Discovery Based Learning

I’ve always believed that children need a teacher and never really subscribed to the “let them get on with it” philosophy. While I’m fascinated by the resourcefulness of the street children figuring out how to use a computer, or the refugees I worked with figuring out how to get themselves out of danger, ultimately, I have some sympathy with the Daisy Christodoulou argument that kids need someone to teach them stuff. We’d all be out of a job otherwise. But…

My son is eight. The other day, he was moving around the house in an odd, stealthy manner before sitting down cross legged for five minutes and staring into space. I asked him what he was doing

“I’m meditating so that I can open up my root chakra”

“Your what?”

It turns out that a couple of weeks ago he found a book on world religions in his school library. It was a rainy day and so he read it. He’s pondered for a couple of weeks whether he wants to be a Hindu or a Buddhist and has gone for the latter:-

“I’m not sure about many Gods, but I do think it’s good to spend your life trying to find enlightenment” he tells my gaping jaw.

In town on Saturday, he sprinted past the children’s book section up the stairs to religion and asked us to buy him books on chakras and buddhism. He’s ordered buddhist stickers for his wall, taken up yoga via Youtube and can pretty much tell me the whole life story of Buddha, the different forms of Buddhism, how it manifests itself in different countries and what the key principles of the philosophy are. And this morning on the way to school he told me quite confidently that he was feeling “more connected to the earth.”

It’s all caused some gentle amusement in our house and we’re doing all we can not to quash this enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge while at the same time being completely bemused. And it’s made me think quite carefully about not dismissing or underestimating the power of a child’s interest in driving learning forward.

Last year, he was interested in the earth. He spent hours on Google Earth and could tell us where towns and cities were in countries we didn’t even know existed. This interest led him to avidly read National Geographic articles online and he’s a mine of information about volcanos, tectonic plates and tsunamis. Yet his schools report for Geography stated that he was ‘at expected level’. Standards really have risen when a six year old talking about pyroclastic flow is achieving an expected standard. I suspect though, that his teachers had no idea what he knew. Because there’s little time in the current system to find out what children are passionate about, what they know and what skills they have already acquired. And this is a terrible shame.

I’m not suggesting that we throw the National Curriculum away and let kids bumble along. And I’m completely aware that in order to acquire any of the information he already has, Sam needed to be able to read, operate a computer and have a good vocabulary, not to mention a working knowledge of how to use a dictionary when that vocabulary failed him. He also has middle class parents to take him to book shops. But nevertheless, we really are missing a trick as teachers if we don’t tap into our children’s passions. If we don’t KNOW them.

When he was in Year 1, my eldest son, currently somewhere deep in a jungle in Costa Rica, asked so many questions that his teacher kept him out of assembly so she could spend one to one time with him. They ranged from ‘how can blind people sew?” to “where do your thoughts go when you die?” They’d sit and chat for twenty minutes once a week and it made a world of difference to his confidence and his ability to articulate. Of course, she (and we) can’t do this for every child, and perhaps it was unfair to have done it for one. I think it was a solution to ease her sanity so that she could actually teach her class. But, where do we make space for finding out what our children already know? What their passions are? How they already acquire and use information? Do we build this into our planning, our schemes? Or do we teach them what we think they need to know whether they already know it or not? And to what extent do we construct our curriculum and lessons in order to spark off new passions?

I’m increasingly convinced that there is a balance. It is a nonsense to suggest that children can’t find things out for themselves. Every day this idea is disproved to anyone who is a parent (or at least a parent who takes notice). Finding that balance is tricky, but if we want an education system that starts where the child is at and builds from there, it is a necessity.


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Brand New Shiny Ofsted.

I’m on a list. I don’t quite know how I got on it, but this is the third time I’ve been invited to a meeting of significance. The first time (the DfE) we got dry, extra value biscuits. The second time, (Oftsted, Manchester office) M&S biscuits. This time was extra special (Ofsted, London office)– squishy doughnuts. Yum.

I was late but only in terms of missing introductions and my fellow biscuit connoisseurs were already known to me. So we got straight down to business. Sean Harford was outlining the proposals for the new (new new new) Ofsted framework for September 2015. I reported on the early ideas for this when we met Mike Cladingbowl, but things have moved on from then. The intention to bring FE, Sixth Forms and EYFS providers in line with schools inspection will still go ahead. But the original idea that schools considered to be ‘good’ would only be inspected every five years with a light touch inspection has been reduced to three. So if you’re a good school, you’ll actually be inspected more frequently than you currently are. But with a properly trained HMI “coming in with the expectation that you will remain good.” This sole inspector will stay for a day and if there is a need to extend the inspection (either to move you up or down), will return with a team to investigate whether or not you are actually now Outstanding. Or not.

If there are issues arising in the inspection that are not too serious, then the team will allow you to keep your good grade as long as it is clear in your SIP that you are aware of any issues. If not, you are in danger of being downgraded to RI(P).

Needless to say I had a few concerns about this. For a start, it is perfectly possible (I’ve seen a few) to be a coasting good school and this makes that even more possible. For good and outstanding schools now, as long as the data is roughly in place, your web site makes it look like you’re offering a broad and balanced curriculum with happy, smiling children and you don’t get any major complaints, you should be ok. If you’re flogging the kids to death in order to get results, or excluding them with a ‘zero tolerance’ behavior policy, farming out PE to a competitive sports coach or reducing the arts to an after school club, there will be little to stop you.

I wonder, if inspectors go into schools with the expectation that good schools will be good, what expectations do they bring to RI or inadequate schools? There is a huge range of progress within the RI band. From bordering on Special Measures to almost-Good-but-not-quite. It alarms me that we are told that it is ‘likely’ that three RI judgments will lead to an Inadequate grade. That it will be up to the inspectors to make the call as to whether or not a school has made enough progress to avoid the snake that will take them right back to the beginning. Progress should be progress in my opinion. Let’s just take a little look at what the consequences of an RI judgment are.

  1. You can’t recruit for love nor money. At a lovely school I work with, they’ve had to readvertise and beg for applications for an AHT post. Eventually after extending the deadline and practically dragging people in off the street they got 3 candidates. Down the road, a leafy Outstanding school had 49 applications for a similar post.
  2. You can’t hold onto staff. The relentless pressure of performance puts teachers under intolerable strain. We identified a group of brilliant, keen teachers this year and undertook coaching and action research projects with a view to them becoming lead teachers in the school supporting growth in others. Half of them are moving on to good or outstanding schools. This will get worse and worse as teacher shortages increase.
  3. Invariably these schools are in areas of high social deprivation. I blogged about this last week. Our current blindness to the challenges that schools face in getting children who can barely speak when they arrive in school to a ‘national average’ is nigh on impossible. Lifting children out of poverty makes for a better education system, not the other way round. I was driving out of a car park the other day. I had to slam my breaks on to avoid driving into two small children. Each one was clutching their head as their mother smacked them and shouted “Cross the fucking road!” You’re telling me that a bit of synthetic phonics is going to make them ready to learn?

I didn’t articulate all these points, but some of them. And several of us expressed a concern that the idea of treating all schools ‘equally’ – i.e. that there is ‘no excuse’ for failure is not actually fair. That fairness and equality are not the same.

There was some common ground on this point – Sean spoke of how in the new training for inspectors there had been a rebalancing of the guidelines to allow for two things. One, for context to be more clearly accounted for. And secondly that current learning would be more important than historical data. This would, hopefully offset punishments for temporary blips in data caused by, for example, turnover of staff. But he was unable to offer hope for the recruitment and retention nightmare that many schools are facing.

There is some good news – all Ofsted inspections are to be brought inhouse – the organization is no longer a franchise. And in comparison to 25% of inspectors who also worked in schools five years ago, the figure of inspectors with current school experience is now 70%. But almost all of those are senior leaders or Headteachers. Now don’t get me wrong – this is a move in a positive direction. But I know many senior leaders who don’t teach. And it seems to me that a truly representative inspectorate would have practicing teachers among its number – a point that Emma Hardy made.

There were further discussions about the role of data, especially in small schools or those with transient populations. To this end Sean was clear “in a small school, I would barely look at the data….I would look at the books and talk to the children.” He was clear that it was learning that mattered, but there was some confusion about how this learning might be evidenced without levels. In the end, it was agreed that schools were free to make their own assessment models and should be able to explain how they evidence progress and learning. And that national comparisons would now only be relevant at end of KS summative points.

I’ll let those present make their own points and cases about the meeting. I am grateful that Sean made time to meet with us and to listen so intently to our impassioned points. But ultimately I left as worried as before. Ofsted is an instrument of government control. It can be used to enforce whims and fancies of ministers. It can be used to ensure compliance in schools for policies that are not in the best interests of children. There was no clear indication that there was an appetite or interest in challenging policy or government – of course, given the current funding structure of Ofsted, to do so would amount to institutional suicide.

I would much rather see an inspectorate that was independent of government; that had the power to question the actions it was asked to take; that encouraged schools to think and communicate about the purpose and function of education (as Miss Smith argued) and which acted as a support mechanism for schools. But this is not what the organization is. There are, however, things that could be done.

The decision to raise the profile and importance of SMSC in schools is having an impact on the diet that children are receiving. What if Ofsted asked parents and children to assess whether the practices the schools adopted in order to achieve results were fair, healthy and in the best interests of the child? What if they insisted on seeing a broad and balanced curriculum in practice and not just on paper (come on, we all know schools that have all the subjects on the timetable for Year 6, but don’t actually teach them). What if Ofsted made a lot of noise about the mental health of children? How would this alter school behaviours?

Ofsted has a choice. It IS a puppet of government. But it is also a powerful puppet master. How the power is wielded and with what effect needs to be very carefully considered.

We have had in Mike Cladingbowl and now in Sean Harford, two decent, honourable men with a genuine intention to do good. But all decisions and actions have unintended consquences and whether or not this ‘new’ framework simply opens up a whole other set of problems remains to be seen. Regardless of this, I am glad to be on the list and glad that Ofsted are open and willing enough to engage.

And the doughnuts were lovely. Thank you Brian for pointing out that I left half of mine on my chin.


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GCSE Mania

The first thing I need to say, is that nothing I write in this blog post is intended to be a criticism of the teachers who are currently working their backsides off to get my son and his year group through their GCSEs. Their commitment has been extraordinary and they must be knackered. But there’s nothing like being a parent watching your child go through exams to make you realise what a completely insane system it is.

He started this week. And for the next three weeks, barring half term, there is barely a day without an exam. Or two. Or on one day, three. His teachers ran revision classes all the way through the Easter holidays. They are running them from 8 in the morning and after school/exam until 5.30. He’s trying to attend everything and he’s shattered already.

Woah. What happened to independent study? To study leave? He’s been told that there will be no study leave this year until after the last exam. But….

I completely understand that teachers, held to unbearable accountability, want to squeeze every last second of contact time out of them and I understand that Headteachers working with the level of job security previously only known to Premiership football managers, are desperate to ensure the best possible results, but I wonder if this is counterproductive.

On a practical level, there are only so many days and so many subjects. So some get slots for revision and others don’t. Or the child has to choose. And I wonder about the impact of this level of dependency on their performance at A Level, or at University when no-one will run extra revision, or expect anything other than autonomous, independent learners. Are we not making rods for the backs of others?

It’s a difficult dilemma. As a parent I veer from sheer gratitude and respect for the hours they are putting in to concern for the exhaustion my child is exhibiting. I’m convinced he’d be better off revising in his pyjamas like I did with my Mum popping in with biscuits and tea. And as an educator, I wonder what impact this has on teacher well being too and how sustainable it is as a model.

He has come home three days running now saying that the paper was not ‘what he expected’. In some ways, this is exactly what papers should be – full of surprise, challenge, thought provoking questions that demand you apply your knowledge and think. But to be able to do that, you have to have been prepared to be flexible, adaptable, confident and brave. What is our current system doing to encourage this? Tired minds, tested in limited and limiting conditions don’t perform to their optimal levels. Would there be a better way to find out what he really knows, what he can really do?

He’ll be fine, I’m sure. His parents are teachers. His teachers are kind and dedicated. But I really have to query a system that prides itself on toughness, machismo and blame. That seeks not to bring out the best in our children, but to see who can survive the pressure. Because that kind of system is without tolerance. It smacks of inhumanity and the values it embeds are not ones I share.


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Uncomfortable truths.

Something’s been niggling me lately. I’ve not quite been able to put my finger on what it is, but a few weeks ago, it started to pop up to the surface. I was teaching a class of Russian children, trying to explain how to do a lift. The lift involved a smallish child being hoisted to shoulder height by other children holding his legs beneath the knee. It works through a combination of distribution of weight and the core balance and stability of the child being lifted. Unfortunately the children didn’t speak English and the idea of distributed weight was a little too much. And the child in question was as wobbly as a weeble. Except he did fall down (you have to be old to get that one).

Anyway, I wondered, why do some children seem to have ‘natural’ balance and others not? I’m one of the have nots, falling all over the place in yoga, but my sister seems to be able to hoist herself onto a toe nail and read a book without leaning at all. Genes or what?

I wrote some time ago about my concerns with regard to Robert Plomin’s research into the extent to which intelligence is inherited. He claims that for some skills, 70% of achievement might be down to inherited genes – reading for example – but also certain personality traits such as the ability to defer gratification. Such claims are controversial and rightly make us feel uncomfortable – beliefs in superior genes led to eugenics practices across Europe and the US in the 1930s after all. But this is 2015 and Plomin’s work cannot be dismissed easily. In a previous blog post I argued the case that even were it so, the 30% is well worth fighting for. The 30% can be achieved with growth mindsets and environmental opportunities. And that 30% marks the difference between 3 grades at GCSE etc etc. So basically, we should just crack on regardless.

But then I also read a study that claimed that poverty affects the very brain structure of children, inhibiting their learning even before birth. This is not a genetic phenomena, but an environmental one and the researchers suggest that stress chemicals might play a part. These fledgling findings need more exploration, but they suggest that rather than education being a means of lifting children out of poverty, poverty itself inhibits a child’s educational chances. The implications of this for policy makers, are profound.

In 2014, I asked Michael Gove at the Festival of Education how he could claim to champion children from disadvantaged backgrounds when his government had been responsible for putting another 300,000 of them into poverty. The actual figure is now much higher. He evaded the figures, but claimed that education was the answer – that it was our duty as teachers to ensure that our expectations were high enough to ensure that these children rose above their disadvantage and succeeded. They were powerful words. But if it is true that the state of poverty inhibits brain function, then the intense scrutiny we are placed under when Ofsted examines our data for PP children is at best unfair. Governments should be held to account in ensuring that the stresses of poverty are avoided for children. This is a societal problem, not an educational one. The good news seems to be that once the child is lifted out of poverty, brain functions recover. And therefore the message to politicians : eradicate poverty and give us a half decent chance of making a difference.

Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to those teachers working with disadvantaged children all the time. Being hungry, tired, worried don’t aid learning at all. But for years now, we’ve been fed a mantra that good teaching will overcome all. That there is no excuse for children not doing well. That it is a level playing field if we all teach like champs. Well it is not a level playing field. Some children are starting right at the bottom of the hill. I’m not suggesting we should leave them there, but it’s time we recognised that they might need longer to get up – they might need more of a helping hand. They might need more than one chance at success.

Am I saying we should give up on children because they happen to be poor? No, of course not. But I’m saying we need to have a grown up conversation about the demands being placed on teachers and the pressures being placed on children. At the very least, politicians must stop assuming that if they are punitive enough, teachers will make up for the impact of their cuts on the poorest in our society.

Teachers in this country have taken Dweck’s growth mindset theory to their very hearts, because it reinforces the intentions we all have when we go into teaching – that we can help any child to succeed. That there is always a way. We have heard and responded to the beauty of ‘not yet’ instead of ‘I can’t’. And we have done this because we care and we want to make a difference. But give us a break – we may well be able to overcome the genetic hurdles placed in our way. But should we also have to overcome those created by our society and by our own politicians?


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Mastery Overload.

In what my youngest son calls the “olden days” I used to teach English Language A Level. One of the units we covered was gender and language and we’d look at the different words used to describe men and women and their connotations. Master and mistress was always a classic example. I’ve been minded of this as the idea of a ‘mastery’ curriculum has burst onto the educational landscape with all the momentum and enthusiasm of VAK.

Drawing from what is often an overly simplified idea of practices in Asian countries like Singapore, mastery models, particularly in Maths, are now all the rage. And like any fashion, there are both couture and cheap copies available. Last week I was asked by a Maths teacher to hold a focus group session with a class of Year 7s. He didn’t want them to be swayed by his presence, so he prepared the questions and got me to ask them. His school has been running a mastery model for a while and he has some questions about the way it is perceived by pupils. The first question sought to elicit some reflections about the way Maths was taught in Year 6, but the answers were not what either of us expected:-

Q : What do you remember about Maths lessons in primary school?

A : SATs practice (a unanimous answer)

When I ask them if they recall anything else, they all talk about repetition

“we did times tables over and over again until we were sick of them”.

“when you have to keep repeating stuff even when you already know it, you start to hate it”.

“we even keep doing times tables in Year 7, like three years going on and on about them isn’t enough”.

And when asked about lessons in year 7 they said the same thing about fractions.

“we do fractions over and over until we just want to jump out of the window”.

It takes a lot of prompting to get the children to try to recall things they enjoy about Maths (and these are top set) but when they do they start to talk about investigations and inquiries they’ve done in the past. Lessons where “you had to work out codes and clues and find out things for yourself – it makes you think”. And they mention lessons where “we had to pull together as a team to figure it out – working in a group to get the answers”.

It’s only one group in one school on one day…but these children are articulating some of my concerns about this obsession with mastery coupled with the demands for ‘grit’. There is no joy in this vision of learning. What is the point in taking children on a learning journey in which they feel like passengers trapped in a repetitive hell? We need more Mystery than Mastery if we are going to have children who love the subjects we teach.


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From Russia With Just Minor Injuries…

I rarely turn an offer down. The song in Oklahoma was written for me.  As a result, I get that churning feeling in my stomach on most working days. But on Friday morning when I stood in front of a class of 8-10 year olds in a state school in Russia, I could barely speak for anxiety. They had very little English. I had one word of Russian.

I had a timetable in front of me of seven hours of contact time a day for three days. At 5.30pm on Sunday, they would be performing a play written by them in English to their parents and teachers. The anxiety was the least of my communication problems. “Spasiba” I muttered as a greeting, forgetting it meant ‘thank you’, and revealing myself as an idiot within ten seconds. The children smiled politely.

Three days later we’re looking at the song lyrics we’ve written together. The line we sing early in the play “I’ll finish what I started and continue” has changed to “I finished what I started and continued”.

“Ahhhh! In past is ‘d'” says a child who barely spoke on the first day.

They’re following instructions too. Instead of me having to say “sit down” four times, wave my hands towards the ground and finally in desperation plonk myself on the floor saying “this, this”, they sit first time. And stand and move in the directions I suggest. They laugh at my jokes. And laugh at what they think are my jokes, but which are just mistakes. They surprise me with random vocabulary that we just have to build into our performance – “he hurting and sad” one explains of the monster who turns out to be less terrible than I envisaged. “He vegetable” shouts another. I raise my eyebrows. He mimes eating. I assume we have a sad vegetarian on our hands. Which places our hero in a difficult ethical position.

Hence Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey narrative structure (an utter God send) gets a little update and a few new twists. I’ll never know if they were intentional.

Of course there were mishaps. Teaching lifts to children in a second language is foolhardy I learned as one left her blood on the floor. And “Pull the curtains” led to the whole rig coming down crashing on their heads. But they are Russian. All over town posters commemorating the losses of the Second World War (or Great Patriot War) are hanging and a few bloody noses and bruised heads are not putting this lot off.

So the parents arrive and watch their children perform a play in a language that most of them don’t understand. I’m playing the piano with my hands, operating the lighting rig with my toes. The song goes a bit wrong. But it doesn’t matter. Because like parents all over the world, their eyes glisten as they watch their child achieve something they didn’t think possible three days ago. And the children see this and their faces light up. And I remember not only what a powerful tool drama is for learning language, but also the power it has to bond families. I’m proud of these brave little children. And of myself. And I’m glad that I’m a girl who can’t say no.

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Let’s State the Bleeding Obvious…

I’m in Russia and about to go to the ballet so I’ll make this brief. The Sutton Trust tell us that ‘poor children’ (and if you want to know why this phrase is all shades of wrong, read Sue Cowley’s blog on the subject) from the South do better in life than those in the North. The press report this lazily as a product of better schooling in London. Hmmm. Well the children examined were from the district of Westminster. Where…

1. They are more likely to be schooled in a socially mixed setting.

2. They are entitled to free public transport.

3. And thereby can access all kinds of cultural resources, which are also free.

Whereas, in most Northern areas, our children from the most disadvanted backgrounds are :-

1. Living on isolated estates that were built miles from city centres and facilities.

2. Charged extortionate prices for travelling on buses.

3. Have far fewer opportunities to access free services.

Just saying there might be more to it than meets the London based journalist’s eye.

And incidentally, I was born into a ‘poor’ family and lived in the North. And here I am watching ballet.


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