Because You Have To

This half term we built a two metre high guinea pig run. (No, we don’t have 2 metre high guinea pigs, we just couldn’t stand upright in the old run.) I am below National Standards in DIY, but we had a powerful motivation to get the run built – we wanted to catch and handle our guinea pigs and this is tricky to do when you are bent double. We had to do it, so we figured out how to get it done. The most magical relationship you can have with learning is to do it because you have to, not because someone else says you must. I get this when I write – I’m powerless to resist the urge to spill out my thoughts, and I have an obsessive focus on making my expression of them as near perfect as possible. Now, I’m not saying that our guinea pig run is anywhere near perfect, but we were deeply engaged with the process of building it. We bought the materials at a builder’s yard, we dug the holes for the posts, we attached the chicken wire and we made the run secure. It was muddy, hard work and a very steep learning curve. There were times when it was not a lot of fun, but after all our hard work we ended up with something new and rather wonderful.

Engagement is not an event, it is a scale. There are some things our children do simply because they must. “Pick up your clothes off the floor – it’s your mess.” “Tidy your room or I’ll hoover up your Lego.” Our children do not exactly skip with joy when they are doing these things: their engagement levels are low, but they understand that they must be done. Some activities in school are like this – it’s hard to make them engaging, the children do them because they must. But with skill, creativity and a following wind, we can figure out how to make a lot of activities engaging – we can give them a sense of purpose and show why they are of value. We can help children see that there’s a good reason to keep going, even when it’s not much fun. And that is what I mean when I use the word ‘engagement’.

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1. I will try to model the behaviour I want to receive. I will remember that I am a professional educator and that those I work with may read my tweets.

2. I will focus on sharing ideas, offering positive feedback, being supportive, friendly, and (hopefully) funny.

3. I will try not to swear. In extremis I will use asterixes but I will never swear directly at anyone. Mostly, I will just think it and not say it. (Alternatively, I will moonlight as @SuperWork2 or @BadTeacherTrainer.)

4. I will ask other people what they think, and try to take their viewpoints into account.

5. I will not expend valuable energy trying to get everyone to agree with me in 140 characters. I will remember that I can always write a book and then they can disagree with me in 50,000 words.

6. I will acknowledge when I make a mistake, and apologise if I am rude or if I upset someone.

7. I will remember that sometimes, if I can’t say anything nice, then it is better if I don’t say anything at all.


Posted in Writing | 5 Comments

Doing It for Themselves

As a writer, you have to be creative. To be creative, you have to do two things: 1) Splash out lots of ideas; 2) Throw away all the ones that don’t work. To succeed at No.1 you must be willing to make a fool of yourself. Just do it. See what happens. Who cares what anyone thinks? To succeed at No.2 you must get rid of everything that doesn’t work: ideas, forms, structures, sentences, words, punctuation marks. Everything must go.

As a teacher, you have to be creative, and to share in the creativity of others. When you’re new to teaching, you do mostly No.1, but over time you get to No.2. Other people can give you advice and support, but in the end it’s you in a room with some kids. It can never be the same twice, no matter how many structures we help you impose on it. There are always those pesky/wonderful kids in that blasted/brilliant room.

If you give teachers a tightly scripted lesson plan, or a choreographed set of classroom management rules, you strip out all the creativity. You remove the decision making, the imaginative, the personal. You say that you know what will happen before it has had the chance to take place. This is not to say that the process is entirely random – we are all building on what came before. I love to share what I’ve found out with you. But I don’t want to create a script for you and your children, because you are perfectly capable of doing that for yourselves.

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Ask Sam

Yesterday, the new Childcare Minister Sam Gymiah gave a speech to Policy Exchange about how he sees the future of childcare, and why he wants more schools to offer childcare provision for two-year-olds. At the moment, the school sector makes up a tiny percentage of the overall provision for this age group. To me, Mr Gymiah’s speech seemed very short on giving answers, and very long on raising (awkward) questions. So, given that I’ve never been one to shy away from asking awkward questions, here are ten questions Mr Gymiah might want to consider answering. (I have more, when he’s done with these.)

1. Was there a reason why you talked about the impact of preschool provision on lifetime earnings, on convenience for parents, on the number of GCSEs children achieve, on getting parents into work, but you completely failed to mention the vital importance of attachment at this age, and of meeting the emotional needs of children? This is both the most vital part of working with two-year-olds, and the hardest in terms of staffing and provision. Is it possible that you might be putting the cart before the horse?

2. You mention in your speech how “sometimes space can be a barrier”. I’d like to give you a feel for how massive that “sometimes” is. I live in a rural area, and when I think of the five primary schools closest to where I live, not a single one of them has sufficient space for two-year-old provision (or even for a nursery class, come to that). Where I see purpose built provision being added to schools in our closest city, this is usually on part of what used to be a playground or a field. Do you genuinely believe that there is space in our overcrowded schools for lots of new two-year-old provision? And are you concerned at all about how this will impact on outdoor provision for children at primary schools?

3. Are you clear about how the private sector works? (Since you’re a member of the Conservative Government, I’d assume so, but having read your speech I wonder.) A key element of the private sector is competition. In your speech you ask private daycare nurseries to work with schools, and this leads me to ask a fairly fundamental question: do you understand the ‘competition’ part of a market based system? I’m not saying that private daycare nurseries would not be willing to work with schools – the providers I know are keen to do the best for children. But it seems odd that you want private providers to support what is effectively their ‘competition’. Is it possible you have misunderstood how a market works?

4. As a voluntary run setting, located in a village hall, we’d be delighted if our local school said: “Hey, why don’t you move into this lovely purpose built provision that we’ve created for you?” (Although please see No.2 as to why this is not going to happen.) However, the clue here is in the term “voluntary run”. I struggle to cope with my role as chair of the management committee at the moment, and we are only open from 9.30am – 2.30pm for 38 weeks a year. There is no way I would be able to help manage a voluntary run setting that was open 8am to 6pm, 52 weeks a year. It’s hard enough to get committee members right now: do you expect parents to volunteer to run full day, year round provision?

5. You talk about how keeping all the provision in one place eases transitions for children. Intellectually, I understand what you mean – transitions are tricky, and our staff have to work closely with our local primary to manage them. But life is full of transitions, and helping children to manage these is part of helping them to grow up and learn to cope with change. Are you sure that it is such a good idea for a child to enter a school at two-years-old, and to pop out at the other end, at 18, topped up with just the right amount of exams? As a parent, the transitions from preschool to primary, and from primary to secondary, seem to me to have been a vital part of helping my children learn to handle change.

6. I understand that you have a problem with supply in the childcare sector – there just aren’t enough two-year-old places to go around. But here’s a thing: in the private sector, high demand for and low supply of a ‘product’ leads to only one outcome. The cost of the ‘product’ goes up. At present the sector is drastically under funded, with government paying around £5 an hour for places for two-year-olds, and only £3.50 an hour for three and four-year-olds. Have you considered the usual way of increasing supply in a market, which would be to stop asking providers to subsidise the ‘free offer’ and pay them a bit more money?

7. When I got to the bit of your speech where you said: “And as we know, parents trust schools”, will you forgive me for laughing out loud? Is this not just a tad ironic, given the overpowering nature of our current school accountability system, and the fact that Mr Gove spent his tenure as Education Secretary giving completely the opposite impression?

8. You say you are ‘living the early years’ at the moment, now that you have a child of your own. It’s lovely to hear that you and your partner (I’m assuming you’re not a single parent) have a new baby. I’m not going to be so impolite as to pry into your private life, but I’m happy to share some aspects of mine, to give you an insight into what childcare looks like for ordinary people. When we were new parents, our thought process went: give up work (not financially viable); hire a nanny (not financially viable); find a childminder (no one locally); find a part time preschool/nursery place (phew). We are lucky that we can work from home, so we could spend as much time with our small children as possible, which for us was part of the joy of having them. Your vision seems to be of parents dropping off their tiny children at schools, from the age of two, so that they can work full time (often in poorly paid jobs). Does this sound like ‘living the early years’ dream to you? You mention ‘choice for parents’ in your speech. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention childminders (often a vital part of the childcare picture for ordinary folk) and the fact that the number of childminders has reduced drastically in the past few years? What about those parents who would like to care for their own two-year-olds? What are you offering them?

9. You note the sector’s concerns about the ‘schoolification’ of the early years (it’s more than “some people”, Mr Gymiah, it’s LOTS of people, and it’s those people who are already working in the sector). You mention some examples of learning through play – yes, that is what play can look like. But if this is your vision of ‘learning through play’, then why does your regulator have these videos of ‘learning through play’ on its website as examples of good practice, videos that very clearly show adult directed learning (what you might call ‘teaching’)? (See also my blog here.)

10. Now, the elephant in the childcare room is, of course, babies. And here, I begin to wonder about the government’s long term, unspoken, aims. By moving two-year-olds into school based provision, the government would make it very hard for other settings to remain financially sustainable. The sector has grown up organically over the last 50 years (our preschool is about to celebrate its 50th year in service to the local community). At present, full daycare nurseries usually cater for 0 to 4 year olds, and settings such as ours for 2 – 4 year olds. If school nurseries take children from 2 years old, then you do not widen choice, you narrow it, because settings such as ours would have to close. So my final question is this: do you envisage a time when full daycare nurseries cater only for babies from 0 – 2 years old? Or is your long-term aim to get those babies into schools?


Posted in Children, Early Years, Schools | 7 Comments

Sh – ee – p

J: Ssh … ssh … [he holds his finger to his lips]

N: Why do we have to be quiet?

Sue: Because we don’t want to wake the monster that lives under the ground. That’s our game. We’re playing together.

N: Can I join in? I love playing games.

J and Sue: Sure!

E: [coming over from the other side of the playground] Look! There are some sheep in the field over there! Can we go and play with them?

J & N: [fingers to lips] Ssh, you’ll wake the monster!

Sue: And you might scare the sheep away too.

[The early years setting is very rural. There are animals everywhere.]

A: [joining them] Shall we go and see them? The sheep?

Sue: That’s a great idea. Hey everyone, can you hear that ‘sh’ sound we keep making? Remember? That’s our sound this week. Shall we see how many times we can spot it? [everyone nods] We could count the sheep too, if you like?

E: That’s the best way to fall asleep. [they all laugh]

A: Then afterwards we can go inside and find lots of ‘sh’ toys. Sharks!

E: And shields!

N: And shells!

J: On the seashore!

Sue: Sure thing. [they all high five] We could write some of them down in our explorer’s notebooks, if you like?

A: Hey, that’s another ‘sh’ sound. Sure.

Sue: Let’s talk about that ‘sh’ another time …

[They head off to count the sheep.]

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 5 Comments

How (NOT) to Learn through Play

“Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”

According to Ofsted, this is what learning through play looks like. In the first video, the teacher presents the children with ready made police hats, then she takes them outside to search for animal pictures on cards. When they find the animals, they must sound out the word: sh – ee – p. The teacher plans the direction the learning will take; the children do not have any input. The teacher takes all the decisions; the children do not make any choices of their own. The teacher has a predetermined outcome for the activity; the children cannot move laterally from this objective. The teacher speaks a great deal; the children hardly talk at all. The children, we are told, do this to please the teacher (rather than to please themselves.)

This, then, is not ‘play’ in any shape or form. This is what I would call ‘adult directed learning’. There is nothing inherently wrong with adult directed learning, as part of a balanced diet of early years provision. However, you can often get to the same end result in a much more playful and play based way, usually by following the children’s lead (see my blog here). There are a number of potential disadvantages of a heavy focus on adult directed learning:

* The children’s interests are sidelined in favour of the adult’s objectives. (It’s important to note that this is not a statutory phase of education – the children are not here to be made ‘school ready’, they are here to be cared for, to have fun and to learn.)

* The opportunities for building decision making skills and independence are limited. The children do what the adult tells them to, with less chance to make choices of their own.

* There is no element of personal creativity or imagination involved in the activity. (What a missed art opportunity those police hats represent!)

* There is often little talk involved when the adult directs a large group, and therefore less chance for the process of sustained shared thinking to take place.

I’m sorry, Ofsted, but you cannot just stick a police hat on a child, set all the rules of the game, tell the children exactly what to do, and then call it ‘play’. Play is messy, joyful, creative, child led, imaginative, risky. It is about defining yourself, your relationship to your peers, and to the world in which you live. It is a fundamental part of the way in which young children develop. And children tend to laugh a lot when they are doing it. Therefore, I conclude that these videos are not an example of ‘learning through play’. They are a demonstration of ‘direct instruction for tiny children’.

Posted in Children, Early Years, Play | 5 Comments

A Standardised Lesson Plan

Insert creative ideas here —>

(Base these on: your subject knowledge, your professional judgement, your knowledge of your children, their interests and their individual needs. Note: other teachers have lots of good ideas, you can also borrow and adapt these to suit.)

Posted in Teaching and learning | 1 Comment