Nothing lets the government off the hook for social disadvantage and poverty quite like the teaching profession blaming each other for the academic underachievement of disadvantaged pupils. While people stand on either side of the prog/trad debate shouting at each other for the perceived failure or torture of the innocents, the government can relax, knowing that everyone is too distracted to turn the fire on them for the fact that there are now 4 million children living in poverty.
Poverty, we know, creates stress. In the UK, the 6th richest nation on earth, 400,000 children don’t have a bed of their own. At least 120,000 of them are homeless and living in temporary accommodation. Even those with beds and homes live with uncertainty. A cross party group of MPs in April, led by Frank Field, found that as many as 3,000,000 children were going hungry in the school holidays and that for many, school lunches were their only meal of the day. These children are not just poor, they are being damaged.
We know that chronic stress damages the hippocampus, central to learning and memory. In particular, high levels of cortisol impact on verbal declarative memory – memory for words and facts – the very kind of memory that tests rely on. Since Newcomer’s study in 1999, these findings have been replicated several times and although the effects are reversible, the conditions for the reversal to take place demand that the child is in a safe and nurturing environment, both at home and at school. In short, the real enemy of promise for young disadvantaged people is the insecurity and deprivation caused by poverty, not progressive education.
Despite the beliefs of some that the education system is blighted by discovery learning (isn’t all learning a form of discovery?), in fact, most teachers, teach. When I was in class, you were as likely to find me at the front, talking about language and theory, as you were in full collaborative, group mode. I, like many teachers, switched modes to suit purpose. I don’t think that me dressing up as a tiger and coming back for a more healthy tea did Year 1 much harm. In fact, the quality of their instructional writing in the form of recipes and their informative writing in the form of invitations was much improved. Of course, the direct instruction I gave them helped. But the motivation of creating a tea party for a tiger was what they talked about excitedly when they went home. It’s what motivated them to utilise their phonics knowledge, explicitly taught but creatively interpreted:- “Good Mood Food for Tigers!”
Year 9, in role as detectives, investigating the possible triple murder of three teenagers in Verona, poured over the diaries of Juliet with a fervour to figure out how she had ended up here – in a crypt, dead. Her speeches were clues and they needed decoding. And once they had the hang of that, the rest of the play was open to them. It’s easy to get Yr 9 interested in the language of Romeo and Juliet – to stand at the front and tell them what they need to know – when they’ve already decided it’s a bloody (literally) good read.
Being a good teacher is about being able to look this way AND that. To use this technique AND that. It’s about understanding and being able to rationalise why you chose to do that in this way on this day. To have a focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing, using a combination of evidence and experience to make informed decisions. This focus has to be about what the children are getting out of the experience. What they are learning to know, what they are learning to do, what they are learning to process, what they are learning to understand, and yes, what they are thinking and feeling? Depending on what those ‘whats’ are, your tasks will shift.
Telling people that there is one way to teach does no-one any favours. Spending our time writing blogs and tweets about why one half of the profession is wrong, does no-one any favours. It distracts us; removes our focus from the cause of the problem to the symptom. It makes us turn on each other and not on the fact that we’re being held accountable for one of the most shameful failures of our society that there is – our failure to provide the most basic of human needs for our most vulnerable.
Frankly I couldn’t care less if you teach from the front or from the ceiling as long as you know what you’re doing and why. We have to stop sniping at each other, and instead unite in a demand for a more socially just society in which children are fed, have a chance of a good night’s sleep and aren’t worried about whether they will have a home from one day to the next. That way they can be in school ready to learn. We have a duty to aim our ire at those who ensure that families who work still can’t afford to pay rents, have to use food banks and choose between food and fuel. If we don’t, then more and more children will fall into that most difficult of traps to get out of – poverty – and not a single knowledge organiser or child initiated role play will ever get them out.