The problem with Bandwagons.

Way back in the early noughties, we had an Inset day on Assessment for Learning. Except, looking back on it, there was nothing really in there about assessment. Or really about learning. It was all about these new fangled learning styles – neatly compressed into VAK. We were given questionnaires – oooh, narcissistic tick boxes. Who doesn’t love a tick box all about themselves? And I found out that I was fairly equally split across all three. My friend, she was a VK. But that wasn’t allowed – we were supposed to just be one. We were asked to look again and identify our “dominant style”. It was like choosing a favourite colour – some have one, I have many depending on mood. It felt a bit confusing. And I felt suspicious. I didn’t really question the idea of learning styles at that stage – a senior leader had just said the words “the research shows” and so I assumed that the theory at least was sound. But the implementation seemed to me to be a little bit suspect.

As heads of department, we were asked to feed back how we were differentiating for the needs of the VAK variances in our groups. And as head of Drama, there was only really one answer. We move, we talk, we listen, we read, we write, we perform, we design, we watch, we evaluate. We all have to do all of them, or we won’t be covering the syllabus. Simples. But no, that wasn’t good enough. In the end we did what we usually did when faced with stupid requests. We ignored them. The head of Maths on the other hand, made all the KS3 students do VAK questionnaires and streamed them accordingly. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Head.

That year, I embarked on a Masters course and came across Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Here, it seemed to me, was the VAK idea placed into a more rigorous theoretical framework. Gardner distinguishes MIT from learning styles, accusing the latter of lacking coherence, but it seemed that his theory expanded, in a useful way, the conversations to be had about intelligence. I didn’t really have concerns about the theory. It was an idea – an interesting one, but just an idea. But the way that the idea was leaped upon in education to create rigid practices was really worrying. There was an assumption that since (not an ‘if’ to be seen anywhere)  we could now be one of 7 or 8 intelligences, we ought to teach to that intelligence. And that seemed illogical to me. It also seemed illogical to Howard Gardner who berated the ways in which his idea had been misconstrued – not that that small detail bothers the people who seem to enjoy ridiculing him at the moment. Anyway, back to the implementation point – I argued that we wouldn’t, for example, only teach a child a subject they liked and dump all the rest would we? So why on earth would we target a single intelligence or learning style? Or, as Willingham prefers to call them, learning ability? I mean, by all means, make the content of your lessons and assessments as varied as possible, but why narrow activities down to target single areas? This seemed like dumbing down to me. And a waste of time.

It didn’t take long for the school to dump VAK. Eternally resourceful kids, standing outside their classrooms in corridors, found it was useful to blame VAK for their misdemeanours.

“Not my fault, Miss, they’re writing in there and I’m a kinaesthetic learner!”

And by then, papers debunking VAK were starting to make their way into schools too. So I was a little horrified to start a new job in ITT and find that all the lesson plan pro-formas for our trainees had a box on them where they had to write how they were catering for VAK. I advised mine to use school and not university versions. But some of the school versions had it on too. So we invited Jonathan Sharples in to run a session with staff on debunking neuro-myths, which he duly did. But he did so with a caveat. He pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that teaching to a specific learning style was beneficial to students or even that there was a meaningful way of categorising modes of learning, but he added that “even if learning styles do exist, it could equally be argued that we should strengthen the less developed areas rather than simply teach to the strongest.”It seemed clear that among the neuroscientist community, it was not so much the proposed existence of learning styles that was controversial, but the practices emerging from the idea of them.

No-one was happier than me when VAK practices started to be exposed and debunked on twitter, several years later. But then I started to get confused again. Because it seemed that along with VAK, other unconnected ideas were being lumped in and the trend for debunking seemed to be creating another, equally damaging Bandwagon. Anyone even mentioning the words Learning Styles on twitter now risks hounding and humiliation. And Group Work? Pupil Voice? My God. Yet what is the difference between a learning style and a learning ability? Because when Willingham writes that of course children have different learning “abilities” – for example spacial ability or musical ability, I struggle to see the difference between that statement and the idea that children might have musical intelligence or kinaesthetic intelligence. I keep asking and no-one seems to be able to tell me anything other than Gardner = Charlatan, Willingham = God.

If we do look at research (bearing in mind that it is all emergent and offers a still incomplete picture of the very complex matter of learning), we find that certain things seem to be important in terms of laying down memory. Emotion matters. Relationships matter. A variety of activities and ways of testing matter. Practice matters. A certain level of automaticity matters. Multi-sensory activities matter. Narrative and stories matter….In the midst of all this mattering, it seems sensible to say that we learn and remember in many different ways. Not that we all learn differently, but that we each need multiple ways of encountering knowledge in order to meaningfully learn and apply it.

It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them. We need to ask ourselves “what is potentially useful here? How might we look at this differently? How might we connect to other things we know?” Instead of sneering and jeering, we should be peering, examining, questioning. We really should be refusing to lump and dump – taking one discredited idea, attaching it to others we don’t like and then dumping the lot without critiquing the individual elements. And maybe then, instead of running around in endless circles, we would set out on a journey in which we could map out constructive information and build a genuine overview of what (might) work.

Thank you to Logical Incrementalism for writing the blog post that made feel I wouldn’t be stoned to death for writing this one.

 

Whose Book is it Anyway?

When my eldest was 12, he read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I found the copies a few years later when I was passing them onto his younger brother and saw a little note he’d written in the back of the last book:-

“This book broke my heart.”

The spines of all three were broken he’d read them so often. I can safely say he loved them.

Middle son loved Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books. He read all seven of them fifteen times. He quoted ad infinitum. I’d buy him new books but they’d remain unread. Eventually he tired of them and moved on.

Both boys went on to study English Literature at A Level, one went on to continue studying it at University. Thankfully he’s managed to get a job afterwards and not thrown his life away as Nicky Morgan predicted. They love reading and have slowly discovered the classics as their tastes have developed. And now I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening. What Vincent Lien, in his lovely account of his own reading, called catharsis.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but there now seems to be a disparaging set of voices arguing that children must be reading the classics or they’re not really reading. That reading children’s literature is an “opportunity cost”. I find that a bit alarming. For the classics were all written for educated adults, not children. And it worries me that forcing a diet intended for another reader altogether on them too early might put them off reading for life. When is the ‘right’ time to introduce children to classics? And which ones?

I’ve had classes that have loved some classic texts – Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney), The Iliad (translated by Christopher Logue), Hecuba (translated by Tony Harrison) – all as dependent on the skill of the modern translator as the original writer. I’ve seen Year 4 completely captivated by Shakespeare. But none of the kids I’ve taught have been so keen on Dickens. If I’m honest, I find Dickens’ style turgid and heavy. But the stories are great and the characters well drawn. Is it a sin to say I think he was born for televised adaptations? When I’ve introduced Dickens I’ve had to come at him obliquely – through Jamila Gavin’s wonderful Coram Boy for example. In this text, the inequalities of society are writ large; the children can access the Georgian context preceding Dickens’ Victorian period – they can link the text to music, encountering Handel along the way. And there’s a perfect segue into William Blake. They love him. They love the Ancient Mariner too – “all that just for a bird?” they cry and we enter a discussion about justice, the sanctity of life and philosophy.

Books are portals. Portals to historical, philosophical and cultural contexts, yes. But they are also portals to other books. Let’s embrace children’s literature and see it as a valid genre in its own right with some wonderful authors weaving stories that capture the hearts of children. For when we have avid readers on our hands, we have clay that can be moulded and guided. We can lead them to the classics. But we have a great responsibility here to find the right texts. The ones that will make hearts race either with their plot lines or with the beauty of their style. And here we need to make way for personal choices.

I remember Jane Eyre left me cold, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had me desperately wanting more. It’s a shame Anne died leaving only two books behind. My classmates felt differently. But we had a clever teacher – one who wouldn’t give us all the same book, but gave us different ones and asked us to talk about them afterwards. I got Far From The Madding Crowd in our Hardy fortnight – it remains one of my favourite books to date. My friend had the Mayor of Casterbridge. She loves it still. But we were sixteen. Raised on Enid Blyton, then Danielle Steele and Stephen King to become avid if not discerning readers. We met the classics when we were ready to delve more deeply. Perhaps a year earlier would have been good, but before that? I’d have switched off.

If we want to entice readers into a world of reading that will continue for their whole lives we need to value their choices; to entice – not force – them into new areas of exploration and most of all, we need to know them, their tastes and interests. If we don’t do this, there is a significant danger that they’ll have encountered classic literature and only learned to hate it.

 

 

Stuff and Nonsense : Why The Phonics Test Should Worry All Teachers

I like phonics. I think it’s an important aspect of learning to read. Hopefully I’ve got that out of the way so that we can avoid another “phonics denialist” accusation. I was teaching phonics before we were told we had to because it worked. So let’s move on.

What I really, really object to, is spending time in the classroom teaching children nonsense words in preparation for the phonics screening test. I know the arguments in favour. They are very well rehearsed. The nonsense words test decoding over meaning so that children can’t be guessing words. They don’t harm children – they can be fun and lots of authors (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare) made up words. Those arguments would be fine if the curriculum was empty of other content and we had all the time in the world. We don’t.

One of the biggest barriers to achievement in school is vocabulary. Reception class teachers report that some children are arriving at school with hardly any language at all – in one case, a child was reported as having the speech development of an 8 month old baby. That’s an extreme case, but it is well documented that children arriving at school can have differences in their vocabulary of several thousand words. David Didau recounts his frustration at his Year 11 pupils failing to answer a question on a GCSE paper that he knew they were well prepared for because the question contained the word ‘futile’ and they didn’t know what it meant. Many other teachers can recall similar situations.

Teaching children vocabulary is one of the most important elements of learning not only to read, but to be able to succeed in all areas of school life. So why on earth would we spend time with young children, deliberately teaching them to read nonsense?

Our language is incredibly rich. Look at the following list of words that really exist and think how much more enriched a child’s experience would be if they decoded these then learned what they meant. Children love new words – they love to test drive them, to sound them out, to share them, to write them into their stories. Why not give them the power of real words?

abask – in genial warmth

abear – to behave or to bear

adit – an opening into a mine

alfet – a boiling cauldron of water used at a trial by ordeal

armet – a rounded, iron helmet

I could go on, there are literally hundreds of these words on the web site The Phrontistery – an incredible source of vocabulary that I’ve dipped into for all kinds of reasons before. How much more exciting for children to learn real, new words that they can implement into their writing, than to encounter something that no-one will ever understand and which will have no use ever, except to help them to pass a test.

As for the richness of the made-up words in Jabberwocky and the like, what makes those poems and stories so exciting for children is the way they fire the imagination to fill the gaps. They use cues in the text and existing knowledge to create meaning. These texts are aimed at readers who can already decode, who are ready to play the game of meaning making. I have taught Jabberwocky more times that I can remember. We start by creating the meanings of those nonsense words “brillig”, “slithy”, “borogoves”, “vorpal”….and we discuss, at length, how the children are using their existing knowledge of spelling patterns to encode the words we just heard (I read it out first). How they use their grammatical knowledge to figure out whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or verb and how this existing knowledge allows them to create definitions that set the scene for our story.

We spend weeks on Jabberwocky, filling in the gaps in the poem with the reasons why the boy leaves his village in search of the monster. We map the environment, we write adventure stories about his encounters with Jub Jub birds and Bandersnatches. We explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey narrative. We create an epic. Then we welcome him home. We throw a party. We create a hero’s ritual. It all takes a while. Then in the middle of the party, they receive a visitor. A message from another tribe declaring war and demanding that our hero is handed over to face the death penalty. For in their society, the Jabberwock is a sacred creature and slaying it, a heinous crime. And the children have to decide what to do. We enter the worlds of war and diplomacy.

Yes, the children encounter nonsense words. But they encounter them in a meaningful way having already acquired the spelling and grammar skills to be able to make something of them. They don’t encounter the words in isolation – the poem is not read in isolation. It is steeped in the curriculum, from mapping to narrative structure, they learn other things along the way. This is how we can extend and expand curriculum to make it richer and deeper.

The nonsense words are not nonsense when meaning is made of them. When they fire the imagination and link to real words. When they enrich and enhance our lives. Those crafted contributions of poets cannot possibly be compared with the banality of sitting children on the carpet and asking them to decode nonsense words with no further purpose than to spit out the sounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a puppet on your knee to make it more fun.

Children will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check if they are taught unusual words that they have never encountered before. They will be better writers afterwards too. And most importantly, they will be primed to build vocabulary for the rest of their lives – a skill that every teacher of every subject should welcome.

 

When “High Expectations” are a poor excuse for callousness.

There are many forms of poverty – we tend to group them into “absolute” and “relative”. Absolute poverty offers immediate threat to life – it is where people lack the basics they need to survive in the short term – we see this type of poverty on our television screens all the time from drought or war torn countries. It is terrible. But relative poverty is also terrible – more of a terminal illness than a sudden death threat. People suffering from relative poverty live in prosperous nations and yet struggle to maintain what anyone might call a reasonable standard of living. They are more likely to get cancer, to die young, to end up in prison and suffer from abuse or violence.

Even within the realm of relative poverty, there are sub groups – the main two being generational and situational poverty. In situational poverty, circumstances have conspired to send the person or family into financial straits. This could be unemployment, long term sickness, immigration or the break up of a marriage. Parents who find themselves in situational poverty can often offer ways out for their children. They remember a better life and can shape a vision of what a better future might look like. They are more likely to value education and to sacrifice basics to ensure that their children are in correct uniform and have their equipment. They are more likely to understand how to make tiny budgets stretch and to know where to turn to for help. The children of these parents carry the same label as other children in poverty, but their chances of success are vastly improved.

Generational poverty, on the other hand, is far more tricky. In homes where there has been persistent poverty and sometimes worklessness over a number of generations, it is hard for any adult to be able to offer a child a vision of a different or a better life. Education is less likely to be valued. In this group there are higher levels of substance abuse, a higher chance of chaotic home lives and a sense of hopelessness. High levels of chronic stress are common in these environments and it is well documented that the production of cortisol in response to persistent stress inhibits cognitive function and memory. A perfect storm for any child.

Of course, both of these categories are roughly drawn and there are overlaps and grey areas. But they offer us an interesting question. To what extent are those schools claiming that their zero tolerance behaviour policies, their perfect uniforms, their insistence that every child should have the proper equipment with them, simply enacting a  form of social cleansing? They claim that their policies lead to higher outcomes for FSM children but I wonder if they simply filter out the problem kids and leave themselves with those most likely to succeed. The poor children of aspirational immigrant families. Or the poor children of those in situational poverty. The others can be permanently excluded in the name of high expectations. And that simply exacerbates the underlying social problem. Throwing these children out of school, or refusing to accept that they might need equity more than equality, is an abdication of responsibility.

There are catastrophic events in some children’s lives which most of us can barely even imagine. In this Youtube clip, Chris Kilkenny speaks of what it was like to move from council flat to rehabilitation centres with his addicted mother, to care homes while trying to “hide in plain sight” at school. When you listen to him, you must surely realise that punishing a child living under this level of stress for not having a pencil is not a sign of having high expectations, but of having an almost inhuman lack of empathy and understanding. What would it cost us to have a pot of pens in the middle of the table and to focus on the business of learning? Not a lot.