmosis style, knowledge and erudition. So it has been a particular disappointment that often – and I have no wish to blow my own trumpet here – I have found myself to be the most intellectual person in the room.

This, I feel, has been the single biggest crime perpetrated by the progressive, constructivist posse on education today. I wonder how many excellent and knowledgeable teachers have been driven out of the profession over the last few decades, because what they had to offer – knowledge – was no longer valued.