Dignity and Teacher Status.

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When I thought about the topic for Blogsync this month, I couldn’t really come up with anything to add to the comments I have written in my previous post on the reasons for a new professional teacher body – https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/a-royal-college-of-teaching-a-view-from-the-grass/ – but recent events have added to this thinking.

I’m not going to go into events yesterday except to say that I did not leave the exchange without reason to look at myself for blame. Others have recently commented on their feelings of sadness as twitter users – tweachers – have begun to turn on one another in attacks on differences of opinion. Sue Cowley wrote of her increasing sense of isolation from the gangs and cliques emerging. Ian Gilbert noted a nastiness in the air. And I, have on more than one occasion, contributed to that nastiness. It is one of the curses of academia to challenge others when it might be best to remain silent. There have been times, in recent weeks where this challenge has been belligerent and at some points plain insulting. I didn’t need an alter ego to do this for me – it’s there in black and white in my own name. Events yesterday have brought into sharp focus for me the fact that the biggest barrier to our status as professionals is our own infighting and bickering.

Let’s give a few examples:-

Teach First v PGCE

There have been many exchanges on twitter about who gets to wear the badge of ‘best trained’ teacher. Charges of elitism are directed one way and of mediocrity the other. Insults are the spades with which trenches are dug. As ever, the picture is much more complex.

The training on the PGCE I did at a Russell Group University was rubbish if I’m honest, but in the same year, a fellow trainee from the Poly down the road had a great experience. In the interim 20 years I imagine both courses have changed a lot. We can’t base our assumptions on our own experiences – even if those experiences are recent. You can’t know what is happening in the institution or even the classroom next to you.

If I were 21 now, or older, with the same degree from the same university that I had then, but with the added burden of a £30,000 debt around my neck, I would jump at the chance of Teach First. It is not the fault of the people who choose to apply, that there are unfortunate connotations associated with the name or doubts about the marketing of the programme. Instead of arguing with each other about ‘best routes’ we should be considering how to ensure that there is parity of access, expense and opportunity. While trainees and teachers have slugged it out in unsightly and ugly battles, the government have quietly dismantled and brought into disrepute some excellent PGCE courses, including those at Oxbridge. Our status will not be raised unless we start to see teacher training as a life long exercise and one in which a deep and abiding interest in and knowledge of children is every bit as  important as knowledge of subject (I would actually say more important than – but you can argue with me!). Laura McInerney’s blog on Teach First myths was really helpful http://lauramcinerney.com/2013/05/29/top-5-myths-about-teachfirst/ and it is worth looking at some of the Outstanding inspections reports given to institutions like the IoE and MMU to better understand how PGCEs might impact on the process. All access to teaching routes should be free of fees, in the same way that the NHS subsidises the training of its future professionals. Campaigning for this might be a better way to raise our sense of professional unity.

The point here is that to raise the status of the profession, we cannot afford to allow the impression that some teachers are better than others – purely by virtue of the route they took into teaching – to take hold.

Behaviour

Some children in many schools behave in a way which is difficult to manage. We seem to be fixed on the idea that this is either true or not. Of course it is true. I’ve made my own thoughts on this problem quite clear. The issue is not whether there IS bad behaviour, but why and how best to handle and manage it. As a profession, this means engaging with cultural, social, neurological and psychological contexts. It also means expecting a clear steer and whole school consistency from teachers and leaders. Why do we argue about this? Let’s instead share our ideas – this will create the impression that we are a solution focused profession. Let’s stop blogging about awful behaviours (or worse, children) we encounter, and instead blog about the things that have worked for us – in that context at that time – and build a body of expertise. If we approach our practice in this way, we do not leave the door open for the media to quote us in over-simplified rants about the country going to the dogs.

Knowledge

Knowing your Shakespeare from your Dickens is knowledge. Being able to solve a quadratic equation is knowledge. Recognising diffraction patterns is knowledge. We need knowledge. Pedagogy is knowledge. We need that too. And we need to recognise that knowledge and purpose are best connected. Consider this quote:-

‘Knowledge alone is insufficient. Knowledge also requires an apprenticeship to evolving practice. This practice is not a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of experimental doing and acting, when knowledge is not enough, when knowledge fails. A gardener on a new hill in changing climate. A cyclist going beyond her limits on a hill taken too fast. A teacher in front of a new class each new day… A writer essaying the next sentence…The first day without a loved one…and the hundredth. A scientist with new results.’ (Williams 2013)

These examples show us that the argument is not and should not be about knowledge versus skills, but about the knowledge based development of skill. The cyclist with a basic knowledge of momentum combined with the experience of braking on hills will fare better in this new context. The gardener who can distinguish between acidic and alkaline soil and who knows which plants will resist the wind or drought in this new climate and garden will fare better. Knowledge through application leads to the development of skill and good judgement. Why are we arguing about that? Couldn’t we instead share our ideas of contexts and events and scenarios which help children to learn their knowledge in a future oriented mode? Wouldn’t this be more useful? And surely this, not entrenched positions, will raise the status of the profession?

Fiddling while Rome Burns

There is an enemy in our midst. It’s not that tweacher you disagree with. It’s not Michael Gove. It’s not the parent sneering in the Daily Mail. It is the fundamental flaw of short term party politics which drives our democracy. Politicians interested in ensuring their re-election are focused on crowd pleasing and headline grabbing. Some make decisions sometimes that happily bring their own motives and the needs of children closer together. Most don’t. Until we have a professional, independent body managing pedagogy, policy and professional accountability – a body run by teachers, for the benefit of children, we will get nowhere. And we are on the road to nowhere because we (myself included) are not proving ourselves worthy of the trust of such a position.

So I say again, that we do need a college for teachers – I would support the idea of a Chartered College personally, but then the name is not the most important thing in the end – the autonomy, purpose and pedagogical mastery, to borrow from Daniel Pink’s brilliant work on motivation, will raise our performance. And raised performance will lead to raised status. And in the meantime, we need to get out of the gutter and show the world what we are capable of when we all act together.

References:-

Williams, J (2013) Time and Education in the Philosophy of Giles Deleuze, in Deleuze and Education, Eds Masny, D and Semetsky, I, Edinburgh University Press.

Pink, D http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

Research and Blind Hope.

It is a fact of human nature that we are driven by a desire to classify and clarify meaning. And paradoxically, when we find that things are just too complex to easily classify, we feel somehow cheated and irritated. So it is with the clamour for research based evidence in education at the moment.

Wherever there is a question about our existence and circumstance, there is a tendency to turn to science for answers and to ‘garner the authority of science to underwrite one’s favourite view’ (Barad 2007). This is a pattern we can see in education at both mandatory and voluntary levels. The demand for ‘proof’; the rise in the use of RCTs in educational research; the calls for ‘what works’ all stem from a desire to remove uncertainty. They also, sadly, can stem from a desire to remove responsibility. We have, as a profession, become so dependent on being told what to do that we are afraid to do at all without affirmation and applause. For many younger teachers, this is a condition stemming from their own school experiences – the new generation of teachers are products of the SATs/National Strategies/League tables culture. They are the first generation of teachers to have worked through a system in which they have been told what to do in order to pass the test for their entire academic lives. It is no wonder that they are clamouring to be told what works now. Even those of us longer in the tooth, have been inducted into a system of accountability which has removed autonomy and artistry from the process. We look for answers to not the great questions of human experience – ‘what is the meaning/purpose of life (or teaching)’ or ‘what happens when I die (leave school)’ to smaller, linear questions of ‘What do Ofsted want?’ ‘What will the test ask?’ As such we have become as limited in our thinking as those who stared at the horizon and refused to get into boats, worried that they might fall off the edge. We mock and sneer at those who argue that the process of learning may be more complex than building lego blocks of knowledge in the brain and then testing it. We rage at the Gallileos asking the simple questions about whether or not, perhaps, human interactions and experiences sit at the centre of the universe and that facts and knowledge orbit them. Complexity is not something we want to think about too much. We have been trained to pass tests, perform competency trials for SMT and Ofsted. We do not want to have to board Starship Enterprise and venture to the edges of our known universe. But ironically, that is what science does.

The quantum physicists at CERN are not working with what is known – they are reaching at their liminal edges, into what can barely be imagined in order to push what we know one step further. The one thing the leading neuroscientists will say with any confidence is that they know very little, but what they do know is that the brain is connected with a level of complexity that we are, as yet, only scratching at the surface of. Susan Greenfield describes how the technology that neuroscience has at the moment can capture processes in the brain at a much slower rate than they actually happen. She compares it to the photographic technology available to the Victorians, in which the aperture stayed open long enough to capture buildings but not the people who had moved in that image – they had been too quick for the image to capture. Similarly, she says, our scans and even more sophisticated voltage-sensitive dyes can only show us a fraction of what is happening in our brains. She suggests that a move forward might be for the disciplines of quantum physics and neuroscience to become more closely aligned – the magic of the mind may well be happening at a sub-atomic level.

Given that scientists themselves suggest that our interconnectedness and identity to each other and to the world around us are unimaginably complex, what manner of idiot can suggest that teaching and learning can be understood with the help of a few RCTs? It demonstrates a faith in science that not even scientists possess. What we must do, is to take the little information we do have about the functions and physiology of the brain and use this to help us to examine and understand our own micro-climates in the classroom. We have to learn to look, to not so much reflect as difract our knowledge. We need to ask ‘What do we ‘know’’ in a much more sophisticated way. We can use knowledge and keep up to date with developments in pedagogy and science, but we have to then accept that the application of the knowledge will be complex and multi-facted. We know, for example:-

  1. That the brain is connected. There are no independent ‘centres’ for activity – although some functions and activities seem to be more active for certain things. For example, it is thought that the hippocampus plays a key role in the acquisition and recall of memory. But memory does not sit in the hippocampus – it connects right across the brain (Greenfield 2007).
  2. That damage to the amygdala can affect decision making, suggesting that emotion and reason are connected and interdependent. (Damasio 2006)
  3. That working at the edges of our capabilities primes the brain to learn – this has spawned concepts of deep practice and mastery and suggests that challenge is essential to progress. There is evidence that this may lead to increased levels of myelin around the ‘practiced’ synaptic links associated with the learning which may speed up and protect the action from loss in memory – which is why the ‘use it or lose it’ phrase is often used. As such, information which is repeated and used frequently will be retained. This perhaps explains why children lose knowledge in adulthood if it has not been reused.
  4.  Yet we also know that many testify, from personal experience, that random and not frequently used information often sticks in the mind. Why? We don’t know, but it could have something to do with a synaptic connection to a sensory or emotional stimulus – back to the interconnectedness of the brain again.
  5. We know that our human-ness seems to stem from our well developed pre-frontal cortex and that many of the behaviours we associate with ‘maturity’ – executive brain functions – are controlled and managed by this part of the brain. These functions include time management, impulse control, deferred gratification and so on. It is also known that this area of the brain does not mature until we are in our late teens/early twenties (Blakemore and Choudhry 2006). Yet many rage about the ‘problem’ of behaviour as if this were a sign of damage/abnormality rather than normal child development. That is not that children cannot behave, but that they do so through a process of mimicry and trying out, rather than through biological maturity – aided by mirror neurones (Rizolatti 2004). Their ability to do so, therefore depends on having good adult role models to copy. It depends on relationships.
  6. We know that certain chemicals such as dopamine, cortisol and adrenaline affect brain function and that it is not so simple as suggesting that some are good and some are bad. Whether their effects are good or bad depends on the quantity released, what is happening at the moment they are released and the whole history of experience of dealing with these chemicals in the past (Greenfield 2011). It is a complex and inter-related process; one that cannot be reduced to sweeping statements such as ‘stress is good for learning’.

Let’s take a small example of this complexity. It concerns memory. It concerns learning and it concerns me.

1977: We learn times tables by rote and recital. At the end of each week, we are brought to the front of the class and asked to recite that week’s table. There is a stop watch on the teacher’s table and we have a certain amount of time to get through. She stands with a large wooden ruler in her hand and we recite with our right palm outstretched. If we do not finish in time, there is a sharp smack on the palm of our hand with the ruler. It has never happened to me before – I’m pretty good at rote learning.

2012: I am asked to take part in a brief radio discussion about the new national curriculum. The discussion swings round to an accusation from a panelist that children do not know their times tables. Out of the blue, the presenter asks me what 7×8 is.

1977: I am in full flow when another teacher enters the room and asks a question. Our teacher stops the clock, answers him and then restarts. I am thrown – I’ve learned them sequentially – and in panic I start again at the beginning, but there isn’t enough time. At 7×8 I receive a painful smack on my palm from the ruler.

2012: My mouth goes dry, my heart starts beating faster and my palm tingles. 7×8 cannot be divorced for me from fear and pain and my mind goes blank. I do what I did in 1977, start at the beginning, furiously working my way through to 56. The presenter laughs at how long it took me. I laugh too, but I feel sickened. I hate 7×8. I resolve never to let it get to me again.

Now when I think of 7×8 I picture a palm with 5 digits outstretched, ready to receive the ruler. I imagine the forefinger of my other hand as the ruler and I press the palm of my right hand with the forefinger of my left – there are now six digits on this hand – 56. I can reach this answer in a nano second now, and I hope that one day someone asks me again. But they probably won’t.

What we see here is how memory, learning and emotion are inextricably connected. Some would say that we don’t do this anymore – we don’t hit children. But we do sometimes humiliate them. That humiliation has the potential to act as a mental block to accessing information. We cannot separate a memory from the emotional and sensory. If we’re clever, we’ll use this knowledge to create safe, happy but stimulating environments for children to work in. We’ll build in levels of tension and challenge – we know that a little adrenaline and cortisol can aid learning – but manage this so that it is not personally stressful or humiliating to a child. An excess of these chemicals can destroy the synaptic links you are trying to build (Curran, 2007). Similarly, dopamine, the reward chemical, can act as an accelerant for learning – building connections, but in excessive amounts pushes the brain into sensory overload – a ‘rush’ which over-rides pre-frontal cortex function. Perhaps some ‘fun’ activities push this dopamine rush too far? The ‘right’ amount will always be a matter of trial and error. It will always be dependent on the individual brain of the child. You will never be able to get it right for everyone. No RCT will ever allow for the individual complexity of every individual brain. It may offer trends and patterns -suggestions of effectiveness, but even then, we need to ask, effective for what?

I keep reading the words ‘what works’ on the blogs of people who are demanding research based evidence, but they rarely answer the question ‘what do we mean by works’? Is a higher test score, evidence of ‘working’? Will we be satisfied when 100% of children get 5 A-Cs at GCSE? I doubt it, because the very same people clamouring for a working solution, often greet every improvement in results as evidence of grade inflation. Michael Gove’s response when things seem to be ‘working’ or at least improving, is to make the examination harder. Like saying to Usain Bolt ‘Hmm – bet you can’t do it with steel capped boots on!’

What we need to ask is whether or not the learning is retained after the exam. If it is embedded into the future life of a child. If the learning for the examination is lost within six weeks of sitting it, then we need to ask whether the notion of an examination is working, not simply make it more difficult to pass. And is a set of test results really what we want from our future generations? As a parent, I’d say I hope for more. I hope for happiness, creativity, the ability to make well balanced decisions, the capacity to become a good and responsible parent or role model for the younger generation, the ability to adapt. Test results are a small part of a much larger ambition. The low expectations and levels of challenge within the education system are not coming from teachers, but from a wider lack of ambition for the future of our children from policy makers.

I realise that none of this is what many people want to hear. But it is what we must hear. We need to recognise that expert teaching comes from expertise. From deep knowledge and extended experience. Not from age as such, but from a hunger to keep learning, keep looking and to be able to adapt practice in nuanced ways to suit the now time of the particular child in the particular class in question. Let’s be more ambitious in our clamour to know. Let’s accept that we will never know, but like those physicists, keep pushing nonetheless. Let’s not view science in a quasi-religious state of blind faith, but as a means to an end that might never come in our life time. Let’s not view children as units of examination outcomes, but as the minds that will make decisions about our futures. Let’s not oversimplify. Let’s not base our practice on our own belief systems and experiences, but instead on an open-ness to possibility. Let’s not sneer, attack and turn our backs on each other in entrenched camps because we just don’t like what we’re hearing. If we really want to be a profession pushing the boundaries of what can be possible, we need to do it in the spirit of discovery, not in the pursuit of proof.

Privately Free – Maybe I’m wrong, but…

This is a quick post and has no research whatsoever underpinning it. In fact, much like Michael Gove, I am basing this entirely on my own experience and I may be spectacularly wrong. If so, thankfully, unlike Michael Gove, I will have done no harm other than to express an opinion. But I really have reservations about those private schools becoming free schools. And I am compelled to write because I went to one of them.

I started secondary school way back in 1979 and attended a school called Ivy Bank High School in Burnley. Until 1979, it had been a Secondary Modern, and had that status continued, I would have attended for one year, then, all being ‘well’, would have passed the 11+ and gone off to the Burnley Grammar School for Girls. But I didn’t. I stayed at Ivy Bank High School where all the children in the years above were those who had not passed the 11+. Many of them were from the notorious Stoops estate in Burnley, where, oddly, not many people seemed to pass the 11+.  My teachers did not have a lot of experience in teaching ‘O’ Level. Having ‘able’ children to teach was something of a novelty, although, to their credit, they had over the years done what many secondary moderns had not done – kept checking the children to see if they might be able to do ‘O’ Level and put some courses in place. When we arrived, most of the staff rose to the challenge well and I would say I received a good education from them. There was the amazing Mrs. Bowling who took me to see the Halle Orchestra playing Rachmaninov and changed my life. Mrs Fisk and her twitchy nose who picked me up and dusted me off when the older kids smacked my head on the tarmac for being a swot. Mr. Cook who finally got trigonometry and calculus to stick in my artsy head. All of them, firing on all cylinders to show that they could be as good as anywhere else. They weren’t all great, mind – there was a Physics teacher who used to sit on a step and have a cigarette and cup of coffee while we were expected to figure out the mysteries of the universe from a tatty textbook, but all in all, it was a good enough education to get me the bunch of O levels I needed to progress.

By then, my Dad had passed some exams of his own, and set up a business and could finally afford to pay for the education he thought I deserved. An avid supporter of Margaret Thatcher, he sent me to QEGS – a private school in the next town where, to his great disappointment, I was turned into a mild socialist! I mostly had a wonderful time at QEGS. No-body bashed my head on the concrete for being a swot. School plays were better resourced, the band played in tune and I made lots of friends. Some people sneered and looked down on me, but most were great – friends for life. But the teaching? In the first year, a clarinet teacher had to be dismissed for placing his hands on my chest and telling me it was necessary to ‘feel’ me breathing. The head dragged out his dismissal, suggesting that perhaps I had provoked his actions by wearing a shirt without a jumper over the top. My A Level music teacher told me I was a nuisance for having caused a fuss. I dropped music after that. I missed the lovely Mrs Bowling. No-one at QEGS took me to see the Halle.

Other teachers were sometimes great and sometimes poor. I remember entire lessons listening to one teacher reading slowly from Tacitus while we made notes. Nothing I couldn’t have done myself. But then, I’ll always have fond memories of Mr.Taylor, sweeping through the room in his robes, reading the Wife of Bath in what he assured us was the original accent. And I still remember large swathes of the text. In both schools, there was wheat and there was chaff. But in the second we were all mostly successful. Not because of the quality of teaching or facilities, but purely and simply because our parents were paying and when your parents are paying, they tend to push you for results. When your parents value education, they tend to push. Parent power led to an acceptance among peers that it was OK to learn – no bashing of heads on the concrete there. Parent power and peer power. The two most significant factors affecting the education of our young. So…

I have concerns about the reactions to private schools becoming free schools. The first, as I hope I’ve outlined above, is that we simply cannot assume that the quality of teaching in the private sector is better than that in state schools. It will vary. And as the intake into those schools changes, it will be tested more rigorously. But that will not be for some time. Because…

Those children currently in Years 8-13 will continue in that school. Their parents will save between £8,000 and £48,000 as a result of the change, but the classes that their children are in will remain unaffected – no riff raff there! So for the next 4-6 years, all the data coming from that school will show excellent results. Those children have already been selected on ability through entrance exam and the fact that their parents were prepared to pay for them assures some degree of parent power. When Ofsted come in, the data – the biggest driver in terms of outcome – will look great. So, it is more likely that this school will receive a good or outstanding grading. Not guaranteed, I know, as Sandbach spectacularly demonstrated, but more likely. And that will draw the attention of parents who are actively seeking the best for their children. A cycle of aspiration continues. Not a bad thing in itself, but there are consequences elsewhere.

In addition to that concern, there are others about the engineering of the catchment. The school’s 2014 admissions policy states that the children who attend the school from that date will be drawn from all ability groups – fair enough, of course. It will mark the end of an entrance exam providing the basis for entry for the first time in the school’s history. But there is another form of selection which is more social and geographical. QEGS is located within walking distance of the centre of Blackburn, a town which suffers from high levels of deprivation. But the school will not be drawing from the local area – instead, it intends to cast its net wider as it does now, from the Ribble and Calder Valley villages and towns that make up much of Lancashire. Clitheroe, Whalley, Fence, Downham, Gisburn and the like – pricey, middle class satellite villages of the bigger northern towns. With a catchment like this, the school can ensure that even if the ability factor is removed, there can be a reasonable chance that the kids will come from backgrounds where there is parent power. This school will not be competing on the same level as its local competitors who will be doubly wounded. They will be measured in the same local and national comparisons without being able to draw from so wide a catchment. Even if they could, parents from those villages would be unlikely to send their children to an untested school, whereas the QEGS name is well known in the area. Parents in Blackburn, considering their options for their child, who could never have afforded the private school, will now have the option of rejecting their local comprehensive, potentially draining the local school of its most willing, if not most able, student body.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that working class parents do not care about their child’s education – I’m the living product of two who did. But those who care will make sure that their child goes to the school they perceive to be the best. Those who don’t will make do with the rest. It all comes down to perception, and where perceptions are concerned, reality rarely matters. Factors combine to create self fulfilling prophecies. If parents jostle to get into QEGS, it won’t matter a bit  whether it’s private, free or state – the effect will be the same – selection and segregation. Divide, divide, divide.

Surely, I think, we should be simply focused on one thing. That the school which is geographically closest to you is good enough for your kids. That there is no need to move house, attend church, employ private tutors, lie about your address, stress. That there is one rule for all – you go to your local school. And that there are measures in place to ensure that the local school is good. If that means that some schools in tough areas get more money, have smaller class sizes and whatever else it takes to level the playing field – counsellors, parent support groups, health centres and so on, then so be it. But what we should not be doing is creating a complex market place which lends itself to corruption, competition and crassness. And to do so in the name of equality is immoral. In my humble opinion.

Bouncing on a Bed of Knowledge (or it’s all about the pedagogy, stupid)

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There seems to be a bit of a war going on in education at the moment. I’m not talking ‘Education Spring’ but rather a relentless bickering between teachers. On the one side are people spouting nonsense like ‘there is no such thing as emotional intelligence, so there, and by the way, I hate you’ and ‘relevance is rubbish’. On the other are those who say ‘Who needs facts? I never needed a fact. Fact’ or ‘knowledge is over-rated’ or ‘children are perfect – all the time, (and when they’re not, it’s your fault, so there).’ I sometimes think I’ve walked into a Games Workshop store and the table is all set up for Warhammer Education. In the middle, most of us are standing in bemusement, mumbling ‘I quite like facts really, but I also think you should be able to use them well’. And ‘I like children and they’re very important in all this, but sometimes I feel like poking one of them in the eye.’

So when I started writing this post, I tried to imagine what would happen as the title popped up on Twitter. I can hear cheers and jeers as each side figures out which side they think I’m on. But I’m sort of hoping they’ll read on and figure out that in fact, everyone can be a winner. Oh yes. Prizes for all!

English and Philosophy – a ‘Triple A Curriculum’.

When I made the move to return to teaching this year, it was largely to set up a new curriculum for Year 7. Before you screen shot this to send to @oldandrewuk, let me say I actually share his concerns that often, such initiatives are lacking in rigour and depth. This is largely due to the Year Zero mentality that persists in Secondary Education. I’ve lost count of the times, as both parent and teacher, I’ve looked at children’s work and tasks in KS3 and thought ‘but they were doing this in Year 3!’ As a former tutor for ITT and someone who has worked across all phases of education, I’d say one of the biggest problems we have in the system is the way we underestimate the capability of Year 7 and how, if we are not careful, they quickly learn in high school that it’s OK to coast. It’s a habit which is very hard to break by the time they get to Year 9, when we secondary teachers put Superheroes schemes of work away, pull out a Shakespeare and shout ‘What’s wrong with you all – you’ve got GCSEs starting soon?!!’

So, our curriculum for Year 7 has some founding principles to counter this trend:-

1. We read. A full book, from cover to cover, every half term.
2. We write – frequently and with purpose and the children submit a portfolio of their best pieces for scrutiny every half term.
3. We question – every unit is underpinned by a key question linked to a theme in our book – ‘To what extent am I a product of my environment?’ is one.
4. We ping – context is king and books are full of context. From the pages of a book we leap into non fiction and poetry. We look at data and statistics about poverty and inequality, for example, in order to better understand the social contexts of two characters – one rich and one poor.
5. We assess – formatively, though portfolio work and ongoing peer and self assessment in class, but also summatively in an ‘Assessment for Living’ unit. Here, in the Summer term, each child submits an extended piece of writing of 1500 words and presents a summative review of all their learning in a one hour meeting with parents, teachers and peer reviewers in which their work and their holistic achievements are celebrated and their weaknesses addressed with a support plan.
6. We stretch – no dumbing down of language. If children are learning about democracy, they’ll learn the etymology of the word, explore the differences between direct and indirect democracy and develop examples. They have grappled with notions of inflation and hyperinflation, immigration policy, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, differences between relative and absolute poverty, differences between communism and facism and so on and so forth. If it’s relevant to an understanding of the text, it’s fair game as subject matter.

So far, so Gove. But before the ministerial car swoops up my drive, I’ll say this. None of the above matters a jot if the pedagogy is not up to scratch. That’s where the Triple A stuff comes in. E.D. Hirsch points out clearly that it is vocabulary which forms the real poverty gap in educational terms for children and that intensively plugging that gap has to be a priority for educators. He also points out, rightly in my opinion, that this vocabulary is situated within knowledge schema, a position also supported by Daniel Willingham. Where policy makers go wrong is in assuming that the knowledge alone will plug the gap. Take the following conversation as an example:-

Teacher: The moon was bouncy and the cat had a lovely time leaping on the surface.

3 Year Old Child: The moon’s not bouncy.

Teacher: No, it’s not really, but it is in this story…

3 Year Old : But it’s not in real life. People only bounce on the moon because it has less gravity on it than the earth.

Without being pedantic about the fact that gravity is not ‘on’ the earth exactly, this shows a child who is demonstrating vocabulary based on his social experience. He had been to a planetarium. There had been a statue of a man and an apple. He had asked the question that all three year olds ask ‘Whassat?’ And his mother had explained. For the rest of his school days, he is considered to be very intelligent. I would suggest instead that he simply had more experience and a mother who used big words and then explained what they meant. It made him a bit of a pain in the arse if I’m honest, but a successful pain.

I can say that, by the way, because I’m his mother but I teach every child as if they were my own. And what do we want for our children? We want them to be happy. We want them to be articulate because we know that’s really how you get a job, we want them to be able to thrive independently – to be active agents of their own future. And to do that they have to function effectively within our education system. At the moment, that means they have to know how to pass exams. But that alone won’t make for a happy future – and that’s the goal, people, not the exam. So how does this translate into pedagogy?

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A1 – Articulacy
Words don’t come out of our hands. Or out of our pens for that matter. They come out of our brains, and they take shape through a complex interplay of memory, experience and practice. Hirsch’s research points out that a child with poor oral skills at the age of 5 will be 5.2 years behind the children with good oral skills in reading age by the time they are 13. Vocabulary is crucial. Articulating and explaining that vocabulary is essential in fixing and contextualizing it. An obsession with reading as a technical decoding skill elicits a warning from Hirsch:-

While the process of decoding from letters to language is the foundation of reading, it isn’t the essence of reading, which is the comprehension of written language“. (Hirsch – The Schools we Need and Why we Don’t Have Them)

He argues that leaving content and comprehension too late, disadvantages children for years to come. It is certainly a picture I recognize as our first Phonic Boom Babies enter year 7. Their decoding skills are great – even the Level 2 and 3 kids can read the words off the page relatively fluently. But they don’t understand many of them. Comprehension is being undermined by technical word recognition and is creating a worrying gap. Let me leap back in time for a moment:-

1986. I’m sitting in an exam hall. English Literature A Level. I open the paper and the first question is on the Wife of Bath. ‘To what extent would you agree that the Wife of Bath is a garrulous character?’ Actually I can’t remember the exact wording of the question. But I do remember that the question hinged on my understanding of the word ‘garrulous’. Thankfully, it was a word my English teacher had used to describe me at a parent’s evening and I was well away. Around me, though, my classmates went pale with horror. They could not access the question.’

Our futures hinge on such moments. Assumptions about our language and culture bar many children from successfully answering a paper. A SATs paper, a few years ago, stumped many children as it asked them to formulate an argument to persuade their parent to let them stay up late. The children told their teachers ‘I didn’t get it – I can go to bed when I want.’ Which leads me to the second point about articulacy. In addition to words, children need experience. And if they can’t access that directly, you need to put in place imagined experiences so that they can access even the most remote of questions. For example, another SATs paper asked children to write about a busy place. Most in the city I was working in at the time, wrote about a large shopping centre nearby. Ours wrote about an ancient Greek Agora. They’d been in full role in the Agora, gossiping about Medusa as an anxious Perseus strolled by. They had set the scene, researched what the place would look like, smell like, sound like and accessed it through role. Writing about a busy place for them was linked to relevance and experience. But it was an imagined experience.

And so back to articulacy – our vocabulary, linked to experience, forms our language. Before we can write it, we have to be able to ‘talk’ it. That talk might take place in our heads, or from our mouths. The work of Susan Greenfield and Antonio Damasio show us that our ability to reason effectively is rooted inherently in an emotional realm – that emotions in fact aid reason (although when uncontrolled, can over-ride it altogether). Reasoned talk comes from somatic cues and these cues help us to decide what the ‘right’ thing to say is. In fact the only people not to rely on these cues in order to make good decisions, tend to have brain damage. Good writing and good reasoning stem from vocabulary, experience and emotion. And that’s that. So it stands to reason, that if we make educational experiences deep through challenging language, exposure to new knowledge and emotionally memorable encounters, that good learning will emerge. Who could argue with that?

Well, many as it happens. Because working in this way is tough. ‘We do not natter’ said Dorothy Heathcote, explaining her pedagogy in Mantle of the Expert. Many people see talking as nattering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Proper, probing socratic dialogue is what is required. Not unstructured group work, or broad ‘discussions’, or simply sitting in a circle, passing time. But scaffolded talk, with words defined and dissected for meaning. This is something that Heathcote understood profoundly. ‘That word carries an implication’, she would murmur,‘ and implications are important.’ The class would stop and examine the word, like they were performing an autopsy for its implications. Meanings matter, and investigating them in exciting ways helps to make them memorable.

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A2 – Autonomy
I read a tweet today. It was from the teacher of a nursery child immersed in a mantle exploration, presumably as a zoo keper.

‘It’s a baby tiger,’ he said ‘ then I can carry the cage with one hand.’

Making your own decisions, based on the evidence before you is an essential skill in any subject. I was once astonished when a child handed in homework to me written in French. I’m not a French teacher by the way. We too were immersed in a mantle – as Aid Agency workers, exploring the threats of water borne diseases as the rainy season hit Haiti. I’m not a Science teacher either. They were producing leaflets for the workers on the ground about how to help educate the refugees, still homeless after the earthquake, how best to avoid this new threat. The child handed me the leaflet.

‘It’s in French,’ I said.
‘Yes, well they speak French over there don’t they? So I wrote it in English and then put it through a translator tool on my computer. I’ve shown it to my French teacher – she says it’s alright.’

That’s autonomy in action. Business leaders call it initiative.

We’re trying to develop this sense of autonomy with our Year 7s in a number of ways – letting them choose the mode of their homework for example. They know that they have to submit five pieces of writing for their portfolios each half term, but they can choose which five. In between times, they can complete tasks that show their knowledge in other ways – they can present, perform, write songs, draw, dance, inform through writing, explain, whatever. To be honest, they tend to be quite conservative in their choices, but we’ve had some corkers. Models, films and art work that demonstrate deep understanding of concepts, but without a word written down.

They’re also beginning to shape our curriculum. They wanted to do some fundraising – so they did. Over £3000 for our partner school in Uganda and all neatly connected to our book that term, ‘Millions’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce. They’re getting braver with their reading choices too. ‘Yes!’ said one, as I told them that in Year 8 we’ll be doing Shakespeare. Autonomy connects to confidence. And they’re exhibiting all the signs of a can do culture. Believe me, that’s a refreshing change to the learned passivity of many of the pupils higher up in the school who have not developed their agency and independence.

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A3 – Activity

I wrote a bit about embodied cognition in my post on progress so I won’t go on about it too much, but our bodies are far more than vehicles that take our brains to classrooms, as Claxton memorably puts it. They are inextricably connected to memory and powerful tools for recollection. At the most basic level, this can aid revision – pupils who attach a movement to key words are more likely to remember them. It is a premise that many primary teachers use – Jolly Phonics is a prime example. But there is an assumption by some that as children pass the threshold into secondary school that this is no longer relevant. Remember gravity kid? He pretty much passed his GCSEs by twitching in the exam, using movements to unlock his knowledge. It’s a powerful tool for remembering stuff, but this is not the sum purpose of activity.

Doing creates a narrative experience – actions form sequences. Knowledge is enacted and so it sits even more forcefully in the mind – in the narrative elements of memory AND in the spacial elements. It’s like having your knowledge parked in two spaces in case someone blocks you in. In spite of the huge importance of semantic memory in our testing culture (our memory for words), under stress, this is the first system to break down. Remember that tip of the tongue feeling? Having knowledge stored in other places, can relieve the stress and help to unlock the words. Activity is an insurance policy and it helps us to secure meaning and understanding.

So, in English and Philosophy, we mostly talk and we mostly do. The writing comes at home – the output. Our time in class is spent laying the foundations for the writing.

Conclusion

The best salads have a variety of ingredients. Facts through direct instruction might form one of them. But we can pour all manner of facts into the ears of children, and if they don’t process them, we might as well not have bothered. We also need dressing.

Too many ingredients though, and the salad becomes inedible. We can argue all we like about what knowledge is important for them to learn, but there is simply too much of it to cram into a curriculum and acquiring the rest will be a life long journey for them. If we don’t instill a love for learning and stoke curiosity, we’re peeing into the proverbial wind.

Children will make choices based on their feelings and this will persist throughout their lives. Feelings will impact on which choices they make for exams. They will impact on their career choices. They will haunt their nightmares and dreams of the future. Emotions matter. To argue otherwise is, well, unfeeling. And positive emotions stem from positive relationships. That might be a strict and positive relationship – each teacher will find their own stride in that respect, but the way you make children feel about themselves and the matter in hand are important. Don’t forget it.

So let’s stop arguing and let’s figure out instead, how to make whatever it is they are learning engaging and relevant. Because otherwise they won’t remember it. Let’s bear in mind that relevant need not mean real – harness the imagination. Let’s not forget that engagement does not always mean ‘fun’ and it is not easy. It is about purpose and absorption and a belief that what you are doing is important. That takes thought, planning and care. It demands new knowledge from you, because as soon as you become a teacher, your specialist subject is ‘Children’. And if all that seems too hard to learn then, frankly, you’re in the wrong job. Fact.

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A Royal College of Teaching – A view from the Grass.

A lot has happened in the past month. A blogpost turned into a letter, which turned into a petition, which ended up as a political football and I found myself thrust into a limelight I’ve found bewildering to be honest. Nevertheless, the overwhelming support has shown me that there is a genuine desire in the profession for educational accountability structures, pedagogy and curriculum design to be removed from the vagaries of party politics. So it was exciting to see the publication this week of a series of essays on the subject of the creation of a Royal College for Teaching. My first thoughts were:-

1. Hurray.
2. Where is the teacher?

There were some brilliant essays in there. Hopeful, ambitious, unifying thinking by wonderful minds. But not one of them currently a practising classroom teacher. When disappointed, I’ve learned, you have two choices:-

1. Moan.
2. Act.

Here is my action. It is a reaction.

It is vital to gather and garner teacher opinion in this initiative. And I mean ALL teachers, even those who disagree with each other. Not only because the Royal College, would after all, be ours. But also because every working day, we stand in front of children, trying our best to help them to secure positive futures. Their voices can be heard through us. So when I volunteered to write this response, I thought I had better ask them what they thought, since anything to do with teachers has a direct impact on them. We spent an hour – all neatly fitting into our work on democracy – considering the following three questions and pulling our conversations together into a set of queries and ideas. I’m glad I started in this way. I had a lot of ideas, but theirs made me really think. It’s worth bearing in mind that they are 11 years old.

Our first question was ‘What is a good teacher?’ There were lots of responses to this, many revolving around ideas of fairness and reliability, but also some unexpected ones (spelling errors and all):-

* A good teacher pushes you to your limits, even when you think you can’t get there

* Encourages you when you’re mentally down

* Bilds (sic) on your opinions

* Makes sure that education is not just based on facts and figures – it needs to be more relevant to the individual (I talked about this with my Dad)

* Makes sure that when they teach you, the lesson stays in your head

* Captures our attention and keeps it

* Is kind and can support you through the hard times of your life

* Understands how children’s brains work

* Believes in you and cares about your life outside of school

It became clear from their feedback that it was as important to them that their teacher cared for them and had faith in them as it was that they had good subject knowledge or skill. They want to be seen wholly and not partially. This was a key theme too in the next question – ‘What is a good learner?’ Other researchers have noted that frequently, children equate learning with good behaviour and this class was no exception, but they also added:-

* Has a clear plan – like knowing that at the end of university, there will be an apprenticeship or some training

* Contributes and is confident

* Doesn’t take school for granted

* Has a positive mindset

* Someone who makes good use of the resources they have

* Someone who puts their mind to it and believes in themselves – an active learner, not passive

* Someone who sets themselves goals

Finally I asked them how they would like to be ‘measured’ in an ideal world so that they could move forward into adult life, thinking that they had a chance to show what they were capable of:-

* We want to be judged on our personality and social skills and not just by exam results.

* Parents and teachers are sometimes hypocritical when they don’t allow us to make the same mistakes that they made.

* Being compared to other people makes you feel small and stupid.

* Spend more time learning and less time taking tests.

* Why can’t we be judged on what we do and make a portfolio at the end of school to show people when we want to do a degree?

* I want to be judged on what I do over a whole year and not on one day when something might have gone wrong.

So…

How might a Royal College of Teaching address these concerns? They are valid and it is important they are considered.

THE ROLE OF OFSTED

I have used this line before, but I’ll use it again. Unless Ofsted is reformed, we will have a profession continuing to participate in a game of football in which they all run around after the referee instead of the ball. No-one starts teaching with the motivation of pleasing Ofsted, but it’s where most of us end up. Instead of passing the ball, carefully from one player to another, towards a common goal, we run around asking the ref what the rules are. Ofsted should be accountable to the profession, offering reassurances that they are providing consistency and support where necessary. The organisation should be positive, not punitive. To get all AfL about it – there should be an ‘Even Better If’ approach and recommendations for improvements based on how the school provides for the whole child, looking way beyond data. This is why I find myself nodding vigorously when I read Alison Peacock’s comments about HMI inspectors being appointed by the Royal College.

EXAMINATIONS

I think those 11 year olds offered a strong rationale for reform of examinations. A Royal College should work with Ofqal in shaping and organising our assessment structures based on best practice from around the world, not on our own perceptions from supposed ‘golden eras’ in the past. As a teacher, it is very hard to resist teaching to the test. It is tempting to spend hours telling children how many minutes to spend on each question, how to break the question down – what the criteria means etc. and in the process completely lose sight of the beauty and wonder of the subject. There must be a better way.

A Royal College could explore how, for example in the International School system, the Primary and Middle Years’ programmes offer an educational philosophy which builds a child’s curiosity and capacity to investigate, leading them into the demanding levels of independence required for the IB. There is too little continuity in our education systems because too harsh a spotlight is cast on the gateway at the expense of the path.

CPD and TEACHER DEVELOPMENT

Pathways for learning, progression, transition; all rooted in the holistic interests of the child would be the domain of a Royal College, and understanding children would underpin the foci for training and developing teachers. Teachers will emerge, whose CPD is relentlessly focused on what children need and how best to provide for those needs. The college should discourage and not license courses which capitalise on teacher fear – ‘How to be Outstanding’; ‘Preparing for Ofsted’ and the like.

A Royal College should, first and foremost, commit itself to making plain and available for teachers, practical and accessible research. It would need to link to and register with gatekeeper libraries like Athens or Shibboleth, as Universities do, providing on line access to closed journals, but more needs to be done here. The College needs to liaise with HEFCE, negotiating the criteria for the REA, which at the moment offers no incentive whatsoever for an academic to reach out to the profession through books and periodicals. Only international journals matter, and it would seem, the more obscurely written, the better.

We also need to take care, since we are dealing with complex and vulnerable human beings, not to get too ontological about things. Some valuable research is qualitative and the desire to prove and measure should not over-ride the notion that sometimes, the very things we value most are those which are impossible to measure. Narratives and stories can be powerful tools for change. It would be the role of the College to communicate and collate these narratives of hope.

A Royal College should have at its heart, a philosophy of positivity and hopefulness. It should not be a punitive organisation with a role to punish or banish a teacher – this is the role of governing bodies and ultimately, government. We should set out, from the beginning, to be an organic institution which promotes growth. Where there is weakness, provide scaffolding. We should apply the same learning principles to educators as we do to those they educate.

TIME

Finally I would say, as I finish this, glancing anxiously at a pile of marking, that teachers are time poor but idea rich. We need to find ways of effectively and quickly gathering the ideas of teachers together. Across the country, there are teaching and learning networks, cluster groups, teachmeets and the like. A successful strategy might be to ask all those groups to add, just before the AOB of any meeting, a ‘Notes for the Royal College’ item and for that item to be emailed to a central contact. Information needs to be expedient and accessible: as I have learned in recent weeks, the twitter community is a speedy and powerful conveyer of communication.

I am excited by the prospect of a Royal College of Teaching. I am proud to stand in support of it and will do all I can to assist. I believe it could achieve a level of consistency and trust in education that has not been seen for decades, if ever. It will raise the status and morale of the profession – if it truly represents us – and, most importantly of all, it will give the children of this country some stability and security. And that cannot come quickly enough.

But we have to pull together. We have to find the energy to engage. We have to believe – to, as one teacher put it this week, ‘look at the doughnut and not the hole’. If we can do this in a unified and dignified way, we may well see the dawn of a new era. It’s up to us.