A Cautionary Tale of Setting

This is about the power of belief. My friend has twins. One boy and one girl. By some miracle of time travel, they seem to have accelerated from babes in incubators to Year 10 pupils in the blink of an eye. One moment I was stroking them through a plastic porthole, the next I was discussing their GCSE options with them. Sigh.

Anyway, one twin, the girl, has always struggled with her literacy. She’s had some private tutoring and has worked really hard and come a long way, but it’s been a struggle. The other learned to read quickly, is fluent and has not struggled in that area at all. Nor has he had to try very hard. So imagine their surprise and different reactions when she is placed in Set One for English and he in Set Three.

A tale of growth mindsets we might conclude. Or of hard work paying off. But no. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. The school meant them to be placed the other way round.

The thing is, she’s thriving in Set One.

At parents’ evening, my friend asked why the children were in those sets and it wasn’t until then that anyone realised there had been an error. She held her own. He produced work consistent of that expected and asked of him in Set Three. The initial response was to simply swap them back. But what would that have done for the girl? She’s worked her socks off to keep up in Set One. She’s doing ok and understanding the content. Most of all, she thinks she deserves it – that she’s worked for it. And so, rightly in my opinion, Mum says no. It’s too late now. So they are now both in the same class and both doing well.

Why do we have sets at all? None of the evidence suggests it benefits children – in fact most studies show a detrimental impact on most. I think we do it because it makes it easier for us to ‘differentiate’. But differentiation is not hard – the answer to differentiation is to teach everyone to A* standard (and beyond) and put in safety nets and scaffolds for those who might not quite make it that far. They’ll have leaped further than if we had given them C grade content.

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior manager came to me and said “Your value added results are off the scale – would you be willing to come and talk to staff about what you’re doing in order to have that impact?” I told her that what I did contradicted their policy and they might not like it. I told her that I never looked at target grades – something we were supposed to do religiously. I assumed every student was capable of an A and I used the evidence of my own eyes to judge what kind of support they needed. I said that in my view target grades were the quickest way to demotivate and to put lids on learning. I didn’t get invited to speak to staff after all, but my students continued to thrive. They didn’t all get As. But almost all of them beat so called targets.

We cannot seriously claim to support the idea of growth mindsets as long as we set children and give them ‘target’ grades based on past performance. And the fact that there is a girl in Set One, pushing past her so called limits is evidence in my book.

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Dilemma Led Learning

I spend a lot of my time travelling up and down the country banging on about the power of dilemma led learning, and sometimes a school will ask me to come in, put it into action with some children and let the staff watch. It’s like being observed by Ofsted for six hours straight. But with smiles.

Last Friday I worked with Year 6 in a primary school in Bury. They were about to start a unit of work on the Ancient Greeks and it seemed sensible to combine their History with Literacy work on Myths. I chose the myth of Perseus – it’s a great story – offers opportunities to explore the ancient geography of the Peloponnese as well as the role of religion in Ancient Greek culture, in particular the importance of the Oracle. But more than that, there are two dilemma led pivots in the story that lend themselves to some serious moral considerations.

If you don’t know the backstories to Perseus and Medusa and have only ever focused on the monster slaying elements of the tale, you’re missing two tricks. The first is the role of Perseus’ grandfather King Acrisius of Argos. On hearing a prophesy from the Oracle that his grandchild will grow to kill him, he locks his daughter up to keep her away from men. Of course, his attempt to cheat fate fails – Zeus impregnates the princess and Perseus is born. Foiled, he tries again to end the life of his grandchild. The princess Danae and her newborn son are tossed into a trunk and thrown out to sea, just as a storm is beginning. The gods intervene, however, mother and child are washed up safely onto shore and Perseus becomes a hero. After his encounter with Medusa, he returns to Argos to take part in some games. His grandfather, fearing that the prophesy will now come true, hides in the crowd as a beggar. And as Perseus takes aim with his weapon (the weapon varies in different versions of the tale), a strange wind blows up, taking the arrow/discus off course and into the heart of an old beggar man in the crowd….

As Ancient Architects, our Year 6s are asked by the King to construct a tower, built so securely and guarded so well that no man could enter and no princess escape. They are asked to sign a contract swearing them to secrecy and conceding that if one of them should talk, none will survive. Six children refuse to sign it and a debate ensues in which the power and morality of the king is considered. The children speak of “then time” and “now time”, admitting that they would be unlikely to say no to a king in those times (to be clear, we create a timeline – most of the myths of ancient Greece emerge from the Minoan and Mycenaean times – when were they?). They speak of how wrong it is to lock the princess away against her will and when they realise that they have a stark choice – to sign or to die – they try to think about how they can make the imprisonment as bearable as possible for her. They research leisure and entertainment in Ancient Greece. They interview the princess to find out what her favourite foods and colours are (figs and blue) and they design her tower to make it as comfortable as possible. But when the king hears a newborn cry in the middle of the night, the architects are in trouble. He accuses them of treachery. He orders them to take the princess and the baby and throw them into the sea….several refuse. But enough agree:-

“It’s either them or us.”

Later, at the point at which Perseus is about to take the head of Medusa, we freeze the action. One child is Perseus. One child is Medusa. The rest are frozen statues – all the men in the past who have tried and failed to kill her. I thought-track them and ask them to speak their thoughts in response to the question “why were you here?”

“I wanted to be known as the bravest of them all…”

“I thought killing her would make me rich…”

“Athena sent me here…”

And then we switch to the story of Medusa – a beautiful, but vain girl cursed by a jealous and angry God. Turned into a monster so hideous that her two loyal sisters begged to be turned into monsters too so that they could care for her. Three gorgons, so shamed they hide in a remote cave in Ethiopia hoping never to be seen, but hunted forever by men seeking them as trophies….

“Is she a monster?”

The room erupts into discussion.

We end the day in Argos, an old man lying bleeding in the dirt…what questions do we have?

“Is fate real?”

“Do we have any control over our lives?”

“Should God be good?”

“What is a monster?”

“Is Perseus really a hero? What IS a hero?”

We learned a lot about Ancient Greek society, beliefs, geography and over the course of the unit, they’ll learn much more. But much, much more importantly, we looked at some deeply philosophical questions and grappled with what it is to be human. And for, me, that is the essence of good education – working at the edges of morality and figuring out where we sit when the going gets tough.