Navigate the World

It’s muddy in the forest
So we have to wear our boots.
That’s the way you do it!
First right foot and then left foot.

The forecast is for rain
So we’ll wear coveralls for luck.
And pack up our tarpaulin
Neatly, in the truck.

There is danger on the road
So we’ll walk in single row
Down the narrow pavement
To the lane where cars don’t go.

On the lane there is a robin
Let’s keep quiet, so it stays,
Keep our eyes peeled for the birds
See what we can spot today.

You’d like to sing a song now?
That’s a really great idea.
We can make a big loud noise now
We can sing and we can cheer!

Oh you want to carry a stick now?
Well, I know you know the rule.
Hold it downwards, sticks can hurt us
And none of us are careless fools.

Well which way should we go here?
To the right, into the trees?
Or straight on, to the allotments,
Where they keep a hive of bees?

In between the place we started
And the destination where we go
There are many different lessons
Lots of things we need to know.

The grown ups give us guidance
But we have to learn to do –
All the things that are important
In the world as we move through.

We might drift, or lose our focus
Do some things that aren’t so great
But one day you won’t be there
And then it’s all too late.

We can chatter with excitement
We can get to know our friends
We can listen to our teachers
Dream of what’s around the bend.

So let us make mistakes now
While there’s still time to be shown
Because one day all too soon
We’ll be doing it alone.

And then you’ll have to trust us
All those tiny boys and girls
And hope you taught us properly
How to navigate the world.

Posted in Behaviour, Children, Early Years, Poetry, Self Regulation | Leave a comment

The Power

“Just give me, give me, give me the power
And I’ll make them bleed”

I’m a big fan of silence in classrooms for when teachers are teaching, when children are writing, or when a student is addressing the whole class. In my book on behaviour I talk a lot about how to set ‘one voice’ as a key expectation, how to get the attention of a class, and what to try if your students won’t listen. When we listen to each other, we can learn from each other; silent listening helps to create a calm, respectful atmosphere in which the exchange of ideas can take place or focused individual work can happen. It’s definitely not easy for teachers to get silent attention or focus, but when they do it is a powerful tool for learning. The thing you really want is for your learners to fall silent of their own accord: to make the possibility of learning to be the thing that draws them in. Not the system, not the punishments for refusing to comply with it, but sheer interest in something new to learn. Of course this can be incredibly hard to achieve with some young people, and in some contexts, but I can only hope that it is the ultimate goal of every teacher.

If I’m honest with myself, there is something of a thrill in being able to get (and keep) a large group of people silent so that you can address them. The feeling of having people ‘in the palm of your hand’ is pretty special. I often speak to groups of over a hundred teachers, and if I didn’t ask for silence at times when anyone is addressing the room, learning would be impacted. At the same time, though, I always intersperse periods of listening with times for chatting and sharing ideas. People don’t tend to do well if you talk at them all the time, because they need to assimilate what you’ve said. When a session is over, the biggest buzz is if people want to talk about it afterwards, either coming up to talk with me one on one, or discussing what we’ve just done as they go for their break. Silent listening is a great tool for learning but human connections can be even better.

Earlier this week I saw the following tweet:

The author of the tweet is a head teacher. And if your change of policy is even alienating parents who are head teachers, then it is probably fair to say that you need to think again. It’s a completely normal human behaviour to talk about a lesson as you leave it. If the lesson didn’t particularly grab you, you might want to let off steam for a bit before you go on to the next period of learning. Of course it’s important that children move quickly, safely and sensibly between lessons, but trying to keep them in a constant state of silent attentive focus has to be counterproductive. There’s no sensible reason for it. They’re children, not monks. It’s not a choice between silent corridors and anarchy. For all the talk of ‘opportunity cost’ and needing to make every minute count, when I send my children to school I don’t imagine that learning only happens within the walls of classrooms. I want them to learn how to be good friends, how to laugh and have fun while they work, and how to deal with the complicated human situations that crop up in everyday life.

The problem with the feeling of power you get when you control a group of other people is that it can tip over into bad decision making. Yes, it’s great to get a room full of people silent so that they can learn, but being silent is not a good thing in and of itself, if I drone on after everyone has stopped listening. Yes, it’s fun to make people laugh, but not if I hurt someone’s feelings when I do. Yes, we can make ever higher and higher demands, have ever higher and higher expectations, and sanction people into accepting them. But along the way we might lose something we didn’t even realise we had. Because it’s not about me and my power to hold an audience. It’s not about me and the power of my knowledge. It’s not even about me and the power of my teaching. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about showing young people that they have the power, to take charge of learning for themselves.

Posted in Behaviour, Teaching | 5 Comments

Advice for NQTs

Do not do the things I did
Try not to shout at a class of kids
Smile if you want on the very first day
Don’t send kids out early to play.

Explain what you need, children want to know
Have a back-up plan in case of snow
Listen to others, but trust in your feelings
Learning is hard, so make it appealing.

Beware the ‘to do’ list, it spawns and grows
In case of vomit, have a spare set of clothes
Ask for resources, reach out for support
Lean on those who’ve already taught.

Don’t aim to be perfect, protect yourself
Wash your hands lots and maintain your health
The first year of teaching is pretty tough
Let good enough be good enough.

And if you’ve been given a hellish class
Remember too that this soon shall pass
In one year’s time you’ll look back with pride
So buckle up tight and enjoy the ride.

Posted in NQTs, Poetry | Leave a comment

The Wrong Sort of Child

Do not apply to come to our school
If you cannot comply with every rule
And if your child has SEND
We’re not the place for them to be.

There’s another school just up the road
And we don’t plan to spread the load
They’ll take you on, they love to share
So go to them – you’ll be happier there.

The cost of uniform, as you’ll see
Makes this an expensive place to be
If you can’t afford it, well maybe think twice
Go somewhere else, is the best advice.

Our rules are strict, we’ve very tough
And if you don’t like it, that’s fair enough
We only work with those who support
So go to a school that accepts your sort.

Ofsted have told us that we can be strict
When Spielman said it, well things just clicked
We’ll make lots more rules, claim high expectations
Not have to bother with awkward relations.

This isn’t a partnership – don’t be silly
Find somewhere else for little Billy
He’s not the right sort, he needs careful handling
He’ll ruin our chances of getting outstanding.

Reasonable adjustments? What’s that you say?
An inclusive system that won’t turn you away?
Oh they’ve got all that in the school next door
They’ll have space for you, of that we’re sure.

So don’t come here if your child’s defiant
We don’t do well if they’re not compliant
They’ll be much better off in another place
Somewhere not interested in winning the race.

What do you mean we’re your local school?
That doesn’t matter, don’t be a fool
When the government said that you had a choice
They forgot to say you won’t have a voice.

So go where they want you but don’t come here
Run along now, be quick my dear
We only take children who yearn to be taught
And your child? Well obviously. Not the right sort.

Posted in Compliance, Education, Expectations, Schools, Selection | 9 Comments

Expected Standard

I’m not Expected Standard
There’s lots I do not know
The Government checked my learning
And decided it was low.

The grown ups think I’m stupid
They think I do not see
That some kids find school easier
And learning is hard for me.

My mum said it didn’t matter
My dad said he didn’t care
I heard them talking in whispers
They didn’t know I was there.

But the test was not a fair one
They didn’t check me out
“I can do loads of great stuff!”
Was what I wanted to shout.

I know all the names of dinosaurs
I’m a super hero too
I am brave and strong and fearless
(Although sometimes that’s not true.)

I can make the world’s best mud pie
I can pick up worms and snails
And I’m forming my letters nicely
Like the snails make silvery trails.

I know how to count up to ten now
I can make a huge tower of bricks
And my teacher said that the numbers
Can do some incredible tricks.

I can’t quite see the tricks yet
But then I’m only four
The kids who are one year older
Seem to get it a whole lot more.

I can sit for the afternoon story
Although sometimes I shuffle about
And when Miss gets to the good bits
All I want is to stand up and shout!

I get a bit tired as the day goes
I once fell asleep on the rug
But when dad came to get me
I got an enormous hug.

I wish I could tell you the things that
Are going on in my head
But I haven’t got all the words yet
And some things are better not said.

So stuff your expected standard
Don’t measure my life away
Cos I’m perfectly happy to be me
And I’m planning to stay that way.



Posted in ELGs, EYFS | 1 Comment

The Trouble with Knowledge

“Who controls the past controls the future:
who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984

When I was a child, I believed in two things that later on (to my complete astonishment) turned out to be incorrect. I believed that the name for the food you ate at lunchtimes or on picnics, which consisted of a filling between two slices of bread, was a “sandwitch”. And I believed that there was a giant country on the maps that I saw of the world, which was known as “Africa”. As far as I’m concerned, the first of these might as well be true – as both a spelling and a concept, “sandwitch” makes a lot more sense to me than “sandwich”. As far as the latter is concerned, in later life I found out where my misconception came from. A geography teacher told me that there was a textbook, back in the seventies, in which the countries of Europe were labelled and coloured individually, but the entire continent of Africa was shown in one colour, with a big “Africa” label slapped across it. Whoever wrote the textbook had clearly decided that the astonishing range of countries, landscapes, peoples, languages and histories in this continent were not worth detailing. The way information was presented in that textbook not only led me to an embarrassing error of thinking that stuck with me for years, but also shone a light on the knowledge that the authors of the textbook felt it was important for me to know.

Of course, we might reassure ourselves, there’s no way that such a thing would happen these days. After all, surely we have experts to write our curricula and our textbooks now, to create scripted lessons so that we can teach children ‘the truth’ about their world. Plus there’s always the Internet, should we need to check up on our facts (so long as we can avoid the perils of tree octopus style fake news). But then I came across a series of tweets from Kym Scott this morning, about Civitas, their ‘Core Knowledge’ materials, and links to what is currently happening to early years. A representative of Civitas is on the advisory review group, helping the DfE to rewrite the early learning goals that sit at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, as the things that our youngest children should know and be able to do. (The goals were due for publication in May, and the delay in sharing them suggests that there may be some controversy about their contents.) Civitas publish the ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum, a set of lesson materials and resources inspired by E.D. Hirsch and his idea that children need ‘cultural literacy’. (For the uninitiated, this is, in its most basic terms, the idea that children should learn the knowledge that would allow them to read and understand a broadsheet newspaper.)

For anyone who works in early years, who is a parent, or who has even just met a four year old in living memory, the first thing that jumps out of these tweets is the strange idea that they could conceptualise “the signing of the Magna Carta”* well enough to get anything out of a role play of it being signed. This reminds me of a painful moment in my teacher training where I tried to teach Reception age children about ‘the world’ using a globe, only to discover that many of them had never left the town where they lived, and couldn’t even conceptualise where London was, let alone anywhere so far outside their immediate experience. Of course, we can teach children this information as a set of facts to recall, but it just won’t go in like it does later on – they simply cannot place it within their mental maps of the world. As Carol Webb rightly pointed out, a fair few of the children role playing the Magna Carta would probably remember learning about something weird called a “Magma Crater” when they were at school, in exactly the same vein as my “sandwitch” misconception.

But a more worrying narrative also emerges from these tweets, and that is the problem that by codifying and presenting knowledge in this way, rather than encouraging children to play an active role in exploring, finding and evaluating it for themselves, we might inadvertently be teaching children things that aren’t actually true and not giving them the tools they need to assess whether or not to believe it. This is especially so if we follow the line of thinking in which the teacher is always the ‘expert’ and the children condemned to being ‘novices’ forever more. The Core Knowledge materials for the Reception year suggest that our four year olds need “to know Shackleton explored the South Pole”. But he didn’t. Yes, he explored Antarctica, and yes, he made it to within 97 geographical miles of the South Pole, but it was Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott who actually got to the pole. I’d imagine this is just sloppy wording, rather a genuine attempt to rewrite history, but whatever your take on any knowledge versus skills debate, I’m pretty sure we’d all agree that it’s definitely not good to teach children something that isn’t true.

The idea that ‘knowledge must come first’ has become so firmly embedded in the educational narrative, that it seems akin to heresy to question it. Skills have been sidelined so extensively that people have started to claim that you can become creative just by loading up on more and more knowledge, apparently without ever practising the very act of being creative. Education has a habit of doing this – of swinging from a fervent belief in one thing, to an equally fervent rejection of that one thing in favour of a fervent belief in another. Round and round and round we go, in a cycle that you begin to notice more and more, the older you get. The trouble with knowledge, though, is that it is not, and can never be, value free. It is incredibly slippery, hard to define, prone to misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes. What we know and understand about our world changes over time, and a lot of what we claim to know is pretty subjective, especially if we’re throwing around terms like “the best”. It’s really important that we help children to understand this, and the only way to do that is to give them some agency in their learning.

Today, Nick Gibb is speaking at an International Summit on Textbooks. According to a source, there is a representative of Civitas at this event as well. My feeling is that the push to get textbooks into schools is not just about profit for publishers and saving on workload and photocopying for teachers, nor is it just about getting more knowledge into schools (where there has always seemed to be plenty of knowledge to me). There is more to it than that. As well as sharing information, the authors of a textbook control what information we receive, and the way it is interpreted, through the way in which they present it. They basically get to decide what is important. If we focus on a narrow definition of “the best that has been thought and said”, we end up with a curriculum that is pale, male and stale – preserved in aspic but without the ability to change and develop as our society does. As Orwell said, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” – what we are told and the way that we are told it shapes our views of the world. Just as the entire continent of Africa was redefined in my childhood mind by the way that it was presented to me, so the things that we believe are defined by the curricula that we are taught. And it is perhaps in what goes missing, even more than in what is shared, that the real story lies.


* Thanks to someone on Twitter for letting me know that this is another misconception in the resource materials – the Magna Carta was sealed not signed.

Posted in Knowledge | 6 Comments

The Firmest Foundations

“No sitting at desks, we are too busy playing
No testing or labelling, hear what we’re saying
Be brave and be bold, make the firmest foundations
Build a garden! Take pride in the joy of creation.”

There is something magical about creating a thing that did not exist until you willed it into being, especially when you do so through the power of community. A garden, an allotment, a conference. The power to make all these things is sitting in our hands. If we gather our courage, and work with like minded people, we can make something happen that wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t taken that leap of faith. This is how friendships are born. And this, for me, is how education should work. (I’m lucky enough to have had that experience of how schools should be for my children.) There are lots of problems in our education system at the moment: funding is a massive issue, people are worried about what the pressures of accountability are doing to children and teachers, and recruitment and retention seem to be in crisis. But there are also wonderful people doing good things.

The Firm Foundations conference last weekend, in which I played a small part, was a great example of this. It was a group of like minded people who felt passionate about early years, and who got together to share good practice on a warm April Saturday in a lovely canal side setting in London. Pretty much everyone I know is shouting out about how baseline is A Bad Idea and they are doing it with a united voice. There are collectives of people doing everything they can to keep education centered around the child. So things might seem a bit bleak at the moment, but they aren’t hopeless by any means. Groups in all the far corners of the Internet are taking up the causes that they feel passionate about, and making something out of nothing (Keeping Early Years Unique, More than a Score, #WomenEd and #BameEd to name but a few). I find it strange to see people question the value of group work, since it seems to lead to so many great things.

When you build something, you have to lay the firmest of foundations. If you hurry along and leap ahead with putting up the structure, you will only end up with a wobbly mess. You must lay your concrete slab or get your roots down into the soil if you want what you have set in motion to grow tall and strong. For children to get a good start in life, to put their roots down into the soil, they need to have a sense of community. They need to know that the adults and the children who are with them will love and guide and teach and play with them, gently and carefully, so that they can develop in their own good time. They are “being not becoming” as Helen Moylett so perfectly put it at the conference. Sharing the experience of learning with others, helps us figure out who we really want to be. So I’d like to say thank you to Ruth Swailes, Simona McKenzie, Nicky Clements, Claire Navaie and Helen Williams, for the hours of chat, for the friendship, and for creating something that didn’t exist before. And for showing me what #FirmFoundations really means.

Posted in EYFS, Firm Foundations, Group Work | Leave a comment